Nationalism and Geopolitics: A Case for Russia

7 october 2012

Will Russia Follow Turkey’s Lead?

Mikhail Remizov is President of the Institute of National Strategy in Moscow. He has a Ph.D. in Political Science.

Resume: The numerous crises of late modernity – of democratic involvement, the social state, education – erode national unity, as well as diminish the grounds of moral consensus and social solidarity in their denominator. This lays out the historical agenda for a new nationalism. Nationalism in its international dimension takes on the form of rightwing anti-globalism.

One of the major problems facing both analysts and ideologues of nationalism is the paradoxical use of the term. On the one hand, nationalism is an odious and marginal phenomenon, not to mention a synonym for social deviation. A passage from Vladimir Putin’s campaign platform “The 2012-2018 Program” provides a vivid example of this: “We will fight any attempts to use information space for the propaganda of cruelty, nationalism, pornography, drug abuse, smoking, and alcoholism.” Many prime examples of political propaganda pale in the face of this refined logical order.

On the other hand, nationalism is doubtlessly one of the major co-authors of our times and the common sense of modernity. The so-called national principle played a crucial role not only in the redrawing of territorial boundaries in the old imperial world, but also in adjusting borders between social classes. The imposition of civil equality after a number of European revolutions and restorations was propelled by the pathos of national dignity. First the middle class, then masses of people stopped being “the lower classes of society” by virtue of the fact that they became “British,” “German,” or “French.” Jurgen Habermas, who did not sympathize with nationalism, noted that nationalism had turned into an incentive for transition from the status of subjects to the status of nationals. U.S. scholar Liah Greenfeld added that national identity based on culture completed a task that the Enlightenment could not: nationalism put unattached intellectuals and the educated bourgeoisie on par with the upper class in human terms.

In a broad sense, nationalism denotes the very habit of structuring social space into ethnic categories. Anthony Smith calls this “methodological nationalism” and Michael Billing labels it as “banal nationalism.” However, neither the first (discriminatory) nor the second (framework) term suits the purpose of defining the essence of a position.

The first term is unacceptable due to considerations of the genre. It is not appropriate to present world events on a TV program in the manner of reporting a highway accident. Consequently, when the word ‘nationalism’ is placed in the same line with smoking and alcoholism, it stops being a political notion and turns into a mere swearword as a result of figurative word usage.

The second case is somewhat more complicated and makes nationalism a political-polemic notion. In spite of its breadth, this treatment pits nationalism against globalization. Nationalism poses a challenge to the latter, and is challenged by globalization. The latter is also understood in a broad methodological sense. Ulrich Beck describes it as follows: “Globalization stands for a destruction of the unity of the nation state and ethnic society [i.e. the destruction of a major ‘habit’ of methodological nationalism – author’s note]. On the one hand, new correlations of strength and competition arise, and new conflicts and interactions between national/state entities and actors are formed. On the other hand, they embrace transnational actors, identities, social spaces, situations, and processes.”

In other words, this opposition is vital in the context of international relations. However, in the processes described by Beck, “methodological nationalism” stops being purely methodological. It gets lost in the world of cross-border identities, or simply stops being a banal habit and a cognitive framework, and changes into an active, conscious, and normative concept. To be more precise, “methodological nationalism” resumes this status, since it used to be a conscious normative concept at the very beginning when the world’s division into nations was a challenge to the feudal dynastical way of the world, not a banality.

I would summarize this normative concept in two postulations:

1. Understanding the legitimacy of a state/state power through the nation. Nationalism counteracts the dynastical, theocratic, or ideocratic concepts of power at this stage. One might simply call the case in hand democracy. This is true, and yet the case is different from procedural democracy and pertains to the foundation of the latter, which is formed by the modern concept of sovereignty.

A provision of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) stating that “the principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation” implies that sovereign power is based on a certain representative capability, rather than on a projection of transcendental order (“the divine right” of kings) or, if we look ahead a bit, a projection of utopia or a model of the future onto the present (“the victorious teaching” of the Soviet Communist Party’s rulers). This capability embodies the people as an entity and as a political integrity. In order to understand that the case is different from procedural democracy (since elections are simply a representation technology), it is important to remember that a monarch, too, may have a representative capability if his power is interpreted as a function of the people’s sovereignty and if he is viewed as a representational personality. The result is an unconditional departure from the traditional concept of monarchy. Many royal houses have been able to survive due to such a departure, which shows an enviable skillfulness for putting national attire on a feudal institution.

2. Understanding the nation through the idea of a shared heritage rather than through an abstract social contract. Nationalism is opposed to liberalism or, more broadly, the universalism of the Enlightenment, including the kind of thinking that underpins the above declaration. However, this opposition does not necessarily imply antagonism. Quite often it means implicit knowledge; for instance, the common factor of legal institutions arises typically out of a common culture, language, and historical self-consciousness.

A conventional social contract is not concluded among strangers, but among people who share a mutual trust, who are capable of understanding each other, who differentiate between friends and foes, and, consequently, who know something about those with whom they reach agreement. All of these qualities stem from humanity’s shared history, and not from the “very nature of the human race.”

That is why individual rights and public institutions are not the only concepts required to implement “civic status.” Instead, what matters is a common heritage (both material and immaterial) that ensures peoples’ rights and the functioning of relevant public institutions. Nationalism’s inherent understanding of the nature of the state stems from this heritage. The state is viewed as a mechanism for identity policy, whose goal is larger than ensuring individual rights. The state wants to maintain and reproduce a shared heritage handed down from generation to another.

Citizenship is perceived not as formal membership, but as co-involvement in a common cause or destiny. Such camaraderie is impossible if people do not speak      the same language (both in the literal and figurative sense) or share a common belief, both of which are characteristic of national unity.

John Stuart Mill wrote: “among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion necessary to the working of the representative government cannot exist.


Mill is one of a small group of liberal theorists who identified a nationalistic foundation for the contemporary democratic nation state. Scholars often leave out this fact and do not articulate it clearly. This is understandable, since there is good reason to practice certain things without declaring them. But on the other hand, such an attitude is fraught with problems, since the nation falls into the realm of self-referring entities; i.e. that entities reproduce themselves through knowledge about themselves and this knowledge should be adequate to do so. In order to reproduce the basic quality of the contemporary nation state, which is the synergy of political power and cultural homogeneity, one has to articulate it properly; the latter proved impossible at a certain stage in European history when nationalism was taboo. It should be noted that the taboo was not in force for the postwar period, as expected. During that period separate forms of European nationalism celebrated victories over Nazism: the phenomenon of Gaullist France or postwar ethnic cleansing in Central and Eastern Europe provide ample proof of this. Moreover, the age of nationalism was just beginning outside of Europe. Most evident, the taboo on nationalism (as an articulation of the national bias of modern democratic states) emerged in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, as it challenged the conservative foundations of Western civilization and dramatically reshaped its morals.

Habermas offers a theoretical basis for this evolution of the nation state, which is borne out of nationalism. Later, however, he prefers to forget about it and eventually discards it altogether by declaring the nation state’s universality and by practicing cultural neutrality. He claims that a nation state “would have scarcely had enough strength for reaching this new level of public integration at the outset of its development” without a “cultural interpretation of the rights of political participation.” In contrast, upon reaching the mature phase the nation state does not need the dominant culture anymore, since the purely legislative forms of integration exist in abundance.

Still, nations do not imply a completed process. They symbolize the process in progress, which has to be restarted constantly at all levels, as all efforts by society to integrate legislatively and politically are fruitless without a “cultural interpretation of the rights to political involvement.” Incidentally, unlike Habermas, Germany’s Supreme Court apparently understood this well enough when it passed the following ruling in connection with a query regarding the Maastricht Treaty: “A constitutional state requires a definite degree of cultural homogeneity of its citizens.”

With cracks in its foundation, the edifice of modernity has started sinking. The numerous crises of late modernity – of democratic involvement, the social state, education – erode national unity, as well as diminish the grounds of moral consensus and social solidarity in their denominator.

This lays out the historical agenda for a new nationalism.

While “first-wave” nationalism was basically revolutionary as an ideology (it revolutionized society, since it emerged as a new principle for legitimacy of power and, more broadly, for a new principle of social cartography – in the sense that it effectuated the division of social and geographic space into nations), nationalism today appears to be much more of a conservative ideology. It is conservative in the sense that it gives a new lease on life to the old roots and defends fundamentals rather than maintains the status quo.

The mission of nationalism is to articulate the unrecognized, and therefore it risks loosing the root-causes of the “modernity project.” By root-causes we mean national specific foundations of something perceived as universal. The types of interrelations meant here are clear:

  •  Cultural integrity and sovereignty as a foundation for representative democracy;
  •  National solidarity (the ‘horizontal brotherhood’ of nationalism) as the building block of the social state;
  •  National egotism in industrial policy as a foundation for economic wealth;
  •  Standardization of society on the basis of national high culture (assimilation) as the foundation for the contemporary systems of mass education;
  •  The inherited Christian self-identity of European nations as the groundwork for the culture of human rights.

A closer look at this “discourse about the foundations,” which stands on the verge of banality and politically incorrect radicalism, makes one see easily the major change that has occurred in the relationship between nationalism and liberalism as the main facade ideology of the modern era. Whereas in the early stages nationalism went hand in hand with liberalism (since they were united in eliminating feudal structures), nationalism today stands in sharp opposition to liberalism. This is a forced opposition in many ways, since liberalism has, in many respects, turned into the ideology of globalization, which, according to Ulrich Beck, “destroys the integrity of the nation state and society,” and along with them the very substance of modernity.

Thus, globalization should not be viewed as a process of developing communication technologies. Rather, globalization is a project of dual emancipation – from top down and from bottom up. The top-down emancipation is wielded by the elites that have long viewed the nation state as a burden, since it is a system of binding economic, cultural, and political solidarity. Their logic puts an equation mark between the destruction of national barriers and the reduction of costs. The bottom-up emancipation relies on minorities frustrated with the cultural domination of the ethnic or moral majority. When the two processes overlap, the middle class is swept away and there is an extended fragmentation of society.


Faced with these challenges, nationalism loses a good opportunity to play the role of local consciousness. The nation-state project has to ward off challenges at the level where they emerge and globalization is unfolding as a historical process at a global level. Thus, nationalism in its international dimension takes on the form of rightwing anti-globalism.

Yet there is an obvious paradox here; namely, the growing tensions between the national objectives of an implied re-conquering (a nation state regains as much internal integrity and sovereignty as possible) and the apparent insufficiency of the national scale (i.e. the scale of individual nation states) for attaining the objective.

This paradox can be clearly seen in the rhetoric of France’s revamped National Front, the most colorful nationalist force in recent times. One can rightly classify Marine Le Pin’s ideas as rightwing anti-globalism. Her thinking has a broad frame and she taps common denominators for problems that actually have a common nature and appear to be facets of the globalist project (outsourcing, expansion of Chinese businesses, irresponsibility of large multinationals, amassed migration, “ghettoization,” the multicultural reform of general schools, the erosion of the middle class, etc.). But the prescriptions she suggests also reveal contractions. On the one hand, protectionism (migration-related, industrial, and cultural) can prove to be strategically efficacious only on a European scale; on the other hand, it is the very same European integration that becomes the main propaganda target.

This is not a subjective misconception, but a reflection of a genuine dilemma: supranational European Union integration institutions frequently perform the function of promoting the neoliberal project and work as points for globalization’s entry to Europe. But the dismantling of supranational constructs is not a good option either. It is impossible to ward off the destructive impact of globalization at the level of a compact nation state; a larger secure space is needed.

Globalization cannot be stopped, but countries can withdraw from it by uniting into large political and regional blocks. That is why the geopolitics of pan-regions does not pose an alternative to the geopolitics of national interests; it is a projection of the latter. In essence, the importance of a search for appropriate supranational – or rather, inter-national – forms for the solution of national objectives poses the main dilemma for rightwing anti-globalism. There is a need for a new interpretation of inter-nationalism (which should be hyphenated in this case) as a program for the mutual correlation of nationalists in different countries. At a minimum, their projects should not be hostile towards one another. Conversely, they should be compatible in a single geo-cultural, economic, and defense space.

Let me summarize this specificity in several postulations:

1. Russia is extremely typical. Russians love talking about their exclusiveness, but the situation in Russia is quite typical of today’s world, which is characterized by: treachery from elites at the top, selection of external centers of civilization, perception of the country as a place for plunder, outflowing finances and/or the refusal to concentrate them at the national level, exchange of national resources for hypothetical membership in the club of global elites, and/or overblown consumption aspirations (“oil in exchange for pleasure”).

Unfolding at the bottom level is the consolidation of “ethnic classes” (a good term devised by Pavel Krupkin to denote ethnic clans – criminal, commercial, or administrative) against the background of an atomized society and weak federal institutions. This goes hand in hand with large migration from the “impoverished South” (so far without establishing compact ghettoes, but with a tendency towards the formation of a broad multi-ethnic ghetto of the “impoverished South” inside a country, which may engulf everyone who cannot isolate themselves physically and socially from the migrantized/archaized society).

In the midst of the ongoing processes is the erosion and even decline of the middle class, which entails the death of a huge number of people and elements of social organization. I mean the demise of the Soviet-era middle class during the decade of the victorious march to globalization in the 1990s.

A higher standard of living over the past decade has made it possible to talk about the rise of a new middle class. But it is definitely not becoming, nor will it become in the foreseeable future, a dominant social force. First, GDP has increased along with a growth in social inequality. Second, the notion of the ‘middle class’ implies a level of social integration that is not characteristic of income. Integration depends on the quality of social infrastructures – education, healthcare, and legal protection. Meanwhile, the latter are declining, following, unfortunately, global trends (the degradation of generally accessible social structures is one of the indicators of the new social inequality in developed societies).

In other words, Russia is moving down a common global alley, but is well ahead of other countries. Russia has moved ahead because it lacks barriers that cushion the destructive impact of globalization in other countries, where there are mechanisms of representative democracy, a strong civic society, and an effective law and order system. In some countries, traditional institutions and religious norms perform this function. As for developing countries, many problems are eased by the very dynamics of economic growth in addition to a strong national-responsible state power (like in China and Brazil over the past decade).

Russia has a clear shortage of all the aforementioned factors and thus has the dubious honor of being the showcase for society’s globalized dynamics. Russia is once again playing the role of Marx’s “pagan, who is suffering from the sores of Christianity.” In fact, this is a manifestation of a well-known phenomenon – the contradictions of civilized order are most sharply felt in periphery countries. However, that is precisely why the periphery can generate the sharpest responses. I would venture to say that rightwing anti-globalism is not only particularly acute in Russia, but it also has particularly good chances for success.

2. Russia has a resource of self-sufficiency. According to Emmanuel Todd, while the debates on globalization and general dependence are going on, Russia may transform itself into a huge democratic country, one that boasts of a trade surplus and is energy independent. In other words, Todd writes, Russia could embody the Gaullist dream in a world dominated by the U.S. As for the Gaullist dream, Todd probably said more than he wanted to. It implies more than reveries about genuine sovereignty, but rather is a dream about sovereignty in a situation where the planet has turned into an arena for overpowering forces. These forces are playing someone else’s game, which can drag in anyone on someone else’s terms.

De Gaulle sized up U.S.-Soviet bipolarity as this kind of game. Today’s Russia is faced with Chinese-U.S. bipolarity. Given all the differences between these two countries, the situation implies a conflict-prone coexistence of two superpowers (in case of the U.S. and China, we are dealing with a conflict-prone symbiosis, which is fraught with still greater tensions) that sets the tone for the situation in the world and puts it to a test. The current instability in Northern Africa and the Middle East can be considered as the reflection of a tentative conflict of superpowers (through the mediation of third parties) in conditions where a direct military clash between them is impossible. The situation recalls the U.S.-Soviet experience.

A fundamental difference lies in the fact that whereas in the era of previous bipolarity the threat to peace came from reciprocal contradictions of the superpowers, today it also (and perhaps primarily) comes from internal contradictions.

Todd has written extensively about the problems that make the U.S. a dangerous power – a power that is far from insane, but is still compelled to implement “the madman’s strategy.” “The erratic and aggressive strategic path of the solitary superpower, like the precarious stagger of a drunkard, can only be fully explained by exposing unresolved or unresolvable contradictions and the feelings of inadequacy and fear that follow them.”

This is the syndrome of unexpected “uselessness” that befell the U.S. after the end of the Cold War. The new bipolarity does not have an explicit bloc configuration and is mostly visible in the economic rather than military sphere. Given the situation today, the obviously excessive (in terms of interests of its allies and the world in general) infrastructure of the U.S. global military presence can only be camouflaged through the inception and conservation of numerous local conflicts and by conceiving additional axes of evil.

The signs of this excessive infrastructure include a huge foreign debt and foreign trade deficit, and a critical dependence on the outside world in the economic sphere, which is offset by the country’s status as the issuer of “world currency.” The importance of securing this position on non-economic assets (political control over global resources and military superiority) also refers to the strategy of incepting local crises.

These and other similar circumstances turn the U.S. into a superpower that is “eccentric” in every sense of the word; the country is compelled to continuously lose its temper and relieve its inner pressure onto the external world. The same can be said about China, although for different reasons. The challenges that China has to cope with – demographic, social, economic, ecological, and ideological – can be resolved or at least deferred only if it moves along the path of multifaceted global and regional expansion (which Alexander Khramchikhin has described in detail).

This means that both superpowers have to (or will have to) project instability on the outside world so that they will be able to maintain internal stability (by maintaining a high consumption rate in the case of the U.S. and a high growth rate in China’s case). The very construct of the world order in the era of U.S.-Chinese bipolarity generates a crisis.

If this situation is aggravated by natural challenges (climate change, a new “great transmigration of people,” a resource crisis, a new wave of religious wars, painful urbanization, demographic transformations in the Islamic world, etc.), the global world will not look like a place into which Russia should deeply integrate. On the contrary, it is vital that Russia maintains its autonomy from the world in terms of defense, the economy, and values.

Naturally, this does not mean that all the doors should be sealed. But we must have the doors in place and keep the keys to them. In fact, this is the essence of sovereignty.

3. Russia has enough homogeneity. Vladimir Putin once said that real sovereignty is exceptional in today’s world, which is a true statement. There are only a handful of few countries with a large territory, diversified natural resources, a sizeable population, research and technological capabilities, defense potential, and strong traditions of statehood. Russia definitely falls into this category. Unlike many such countries, Russia has an important feature in that it is surprisingly culturally and ethnically homogeneous in spite of its vast territory.

About 85 percent of Russia’s population makes up an ethnic core (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians living in the Russian Federation can still be viewed as a single ethnic entity). The Russian language dominates throughout the country except for relatively compact ethnic enclaves. Ethnic minorities have become ‘Russianized’ to a considerable extent and there are no barriers to mutual understanding (dialectic, social, or cultural) among members of the ethnic core, such as those between the south and the north among the Han Chinese or the Italians.

This runs counter to trite assertions about Russia’s “unique multi-ethnicity.” The only thing that is really unique is the vehement radicalism with which the Bolsheviks translated the ethnic principle into life through the territorial division of the country. The “democrats” in the Yeltsin camp raised it to a new dimension in their system of asymmetrical federalism.

Similar to the “institutional labyrinths” that Russia has been wandering around in throughout the so-called “transition period,” we can now speak about “institutional landmines” planted in the ethnic and territorial division of the country, which obviously restrict my thesis about homogeneity. So long as the land is not cleared of mines (preferably not with the aid of sporadic detonations), one can only tentatively speak of the country’s homogeneousness. Russia’s homogeneousness has several flaws.

Contrary to another official truism claiming that Russia’s power lies in its multi-ethnicity, pegging Russia’s territorial division to the ethnic principle is one of the factors for its strategic vulnerability. In view of the crisis-prone situation that we discussed earlier, not only the potential of self-sufficiency of space, but also the level of its internal consolidation is essential. The strategy of a real sovereignty lies in bringing these largely incompatible imperatives into equilibrium and finding an optimal balance between them.

The strategy for Russia’s sovereignty had to change after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and it shifted towards homogeneousness. After 1991, attempts to present Russia in the form of a multicultural anarchy had the odor of a malignant anachronism. “Why does no one see the absurdity of all of this,” Vadim Tsymbursky wrote back in the 1990s. “Was it not right in front of our eyes that the provinces, which constituted the bridges between Russia and neighboring civilizations, fell away from Russia, thereby exposing Russia’s pre-imperial cultural and geographic core with a definite and absolute prevalence of Russians?”

In other words, apart from being a geopolitical disaster, the disintegration of the Soviet Union was also a geopolitical chance to consolidate Russian territory on a national foundation.

4. Russia was stuck halfway between an empire and a nation state. Following Vadim Tsymbursky’s ideas, Dmitry Furman, who is also an important expert on political theory, mentioned this unaccomplished opportunity: “Russia is a state of ethnic Russians to a much larger degree than the Soviet Union was. Unlike in the Soviet Union, they make up an indisputable majority in the country… But along with this the incumbent authorities do their best to avoid mentioning ‘Russkie’ [i.e. Russians]... Instead they promulgate the term ‘Rossiyane’ [a notion denoting all people with Russian citizenship and who live in Russia], which is devoid of an ethnic essence. The Russian consciousness is again channeled into the imperial pattern in which the supranational nature of the state is compensated for by the assumption that ethnic Russians are the main ethnic group in the empire.”

This compensatory logic is visible in Putin’s article on the problem of nationalities in Russia. On the one hand, he classifies ethnic Russians as a “fastening tissue,” a “core,” and even a “state-forming nationality” “owing to the very fact of Russia’s existence.” On the other hand, he expresses indignation at “the totally dishonest talk about the right of ethnic Russians to self-determination” and “attempts to promote ideas of building an [ethnic] Russian nation state.”

What is this extravagant sophism based on? A nationality is recognized as “state-forming,” i.e. titular “by virtue of fact, not by virtue of right” (although one might think a right should remain a right even when it has materialized in practice).

Behind this attitude is an obvious trivial reluctance to impart legal status to a fact of reality (for instance, to somehow fix it in the constitution). But if one takes a closer look, the formula, “by virtue of fact but not by virtue of right,” accurately reflects the real position of the Russian ethnos in the Russian Federation – it ensures the very existence and stability of the state, but does not determine its target function. In other words, it acts as a donor, not a subject. Thus, Russia’s specific state policy of granting citizenship that ignores the position of ethnic Russians as a divided people, its migration policy that encourages replacement of the population, and its ethnic/territorial division in which the state-forming status of ethnic minorities is combined with the denial of any status for the ethnic majority. In essence, this is the factor that does not enable ethnic Russians to regard the country they live in as their own national home.

In his article called “Russia: the Nationalities Problem” Putin is certainly right in saying that the willingness to build a nation state “contradicts Russia’s millennium-old history.” However, the author forgets that this refers to all countries equally: at the very beginning, as a “national alternative” idea starts budding in the depths of dynastic states and stratified agrarian societies, such aspirations really contradict history. In some places, dynasties haphazardly raise the idea themselves (like the Bourbons who fostered nationalism in the French Revolution). In other places the winds of history blow it in from abroad, as was the case with the Napoleonic wars, which fueled nationalism across the European continent and infected the Germans and Russians. It is not accidental that the Decembrists movement, which originated in the wake of the Patriotic War of 1812, heralded a “national” turn in Russian history.

This gives us grounds for recalling that the principle of national state rule moved to the political agenda in Russia at much the same time as in Europe. However, it was never implemented in full due to various factors. That is why, in contrast to other European nations, Russian nationalism today cannot confine itself to a conservative agenda. It is concerned not only with things that have come into being and are eroding (this approach is relevant for national culture), but also about things that are yet to emerge (the nation state).

Let us quote Dmitry Furman once again: “Russia is going through processes in the 21st century that other countries went through in the 19th and the early 20th centuries,” he writes. “It is forced to build structures that have not only been built in other places, but are already being rebuilt.” Considering this active rebuilding (the crisis of nation state projects on a global scale), Russian nationalism is in a really knotty situation. It has to wage a war on two fronts in order to counteract the rising “empire” of the global world order (like Antonio Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s Empire) and to rebuff the phantom of its own past empire.

It is important to understand that the case in hand is a ghost. The antinomy of the national idea (as a national principle of the legitimacy of state power, which we mentioned earlier) and the imperial idea (the legitimization of state power through a global mission with account of the scope and heterogeneity of space) has for a long time predetermined Russian historical consciousness and has been irresolvable. Importantly, this antinomy is presented not only as a subject of debate for the class-based conservatism defending an empire and Russian proto-nationalism, but also as an internal dilemma of Russian proto-nationalism. Quite characteristic in this case were polemics among the Decembrists concerning a possible separation of the Polish Kingdom as an ethnically foreign province since it could not be assimilated. Or take the polemics that another proponent of the national alternative, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, held with the descendants of Russian émigrés, who were generally his allies. They proved unable to overcome the dogmas of “the united and indivisible motherland,” ignoring the logic of the political moment.

History resolved this dilemma. The proponents of a united Eurasia said then that it was not they, but life itself, that selected their concept, thereby depriving ethnic Russians of the status as “the only masters of state territory” (meaning the country’s revolutionary disintegration and its subsequent reassembly in the Soviet empire format). Thus, today one can state it is not Russian nationalists, but Russia itself that has made the opposite choice.

First of all, Russia does not have the resources to legitimatize imperial/supranational power. It can neither rely on the dynastic principle of legitimacy nor on the ideocratic one. The simple reason is the absence of appropriate ideas. Even if we close our eyes to the excesses of the ideocratic model and the scale of political violence related to its imposition, we have to admit we simply do not have at our disposal an “omnivictorious teaching” [like communism – Ed.] capable of gathering the necessary energies and building a state on supranational principles.

Secondly, Russia has lost all its vast periphery territories with non-Russian ethnic groups that would outweigh the ethnic Russian core. Geopolitically, Russia has moved too far away from both Europe and Asia to become fascinated with the “Eurasia project.” The shell of the empire has cracked, but, to quote Tsymbursky again, the “pre-imperial cultural/geographic core with sound and absolute domination of ethnic Russians” has remained.

These two circumstances essentially change the correlation between the “imperial” and “national” projects in Russian history. Whereas previously, Russian nationalism was sort of a back-up project for Russia and ethnic Russians, which would occasionally surface, but could not challenge the imperial mainstream, today Russia has no imperial project that could be an alternative to the national project; it only has imperial phantom aches.

The national project may win “a technical victory” in a grand historical duel due to the opposite party’s failure to turn up for the fight. But in order to win, it must come out in time and in appropriate historical shape.

Although Russia is going through an acute phase of the disease called ‘globalization,’ it has everything that is necessary to make a complete recovery:

  •  the potential for self-sufficiency in a multi-crisis world (the size of its territory, the nomenclature of resources, the quantity and quality of the population, the accumulated results of research and technological development, defense resources, etc.);
  •  the potential for ethno-cultural homogeneity/internal consolidation (at a level rare for a large state);
  •  a favorable global market situation (even U.S.-Chinese bipolarity is good news in some sense if one considers the fact that both superpowers and the countries anxiously watching their struggle are interested in Russia, yet are not particularly involved in its affairs).

Russia has everything except one thing – a backbone, the mechanism that would convert the circumstances into interests, and challenges into responses. It is traditionally believed that this mechanism is Toynbee’s “creative minority,” or the elite whose absence we often complain about. But the absence of an adequate elite does not mean the absence of proper people, but rather it means the absence of a good assembly shop. In our case, it is predetermined by an intermediary position between the “already not an empire” and “not yet a nation state.”

Russia does not have an “imperial” elite bonded by the discipline of a large supranational project. Nor does it have a “national” elite that can be united through the discipline of loyalty towards the vital interests of its own people. At best, Russia has a rather narrow ruling class that has developed an awareness of a need “to maintain the state within its current borders” (and this is the most capacious and the clearest formulation of the historical task, which Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview when he was chief of the presidential staff) so that it could retain its own elitist status. But what for? To maintain the status quo? To adhere to the Helsinki principles? One might have much the same success in building a state on Leonid Brezhnev’s grave.


It is probably only at this point that I can look back at this article’s title. The relationship between “Russian nationalism” and “Russian geopolitics” is obviously strained. On the side of nationalism, there is frustration over “the curse of great space” as an obstacle to gaining a national home. Solzhenitsyn was the most prominent figure to express this feeling. “I can see with much anxiety that the awakening Russian national consciousness cannot relieve itself of a mode of thinking that links statehood to space, of great-power stupefaction,” he wrote in 1990. “What we must crave is not the vastness of our homeland, but, rather, the clarity of spirit in what is left of it,” he added further.

On the other side (if you take “geopolitical consciousness”), one can hear rebukes for “destruction of the country” and warnings that the Russian ethnos itself may perish in the ruins. To avoid an unnecessary search, let us quote once again an author mentioned above: “The attempts to preach the ideas of a Russian nation state […] pave the shortest way possible to the destruction of the Russian ethnos.” (Vladimir Putin, “Russia: the Nationalities Problem”)

These are the two opposite poles and two irreconcilable credos. It would seem that there could be no bridges between them. Yet we should and can build bridges – not along the principle of a compromise or “average options,” but rather along the principle of deepening or even radicalizing both positions.

A radical understanding by nationalism of its historical agenda – one of challenges and responses – means genuine sovereignty (in terms of power, economy, and values with regard to the globalized world) is needed to implement the agenda. Sovereignty, in turn, is possible only in an appropriately large geopolitical and geo-economic space. This conclusion is embodied in a complex of ideas that I propose calling “rightwing anti-globalism.”

A radical understanding by the imperial mindset of the historical conditions in which the centuries-old Russian imperial project has found itself prompts a conclusion that reminds us of a statement made by radical monarchist Donoso Cortes at the height of the century of revolutions:  “There can be no monarch now other than through the people’s will.” In a similar vein, there can be no “Russian empire” other than one built on the foundation of a Russian nation state.

Earlier in this article I focused mostly on the first conclusion (the agenda of “rightwing anti-globalism”), mainly because I think justification of “Russian geopolitics” in the eyes of “Russian nationalism” is a more relevant task today than the opposite. Nonetheless, it would make sense in my conclusion to say at least a few words about the justification of “Russian nationalism” from the positions of “Russian geopolitics.”

We can assume that the imperative of such geopolitics is to recreate the previous imperial territory in the form of a predominant sphere of influence (and I think there are grounds for such an assumption). Thus, we can draw more convincing lessons not from the EU integration experience, but rather from the long path that post-imperial Turkey travelled.

First, the Turks expelled the ghosts of “imperial grandeur” with a resolve to carve a hard ethnic core out of the doomed imperial ecumene. Also, they redefined the state unconditionally as a national territory of the titular ethnic group. The resulting core was big enough, since the Turks were a large ethnic group and the idea of having a national home instilled in them the strength to fight.

Second, the rise of the nation state was characterized by an increase in internal homogeneousness (assimilation) and a buildup of external gravitation. As a result, the young predator revolves in the orbit of allying with the West, while at the same time preying on its own (in the manner of soft, but persistent, pan-Turkism).

Finally, “Turkey for the Turks,” a strong nation that eliminated acute internal problems, spread its wings – one towards the Arab world and the other towards Europe with its Islamic ethnic enclaves. Slowly, but gradually, Turkey has transformed into the number one Islamic power capable of combining its influence in the Arab world, and partly in Europe, using more traditional geopolitical means. Turkey continues to utilize the advantages of an alliance with the West, but from the position of a strong state.

In other words, we can see a reincarnation of the Ottoman Empire, albeit in a much healthier body this time. A dialectical prerequisite for this birth was the unconditional resolve to break out of the imperial shell in order to build a national home. This is notwithstanding a strong (no smaller compared to post-Soviet Russia) temptation to hold onto the phantom territory of “the empire that we lost.” Vadim Tsymbursky states that Ottoman ideology promulgated “the fraternity of peoples of the Ottoman Porte on the grounds of destiny and territory” with as much enthusiasm as the adepts of Eurasian theories.

Imagine Turkey spending its post-imperial decades with its face turned towards the past. What would the country be like today? At the very best, it would be the butt of all kinds of jokes and a victim of the cynical exploitation of sentiments for young “brotherly nations” that had hatched out of the Ottoman cocoon.

History took a different course. In Turkey’s case, an easy parting with the past held the promise of a bright future. “The sick man of Europe” received good medical treatment. One might wonder what the future has in store for the “sick man of Eurasia.” Is he ready to learn from the success achieved by others or will he stick by the old habit of teaching his own mistakes to others?

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