Irredentism and the Crisis of National Identity
No. 4 2017 October/December
Alexei I. Miller

Doctor of History
European University at Saint-Petersburg, Russia
Department of History
Center for the Study of Cultural Memory and Symbolic Politics
Research Director;
Institute of Scientific Information for Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Leading Research Fellow


ORCID: 0000-0001-8139-0976
ResearcherID: Z-1451-2019
Scopus AuthorID: 56321369000


E-mail: [email protected]
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After the 2014 Ukraine crisis many in the world are increasingly apprehensive of Russian irredentism and the idea of the Russian World as they are seen as Russia’s claims to territories with which it has cultural or historical ties. It is worth trying, as far as possible, to return the Russian World to the cultural, non-aggressive, and constructive realm.

– Many, including yourself, describe irredentism as one of the worst threats to international security. What makes it so dangerous?

– It is not irredentism as such that is dangerous, but its variety that suggests the forcible redrawing of borders. This is a risk for everyone. Russian irredentism may jeopardize both Russia and the entire world. However, not all irredentism is fraught with such a threat.


– But isn’t it true that any irredentist movement suggests the possibility of uniting compatriots by taking over foreign territories?

– Let’s make it clear right away what irredentism is and what potential risks it may pose. We’ll start with a little bit of history. The term emerged in the nineteenth century to denote the Italian national movement that sought to “liberate” lands populated by ethnic Italians, as its members believed, from the rule of the Austrian Empire. At about the same time—in the middle of the nineteenth century—German irredentism appeared, which was equally eager to reclaim German lands. It should be noted that many other similar ideologies and movements spread in the Balkans. The gist of irredentism is that people belonging to one nationality should live in one state. Those who have remained outside a common country after unification certainly suffer and must be rescued.

Irredentism becomes a political practice; in other words, a public movement relying on a certain force. This force is backed up by the state—Piedmont in Italy and Prussia in Germany. The narrative that begins to dominate after the victory of irredentism maintains that this movement is hailed by all people who are to become part of a future nation.


– But this support is not comprehensive, is it?

– Of course, it isn’t. At a closer look, it turns out that far from all Italians wanted to be rescued. At the time they did not even know they were Italians. Far from all Germans wanted Prussia to rescue them. This is one of the potential problems related to irredentism.


– What other political manifestations of irredentism deserve attention?

– Like any political practice, irredentism has its own nationalist-centered ideology. In the twentieth and twentieth-first centuries, there have been many examples of such ideologies—some tragic, and others more or less civilized. For instance, the ideology of Nazi Germany was unmistakably irredentist. Unification of all Germans was one of its cornerstones. The post-war Federal Republic of Germany was irredentist, too, because it did not recognize Germany’s division into two states and wanted the two parts to unite. That’s irredentism, too.

Firstly, some irredentist ideologies and movements rely mostly on military strength and, secondly, seek to take over—or liberate—not whole countries, but only their parts.

Modern China is certainly irredentist. In fact, the Greater China concept implies that all countries that once constituted parts of greater China are to merge with the parent country again. It is believed that Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan are all parts of China and must officially become its integral territories. That said, China harbors no plans for all of Malaysia (where seven million Chinese, accounting for 24 percent of the population, are obviously discriminated against) or for any of its territories.

Therefore, the question of the unification of West and East Germany, China, and Russia and Belarus was or may become a subject matter for long talks and, possibly, an agreement, but not necessarily a casus belli. But when irredentism goes as far as annexing the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia or Alsace from France and so on, no agreement looks possible.


– What if such a movement has no country to rely on? Take the Kurdish movement, for instance. Does it look very similar to the Italian irredenta?

– Good question. It doesn’t look the Italian case. The Italians didn’t have their own nation state, but they had Piedmont. The Kurds have no groundwork like that from which to build up. But the Kurdish movement’s ideology is certainly irredentist. Imagine that the Kurds at a certain point obtain their own autonomy, say, within Syria. That would mean from that moment on they will see making preparations for the further unification of all Kurds and eventually establishing a full-fledged nation state as one of the key tasks of their newly-gained quasi-state.

This is what makes the situation so terrible for the Turks, who are well aware that the existence of Turkey within its current borders is incompatible with strong Kurdish irredentism. In a situation like this it would be laughable, alas, to raise the question of what a fair settlement might look like, because a solution that both parties would find fair enough just cannot exist.


– This is possibly the greatest paradox of irredentism: the desire for justice is one of its driving forces, but irredentism leaves no room for justice for all?

– The priority of the irredentist movement is the well-being of people who belong to your own nationality and justice for them. If justice is to be understood in this way, then it would be entirely fair to sacrifice a number of people of a different nationality so that your own nation would prosper. In any event, they would have to be removed from the territory that became ours. It is a very special logic and very special vision. In a situation like this “justice for all,” or justice understood in the common way just does not exist.

Take off the glasses of irredentism and a very different criterion will take center stage. How many human lives will this or that scenario take to implement—the fewer lives, the fairer the scenario will look, regardless of whether this national drive materializes or not.


– Does Russian irredentism have any special features?

– In the Russian context it looks like this: When we say that Belarus and Russia are one state and that in reality they are the same people and so on—that’s irredentism. But this sort of irredentism does not necessarily (or by any means) lead to violence and tensions, because it is about the unification of two states. Or the takeover of a smaller state by a larger one. Also, we maintain that this will be possible only if the people of Belarus vote for such a solution in a plebiscite. Discussing the possibility of unification will only be feasible in that case.

But should we say that we see an unprotected Russian minority in Kazakhstan, and for that reason northern Kazakhstan must be annexed from Kazakhstan to Russia, that would be a casus belli. In a situation like this we would hardly be able to expect understanding on the other side, whether it be Kazakhstan or Ukraine.


– Is it possible to interpret the idea of repatriation of compatriots without the annexation of territories as irredentist?

– In a sense, yes. But strictly speaking, irredentism as a rule involves territorial takeovers. It is possible to say that the return of compatriots without territorial acquisitions is an alternative to irredentism. The point of departure is the same: we are a divided nation. But the method of addressing the problem differs. Reunification is achieved by inviting and accommodating all those who feel uncomfortable elsewhere. Even more so because in Russia nobody thinks that we don’t have enough land and that we won’t be able to accommodate all those Russians who have found themselves abroad. Germany proclaimed such a policy after World War II. All Germans who feel uneasy elsewhere are welcome home. In this respect there is a great deal we should borrow from the Germans.


– But what threat does Russian irredentism pose then?

– The focal point of Russian identity is the idea of a divided nation in combination with a very strong self-awareness as a great power. A great power addresses the issues of justice the way it deems right, and not always (or not even very often) in a pacifist way, but by using the military. The risk of letting irredentism follow the German templates of the 1930s is quite real.


– In other words, launching territorial expansion? After all, this is precisely what Europe is afraid of consciously or subconsciously. Some express such fears out loud, while others try to score points on them. But the fears do exist.

– Irredentism is not the sole motive that may be used to justify territorial expansion. The string of arguments may look like this: “We need more black-skinned colonial subjects. Their climate is good for growing coffee. They work their plantations well enough. We like coffee and drink it in large amounts and we will always be able to sell what we don’t use to others.” In a sense this is ideology, too, but not irredentism.

As far as Russia is concerned, irredentism may cause all the risks stemming from the strong identity of a great power and its imperial heritage, which fuels the temptation to regard the modern borders as “casually drawn” and “unfair,” to get mixed with nationalism. This is a very dangerous cocktail.


– And that leads to negative synergy. One negative factor feeds and ferments another, right?

– Yes, negative synergy would be the correct term to use here. When such aims become a major component of ideology, the backbone of identity, at a certain point they may go out of control.


– How does such an ideology take shape and who launches the process? Is it a grassroots product or are there people specially trained for this?

– Let’s take a very specific example from real life. If I remember correctly, in 2007, right after Putin’s Munich speech, Dmitry Kiselyov, in those days a rank-and-file journalist, addressed Putin at a meeting with the general public with something like this: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, isn’t it the right moment to honestly and straightforwardly declare ourselves a divided nation?” Putin replied: “Let’s avoid making such drastic moves.”

Most likely the question had been agreed on in advance. To put it in a nutshell, we have Kiselyov—a high-profile media figure with a certain influence in society (possibly, it was a major factor that eventually propelled him to a far higher position in the media). And we have the country’s top official who agreed to answer the question, but remained very evasive. However, no one heard him say something like “Stop talking nonsense,” or “Putting the question this way would be very dangerous and counter-productive.” The answer sounded like “Let’s avoid fueling tensions here, we do understand, of course, that yes, we are a divided nation, but such things should not be said aloud.” In short, a certain encouraging signal was given.

An enormous number of people took this to heart. Sometimes people arrive at such conclusions through a very painful personal experience of separation—those who, for instance, lived in Central Asia, had to resettle in Russia after losing everything they had, who didn’t receive the best treatment, and who had no protection from Russia.

The problem of a divided nation is multifactored and multifaceted. Russians are not treated well enough everywhere. But that does not mean that armed irredentism can be a productive response to such an attitude. Although it is quite obvious that Crimea’s reunification with Russia was explained by irredentist arguments among others…


– Or by exclusively irredentist arguments…

– No, not exclusively. There was a geopolitical explanation. The Americans could arrive and deploy their ships. In that case it would not matter at all who lives in Crimea. There should be no U.S. ships. It’s the place for our fleet only. This is what really matters. There was a juridical and procedural explanation, too. The people of Crimea, regardless of their ethnic identity, wanted to join Russia and expressed that desire in a referendum. This is not irredentism: What if Kazakhs decide they would like to join Russia and hold a referendum on the issue?


– Some of the regions of Kazakhstan?

– No, just Kazakh or the Kyrgyz people. That would be a democratic expression of their will by a group of people who wish to join Russia. Imagine that Russia responds to this, but then the question is why. Only because it respects the democratically expressed wish of a certain group of people or because it regards these people as its own? That’s where irredentism begins. In one way or another, the presence of irredentism in the public sphere and our politics is easily noticeable and tangible. Although we cannot say that irredentism has become the core of our identification. This is not so.


– Is the concept of the Russian World an irredentism or some other parallel matter? Or is one nothing but a symbol of the other?

– The term ‘the Russian World’ has many interpretations. Incidentally, it is not the only such concept. There is Holy Rus, for instance. For the Russian Orthodox Church it is even more significant. But let us look at which activities the Russian World Foundation devotes itself to. Cultural issues, libraries, centers for language study, festivals, science projects, etc. The Germans do the same at their Goethe Institute and the French have their own centers that promote, develop, and encourage interest in national culture, the arts, and so on. One does not have to be an ethnic Russian to have a sense of belonging to the Russian World. And such a feeling should not necessarily manifest itself in politics.

The political aspect of the Russian World is interpreted differently as well. And the interpretations change with the passage of time. In November 2009, Patriarch Kirill made a lengthy, fundamental speech about the Russian World. He said we should learn to respect the sovereignty of those countries that to a greater or lesser extent belong to the Russian World. That we must rid ourselves of the “big brother” complex, that we should by no means impose anything on others, and that there must be relations of partnership and respect, etc. It used to be that way.

Clearly, no place for such pronouncements is left in the wake of 2014, but at that time Patriarch Kirill was an advocate of promoting the Russian World through “soft power.” He made frequent pastoral visits to Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova to say that we belong to one culture and faith (but not one church, incidentally!), and so on. Clearly, after 2014 those who disagree with the Russian World concept (and who were against it before 2014) have grown even more certain that the Russian World concept is tantamount to an annexation.


– It looks like they have enough reasons to think so.

– Yes, and we provide ever more causes for alarm. But let’s get back to the Russian World Foundation. How do you interpret the participation of its chairman, Vyacheslav Nikonov, in the Immortal Regiment procession, holding a portrait of his grandfather? After all, he is not an ordinary citizen, but a politically significant figure, the Foundation’s chairman and legislator.

When the head of the Russian World Foundation showed up for the street march with a portrait of Molotov, who is unconditionally and inseparably associated with the 1939 Pact [the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany—Ed.], you have to ask how he understands his responsibility as the Foundation’s chairman and how the people who appointed him to that post understand it, too. Your own attitude towards your grandfather is a very private affair, but once you are part and parcel of the Foundation’s image, the question arises: “Do you have the right to such gestures?”


– It turns out that a gesture of personal respect for one’s ancestor turns into a political gesture with very wide implications …

– And very dubious implications, too. And what is even more remarkable is that no one took the trouble to caution the man. This prompts the following conclusion: Either Russia’s top political leadership does not pay enough attention to the Russian World theme, or it agrees that this theme should be presented in public precisely in this way. As Stalin might have said, “Both are worse.” On the one hand, the concept of the Russian World is in deep crisis, but, on the other, it has gained momentum and has become deeply ingrained in the public mind.

In 2014 the situation changed drastically, and then once again. In 2014 many thought that it was just the start of a long journey, of a “Russian Spring,” but with time it became clear that this was not the case. The Russian World concept must be reconsidered and reformulated in a creative way. The realization is yet to be achieved of what was right and what went wrong. We need to try to return the Russian World to the realm of culture, constructive and devoid of aggression.


– If it is true that the irredenta as such is a response to the crisis of identity, while the Russian World is turning into a suitcase without a handle too valuable to be abandoned and too inconvenient to carry, is it right to say that the crisis of Russian national identity is a glaring reality? Currently, there is a heated debate on the so-called “law on the Russian nation” …

– A crisis can be creative. Irredentism in Italy was a reaction to crisis, and a very creative reaction it was. But such creativity has many sides. In some places force may be used to quash dissent, and in others, new remarkable symbols are invented.

One of the problems with our identity was that the theme of the Great Patriotic War and the victory in that war was at the very center of collective historical memory. At the same time, it was portrayed in intensely red, Communist colors, which was one of the factors for the crisis conflict. The country and society in general reacted to that crisis in a very creative way. The St. George ribbon, which replaced the red color, was the first very remarkable proposal. It is not accidental that the Communists were very angry when it was introduced.

The ribbon was a substitute for the hammer-and-sickle emblem as the symbol of victory and made it possible to link the feeling of pride from the military victory with the memory of events of earlier periods. It was a great success. People outside Russia who felt they were part of the Russian World liked the idea very much. This was the case in Moldova, Ukraine, and the Baltic States.

The Immortal Regiment was another symbolic response to that crisis. These two solutions have coped with their task remarkably well.


– In Russia it often happens that great creative ideas proposed by unofficial authors are “nationalized” by the state and inevitably become bureaucratized.

– This is true and it is very bad. But if we expand the “Russian-World-is-a-suitcase-without-a-handle” metaphor… you know, it is very important what is inside the suitcase. If we find nothing but cobblestones, then it should be dropped. But if it contains something precious to you, then repair the suitcase and attach a handle to it. A handle and a pair of wheels would be better still. Much more convenient.

Then the suitcase should be opened and its contents sorted through. Some things should be thrown away, and others kept and repacked. Handling the Russian World concept today with only one thought in mind of how to get rid of it would be counterproductive. It contains great resources, including symbolic ones, very important and effective.


– We’ve gradually approached the question of whether  irredentism can be good at all. It turns out that an irredenta that encourages the nation’s creative endeavor is apparently a good irredenta, isn’t it?

– Such matters do not necessarily require a description in irredenta-related terms. For example, let us ask ourselves this. Does the Russia-Belarus Union have a special value in its own right? What is to be done to fill it with substance? Is it worth doing that? And if yes, what should that substance be like? And on what grounds should that be done? To a certain extent these are irredentist problems, but in general they extend far wider to incorporate such matters as nationalism, identity, attitude to the past, historical memory, and many other things.


– When tasks of such a scale are on the agenda, one can say they are akin to a dialogue of cultures and civilizations.

– It is possible to say such a dialogue is underway when cooperation and mutual understanding are proclaimed as the ultimate goals from the outset. The moment you begin a dialogue, you wish to open yourself to your partner and do your utmost to let him understand you the right way. And you expect reciprocity. But what if you begin negotiations in a situation of political rivalry? Then it turns out that openness—the greatest value and the most attractive feature of a dialogue—is your weakness. What is called dialogue often turns out to be not a dialogue, but discursive confrontation. We enter into negotiations hoping to know our opponent’s intentions better and to say as little as possible about our own plans. We begin a discussion not in order to identify points of agreement, but to expose our rival’s sore spots, and then to deal a blow. We think we are entering into a dialogue, but in reality we are trying to impose our own values and interpretations on our opponent, if his discursive position is weaker than ours.

It is very important to remember that Ukraine and Belarus have been the place for such simultaneous dialogue and rivalry for centuries, and they remain so today.


– In a situation like this the role of a mediator looks a lucrative prospect.

– In the 1990s the idea of becoming a bridge was very popular. Everyone was eager to serve as a bridge. Russia wanted to work as a bridge between the West and the East. Ukraine hoped to become a bridge between Europe and Russia. And so did Belarus. At a certain point it became clear, though, that if relations between large partners (or entities) develop well, no bridges are needed. They contact each other in person and do pretty well without go-betweens. Moreover, they find it inconvenient that somebody exists between them, nurturing the ambition to serve as a mediator. It turns out that no bridges are necessary at all.

Moreover, how can someone who has a poor understanding of the other side lay claim to the role of a mediator? Russia has a poor understanding of China and Europe, so how can it serve as an intermediary? Ukraine in its nationalist configuration has a bad understanding of Russia and Europe. What kind of bridge will it make? This space, which some see as a likely bridge, in reality is becoming a scene of rivalry and confrontation. External forces fight for control of this space. And very often, if the bridge-related allegory is to be extended, the force that feels it is losing control of the situation blows up the bridge in full conformity with the ABCs of military tactics.

For this reason, I would be very cautious in using terms such as ‘bridge’ and ‘dialogue.’ In front of us there is a vast field of ideology and rivalry. Regrettably, these days cooperation in our relations with the people who are on the other side of the imaginary border of the Russian World leaves much to be desired. Our relations with Europe, for instance, are very bad. And they will remain bad for quite some time.

Today it is important to remain aware of all this and avoid a tailspin of confrontation. At this point it would be very good to at least remember that we are not enemies. The “friend-or-foe” alternative is false. “Neither-friends-nor-foes” is much better.


– This sounds pretty much like the stratagems China has followed for so long and quite successfully.

– How very true. If we are to achieve a rapprochement with China, this is the skill we should master first.


– Since we are on the subject of China, how can manifestations of Russian irredentism affect such global projects involving Russia and China as One Belt-One Road and others?

– They make a very poor match whenever Russian irredentism becomes aggressive and generates some Molotov-style memos on retaking Bessarabia or northern Kazakhstan. Intentions to develop infrastructures or work on trans-border communication projects within the framework of such a “cloud” initiative as the New Silk Road are in stark contrast to the idea of redrawing borders. If Russian irredentism is understood as a policy of taking territories away from our neighbors, then our hope to assume the role of security provider in Central Asia will look not very well founded.


– But what is the creative potential of Russian irredentism then? Is there anything positive about it at all?

– When Russia says it is prepared to take on the financial and other burdens of providing people who identify themselves with Russian culture with everything that concerns Russian culture, it is all right. Any attempt to move further, though, will entail real problems. Neighbors need to be negotiated with on how to deliver our books and films, and on the mode of operation of our cultural centers. In this context it is clear, for instance, that the whole set of soft power tools that the Russian World had in Ukraine has been eliminated by the ongoing conflict. In other words, for those in Ukraine who saw their main task as achieving this state of affairs, the conflict has been a success.

We should not just declare that the people who belong to Russian culture must have the right to resettle here. We must think about what they will live on. They should be entitled to support from both the Russia government and society. The Russian people must have a chance to spend part of the taxes they pay for these purposes. It is possible (and mandatory) to make use of the Western experience—each individual is given the right to transfer a certain, minor, part of his taxes to the bank account of a certain confessional community, and the latter will be free to decide how to use the funds. In each individual case the percentage may be very small, but, in the aggregate, quite an impressive sum can be raised this way.

Also, each Russian individual must have the opportunity to declare that two percent of the taxes he or she pays should go to the resettlement support fund, which pays for rental housing for repatriates, for instance, for the first three years following resettlement, and for the services of childcare centers, thus allowing the adults go to work. And so on and so forth.


– Our repatriation program is about to be closed down…

– That is very sad news. They are about to abandon a program that should be developed as intensively as possible. The prevailing attitude to potential repatriates is: “Prove that we need you.” But it’s not the duty of repatriates at all. They are to have this right for the simple reason that they are Russian. Not because their fathers and mothers are Russian, but because they are Russian. The repatriate just proves the bonds with our country, demonstrates knowledge of the Russian language at the native or almost native speaker level, and says: “I want to resettle.”

Jews who want to move to Israel do not have to prove they are needed there. They prove that they are Jews. Germans who want to resettle in Germany do not have to prove Germany needs them, they prove that they are Germans. And nobody in Israel says sorry, but there is not enough land here—although it is true that land resources there are scarce. If you take Russia, with its vast expanses and its opportunities, even without mentioning Siberia…


– Even in the heartland of Russia there is an abundance of vacant land. Let them come and breathe new life into rural areas!

– But why should we send people who have lived their entire lives in big cities to live in the country? To places our people seemingly accustomed to rural lifestyles are leaving? What is this? An experiment in survival? That’s idiotic! Our rural population is shrinking. Incidentally, it is shrinking everywhere, while major urban centers continue to grow. Those who come from big cities should feel free to settle in urban areas and look for a job there. If people resettle from rural areas and wish to settle down in the countryside, they must have the opportunity to do so.

The repatriation program must not be pegged to quotas. For example, we lack certain kinds of specialists, so only they will be welcome. It should be different. We invite you here merely because you are Russian. This is reason enough why we are prepared to accept and support you. Immigrants normally yield quick returns to the country that has accommodated them. This is a goal worth working towards. If irredentism in the broadest sense is a desire to rescue members of one’s own people living beyond the national borders, then what I’ve just described should be termed resettlement-based irredentism.

Interviewed by Alexander Solovyov.