Staunton, June 9 – Emil Pain, perhaps Russia’s leading specialist on ethnic conflicts, says that “imperial Russian nationalism, directed toward territorial expansion and a harsh authoritarianism domestically, can be the ideology of the powers that be in Russia and only for a not very extended period.”
The only kind of nationalism with a future rooted in the population, he suggests, is one “opposed to the existing authorities on the basis of an anti-imperial and pro-democratic ideology” (E.A. Pain, “Impersky natsionalizm,” Obshchestvennyye nauki i sovremennost’, no. 2 (2015), pp. 53-71, at yadi.sk/i/GTn0tP1jh9qkg).
“The combination of Russian nationalism and imperial consciousness has made possible the formation in Russia of a special phenomenon which can be called ‘imperial nationalism,’” a concept that may strike many as strange given that nationalism is usually seen as “one of the factors which oppose empires and which destroy imperial systems,” Pain says.
But it is explained by the fact that the meaning of and attitude toward nation and nationalism has evolved radically in Russia since the two terms were introduced into Russian discourse at the time of the French Revolution. Initially, it was welcomed by educated Russians as a means toward achieving a more open society and then it was opposed by the state for precisely that reason.
According to Pain, most Russian definitions of nationalism have nonetheless always had three core characteristics: an essentialist perspective concerning the specific features of the Russian people, a commitment to the defense of empire, and a commitment to “the principle of the political dominance of ethnic Russians” over other peoples in the empire.
With the end of the Soviet Union, Russian nationalism split again into two types, Pain says. The first advanced by the national democrats stressed the defense of ethnic Russians, their rights and even potential for democracy; the second pushed by “national patriots” or “national imperialists” that emphasized the defense or even recovery of empire.
This division was deepened by the fact that the national democrats denounced the Soviet Union for its destruction of the peasantry and its failure to defend ethnic Russians while the national imperialists bemoaned the fact that the empire had desolved and were inclined to overlook its shortcomings.
Under Yeltsin, the government tilted toward the former, while under Putin, it has promoted the latter, something that in 2010-2011 led to a fusion of democrats and nationalists in the protest movement of that time and that in 2014 led to the breakdown of that alliance and the celebration of imperial nationalism with the annexation of Crimea.
According to Pain, however, imperial consciousness did not emerge as a force on its own. Indeed, he says, “imperial consciousness grows only if it is consciously activated and reconstructed by political forces interested in doing so and which are able to do so because of conditions such as the people’s tiredness with reform.”
Another point he makes is that “the growth of phobias to the West is con connected in mass consciousness with the rebirth of Soviet aspects in the life of Russia.” Rather, “in Russia first returned Soviet consciousness (at the end of 1990s) and after that the idea of empire in its pre-Soviet edition was rehabilitated.”
Pain also points out that “the reconstructed traditionalism in combination with the relatively stable aspects of geography, economy, and cultural traditions of the country has an influence on the reproduction of ‘the imperial syndrome,’ which to a certain degree now forms the dominant part of political creativity in Russia and which points to the high probability that government policy will take on imperial forms.”
But the Moscow expert concludes that that trend will inevitably be challenged – and he implied defeated -- by “a restoration of the bloc of liberal democrats and national democrats which will begin to act as a political opposition both to the authorities and to the imperial nationalists who support it.”