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The rise of authentic nationalism in Russia

February 11, 2012
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Ethnic Russian nationalism vs state imperialism

It is surprising that a mainstream, pro-Establishment source such as The Atlantic would publish a lengthy article detailing the difference between genuine nationalism and what is is called ‘civic nationalism’ – the stuff of which propositional ‘nations’ (multi-national empires such as China, Russia, the US, etc) are made. Real nationalism is based on the ethnic and cultural bonds that unite similar people together. The rise of something like this is of course dangerous to a statist world order where (often straight) lines on maps artificially divide and group people together based on the reach of state power. Few states in the world are truly national then because most contain more than one national group. Add to this artificial construction the problem of modern mass immigration which is generally supported by the state institutions over the protests of the people. Imagine if a real national movement in a large, powerful state came to power and split off the non-national territories of the state, creating new national states from a previously multi-national state, and began enacting policies for the benefit of its nation of people rather than for state elites. This is exactly what might happen in Russia.

Nationalism in Russia has undergone a dramatic shift lately, one that Putin, apparently, has been slow to catch on to. Two competing strains of nationalism have always existed in the country – one that can be described as imperial, or statist nationalism, the other ethno-cultural. The first worshipped the state, its power and international prestige; the second glorified the nation, its culture and faith. Throughout Russian history, statists have tended to hold a pragmatic view of nationalism, seeing it mostly as an instrument to strengthen state institutions and bolster the authority of the ruling class. As such, statists have traditionally favored territorial expansion, followed by efforts to assimilate minority groups.

Radical ethnic nationalists, on the other hand, see no place for non-Russians in the state. This strain of nationalism, naturally, has caused particular problems for imperialists, whether they have been Russian tsars, Soviet commissars or Putinists advocating “managed democracy” and relying on energy policy to expand their influence in the near abroad.

In recent years, economic hardship has boosted the popularity of ethnic nationalism at the expense of the imperial variety. This trend is underscored by the growing popularity of the slogan “Russia for the Russians.” Putin, who clearly aligns himself with the imperial school, has been reluctant to acknowledge this trend. Instead, he has tended to oversimplify the rise of ethnic nationalists, casting them as trouble-makers whose ideas could encourage the disintegration of the Russian Federation.

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