Strategic Uses of Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict: Interest and Identity in Russia and the Post-Soviet Space
By Pal Kolsto
Edinburgh University Press, 2022, 294 pp.
Fluid Russia: Between the Global and the National in the Post-Soviet Era
By Vera Michlin-Shapir
Northern Illinois University Press, 2021, 264 pp.
Two books explore the evolution of Russian national identity in recent decades. Kolsto’s in-depth study looks at the intricacies of nationalism in the post-Soviet space, from perestroika in the late 1980s to the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas in 2014. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, leaders of the newly independent states promptly switched from championing communism to embracing ethnic nationalism. In Russia, however, national identity remained vague, and the term “Russianness” was ambiguous and politically charged. On the one hand, Russia was (and remains) a multiethnic nation comprising two dozen ethnic territories, some of them ethnocracies in their own right. On the other hand, “Russianness” was not confined to Russia’s borders: the government and the people alike tend to claim that their neighbors, Ukrainians and Belarusians, are mere subgroups of a larger Russian nation, and self-identified ethnic Russians live across the post-Soviet space. Kolsto’s thorough analysis portrays Russian identity as an entanglement of the imperial and the ethnic. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was universally applauded in Russia, including by ethnonationalists who used to criticize Putin for neglecting the interests of ethnic Russians. They subsequently condemned Putin, however, for not going all the way to Kyiv in what they saw as a betrayal of their Russian kin in Ukraine. With his new invasion of Ukraine, Putin has suppressed his ethnonationalist opponents and fully appropriated the broad nationalist cause.
Michlin-Shapir posits, contrary to many scholars, that the blurred character of Russian national identity—its “fluid Russianness,” variably about language, culture, ethnicity, citizenship, and residence—is neither abnormal nor a source of crisis. The collapse of habitual social routines and the withdrawal of the state from people’s lives following the disintegration of the Soviet Union left Russians confused and disoriented. But it was not simply the destruction of the Soviet state that shook Russians. Michlin-Shapir emphasizes that there was another, more common factor at play: postcommunist Russia was exposed to the forces of globalization. The experience of freedom of movement, the free flow of information and capital, and a fast-changing social environment produced in Russia a fragmented national identity and a sense of insecurity, familiar to many societies in the globalized West. Putin worked to instill a sense of stability and security among Russians after becoming president in 2000 but, Michlin-Shapir writes, his attempts to grant his people a unified identity proved unsuccessful because “he never isolated Russia from the global world.” Soon after her book was published, the invasion of Ukraine led to Russia’s radical deglobalization, demonstrating how even the most insightful analysis may be tested by the heinous actions of a dictator.