Nation, State, Nation-State

The Resurgence of Imperialism and Nationalism in the Russian Society after 1990

Professor Andrey Zubov

The terrible increase in nationalism, imperialism, and aggression now expressing itself, which radiated from Russia, shocked both you in Europe and us Russians who understand the reality in Russia. For me, for example, the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea are terrible things. I tried to do my best to explain to our people that it was an awful solution of Mr. Putin and his circle, but the majority of the Russian population greatly supported these events in 2014 and the world was shocked. Mrs Merkel wrote to Mr Putin at the time that he had lost connection with reality.

For today’s European world, this form of political activity was something absolutely obsolete, something abnormal in principle. But we ought to remember that a century ago these politics were absolutely normal and the politics of imperialism and nationalism were the main reason for the First World War. All great powers, from the Central Powers to the Entente Cordiale and even rather small countries, such as Serbia or Greece, were in favour of an imperialistic existence of their states, for ethnical struggle and ethnical predominance. Suffice it to remember these ideas of Pan-Germanism, Pan-Slavism, Pan-Turkism etc. At that time, the British Empire possessed one quarter of the world, the Russian Empire one-sixth of the world, the French Empire, the Republican Empire, about one eighth of the world. So, at that time, the situation was imperialistic in its pure sense and nationalistic. It is necessary to remember the mood of the main nations of Europe at the beginning of the First World War: French people hated Germans, Slavic people hated Germans, Germans hated Russians and called them Untermenschen in World War II. We ought to remember that after the First World War both principles – the new principle of a world without imperialism and the old principle of imperial domination – were interconnected. On 13 April 1919, in Amritsar in Jallianwala Bagh (India), the British forces killed about a thousand of peaceful Indians, and it is interesting that General Dyer, who was the commander of these British troops, received absolutely different criticism. Mr Churchill said that it was one of the most awful deeds of the British Empire, but the House of Lords supported General Dyer at the time.

When President Woodrow Wilson produced his 14 principles on 8 January 1918, the European powers, Great Britain and France, were not very glad to read them because their idea was to enlarge their empires in the Middle East and to annex some territories of the Ottoman Empire. The growth of Nazi Germany, the annexation of Austria, and the Munich Agreement of 1938 were the result of imperialist politics, not only by Nazi Germany but also by liberal European countries, Brittany and France, since both Chamberlain and Daladier supported Mr Hitler in Munich and agreed with the principle of the unification of the German nation which he proclaimed at that time.

And if we speak about the Soviet Union between the two world wars, it had the same but even more sophisticated position: communists proclaimed the idea of internationalism, rejected nationalism and supported anti-colonialist policies, but in practice the Soviet communists were nationalists – and terrible nationalists – and when Stalin changed his politics in approximately 1933-1934 after the 17th Congress of the Communist Party, he followed Hitler’s example in building a national, ethnic-oriented Russian state. Even the alphabets of non-Russian people were changed at that time to Cyrillic from the Latin, Arab, or Mongol alphabet (in Buryat). Since Stalin himself was Georgian, he did not change the Georgian alphabet and the Armenian one, but they were the only two nations that succeeded in preserving traditional graphical systems.

This imperial mood of course was much deeper than the problem of alphabets, because one of the tools of communist politics was the Communist International, and the Comintern produced terrorist acts when it tried to organize a revolution or spread pro-communist movements all around the world. It was an imperialistic politics too. “Yes”, said Stalin, “we are for peace, but peace will be stable if all the world becomes Communist”. If you look at the coat of arms of the Soviet state, you will see that there is a globe with the symbols of communist rule, so the Soviet political idea was of a worldwide communist Empire – let us call things by their right name.

So the Russian people, I mean not only the ethnically Russians but the people who lived in the Soviet Union, lived with this idea of war, of imperial increasing of their state, and this principle of war, of aggression, of nationalism, was very strong.

After the Second World War, West European nations, shocked by two terrible wars, by Hiroshima, by the Holocaust, changed their view of reality; they understood that the imperial cause and the nationalistic cause are terrible and suicidal, and they started absolutely different politics. The main principle of these new politics was a Christian one, and the organizers of the new Europe were Christian politicians, like Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, and others.

But in the part of Europe which turned out to be communist-occupied, I mean the Eastern part of Europe and the Soviet Union, this new mood did not develop. It did not develop because of a very simple reason: Christian ideas were prohibited, or were a peripheral thought, and communist ideology dominated. And that is why from the end of the Second World War, we see in Europe two different attitudes to reality. For example, the attitudes of former aggressors and losers – Germany and Italy – and former states who won the war – I mean Great Britain and France – were absolutely different after the Second World War compared to the situation after the First World War: no reparations, no changes of borders, new aid plans for Germany, for Italy and for other European states – think of the “Marshall Plan” (European Recovery program). On the other hand, changes of borders, terrible reparations, and transfers of population occurred in the Eastern part. Because of the Soviet Union and Stalin, Eastern Europe continued to live in this paradigm of pre-First World War situation. And, of course, ordinary people who lived in Russia were used to understanding reality according to this value system. It was not easy to change the value system in Western Europe either – the process of denazification was completed only at the end of the 1980s with the unification of Germany. The discussion of historians in Germany about the Nazi past took place in 1986 (Ernst Nolte vs. Jürgen Habermas). The search for the new non-imperialist and non-nationalist understanding of political reality was a difficult process, and in the Eastern part of Europe this process never even started before 1990. It is necessary to understand this. So we were rather similar in the understanding of reality before 1945, and to say it frankly, it was an absolutely non-Christian, maybe Nietzschean understanding of reality.

But after the Second World War we had an absolutely different understanding of reality: a formerly aggressive, nationalistic state of mind turned out to be marginal in Western Europe and continued to be the dominant principle in the Eastern part of Europe and the Soviet Union.

After the decline of communism at the end of the 1980s, it was of course a mistake, an illusion that the world would begin anew, that, as Fukuyama wrote, history was over. We see that Hegel was wrong again, history is not over, but this idea was popular at the time. All post-communist nations, both in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, were very deeply inclined to become West European nations with a West European standard of living, with prosperity, with personal freedom to move, to read, to access information and many other (sometimes very simple) things which they wanted to access, and that’s why they forgot about nationalism and were in search of a new reality. East European countries hated Russian communism and tried to do what they could to be with Europe and that’s why they accepted all European values as a necessary element to be accepted themselves into Europe and NATO.

For the Soviet Union and its successor, the Russian Federation, at first glance it seemed clear that people would forget about nationalism, communism, and imperialism, but it was misleading. Social investigations, even in the 90s, demonstrate a different picture. Perhaps Gorbachev stopped being a communist-nationalist and proclaimed that human values exceeded class ones. Maybe Yeltsin shared this paradigm, since he was against imperialism, against the reconstruction of the Soviet Union, etc. But the majority of the population was in favour of it. Only 27% of the Russian population in 1997 was ready to agree with the borders of the Russian Federation. Almost three quarters of the population had different attitudes. Some wanted unification with Ukraine, some with Byelorussia, and about one third of respondents wanted the total reunification of the whole Soviet Union. And many people still say that it was a major mistake to give independence to East European countries without payments, though we know that there were some payments at the time, not for independence, of course, but from the German government and from the United States to Russia. Ordinary people say we should have sold these countries to the West.

Just a week ago I had a seminar in Moscow, and Russia’ Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs again said the same thing. So we saw in the 90s that the Communist Party of the Russian Federation totally accepted this nationalistic and imperialistic direction. They accepted Stalin more than Lenin, though Lenin also was an imperialist, but most people don’t know that now. Stalin was an openly imperialistic-thinking person and today about 70% of the Russian population supports Stalin, considering that his rule was a good period in Russian history rather than a bad one. It’s awful but it’s a fact.

We must now ask why. Were there any mistakes that resulted in this situation? When Putin annexed Crimea and started the war in eastern Ukraine, he understood very well that he would increase his popularity by these steps, and so it was. Before 2014 support for Putin had continuously declined. After 2014 it increased, and about 87% supported the annexation of Crimea. The situation has now changed rather rapidly.

Why are nationalism and imperialism so strong in Russia? I think that in some way this is inevitable, because, even if we had known this post-Second World War refreshing of attitudes in Western Europe, our reformers at the time mistakenly assumed that it was not necessary to show ordinary, unsophisticated people that a new democratic and pro-European course would give them some benefits. For intellectuals these benefits were evident, namely the possibility to receive information, to publish their ideas, to go abroad, but the majority of the Russian population never goes abroad and does not write philosophical treatises, so it would have been necessary to give them something very material, namely, a restitution of property rights. In all East European countries there was a restitution of property rights, in one form or another. Poland adopted one form, and the Czech Republic another. Communists confiscated all property: post-communist regimes returned property to those whose ancestors possessed it. Nothing like this was done in Russia. Never. Not a single person received the property of his or her father, confiscated by the Bolsheviks: not one peasant, not one merchant, not the gentry, nobody. A small circle of people took all communist property as their private property – in the form of privatization – but the absolute majority of people obtained nothing material from de-communisation, democratisation, and liberalism after 1991. It was the first and greatest mistake of Russia’s post-communist government. Nobody wanted to change anything, and that’s why these imperial and nationalistic ideas turned out to be a compensation for the population’s frustration, because people lost their traditional way of life and found themselves living worse than before, without any real positive reliable perspective.

Now we are seeing this situation improve somewhat, not because of some wise politicians but because of life itself and, in some way, because of the strong opposition of Europe and NATO to Putin’s aggressive politics. If Europe accepts the annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine, Europeans will see an absolutely different world than present Europe. The situation in Russia has started to change: economic difficulties due to sanctions and the absolute incapability of the KGB elite to rule the country (they ruled it as their private property and, of course, this was very hard and unpleasant for the people), produced a situation of real poverty and degradation of people’s day-to-day life. Russia’s economic degradation is now terrible: Russia is one of the world’s richest states in natural resources, maybe the richest, but the population’s standard of living, not only as regards money but also in all systems of social parameters, is terribly low. Safety of people from crime is awfully low, medical care is dismal, and people begin to understand that the annexation of Crimea and somehow of Eastern Ukraine, and this whole imperialistic and nationalistic approach which was so clearly presented by Putin in 2014-2015 has given them nothing positive. We thus see that support for Putin is slowly declining, last year and then again this year. But it is very interesting that this decline is not a decline in favour of some other leader. I think that the most brilliant result of this development is that Russians no longer want a leader; they want to rule their country themselves, by self-government. At the beginning of this millennium, for example, most businessmen were completely ignorant about the communist past, “Communist past is lost! Now we are building a new country”. Today everybody understands that the communist system, not ideologically but in its totalitarian practices, has re-emerged and they want to demolish it. That’s why I think ethnical imperialism and nationalism are now declining in Russia. They are regressing. And if both of us continue to be active in this approach, you in Europe with your strong opposition to any acceptance of the fruits of aggression, and we in Russia, where we keep trying to explain the real situation to people and what is necessary to do in the future to become a normal state – not strong, not great, but normal, a place comfortable for people to live in – we will soon see Russia, in some five to seven years, as part of a common Europe and part of a common civilized world. This is our hope and our political goal.


Nazione, Stato, Stato Nazione

Sessione Plenaria 1-3 maggio 2019 | Nota concettuale – Oggi il mondo si trova ad... Continua

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