Special Reports / Toying with nationalism

Toying with nationalism

Gleb Pawłowski in conversation with Viktoriia Zhuhan · 13 May 2014
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is dominated by imperial rather than ethnic nationalism, according to our expert in Russian politics. If in the language used by the ruling elite we come across a certain type of syncretism, this is because the said rulers, having abandoned European ways of communicating, are looking for a new narration, and in doing so borrow from the likes of the far-right Dugin and the anti-semitic Kiselyov.

Viktoriia Zhuhan: The Kremlin claims that Ukraine has been taken over by fascists. Do Russians really believe such statements?

I think so. But “fascists” is just a word. The main problem I have with the people in charge in Kiev is that they lack social legitimacy. They have been swept into power by a revolution, but they weren’t its leaders. What is worst, they have abused their positions, having failed to bring the country together. First of all, I thought this strange. Then I understood that it is a strategy which follows the rule “Who is not with us, is against us”. 

I can’t agree, I’m afraid. Firstly, the existing government was given public legitimacy by the parliament which was produced by elections. Secondly, “fascism” is one of those words which must be used with utmost care. Placing it at the heart of Russian propaganda relating to the Kiev government can have drastic effects on the image of Ukraine, perhaps even in Western Europe.

Today’s Kiev rulers represent the old political elite. The make-up of the current Supreme Council was decided during the elections, back in the days of Yanukovych. These elections, however, were essentially staged. Besides, Yatsenyuk’s government isn’t too concerned about the methods it uses. All its opponents are made out to be terrorists. This was the same strategy used in Russia 10 years ago – he who did not support Moscow’s actions in Caucasus was then declared a terrorist. Unfortunately, from the very outset, the character of this revolution was associated with a divisive form of nationalism. There are those who are “nationally aware” and those who are “unaware”. I followed the events in Maidan very closely and was in Kiev a few times during the protests. The East and South of Ukraine had almost no say in what happened there. It was assumed they would have to join in. The new government turned this into a different strategy: “He who fails to join us is a terrorist!”.

Perhaps they would be keener to join in if not for the pro-Russian activists, crossing the Ukrainian border dressed in uniforms which Putin claimed were bought “in high street shops”? And if Russia did not toy with the concept of “people’s will”, all the while pressing for the organisation of referenda relating to the annexation of certain parts of Ukraine?

Ukraine has a certain number of myths which are all the time transmitted out to the West. About how its Eastern sections are all in order. Or that all its problems are caused by pro-Putin saboteurs. This is untrue. The East is filled with fear. Reports from Maidan seemed to come from a different country. In addition, the style of these protests is concerning – let’s be clear, the people who in January shouted “Glory to Ukraine – fame to its Heroes!” would never have said such things back in December, due to direct associations with Bandera. Maidan and its consequences awoke demons in Ukraine which won’t be easy to silence now. Let’s take the example of Odessa, and those individuals who died in the fire at the trade union headquarters just a few days ago. This was a terrible blow to this calm and civil town. The last time people were burnt there was 1941… If Kiev thinks that it will deal with this crisis without any problems, they are sorely mistaken. I remember the previous electoral campaigns in Ukraine. It was always two macro-regions in union against a third. But this time such a strategy runs the risk of the country fragmenting. I am a lot more sceptical about the government in Kiev than I was, even as recently as March. Their rule is such: first we win, then we’ll allow reforms. But at the point they achieve victory will they be able to decide on anything? I can see here a serious metamorphosis of Ukraine’s liberal revolution. Of course, this is not fascism. But it is hard to call it “liberalism” either. 

We spoke about the specific aspects of contemporary Ukrainian nationalism. What sort of nationalism can we observe in today’s Russia?

Far more diverse than in Ukraine. In Russia, we have a wide spectrum of such organisations – from ethnic nationalists and fascists to imperial nationalists. In this particular discourse, Russians are rarely mentioned, or as we like to say “Russian peoples”, but reference is made to the citizens of the Russian Federation. The president dislikes talking about the “Russian peoples”. Not because he doesn’t value them, but because in terms of our imperial nationalism they are only one of many nations. Our job is to unite these various tribes. The nation is then replaced by the state. So, when we say “Russians”, we really mean not only ethnic Russians but also Tatars, Jews, Ukrainians and so on. This is a very old and powerful tradition.

What about Russian ethnic nationalists then? Research conducted by Levada-Center in 2013 indicate their numbers are growing. 60% of Russians express distaste and fear regarding those from Caucasus or Asian regions, while 66% support the philosophy of “Russia for the Russians”. Every year, many of them attend the Russian March.

Such surveys have one serious flaw – they simplify reality too much. The slogan “Russia for the Russians” hasn’t waned in popularity for the past 20 years, especially among the middle classes, which is in itself hardly ethnically pure. The notion is supported by half-Tatars, half-Jews, and so on. As for Russian Marches, these are attended by only a couple of thousand demonstrators. I don’t think of them as fascists. These are the less liberal sort of nationalist, seen as rather odd by the rest of society. A fundamental cause of their protests is probably a lack of political plan when it comes to “Russians”. They are not accorded any sort of special status – although all the other national minority groups enjoy some form of privilege. From time to time, the idiotic idea of appointing “Russians” as the founding nation is raised, but even if it happened, nothing would change. As for other solutions, let’s take the example of Crimea. Seeing as the government said that we are protecting Russians there, because they feel at threat, perhaps we should set up a Crimean region as part of the Federation? And the same for Russians in Siberia, the South, etc.? The only thing is, we aren’t allowed to talk about these things in public. If someone tried to convince others that there is a need to create special regions for ethnic Russians, it would cause a huge scandal. There would be screams and shouts, accusations that it is a manifestation of extremism, an attempt to demolish the country.

Putin is keen to use patriotic rhetoric. Is this just a play on nationalistic feelings, or does he actually feel such affinity?

I don’t think this is merely a smokescreen. From what I know, Putin really does see himself as a “Russian man”. The paradox behind this is that it is impossible to both rule Russia and remain a Russian. When you rule the country – regardless of whether you do it as a tsar, a general secretary or a president – you lose your national identity. This is how it has been since the time of Ivan the Terrible, who as the first Russian ruler created a land which is organised on a basis other than nationality. Please note that the Bolsheviks too tried, especially after the Revolution, to create a multicultural space. The Soviet Union was referred to as an empire of affirmative politics, but that was invented in the late 1920s. Nations were constructed, created, given privileges. Sooner or later, the Federation will have to find some kind of national idea to offer Russians.

You said that ethnic nationalism has few supporters in Russia. And yet, during the annexation of Crimea, ethnic discourse dominated the media.

 We very much like to defend Russians, until they find themselves a great way off. But there are many films posted online showing how demonstrations organised by ethno-nationalistic groups in Simferopol are dispersed by Russian police right after the annexation. They were told: you are no longer Russians, only Russian citizens, which was something they couldn’t understand. Today’s patriotism is artificially supported by mass media, reinforced with aggression and complaints against fellow human beings. One accuses the other that he or she doesn’t share the same form of nationalistic sensibilities. In Moscow today we are seeing the dominance of patriotic McCarthyism – you are all the time tested on what you think about patriotism, or is it that you are actually an enemy. And all the while, the person asking the questions may not understand the difference between ideas of nation and state.

 And yet you haven’t answered my question. Manfred Sapper, in his most recent article for Liberal Culture, lists those who take part in propagating the Kremlin rhetoric radical ideologists such as Aleksandr Dugin, Sergey Kurginyan or Alexander Prokhanov, along with the openly anti-semitic Dmitri Kiselev. And so nationalism, as espoused by the current regime, is not only, as you say, imperial. It is also ethnic.

 A certain kind of syncretism arises out of the need for our rulers to build up discourse from almost complete zero. We have stepped back from European kinds of rhetoric, without creating anything to replace it with. Please note: Putin from a decade ago sounds like a completely different person. In Russian culture, ethno-radicalism is a taboo topic, and even more so for fascism. And yet the powers that be, in order to fit in with current developments, are utilising a mixed dialect, borrowing from Dugin as well as Kurginyan. They also reach for some of my own phrases, added during the most recent era, such as “Russian world” or “Russo-world”. But with the latter I did not mean any sort of ethnic paternalism, but the sphere of the Russian language and culture. In this sense, elements of this “Russo” world are in the US, in Europe and Canada, even China. It is our own version of the “Anglosphere”.

And yet you continue to be a lot more understanding of radical elements in Russia’s public sphere than of those in Ukraine. Reviewing the current high standing Putin has in surveys, it is hard not to have the impression that residents of the Federation need to find a common enemy. At present, this happens to be Ukrainians or the government in Kiev…

I think that we find ourselves in an era of deep trauma. Many people, me among them, underestimated this for a long time. People have, by and large, lost the ability to communicate with one another. This is partly down to the characteristics of modern means of mass communication. Social networks make this even worse, seeing as they fail to protect us from propaganda. The opposite, in fact – they increase its reach, users becoming ever more entrenched in their beliefs, creating new social fragmentations. One could see this clearly in the last six months, in relation to the events in Ukraine. It’s not possible to see this only through the prism of nationalism. Ideological content is here less important than the technologies of division and aggression. We attack first, and only then come up with reasons as to why we did it.


Observing Russian social media, I had the impression that Russians’ attitudes to Kremlin’s politics in relation to Ukraine are rather uniform. Where is the line of division which you describe?

On social networks, people who are alike attack one another, imposing on opponents their own interpretations of the opinions they present. An example of this is Putin, who gave a short speech a few days ago, not forgetting to bring up the topic of treason. In our post-Stalinist public discourse, this is an loaded concept. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Jew, a Ukrainian, a Chechen – what counts is that you are either a traitor or you are not. And here we hit upon the most dangerous aspect of current Russian propaganda. It has unleashed the weapon of paranoia in its hunt for a traitor. And even if someone needs to calm the public mood, the weapon works all by itself – a weapon which may yet turn against Putin in the end.

Translated by Marek Kazmierczak