The roots of Russia’s currently rising nationalism are threefold: pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet. The idea of Moscow as the “Third Rome,” i.e. of a special Russian mission in world history, goes back several centuries. Russian nationalism had been – contrary to what many in the West believed – an important element of Soviet ideology ever since the 1930s. Like in the early 19th century when Moscow’s so-called Slavophiles applied German nativist thought to Russian conditions, ideas of various Russian nationalist movements today are, sometimes, imported from the West.
A factor accounting for Russia’s recent nationalist resurgence is the mode of thinking learned in Soviet schools and universities – a Manichean world-view which sharply distinguishes between “us” and “them.” Although the basic definitions of “us” and “them” have changed, a number of Soviet stereotypes, for instance, about the US have survived glasnost until today.
The major determinant in Russian nationalism’s recent rise is that the Kremlin’s political technologists have discovered it as a tool suitable to reconfigure political discourse in general. In the Kremlin’s new political reality, Putin is not competing with alternative programs or parties. Putin’s opponents are not socialists, liberals or other Russian political movements. Instead, Putin is juxtaposed to Chechen terrorists, Estonian fascists, Georgian russophobes, Ukrainian neo-Nazis, American imperialists, Western conspirators, and, in general, to various non-Russians who desire to destroy, divide or, at least, humiliate Russia. In this atmosphere of paranoia, it is only logical that those opposing Putin are not acknowledged to constitute legitimate (not to speak of useful) political opposition. Instead, they are represented as a “fifth column” of the West, as traitors who are, in Putin’s words, skulking around foreign embassies like jackals.
This has made politics an easy game for the Kremlin: If the government is busy to defend the country’s pride and integrity, one cannot expect that all niceties of mass media independence, pluralistic public debate, or fair party competition can be observed. Instead of debating what is best for the country, political discussant are searching for a plausible pretext to label the opposite side an enemy of Russia.
A main difference between Russian and Western forms of nationalism is that, in the contemporary West, the intellectual and political mainstream of a given country usually more or less clearly distances itself from that country’s – sometimes, also rather strong – nationalist movement. While the Russian mainstream is quick to condemn racist violence, its relationship to the world view standing behind such violence is, in contrast, more ambivalent. Thus, authors who, in the West, would be regarded as being far beyond the pale of permissible discourse, such as the ultra-nationalist publicist Aleksandr Prokhanov or ideologue of fascism Aleksandr Dugin, are esteemed participants in political and intellectual debates at prime-time TV shows. The bizarre, pseudo-scientific ideas of the late neo-racist theoretician Lev Gumilev are required reading in Russia’s middle and higher schools. Gumilev teaches that world history is defined by the rise and fall of ethnic groups that are biological units under the influence, moreover, of cosmic emissions.
In recent years, the government has started to persecute racist violence more actively than before. This is not the least, one suspects, because the growing skinhead movement is damaging Russia’s international reputation. Extreme nationalism has already made the Russian Federation an unattractive study destination for dark-skinned international students who are regularly beaten and, sometimes, killed at Russia’s university towns. In trying to stem this tide, the government deals, however, only with the symptoms of the phenomenon. To get to the root of the problem, the whole logic of current Russian politics would need to be changed – something that a well-meaning ministerial bureaucrat can, obviously, not do.
The Kremlin needs to change fundamentally the way it defines Russia’s relationship to the outside world. It needs to take resolute action against the already considerable infiltration of various social institutions – schools, universities, youth movements, mass media, etc. – with radical nationalism. If this does not happen, the Russians will be a lonely people and Moscow an isolated international actor, in the new century.
[Originally published in Global Politician, 6 March 2008, http://globalpolitician.com/24244-russia ]