Staunton, November 6 – Ukrainians and Russians differ in many ways, Vadim Shtepa says, but perhaps the most important is that Ukrainians “feel themselves masters of their own country” but Russians “do not feel” the same way. Instead, among residents of the Russian Federation, there is a sense that the powers control everything and the people do not.
Shtepa, one of Russia’s leading regionalist commentators, says that the reason for this is simple: “After the disintegration of the USSR, new civic nations arose in 14 of the 15 republics,” in everywhere “from Estonia to Turkmenistan.” And Russians who live in them have become citizens like anyone else if they learn the local language and follow local laws and customs.
But in one of the 15 – the Russian Federation – “a completely different picture” has obtained. “In the mass consciousness of the residents of the RSFSR,” the events of the end of 1991 were conceived “not as a civilized ‘divorce’ of the former union republics but as a case in which all of them were separated from Russia.”
Such a view is quite obviously a reflection of “an imperial worldview,” something Yeltsin did not cure Russians of and something that Putin has sought to promote and exploit. If as the current Kremlin leader says, the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” then reversing it must be the task of the 21st.
For this project, “the RSFSR (now the Russian Federation) has become a new imperial center which in the intention of its directors must again bring under its control all the territories of the former USSR,” Shtepa says.
But what is the source of this? It is not just economics or great power aspirations. Rather, it lies in the Stalinist past that Russia alone has not overcome. That is documented, Shtepa says, by the impressive new book of David Brandenberger, “Stalinist Mass Culture and the Formation of Russian National Consciousness (1931-1956).”
That book shows how much the present ideological mood is the same as the one that Stalin promoted in the 1930s and 1940s, a mood which insisted that “’for Russians there are no bourgeois borders’” and consequently, Russians have no reason to respect those of others or focus on their own domestic concerns instead of seeking imperial conquests.
In that understanding, Shtepa continues, “’Soviet’ and ‘Russian’ are almost synonyms despite the fact that a huge number of Russians were in [Stalin’s] camps.”
Brandenberger cites the words of Stalin on the 800th anniversary of the city of Moscow in 1947 to make his point. At that time, the Soviet dictator said: “The contributions of Moscow consist not only in the fact that over the course of the history of our Motherland, it liberated it three times from foreign oppression … The contribution of Moscow consists above all in that it became the basis of unifying a divided Rus into a single state with a single government and a single leadership.”
According to Stalin, “the historical contribution of Moscow consists in the fact that it was and remains the foundation and initiator of the creation of a centralized state in Rus.”
Shtepa asks his readers rhetorically, “What has changed since Stalin’s times?”
And to reinforce his point, he refers as well to Brandenberger’s discussion of the 1949 Leningrad affair in which a group of party leaders from the Northern Capital proposed among other things to make Leningrad the capital of the RSFSR and thus leave Moscow with the status of the union center.
Stalin’s response, Shtepa points out, “was extremely harsh” even compared to his other actions. The leaders of this group were all shot. As a result, “the RSFSR remained only something virtual – in comparison with other republics” because Stalin “simply showed that the Russian equals the imperial” and that Russians have “no sovereignty.”
This history helps to explain “why in Russia in contrast to other former union republics no new civic nation has taken shape.” Instead, what is present is a remnant of the Soviet people which “was much more interested” in acquiring new territories than in improving their own, “an imperial complex” Stalin personified and that Putin has “reanimated.”
“The current residents of the Russian Federation up to now consider the entire territory of the USSR ‘their own.’ Therefore, ‘Rossiyane’ as a civic nation within its own borders does not exist. There is only the largest remnant of ‘the Soviet people.’”