Russia Needs a New National Idea

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia, abandoning socialism as a path of development, also abandoned communist ideas, but didn’t replace them with new ideology.

Moscow, Russia © Dawid K Photography / Shutterstock

With the coming to power of President Vladimir Putin, right-wing organizations in Russia gradually lost their influence. This happened mainly because of the suppression of pro-fascist organizations by force and due to the demonstrative manifestation of Putin’s loyalty to representatives of national and religious minorities — JewsMuslims and Caucasians — that have traditionally caused dissatisfaction among Russian nationalists. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that Russia will not return to the recent past, when the levels of xenophobia were extremely high, and right-wing radicals could attract hundreds of thousands to mass events.

In the modern world, such a guarantee is, first of all, the institution of a nation-state. What is a nation-state? It is any state that protects the interests of the nation. Today nations are formed either on the basis of the traditions and culture of the ethnic majority — most of the world’s countries, including European ones — or on the basis of a supra-ethnic idea, which is especially important for multi-ethnic societies. This last model includes almost all the “emigrant” states, like the United States, Switzerland, India and several others.

The Soviet Union, in principle, also belonged to this category. In the USSR, the Communist Party created a supra-ethnic nation, which was referred to as the “multinational Community of the Soviet people.” This nation was united by the idea of Marxism and proletarian internationalism, which collapsed with the beginning of perestroika. As we know, this collapse of the main ideology predetermined the collapse of the country.

After the collapse of the USSR, Russia, abandoning socialism as a path to development, also abandoned communist ideas. But while the Russian Federation left the Soviet model of the nation-state behind, it did not create a new one. A transition to the ethno-cultural model widespread in Europe, which the Russian nationalists lobbied for, would inevitably have led to the collapse of the country because it doesn’t take into account the interests of numerous national minorities. However, neither this model nor any other unifying ideology, like the ideas of freedom and democracy that liberals like Boris Yeltsin sought to develop, took root in Russia.

Does a Russian Nation Exist?

So does the Russian nation exist today? The official state strategy that lays out the country’s ethnic policy until 2025, characterizes the Russian nation according to the supra-ethnic (ideological) type, referring to “the multinational people of the Russian Federation (Russian nation) — a community of free equal citizens of the Russian Federation of various ethnic, religious, social and other affiliations, possessing a civic identity.” However, Article 11 of the strategy emphasizes the system-forming role of the Russian people in the construction of the Russian nation, which is quite natural in the conditions of a substantial predominance of representatives of the Russian ethnic group in society: “The Russian state was created as a unity of peoples, but the Russian people historically was the system-forming link of this unity.”

The document goes on to state that “Thanks to the unifying role of the Russian people … a unique cultural diversity and spiritual community of different peoples have formed on the historical territory of the Russian state.” It thereby emphasizes the role of Russian culture in the formation of cultures of the peoples of Russia, the role of the Russian language and the role of the Russian people in the formation of this diversity.

Thus, on the one hand, we see the priority of the ethnic majority, which is characteristic of all ethno-cultural nation-states, which is a step toward European traditions. On the other hand, there is a definition of the Russian nation as a combination of “equal citizens of different ethnic and religious affiliations,” which is more characteristic of a supra-ethnic or ideological model.

However, the question arises, about what unites these equal citizens? The strategy gives a rather slurred answer: Russian civil unity is ensured on the basis of “recognition by the citizens of the Russian Federation of the sovereignty of the state, its integrity, unity of the legal space, ethnocultural and linguistic diversity of the Russian Federation, historical and cultural heritage of the peoples of the Russian Federation, equal rights to social and cultural development, access to the social and cultural values, the solidarity of citizens in achieving the goals and solving the problems of the development of society.”

This means that the guarantee of unity is the recognition of the rights of minorities, which completely contradicts the principles of the ethno-cultural nation-state. However, it is doubtful that minority rights are a factor uniting the Russian nation as ethnic Russians form an overwhelming majority of 80%. Could a single Russian ethnic group be the unifying factor? No, because more than 200 peoples and nationalities live in Russia and speak more than 100 languages ​​and dialects. In general, they have co-existed peacefully for centuries. But it should be remembered that since the Soviet times these peoples have become accustomed to equal rights, including the status of their language as official in the region of residence, the right to study in their native language, etc.

Could the Russian language, Russian culture, common historical destinies, common territory play a role here? Not everybody considers these factors to be important, as the collapse of the USSR showed. What then?

Russian society has always been united by a common ideology. Whether it was the Christian Orthodox ideology in the late Middle Ages, or the slogan “Samoderzhdavie — Pravoslavie — Narodnost” (Autocracy — Orthodoxy — Nationality) that laid the foundations of multinational absolutism in the 19th century, or the ideology of proletarian internationalism uniting the country that disintegrated in 1917, ideology has always played a unifying role in creating the Russian/Soviet nation. In this sense, of course, it can be called ideological and supra-ethnic. The rejection of ideology in the Russian Constitution and the demonstrative disregard for its importance by state leaders in the post-Soviet period is a dangerous factor that doesn’t allow the formation of the Russian nation through ideology and is a prerequisite for possible upheavals in the future.

Consequently, post-Soviet Russia also needs to create a nation-state and a single supra-ethnic (or ideological) nation, which would be perceived as such by all its people and political forces. So far, as we see from the Strategy of National State Policy of the Russian Federation until 2025, Russian political elites have created a model, which, however, does not contain any real ideological foundations for the unity of the nation. Vladimir Putin’s idea of patriotism does not hold water because it offers nothing concrete: All politicians call themselves patriots — liberals, communists and the far-right radicals. If it is so, then the question of the existence of the Russian nation, by and large, remains open, as patriotism alone can’t unite a nation.

What Unites Us

Today, Russian unity is ensured largely at the level of an intuitive understanding of common values ​​and an external threat, the presence of which, due to the deterioration in relations with the West, has objectively rallied people over the recent years.

Are there such ideological foundations today? Are there any values that most people with different political views can unite? Yes, there are, and they lie on the surface. A survey by Zircon published in March is revealing in this sense. Its findings suggest that Russians are united by conservative values, which include:

Traditionalism, meaning a decisive influence of a religious worldview on various spheres of society. It is interesting that the majority of Russian citizens are not religious, and this factor is not their priority, but religious moral values — attitudes to family, to the authorities, to the education of children, etc. — are very important for 57% of respondents.

Collectivism, or the priority of collectivist principles over individualistic ones. The survey suggests that personal freedoms of citizens do not play a major role in Russia as they do in the West, in contrast to the communal, collective interests and the interests of the state and the army.

Conservatism, meaning the priority of constancy and stability over novelty and change. This is evidenced by the opinion of 62% of respondents regrading the need for stability and a cautious approach to reform, despite the objectively urgent need for change. Hence the sharply negative attitude to LGBTQ people, with 85% condemning same-sex marriages.

Paternalism, or a system of relations based on patronage, guardianship and state control of its citizens. In a paternalistic system of government, the state is not a tool in the hands of society, designed to create the necessary laws and collect fair taxes. The state is a senior partner, which shoulders responsibility for the well-being of citizens and the obligation to provide them with a decent existence, including employment, for example. To do this, the state can concentrate national wealth in its hands. This is reflected in the survey, with respondents having skeptical views of the market and a positive attitude toward state regulation of the economy. Hence the low popularity of such values ​​as freedom, democracy, personal success, education, etc., which are shared by only 14% of respondents.

Russians think that the state is responsible for their welfare. Therefore, a low level of trust in such institutions as the government (28%), law enforcement agencies (31%), the courts (29%) and the state Duma (22%) is a serious signal that indicates that a credit of trust in the power as a whole is not great. The weight of the government is supported only by high approval ratings of the army (64%), the institution of the presidency (54%) and the Russian Orthodox Church (50%). Exhausting a credit of confidence in the authorities in Russia is a dangerous thing.

Justice, including social justice. The priority of this value follows, inter alia, from paternalism and collectivism. Some 40% of citizens believe that there is a conflict between rich and poor in the country, meaning they see an absence of social justice in Russian society.

Russian Version of Democracy

Many other, earlier studies, including sociological surveys, confirm these conclusions. This does not mean that the Russian people completely reject Western values like human rights, freedom, individualism, liberalism and seeing the state as an instrument of society. Simply put, these values ​​are not paramount for most of Russians. This is why Russia’s vision of democracy is different from the European models.

Given that, according to one poll, just over half of Russians (52%) have heard of liberal ideas and just 18% say they support them, a conservative ideology is the only thing that can unite Russian society today and complete the process of creating the Russian nation and the Russian nation-state. Indirectly, this will become a stabilizing factor and a guarantee against right-wing radicalism lobbying for an ethno-cultural Russian state. Conservative values ​​are popular today not only in Russia, but throughout the post-Soviet space. Therefore, by betting on a conservative nation-state, Moscow will get additional opportunities to strengthen its ideological influence not only among Russian compatriots in the former Soviet Union, but also in the post-Soviet space in general.

If Russian authorities continue to ignore the role of ideology, then the institution of a universal state will remain the only guarantee of stability, with the state seeking control over all spheres of society. Such a state is called an empire.

Russia has a choice in the coming years, and this choice will determine its fate for decades. It can remain an empire — but today’s empires do not live long. In the context of globalization and reactive dissemination of information, their lifespan is sharply reduced. Russia can again return to the way of democratization and liberalism without creating a nation-state. We have already seen this in the end of 1980s. Then it had led to the collapse of the USSR and the radicalization of society.

There is also a third way of uniting the nation on the basis of conservatism and creating a conservative nation-state, which will allow the country to develop further and increase its standing in Eurasia and other regions of the world. This choice lies in the area of ideology and values. Russian society has almost no time left for this. The countdown has already begun.

Dr Valery Engel is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Head of the Center for Monitoring and Comparative Analysis of Intercultural Communications of the Moscow Institute of Psychoanalysis. See his profile here.

© Valery Engel. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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