Staunton, April 22 – Vladimir Putin’s “Russian world” project of “empire instead of a nation state and dictatorship instead of democracy” is far more popular his country than calls for the development of a civic nation, Mariya Snegova says, but it will end, as all other such projects in Russian history have, with “a catastrophe” for the Russians themselves.
In Vedomosti yesterday, Snegova, a political scientist at Columbia University, says that Russian reaction to Crimea shows that “a significant part of society supports the imperial aspirations of the Russian elite” because such aspirations correspond to the Russian search for national identity.
Indeed, citing the work of Bruce Kapferer (Legends of People, Myths of State, Washington, 1988), she insists that what Putin has done is less to brainwash or otherwise manipulate the Russians than to “formulate, verbalize and structure” what many of them already sense or feel.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians found themselves in an “ideological vacuum,” one that meant that they “couldn’t find an answer to the question ‘who are we?’” Snegova says, and thus could not address the problem of how to deal with an empire that had not completely fallen apart and a democratic system that had not been institutionalized.
As many have pointed out, “Russia was always an empire rather than a nation state built on the foundation of popular sovereignty with a metropolitan center which united around itself conquered peoples.” The non-Russians in this situation could base themselves in democratic values, but the Russians could not, lest they lose even more of the imperial patrimony.
Russian rulers have understood this very well. Aleksandr II, the reformist tsar, said that “if he were to give Russia a constitution, it would fall apart; therefore,” he said, he “would not give it one.” Soviet leaders were the same. And many Russians to this day continue to believe that their primary task is holding on to the “’fraternal peoples.’”
But that has enormous consequences, Snegova says, because “the imperial orientation has been indivisibly connected with an authoritarian system of governance.” In short, Russians have been confronted with the choice of empire or democracy, and they have repeatedly chosen empire even though it makes the achievement of democracy difficult if not impossible.
This situation has been complicated and exacerbated by another Soviet arrangement that was not overcome in 1991. In Soviet times, the Russian analyst notes, the Russians were not “a titular nationality” like all the other union republic nations. That is, they were never recognized as a nation that had a particular territory.
That led many Russians to feel that they have been discriminated against, even though that arrangement gave Russians a predominant even overwhelming position in all-union institutions and was the only way that the USSR could have been kept from falling apart except at such high levels of coercion that no economic development would have been possible.
The Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin “did not become either a national (Russian) state or an empire holding the ‘fraternal peoples’ with an iron fist in a single state,” Snegova says. And she argues that the 1994 Chechen war only underscored “the unresolved contradictions between democracy and empire.”
In its search for a compromise or way out, the Yeltsin regime pushed the idea of non-ethnic Russians, “Rossiyane,” but that term and the policies it reflected did not address two serious problems: any democracy “stimulated separatist tendencies in the super-national federation,” and “the restoration of authoritarianism was a much more consistent” response.
And these pressures, Snegova continues, were further exacerbated by the influx of migrants from Central Asia and the growing number of calls of “Russia for the Russians” among the ethnic majority in the Russian Federation.
Aleksey Navalny suggested a way out by urging a combination of democracy and civic nationalism, but that combination did not resonate with many Russians. And consequently, the analyst says, “by the beginning of 2014, the Kremlin which was carefully listening to the attitudes of Russians formulated its competing project of the ‘Russian world.’”
That project, “the archaic response of Putin” to Navalny’s ideas, explicitly favored “the empire instead of the nation state and dictatorship instead of democracy.” Beyond doubt, Snegova says, “for the majority of Russians, the Putin project was undoubtedly more attractive than that of ‘a civic nation.’”
On the one hand, Russian liberals were generally unwilling to be as nationalist as Navalny was. And on the other – and this is much more important, the Russian analyst says, the long tradition of “Russian imperial nationalism” ties together “the special role of the titular Russian nation with an imperial one.”
“The ‘Russian world’ project appeals to the post-imperial syndrome of Russians” and is based on the idea of the shared cultures of the various indigenous peoples of the country, but “at the same time,” it “integrates in itself the idea of ‘Russia for the Russians’ and provides an answer” to the longstanding desire of Russians to be a titular nation.
This idea is thus certain to enjoy widespread support for a time, Snegova says, but like its various precedents from Russian history, this latest attempt at combining several ideas “will inevitably end in a catastrophe for [Russians],” one, although she does not say so, of authoritarian decay or territorial disintegration.