Staunton, December 9 – Russian cannot be a democracy in its current borders, a leading Moscow scholar says, but it will not move from authoritarianism lest it risk the disintegration of the country and the loss of all influence over the former Soviet republics unless all of them are subsumed in a super-national project like the European Union.
The reasons for that, Dmitry Furman says, are rooted in the complicated history of the interrelationship of the Russian state and Russian nation, Russia’s status as a country seeking to “catch up” with others, and the conviction of Russian nationalists that other nations within the borders of the Russian state must assimilate (www.nlobooks.ru/rus/nz-online/619/2051/2054/).
In a 6,000-word article in the current issue of “Novoye literaturnoye obozreniye,” the senior researcher at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences discusses this complex of issues in order to propose how his country might move “from the Russian Empire to a Russian democratic state.”
“A national state is normal, in any case for Europe in modern times, the form of existence of both the state and the nation,” Furman begins, adding that “’the right of nations to self-determination’ is one of the great slogans” of that period, “for the justice of this right is beyond dispute and its inseparable connection with other democratic rights is evident.”
Furman points out that “like all great ideas, this slogan led to the shedding of rivers of blood” because it involved “the disintegration of empires, the death and brith of states, and the redrawing of borders.” And also like many of these, those who seek it or gain it for themselves or their allies are often quite prepared to deny it to others.
Following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the USSR, he continues, “the principle of national states in Europe was almost completely realized … But at the same time, this principle lost its former strength,” largely because it had been realized and because it has been “replaced by the super-national European community.”
Russia is in a different position. A country which is always trying to catch up, it is “experiencing in the 21st century the processes which were experienced by other countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries.” Indeed, Furman says, Russia now “is forced to build that which in these other places was not only build long ago but that is already being restructured.”
“For Russia,” he argues, “a national democratic state as before continues to remain the principle of development” given that the Russian Federation is “not a real democracy and not an ethnic Russian national state.” Instead, it is part of an empire, and Russian “self-consciousness has still not escaped completely imperial and Soviet self-consciousness.”
That has left the ethnic majority of the country with a self-consciousness that is fundamentally ill, drifting “between imperial chauvinism and revaunchism and Russophobic self-abuse and fear of nation-state disintegration,” a tension that reflects the history of the Russian state and the difficulties of modernizing Russian national self-consciousness.
The Russian state arose and became an empire long before Russian nationalism emerged as a set of ideas and a movement, and because of this difference in origin, “Russian nationalism was in principle distinguished from other nationalisms,” something that has created problems continuing up to now.
Although the country was called the Russian Empire, the ethnic Russians living in it were in many cases “less free and well-off” than others, and they did not have “any chance as an ethnic community to achieve power in the autocratic state or even to influence” that state, Furman continues.
Russian nationalists, sometimes at the urging of the Russian state, “could compensate their lack of political rights and relative poverty with a symbolic attachment to the glories and power of the empire,” Furman points out, again a situation and a response that continued through Soviet times up to the present.
Moreover, the Moscow scholar says, when Russian nationalists then and now spoke about the need to construction a Russian national state, they were and are arguing that Russians should enjoy special protection and that minorities should be “russified” rather than allowed to form their own nation sates on lands “’conquered by Russian arms.’”
That reality meant that “all other nationalisms which arose in the Russian Empire could appeal to democratic values but the Russian one could not do so because in a continental empire with unclear borders between the imperial center and the peripher, one could not democratize the center without allowing separatism of the border lands.”
The imperial government was generally leary of promoting Russian nationalism not only because it called into question the autocratic nature of the state but also because it almost inevitably produced a reaction among non-Russian groups, a reaction that threatened the maintenance of the empire.
Russian revolutionaries struggling against the autocracy, thus viewed “any nationalism except the Russia” as “a potential or real ally,” even as they saw “Russian nationalism, the single mass base of the autocratic regime as the main enemy.”
During the Russian civil war that followed 1917, “the Whites fought for the empire, for a Russia ‘united and indivisible,’ and the Reds for a world revolution and a universal socialist state,” Furman notes. “In practice, all the peoples of the empire except the Russians appealed to the right of nations to self-determination.”
“For a democratic Russian Russia, a ‘Russia for the Russians,’ co-existing alongside a ‘Ukraine fo rhte Ukrainians’ and a ‘Georgia for the Georgians,’ there was practically no one,” a reflection of problems that existed then and that continue to exist among Russian nationalists to this day.
“One can say,” Furman continues, “that the Bolsheviks were able to restore the empire precisely because they did not seek to do so.” Instead, they talked about world revolution and self-determination, and consequently for the non-Russians of the former empire, “the Bolsheviks if they were not good were unqualifiedly the lesser evil.”
And after their victory, the Bolsheviks did in reality “realize the national problems of various peoples o fhte empire by establishing national Soviet republics and conducting enormous work for the construction of ‘socialist nations,’” an effort that helped solidify these nations to the point that in 1991 they were ready to form countries.
But the Bolshevik approach to the Russians was very different: “the Russian Federation arose not as the realization of ‘a national project’ and not as ‘a national home of a definite (ethnic Russian) people.” It was set up on the basis of what was left over after the formation of the other union republics and was “the least national” of them all.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Soviet regime persecuted manifestqations of Russian nationalism far more severely than it did examples of the nationalisms of the other peoples in the contry. And if one considers the situation only from that perspective, then it is possible to make the case that the Soviets “exploited the Russians,” as Russian nationalists claim.
“But this is only one side of the coin,” Furman says, because over time and especially during and after World War II, the Soviet authorities gave the Russians a special “imperial” role, one where they could view the entire USSR as theirs rather than only a single republic, even one as large as the RSFSR.
Moreover, from the late 1930s on, the Soviet authorities pursued a thorough-going policy of russianization and russification and promoted the “coming together” and ultimate”fusion” of nations in much the way way that Russian nationalists had called for prior to the October 1917 revolution.
Given that, Furman says, the RSFSR “could not be a Russian republic because the USSR is a Russian state. Other peoples have their national ‘homes’ and their own republic patriotism, for the Russians, however, the native home is the entire USSR and their patriotism is Soviet rather than Russian.”
In short, the Moscow scholar concludes, “the establishment of the USSR prevented the collapse of the empire by restoring an imperial state in a new form and providing it with a new ideological basis,” something that was possible because in 1917, “the majority of its peoples did not have clear national self-consciousness, defined national territories, and contemporary elites.”
Thus, it should surprise no one that “in the Soviet Union as in the Russian empire, Russian nationalism again sought to achieve the impossible, to convert the multinational USSR held together by the communist ideology into an openly national state of the Russian people,” even as the Soviets built up the nonb-Russian nations.
Moreover, “when Gorbachev’s perestroika passed into the collapse of the Soviet Union and an anti-communist revolution, the liberation movements of all Soviet peoles acquired a national democratic character” of an entirely normal way, all that is except the Russians who used the terminology to cover something else entirely.
“The destruction of the USSR and the conversion of Russia into an independent state was the only means by which democrats led by Boris Yeltsin could come to real power,” Furman suggests. “But if for other peoples and their leaders independence represented a conscious and ideal goal … the Russians did not have this goal”
“The Russian people did not struggle for ‘independence’ and did not want it,” Furman continues. “Initially, the people did not even understand tha the union (imperial) state had really disappeared.” Instead, they expected Russia to continue to be “the elder brother” to all the republics.”
And that had another aspect as well. “The legitimacy of the independence of Russia and the conception of this state as legitimate by those living in it was much less than the legitimacy of other new states” for their population. “It could not be conceived by the Russians as ‘a national home,’ and his borders could not be considered as historical and natural.”
As a result, that “state which did not have a firm legitimacy either from the point of view of the basic people or in the eyes of national minorities, becan to disintegrate under conditions of the weakness of the central power and the general transformation crisis,” with both ethnic minorities and Russian regionalists challenging its existence.
This threat of the disintegration of the state “played a colossal role in the justification of an authoritarian evolution,” Furman points out. “The unity of the Russian Empire rested on the autocracy. The unity of the USSR was mained by a totalitarian power. The unity of the Russian Federation thus could be sustained only by a storng and uncontested president,” whose personal power could fill the role of tsars and general secretaries.
“During the period of the struggle for power, Russian democratic advanced the slogan of the right of nations to self-determination, and their leader Yeltsin called on non-Russian peoples to take as much sov ereignty as they could swallow. But when power in Russia was already one, [he and they] forgot about [this] right,” except when used offensively against neighboring states.
“Russian consciousness [as a result] again took its customary imperial form, in the framework of which the authoritarian and super-national character of the state is compensated by the fact that the ethnic Russians are ‘the main’ people of the empire.” Indeed “preserving the unity and integrity” of Russia became the chief task of Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin.
But this vision was not Putin’s alone; it reflected understandings which were shared by “mass Russian consciousness,” and that led both to the destruction of federalism into a façade and to efforts to restore Russia to a predominant, even unchallenged position among the former union republics.
“The weak legitimacy of the borders of the Russian Federation in Russian consciousness is connected with the fact that … even now only 14 percent of Russians support tcompletely the independent existence of the former Soviet republics, and 54 percent respond negatively when asked if they consider Ukraine to be a foreign country.”
As a result, Furman says, “the Russian Federation, which considers itself the successor of tsarist Ruyssia and the USSR cannot fail to seek a special dominating role in the post-Soviet space.” That is simply an extension of its effort to gather in the lands within the borders of the Russian Federation, itself “a mini-empire held together by an authoritarian power.”
Yeltsin sought to mask the disintegration of the USSR by creating the CIS, “which was conceived of as a new form of unification around Russia of the imperial space.” And because of that, even as Moscow has “actively supported national separatists” in the former republics, it has been leary of promoting Russian irredentism lest it call into quesiton its imperial pretentions.
Post-Soviet Russia has tried to replicate its form of rule not only within the regions of the Russian Federation but also abroad. But while the authoritarian rulers of the CIS countries have no interest in falling under Russia again, they know that the nature of their regimes precludes their joining the West. Consequently, they continue to look to Russia, not as an elder brother so much as in the past but as “an elder sister.”
In short, Furman sums up, there are three “rings” of Russia in the consciousness of many Russians now: the ethnic Russian core which forms “the imperial nucleus,” the national republics within the Russian Federation, and the “formally independent” former Soviet republics which it still seeks to dominate.
It is important to recognize, the Moscow scholar continues that “1991 was only a milepost, and post-Soviet Russia is only a stage in this process, just as the USSR itself was a stage.” The two earlier attempts at democratization (in 1917 and 1991) failed in such way that it is obvious a new drive toward that will lead to separatism among the non-Russians.
Given the chaos which Russians experienced in the 1990s and “the authoritarian power vertical,” Furman says, there are few reasons to expect that Russians in general and Russian nationalists in particular will push for democracy. But events may overwhelm them because they will have to choose between a smaller and more modern Russia or a decaying imperial one.
In order to have a chance at democracy and a better future, he argues, “Russia must be reconceptualized as a national Russian state.” At present, “the words ‘Russia for the Russians’ appear to be a wild xenophobic slogan. But they must become a banal truth. Who else whould Russia be for? Russia should be for the Russians; Poland fo rhte Poles, Ukraine fo rhte Ukrainians and Chechnya for the Chechens.”
Some Russians recognize this on at least some levels, Furman says. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn talked about it. And “the relative ease with which the Russians came to terms with the collapse of the USSR to a certain extent speaks about weariness of the emprie and about an attraction to having their own state.”
But even “all of this,” he suggests, “are only the first indications of that synthesis of the Russian and the democratic, the achievement of which is unbelievably difficult but without which a third attempt to build democracy in Russia may turn out to be no more successful than the two previous ones.”
Russians and others need to recognize that “’Russia for the Russians’ is the antithesis of ‘Russians for Russia,’ a state in which the Russian pay with their freedom, their well-being and their blood to keep others subordinate not to themselves but to their rulers who have Russian nationality.”
Put more simply, “’Russian for the Russians’ is a democratic Russia, a state which is the instrument for the achievement of the general well-being of the people. This is the achievement of that which was the unsconscious ‘entelechy’ of our development in Modern Times,” Furman suggests.
But there is a particular problem. Russia is seeking to catch up with others who have already long ago passed through this stage. “The nation state for European countries is a stage they have gone through. Now is being formed a new ‘entelechy,’ a super-state and super-national community.”
Russia will not be able to avoid passing through the nation state stage because, Furman says, “to make the leap from mini-empire to super-national community, bypassing [this] stage, is clearly impossible.” But at the same time, he insists, “the nation state [of Russia] cannot hold out for long.” Instead, “having caught up, Russia must change the vector of its development.”
And to do that, Furman concludes, it must do something that now appears “completely fantastic” to most Russians. It must join the European Union because that wil serve as “a very large compensation” for Russians who have not evolved “European forms of political life” but who are “culturally oriented toward Europe.”
“This will,” Furman concludes, “be the end of Russian history, the history of the construction, destruction and reconstruction of empires.” But it will mark “the beginning of an entirely different history, the history of Russians living in a common European home in their own national apartment, like the French do in the French one, the Swedes in the Swedish one, and the Ukrainians in the Ukrainian one.”