Nations, Civic Nationalism and Democracy

30 june 2013

The Future of Post-Imperial Societies in the 21st Century

Emil Pain is professor at the National Research University–Higher School of Economics; General Director of the Center for Ethno-Political Studies. He holds a Doctorate in Political Science.

Resume: Ethnic nationalism cannot be a strategic ally of the forces interested in Russia’s modernization. Realizing the impossibility of a purely elitist modernization, these forces will inevitably need mass support and national consolidation. Consequently, they will need nationalism, although of a different strain – the civic one.

Over the past several years political debates and theoretical discussions have failed to provide a better understanding of many important issues concerning the role of nations and nationalism in the world today, as well as the political modernization taking place in Russia. Assessments differ widely about the historical value of transformation from an imperial political regime to a nation state. Perceptions also vary about the interconnection between modernization and the ideology of civic nationalism, as well as between civic nationalism and democratization. Some proponents of political modernization do not connect it with national consolidation in Russia, but others view national consolidation and its ideology very narrowly – as phenomena that are based on ethnic mobilization. Still others contend civic nationalism is outdated and place it in opposition to cosmopolitanism. All three approaches seem to be counterproductive both for Russia and for a large number of countries where people have found themselves in a historical “trap.” Essentially, this means that the foundations of societies within a hierarchically organized empire (no matter whether they are the parent state or colonies) have been shattered or fully destroyed, while there are no conditions for the emergence of a nation state. This article summarizes the arguments on this issue that I have voiced in a number of discussions.


In the summer of 2012, I took part in the discussion of a report by acclaimed sociologist and philosopher Ulrich Beck called “Living in and Coping with World Risk Society: The Cosmopolitan Turn.” Beck’s main idea concerns replacing the paradigm of methodological nationalism (which has become outdated and “provincial,” as he puts it) with the cosmopolitanism model. Beck does not provide a definition of methodological nationalism other than that “methodological nationalism assumes that the nation, state, and society are the ‘natural’ social and political forms of the modern world.” Clearly, Beck interprets the essence of what he calls ‘nation state’ in the modern European sense; that is, a state made up of citizens of many ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds, compared to an ethnic state formed by Germans or Japanese. Nation states can be unitary (e.g., France, Italy, or Sweden) or federal (Switzerland, Germany, or the U.S.). Beck must be familiar with a proposal by Alfred Stepan to consider separately asymmetric federations that include densely populated areas in communities made up of various ethnic and/or religious identities, and call them ‘state nations’ in contrast to ‘nation states,’ a term applied to more homogeneous cultural communities.

Beck’s rebuke of methodological nationalism basically targets the narrow view of the world seen through the prism of the nation state. A German philosopher who works in England and lectures around the world, Beck calls for turning towards an internationalist cosmopolitan model.

This is not a new idea. For instance, Samuel Huntington noted in his 2004 book, Who Are We?, that certain sections of the Western elite are inclined towards cosmopolitanism and increasingly oppose the values of nationalist commitment to one country. However, the situation in the world has changed dramatically since then. Immigrants are facing increasing difficulties in integrating into new societies. The basic models of control over the process have proven inefficient. The global financial crisis has intensified the contradictions of national interests in the most internationalized part of the Western world; that is, in the European Union. All of this has caused a new surge of nationalism in the West and cosmopolitan ideas are declining in popularity. Yet I can understand the persistent – although not as powerful as only a few years ago – criticism expressed by some of my European colleagues regarding nation states. Such states have existed in Europe for several centuries, which is why a crisis of polities may be particularly noticeable here. But can one be fed up with a meal one has never tasted? And can the idea of a nation be archaic with regard to countries where nations have never existed?

In Russia, the coexistence of different ethnic and religious cultures in its territory for several centuries was determined by its imperial organization. The empire is an antipode of the state-nation based on the principles of popular sovereignty. Dominic Lieven defines empire as a “polity that rules over wide territories and many peoples without the explicit consent of those it governs.” Wielding power over people without their consent is a distinct feature of all great empires.

The formula suggesting “power over peoples without their consent” does not necessarily mean that this power is based on violence. Rather, it shows that the will of the citizens and their associations, including ethno-territorial communities, is not important for the functioning of the hierarchically organized imperial order. This order was appropriate in some historical periods, and even salutary, for many people. Thus, the Russian conquest of Siberia in the 17th and the early 18th century literally saved many indigenous ethnic groups from extinction – the Khanti, Mansi, Selkups, and others. Before the Russian conquest, these groups had been robbed and physically pushed out by larger ethnic groups. The Russian Empire had a pragmatic interest in preserving the population of subdued ethnic groups, as they paid a special tax in furs – the yasak, therefore safeguarding the lives of the so-called “Yasak peoples.”

But the situation would change along with the goals of colonization. If a country wanted to acquire territory, then an excessive population was a hindrance that had to be eliminated. This was the case with the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus. In March 1864, Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich wrote in a report on the progress of the Caucasian War: “All the space of the northern slope westward of the River Laba and the southern slope between the mouth of the Kuban River and Tuapse have been cleared of the population hostile to us.” Emperor Alexander II wrote a note on the report: “Thank God!”

The Soviet Union was a peculiar empire whose objectives would change in different historical periods. Harvard-based historian Terry Martin calls the first fifteen years of Soviet history an “Affirmative Action Empire.” The Soviet Empire did not put up obstacles to the rise of national autonomies; it actually constructed them. For example, the Soviet Union helped some ethnic groups to create a written language and culture. However, the very process of national construction aimed at molding the so-called “Socialist nations and Socialist peoples” in the 1920s and early 1930s involved violence. Newly imposed administrative borders would often divide ethnic groups, or, on the contrary, bring together different ethnic groups – often without their consent – within a single union or autonomous republic. Many armed conflicts that broke out in the Caucasus at the end of the 20th century were a direct consequence of the Soviet Union’s national construction policy. Furthermore, by the end of the 1930s and particularly in the 1940s, the Soviet Union behaved liked a classic repressive empire. This was especially striking in the North Caucasus and some parts of southern Russia. It was from there that about 700,000 people (Chechens, Ingushes, Kalmyks, and others) were forcibly deported in 1943-1944 to Kazakhstan. According to estimates by the Memorial human rights center, more than 100,000 people died during the deportation.

The World War II deportations are echoed today in numerous territorial and ethnic conflicts. Yet the imperial mindset of people is the most important, lingering, and overpowering result of Russia’s historical policies, which were both paternalistic and loyalist. The imperial mindset is an alternative and an obstacle to civic sentiment, defined as the mentality of people actively involved in governing the state and who are aware of their responsibility for it. Aristotle classified the state as a kind of communal life for citizens involved in state governance. Only through engagement in government can a citizen become the main actor in a state. This awareness of oneself as an actor, rather than an object, of the state’s political governance is difficult to nurture in residents of an empire.

Below I discuss in detail how the loyalist mindset is destroyed in crisis situations in post-imperial societies and how civic mentality begins to take shape. At this point let me just note that by the beginning of the 21st century, the predominant feature of the Russian public consciousness was a conviction suggesting that “nothing depends on ordinary people in this country.” Clearly, the estrangement of society from government does not stem from some kind of genetically conditioned Russian specificity or from some inherent and inalterable quality of Russian culture. Rather, it is a result of peoples’ attempts to adapt themselves to the many residual elements of the past imperial hierarchic order, especially as the authorities often try to purposely revive such an order.


According to Robert Dahl, there were only eight countries in the world between 1900-1909 whose political system could be described as a democracy. From 1940-1949, their number rose to 25 to make up one-third of all states that existed at the time. From 1994-1997, as many as 86 countries (or 45 percent of all world countries) showed signs of a democracy. The Bertelsmann Foundation put the number of those countries at 125 in 2008, or 65 percent of all countries and including 70 percent of the global population. No doubt political regimes are moving towards the transformation of democracy from a local and marginal phenomenon (the way it was done in the early 20th century) into a global norm. At the beginning of the 21st century, most world countries fostered democracy. The Russian Constitution also defines Russia as a democratic state and all post-Soviet leaders have reaffirmed publicly Russia’s commitment to democracy.

At the same time, the Bertelsmann Foundation puts Russia into the category of “defective democracies.” Other international research groups define the country’s political system as a “hybrid, semi-authoritarian regime” or as “an authoritarian, but unconsolidated regime.” Vladimir Putin himself wrote in his article “Democracy and the Quality of Power” on the eve of the 2012 presidential elections that democracy in Russia has several specific features. First, Putin believes that Russian society is not fully prepared for the mechanisms of democracy. Second, Russia’s preparations for assimilating into a genuine democracy (a definition contained in the article) require an increase in the quality of state power. What does the latter postulation imply? It suggests strengthening the very same centralized system, or the “state power vertical,” which is invariably associated with Putin. The elites holding the reigns of power believe that this vertical is the main way to preserve Russia’s territorial integrity, and that is why the 2000s evidenced a revival of some elements of imperial order in Russia’s territorial administration. These measures included re-establishing the practice where federal authorities appoint provincial governors, changing tax policies to benefit the federal government, increasing the government’s role in budget allocation, and reducing opportunities for territorial self-government.

My personal treatment of these ideas is not unambiguous, since I agree that there are a number of factors in current Russian society that are obstructing the country’s democratization. At the top of my list is weak civic self-consciousness, which is displayed by a limited number of social groups. Moreover, the majority of Russians seemingly are not ready to view themselves as the main actor in policymaking and as the sovereign of the state. But along with that, I do not believe the power vertical or the neo-imperialist order can render committed support to democratization. On the contrary, it is this type of political structure that slows down the democratization process.

The imperial authoritarian order suppresses the development of civic self-consciousness and, because of this, people that have gone through the crucibles of that system more often than not consolidate socially and politically on the basis of ascriptive identities (ethnic, religious, or racial) rather than civic ones. The early 1990s saw a surge in the active development of ethnic movements in the constituent republics of the Russian Federation, including Chechen, Tatar, Yakut, and others. By the end of the decade Russian ethnic nationalism had arisen from dormancy. Thus the mechanisms of an ethno-political pendulum were activated: the cycles of activity in the movements of ethnic minorities fueled a movement on the part of the Russian ethnic majority, and the rise of the latter has given a new impetus to ethnic minority movements.

The ethnic and religious mobilization of a people that arose out of post-imperial conditions, in turn, created a multitude of problems, especially ethnic and religious conflicts in the Russian Federation. The situation is particularly tense in the North Caucasus. A 2012 report issued by the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization, describes the armed counteraction of official Russian law enforcement agencies against paramilitary units as the bloodiest conflict in contemporary Europe. Recent research by Vitaly Belozyorov puts Russia among the top ten countries in the number of terrorist acts committed from 1990-2012. Russia is ranked number three on the list of victims of terrorist acts, behind Iraq and Pakistan.

Xenophobic attitudes are more spread in Russia, primarily in its central regions, than in Europe and they are of an entirely different nature. All Russian opinion polls show that, contrary to Europe, immigrants are not the main victims of anti-foreigner sentiment in Russia’s largest cities. Enmity towards non-Russians is mostly targeted at ethnic groups from the North Caucasus who have Russian passports. Hostility towards them is 400-500 percent higher than towards people from Central Asia who currently account for the bulk of immigration. People from the North Caucasus, a territory incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 19th century, still do not fit into the collective notion of “We, Russians.” This perception of “We” (an imaginary community that Benedict Andersen believed to be the groundwork of a nation) does not have clear contours in Russia in general.

In 1970, U.S. political scientist Dankwart Rustow came up with an idea suggesting that national unity is the only necessary precondition for democracy, while all of its other elements emerge in the process of democratization. Still the process as such cannot begin before the emergence of a nation, as the main actor of democratic policies. It took almost half a century before Russians could recognize the fairness of this fundamental idea and the exactness of Ivor Jennings’ aphorism: “The people cannot decide until someone decides who are the people.”


For Russia, national consolidation is not only a prerequisite for democracy, but also a condition for survival. How can consolidation be achieved? A political nation is different from a state, its population, and even its civil society. It is above all a community bound together by culture and values. Jailed Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky pointed this out in a lecture called “Between the Empire and the Nation State.” Unfortunately, he offers a rather narrow interpretation of the cultural groundwork of society and reduces it to traditional ethnographic culture (language, history, religion, and customs). This type of approach stands in contrast to the global scientific tradition. Ernest Renan, who can be rightly called the founding father of a cultural theory of nation, proclaimed a century and a half ago: “What is a nation? […] A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.” But Renan also said that ethnographic considerations were not fundamental in the organization of contemporary nations. Renan compared Hispanic America, which speaks the same language yet does not make up one nation, and Switzerland, where four languages are spoken. “Switzerland’s willingness to unite in spite of the language differences is a more important factor than the closeness of languages […]. A nation means great solidarity.”                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Renan came close to the understanding of civic culture as a basis for national consolidation, but the concept was formulated in detail by 20th-century researchers, such as Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba in their classical work The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. The main difference between civic culture and earlier cultures – those that were patriarchal and loyalist – is that civic culture is participatory and relies on activism. It unites those who do not value blood ties or are loyal to the ruler, but who believe in the commonality of rights and duties of the collective main actor of state power: “We are the people and we are the source of power.”

Of course, there are well known historical instances of ethnic nationalism or religious mobilization that work as locomotives of civic culture and national consolidation. But can Russian nationalism lay the groundwork for the national consolidation of all the peoples of Russia? New arguments for a negative response are constantly emerging.

Russian nationalism did not score a political victory at the beginning of the past century nor will it win today. In 1905-1917 rightwing nationalist parties, especially the Union of the Russian People, were established on a wave of chauvinism in the wake of ethnic pogroms covertly supported by the authorities. These parties were formally the largest and yet they failed to gain a majority in the Russian State Duma, established after widespread demonstrations in 1905. Also, Russians did not support those parties during the Civil War (1918-1921). Today’s ethnic Russian nationalism does not have mass support either at elections or in public opinion polls, even in ethnically homogeneous Russian regions, although the overall level of xenophobia is extremely high in Russia.

Nor is Russian ethnic nationalism a leading force on the Internet. The number of Internet users had reached 59.5 million in spring 2012 (more than half of Russia’s adult population). The Internet has turned into the main organizing medium for protest movements, but it reveals practically the same structure of political preferences as the Russian population in general. The results of a survey conducted by the Levada Center just before the most recent parliamentary elections showed that the vast majority of Internet users are apolitical. Only three percent of those polled trusted political parties, although one-third of respondents were ready to vote for the party in power (and in all probability they would rather vote for any ruling political party). Communists were next in popularity, while the nationalists ranked far behind. We have conducted a survey of the most popular social media tool Vkontakte to analyze ethnic and political problems in the Russian blogosphere. The research has shown that nationalists are no more active than the leftwingers, who share their derogatory attitude towards the West but reject the “Russia for the Russians” slogan. Another part of the social media users, smaller than nationalists but as active, call themselves “liberals.” They reject nationalism, just as most nationalists detest liberalism.

Russian nationalism is quite heterogeneous politically. It includes various ideological trends, and recently it has even begun to show signs of liberal views. The rift among Russian nationalists will most likely grow and undermine their political positions.

An important feature emerging in Russian ethnic nationalism is its growing opposition to the authorities. This led to a situation in December 2011 and in the spring and summer of 2012 when some nationalists joined unprecedented mass protests staged by a broad coalition of political forces. The Levada Center’s research highlighted the fact that people calling themselves either democrats or liberals made up more than 60 percent of participants in those protests. Another 13-18 percent said they were Communists, while 10 percent attributed themselves to Social Democrats, and 6-14 percent identified with the nationalists.

Unlike the protest movements in 2010, in which people’s discontent with the current social situation, especially corruption and bureaucratic arbitrariness, transformed into mass ethnic phobias, the protests in 2011 and 2012 set civic demands. As many as 73 percent of the participants said they were unhappy with vote rigging, and 52 percent complained about the inability to influence the government. It has turned out that the Kremlin is still somehow capable of facilitating the development of a civic movement in the country, albeit indirectly, as it unites different political forces against itself.

People united by the protests in 2011 and 2012 do not call themselves “civic nationalists,” but in essence they are. Most of them represent sections of society whose level of education, personal enterprise, and qualification puts them on a par with people with cosmopolitan outlooks who make up the bulk of the brain drain from Russia. And yet those who took part in the civic protests are not moving to “more comfortable” countries. Instead, they are creating volunteer organizations in Russia to help victims of natural disasters, protect historic buildings, and halt the destruction of forests. These activists are prepared to remain in Russia and face risks far more dangerous than politically motivated roundups or smear campaigns in the media, to say nothing of physical discomfort. In order to withstand all that, one needs to demonstrate one’s intense bonds with the native land, not cosmopolitanism. Civic activists, who can also be called civic nationalists in sociological terms, are displaying their willingness to alter the type of the state, to make it national in the sense that it should be subordinated to and serve the interests of a nation society rather than individual oligarchic groups or corporations of bureaucrats.

This type of nation state, with numerous ethnic groups maintaining their traditional cultural identities, can and will, in all likelihood, start forming in Russia on the basis of a broad political coalition and civic consolidation for the purpose of eliminating authoritarianism, arbitrariness, and corruption. Objectives of this kind more often than not would impart the initial impulses to national and civic consolidation in the 20th century, while inimical consolidation represents the most widespread debut of rising nation states in world history. However, this path has its own crossroads. On the one hand, protest sentiment may lead to the formation of civic and secular nations, and, on the other, ethnocratic and theocratic communities, as it happened in Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The new theocratic regime unleashed repressive measures against its recent close allies in the antimonarchic and anti-corruption struggle.

It appears today that both scenarios may take shape in Russia, but in different geographical regions. The tendencies towards civic consolidation will become stronger on the greater part of the territory and especially in urbanized regions in the center and the east. The process will be pushed forward by a shrinking faith in the salutary role of the elites and a growing realization that chances are slim that an elite will emerge that would be capable of modernizing the country “from the top.” In post-imperial countries, elites usually have a propensity to maintain the status quo and avoid change. An environment like that fosters the idea of people’s sovereignty, which profiles the man on the street not only as the source of power, but also as a driver of change.

In southern Russia, protest sentiment has transformed into ethnic and religious mobilization, and the possibility that this trend will reverse in the short term is quite small.

Different regions often develop out of sync with each other. For instance, in Italy the modernized north supports the conservative south, although northerners sometimes want to rid themselves of that burden. It cannot be ruled out that Russia will develop along this scenario as well, but in a rather distant future.

This pressing agenda highlights the need for awareness among the country’s intellectual elite about how important the very first and largest stage of national consolidation is – not ethnic, but civic consolidation, which is still taking shape. The mass protests in 2011 and 2012 were its harbingers.

 *  *  *

In summary, let me highlight my main ideas.

First, a nation state and a nation society are promising forms of political organization in countries and regions that have retained a considerable legacy of imperial organization. In Russia, this legacy consists of: a) the imperial body, understood as the territory of a state split into weakly interconnected areas with a disunited population, which has the world’s highest level of reciprocal mistrust and a relatively high degree of xenophobia; b) the imperial authoritarian order; and c) the imperial loyalist consciousness prevalent in the nation. These features are tightly interlinked and form a single imperial syndrome that underlies Russia’s historic inertia. Eliminating this syndrome is possible only after the revitalization of a civic consciousness and the people’s national consolidation. These are the sole preconditions for political transformation and the democratization of political life.

Second, a political nation cannot be formed by mobilizing and consolidating any single ethnic group in a multiethnic state where compact areas of settlement of numerous ethnic groups still exist. It looks like the development of a political nation in Russia may have a different historical sequence than what has been experienced earlier (although there are examples of the opposite). This sequence will presuppose a movement launched by the civic consolidation of various ethnic and religious groups towards the formation of unified national identity of Russian citizens. This pattern is in contrast to the evolution from an ethno-national association to a civic one. Quite naturally, various ethnic and religious identities will survive in this case in the format of a unified national civic consciousness. This can be described as the Swiss model. Ernest Renan foretold its dominance; that is, in the present if looked at from our standpoint.

 Third, ethnic nationalism cannot be a strategic ally of forces interested in modernizing Russia in the current conditions. In short, these very forces that realize that a purely elitist modernization is impossible will need popular support and national consolidation. Consequently, they will need nationalism, too, although a civic nationalism.

Ernest Gellner linked the “arrival of a new world,” or modernization in the 19th and 20th centuries, with nationalism as an ideology “connecting the state and national culture.” Gellner’s idea remains topical in countries that are still undergoing modernization. Yet the contemporary strain of national culture, which maintains traditional values, including concern about the future of the country and pride in its historical and cultural achievements, is increasingly taking the form of a civic culture that gives priority to the values of people’s (civic) sovereignty, the supremacy of law, equality, freedom of self-expression, etc. This culture can really establish the groundwork for consolidating people with different ethnic and religious identities.

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