TWILIGHT OF THE LIBERAL EMPIRE

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Russian nationalism and the vision of imperial destiny

The current development of ethnic processes in Russia includes a very important trend: an increasingly evident determination among the masses to seek consolation for their identity problems in ethnic dominance. And proponents of Russian imperialist projects take advantage of this trend.


One of the most popular viewpoints expressed in current ideological disputes is that Russia is destined to be an empire. The assumption is that the “primordial essence” of particular civilizations makes it impossible for peoples to choose their own political path; the nature of their state order is predetermined. According to this theory, Russians (and, more broadly, Eurasians or Euro-Asians) cannot have anything other than an empire; while representatives of something known as “Euro-American civilization” are only permitted (by some sort of higher power) to build republican regimes. Marlene Lerua has described this kind of doctrine as “civilizational nationalism.”

Following the break-up of the USSR, the rise of ethnic self-awareness among Russians didn’t develop until the late 1990s, later than among Russia’s other ethnic communities. But now this process is happening extremely rapidly. Moreover, the ethnic majority is displaying a higher level of ethnic concern than minorities are. Opinion polls done since 2000 show that almost twice as many ethnic Russian respondents, as opposed to respondents from other ethnic groups, say they feel threatened in some way by other peoples living in Russia. This is astonishing – since as a rule, ethnic majorities feel less concern and apprehension than minorities about interethnic relaitions.

The war in Chechnya raised the ethnophobia level rapidly. The state’s policy of simulating stability facilitated even stronger and more widespread xenophobic stereotypes. And Russia may face another upswing of xenophobia in the near future (this is my prediction, although I hope it is mistaken).

Research done by the Sociology Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences, indicates that a drug administered to the citizenry in large doses, to maintain relative stability, had lost its effectiveness by 2004-05. This drug entailed comparing the current situation to the Yeltsin era. These days, self-identification for the overwhelming majority of Russian citizens is not based on comparing themselves in the past with themselves in the present; instead, they compare themselves to others who are further ahead on the social and property-owning ladder. The gaps are huge, and growing. And the influx of petrodollars only serves to strengthen social polarization.

More importantly, the social elevators that provided vertical mobility are rusting rapidly. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to rise to the top of the social and property-owning ladder, but increasingly easy to slide down. Efforts to diversify the economy are making weak progress, and the Russian economy is limited in its capacities to provide new employment niches to meet growing demands. Morover, social connections are becoming the most important source of material prosperity and social advancement in Russia; but the overwhelming majority of citizens have no access to those all-important connections. One way or another, the level of discontent among ordinary citizens is rising – and in today’s circumstances, this dissatisfaction often takes on ethnic overtones. Spurious explanations for problems are widespread and popular: prestigious jobs are unavailable because “aliens” have taken them; new housing is unaffordable because “aliens” are driving up prices; the crime rate is rising because “aliens” have brought crime to Russia. And so on, and so forth.

The current development of ethnic processes in Russia includes a very important trend: an increasingly evident determination among the masses to seek consolation for their identity problems in ethnic dominance. And proponents of Russian imperialist projects take advantage of this trend.

These imperial projects take two forms, but the central element of both constructs is the same idea: a hierarchy of ethnic groups, and the allegedly dominant role of ethnic Russians within this hierarchy. In the project based on “civilizational nationalism” this hierarchy focuses on religious distinctions; in the ethno-nationalist project it is based on the ethno-genealogical principle (that is, on blood). And the two projects are clearly starting to merge.

There isn’t really much difference between civilizational nationalism and ethnic nationalism. These days, the civilizational form of nationalism is merely a fast-dissolving coating that makes the pill of ethnic nationalism easier to swallow (since some people still find it a bitter pill). In the state-controlled media, it’s not the done thing to talk of ethnic superiority. Although ethno-nationalist theory is disseminated in numerous publications, with large circulation figures, it still isn’t quite legitimate. In contrast, everyone finds it easy to talk of Russia’s exceptional civilization. Everyone praises it: from senior clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church to Moscow bee-keepers, and from the Kremlin’s chief ideologue to the local veterinarian.

In terms of civilizational nationalism, the federal authorities are already nationalist. They’re already using the standard methods of this ideological stream of thought: reviving a “mobilization society” – consolidation based on a glorified military past, consolidation driven by fear, consolidation by force. But this policy is suicidal for Russia’s present-day authorities. They are suffering from the typical affliction of personalized regimes: presumption. Many of the Kremlin’s ideologues assume that since it was possible to construct managed democracy, managed nationalism should be possible as well. They are deeply mistaken. Nationalism has an entirely different nature; it relies on an unmanageable mythologized consciousness and demands ongoing emotional stimulation. It isn’t hard to incite, but it’s very hard to direct for the purpose of keeping the regime in power. In fact, the regime is already starting to lose control of its nationalism.

The authorities introduced a new national holiday (November 4) with the aim of using the past to consolidate the people, but now the authorities themselves are afraid of November 4 – calling in police reinforcements to disperse nationalist demonstrations.

The authorities are trying to consolidate the people by using an image of the enemy, but many nationalist leaflets are portraying the authorities as the enemy. They tell people that all their problems are due to the anti-national government, dominated by individuals with non-Russian surnames.

In anticipation of some “managed nationalism,” the Kremlin created the moderate-nationalist Motherland (Rodina) party; but the party soon moved beyond moderate nationalism. The Kremlin managed to deal with Motherland by replacing its leaders – but what is to be done with its voters? They could be transformed from an electorate into a mob intent on pogroms.

The Kremlin is very much afraid of such a mob. It’s all very well to use force in suppressing nationalists and fundamentalists far away in the Nroth Caucasus, but these methods cannot be used against ethnic Russians – now officially described as the “native” population. So the authorities have found themselves trailing in the wake of spontaneous xenophobia. After the pogrom in the town of Kondopoga, which was lauded even in the pro-presidential newspapers as a display of the rising Russian spirit, there was official talk of the need to “ensure advantages for the native population” and introducing percentage quotas for foreigners living in Russia (the word “foreigners” is easily replaced by “outsiders”).

The authorities are drifting in the direction of imperial nationalism.

In terms of this drift, Russia doesn’t seem like a “unique civilization” at all: instead, it bears a striking resemblance to Germany in the late 1920s. The step-by-step introduction of Nazi ideas in Russia cannot be ruled out. But it should be remembered that it did not lead to victory for the political chess-players who chose to play that kind of game. The end-game would certainly be the same in Russia. The gulf between imperialist policiies and Russia’s actual demands would become all too obvious, and a national-imperialist regime couldn’t last long. After all, even Hitler only remained in power for 12 years (three presidential terms, by our standards), and his Lebensraum expansion project lasted less than six years. And when Germany launched its expansion, it bore no resemblance to the ethnoterritorial matryoshka doll that is Russia today.

Empires can resist nationalism from minorities on the peripheries or in colonies, but they are powerless and collapse quickly in the face of nationalism from the majority. Back in the early 20th Century, defenders of the Empire incited an upswing of Russian nationalism, supported by the authorities; once it took the form of organized political forces, it spelled the beginning of the end for the Russian Empire. The paradox of imperial nationalism is that it is constructed to save the empire, but actually becomes the main weapon in the empire’s destruction. If the current upswing of Russian nationalism brings it to power in some form, it will prove impossible to maintain Russia’s territorial integrity. And this is yet another indication of the insurmountable fragility of an imperial or quasi-imperial system. In every respect, it is a giant with feet of clay.

Unfortunately, the threat of Russia turning fascist is entirely real – but this scenario is not inevitable. Russia does have a choice.

My greatest hope is the growth of civil society. It is developing in Russia just as it has developed in many other countries ruled for decades by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Community self-defense groups are the first to arise (cheated home-buyers, shareholders, and so on). Then they are transformed into a broad “national salvation” network – and they use the term “national” in the civil sense, not the ethnic sense. The threat of Russia turning fascist can accelerate this process.

Neither should we disregard the possibility of a change within the authorities themselves, taking them in an entirely different direction. I’m talking about a stronger and more active role for the forces which are presently confined to serving as the regime’s decorative liberal facade. The ruling elite’s pragmatic self-preservation instincts are undeniably strong – and most of the ruling elite does not stand to benefit from a fascist Russia. These people aren’t aware of the real threat of fascism as yet, but they’ll realize it very soon.

No higher power or external force can guarantee Russia a long life, let alone stable development. That guarantee can only be provided by the people – if they take control of their state and turn it into a means of serving society’s (in that sense, national) interests.

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