Nationalism is playing a prominent role in Russian politics today. Both the Kremlin and anti-Putin opposition figures increasingly employ nationalist arguments, and at times compete with one another in nationalist hyperbole. Polls show significant support for the nationalist slogans among Russian population. Nationalist and anti-immigrant agendas are always present during elections. Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine provided a stark illustration, as both pro- and anti-Kremlin forces marshaled nationalist arguments to make their case. This is a complex and diverse phenomenon and I will try to summarize its roots and explain the difference between the types of the Russian nationalism.
Up until the beginning of the 20th century, there was no organized nationalist movement in the Russian Empire. The efforts of the Russian autocratic government to use national revival to suppress the revolutionary element impacted its development dramatically. The ultra-nationalist movements like the Black Hundreds were created with the approval of the ruling dynasty to suppress the revolutionary movement of 1905-1907 and create mass support for the regime.
The ultra-nationalist parties and movements of the early 20th century relied on the support of the urban lower class, collapsed immediately after the revolutions of 1917 and did not find popular support in the years Civil war (1918-1922) in a predominantly peasant country. Those intellectuals who expressed moderate, national-bourgeois views had to flee the country.
Traditional Russian nationalism
Russian national-patriotism in the form in which it is known by the majority of researchers, was created in the reign of Stalin. When it became clear that the “world revolution” failed Stalin chose the path to “build socialism in one particular country”. This approach required the development of the concept of soviet patriotism under the communist leadership and Russian cultural dominance. The heyday of this policy came during WWII and in the years following. The stories about the “glorious victories of the Russian weaponry” returned to school curriculum, the historical films with military-patriotic bias appeared on the screens, the army returned pre-revolutionary insignia and the Russian Orthodox Church was allowed to elect a Patriarch. This system needed an enemy. After the victory over the Germans the ‘cosmopolites’ (most of them appeared to be Jewish) became the enemy (“Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee” case, “doctors’ case”, “Leningrad case”). The campaign was suspended after Stalin’s death but the seed of national-patriotism had been sown.
Russian fascism is a different type of nationalism that was developing at the same time among Russian émigrés in Japanese-occupied Harbin and Berlin. It developed under the influence of Nazi ideology and was definitely anti-Semitic. Russian Nazis blamed the “Jewish conspiracy” and “world Jewry” for the destruction of the Russian Empire, welcomed Hitler coming to power and supported the Third Reich in the war against the Soviet Union. Some of them, including the commander of the “Russian” S.S. Sturmbrigade R.O.N.A. Kaminski participated in the Holocaust.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, both of these types of nationalism spread in Russia. Paradoxically, they became allies. Despite the different evaluation of the Soviet period, they were not satisfied with the new regime. Many parties, movements and associations on the national-Bolshevik basis became known in Russia as “red-browns” [krasno-korichnevyje]. Their representatives took an active part in the conflict in Transnistria in 1992 and in the confrontation between the president and parliament in the fall of 1993. The programs of these movements and their leaders – Barkashov, Makashov, Istarkhov and others – openly professed anti-Semitism directed against the liberals in the government and the oligarchs. The activities of these movements began to fade in the late 90s – early 2000s due to the economic growth and tightening of anti-extremist legislation. There is no data on the popular support of such movements but this year (2016) their party “Rodina” (“Motherland”) is going to participate in the parliamentary election and believed to have strong support from some government officials and the military-industrial complex.
New Russian nationalism
Economic growth, the war in the Caucasus and instability in Central Asia brought the migration waves in Russia. And if at first it composed from ethnic Russians who had fled from the ethnocratic governments of the post-Soviet states, in the early 2000s, a new wave of labor and economic migration of the indigenous population of these states and regions swept Russia making it the second country in the world by the number of illegal immigrants after the U.S. On the other hand, the Kremlin and some opposition activists (e.g. the head of the National-Bolshevik Party Limonov) regularly raised the issue of the status of the Russian population and Russian language in the Baltic States, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Russian irredentism was outlined in the early 1990s by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: to collect all the territories of the East Slavic ethnic majority in a single state. Namely, Ukraine, Belarus and northern Kazakhstan. Sometimes they add northeastern Estonia (Narva) and eastern Latvia (Latgale). Nationalist writers such as Konstantin Krylov and Egor Prosvirnin promoted the concept of “Russian people are being offended.” In addition, supporters of this ideology favor the liquidation of the national republics within Russia, declaring the ethnic Russians “the constituent people” in the Constitution. Generally, they share anti-communist views and hostility to “persons of non-Slavic appearance.” In recent years, they are merging with national-patriots and tend to support annexation of Crimea and the “people’s republics” in Donbas. Their primary advocates are Zhirinovsky’s LDPR party (11.7% in 2011 election) and “Novorossiya” movement headed by the former leader of pro-Russian insurgents in Donbas, Igor Strelkov (Girkin).
Russian separatism or National-Democracy is another type of the Russian nationalism, appeared in the mid-2000s and since then has become one of the main forces in the Russian opposition. In contrast to all other types of Russian nationalism, it denies territorial expansion. In contrast, the National-Democrats are in favor of granting independence to the national republics of the North Caucasus, in particular Chechnya, the introduction of strict visa regime with Central Asian countries, federalism and European integration. They share strong anti-Soviet views and consider the current regime a Soviet successor. They call for the convening of the Constituent Assembly and the reestablishment of Russia on new nation-state basis. They have a positive attitude toward Israel, seeing it as a sample of the nation-state.
In summer 2011, the leaders of this movement Alexey Shiropaev and Ilya Lazarenko visited Israel at the invitation of the Zionist movement “The House of David.” Another representative of this ideology is one of the leaders of the Russian opposition Alexei Navalny, who openly called himself a “national-democrat” and participated in the campaign “Stop feeding the Caucasus” in 2011. In 2016, a nationalist blogger from Saratov Vyacheslav Maltsev won 1st place in the primaries of the Democratic coalition. The polls of Levada-Center year in year out show tremendous support for the nationalist slogans “Russia for the Russians” (up to 40%, shared by several groups of nationalists) and “Stop feeding the Caucasus” (up to 60%, national-democrat agenda) – opposing subsidies for Chechnya. Moreover, according to the same polls, overwhelming majority of Russians are not willing to fight to keep Chechnya in Russia and up to 1/3 of them even welcome its secession.
Eurasian movement originated among Russian émigrés in Europe in the 1920s, under the influence of the ideas of the “conservative revolution”. They considered the Soviet Union a civilizational continuation of the Russian Empire and the center of a separate “Eurasian” civilization. Accordingly, they considered the whole history as a struggle between the “spiritual” Eurasian civilization and “false” Sea civilization – the Euro-Atlantic one. In this civilization they included USSR, a significant part of Europe except for Britain and Asia except for Japan.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the young philosopher Alexander Dugin adopted and developed the idea. Eurasianists favor an alliance with the Muslim, Chinese and Indian civilizations against the U.S. and its allies. They cannot be called Russian nationalists in the strict sense. Nevertheless, they support the expansionist concept of “The Russian World” because they consider it a part of their global plan. They are generally hostile to the State of Israel and Jews as a part of the “Atlantic” civilization. However, we should not overestimate the magnitude of the movement. Of course, they may have an impact on some military and academic circles, but their conflicting and ideocratic views badly combine with realpolitik, which the Kremlin adheres to.
Russian nationalism is far from being a single force. In contrast, its factions often have deeper frictions between each other than with other political forces. One of these dividing issues is their attitude to ethnic and religious minorities, namely the Jewish community. Historically Russian nationalists were hostile to Jews and such views are still shared by a certain percentage of the population in small cities and towns. However, after the mass Jewish emigration in the 1990s, “the Jewish question” disappeared from the public discussion. Modern Russian nationalists while opposing Muslim and Chinese immigration say nothing about Jews. Rather, they consider Israel an example of the nation-state they would like to build in Russia.