Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
May 9, 2014: Victory Day, the annual celebration of the triumph against Nazi Germany. Powerful army formations and weapons of mass destruction parade across Red Square. President Putin receives the salute and flies to Crimea, where he celebrates the extension of Russian territory. Russians swell with pride. It’s an explosion of Russian patriotism, according to the BBC.
When most foreigners talk about Russian nationhood, they either mock it as retro grandstanding or express fear of the roar of the bear. But Russian nationhood is one of the most complex and diffuse identities in European history, arguably less dangerous for European peace than rival nationalisms have been.
The problem is that Russia has historically been both an empire and a nation. As an empire, it differed from the maritime empires of the modern age. Unlike Britain, which took control of distant territories, Russia simply pushed its borders outwards: east into Siberia, west further into Europe, south to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Unlike the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, it did not collapse as a consequence of the First World War, and transmute itself into a modern nation state. Instead, it reconfigured itself, in leaner form, into a new type of empire, the Soviet Union. And even now, the Russian Federation, though it lacks the other fourteen republics that made up the Soviet Union, contains enough internal diversity, from Chechnya to Chukotka, and sufficient geopolitical interests to have some of the characteristics of an empire.
Geoffrey Hosking, Professor Emeritus of Russian History at University College London, argues that over the course of five centuries, the Russian empire has inhibited the development of the Russian nation: that the imperial identity has squeezed and malformed the sense of nationhood. The Russian language has two words for ‘Russian’: russkii is the ethnic, the cultural, the linguistic, and the ‘national’, while rossiskii refers to the state, the army, the empire. The impersonal force of the latter has tended to prevail over the deeply internalized call of the former.
We might therefore assume that the bonds between ethnic Russians are less visceral than were the bonds between Germans during the century that followed the completion of German unification in 1871: and thus less vulnerable to a descent to savagery. And Russian nationhood has never been capable of generating a form of citizenship that might ultimately be able to control the country’s rulers. But the citizen-nation (in arms) is not always a force for peace in Europe, as Napoleon’s wars showed.
It is difficult to see how any popular national feeling, especially one as conflicted and complex as the Russian, can ever in itself cause a war. Instead, national feeling is whipped up by events and manipulated by politics. If pro-Ukrainians and pro-Russians kill any more of each other, then national feeling might turn into hysteria, and hysteria might be the context of a catastrophe.
But politics also has the potential to control events. In the last six months, political incompetence, mischief and greed on the grand scale — exercised in different ways from Washington to Moscow, from Brussels to Kiev — have contrived to create a miserable threat to Ukrainians’ peaceful existence. But the politicians and the diplomats still have the chance to redeem themselves. They are the problem; patriotism isn’t.
(Image: Wikipedia Commons)