Posts Tagged ‘Russian Nationalism’

What is Russian exceptionalism?

April 6, 2022

LOST KINGDOM: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation from 1470 to the Present by Serhii Plokhy (2017)

Serhii Plokhy is professor of Ukrainian history and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.  His book,  Lost Kingdom, is about Russian exceptionalism—that is, Russia’s historic claim to lead and rule the eastern Slavic peoples and the pushback from Ukrainians and Belarusians.  

Kievan Rus’

It is an important and complicated story—full of ironies, zigzags and contradictions, and historical turning points that could have turned out differently from what they did.  It provides interesting background to the current war in Ukraine, although I do not think it is the final word on that topic.

Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all trace their origins to the culture Kievan Rus’ and the conversion of Prince Vladimir of Kiev to Christianity in 987.  The Kievan Rus’ lands stretched from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Finland and were regarded as a unity.  But most of them were overrun by the Mongol-Tatar Golden Horde in 1237-1239.  

The book’s story begins when Prince Ivan III of Muscovy, a vassal of the Golden Horde, married Sophia Palaiologos, a princess of the Byzantine Empire, which  had fallen to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.  

Ivan claimed his marriage made Muscovy “the Third Rome,” the successor of the Byzantine and Roman empires.  This was bold talk for the ruler of a relatively small principality.   

Europe in 1470.

Muscovy expanded, step by step, although with a lot of back and forth struggle.  Its rulers adopted the title of Tsar, which is Russian for Caesar.  Muscovy conquered the independent Republic of Novgorod and warred against Tartars, Ottomans and the great and powerful Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  

On the vast Eurasian plain, there were few obstacles to conquest, but also few barriers against invasion.  A Polish army occupied Moscow in 1610-1612 and a Swedish army occupied Ukraine in 1706.   Later on a French army reached Moscow in 1812, and German armies occupied Ukraine in 1918 and 1941.  It’s easy to understand why questions of allegiance and national unity were life-and-death issue.

Plokhy wrote that from earliest days, there was a recognized difference between the Great Russians, Little Russians (Ukrainians) and White Russians (Belarusians).  I recall that the Tsars claimed to be rulers of “all the Russias”—implying that there was more than one.

One turning point was the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796).  She was of German origin, and came to the throne after the murder of his husband, so her legitimacy was questionable.  Although she toyed with the ideas of the European Enlightenment, she doubled down on promoting Great Russian national identity and Eastern Orthodox religion.  

She joined the rulers of Austria and Prussia in partitioning Russia’s old enemy, Poland.  Russia got more than half of Poland, including its capital, Warsaw.  

In the ensuring years, the Polish nobility, remembering their former power and greatness, resisted Russian rule as best they could, while the Russian government tried to Russianize the Poles.

The Russian government began to look on Ukrainian language and culture in a new way, as a possible source of Polish-like nationalism.  This wasn’t altogether wrong.  

As with other subjugated and divided peoples in 19th century Europe, Ukrainian intellectuals began to study their cultural and national roots and think about independence and unification.    Academic studies of linguistics and ethnography in one generation became nationalistic intellectual weapons in later decades.  I think this was the real origin of Ukrainian and Belarusian nationalism.


The passing scene – August 24, 2015

August 24, 2015

White supremacist gathering underscores Russia’s nationalist trend by Masur Mirovalev for the Los Angeles Times.  Hat tip to Oidin.

Racism, xenophobia and extreme nationalism are on the rise among ethnic Russians, who are 81 percent of the population of the Russian Federation.  The victims are Russia’s ethnic minorities, such as the Tatars, and its immigrants, who are mainly from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Vladimir Putin has cracked down on hate killings while trying to harness Russian nationalism to support his struggle with NATO nations over Ukraine.  He aligns himself with the Russian Orthodox Church, Cossack paramilitaries and the extreme right-wing parties.

Putin Cracks Down on Christians in Crimea by Geraldine Fagan for Newsweek.

Russian authorities in Crimea are building up the Russian Orthodox Church while persecuting Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Eastern Rite Catholics.

A suspiciously “European” solution by Tom Sullivan for Hullabaloo.

The French National Front and Donald Trump by Paul Gottfried for the Unz Review.

Anti-foreign and anti-immigrant sentiment are on the rise throughout Europe as well as the USA.


What if Russia breaks up?

August 7, 2015


The Economist had an article speculating on the possibility of the breakup of the Russian Federation.  This doesn’t seem likely to me, but I’m no expert.

The old Soviet Union was a multi-national empire which was united, in theory, by Communist ideology which, in theory, treated all persons and all cultures equally.

The present-day Russian Federation is united mainly by Russian nationalism, based on the Russian language and Russian Orthodox Church.

This may solidify the loyalty of Russians, who are the federation’s largest ethnic group, but not necessarily Chechens, Tatars and other non-Russian peoples, who are treated as second-class citizens by Russian-speakers.

The Russian government had to fight a bloody war to keep Chechnya from seceding and the potential exists for other conflicts.

Many of the non-Russian nationalities have higher birth rates than the Russians.

What would happen if Russia did break up?  The United States, China and maybe Germany, Turkey, Iran and Japan would probably try to draw the fragments into their sphere of influence—a possible source of conflict and war.

The worst case would be if Russia descended into chaos and anarchy, and some rogue government or movement got control of Russian nuclear missiles.

I don’t think The Economist is seriously predicting this.  But who knows what might happen?


What if Russia breaks up? The peril beyond Putin by The Economist.


Putin: a would-be Tsar of all the Russians?

May 5, 2015

russians_ethnic_94Source: University of Texas Libraries.

Back when the Ukraine crisis first broke out, I speculated that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal was to reconstitute the old Soviet Union, first by luring the former Soviet Republics into an economic “Eurasian Union” common market, and then to transform the economic union into a political union.

I then began to think, as I still think, that Putin’s policy was more a response to an external threat posed by Ukraine joining NATO and the Russian naval base at Crimea becoming a NATO base.

But there is a third possibility, and that is that Putin is trying to bring all the ethnic Russians back into the Russian Empire.  This would include not only the Russians in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, but in northern Kazakhstan.

The great Russian novelist Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote a tract in 1990 in which he advocated a union of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, with northern Kazakhstan included in Russia, and independence for all the other Soviet republics and satellite states.

Maybe President Putin is thinking along these lines, and maybe he isn’t.  I have no power to read his mind.  But recent reports say that Kazakhstan’s leaders are worried about Russia’s ambitions and their Russian minorities.

Just as in Ukraine, there are reports of increasing Russian discontent and also increasing anti-Russian feeling.   It is easy to imagine Putin stepping in, as he did in Ukraine, to protect his fellow Russians.

The Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia, among others, have large Russian minorities, and, as members of NATO, they are entitled to call upon the United States to defend them if attacked.


The Russian response to Western sanctions

February 17, 2015


The Vineyard of the Saker is a pro-Russian, pro-Putin web log written and edited by a descendent of a Russian emigre family living in the United States.  This is the Saker’s perception of Russian public opinion, based on watching Russian broadcasts and reading Russian publications on the Internet.

  • First, nobody in Russia believes that the sanctions will be lifted.  Nobody.  Of course, all the Russian politicians say that sanctions are wrong and not conducive to progress, but these are statements for external consumption.  In interviews for the Russian media or on talk shows, there is a consensus that sanctions will never be lifted no matter what Russia does.
  • Second, nobody in Russia believes that sanctions are a reaction to Crimea or to the Russian involvement in the Donbass.  Nobody.  There is a consensus that the Russian policy towards Crimea and the Donbass are not a cause, but a pretext for the sanctions.  The real cause of the sanctions is unanimously identified as what the Russians called the “process of sovereignization”, i.e. the fact that Russia is back, powerful and rich, and that she dares openly defy and disobey the “Axis of Kindness”.
  • Third, there is a consensus in Russia that the correct response to the sanctions is double: (a) an external realignment of the Russian economy away from the West and (b) internal reforms which will make Russia less dependent on oil exports and on the imports of various goods and technologies.
  • Fourth, nobody blames Putin for the sanctions or for the resulting hardships. Everybody fully understands that Putin is hated by the West not for doing something wrong, but for doing something right.  In fact, Putin’s popularity is still at an all-time high.
  • Fifth, there is a wide agreement that the current Russian vulnerability is the result of past structural mistakes which now must be corrected, but nobody suggests that the return of Crimea to Russia or the Russian support for Novorussia were wrong or wrongly executed.
  • Finally, I would note that while Russia is ready for war, there is no bellicose mood at all.  Most Russians believe that the US/NATO/EU don’t have what it takes to directly attack Russia, they believe that the junta in Kiev is doomed and they believe that sending the Russian tanks to Kiev (or even Novorussia) would have been a mistake.

The Saker’s conclusion:

Western sanctions have exactly zero chance of achieving any change at all in Russian foreign policy and exactly zero chance of weakening the current regime.  In fact, if anything, these sanctions strengthen the Eurasian Sovereignists by allowing them to blame all the pain of economic reforms on the sanctions and they weaken the Atlantic Integrationists by making any overt support for, or association with, the West a huge political liability.

via The Vineyard of the Saker.


The roots of Putin’s Russian nationalism

May 7, 2014

Historical Map of Russia and the USSR.  Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Russians, like Americans, have historically had a sense of special destiny among the nations — exceptionalism, if you want to call it that.   The history and special nature of Russian nationalism is worth understanding because it is embodied in Vladimir Putin.  Like many 19th century Russians, he has a sense that Russia is not fully accepted as a member of the European family of nations, and, like them, he sees Russian destiny as a Eurasian, not just a European, nation.

Russian culture is rooted in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and its converts in “Kievan Russ” in what is now Ukraine.  The region was overwhelmed by the Mongol Golden Horde and ruled by their descendents, the Tatars.   The present-day Russian state when the rulers of Muscovy threw off the Tatar rule.  After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, some Russians started to refer to Moscow as “the Third Rome”.   Just as Constantinople became the capital of the Roman Empire after the fall of Rome itself, they said, so Moscow succeeded Constantinople.   The title Czar derives from Caesar.

Over a few centuries, Russia became the largest nation in the world in area, covering a sixth of the world’s land surface.  Its remarkable spread is shown in the historical maps above and below [1], a historical saga as remarkable as the spread of the United States from sea to shining sea during the 19th century.

Through the years, Russian thinkers have been divided among what historians call the “Slavophiles” and the “Westernizers.”  The Westernizers saw Russia as a backward nation that needed to learn from the more modern nations of western Europe.  The Slavophiles thought Russia had a special spiritual wisdom that the western Europeans never would understand.  They thought Russia needed autocratic rules, and the democracy and individual rights merely reflected human selfishness.  They also thought that the western Europeans never would accept them as equals, and that Russia’s destiny lay toward the East, not the West.   These attitudes are shared by Vladimir Putin today.

I think the Russian resentment of western European attitudes has some basis.  During World War One, Czar Nicholas II sought to be a loyal member of the alliance with Britain and France against Germany, and responded to their calls to sacrifice Russian lives in the common effort.  If he had been a less loyal member of the alliance, or if Alexander Kerensky, the head of the provisional government that took power after Nicholas abdicated, had not committed to keeping Russia in the war, the Bolshevik Revolution might not have happened — at least not in the way it did.

The same attitudes are reflected in British and American histories of the Second World War, which fail to acknowledge most of the fighting against Hitler’s Germany was done by the Red Army, which suffered most of the casualties.

Alexander Solzhenitzyn, the great 20th century Russian novelist and dissident, was a Russian nationalist.  He said that the Soviet Union was not Russian [2] and that the most oppressed people under Communist rule were the Russians themselves, because the Bolsheviks sought to wipe out Russian religion and traditions.  He advocated liberation of the Baltic and central Asian states, and the formation of a new state in which Russians were the majority — Russia proper, Belorussia, Ukraine and northern Kazakhstan.

This is the area which Vladimir Putin hopes to form into a “Eurasian Union,” an economic bloc comparable to the European Union.   Interesting, he has signed a new naturalization law which will allow anyone born in the territory of the former Soviet Union, who speaks Russian, to apply for Russian citizenship.  This could be the basis for intervention later on in these regions to protect Russian citizens.

A friend of mine, a naturalized American citizen who was educated in the old Soviet Union, watches Russian-language television on-line.  She tells me the Russians are chauvinistic, and openly contemptuous of other peoples, in a way that would not be acceptable in the USA today.   She said they regard Ukrainians as an inferior people, and us Americans as weaklings and fools, and they regard Russia as being on the march.   I don’t doubt the accuracy of what she says.

Vladimir Putin came out of the old Soviet KGB and he said the breakup of the USSR was a geopolitical catastrophe.  But it seems to me that he is not so much trying to recreate the old Soviet Union as he is the pre-1914 Russian Empire, with its traditions of autocratic government, an established religion and little tolerance for dissent.  He reportedly has a portrait of Peter the Great in his office.  He reportedly quoted Czar Alexander III as saying that Russia has only two trustworthy allies, its army and its navy. He is not a second coming of Hitler or Stalin,  but that doesn’t make him a friend of democracy or freedom.

Expansion of Russia Under the Czars.

Expansion of Russia Under the Czars.