A Time of Troubles Fuels the Right

ONCE AGAIN RUSSIA is entering a smuta, a time of troubles, the outcome of which cannot be predicted. Only one thing is certain: the reappearance of a nationalist movement, one firmly believing that Russia’s rightful role as a great power can only be saved by a strong authoritarian government. For many years students of Russia focused on the left; having been decisively defeated in 1917, the right no longer counted politically, and ideologically it had nothing of interest to offer. Yet today the whole spectrum of Russian politics has moved to the right and become more nationalist.

This trend is a reaction to the breakup of the Soviet Union and is bound to continue. Much nationalist sentiment could be contained or assuaged if moderation and common sense prevailed. But those attributes are always in short supply in times of crisis. Millions of Russians still reside in the former republics of the empire, and separatist groups inside Russia itself insist on autonomy and even full independence. Allowed free rein such pressures threaten the survival of the Russian republic.

Given the strongly nationalist moods that also prevail among the non-Russian republics and ethnic groups, the stage is set for collision. The age of aggressive nationalism and nationalist conflict that ended in western Europe, by and large, in 1945 has returned with a vengeance in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Thus present conditions in Russia are not conducive to consolidating democratic ideas and institutions. Nationalist forces, some of the extreme right, others moderate, have a reasonable chance in the struggle for Russia’s soul and political future, at least in the short run.

Competing Ideas of Nationalism

FOR ALL ITS NUANCES and tendencies the supreme moral authority of Russian nationalism is academician Dmitri Likhachev, the grand old man of Russian historiography and letters. Neither a politician nor head of any party, he stands to many Russians, except those of the extreme right, as the conscience of the nation. With emphasis and eloquence he has argued that true patriotism spiritually enriches the individual, as it does the nation, and that patriotism is the noblest of feelings,

Members of the educated Russian public who constitute the national liberal camp share many of Likhachev’s views. As moderate nationalists they are perhaps comparable to European conservatives, with an emphasis on patriotism and in many, but not all cases, a shared religious faith. They want a free Russia (not necessarily patterned on Western democracy) and are deeply saddened by the loss of large territories populated predominantly by Russians. Among the national liberals are, for example, Sergei Averintsev, a distinguished historian of medieval culture and theology; Alexander Tsypko, one of the political scientists who acquired fame in the glasnost era; some editors of the literary magazine Novy Mir as well as literary critics such as Igor Vinogradov and Alla Latynina. Above all there is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his circle. Finally there are political leaders from Boris Yeltsin to Anatoly Sobchak and Sergei Stankevich who, following the downfall of the Soviet Union, insisted with increasing frequency and intensity on Russian concerns and interests.

It is probably easiest to define the national liberals if they are compared with the radical democrats, who exist by and large in the Sakharov tradition and are comparable to the West’s liberal democrats. For radical democrats the creation of democratic institutions is paramount; the absence of such institutions was the main cause of Russia’s misfortunes, and they fear that individual freedom will not be secure until democratic institutions are firmly entrenched. The radical democrats have no wish slavishly to imitate the West, but nor do they feel any urge to follow a decidedly Russian social and economic policy.

They see no specific Russian tradition that could now serve as a guide for the perplexed.

Most radical democrats are not religious. They regard the loss of traditional Russian territories as a misfortune but see no way to undo it, at least not in the foreseeable future. They have no agreed program for Russia’s economic system. Some support a classical liberal philosophy along the lines of Hayek and Friedman, others are Social Democrats. They strongly insist on a multiparty system and regard the extreme right (as opposed to the more moderate national liberals) as the main danger that, if in power, would lead Russia back to tyranny, war and total disaster. They love the culture of their native land; in fact they are often more Russian—in the tradition of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia—than they know. But they are pitiless in their criticism of the dark side of Russia’s past. They are open to Western influences, and their feeling of nostalgia for old Russia is not as intense as that of the national liberals.

Given Russia’s past and the enormous difficulties ahead, national liberals think that an (enlightened) authoritarian regime is more or less foreordained.

They hope that religion will play a crucial role in the future. They tend to idealize pre-1917 Russia and envisage a political and social regime not altogether unlike the one prevailing then—of course cleansed of its negative features but in line with old Russian traditions. Most believe that the price that had to be paid of late for freedom was probably too high. What future is there for a Russia deprived of the Ukraine, White Russia, the Crimea and predominantly Russian northern Kazakhstan?

This is the strongest point in their thinking, and it is shared to some extent by the radical democrats. The Balkanization of the former Soviet Union is a tragedy; it will certainly make democratization infinitely more difficult. It is paradoxical that at a time when borders are disappearing in western and central Europe, the trend in the east is toward secession and separatism. While on a level of abstraction every nationality, even the smallest, has the right of sovereignty, objective factors—not least the intermingling of races and people in the modern world—make this often impossible. There is no moral commandment that they should exert their abstract right.

Soviet rule was in some cultural respects less repressive than tsarist rule toward the nationalities. But Soviet experiments at coalescence (slyanie) were unsuccessful, since they were imposed from above. Resentment against Moscow grew and, once political controls were removed, there was no holding back the nationalities from seceding, whatever the cost. In the Soviet Union and tsarist Russia membership in a multinational state had certain advantages, like being part of a prestigious club. But once the reputation of that club declined sharply, this specific motive disappeared.

If Russia had tried to accommodate Ukrainian nationalism, the split might never have occurred. But a serious attempt based on true federation involving home rule was never made and, once the majority of Ukrainians had voted for full independence, there was little the new Russian leadership could do to maintain the union. A closer relationship may emerge in the distant future, once the dreams attached to sovereignty fade. In the meantime, however, Russian patriots will only feel impotent frustration at having to exist without Kiev, the cradle of Russian culture and statehood. The only alternative from a Russian "patriotic" point of view is to invade Ukraine, hardly a practical proposition.

Trauma of Soviet Breakup

THE BREAKUP of the Soviet Union is the central event bound to shape the course of Russian nationalism and Russian politics as far ahead as one can see. It could be compared with the impact of the 1919 Versailles Treaty on postwar Germany and with the loss of North Africa for France in the 1950s and 1960s. Versailles, with the concomitant feeling of national humiliation, was one of the main factors in the rise of National Socialism; the retreat from North Africa brought France to the brink of civil war.

Seen in retrospect the losses suffered by Germany and France were far from fatal. Germany lost its unimportant colonies and a few provinces such as Alsace Lorraine, Poznan and parts of Upper Silesia, inhabited largely by reluctant Germans. The loss of the Maghreb resulted in the exodus of several hundred thousand French citizens. The new Russia, on the other hand, has no more than half the population of the old Soviet Union, and many millions of ethnic Russians now live outside Russia; they have become ethnic minorities at the mercy of new not-so-tolerant masters.

Ten years after the loss of the Maghreb, France was better off and at greater peace with itself than ever before. Seventy years after Versailles, forty years after another lost war, Germany is the strongest country in Europe.

The Russian shock, however, is more severe. True, the loss of empire had not come as the result of military defeat. True, some Russian nationalists had argued for a long time that their country would be better off without the Central Asian republics and perhaps also the Caucasus. Russia, they claimed, had been exploited and in some ways subverted by the non-Russian republics. Russian nationalists such as writer Valentin Rasputin had suggested well before August 1991 that Russia should take the initiative and leave the union. But imperial ambitions and feelings of historical mission were still very much present and, in any case, no one had assumed that the Slavic republics would secede.

The full extent of the trauma is realized only as time goes by. As in Germany after 1918 there was much readiness to accept all kinds of "stab in the back" theories—the disaster had been caused by Russia’s sworn enemies abroad and at home. There was growing resentment particularly against the ingrates in the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Moldova but also the Caucasus, who had after all benefited to no small extent from Russian help and protection. There is growing anger about the treatment of the Russians outside Russia. Is it not the duty of the Russian government to protect Russian interests outside the borders of the old Russian Federation? Had not all self-respecting countries throughout history been ready to protect the lives and interests of fellow citizens if these had been in jeopardy?

This mood is widespread and would have been suicidal if the radical democrats and national liberals had left patriotism and the defense of national interests to the extreme right. As in Germany after Versailles it would have been tantamount to surrendering the country to extremists. The great danger is that the republics that seceded might prove increasingly recalcitrant in their nationalist intoxication, unwilling to accommodate legitimate Russian interests. This in turn would make the Russians even more resentful and hostile, prompting conflicts even less amenable to solution. Appeals to reason in such circumstances are bound to fall on deaf ears, and the stage is set for an outburst of the worst instincts. This was the lesson of the new order established after Versailles.

Russia, it is sometimes said, has been condemned by history and geography to be a great power. But what if the forces of cohesion should be weaker than generally believed? What if the disintegration of the Soviet Union should be followed by the disintegration of Russia and the emergence of several smaller independent or semi-independent units, such as Tatarstan, Siberia Yakutia and others? This possibility had been discussed even before the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and it certainly cannot be ruled out at the present time.

The argument runs approximately as follows: it is easy to imagine Russia as a great power or as a multitude of small units. Anything in between would be unstable and unlikely to last. True, there are forces opposing further disintegration, the Russian nationalists and the old communists on the one hand, and the West on the other. But how strong are they? The West wants a new world order in which peace and quiet prevail, so as to be able to cultivate its own garden. A united Russia, provided it is not too strong, would serve Western interests better than a chaotic state of affairs, which would create new political and economic problems, possibly a stream of refugees and, generally speaking, an enormous zone of insecurity extending from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.

The assumption that political conditions in Russia will become normal as the result of successful economic reform cannot be taken for granted. Quick improvement in the economic situation is unlikely and, in any case, man does not live by bread alone. People need spiritual beliefs, myths and symbols, and some countries such as Russia need them more than others. Human existence is not a financial balance sheet, a series of profits, losses, allocations and budgets.

In this respect postcommunist Russia is a desert. Both communism and nationalism are adrift; this is why they may find it easy to get together on some common ground. The churches seem to have neither the message nor the apostles that could generate the energy, enthusiasm and willingness for sacrifice that will be needed in the years to come. Such a vacuum opens the door to all kinds of madness.

After the Second World War Germany and Japan succeeded in rebuilding prosperous and civilized societies without the benefit of a specific German or Japanese idea or faith. True, their defeat had been total, which made it easier to make a new start and shed outdated beliefs. It would have been suicidal for Germans, Italians or Japanese to refuse to accept their fate; they had to accept it to survive. The Russians, on the other hand, were not defeated in war. On the contrary successive generations were educated in the belief of their invincibility, military and otherwise. In these circumstances a truly new beginning is psychologically much more difficult.

Who Belongs to the Nation?

IN A TIME of deep crisis the negative ugly aspects of Russia’s past—tyranny, darkness and servitude—tend to overpower Russia’s beautiful and harmonious features. But there always was a Russia that was a source of pride to its sons and daughters, a Russian people described by J. G. Kohl in an 1842 guidebook as showing "great cheerfulness in the midst of desperation, very tolerably agreeable and gay."

Other foreign visitors, while writing scathingly of the psychological effects of despotism, also noted Russian hospitality and kindness toward perfect strangers, the sense of charity and shirokaya natura—the generous nature of the Russian people. They had much to say about Russia’s many great talents and cultural achievements, a literature that went further back in time than English, French and German, a folklore as rich as the Russian language and folk songs, sentimental, sad or gay, as moving and beautiful as any in the world. Russia’s openness to new influences, they also remarked, was perhaps greater than any other country.

Nature played a crucial role in the development of a specific character of the Russian people—the infinite, open spaces, the Russian forest and majestic streams. No people has been closer to nature than the Russian, and no authors have more lovingly written about it. True, much of this belongs to a rural Russia that is gone forever. But neither the golden nor the silver age of Russian culture emanated from rural communities. If, as Likhachev and others believe, there will be yet another cultural renaissance, it will again come from the cities.

The greatness of Russia has never been in dispute, and the greater the achievements, the greater the pain felt at the end of seventy years of ruin and destruction. Where the national liberals (and a fortiori the extreme rightists) have gone wrong is in believing that only they have been feeling the pain, whereas the radical democrats are "cultural nihilists," ignoring or despising everything Russian. This is not even correct with regard to the old Soviet regime; if under Lenin, Stalin and their successors irreplaceable monuments were destroyed and other horrible damage done, it is also true that many more copies of the Russian classics were printed (and performed and exhibited) than in the seventy years before the revolution. A wholly negative attitude toward traditional Russian culture prevailed only for a few years under Soviet rule and only in a few disciplines.

The accusations against radical democrats of harboring a nihilistic attitude toward Russian history and culture are untrue, unless of course one implies that a true patriot has to admire and cherish everything that happened or was produced before 1917, however evil, ugly or stupid—for "our country, right or wrong." The charges of cultural nihilism and "cosmopolitanism" on the part of the extreme right are red herrings—with some exceptions, such as the role of the Orthodox Church in a future Russian society. Not all those on the right are religious believers, and not every one on the left is an atheist. But it is true that the democrats, by and large, stand for a secular society, whereas the right, including the national liberals, is willing to give the Orthodox Church a central role in the political life of the country.

Russian nationalists of the extreme right claim that patriotism, nationalism and chauvinism are synonyms. In their hearts and politics they differentiate little between patriotism and nationalism. As they see it, nationalism is the most sacred inspiration in life; only through belonging to a nation (or a folk) does the life of the individual gain spiritual meaning; differences between nations are fundamental and commitment to one’s nation transcends all other obligations.

Who belongs to the nation? Only ethnic Russians who also belong to the Orthodox Church. Catholics, Muslims, Protestants or Jews can be Russian subjects, they can be tolerated and given freedom of religious practice, they even can be given certain civic rights. But since "Holy Russia" is meaningless for them, they cannot be true Russians. Some enlightened souls on the right are willing to make concessions; certain individuals of non-Russian blood can become true Russian patriots and identify themselves thoroughly through a great effort and their willingness to sacrifice for the motherland. But these will always be a very few. Others, more extreme, will not make exceptions whatsoever: a Jew baptized is a thief pardoned, as a Russian proverb says.

This kind of argument involves the extreme right in many problems and inconsistencies for which there might be no answers. The religious test for membership in the Russian nation is senseless in the postcommunist era. According to the most favorable polls less than half the Russian population are religious believers, let alone practicing members of the Orthodox church. To replace the religious with a racial test for belonging is not feasible, partly because as a result of Nazism this kind of doctrine has become impossible to accept by all but a few sectarians. Even if it were different, racial doctrine would not be applicable in a country with so much intermingling of peoples and races.

Russia’s national liberals (moderate conservatives) hope for peaceful cooperation, a joining of forces in the reconstruction and healing process in a country that has seen so much strife. But there can be collaboration only if there is common ground. With the extreme right’s crucial emphasis on Russian exclusivity, fear of anti-Russian intrigues, its deep enmity against cosmopolitans and cultural nihilists, its psychological need for enemies, can the Russian right envisage the removal of barricades, which it may need as much as Erich Honecker needed the Berlin Wall?

The basic differences between liberal western and authori-

opposition to communism, it may inherit certain of the same essential features.

Authoritarianism Probable

MUCH THOUGHT has been given by students of twentieth-century history to the determinants of the growth and success of fascism. It is by now common knowledge that, as in the case of communism, "objective conditions" are not sufficient by way of explanation. Objective conditions—economic crisis and breakdown or absence of democratic institutions—have frequently existed. But unless there was a führer, a duce, who together with like-minded followers created a dynamic mass movement, such opportunities have passed unused.

Experience does not bear out the assumption that once the objective conditions exist, the leader is bound to appear sooner or later His presence a historical accident, and for this reason predictions about the likelihood of the seizure of power by a fascist movement are risky. While it is possible in the case of contemporary Russia, it still seems unlikely, be it only because of the divisive character of the Russian extreme right—not by accident (as Marx would have said) but as a result of the wide variety of interests and inspirations represented in these circles.

It is easy to think of reasons that seem to favor the growth of some extreme nationalist movement—the feeling of humiliation following the breakup of the Soviet Union; the need to pursue an assertive policy vis-à-vis the former republics in defense of Russian interests and the presence of many millions of Russians abroad; the bad economic situation and the need to engage in unpopular reforms; the frequent impotence of the authorities in face of a breakdown of law and order; the fact that democratic institutions are not deeply rooted in Russia; the traditional psychological need for a strong hand; the old Weimar dilemma of how to run a democracy in the absence of a sufficient number of democrats; the deep divisions on the left.

All these and other circumstances seem to bear out those on Russia’s extreme right who have claimed all along that time works for them. Indeed some observers have argued that the prospects of Nazism in Germany in 1932 were less good than in present-day Russia—if only because when the German crisis came democratic forces had been in power for more than a decade. And is it not also true that postcommunist Russia is repeating the mistake committed by Weimar—giving absolute freedom to the enemies of democracy?

While full-fledged fascism still seems unlikely in Russia, an authoritarian system based on nationalist populism appears probable. The blueprints for a Russian version of national socialism have existed for a considerable time. They envisage "union between labor and capital," a broad political movement or, in its absence, the security forces assuming the necessary functions of control in society. Such a regime would be a regrettable step backward in Russia’s political development, but it would be wrong to classify it as fascist.

To be a good Russian, it is said, one has to cast one’s eyes back to the glorious deeds of the virtuous ancestors. This is how patriotic inspiration has been provided everywhere, especially in a time of spiritual as well as political crisis. Totalitarian revolution and liberal reform have failed. Neither the international proletariat nor the fellow Slavs, and certainly not the other nations of the former Soviet Union, have shown enthusiasm to link their fate with Russia’s. In these circumstances a retreat to the nation seems the logical and indeed only possible response. Other nations have reacted in a similar way in times of crisis. The Russian slogan nashe (ours) is an equivalent of the Irish sinn féin (we alone); no phrase has been dearer to the hearts of French nationalists than la France seule.

The reference to the glorious deeds of virtuous ancestors, of a golden age, a paradise lost and to be regained, are of course mere myths, for there was no golden age. But myths still have their use and, if all other bonds have broken down, why disparage the appeal to nationalism in order to mobilize a people to undertake the giant efforts that will be needed to extract it from the morass and to build a new base for its existence? The temptation is great, but the doubts whether such an appeal will achieve its aim are even greater. Nietzsche once wrote that to be a good German means to de-Germanize oneself. The same may well apply to Russia in its present predicament. What Nietzsche had in mind was of course not to accept slavishly some foreign model, not to shed old traditions just for the sake of making a break with the past—this had been tried from Peter the Great onwards and did not work too well. What Nietzsche did have in mind was that "if a nation advances and grows, it has to burst the girdle given to it by its nationalist outlook."

What Russia now needs, the glorious past and the virtuous ancestors cannot provide—namely, to build a new economy and a new society. Nationalism has great power to mobilize the resources of a people against foreign enemies. But the threat facing Russia does not come from the outside. To the rebuilding of the country nationalism per se cannot make a decisive contribution. It can appeal to the historical and cultural cohesion of the people, to common values, to idealism. But it has no specific ideas to offer derived from Russia’s past.

All this refers to moderate nationalism; the ideas of the extreme right are not only mad but evil. By creating foes where none exist they deflect the energies of the nation from where they are most needed—coping with the real dangers, the immense work of reconstruction. If their views were to prevail, the extreme right could well achieve what neither Hitler nor Stalin or his successors succeeded in achieving: the total ruin of the country. At present this seems to be a farfetched proposition, for the Russian people is no longer an ignorant herd.

Who then will help Russia in its predicament? The reply, paradoxically, is contained in Eugen Pottier’s song that was for decades the official anthem of the Soviet Union: help will not come from outside/neither God nor a master will bring salvation (Ni dieu, ni maitre). It can come only through the Russian people’s own efforts, its good sense and its fortitude in the face of adversity.

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  • Walter Laqueur is Chairman of the International Research Council at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D. C.
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