In Defense of the National Idea

12 july 2006

Sergey Markedonov, Ph.D. (History), is assistant professor at the Regional Studies and Foreign Policy department of the Russian State University for Humanities.

Resume: The formation of Russia’s new national policy is taking place amidst the broadening global crisis concerning the concept of the nation-state, which is instigated by the confrontation between globalization and ethnic separatism. Russia has a unique opportunity to reconsider and reformulate particular values of the nation-state.

The very survival of the Russian state could very well hinge on the question of its national self-identification. And the lack of answers to this “damned conundrum” makes the country’s political stability, not to mention the progress and well-being of its people, almost impossible. Russians talk incessantly about more efficient economic models, doubling of the Gross Domestic Product, curbing poverty and reforming the education system and the Armed Forces, but all these endeavors will eventually prove futile. The majority of social, economic, political and managerial decisions taken per se – void of ideological content – are essentially getting us nowhere.

A government official who is not aware of his country’s national interests is nothing more than a glutton for the taxpayers’ money. Similarly, a well-equipped and well-trained soldier who is unaware of the reasons he bears the heavy burden of military service is nothing more than cannon fodder or a common brigand. Even the excitement that the sportsman feels will amount to nothing if the sense of the homeland disappears. (Perhaps this is the reason that the World Cup football championships involving national teams draw much greater enthusiasm than the heavily financed European Club Championships?)

Affiliation with one’s homeland and state does not simply unite millions of people together in a human community. It unites them in a shared perception of their common history, common sentiments, and a common faith in the prospects for the future, or, likewise, a shared disbelief in the possibility of a common future. After all, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia disintegrated because of mass disenchantment with the Communist idea and its promise of a bright future, and not because of the Belovezha Forest “scheming” [a decision by Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian leaders made in the Belovezha Forest preserve in Belarus in 1991– Ed.], plotting by the Americans, or “Jewish-ridden mason lodges.”

The life of an individual who has the sense of belonging to a community has a meaning that is hard to understand at the rational level. How could one possibly explain by rationalistic logic the fact that thousands of Russians – who enjoy access to all the benefits of Western civilization and are potentially capable of engaging in successful commercial or research activity abroad – choose to live in Russia and are ready to go through the outrages of “managed democracy.” The people show a readiness to stay with their nation “right where it, unfortunately, is,” or “right where it will, fortunately, be.” The government receives millions of opinions from members of this community called ‘Russia.’ These sentiments are out there floating in the air in the form of mass notions, perceptions and emotions. The government must simply collect these opinions, summarize their messages, and express the people’s collective will at the level of rationale – with the aid of laws, legislation and practical policy instruments. This means that, apart from furnishing people with answers to questions such as, ‘Who are we,’ ‘Where do we come from,’ and ‘Where are we going,’ a national policy must explain the historic and practical import of the country’s existence. Without an intelligently conceived and comprehensible national policy, it is impossible to understand what force has brought together the Russians, Tatars, Yakuts, Kalmyks, Jews, Armenians, and others, on a territory that takes up one-eighth of the land surface of the Earth. It will remain unclear why they should continue this unity, what price they should pay for it and what sacrifices they should make if need be. Answers to these questions are the real identification marks of any nation-state.

Russia's national policy designed at turn of the millennium took no account of the importance of supra-ethnic principles in national building
But do the one hundred and forty-five million people living in the Russian Federation know for certain which of those marks really express their will? Furthermore, what meaning does the state assign to its existence? How does it justify it? I dare say there is no clear system of identification marks even in the minds of those who must have it by virtue of their occupational duty. In fact, they mull over several such systems. The problem is that no one system provides for the image of Russia as a young and democratic state that rose from the bourgeois democratic revolution of August 1991. At the same time, however, there exist some mythical images of Russia.

Myth number one pertains to the image of the Soviet Union, which the people cherishing that period associate with a golden age “when people lived like gods knowing no grief but serenity.” How do they look at today’s Russia? They view it as a pitiful vestige of the great Soviet Union, a deficient state that is not worth defending.

But was it not the Soviet Union that split into fifteen separate entities along the ethnic principle? Was it not Soviet policy that suppressed the freedom of all citizens without exception and brewed the resounding ethnic conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Transniedstria, while verbally proclaiming the hitherto unheard-of rights of all constituent peoples? Moreover, was it not the Soviet leadership’s stubborn refusal to democratize the country that eventually let the various nationalistic forces pulling the country apart join a powerful anti-Communist movement?

 Myth number two is the Russian Empire whose “historical continuity we must restore,” as the propagators of this concept proclaim. But such logic would also necessitate the restoration of classes, the monarchy, and the Jewish Pale of Settlement [a prohibition that demanded the Jews live beyond a certain internal border – Ed.]. Thinking along these lines, we may go as far as a return to serfdom. But was it not the Russian Empire’s archaic autocratic regime and the policy of ethnic limitations that paved the way to the Red Turmoil of 1917 and the empire’s eventual ruin?

Myth number three talks about Russia’s “rebirth” or “return to its roots.” This idea is extolled by leaders of ethnic nationalist movements in Russia’s constituent republics and by all kinds of regional movements (the Cossacks, for example). The masterminds behind the “rebirth” project underline the exclusively ancient origins of their ethnic groups and bluntly claim property rights to “indigenous lands.” They seem to be undisturbed by the fact that restoration of the past will necessarily bring back the problems of the past. While they are making claims, we are becoming witnesses to the re-emergence of abreks [old-time brigands] in Chechnya and in the entire North Caucasus, to nepotism raised to the level of government policy, to restrictions on businessmen “of alien blood,” and to demands to deport “aliens” or non-indigenes from the “indigenous lands.”

Remarkably, the creators of these three myths angrily condemn one another, yet their seemingly different slogans are basically similar: today’s Russia does not exist as a reality for them and is of no interest to them. They detest the new historical community that is taking shape in the public consciousness of our compatriots. This historical community represents the nascent civil-political Russian nation. Had this realization not entered the mind of the average citizen, this country would have followed the path of the former Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. Numerous opinion polls indicate that even the Chechens, Russia’s most problematic ethnic group, mostly link their future to the Russian Federation, which means they welcome Russian citizenship. Add to this the number of immigrants to Russia, people who failed to settle in their historic homelands (Germany, Greece and Israel, for example), and chose to live in Russia. There is an increasing tendency for people to choose Russia over their “land of kinship by blood.” Now, can you imagine the Abkhazians associating themselves with Georgia, or the Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan?

Of course, the subconscious assimilation of an individual as a Russian does not suffice for forming the Russian nation. Thus, the government must work hard toward the eventual rise of a civil-political community that will incorporate, as Alexander Pushkin put it, “all tongues in her [Russia’s] use.”

Yet the elaboration of an ideology as a set of values to be shared by all Russian citizens has so far failed to win the attention of the Russian government. The formation of a new Russian national identity has been pushed to the sidelines of the political agenda by issues of power and property control. The fact that Russia is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country is realized by all segments of the social and political forces. However, mere affirmation of this fact is insufficient for a successful national policy. A united social, economic, political and legal space will become a reality – not a proclamation – only if all the inhabitants of Russia develop an understanding that they belong to their nation by virtue of shared civil and political identity, and not through the bonds of blood.

Such an approach does not deny ethnic identity as such, nor does it call for dropping ethnic identity in favor of political loyalty to the state. Like any individual who has private interests, together with interests shared with the community, members of each ethnic group in Russia may continue their affiliations with their narrow group/corporate interests and also supra-ethnic common values. This approach will affirm the fact that Moscow is the national capital and the Russian tricolor, the national standard. This approach implies the practical materialization of Ernest Gellner’s formula, which argues that a nation is a fusion of good will, culture and statehood.

In the meantime, Russia’s national policy designed at the turn of the millennium took no account of the importance of supra-ethnic principles in its nation-building. On the contrary, Russian national policy planners stressed the importance of rendering support – political, financial, social or humanitarian – to the so-called ethnic/cultural autonomies. In reality, this meant supporting the elites of various ethnic groups – from Russians to indigenous peoples of the North. In fact, national policy was replaced with a folklore/ethnographic policy. Its set of instruments was mainly comprised of heavily budgeted feasts and festivals of folk cultures, as well as innumerable “dialogs” and roundtable conferences involving spokespeople from ethnic communities and diasporas.
Furthermore, in Russia’s constituent republics this policy was conceived as granting the representatives of titular (indigenous) ethnos preferential positions in government agencies and business. As a result, in those regions the principle of “blood kinship” took root in the social, economic, political and human-resource practices, and suppressed the rise of civil society institutions. Affiliation with a titular ethnic group acquired greater importance for these people than did their association with Russia in general, the Russian state or society.

It is quite obvious that this dilemma cannot be solved by a return to monarchy or the Communist ideology. Consequently, a new supra-ethnic national idea should rely on different principles – democracy, loyalty to civil society, and patriotism toward the Russian state. However, if those people who are currently trying to discredit democracy are ultimately successful, their efforts will not rebuild the Millennium-Old Russia or Holy Rus. Indeed, their efforts will bring the Russian state to ruin.

Russia’s effective Constitution clearly defines the country’s political and legal foundations as democratic in nature. Thus, any renunciation of democracy, to say nothing of officially fixing that renunciation, would be tantamount to destroying the foundation of the edifice of a renovated state. It is equally obvious that the development of supra-ethnic national policy principles will not be a one-step action. Such a policy cannot be decreed since it will require new conceptual and technical approaches – from unification of education principles (in humanities, in the first place), to changes in the information policies of government-controlled mass media. Indeed, how long shall we continue printing textbooks in which the Sumerians and Etruscans are described as the ancient ancestors of the Tatars, Bashkirians, Ingushes and other ethnic groups?

The Concept of State National Policy, the only document specially devoted to Russia’s ethnic problems has, for a variety of reasons, failed to become a guideline for action. Right after its adoption in 1996, the document stirred argument among political analysts; the debates still continue today. However, it is important that the Concept, good or bad as it was, appeared during Boris Yeltsin’s epoch. This was a time when Russia was just starting its new nation building, and its territorial integrity hinged on buying – openly or covertly – the loyalty of regional elites.

Today, the concept of Russia’s national policy requires revision, but this must not boil down to simply rewriting certain paragraphs so that they agree with transitory changes in the Kremlin. First, we need a document with an entirely new set of notions. Second, it must not be some sort of a bureaucratic epistle, but a clear message to Russian nationals of different ethnic origins and religious affiliations. Third, it should contain an ideological project that is oriented toward the integration of peoples, as opposed to maintaining a “civilized” form of apartheid.

Russia’s national policy has been operating with a language that is based on archaic Stalinist conventions. Russian politicians continue to equate ‘nation’ and ‘ethnos,’ while they interpret the concept of ‘nation’ as a “historically-formed community of people that arose from a specific language, territory, economic practices and psychological mold and manifest in a common culture.” This means that state policies are targeted at ethnically formed nations, i.e. collective entities, not individuals. Hence the state assigns little value to civil and human rights, giving priority to the rights of ethnic groups as opposed to individuals. This approach produces the notion that an ethnic group has rightful claims to a territory denoted as “national republic.” On the face of it, a new concept of national policy should regard ‘nation’ as a civil and political society, an association of Russian citizens irrespective of their ethnic or social origin as a source of sovereignty.

The issue requires more, however, than a mere change in terminology, or the simple redefinition of the word ‘nation.’ It amounts to giving a new content to national policy. Karl Deutsch’s concept of nation as a society that has acquired the state machinery and put it to its service could become an ideological and political formula of a revamped national policy. If Russia fails to overcome the “cult of blood kinship” and form a civil society that would replace the vertical bureaucratic structure, it will be doomed to an existence that is fraught with the specter of civil war and a permanent search for friends and foes.

The formation of Russia’s new national policy is taking place amidst the broadening global crisis concerning the concept of the nation-state, which is instigated by the confrontation between globalization and ethnic separatism. Russia has a unique opportunity to reconsider and reformulate particular values of the nation-state that have long turned into axioms in Europe and the U.S., where they have lost novelty – and sometimes even adequacy. As a young state in search of identity, Russia has a chance to offer a new efficient model for national relations – both for its own good and the good of the world.

Last updated 12 july 2006, 13:40

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