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Imperialism in reverse
Imperialism in reverse
Separatism, extremism and the problem of identity in the Russian Federation
Purpose – Aims to present an overview and critical commentary on the political culture of the “new” Russia, with a focus on the rise of extremist ideologies, the convergence of far left and far right around a shared nationalist agenda, and the implications of these trends for Russian society.Design/methodology/approach – The paper gives a detailed assessment of the Russian political spectrum, highlighting the rise of new political and social movements of left and right, which are placed in a social and historical context. The author adopts a comparative approach, contrasting extremist – in particular nationalist – movements in Russia with superficially similar movements such as twentieth century fascism.Findings – The paper concludes that although many Russians have a deep understanding of and desire for democracy, a democratic political culture has failed to take hold and there is a worrying trend towards authoritarianism. There are a wide variety of historical, political and economic reasons for the democratic deficit, not least the failure to lay adequate foundations for democracy in the 1990s, when the emphasis was on neo-liberal economics rather than democratic consolidation.Originality/value – This paper is of particular interest to political scientists and historians, whether of Russian history and politics specifically, or of the political theories of nationalism and democracy. It is also of value to businesspeople and journalists who wish to understand the political and cultural background to recent developments in the Russian Federation.
Keywords: Politics, Russia, Democracy, Social control
In assessing Putin’s regime, observers often regard it as strong, autocratic, and having imperial ambitions. Several signs appear to validate this point. Early in his regime, Putin seemed to curb the power of the local governors and increase his pressure on the tycoons – the oligarchy. Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky were driven to exile. Recently Mikhail Khodarkovsky met the same fate, when he was put in prison and the government took over his property. The independent mass media have practically disappeared, and Putin himself can hardly be criticized on TV. It appeared that Putin’s regime not only has became autocratic but also, through direct intervention in the economic life of the society, has acquired semi-totalitarian features. Moreover, this increasing state power and the economic recovery accompanied Putin’s statement that Russia should restore its position of greater international power.
It has also been assumed, at least by some pundits, that the nationalistic approach radiates from the top and pleases the majority of the Russians, who were upset by the country’s humiliation during the Yeltsin era. The implication would be that, as Russia becomes more united and strong, it could pose a threat to its neighbours. This assumption has been buttressed by the spread of nationalistic and often openly fascist groups among the general population. These groups apparently not only share Putin’s dream of creating a strong Russia but even want to transform it into an extremist neo-fascist empire in the future (one of the leaders of the “axis of evil”).
Certainly, neither of these scenarios should be ignored. Still, it would be an over-simplification to say that the entire Russian populace share the imperial ambitions of the leadership and its craving for a strong, unified state. Quite a few Russians cherish latent parochial, separatist feelings; in fact, even Russian fascists are often more parochial isolationists than aggressive imperialists. This drive to transform Russia into a new edition of the “Holy Roman Empire of German nations” is shared by the Russian ethnic minority and a considerable part of the élite. None of this means that Russia will fall apart in the near future. Still, it has created serious problems for the Russian Federation in the long run.
From nationalism to parochialism
Those who point to the spread of nationalism among present-day Russians usually elaborate on the national humiliation Russians experienced during Yeltsin’s era after the collapse of the USSR. These observers point to the popularity of what were called “Red to Brown” politicians in the Yeltsin era. They were a motley union of national-minded communists and out-and-out nationalists who bemoaned the end of the USSR, or rather, of the Greater Russian State. A considerable part of the electorate followed their call, and Putin well understood this trend. He stole “Red to Brown” slogans in his promise to restore Russia to its former glory. Still, the popular craving for a Great Russian State should be taken with a large grain of salt; at least their views should undergo further scrutiny.
As a matter of fact, one should remember that nationalism, satisfaction with the mighty state, and/or dissatisfaction with the decline of state prestige can well be the sublimation of other, much deeper problems. This can be seen not just in Russia, but in any country, the USA, for example.
The problems with the Iraq war play an important part in current US political life. Still, a close look will show that the war itself has few real implications for the life of the majority of Americans. There is no draft, and the war is conducted by people who willingly joined the military. The American losses – around 1,000 – are minuscule, fewer than the annual number of homicide victims of homicides in just one major American city. And the annual number of deaths in car accidents is many times greater than the loss of life from the war. Terrorism continues also to be a great concern, despite the fact that there have been no terrorist incidents since 11 September 2001.
Fear of terrorism, concern with the war, and sense of American weakness in the face of a military/geopolitical force are reflective of other problems. Indeed, in the public sub-conscious US imperial might is related with the country’s overall international standing, not so much military as economic. It is related to cheap oil, a rising stock market, and, above all, plenty of well-paid jobs. And it is these elements that have implications for the life of the majority of Americans. And since none of them have materialized, concern for them has been translated into concern over the war and terrorism.
The same analysis can be applied to the situation in Russia. When “Red to Brown” opposition to the Yeltsin regime had lambasted the new élite for the destruction of the state, they harkened back to the memory of the great USSR, the mighty state. Russians who listen to them remember not so much USSR imperial might but quite different characteristics of the destroyed state, real or imaginary.
The end of the USSR, one can recall, was swift and smooth, and the vast majority of Russians let the grand empire disintegrate without any resistance. This behaviour was in sharp contrast to the events around the disintegration of Yugoslavia, where the Serbs, the leading ethnic group, engaged in a desperate struggle to preserve the state. Nothing of this sort could be seen in the USSR. There were several reasons for this. It was clear that the almost non-existent support for protecting the state was due to the atomisation of a considerable part of the Russian populace, who professed complete non-engagement in any political activities. Another reason, however, is that imperial ambitions had been held only by thin layers of the upper echelon élite. And they are the ones who engaged in the August 1991 plot, desperately trying to save the state. The vast majority of the Russian people, in fact, including the other ethnic groups of the USSR, had a different feeling. They actually professed not imperialism but isolationism/separatism and for obvious reasons: In sharp contrast to the empires of the past, residents of the USSR lived in worse conditions than the people of the Soviet East European empire, and ethnic Russians more so than quite a few other ethnic groups of the USSR.
Soviet propaganda also pointed out that the USSR had generously helped its East European allies/friends. This official Soviet statement corresponded not only with the Marxist slogan “Proletariat of all countries unite”, but also, and even more important, with the old Slavophile notion about the Christian nature of Russian society and state, in which Russians incorporate others in their state not for material benefits but for protection and care. This attitude provided ammunition for the Soviet citizens to regard east Europeans as liabilities. This vision of the Soviet empire was not absolutely false, and in many respects the USSR was different from traditional European empires. Indeed, it would be inconceivable for Britain or France to supply cheaper raw materials (e.g. coal and iron ore) for their colonies, stimulate their industrial development, and import their industrial goods. It would also be inconceivable that the living standard in England or France would be lower than that in their colonies.
Thus, there were grounds for the Soviet people’s vision of the Soviet empire as a liability. And the feeling spread that Soviets, and of course, ethnic Russians first of all, had been told to sacrifice everything for the benefit of the East Europeans. Russian public outrage was intensified by the sense that, while Russians did everything to help East Europeans, the recipients of this help were “ungrateful” and hated their benefactor. Thus, the majority of Soviets, especially Russians (with the possible exception of the tiny Soviet élite), were not in favour of maintaining the East European empire but rather desired its dissolution.
This feeling was of course reciprocated by East Europeans. Most of them regarded the USSR as a conqueror, the traditional Russian empire in a new guise. They attributed their own economic problems to the exploitive nature of the USSR and to the fact that the Soviet presence prevented them from being a part of the West and reaping the benefits of Western civilization. They did not see any lasting benefit in the stream of raw materials from the USSR. The lower Soviet standard of living was attributed not so much to the Soviet variant of socialism as to Russia’s general negative characteristics as a nation-laziness, backwardness, and so forth. Most East Europeans saw the USSR as a Russian empire that marginalized the role of minorities.
The Russians had and have a strong inclination toward separation, with regard to East Europeans but also to the non-Russian people of the USSR. One of the reasons for such a feeling is the particular Russian position vis-à-vis the other ethnic groups of the USSR. Not only were Russians the dominant ethnic group of the empire (they were the most numerous and their language was the lingua franca), but the imperial élite was mostly Russian, at least in the last years of the Soviet regime. At the same time, the living standard of the Russian population, especially in the villages, was one of the lowest in the country. This led quite a few Russians to assume that not only east Europeans but other ethnic groups of the USSR were a liability, and that Russians would live much better if they shed all these ethnic groups. Quite a few Russian people saw the USSR and other imperial possessions outside the Soviet border as a burden and thought that shedding these possessions would benefit them.
Thus, a considerable number of average Russians professed actual isolationist/separatist feelings. And even those who expressed their pride in the USSR (read, Russian/imperialist might) did not translate this sense of imperial patriotism into action, for instance, by volunteering in the army. In fact, the anti-imperial/separatist feeling of the majority of Russians was in sharp contrast with the élite sense of imperial might and drive for expansion. Here the situation in Russia was not different from that in other non-European and pre-modern societies, where it was the élite who had shown imperial feeling and been the catalyst of conquest. And when the élite was full of imperial élan, strong, and unified, the feelings of the masses could be safely ignored. They had little impact on elitist behaviour.
The situation changed, however, with the confusion and disintegration of the élite, which is precisely what happened during Gorbachev’s reforms. The slackening of government control unleashed the powerful force of separatism, not just among minorities but among ethnic Russians. All this created what seems to be a Kafkaesque situation where the Russians not only expressed no interest in preserving the East European Empire but also “seceded” from the USSR. Thus, one could conclude that at the beginning of the post-Soviet era, a considerable number, if not the majority, of Russians had entertained little or no imperial feelings. And it was actually the remnants of the Soviet élite who bemoaned the demise of the grand Soviet state. The situation, however, soon started to change.
The collapse of the USSR, Russia’s “liberation” from the yoke of her own empire, did not improve the life of the average Russian. Privatisation and other reforms impoverished the majority, who watched with amazement and disgust the life of the “new Russians”, the few nouveaux riches who thrived amid the misery of the majority. The weakness of the state also contributed to the spread of lawlessness of all sorts. In this new context, Soviet society re-emerged in the mind of many as something quite positive. The imperial greatness of the Soviet state had been connected with economic and social security. And it was these feelings which led to the uprising in the fall of 1993 and Zhirinovsky’s spectacular rise to political prominence when his party got 25 percent of the vote in the 1994 Duma election. He had promised not just to restore the USSR but to expand the Russian state to the Indian Ocean. This helped maintain the popularity of the “Red to Brown” opposition, mostly composed of nationalistic-minded Communists who related the present-day misery with the collapse of the Soviet state, through the entire Yeltsin reign.
Putin caught this feeling, and, while aspiring to be president and when he actually became the leader of the country, he emphasized his strong desire to restore the country’s greatness. Still, Putin’s intention has had no implications for the life of the majority. The living standard rose, but still only a minority benefited from the economic improvement. The gap between rich and poor and between various regions of the country widened or at least showed no sign of narrowing. Despite the attack on some of the tycoons, Mikhail Khodarkovsky most recently, the nouveau riche as a social group continued to flourish. Most disappointing for Russian masses, of course, has been the recent decision to change in welfare benefits. These benefits to people at risk included free medicine, free rides on public transportation, and similar services. Recently, the government decided to make a drastic change and abolish all these benefits, promising monetary compensation instead. The populace almost universally viewed these changes as a government attempt to forsake its obligations to the groups at risk, for the monetary compensation is to pay only a fraction of the costs. That these reforms are actually aimed to take advantage of the poor is clearly understood. My mother-in-law, with whom I lived in the summer of 2004 in Ekaterinburg, was usually oblivious of all political news on TV, preferring foreign or Russian soap operas. Still, when the news about the impending reforms was announced, she was glued to the TV screen. She was outraged and asked me why Putin, who supposedly understood the problems of the poor, could treat pensioners and other people at risk with such insensitivity. Even the governors, usually ostensibly quite submissive to Putin, voiced their protest and wrote letters to Putin. The point is that monetary compensation is to be provided not by the central government but by the local authorities, who complain that they had no funding to do so.
Thus, the people’s hope that the drive for the creation of a strong state would lead to a safety net like that of the Soviet day has in many ways been dashed. The growing social and regional polarization has led to new approaches to nationalism as related to building a strong Russia. On one hand, the nationalistic slogan which during the first years of Yeltsin’s regime was attributed to the “Red to Brown” Communist opposition (the supporters of post-Soviet Russia had usually derided all patriotic nationalistic slogans) became increasingly popular among the Moscow élite. Here they regularly follow the official ideology of Putin’s regime. On the other hand, the opposition to the regime, on both right and left, have started to question not only the idea of the imperial revanche but implicitly even the very notion of the unity of the Russian Federation.
The strong feeling of imperial nationalism can be detected in Moscow, including among people who were recently Westernised liberals. A friend of mine who was a strong supporter of Yeltsin’s regime, and who actually participated in the events of August 1991 which marked the anti-Communistic revolution, has become quite nationalistic. When I mentioned to him that I had been in Turkey and that Turkey was much more interesting to me than Russia, he stated that I should not compare Turkey to the Great Russia. Turkey, he proclaimed, had been created on land taken from other people. Turks had no original culture; even their women were ugly and in no way could be compared with Russian beauties. He added that Russia was rising and would be a leading power in the twenty-first century.
At the same time, the very fact that it is members of the élite/middle class, mostly from the capital, who espouse nationalistic feeling has led to the repudiation of nationalism by others, such as the poor and residents of provincial Russia. The point here was not to increase but to decrease the power of the state, which was seen as the force to fight for the corrupt and rich, who used the nationalistic slogans with emphasis on Russia’s glory and unity just to take advantage of the poor. Edward Limonov’s evolution is indicative.
The Extremist Left as Separatist
Edward Limonov was a flamboyant dissident writer who emigrated to the USA and later to Europe. At the beginning of the emigration he was a great admirer of the West, but he soon became quite disenchanted, especially with the USA, where he published his book, It’s Me, Eddie (Eto ja Edichka), which would bring him worldwide fame. On the collapse of the USSR, he came back to Russia, where he became involved in political and intellectual life. At the beginning of his political/intellectual career in post-Soviet Russia, Limonov followed the line of the “Red to Brown” opposition. He bemoaned the collapse of the great Soviet state and related the misery of the majority to the post-Soviet state’s weakness and its transformation into a Western colony. But in sharp contrast with the vast majority of “Red to Brown” leaders who, while outspoken in their speeches and writing, were quite sheepish in their actions, Limonov tried to translate words into action. He soon created a National/Bolshevik party and planned for revolution of a sort.
Limonov had come to the conclusion that most Russians had become zombies and would not rise against the regime. But he believed that the situation in some of the ex-Soviet republics was different. The ethnic Russians of these republics were discriminated against and, in contrast to ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation, were ready for nationalistic revolts. As soon as an uprising started, it would spread to Russia proper. Limonov actually planned to start this uprising himself, with his followers, and had engaged in buying weapons. He was arrested, tried, and sent to a Russian prison.
Limonov was soon released, mostly became of his fame as a writer, but the experience in prison had changed him forever. It was not the greatness of the Soviet empire and the West’s domination over Russia that upset him now, but the corrosive and repressive power of the present Russian state. It not only catered to their interests of the nouveau riche, as was the case with Yeltsin’s regime, but also brutally suppressed the masses and defenders of interests similar to Limonov’s. Nationalistic slogans were marginalized, and stress was put more and more on social justice and the struggle against the rich. Limonov’s National/Bolsheviks are apparently quite popular among some groups of disgruntled radical youth, which put Limonov’s inspired graffiti on the walls, as I saw in Ekaterinburg in the summer of 2004. The graffiti reminded the newly rich that their wealth was ill gotten and that terrible retribution awaited them. The nationalistic slogans were not just downplayed – it was even implied that they had been used by the authorities and the rich to plunder the poor in the same way as friendliness to the West, anti-communism, and attachment to “human rights” had been used during Yeltsin’s era. Other graffiti on the wall, such as the sickle and hammer – the Communist Party trademark – had the same message: it was mostly a call for social vengeance rather than to national rejuvenation.
The same message could also be seen in an attempt to preserve the names and monuments of the Soviet era, which I also saw in Sverdlovsk. The city had received back its old pre-Revolutionary name – “Sverdlovsk” was renamed “Ekaterinburg,” the city of Catherine, the wife of Peter the Great – but the Soviet street names have been preserved. One, of course, could attribute the desire to preserve the old names to general public conservatism. Still it is not the only reason for the preservation of the old names and monuments, for in Moscow the streets and squares in the downtown have shed their Soviet names and several statues of Soviet leaders have been removed. Thus, the desire to keep the old names for the streets and monuments has other implications. It implies that Soviet history was not a black spot, a zigzag that diverted Russia from the country’s right path, but a great, perhaps the greatest period in its history.
This appreciation of Soviet history could be seen in a television discussion I watched on some of the monuments in Ekaterinburg. They were created during the Soviet period, and some commentators suggested that they should be removed because they were in open disharmony with present-day life. Opponents disagreed. They argued that removal of the statues would imply that history should be divided into the “good” and the ”bad” and that the Soviet period should be seen as “bad” history. They implied that the Soviet period should be praised, not because it had led to the creation of the mighty Soviet Union but because it was a time when the state cared about the average person.
This downplaying of nationalism, presenting its call for national unity as a smokescreen for the rich, is of course not new at all. It was a key element of traditional Marxism with its so-called “Proletariat has no motherland” and “Proletariat of all countries unite.” It was repudiation of nationalizing, which had been one of the major slogans when the Bolsheviks were preparing for their coup d’état/revolution. Still, there is a substantial difference between the Bolsheviks’ repudiation of nationalism and what I saw in Ekaterinburg. The Bolsheviks related their attack on nationalism with the struggle against the élite in all parts of Russia. The workers and poor peasants also had lived all over the country. The discourse in present-day provincial Russia is different. With all the dislike of the radicalised provincial folk dislike for the well to do, their hatred of Moscow is much stronger, and, therefore, anti-capitalism became part of it, a peculiar form of separatism.
Indeed, in their view, during Yeltsin’s regime, Moscow used the ideology of liberal Western capitalism to rob provincial folk, and the same Moscow, by employing nationalistic/patriotic slogans, is now doing the same. Moscow is almost universally hated, not as a seat of a particular government but as a city, as a capital. And it was this that provided the radical ideology a sort of separatist hue, regardless of the intention of those who lambasted the rich and presently imperial Moscow for taking advantage of the poor provinces.
Extremist Nationalists as Separatists
The leftist provincial radicals implicitly preach separatism under the guise of revolutionary ideology, which juxtaposes the poor “proletariat” provinces to rich imperial Moscow, but they do not pose any serious threat. As a matter of fact, their influence is still quite limited. Paradoxically enough, it was not the leftist radicals who had actually pushed Russia along the road to the weakening and possible future disintegration of a centralized state. Much more serious danger from this perspective comes from the extremist right.
Various nationalist groups and movements, often using Nazi symbols, have been very popular in post-Soviet Russia; and this provided the ammunition for quite a few observers to state that Russia is dangerously similar to the Weimar Republic in Germany. This scenario implies the rise of a Russian Hitler who engaged in violent revanche trying to re-conquer the lost empire. The pundits here ignore the fact that present Russian fascism is often quite different from its European variety, especially the German variation, and often loaded with isolationist and even separatist meaning.
One of the essential aspects of German Nazism was a deep concern for racial kin – German first of all. In fact, the problems of ethnic Germans who lived outside the Reich – the Sudeten Germans – led to a major crisis in pre-Second World War Europe, the Munich agreements of 1938, and finally to Second World War. It seems that scenario might work for post-Soviet Russia, as well.
On the collapse of the USSR, millions of ethnic Russians became minorities in newly emerging states where they were the objects of discrimination. It is true that there are groups who protested discrimination against the Russian minorities. There was, for example, the case of Rogozhin’s Union of Russian Communities. But these protests were isolated and led to no action. Moreover, even the ethnic Russians who emigrated from the republics of the former USSR to their historical motherland, so to speak (the Russian Federation), had received little if any help and were often abused by the bureaucracy. Many were quite disillusioned. In fact, no one actually cared about Russian minorities, except perhaps Limonov with his often bizarre activities. It is logical that quite a few ethnic Russians in the republics of the former USSR have forsaken any hope of support from Russia.
While travelling from Istanbul to Moscow by plane in the summer of 2004, I met a group of ethnic Russians from one of the Baltic republics. They were petty traders, called “shuttles.” They moved along a trade route known in Russian history for a thousand years, the legendary route from Greece to Varangia, from Constantinople to Scandinavia and the Baltic, a route popular in the eighth and ninth centuries. The ancient merchants had stopped in Kiev as the intermediary point; the present-day merchants were to stop in Moscow. My acquaintances had done this recently. All of them were ethnic Russians and native speakers of Russian, and they were to arrive in the capital of their historical motherland – Moscow. But they were full of stories of mistreatment by Russian authorities – customer service people, militia, and so on. None of my fellow travellers expressed a desire to emigrate to Russia, and, certainly, they did not expect that Moscow would help them deal with their governments. They expected to find help not from Moscow but from Brussels – the European Union. It was expected that Brussels would press the Baltic states to respect the rights of the Russian minority. It was clear to them that Russian nationalists were hardly trying to win the support of “Sudeten Russians” as a springboard for the reconquest of the USSR. The Russian nationalist approach to the ethnic minorities also could be deceptive if one were to see it here as the sign of imperial aggrandizement or penchant for revanche.
Ethnic groups from the various parts of the Russian Federation and the former republics of the USSR are quite visible in the many cities of Russia. They also dominate many local markets. These people often become victims of groups of nationalistic youth, who may openly espouse Nazi symbols and slogans. These pogrom-makers beat these people up and demand that they leave the city and Russia. They preach “Russia for Russians,” a slogan apparently supported by increasing numbers of ethnic Russians (it was one of the slogans I saw scribbled on a wall in Ekaterinburg). Still, while anxious to send Azerbaijanians, Tadjiks, and similar folk to their native states, these nationalists have no desire to invade the former republics of the USSR and incorporate them into the Russian empire. This isolationist nationalism is in sharp contrast to German Nazism.
German Nazism was apparently concerned with the presence of Jews amid Germans. Jews would be deported and killed in the process of the “final solution to the Jewish question”. But Nazis were not against the presence of other non-Aryans in Germany. Indeed, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, were taken from the East to work in Germany as slave labourers. The goal of the Nazis was not to close Germany to foreigners but to conquer their lands and use the people, if needed, in Germany itself, as slaves for their new masters. This is in sharp contrast to the views of present-day Russian extremist nationalists. The isolationist drive of an increasing number of these Russian fascists goes so far as to be actually separatist: their political programs aim for the dissolution of the Russian Federation.
The goal of many Russian fascist-type nationalists is to purge Russia of non-Russians. All these groups are quite anti-Semitic, but the focus of their attacks is usually people from the Caucasus and Central Asia. It has been in relation to these people that nationalists (and an increasing number of the Russian populace) proclaim that Russia should be free from foreign ethnic entities. Problems emerge here. Some of these non-Russians could indeed go to their native lands, which have become independent countries. Still, quite a few of them are Russian citizens and their native lands are the part of the Russian Federation. Some Russian extremist nationalists believe that Russians, while purging Russia proper from these ethnic minorities, should cut these ethnic enclaves off from Russia. These are the views, for example, of the supporters of the “Russian Republic” and similar groups. One of them, Agency of Russian Information (ARI) has its own web site and where its members elaborate on their views at length.
Some members of this group take a compromise position. One contributor to the web site stated that Russia should not abandon all ethnic enclaves because some of them, like Yakutiia, are actually Russian lands populated mostly by ethnic Russians. Such territories should be preserved as a part of the Russian Federation, though the future Russian nationalistic government should of course abolish any autonomy of the area and any Yakut privileges. The writer also stated that not all Jews should be expelled. They should be removed from the élite – industrial/financial tycoons, government bureaucrats, etc. – but could well work as a simple folk. If they do not like these arrangements, they are of course free to emigrate.
Whereas ethnic enclaves with large Russian populations could well be preserved inside the Russian Federation, this argument goes, the story should be different for enclaves with a few ethnic Russians, such as most of the ones in the Caucasus. The very presence of these territories in Russia has provided opportunities for these minorities to plunder Russia’s resources, and their territory should be severed from Russia. Some of the representatives of the “Russian Republic party” assume that Russia should shake off practically any enclave that does not have a Russian population. In such a case, Russia would shrink almost to the confines of the old Moscowie of the fifteenth century. Some extremists/nationalists would like not only to separate the land populated by ethnic Russians from the land populated by those who are not ethnic Russians but perhaps even to separate one Russian region from another.
A few years ago I saw a demonstration by one of the Russian extremist groups near the State Library (formerly Lenin Library). The participants used Nazi symbols and raised their hands in a characteristic Nazi salute. They lambasted the USA as trying to colonize Russia by depopulating the country and promoting homosexuality and similar deviant behaviour. By the end of the meeting, the group was screaming, “Russia for Russians, Moscow for Moscovites!” The implication was that grassroots Muscovites were indeed good ethnic Russians, whereas migrants, implicitly those from other parts of the country, were not good Russians but spoiled minorities who took advance of the resources of the capital. It was implied that Moscow should at insulate itself from the provinces, if not secede completely from the Russian Federation.
This philosophy demonstrated clearly how different this Russian Nazism is from its German prototype. German Nazis would definitely subscribe to the notion of “Germany for Germans,” albeit they might give different interpretations of the slogan. Still an assumption “Berlin for Berliners,” implying that ethnic Germans from the German provinces are an alien force in the capital and the capital itself should be insulated from the rest of Deutschland, would look absurd. Indeed, it would imply not the expansion of the Reich but actually the dissolution of the Fatherland.
The German Nazis of the 1930s would be concerned by the contemporary neo-Nazis who are quite popular in various parts of West Europe, because they too exhibit lack of drive for empire – there is no neo-Nazi group that would demand a European colonial empire. Some German neo-Nazis assume that Alsace should belong to Germany (Smith, 2004), and the majority would not mind if most of West Europe were integrated. Yet none would scream publicly, “Paris for Parisians” or “Berlin for Berliners”. And with all their dislike of “Easterners” (former East Germans), most Germans would never seriously entertain the insulation of the former West Germany from the former East Germany, for all of them are concerned with the preservation of the unity of the state.
The conclusions that can be drawn from the story presented above are manifold. First of all, it should be clear how cautious one should be in applying West European categories to the Russian reality and how complex and contradictory that reality actually is. The Nazi movement in the European context, at least in that of Nazi Germany, implied not just purging minorities but imperial expansion. The story is quite different with many present-day extremist groups in Russia. They actively use racial/Nazi-type slogans, and one could assume that they seem to be more prone to imperial adventure than old “imperial” groups of the Yeltsin era – Prokhanov’s Zavitra or Dugin’s Eurasianists. Yet this new generation of extremists break the paradigms. They drive not so much for revanche and empire as for the continuous actual dissolution of the Russian Federation.
This feeling for separatism/isolationism can be detected among the ideological opposites of the fasciststoid – the extremist left who see rich and brazen Moscow as having nothing to do with the poor provinces. These separatist/semi-separatist feelings, shared by a considerable segment of the populace regardless of political persuasion, are reinforced by the same feeling among the élite. It is clear that local governors would like, if not complete independence, at least more freedom from central control. And, needless to say, ethnic minorities would also be glad to rock the ship of state. In fact, this deeper alienation from the centre could well be similar to that of the last years of the Soviet regime. This, of course, does not mean either that the USSR was doomed to collapse or that the Russian Federation will collapse tomorrow. A strong leader at the helm of the Soviet regime would have prevented the demise of the USSR. Putin’s strong leadership could also slow down the present trend. Still, the weakness of the Kremlin, in case of a major economic/political crisis, would quite likely push Russia in the direction of the “Holy Roman Empire”. The possibility of this sort of scenario should not be excluded by those who observe events in Russia and who might be mesmerized by the external display of Putin’s power.
Dmitry ShlapentokhAssociate Professor in the Department of History at Indiana University, Indiana, USA, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Smith, C.S. (2004), “Thwarted in Germany, Neo-Nazis take fascism to France”, New York Times, 13 August