Russian Nationalism

An Interview with Vladimir Gelman by Filip Memches

The generation ruling in Russia is still living in the USSR. These people think that that they are governing a mighty state everyone is afraid of. And that its peripheries in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia are still subordinated to it—says the political scientist Vladimir Gelman in conversation with Filip Memches.

Is the contemporary Russian elite nationalist?

We are dealing here not so much with an idea but with certain frustrations. On the one hand, we have a strong longing for the Soviet past—when the USSR was a superpower. This nostalgia has a major impact on a significant part of the elite and on the whole society. On the other hand, we have powerful xenophobia: a very negative attitude towards immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Of course, this creates tensions both in the general population and among the elites.

These two phenomena are not directly related to each other but they prompt associations with what we habitually call nationalism in Russia, although they are not connected with nationalism. Particular representatives of the regime try to verbalize these frustrations. It results in an inconsistent and unproductive policy. But many ordinary citizens behave in a way which shows that they do not understand their own status in social life and the status of Russia in the world.

What is this inconsistent and unproductive policy you are talking about?

Let us take the question of immigration. In the beginning of the previous decade we had a law which created obstacles for people arriving from the countries of the former USSR who applied for Russian citizenship. Then regulations were introduced forbidding these people to hold jobs in retail trade on the territory of the Russian Federation. But last year, on the initiative of the presidential administration, the law started to be liberalized. Part of the opposition claimed that the regime wanted, for example, the Tajiks with Russian citizenship to vote for the ruling One Russia party. In my view the motivation was different but a policy change is visible.

Russian authorities have no conception for resolving the immigration question. And they do not know what to do with the Northern Caucasian autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. They represent a low level of cultural and economic development. Added to this are multiple conflicts between their inhabitants and Russia proper. It was once believed that if regional leaders there were given more money and autonomy in exchange for loyalty towards the Kremlin, there would be less conflicts. But this mechanism failed. Blood is still flowing in Dagestan and people are kidnapped in Ingushetia. So the dissatisfaction stemming from ethnic relations is growing.

Are these frustrations associated with nationalism just a legacy of Soviet Union or do they fit into the Russian political tradition reaching back to tsarist times?

I would not go as far back into the past. Of course, Russia was an empire, which also struggled with ethnic problems, but today we are dealing with what was left by the Soviet Union. Putin said that the break-up of the Soviet Union was a huge geopolitical disaster. And this is true. Of course, the collapse was peaceful—unlike in, for example, Yugoslavia—but for many people it was an incredible psychological shock, especially for the generation now ruling in Russia. They are still living in the USSR.

In what sense?

These people think that that they are governing a mighty state everyone is afraid of. And that its peripheries in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia are still subordinated to it. For the post-imperial syndrome to fade we need a generational change among the elite. For today’s twenty-year-olds the Ukraine is a separate country but not so for fifty-year-olds.

The flag project of Vladimir Putin’s presidency is the Euro-Asian Economic Area (EOG). When voices are heard that this project is an attempt to resurrect the Soviet Union, its advocates point to a similarity with the European Union. Are the attempts at building a Euro-Asian community not a proof that the kremlin has chosen an anti-nationalist course?

It is a continuation of the post-imperial syndrome we are speaking of. You cannot compare the EOG to the EU. In the EU there is no dominant force, which Russia is meant to be in the Euro-Asian community. The decision-making mechanism, especially in the economic sphere, is different. The Russian regime wants to show the citizens that Russia still dominates in the post-Soviet space. But in fact the Euro-Asian Economic Area seems doomed to fail. For example, Kazakhstan is increasingly developing its economic relations with China. Other countries also go their separate ways, simply looking after their own interest.

And does the idea of Euro-Asianism itself, on which Putin’s beloved project is based—the idea assuming a cultural separateness of Russia and the West—attract the attention of the Russian elite?

I do not think so. Of course, you can promote various slogans but it is the specifics that count. Russian elite feels connected to the West. They own real estate in the West. They put the accumulated capital in Western banks. They send their children to Western schools. Saying that Central Asia will be a point of reference for the Russian elite is ridiculous.

But this means that in this context Russian nationalism is also spurious…

I agree. Ideas serve the elite only as means to an end and nothing else. This is not a matter of serious convictions. These politicians only believe in dollars and the euro.

But this would lead to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin is not a man of ideas. In such a case, he does not have to treat the break-up of the Soviet Union as a disaster…

No. I think his grief is absolutely sincere. He would prefer to rule over the Soviet Union during the Cold War than over Russia with its today’s borders. But this is of course impossible and Putin is well aware of that. He is simply sorry about that. I think it is a question of emotions connected with nostalgia for his youth.

Would the decline of the post-imperial syndrome in Russia not pave the way for nationalist attitudes—such as the one presented by one of the opposition leaders, Alexei Navalny, who suggests that Russia does not need Northern Caucasus?

The proposals of the nationalists are not a good solution. It is easy to put forward various slogans. We stop feeding Dagestan and what next. Will Russia’s problems disappear? No.

But such ideas may prove to be more and more catchy. Navalny headed the demonstrations, which in 2011 and 2012 walked the streets of the largest Russian cities and expressed the feelings no longer of the lower classes but of the middle class.

Yes, there is a small group of oppositionists voicing radical slogans but they do not enjoy major social support. And opinion polls confirm it. Significantly, many native Russians manifesting hostility towards people arriving from the Caucasus are opposed to using violence against them and generally to conflict-generating solutions. And it is not the case that if someone proposes a nationalist slogan it will immediately find a fertile ground.

So what we are dealing with in Russia is xenophobia without violence?

People simply remember the experience of the brutal war in Chechnya. And they would not want a repeat of that.

In your view, the proper analogy for today’s situation in Russia is the process of the emergence of the Turkish nation-state after World War I. But in Turkey there was a secular cultural revolution, while in Russia the ruling class is emphasizing its turn towards the Orthodoxy, towards the centuries-long national heritage. It is an important difference.

It is pragmatism; the elite hopes that if it bows to the Orthodox Church, the Church will reciprocate in some way, for example bringing to order the faithful dissatisfied with the political situation. But I would not overestimate the religiousness of the Russians. If someone says about himself that he is an Orthodox Christian and visits a church once a year for Easter, it does not have to mean that he is a religious man. In general, I would not attach too much importance to the role of the Orthodox Church in public life, if we take a longterm view. In Russia the Orthodox Church has no autonomy in its relations with the state. I do not suppose that in 20 years Russians will become zealous Church activists.

But compared to Western societies conservative tendencies are strong in the Russian society.

It is true but I do not regard it as very significant. Some emotions are tied to specific situations. At the turn of the 21st century, we witnessed a certain comeback to traditionalism, to conservatism but now it is starting to change. Processes, which occurred earlier in the West, are reaching Russia. The society is becoming more and more consumer-oriented, for its wealth is gradually increasing. So this will also favor changes regarding cultural patterns.

Is borrowing these patterns from the West also a method for desovietization of Russia?

We should remember that Russia is a country very much diversified internally. Russian society is composed of various layers. There are inhabitants of big cities, who earn good money, use technological innovations, travel abroad. And this layer will intensely integrate with Europe the most. But there is also the peripheral Russia, small-town Russia. This is the principal constituency of the current ruling class. It is enough to check the geography of the votes cast in the last presidential elections. Such social disparities as now observed in Russia never appeared in Europe. Of course, this may lead to social conflicts. Nevertheless, I do not see any reasons, which would cause the Russian society to move in the direction opposite to that taken by Western societies.

And may the inner diversity of Russia lead to separatist tendencies? We were speaking about Northern Caucasus. But would, for example, Tatarstan not want to secede from the Russian Federation and enjoy independence as a separate state?

The height of separatism from the early 1990s is already behind us. Except for the Northern Caucasian autonomous republics, we do not see people who would want to have their own state. Regional development is the future. Various parts of the country are going to develop at various paces. There will be no single development model for both Kaliningrad and Vladivostok.

Filip Memches

Filip Memches is a feature writer; author of a book entitled Słudzy i wrogowie imperium. Rosyjskie rozmowy o końcu historii (The Servants and the Enemies of the Empire: Russian Conversations on the End of the World) (2009).

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