Transcript: Russian Nationalism

This week’s podcast is an interview with Marlene Laruelle on Russian nationalism.

Here’s a partial transcript to whet your appetite. There’s a lot I didn’t include like our discussion on Aleksandr Dugin, Cosmism and the New Chronology. For that, you’ll have to listen to the interview.

If you do want to see transcripts like this, then support them by becoming a patron of the SRB Podcast.

This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity. Look out for the full audio version soon.

Marlene Laruelle is the Associate Director and Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES),in the Elliott School of International Affairs, at George Washington University, and co-director of PONARS. She is the author of several books in English, French and Russian. Her most recent books are Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields, published by Routledge, an edited collection Entangled Far Rights: A Russian-European Intellectual Romance in the 20th Century,published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, and co-authored with Jean Radvanyi, Understanding Russia: The Challenges of Transformation published by Rowman & Littlefield.


You’ve just published two books on Russian nationalism: Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields and an edited collection entitled Entangled Far Rights: A Russian-European Intellectual Romance in the 20th Century. How have scholars have understood the topic of Russian nationalism?

This a good question to begin with because there have been several ways and waves of understanding Russian nationalism globally in the Western scholarship. What is interesting is that in the Cold War it was mostly studied as a political philosophy or history of ideas and there was no real study into the sociological background of who can be considered a Russian nationalist. It was seen as something exotic happening under the Marxist-Leninist facade of the regime.

In the 1990s, in fact, this Cold War trend of looking at Russian nationalism only as a discourse continued, but it was mostly seen as a kind of illness in the Russian body. It really represented the worst of Russia, of the Communists, and Zhirinovsky. So the literature in the 1990’s was also a caricature and very limited to political philosophy.

It’s only in the 2000s that things began changing with new approaches, and more people doing sociological and cultural anthropologies of Russian nationalism. Also, I think the rise of memory studies played a big role in helping capture the more societal context. Also the study of Soviet nostalgia and its cultural production. Slowly, we can see the birth of this transformation of the field of Russian nationalism that is not only looking at narratives, discourse, and political philosophy, but also trying to see who are the constituencies and the different forms of nationalism. I think one of the big shifts that we have been presently seeing is to understand that Russian nationalism is mostly a contrived phenomenon before becoming a visible political one.

Of course, at the same time, alongside the scholarship, there’s the media and policy trend of always associating nationalism with totalitarianism and great power reassertion. Their terminology is entirely mixed up and nationalism serves as a kind of metaphor or synonym to say that Putin is an totalitarian leader or it’s just Russia reasserting its great power status. But that’s not so much in the scholarship. That’s more the media and think tank narratives.

I see the word “nationalism” thrown around so much that it’s lost any substance behind it. In fact, one of the things you point out, which I think is really important to keep in mind, is that you can’t even really talk of Russian nationalism. It’s more of Russian nationalisms. There are many trajectories in it, and while they sometimes intersect, but they all have different orientations. How do you understand the various vectors of Russian nationalism?

What you’ve said is very important. Also, what is really crucial is the way we confuse Russian nationalism and nation-building in today’s Russia. This is why I don’t consider the Russian state as nationalist. I think it’s mostly working at Russian nation building at the state level. But, Russian nationalists themselves are not state produced individuals and groups. They are at the grassroots. They have their own agenda. They are very often confrontational to the Russian state even if they can be used by it. You have this interesting and complex interaction where they compete with the state, they can innovate some aspect of the state production, but they are also manipulated and repressed by the state structure. I think it’s important to disassociate the nation-building occurring at the state level and several sociological and political groups that we can identify with very different ideological contexts. Those that are more Soviet nostalgia. Those that are more kind of a pre-revolutionary nostalgia. And those who have connections with European far-right groups, who live in a completely closed world on the political level.

Then, if you look at more cultural vector, you have a lot in music and cinema. In literature, you have a very rich nationalist science fiction literature. So you have all these niches of production of something that we could identify as nationalist.

One of the central metanarratives of Russian nationalism is geography. That is the sense that because Russia is on the Eurasian continent without geographical markers to mark out where the Russian nation is, it has this history, not unlike the United States, of expanding across the continent. The imagination of Russia’s geography and the people who inhabit that geography are really important for nationalist thought. What are some the geographical notions that are a part of Russian nationalism?

Very often we tend to insist on history as a product of nationalism, but I think geography is absolutely crucial for Russia because it’s a way to replace geopolitical humiliation of the collapse of the Soviet Union and to discard the political rupture with the change of regimes. The more you insist on Russia’s territory, the more you can say, well, regardless of what’s happening, it’s still a great power and it’s still unique just because of the size of its territory.

I see at least three big categories in which geography is operationalized in nationalist narratives. The first, and the most classic one, is the Eurasia narrative. Russia’s territory is larger than any other in the world. Another is it’s a nation without boundaries. It’s a specific continental nation that has a mission between east and west.

A last one, which is growing now, is related to the Arctic and pushing Russia farther north. The Nordic location of Russia allows the Arctic to be operationalized in different ways. The Russian state is pushing to revive Russia’s great power status by controlling of the Arctic and showing Russia’s ability to master it. It’s also allowed for a new Cold War narrative on which the Russian state can find itself at ease. At the same time, you have a far-right version saying, well, Russia can’t ignore these [Nordic] countries because they preserves white identity. So you have all these kind of hyperbolic narratives, which the state doesn’t use at all, of course. So you have this Nordic aspect of Russia geography, which has also developed.

The last one is Cosmism and that’s the idea of space conquest. It’s a way of continuing territorial expansion. Here, also, the comparison with the U.S. is interesting on how territorial expansion in space is seen as the continuation of great power status.

Do you make a distinction between Russian nationalism in terms of its geographical imagination, the idea of the imperial state, and ethnic Russian nationalism, which is a romanticism of the Russian people united by their ethnicity and possibly united through Pan-Slavism?

Those promoting ethnic nationalism have always been a minority, and are a minority today because it’s just almost impossible to defend in Russia’s case. It would mean losing not only the North Caucasus but potentially Siberia, maybe even Tatarstan, and then there is no more territorial Russia. It’s almost impossible to call for a pure ethnic nationalism. The solution is to call for Pan-Slavic nationalism or mostly an Eastern Slavic nationalism. Most say, well, Ukraine and Belarus should stay inside Russia because we are so close. In fact, we are part of the same group, or it can be a sort of Pan-Orthodox nationalism. But even this kind of [nationalism] is still marginal compared to the imperial nationalism which is really the main perception and the mainstream because it’s also linked to the Soviet Union. Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union more or less overlap.

The way the state tried to negotiate that is to promote what we call derzhavnyi [great power] nationalism. The nationalism of a great power can say, well, ethnic nations are sometimes important, but very often they’re not. We are fine with multiethnicity, but what is really important, is that every citizen supports the state. And then if everybody can work together under the umbrella of the state, then everybody’s Russian, depending how you define the term. That way the state can try to manage these contradictory trends.

How did Eurasianism view European fascism in the 1920s and 30s?

This is really an important if you want to understand what classic Eurasianism was. The one of the 1920s and 1930s, because it was really part of this European atmosphere at the time.

Eurasiansts believed in European decadence and in the rise of the new forces that would transform the world. But the first Eurasianists where really shaken by the Bolshevik Revolution. They were afraid and admirers of it. So on many aspects during the time of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary ideologies, Eurasian was very close to Italian fascism.

They believed that there should be ideocratic regime, that is a regime ruled by an idea with very specific beliefs that would also be enlightened beliefs. There should be ethnic and religious institutions representing the people.

So many aspects Eurasianism are close to Italian fascism but with one big difference. There was no cult of the military, war, or death. Eurasianism was never attracted to violence and war as a way to regenerate humanity.

So on that, they were slightly dissociated from traditional fascist movements of the 1920s and then, of course, in the 1930s they were very much against National Socialism in Germany. And not just because Nazism was anti-Slavic, but also because Eurasianists didn’t believe in the race narrative of superior or inferior nations.

So it’s interesting because they were close to Italian fascism in many respects, but with an almost leftist tint about it with their support of decolonization and the revenge of colored people against Europe. So Eurasianists were an interesting mix. This explains why it can be now revived and become quite successful, even if today’s new Eurasianism, the one promoted by Dugin, is really closer to European fascism than that of Eurasianism’s founding fathers of the 1920s.

How do you understand the Russian state’s relationship with nationalism?

It’s a complex relationship. The Russian state is looking for inspiration. It’s looking for who is producing ideas inside Russian society and trying to coopt them for itself and to integrate it into its own toolkit of ideological products to stay in power and legitimize the regime. So the relationship with Russian nationalists is both cooperation and competition.

The Russian state is sometimes interested in what ideologies Russian nationalists are producing, but also in their activity in the streets. So sometimes the relationship is ambiguous. But more often than not the Russian state is afraid of any kind of ideological competition from nationalists, liberals, or communists.

The Russian state is also afraid of any kind of new grassroots movements. What they realized with Russian nationalism is that it would be very difficult to play with it without opening a can of worms and suddenly having a grassroots movement.

The reality is that nationalists can be very active in the street and then suddenly they are no longer controlled by the state. Since the 2011-12 protests, the anti-Putin protests, when regime realized that nationalists could work with liberals to push the regime to change, so the relationship has become more repressive and much more careful.

Also because in the second half of the 2000s, the state realized, for example, that all kinds of skinhead groups were very active in the street with the very anti-immigrant rhetoric. The state realized that suddenly anti-immigrant rhetoric could become anti-state rhetoric.

Once you say “There are too many migrants in Russia because the police aren’t doing anything because law enforcement agencies are corrupt and Putin is protecting them,” then you shift from being to anti-migrant to being anti-regime.

The state now clearly understands this and has really been much more repressive in the last few years against Russian nationalists than it had been before.

Is Vladimir Putin a Russian nationalist?

I think it’s a mistake to consider Putin a nationalist and here there’s also the same confusion with authoritarianism and being aggressive in foreign policy.

So you always have this confusion when you use nationalist as a synonym for being an authoritarian leader and having foreign policy the west considers aggressive.

I think he’s a great power defender, a derzhavnik. He believes in the supremacy of the state over citizens and the status of Russia as a great power. He presents himself as conservative, as a promoter of Christian values, and all kinds of other ideological elements. But that’s not nationalism. On the contrary, he has been very clear on several occasions that he believes in Russia as a multiethnic state.

He doesn’t believe in the nation in the ethnic sense because he’s a statist. Legitimacy cannot come from the ethnic nation; for him, legitimacy comes from the state.

For example, his policy promoting open borders with countries that are part of the Eurasian Economic Union really shows that he’s not a nationalist. Public opinion is much more xenophobic toward what Putin himself is saying about Russia having a pivotal role in Eurasia and therefore have open borders where migrants are welcome to come.

So, he’s much more of a statist than a nationalist. That doesn’t mean, of course, he sometimes doesn’t play with some nationalist rhetoric like wanting migrants to speak good Russian because we don’t want the Russian language to be degraded and cheapened.

Or the idea of Russkii mir, the Russian world.

For me, the Russian world notion is quite a complicated one and I’m not sure is a sign of ethnic nationalism. I think it’s a kind of soft power or post-imperial notion, because I often tend to compare it with the notion of francophonie in France, which is also a kind of post-imperial notion. I.e. all these people, who share our culture and speak our language, are part of our world in one way or another.

It may have some elements of ethnic nationalism, but I think that the Russian world notion is mostly used as a kind of soft power for reasserting Russia in the world, but I don’t think Putin can be defined as an ethno-nationalist.

In many respects, his relationship with Russian nationalism is consistent with most leaders of Russia over the last two centuries.

Absolutely. He has been very clear that Russian ethnic nationalism would destroy Russia, it would destroy Russian territory, it would destroy Russia’s internal stability and harmony; and it would destroy Russia as a great power. So I think he might be clearly an anti-nationalist in that sense.