Staunton, November 27 – Promoting a common civic identity in place of separate ethnic ones has been an idee fixe of Russian liberals and Western countries since 1991, but a civic identity in and of itself may in fact be harmful if it takes the form Vladimir Putin has given it, one based on aggression and xenophobia, Aleksey Shiropayev says.
In a speech to the All-Russian Civic Forum on Sunday that has now been posted online, the Russian political activist says that it may seem strange to be talking about “any civic nation” now when Putin is backed by 90 percent of the population, but “the civic nation” he has created is based on xenophobia and aggression (rufabula.com/articles/2015/11/27/civic-nation-in-russia).
That is Putin has found a way to give ethnic Russians and Chechens something in common – the right to hate others and fight against them, and that should serve as a warning that “a ‘civic nation’” must not become “a fetish or a goal in itself” because it may arise on “a not very good basis” as was the case of the Soviet people.
Indeed, if Putin succeeds in his project, something which Shiropayev clearly thinks is unlikely or even impossible, there could arise again “a certain historical community” which because of its values would be as bad as or even worse than the Soviet people that the CPSU promoted and trumpeted.
A civic nation, the political activist and commentator begins, is “a non-ethnic formation, but Russia is a conglomerate of ethnoses,” which unlike in Western countries have their own nation state formations. But more than that, “a civic nation presupposes the presence not only of a common territory but of common values and meanings.”
“We know that the USSR, which consisted of national republics, attempted to create something like a civic nation.” That was the Soviet people. “And we know,” Shiropayev continues, “how that ended despite the fact that the USSR had super-national values and meanings.”
What “unifying values” does Russia today have? Not very many. It lacks the imperial tradition of tsarist Russia, it lacks Soviet meanings, and it lacks a common religion given that 20 percent of the population is Muslim rather than Orthodox Christian.”
“Chauvinism and hatred of Ukraine and the West are not really a foundation on which could be constructed a normal, healthy civic nation,” Shiropayev says. Instead, on that basis, one could only “awake an aggressive-imperial monster” and tragically that is exactly “what we see today.”
He argues that “a normal, healthy civic nation could be formed only on the basis of the idea of Russia as a secular democratic federation. Only such a Russia could become a Russia for all: ethnic Russians and non-Russians, believers and non-believers. Those are the bases and preconditions for the appearance of a Russian civic nation.”
But to say that is already to raise serious questions. How can one speak of a community of values and meanings embracing Central Russia and the North Caucasus or between Moscow which celebrates the sacking of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible and Tatarstan which views this as the beginning of an occupation “and even as an act of genocide”?
“Is it possible for a Russian civic nation to be built on that basis? Hardly. It will not be built and the term ‘Rossiyanin’ isn’t proving viable. There is no such self-identification: it is imposed from above but doesn’t have a root system. A [non-ethnic Russian nation is not an historical whole.”
Before trying to build “a non-ethnic Russian civic nation,” the residents of the Russian Federation should try to find agreement on values and meanings and define the direction of their civilization. But that has not happened, and there are divisions everywhere between what Moscow says and what the various regions and nations want.
Because that is the case, Shiropayev argues, “the idea of a civic nation in Russia is not real. More than that, it could be a harmful formula. In current conditions it is capable of becoming a weapon for the authorities to manipulate the population toward imperial unity” and not a free society.
What is needed, he says, is an All-Russian Constituent Assembly which could create a situation in which there would be a genuine federation, possibly including “new subjects” as well, among which might be some for ethnic Russians. That could become the basis for “the formation of a community of civic nations,” but for the moment this is only a hypothetical.
What is critical to remember, Shiropayev suggests, is that since 1917 and especially since 1991, Russia has been undergoing “the agony of empire,” and consequently, it is “much more correct to raise the question not about a non-ethnic civic nation but about the forms of exit into a post-imperial history.”
And that means the following: “the question should be put not about some all-Russian civic nation but about the establishment of civic nations on a regional basis” for the very simple reason that “a civic nation of Central Russia is not a utopia, but an all-Russian civic nation is” or at least is so dangerous that it must be avoided in its current form.