Politics in Contemporary Russia: The Search for Identity The Nature of Russian Political Tradition

Malyavin, Vladimir Malyavin

Vladimir Maliavin,

Institute of Slavic Studies, Tamkang University


Politics in Contemporary Russia: The Search for Identity  The Nature of Russian Political Tradition

The  collapse  of  the  USSR  has  created  a  necessity for  the  shaping  of  the  new national identity in Russia. This necessity has become even more urgent because of popular discontent with the liberal reforms in the beginning of the 90s or at least the policy connected with these reforms. Besides their well-known negative effects economy and the failure of political liberalization the reforms has also turned out to be a great blow to the main traditional cultural values and models of behavior among Russians. No wonder then that the recent years have been marked by the upsurge of anti-reformist attitudes and various attempts to restore traditional Russian life attitudes and patterns of thinking. In fact, the vast majority of literature on social issues, globalization, national culture etc. expresses this conservative and nationalistic point of view. It is no exaggeration to say that the search for a new identity is the main political problem of contemporary Russian society.

This situation has exposed some salient features of Russia’s political tradition. In fact, the whole political history of Russia is now being examined in an altogether new light, a new set of political and ideological concepts is now being used in contemporary Russia. The most influential ideological systems belong to the liberal, socialist (or leftist) and nationalist trends of political thought. A comparative   analysis of these ideological camps with their many-sided variations is quite necessary.

These trends seem quite familiar to the foreign observer, and yet they have a peculiar nature shaped by the course of Russia’s history, Russian mentality and various specific features of Russian civilization. It would be appropriate to examine this common cultural-historic background since it is usually left out or remains virtually unnoticed in Western works.

In order to provide a methodological foundation for such comparative analysis, I would like to put forth a new theory of Russian civilization and its historical development based on my study of Russian cultural history as well as comparative research on the Western and Eastern civilizations. The theory of modernization and  the conceptual tools of the postmodern thought, especially contemporary debates of the meaning of leftist and conservative politics should also be taken into  consideration and checked against the data of primary sources and sociological research. A study of this kind will help to assess the nature, political function and prospects of democratic institutions in contemporary Russia. It is expected also that the results of this study will contribute to the better understanding of comparative politics and the nature of evolving democracy in non-western societies.

One should first of all distinguish between two types of modernization. Though there exist widely divergent perspectives on the phenomenon of modernization, at least one feature of the latter remains undisputed: modernization is the growth of humankind’s mastery over nature inevitably paralleled by the growing mastery of human beings over themselves. Taken on its global scale, however, the modernizing process has its own strict limits. It is bound to lose its actual subject, i.e. the strategy of rationalization, and, therefore, come, as it were, to a visible standstill. This means in fact modernization’s falling back on itself, a retreat from representation to the generating matrix, an ongoing implosion. Technology creates power, but power eliminates technology: this is an inner dialectic of the Western modernization.

The liberal strategy of dealing with the modernization’s negativity has been the dissociation of the latter’s causes from effects or creating the gap between the globalism of the new virtual reality from show business to financial markets on the

one hand and the real world of liberal values and “life in the neighborhood” on the other. The alternative modernization moves rather in the opposite direction: it

encloses its own negativity and endows it with some social substance, basically utopian in nature, whether it is a “people’s spirit” or “proletarian solidarity”. It is permeated with the revolutionary pathos and calls for ascetic behavior to the point of self-sacrifice for the sake of the (universal) type of the “new man”. It brings about the convergence of the Will-fullness and the actual world in an omnipresent hyper-reality: Nazi or Communist myths were the reality of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Finally, as M. Heidegger argued, the existent political solutions of modernity’s problem, totalitarian and liberal alike, are illusory because the core of the nihilistic Will is not revealed in them. This core, according to Heidegger, is the most elementary force in human life, a “catastrophic anarchy” which makes unlimited consumption, i.e. wastefulness, the basic norm of human existence.

Apparently, the familiar image of modernity as a pinnacle of human universality is inauthentic. Modernity is essentially not a certain postulated unity of humanity but, on the contrary, a pure difference in existence, which is different even from itself and thus generates an incessant identity crisis. To escape its own elimination under such circumstances human thinking has to resort to the methodical, and ruthless, discrimination between what is “one’s own” and what is “alien”. Alternative forms of modernization, if they are possible at all, must take into account the presence of this inner split in man’s experience and make it a foundation of human universality. The demand for such post-modern modernities nowadays is quite obvious. What is to be achieved here is not just the organic non-repressive relationship between humanity and the world but the liberation of reason from its very desire to liberate oneself.

These methodological remarks set a new perspective for analyzing the main ideological positions in contemporary Russia. One should emphasize that Russia provides an exceptionally illuminating case for the study of modernization process. Both aspects of the latter – an affirmation of one’s specificity and the quest for universality became apparent quite early in Russia’s history. What is the nature – or rather the ideological account – of this specificity?

Now the most indisputable fact about Russia is that she is an extraordinary vast country. Empty space is not only a determining geopolitical factor of Russia but also a fundamental concept of Russian outlook. Russians have always been attracted by the desolated land that stretches out before them. As an outstanding Russian thinker F. Stepun once noted (drawing upon the poetical insight of F. Tiutchev), the key to understanding Russia lies hidden in her “mystically amorphous landscape” while the  essential element of the latter is the skyline itself, a point of transcendence in mundane existence which is constantly calling for overcoming the actual world1. Indeed, an ideal site for Russians as it is defined in Russian folklore is “the Desert” (pustyn). This desert stands for the representation of a transcendental opening that brings together spiritual and material qualities of human life. The basic intuition of Russian mind is that the unconditional openness of Being requires the reciprocal opening on behalf of Humanity. This is why the beauty of the world is perceptible only to the self-transcending spirit represented by hermits, wanderers or so called Holy Fools (yurodyvyie). As a result, Russian thought has traditionally adhered to a sort of “mystical realism” (a term coined by V.V. Zenkovsky) which presupposes the convergence of Earthly and Heavenly existence within a universally defined hierarchical order2. Such a merging, however, is nothing but the moment of a universal self-transformation, a “flame of things”. It means essentially the mutual penetration of extremes, a permanent slipping into the Other. Instead of parallelism between a subject and an object or between a sign and a thing it asserts the antinomy

of depth and surface exemplified in the notions of “trace”, “shadow”, or “an image in the mirror” (a closer look reveals that these concepts may correspond to progressive elaboration of cultural symbolism in history).

These observations pertain to the discrete, even paradoxical nature of Russia’s geographical/cultural space as vastness. The latter transcends all forms or formal unity and by definition is bound to transform itself into its very opposite: an enclosed and detached place, an island in the sea or even in the midst of the forest, and this is what Russian notion of “pustyn” really means. This conjunction of the opposites determines Russian outlook and self-awareness.

Since critical reflection cannot appropriate the “decoration of existence” the latter’s inner and outer dimensions are conceived as undivided and, consequently, all attempts to act in purely external way and, therefore, every political action are bound to bear a stamp of violence on them. This is the hidden core of Russian political culture with its seemingly paradoxical coexistence and even convergence of spontaneous democracy, the quest for the encompassing “togetherness” (sobornost) of all people and the overtly “despotic” and violent character of the governmental policy. Yet this pattern of thought presumes that political power escapes all definitions and cannot be reduced to political institutions. As a result, Russians have always been haunted by the idea that there are in fact “two Russias”, one “apparent” and another “essential” the latter being far more important and genuine (V.V. Rozanov). Hence the tendency of political power to hide itself behind the fake institutions and organizations. The Soviet period and even contemporary situation are good illustrations of this trend3.

This bifurcation of power and politics in Russia does not preclude the merging of opposites, such as the inner experience of ritual and its outward layout or the continuity of “Kingdom” (zarstvo) and the unrestrained “Freedom” (volia) in political life. These are just relatively obvious signs of this basic antinomy of Russian life. The truth here is not to be found through formal reasoning but obtained in the act of self-transcendence or self-denial. It has the weight of righteous action and can only be testified by the martyr’s body – a proper object of violence and a perfect though incomprehensible medium of the interchange between the internal abyss and the ornamental externals of human existence. The Saint’s body is transformed into the holy relics – an embodiment of life eternal. This symbolism of miracle determines not objects but that which is e-jected – Being’s springing forth: it precipitates the existence of things. This is the proper domain of cultural symbolism. The social consequences of the pattern of thinking described above are well known: authorities rule at their (all too often whimsical) will while the common people are anxious to avoid any and all contact with the state. Later the Bolshevik mobilization was successful precisely because the communists were waging quite a peculiar war – a war pitting the government against its own people.

How did this cultural pattern evolve in history? The period of the Moscow State was marked by a desire to visualize the inner or “Heavenly” images corresponding to the symbolic depth of spiritual experience – the angelic Heavens, the Sobor of Saints, the Heavenly Jerusalem etc. This trend, however, was essentially self-contradictory since the subject of traditional symbolism is not an image but rather a type, i.e. the very limit of image, a sign of self-transformation. The necessity to preserve the canonical set of types – potentially infinite in number – gave rise, as is well known, to the Split in the Orthodox Church. Eventually this course of development led to a sudden leap from symbolism operating with types to the new brand of ideological thinking which deals with of the opposition of idea and objects.

The reforms of Peter the Great put an end to the previous development of political system subordinated to the ascetic experience of inner cultivation. Yet they did not demolish the traditional pattern but simply reversed the traditional order: the logistics of the Empire was re-projected on religious symbolism changing it into a tool of secular ideology. Eventually the only viable means of bringing together reason and reality in Russia became the state machine. Indeed, for the first Russian Emperor serving the state was quite literally a sacred duty – an attitude which later produced Kozma Prutkov’s satirical comment: “Only in the state service one can learn the Truth». The gap between the internal and external reality was still there, of course, and it prevented Russians from creating a consistent mode of social and cultural life. As a result, both Enlightenment and traditional symbolism have acquired in Russia a mistaken identity. As the French philosophical saying goes, “Descartes went mad in Russia”. New cultural pattern did make possible, though, the easy transition to the “iron cage” of bureaucracy and the forced industrialization in the Soviet period.

This condition of “faked appearances”4 accounts , among other specific Russian phenomena, for the permanent co-existence of liberalism and conservatism in Russian empire while the dominant trend in social life  oscillated with astonishing regularity between these two polarities: a shift towards liberalization was inevitably followed by the wave of conservatism. A the present moment we are witnessing a  new turn to the “mystical” side of Russian political tradition represented, for lack of more suitable esoteric corporations, by the KGB’s successor.

Such is the historical background of Russian intelligentsia which on mega-historical scale represented Russia’s response  to her specific problems  Intelligentsia’s cradle was, once again, Russia’s Void but this time not Heavenly pustyn but a middle space of cultural bastardization inaugurated by Peter the Great, a nihilistic wasteland (pustyr). This sort of dwelling place was aptly described in 1890 by V. Rozanov in his letter to K. Leontiev . In this letter V. Rozanov confessed that he was haunted by the image of an “empty space without humanity and God into which the young are being pushed one by one”. As the embodiment of cultural inconsistency intelligentsia as a whole (and quite often on the individual level) was forced to take over both secular and mystical aspects of imperial tradition. The result was the inability (to cite L. Shestov’s words) “to discriminate between the ideal and the miracle” so apparent in the intelligentsia’s utopian mentality.

Eventually the only viable means of bringing together reason and reality in Russian history became the revolutionary action, i.e. action which, though being asocial and even antisocial, purported to create a new social reality. This is clearly a new “nihilistic” version of continuity between religious symbolism and bureaucratic rationality that served as the foundation of the empire. The driving force of revolution was Russian intelligentsia which had no roots in traditional society and its political order – a perfect nihilistic social group.

Such are historical and theoretical premises that lay the conditions of assessing the salient features of Russian culture and the contemporary debates on Russia’s cultural identity. Several major trends of nationalist sentiment can be discerned in this debates: 1) the attempt to link national identity with the Orthodox tradition. The representatives of this point of view are especially numerous including V. Kozhinov, V. Averianov, N. Osipov, R. Shafarevich et al. 2) the so called Euarasian ideology which claims as the basis of Russian identity the specific unity of Western and Eastern cultures in Russia. Its most well-known spokesman are A. Dugin, A. Panarin et al. 3) new forms of Russia’s messianism; 4) Critics of Russia’s integration into the global capitalist system such as A. Zinoviev, A. Parshev at al.

Looking at the Russian mentality from a point of view of comparative civilizations we can find the simplest criteria for comparing various cultural patterns in the differences between culturally determined types of human self-knowledge. The civilization of the modern West is based on the correlation between the subject and the object and thus on a reflective space which makes possible measuring and subsequently “managing” things. The starting point for the Eastern civilization (I have in mind the cultural legacy of the Far East) is a reflection on the very limit of experience. Russian tradition has been led in its mature forms to an attempt to reflect upon the very idea of a non-measurable pure difference as a condition for all living worlds. Quite often this “Russian idea” appears as a violent reaction to the unsolvable ambiguity of such predicament but also as a passionate assertion of the absolute freedom of creativity beyond culture. Consequently, the Russian mentality puts emphasis on creativity per se, i.e. anticipation of existence, and is distinguished by strong passion which is always an expression of the impasse of thought. The presumption that Russian civilization is based on an attempt to reflect on the un-reflective pure difference constituting the core of human existence explains well its apparently disintegrated condition: in Russia a sophisticated spiritual tradition of the Orthodox faith, elaborate secular culture of the Empire and material civilization with its highly developed technological systems and ideologies borrowed from the West quite visibly stand apart and possess an extraordinary degree of autonomy.

One can conclude from the above observations that Russia has been the greatest challenge to the Western versions of modernization and yet in some deep sense she cannot be torn away from the world history. Moreover, the relations of Russia and the world are destined to be that of mutual transformation: Russia must let the world in her cultural space and simultaneously give herself to the world. If Russia finds the way to overcome her deeply rooted non-identity that will be a great contribution to the world civilization. In phenomenological terms we are facing the re-discovery of that symbolic depth of existence (eclipsed by Modernity) which gives rise to various cultural patterns.

This ontology of existence will make possible bringing together the reflective distance (the Western element) and the immediate awareness (the Eastern element) in a new kind of active self-reflection. In practical terms Russians (and the world) will have to deal with the problem of the split within Russian Mind which is to blame for

the age-old disaccord between the state and intelligentsia. In recent times this split has once again facilitated the alienation of Russia’s ruling elite and nouveaux riches from the social space shaped by tradition.

For general assessment of contemporary Russian politics one should take into account the current stage of political thought, i.e. the results of the Postmodern turn in political theory and the new theoretical inventory it has brought about. Of special interest here are contemporary debates on the meaning of leftist and conservative politics as well as explorations on the nature of democracy in the Postmodern age.

These general remarks suggest the way to overcome the opposition between tradition and modernity and contribute to the social consensus in Russia as well as to the better understanding of the modernization process on global scale. We can assume by now  that “alternative  modernization” is not  a  historical  curiosity  but  a  necessary  goal  which  is  to  be  achieved  by the joint efforts of  humanity. Until now we have been familiar with the “closed” forms of modernity  which resulted either in the social catastrophe, as in the case of the totalitarian modernity, or in a growing tension in the world finally leading to a sort of the global  “domestication” of terrorism. What is needed is an “open” form of modernization which would give priority to the very act of relatedness over rarefied and ideologically sanctified social-cultural “essences”. If Russia is to announce the advent of such modernity, then it must be stressed that only Russia open to the world will match the world.

We can safely assume that ruling elite in contemporary Russia is facing fairly acute and yet quite peculiar contradictions which are traditional for Russian society. Of course, their social environment and technical background have changed dramatically, yet one cannot fail to notice that the course of Russia’s political development has followed – to a large extent involuntary, no doubt – the traditional matrix of Russia’s political culture. We can observe, firstly, that Russia is governed by a close circle of informally related people, a sort of corporation which transcends the visible political institutions and legally defined competences of regular official organs. Like the Communist power it bears no political responsibility for what is going on in the country. Yet this time its domination is based on Russia’s place as a natural resources supplier in the global capitalist system. Secondly, the power is exercised by a cohesion simultaneously conveyed and disguised by the electronic media which is under complete control of the ruling group. This power of electronic show is a new element in Russia’s political system which makes it very updated and stable. In today’s official language it means “the strengthening of power’s vertical dimensions”. The third and, perhaps, the most important outcome of this development is the, once again, informal continuity between the “hidden” elite and the masses of population devoid of any organizing force. The myth of “Russian mafia” is but a new expression of this link between power and asocial elements in society. This condition precludes the formation of large-scale organized opposition and in the final account civil society itself. Needless to say, personal characteristics of new Russia’s ruler are of minor importance. We are dealing with a system of politics, which is extremely difficult and even dangerous to overturn. For the smashing of this system can hardly restructure Russian society along the lines dictated by liberal democracy. It is much more likely to create full-fledged chaos instead. The evolution of Yeltsin’s political regime bears a convincing testimony to that.

A Debate on Nationalism


A new political wave is rising in Russia – the wave of nationalism. A fairly complicated interplay of various factors – social, political and cultural – constitutes its historical background.  Its main source is primitive xenophobia coupled with the feeling of a historical failure and national humiliation so widespread in today’s Russia. The frequency of crimes that occurred on racial or xenophobic grounds (recognized as such in court) is not very high. For instance, the number of murders of this kind fluctuates in recent years between 36 and 46 annually5. But ethnical conflicts are growing. The recent disturbances in Kondopoga, a small town in Northern Russia, where criminal activity of a Chechen gang have resulted in the expulsion of Chechen migrants from the town is a case in point.

Disregarding the circumstances of sporadic ethnic conflicts, one can safely assume that contemporary Russian nationalism differs sharply from its civic and constitutional counterpart in the West: it is essentially reactionary, aimed at the restoration of the former Russia’s grandeur and lacking the positive vision of the future”. It has the character of compensatory chauvinism resembling, as one contemporary commentator put it, a sort of a “phantom pain”6. No doubt, contemporary Russian nationalism trades on painful social consequences and even obvious failures of liberal reforms in the post-Soviet Russia. Its attractiveness has been somewhat subdued in the recent years because of a sustained economic growth and general stabilization, but, surely, it has not dissolved and poses constant threat to existing quasi-liberal political regime. But the main reasons of the nationalism’s upsurge in contemporary Russia are related to the psychological conditions of Russian society. The collapse of the Soviet Union has shaken the very foundations of Russian traditional identity creating a deep cultural trauma for the vast majority of Russia’s population. What we are witnessing now in Russian society is the desperate search for the new forms of national identity. The directions of search are many and often incompatible.

The political role of nationalism in Russia is quite ambiguous and serves many functions. To begin with, nationalist slogans appealing to the unity and common “spirit” of Russian people sound quite attractive under today’s conditions of predominantly corporatist and authoritarian Russian politics. Yet it does not mean that nationalist ideas and even slogans are of no use to the existing regime. They articulate all too heated sometimes protest and frustration of the common people and mark some extreme political positions that can be absorbed, in a more moderate and balanced form, into the governmental policy. In this way they can even strengthen the control of the ruling elite over society Nationalism is even an integral part of the globalization process because it provides national icons and brands so badly needed in the global competition of civilizations. The example of China whose leadership resorts now and then to nationalist slogans is a good example of this strategic usage of nationalist sentiment. Russia, being involved in a tough competition and at times even an open conflict with the West, is no exception. Putin’s administration  does make use of the national sentiment, albeit on a moderate scale and under tight control.

Now we can understand better the condition of Russian nationalism which may seem in a sense paradoxical. The sociological statistic reveals that almost 60% of Russians approve the basic nationalist slogan “Russia is for Russians!”7 . But politically nationalist movement is represented by several tiny, marginal political parties which exist under heavy pressure from administration and have very restricted, almost negligible influence on the legislative bodies. At the present moment most of them are formally banned. Here is the list of main parties with a strong nationalist flavor:

“Rodina” (Motherland): the only nationalist party with a significant representation in the Duma (Russia’s Parliament) now on the verge of extinction.

“Russkoye Nacionalnoye Edinstvo” (Russian National Unity), a militant organization headed by A. Barkashov.. Recently banned.

“Narodnaya Volia” (People’s Will), chairman – S. Baburin, member of the State Duma.

“Narodno-Patrioticheskaya Partia” (People’s Patriotic Party), chairman general I. Rodionov.

“Evrasiiskaya partia” (Eurasian Party), chairman A. Dugin.

“Nacionalno-Derzhavnaia partia” (National-State Party).

“Za Rus Sviatuyu” (For Holy Russia).

Quite a prominent role in Russia’s nationalist camp has been played in recent years by the so called “Dvizhenie protiv nelegalnoy immigracii” (Movement against illegal immigration) headed by A. Belov (Potkin).

An outspoken nationalist rhetoric is also a distinctive feature of V. Zhirinovsky, a notorious leader of the “Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia”.

An interesting political hybrid is represented by E. Limonov’s “National-Bolshevik Party”, one of the most active organizations in the ranks of militant opposition. Its nationalist component has considerably faded in recent years. Limonov’s Party is drifting toward radical leftist position.

No matter what its political chances are, nationalism in today’s Russia represents one of the most perspective and plausible options. Its contemporary rise in Russia is quite natural and even inevitable.


The shape of Russian nationalism is not easy to define. A multi-national state and  historically until to the present time a supranational state, Russia has no ready-made or even more or less elaborate tradition of nationalist thought and identity. Nationalism in Russia is all too closely interwoven with the cultural and global pretensions of the former empire and is being torn apart between its political, religious (with Orthodox Christianity as a main marker), cultural and ethnical versions.. There is, as we have noted, no single or even influential nationalist political party. The radical wing of the nationalist movement is successfully marginalized by the government, its more moderate versions are incorporated into governmental policy. The above-mentioned National-Bolshevik Party can serve a good example of this.  In a word, nationalism is far from being a serious political force in Russia. Yet the peculiar point of Russian politics is the fact that dominant political ideas or rather vague political mood in this country may be quite influential without formal articulation. It may well remain an elusive atmosphere, the “air” of social life making possible an abrupt and unexpected change in political history. Russia is still a land of unknown possibilities.

It is worth stressing that the nationalist trend in Russian political thought is represented mostly by a group of relatively young thinkers, all in their thirties, who must yet find their place on Russian political arena. These are, to name but a few, M. Remizov, V. Averianov, Y. Kholmogorov,  K. Krylov, A. Mahler, D. Volodikhin, I. Brazhnikov et al. They are far from being similar in their views: some are fascinated by the glory of empire, others and, perhaps, a majority are willing to transform Russian Federation into a huge nation-state, a unitary state of one dominant nation, one state religion and one normative (Russian, of course) culture, while some are drawn to what may be call a Eurasian complex of Russian political thinking.

Minor differences notwithstanding, all these thinkers (hardly active and even less mature politicians) share some basic nationalist presumptions. They can be treated as one intellectual group whose political views may exert great influence on future Russian politics. In the foregoing pages I’ll try to examine critically their opinions and main arguments. Perhaps the most thorough and systematic manifesto of Russia’s contemporary nationalism is to be found in the book “The Russian Doctrine” written for the most part by V. Averianov and Y. Kholmogorov4. The latter has also published his nationalist manifesto in another word with a bold title “Russian Nationalist”5. Of great interest are also the essays by K. Krylov and M. Remizov – perhaps the most intellectually trained and talented writer in the nationalist camp today.

As one can easily guess, the nationalist thinkers have an extremely gloomy view of contemporary situation in Russia. Virtually every nationalist publication starts with a frenzied description of Russia’s deplorable condition: the country is being brutally and systematically humiliated on the international stage, she is deprived of independence and flooded by products of vulgar Western civilization, common people live in outright misery, the government is corrupt and inefficient, a virtual abyss has grown between authorities and society, Russian people are doomed to die out etc. These lamentations serve as a prelude to advertising nationalism as the only ideology capable of saving Russia, in fact the sole normative way for Russian society. On the very first page of the introduction to Y. Kholmogorov’s book K. Krylov defines nationalism as “an apology of the common sense”, while Kholmogorov himself shrewdly confuses nationalism with much more plausible patriotism. The former, he asserts, is “a normal feeling of a normal man, just like patriotism”6.  He is even ready to admit that the nation is “a community of citizens” – only to instill a nationalist contents into this basically liberal definition.

Deliberately mixing nationalism with patriotism or, to be exact, providing a patriotic guise for nationalist xenophobia is one of many tricks used by the nationalist thinkers to gain popularity. Nationalists’ slogans in Russia, like elsewhere, demand preservation of purported “normal”, “natural”, “traditional”, “organic” or “commonsensical” ways of life. Nationalists appeal to what they call the backbone of society, “the salt of the earth”, i.e. a common, normal, ordinary man. But only as a bearer of ideas and values that nationalists prescribe to him. It is precisely here that nationalism’s major weakness lies, for this appeal to subjective reason and, consequently, principal arbitrariness of nationalism as typically modernist ideology is absolutely incompatible with the claim to maintain and even restore what nationalism presumes to be the pristine organic wholeness of social life.

Let us examine nationalist rhetoric in more detail. Its starting point, as has been noted already, is the supposed destructiveness of liberalism. The ugly pseudo-liberal policy of the Yeltsin period is a case in point. The dark sides of Yeltsin’s reforms are taken as a sure proof of liberalism’s historical failure. In the meantime nationalist writers do not miss every opportunity to accuse liberals of hypocrisy. “Even the most angelic-like (sic!) apostles of tolerance, writes Kholmogorov, in their private life turn out to be much more tough xenophobes than even the toughest nationalists”7.  This cheap demagogy is destined to persuade the reader that xenophobia  is in fact inevitable and it would be only more sincere not to conceal it. No doubt, a good excuse for the nationalist sentiment!

The positive side of the nationalist program is represented generally as an arbitrary selection of facts and values which can support nationalist views. Forgetting their respect of normality nationalist thinkers proudly declare that they deliberately “choose a piece of nation’s past and turn it into one’s own fate”. A daring statement, one should note, almost a celebration of idiosyncrasy. But the goal of this nationalist self-reflection is the affirmation of a supranational, imperial by its scale and ambitions unity, a real embodiment of “Russian spirit”. Russia should strive for “national autocracy” and “spiritual sovereignty” This passage from the individual  idiocyncrasy to national solidarity, a sort of ideological tour de force, s well exemplified by the opening statements of the “Russian Doctrine”. Its authors proclaim, that Russian civilization possesses “a huge integrating potential” which is once again in great demand in the modern world. According to the authors of “Russian Doctrine” nation itself is a permanently expanding “social organism” which comes into being as a particularly strong tribe capable of integrating other tribes and social groups. This supra-tribal unity gives birth to the state which constantly absorbs new territories and tribes8. So for many (though by no means all) Russian nationalists – and they stand out in this regard as typically Russian – the idea of nation is connected not to separatism and isolation but, on the contrary, to a sort of the “power field that holds together different ethnic groups”. V. Averianov calls the normative existence of nation a “dynamic conservatism” distinguishing it both from traditional “passive” conservatism and conservatism of a “revolutionary” type which strives to restore or, rather, re-establish traditional institutions by violent means.

The emphasis on the supranational quality of Russian national idea is not something peculiar to Russia. Suffice to recall the appeal to the values of “Nordic race” by German Nazism or a pagan Europhilia among the contemporary New Right in Europe. The problem with Russian nationalism is that it cannot make a definite choice between Orthodox Christianity, Eurasian “continental” unity or even Slavic pagan substrate. Nor do we find in nationalists’ writings any attempt to explain why some national states have expanded so successfully while others have not. The political system of Russia should be no less pluralistic and complicated: it must combine the elements of monarchy, democracy and aristocracy

In any case nation is not to be equated with any particular and actually existing social body. It is rather a power of social-cultural integration or even, to be precise, mobilization. What are the limits of this (mobilizing) integration which account also for the specificity of a given nation and its cultural tradition? One would search in vain for the clear criteria of this limit representing in fact the very essence of culture. The more conservative nationalist thinkers relate it to Russia’s Orthodox Christianity and its peculiar relationship with the state which traditionally is thought to compose a “symphony”, i.e. relative independence of Church and imperial/mobilizing State. Most nationalists insist on granting Orthodox Christianity a status of State religion with all social and educational privileges that accompany it. In order to substantiate their point of view they resort to a dubious, to say the least, statistics and claim, for example, that 85 % of Russian population belong to the Orthodox Church or, to handle the issue from the other side, adepts of other religions and non-bilievers comprise no more that 10 % of Russia’s population. In reality, the number of regular church-goers in Russia does not exceed several percent.

This attitude towards religion is startling in its own way. The Orthodox Church (for lack of other partners in the Christian world) is looked upon by Russian nationalists as just an expedient tool of government and its policy of national mobilization. The spiritual life of Church, the matters of faith are hardly mentioned at all. This situation corresponds in fact to what E. Gellner once described as the “third stage” of Christian history. It is the stage “of modernist theology, when the “belief” has acquired negligible content, when the claim to continuity with their purely nominal predecessors becomes the only real psychic reward and significance of adherence, and it is doctrine which is played down as irrelevancy”9. But already hundreds years ago, at the turn of the XXth century, a renowned Russian thinker N.A. Berdyaev directed the similar criticism to the Head of the Holy Synod, the ruling committee of Russian Orthodox Church, K. Pobedonostsev – a man of extremely conservative views who treated the Church as just one more governmental agency. Berdyaev accused Pobedonostsev of the lack of faith and even of latent nihilism10. The attitude of Russian nationalists toward religion demonstrates with all clarity that despite their anti-modern diatribes they remain thoroughly modern, technologically minded in their outlook.

We come across a deep contradiction in the nationalist ideology. On the one hand, the Russian nation is defined as a supranational, even global force capable of integrating various nationalities and ethnic traditions. On the other hand, the very existence of Russian nation as an actual social entity becomes problematic. It does not exist but is rather to be constructed through ideological indoctrination and mobilization. This contradiction sometimes stands out with utmost clarity in nationalist writings. For example, Y. Kholmogorov asserts in his book, that “the nation has the right for objective existence” but later defines it as just “futurological projection”. Nationalism itself, according to Kholmogorov, is nothing but a “technology of producing nations out of chaotic ethnical and cultural substrate”11.

Indeed, the authors of “Russian Doctrine” admit that Russians are characterized by the “absence of ethnic solidarity, dispersion, inability to defend themselves from the aliens, a passionate interest in other cultures”. These are hardly features that can create a solid nation if we are to recall the classical words of Ernest Renan who defined nation as “a large-scale solidarity”. M. Remizov, one of the most perceptive observers in the nationalist camp, admits that Russia’s history is marked by the indifference or even open hostility of state and society toward nationalist ideas. Nationalism in Russia, he concludes, must be created almost from the scratch and it must be articulated as an ethnic nationalism. Remizov contends that the time for civic nationalism has not yet come in Russia. Meanwhile he, like Averianov, carefully delineates ethnical nationalism proper from “ethnocracy” which is the rule of a particular ethnic group and from “traditionalist” nationalism which refutes modernity in the name of traditional order. Remizov admits that national unity cannot be reduced to the links of blood. It is enough, he says, that we think and act in categories of our common origin. Yet he holds fast to primordialism claiming that Russian-ness is something given and self-evident. Russian ethnicity, he concludes, is “the syncretic unity of Russian phenotype, Russian language, historical mythology, Orthodox outlook, Orthodox esthetic, Russian landscape and many other things” 12.

One can’t fail to note that Russian nationalist discourse (and nationalism, as is well known, is essentially a discourse) fits almost perfectly the definition of the “Asiatic nationalism” suggested in the classical study of nationalist movements by Hans Kohn. While Western nationalism, according to Kohn, was closely connected in its origin with the concepts of individual liberty and rational cosmopolitanism, the Oriental nationalist discourse praises the authoritarian uniformity of state and faith centered around the basically irrational, emotionally conceived pre-civilized folk concept. The latter is elevated to the dignity of religious ideal. As Kohn points out, this type of nationalism is not rooted in a political and social reality. This is why it is, as we have seen, mostly concerned with “historical myths” and “futurological projects” and lacks immediate connection with the present13. No doubt, it will never lead to civic nationalism that Remizov wants to reach in future.  The sharp opposition of Western and Non-Western nationalisms suggested by H. Kohn seems a bit Eurocentric, though. Contemporary Russian nationalism is essentially a modernist ideology of political mobilization which shares all the problems and, I would add, the major fallacy of this totalitarian trend.

The root of the problem has been aptly perceived by E. Gellner when he noted that nationalist ideology is bound to reproduce itself and it belongs to the world of mass reproduction. Structurally nationalism is similar all over the world despite its passion for ethnical specificity and “spiritual sovereignty”. Where does this commonality (which gives nationalism a distinctly profane taste) come from? Its real origin, I guess, is an inner tautology of a self-identical subject in the Western essentialist metaphysics with its “self-binding” (Heidegger) and essentially nihilistic will to power, i.e. will to self-determination. Nationalism has no need of ethnical specificity since, like any ideological system, it provides its own foundation and creates its self-apology by transforming reflection on the subject into the subject of reflection. Nationalism is eager to put on itself various historical clothes precisely because its metaphysics of self-identity is sentenced to historical emptiness  and is incapable of historical development. It comes once and for good as a “historical myth” or “futurological project”, almost a self-professed utopia. If traditional society is marked by the merging of values and appearances of life, nationalism represents the opposite situation: its ideal is devoid of any real content. As a result, nationalism reproduces not facts or even artifacts of some kind but only its own will to reproduction. Nationalists take this will for the magical capacity of their idealized nationalism to “integrate” peoples and societies. An understandable illusion since metaphysical self-identity does not know any opposites.

The only way out of this tautological circle is self-elimination which creates the spiral of “mimetic violence” to quote a memorable expression of R. Girard. Violence, wrapped in a more respectable notion of mobilization – this is a real backbone of nationalist discourse. Y. Kholmogorov, a more outspoken advocate of nationalist mobilization, compares nationalist politicians with surgeons (sic!) that fix the bones of the social body for its benefit but at the price of inflicting severe pain to the people14.  But we have to take into account that, generally speaking, the nationalist discourse is torn apart between “organic” and “voluntarist” elements, i.e. between the totality of the “people’s spirit” and purely mechanical “mass mobilization”. Choosing the former option, the nationalist makes the logical mistake of petition principii, because he has to derive politics from the totality of social life and at the same time to affirm the perfect correspondence of this totality to the arbitrary chosen image of nation: he presupposes what he proves. And if he prefers the latter solution he commits the mistake of pars pro toto for he imposes the subject of politics (i.e. a party of nationalist “surgeons”) on the social totality and thus creates the split between the “self-conscious” or militant avant-guard of society and the backward masses.

In general, mobilization is much more preferable for the nationalist ideologists because it justifies so well their pretensions to heal society by their political surgery. Yet this choice creates one more dilemma: how can mobilization be reconciled with nationalism’s claim to represent “normal feelings of normal man”?  Let me remind that notorious Carl Schmitt advocated the necessity of the state of emergency for the nationalist policy. But he finally came to a bizarre – to say the least – idea of politics as life denying life15. The historical results of this decision are only too well known. No wonder, nationalist discourse in today’s Russia is completely silent about them.

The talk on the normative nature of nationalist values could be excused, if not justified, in view of the assault of various minorities on the “silent majority” in contemporary society. Helas, the calls for “normal life” are just meaningless. The social norm, like the norm of health, cannot have positive content. It can be detected only as a reaction to the external threat or deviant behavior, in a word – in moments of emergency. The nationalists are appealing to all kinds of emergent situations primarily because it is the only way for them to exist and be in demand at all.

The theoretical dead-ends of nationalism are but a special case of a more general crisis of modernist ideology. The nature of this crisis can be briefly depicted thus: the willingness of Western man to reach the fullness of objective knowledge about himself has led to the substitution of a real Ego by its symbolic counterpart. Hence the incessant complaints about the non-reality of social life. This symbolic substitute embodies the self-transcendent, self-eliminating nature of desire in a sense similar to the many-colored but empty screen of media that has filled (or replaced, if you wish) the public space. In this virtual world everything exists by (non)virtue of its non-being. Every existence is to be forgotten. Nationalism is one of the more attractive manifestations of this trend toward self-emptying of reality. Its bewildering logical inconsistencies which amount to positing existence by virtue o its inexistence, are the outcome of the self-eliminating nature of contemporary social reality itself. The self-destructive character of nationalism can be discerned in its tendency, common to all totalitarian ideologies, to bring together symbolic and actual dimensions of existence, to equate spirit with matter. This is a suicidal tendency in its most obvious and determined form.

Contemporary nationalism is an integral part of the political economy of postindustrial capitalism – essentially the economy of sign, the exchange of the void. It is attractive precisely to the extent it promises what cannot be obtained; it is convincing by the degree of its inner inconsistence. No wonder, young Russian nationalists tend to avoid a cool-tempered analysis of the very concept of nationalism. Y. Kholmogorov in his book even reserves for himself the right for “theoretical pluralism” leaving no hope of making head or tail out of nationalism.

An appeal to violence and a taste for catchy but empty metaphors, even its frenzied claims for its solid common sense are sure symptoms of its incapacity to offer theoretically sound and practically efficient solution of the modern ideological crisis. Its current popularity in Russia is largely the result of the ideological vacuum created by the failure of communism and the cynical Yeltsin’s policy named liberal.  Politically nationalism in today’s Russia is a marginalized movement supported  by small groups of intellectuals. Yet it has its permanent place in Russian politics and is moderately used by the ruling elite both for home and foreign goals. In home policy it is destined to contribute to the solidarity of Russian citizens while on the international stage it serves to strengthen the feeling of Russia’s uniqueness and even contribute to Russia’s cultural brand on a global market of civilizations. Still, the Russian government is reluctant to promote nationalist ideas actively and persistently because of their explosive and destructive potential.


Russia as a Global Power


The issue of globalization is naturally one of the most hotly debated topics in contemporary Russia. It is also quite natural that nationalist and socialist thinkers are strongly against Russia’s globalization in Western style. A significant part of leftist political thinkers, notably A. Zinoviev, A. Buzgalin. V. Sofronov et al. uphold the idea of “antiglobalization” or “alterglobalization” based on the concepts of sustained development, social justice and radical democracy* (See: “Antiglobalism: teoria and practica antiglobalistskogo dvizhenia (Alterglobalism: Theory and Practice of the Antiglobalist Movement”, ed. A. Buzgalin, Moscow, 2003.). There exist also in Russia the right wing alterglobalists using liberal-conservative rhetoric. Yet even outspoken foes of globalization have to admit that Russia does not have any viable project capable of overturning globalization.

So it is only to be expected that alongside the rise of the nationalist ideas, the contemporary debates on Russian politics and identity, including the identity politics, are characterized by the appeal to the global message of Russia as a supranational state and Russian civilization. This trend is represented by a very different thinkers both by their professional background and political orientation. Most of them, understandably, belong to the liberal camp and call for the liberal reforms. Interestingly enough, the economic bloc of president Putin’s government is represented by politicians and scholars of this kind. Their economic and political views, though, are not very original, being in fact the rendition of Western liberal theories for Russia’s contemporary development. Of much greater interest is the program of those who are striving to combine Russia’s religious tradition and spiritual values with Russia’s global tasks in the manner slightly reminiscent the theories of “Confucian capitalism” in the Far East. This attitude contains an opportunity for Russia to emerge as a global power while preserving its local specificity and thus a global appeal in the context of global competition of cultures.

Perhaps, one of the most influential thinkers in the ranks of the “new globalists” is A. Neklessa. The latter contends that “Russia is being used by the global powers economically but is rejected culturally”. Consequently, he calls for the “new cultural identity” and even “new kind of state”, “neo geostrategical awareness” for Russia. Russia’s main problem, according to A. Neklessa, is its dual, both European and Asian, i.e. “Eurasian” nature which produces a primitive, rigidly unitary, autocratic, essentially homeostatic political system. This contributes to the trend towards purely formal and one-dimensional codes of communication, a sort of Russia’s version of M. Weber’s infamous “iron cage of bureaucracy”. A. Neklessa does admit that Russia possesses now “a space of a free social discourse which has not only national, but also transnational dimension”. Yet this discourse has not been very productive mainly because both the government and society do not feel much need of it *.

A bold attempt to promote a global message of Russian tradition can be found in the recent works of Y.V. Gromyko, a prodigious writer well versed in a wide range of topics from social psychology to religion and education. Y. Gromyko is putting forth a many-faceted program of Russia’s globalization which combines Russian Orthodoxy’s theology and cultural values, Fichter’s philosophy of subjectivity, modern theoretical methodology and postmodern political thought of A. Negri and G. Agamben.

Gromyko admits that Russia is largely lacking a clear-cut national and even civilizational identity: Russian, he points out, today “do not constitute a unitary subject like, for example, Chinese” and “do not conceive of themselves as a unitary family which possesses common goals and common mode of action in the contemporary globalizing world”*. He envisages three future paths for Russia: firstly, liberal perspective which means the appropriation of history by subject; secondly, a so called “populist perspective” (a term derived from the tradition of Russian Narodniki) represented by an outstanding nationalist writer V. Kozhinov and assuming the role of history’s agent to the “People” as a cultural unity; thirdly, traditionalist-conservative perspective (its main protagonist is original Russian thinker Y. Schiffers) which presumes “the cultivation of national genius”. Each perspective corresponds to three kinds of “spiritual resources of personality”: the emancipation of man from the external authority, the discovery of communication’s new potential and the reproduction of a specific type of consciousness. Y. Gromyko’s main thesis is that the foundation of social life is neither institution nor norms nor even the structures of the unconscious but an anthropological reality proper which amounts to man’s self-transcendence. This reality is meta-cultural, meta-subjective and is justified finally by the Christian notion of Godmanhood. A genuine identity, Gromyko claims, is “transgressional”. That is why Russia must accept the challenge of globalism and strive for an active role in global politics. Indeed, any civilization, just like nation, must transcend its actual boundaries. From this point of view, there is no contradiction between national, civilizational and global dimensions of modern history.

It is clear, that the breakthrough to the global existence presupposes a kind of metanoia, a transformation of mind. Its meaning is the overcoming the actualities of history and the acceptance, as the author puts it, “anthropic heterarchies”, i.e. the co-existence of fluid quasi-hierarchies which means the passage from world domination to the world leadership. It is essentially a psychological change, for the modern order, Y. Gromyko says, is essentially psychocratic. Russians must become a “transnational community” and can even be called by their English appellation: Russians. These global Russian “do not want to impose what is their own: their task is to understand others and make judgments about them”* (p.98).

This attitude places Y. Gromyko somewhere beyond both liberal and nationalist projects. He believes that “the age of self-professed doctrines is over”. As for global realities, Russia is destined to be “a Eurasian bridge” not in the narrow sense of commercial transit but in a much wider sense of leveling the development in the vast space of Eurasia. The highest phase of this “Eurasian assemblage” is the “pure mental communication which lays out the conditions of any mutual understanding”* (p.283). So, the author is rather skeptical about priority of Russia’s relations with the countries of the CIS area. The space of the former USSR, he believes, can be more easily integrated and drawn into Russia’s orbit through Russia’s activity on a global scale.

This project, quite naturally, requires a multi-dimensional theoretical foundation. So Y. Gromyko borrows from many sources but he is particularly eager to provide a comprehensive anthropological perspective of Russia’s globality. The latter’s main starting point for him is no less than the conception of the Holy Trinity which, as Y. Gromyko conceives, justifies the unity of thought and thinking, word and language, act and activity. This unity produces what is called by Russian thinkers of systematic methodology “thought-activity”, establishing in its turn “the anthropological matrices of culture”. What is presumed here, I guess, is the infinite efficiency of the absolute act within the finite activity, something like “action adequate to Aion” in J. Deleuze’s philosophy or “Kung-fu” in Chinese tradition. The problem is how this unity of act and activity is to be substantiated? The fact is that the thought is incapable to think itself just like the fire cannot throw a light on itself or the mirror to reflect itself. We should rather suppose that the Trinitarian dogma conceals in itself a rupture, the infinite depth of the Other which can be only symbolically discerned. Grammatical constructions hide this depth and make possible its projection – actually illegal – on the world of things. The tautologies of “thought-activity” are essentially empty, their meaning does not coincide with their reference. The result is that the formal unity of “thought-activity” corresponds to the totalizing unity of the “willing will” which amounts, paradoxically at first sight but reasonably on further reflection, to the paroxysm of will. Indeed, the power craving for identity with itself becomes utterly powerless.

Russia’s history provides a good impetus to reflect upon the causes and consequences of crises related to this ambiguity of cultural symbolism. In many ways it exposes the limits and yet the unquenchable thirst of symbolic communication within the “matrices of thought-activity”. Yet Y. Gromyko prefers to develop this topic in terms of personality’s growth: in the beginning a theodicy (Trinitarian God), then anthropodicy, i.e. self-discovery of man in the universe, and, finally, the human being’s discovery of its nature as a Son, possessing “The gift of the Father” in itself. A reasonable and instructive evolution although giving a taste of liberal “appropriation of history by personality” that Y. Gromyko deems fruitless for Russia. And yet one can not discard the course of history which implies, among other things, a certain spiritual evolution of humankind. We should remember that postmodern thought rejected by most Russian thinkers, in particular from the nationalist camp, has been a reaction to the totalitarian thinking historically related to the formal identities of general methodologies.

Y. Gromyko’s views illustrate well the current tendency among Russian academic thinkers as well as politicians to synthesize the quest for national identity and the global ambitions of Russia. In fact, Russian communism represented precisely this kind of synthesis, albeit an unsuccessful one. No doubt, the mainstream of Russian political thinking will conform to this type of strategy while nationalist isolationism can hardly satisfy Russia’s claim for the status of Big Power. Moreover, nationalist ideology is, as we have seen, detrimental to Russia’s future not to mention its fundamental conceptual flaws.



1 F.A. Stepun. Chaemaia Rossiia  (Anticipated Russia). Saint-Petersburg: Russian Christian Institute, 1999,. p. 9-10. (in Russian).

2  V.V. Zenkovsky, Istoria Russkoi filosofii (History of Russian Philosophy). Vol. 1, Leningrad: Nauka, p. 39 (in Russian)

3 Y. Pivovarov. Russkaia politika v istoricheskom I kulturnom otnosheniach (Russian politics in its historical and cultural aspects). Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2006, p. 21 (in Russian)


4 Already K. Marx pointed out “the deceptive appearance” of Russian state after Peter the Great.


5  Russkii nationalism (Russian Nationalism), ed. by A. Verkhovsky. Moscow October, 2006, p. 91 (in Russian).

6  Ibid., p. 275. This definition belongs to B. Dubin.


7  This is according to the polls conducted by Russia’s leading institution in this field – Levada-Center. The exact figures are 58% for 2004 and 55% for 2005. http/levada.ru/press/ 2006082500.htm


4   The full text of “The Russian Doctrine” is available only on-line. See: http/ safety.spbstu.ru  On the same website there is also  an abridged version.

5   Y. Kholmogorov, Russkii nationalist (Russian Nationalist), Moscow: Evropa, 2006 (in Russian).

6   Y. Kholmogorov, op.cit., p. 3, 60.

7   Y. Kholmogorov, op.cit., p. 43.

8   Russian Doctrine”. http/ safety.spbstu.ru



9   E. Gellner, Spectacles and Predicaments: Essays in Social Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 265.

10   N.A. Berdyaev, Oputy literaturnye I obschestvennye (Literary and Social Essays), Moscow, 1998, p. 157.

11   Y. Kholmogorov, op.cit., p. 107.

12  M. Remizov, Apologia nacionalisma (An apology of Nationalism), http/apn/ru/remizov

13   See: H. Cohn, Prophets and Peoples: Studies in Nineteenth Century Nationalism. New York: Macmillan, 1957.


14   Y. Kholmogorov, op.cit., p. 56.


15   C. Schmitt, The Concept of the Political