12.07.2006
In Defense of the National Idea
№3 2006 July/September
Sergey Markedonov

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

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.