Chauvinism Under—and After—Putin
It is hard to imagine a more nationalist leader of Russia than President Vladimir Putin. He has repeatedly promoted the idea of a “Russian world” to which all Russian speakers belong, and he has pitched his invasion of Ukraine as an effort to reclaim Russia’s lost lands and restore its greatness. Someday, whether the result of overthrow, resignation, or death, Putin will no longer hold office. Given the disastrous results of his gambit in Ukraine, as well as his sui generis nature, many confidently predict that whoever follows him will inevitably exhibit less rabid nationalism. The new Russia, they hope, will at last be a normal state—meaning relatively liberal and democratic.
In fact, the trends in Russia point to a different post-Putin outcome: a turn toward a more pronounced form of nationalism. Putin’s nationalism has been imperial in nature, with an emphasis on dominating Russia’s near abroad and strengthening the state at home. What Russians are likely to crave after Putin, however, is a leader who shares their anti-elitism and promises to salve their wounded pride. Already there is a strong ethnonationalist current in Russian politics. Blaming Russia’s problems on Muslims, Central Asian migrants, and corrupt elites, Russian ethnonationalists promise to make Russia great again. They argue that the state should start serving the needs of ethnic Russians. It is easy to imagine their appeal growing in the embers of Russian imperialism.
For those who know their Russian history, this is not a comforting prospect. In the 1990s, after the Soviet collapse, ethnic tensions flared in and around Russia. Wars motivated largely by ethnic grievances broke out in Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Georgia, Moldova, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. A descent into ethnonationalism would resurface existing grievances, threatening not just demonized minority groups but the very stability and unity of Russia.
But even though Russia after Putin may well be destined to embrace nationalism, it does not have to embrace ethnonationalism. For those inside and outside Russia who care about protecting minorities and furthering liberalism, the task is to shape a more democratic and inclusive Russian nationalism, one that nurtures the ethnic Russian identity without affording it rights over other groups.
ONE STATE, MANY PEOPLES
Russia has always been a remarkably diverse nation, with over 180 different ethnic groups across the land. The biggest of these has always been ethnic Russians, East Slavs whose shared language is Russian and whose historical religion is Orthodox Christianity. Russian ethnonationalism began in earnest in the early nineteenth century with the rise of the Slavophilism movement, which called for the unification of all Slavic peoples under the rule of the Russian tsar. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the rise of another notable nationalist group, the Black Hundreds, an extremist, pro-tsarist movement that held that only ethnic Russians could be true members of the Russian nation.
But the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 led to the repression of Russian ethnonationalist movements. The Bolsheviks—motivated by Vladimir Lenin’s distaste for chauvinism, as well as a desire to eradicate their political opponents—imprisoned, exiled, or executed Russian nationalists. To broaden their appeal outside Russia, they even helped strengthen non-Russian national identities within the Soviet Union. For example, they ensured that all schoolchildren in Ukraine were taught in Ukrainian. In various constituent republics, they devolved power to local ethnic leaders.
When Joseph Stalin came to power, however, he eliminated these local elites as part of his campaign of mass repression, casting them as agents of foreign influence. Before and after World War II, Soviet policy became even more Russia-centric as Stalin centralized power. He Russified language and culture across the Soviet Union and included imperial-era Russian heroes into the Soviet pantheon. But many of the Soviet Union’s internal critics thought that Moscow was in fact neglecting ethnic Russians. After all, the Soviet Union had silenced Russian intellectuals and repressed the Orthodox Church. There was also an impression that the biggest Soviet Republic—Russia—was getting short shrift. It was the only Soviet Republic that lacked its own national Communist Party, for example. Not surprisingly, then, many Soviet dissidents—most notably, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—were also reactionary ethnonationalists. In the late 1980s, ethnonationalist views became even more widespread, as the Soviet system liberalized and destabilized. Parallel movements emerged in Russia’s ethnic republics, with the most pronounced, such as those in Chechnya, calling for secession from Russia. Then, in the chaos of the Soviet collapse, ethnonationalist groups proliferated like never before.
During Putin’s first two terms as president, nationalist groups posed a serious threat to his rule. These included not just ethnonationalists but also groups that rejected ethnonationalism, such as the Eurasianists, who called for Russia to become a civilization-state that forged its own, non-Western path. Beginning in 2005, ultranationalists organized an annual march that attracted tens of thousands of protesters across the country. Waving banners featuring the black, yellow, and white stripes of an old Russian imperial flag, the marchers shouted anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, and anti-Putin slogans. They hated how Putin had encouraged large-scale immigration from Central Asia, allowed the Muslim population to grow, and failed to prevent Islamists from carrying out terrorist attacks. In 2010, thousands of nationalists protested outside the Kremlin after a Russian soccer fan was murdered in Moscow by a recent arrival from Dagestan, a majority-Muslim republic in Russia’s North Caucasus region. The nationalist movement brought together all manner of Putin opponents. The politician Alexei Navalny, for example, originally espoused ethnonationalist opinions—calling for the deportation of Central Asian migrants in 2007—before moderating his views.
Russia may embrace nationalism, but it does not have to embrace ethnonationalism.
Eventually, Putin headed off the nationalist threat through a mix of repression and co-optation. Repeated crackdowns—first on violent neo-Nazi groups, then on more moderate activist movements—weakened the nationalist opposition. Meanwhile, popular elation over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine stole the nationalists’ thunder. The Kremlin also used the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a dumping ground for troublesome nationalists. Most infamous among them was Igor Girkin, an ultranationalist former intelligence officer who organized pro-Russian militants in the region and who claimed to have convinced Putin to start the war in 2014. (More recently, Girkin has emerged as a prominent critic of the Kremlin’s handling of the war in Ukraine and was detained this July.)
Putin is often portrayed as a nationalist, and he has indeed emphasized what he sees as Russia’s cultural exceptionalism, innate greatness, and superior values. But he is better understood as a statist, a leader who subordinates the needs of the people to those of the state. In his view, the needs of the state are primarily imperial. Putin has invoked this vision of Russia to justify wars of aggression abroad and quell dissent at home. He has tried to balance the demands of the ethnic Russian majority with the multiethnic reality of the Russian Federation and his own imperial ambitions. Often, he has ignored the preferences of that majority. For example, he has kept the borders open to Central Asian immigrants to fill gaps in the labor market despite widespread xenophobia, and he has forgiven the debts of African and Asian countries to promote Russian political influence abroad despite growing poverty at home.
Putin has squared this circle by expanding the definition of Russian-ness. The Russian language has two adjectives that mean “Russian”: russkii, which describes an ethnic Russian, and rossiiskii, which describes a Russian citizen. In a 2012 interview, Putin conspicuously used the first term in a context where the second would have been more natural. “The Russian people are a state-forming people, as the very fact of Russia’s existence demonstrates,” he said. “The Russian people’s great mission is to unify, bond, this civilization: to use their language, culture, and ‘universal compassion,’ to quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, to bond the Russian Armenians, Russian Azeris, Russian Germans, and Russian Tatars.” To speak of an “ethnic Russian Armenian” would once have been almost oxymoronic, but Putin was cleverly attempting to expand the definition of russkii, turning it into an identity of political and cultural choice.
Russian-ness was no longer a way of identifying ethnic Russians; now, it was something open to anyone who identified with a Kremlin-approved worldview, regardless of ethnicity. Instead of signifying the heritage, views, and traditions of ethnic Russians, to be Russian now meant to support and identify with the state; a Russian who opposed the state would cease to be Russian. No wonder after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament and a former Putin aide, called for those who criticized the war to be stripped of their citizenship.
Putin’s balancing act worked for a while. But battlefield setbacks in Ukraine have allowed various forms of ultranationalism to flourish. After all, there is much for nationalists to dislike about the war in Ukraine. It has led to the deaths of many thousands of Russian soldiers. Its bombardment of eastern Ukraine killed thousands of people whom Putin considers Russian. Putin has forever alienated Russian-speaking Ukrainians who were once receptive to his propaganda. And he has celebrated the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose fighters have played a prominent role in the war, angering Russian ethnonationalists who are enraged by the thought of ethnic Chechens killing East Slavs in Ukraine.
The most successful nationalist groups in Russia today blend the country’s most potent ideologies: right-wing extremism, Soviet nostalgia, tsarist imperialism, and Russian Orthodoxy. These more established nationalist groups support the invasion, and some even criticize the Kremlin for being too lenient toward Ukrainians. Other, less numerous groups, favored by younger supporters, peddle a softer form of nationalism, less violent and more focused on domestic issues. They are unenthusiastic about the invasion, since it weakens Russia, but they nevertheless continue to support Russian soldiers, sending medical supplies to the frontlines. They also send aid to Ukrainian civilians in Russian-occupied cities. The Society. Future movement, for example, has organized a series of humanitarian aid tours for residents of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol and other smaller towns after they were destroyed by Russian bombardment.
For groups like this, opposition to the war does not stem from any commitment to liberal values; instead, it fits neatly into their ethnocentric nationalist worldview. They pair xenophobia with concern for the ordinary Russian soldier. Rostislav Shorokhov, a contributor to a nationalist news platform, demonstrated the fusion of anti-immigrant and antiwar sentiment in a widely shared Telegram post: “Russians are dying at a rate of one million a year,” he wrote, “and they are being replaced by hordes of terrorists.”
Such groups have a complicated relationship with the Russian government. The Kremlin finds their fundraising useful—it fills a gap the state has been unable to provide and promotes a favorable image of Russians as saviors—and so the Kremlin lets it continue. But the state also views the groups as a potential threat. They are relatively independent, after all, and their ideology does not center on Putin. These fundraising and volunteer groups are growing by the day, and they are likely to expand further as the conflict in Ukraine grinds on and the Russian Ministry of Defense continues to neglect the needs of its own troops. Although many Western observers bemoan the death of civil society in Russia, these communities represent a form of civil society that is on the rise; it’s just that their brand of activism is antithetical to most in the West.
Foreigners and immigrants are easy targets for a population seeking to regain its pride.
The aborted rebellion led by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in June—and its reception among ordinary Russians—demonstrated the power of some of these emerging strains of nationalism. Those who sympathized with the revolt said they saw Prigozhin’s mercenaries as standing with the people, and Prigozhin, ever the marketeer, encouraged these views in his speeches. Portraying himself as a plainspoken truth teller, he alleged that the invasion of Ukraine was based on lies and was being fought incompetently. It is a powerful narrative: Russia is still great and its soldiers are heroes, but they have been betrayed and misled by treacherous elites and corrupt generals. Such framings console the many thousands of Russians who have lost loved ones in Ukraine and feel disoriented by the war but still belong, and want to belong, to the imagined national community of Russia. These narratives are particularly popular among ethnonationalists, who are trying to explain the war’s failures without blaming the Russian people.
The rebellion also underscored the difficulties facing those members of the comparatively small number of liberal Russian opposition who reject any form of nationalism as anathema to universal liberal values. These liberals are likely to find themselves out of step with public sentiment if they fail to acknowledge that most people, especially in times of instability and loss, deeply want to belong to something greater than themselves. They crave a sense of historical continuity—in the guise of an ethnic group, a civic nation, an idea, or the state. Russia’s liberals, by contrast, tend to offer a messianic individualism that is unappealing to most people.
One way to define who you are is to define who you are not. Foreigners and immigrants are easy targets for a population seeking to regain its pride, and anti-immigrant sentiment remains pervasive in Russia. In July in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, an anonymous poster campaign informed immigrants from Central Asia and the South Caucasus of “good news”: “The borders are open. You can go back to your own country and make it better.” The same month, police in Moscow raided a mosque, ordering worshippers to lie down and checking their residency papers. The reaction to the episode demonstrated the competing coalitions Putin must accommodate: Konstantin Malofeev, an ultraconservative oligarch, demanded that “the city’s guests get their hands off the riot police,” whereas Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler of Chechnya, called the police response “a provocation.”
Most scenarios of a post-Putin Russia involve a great deal of political instability, and in a time of chaos, an ethnocentric nationalism could provide succor for many Russians. Particularly if the war in Ukraine ends in any form of defeat for Russia, then any leader following Putin would have to derive popular legitimacy from something other than imperialism. With the state discredited, he would have to distinguish Russian-ness from the state—in other words, he would need to recover some sort of popular nationalism. If this remained an inclusive version of nationalism, it could provide a pathway to a more coherent sense of Russian nationhood, one that does not depend on imperialist expansion to hold it together. But in a society traumatized by a war it inflicted on Ukraine, ethnonationalism would have a leg up, since it appeals to the base human desire to feel superior to others and belong to an exclusive group. An ethnonationalist turn would be undeniably ugly for Russia. In Chechnya, Dagestan, and other ethnic regions, it could prompt renewed separatist claims and even spark further bloodshed.
Realistically, however, any sort of political transition in Russia is going to be tumultuous and even bloody. Faced with this grim probability, those who long for a democratic Russia should not try to impose a globalist liberal regime; rather, they should accept that nationalism is inevitably going to emerge and try to shape what form it takes, guiding it away from its uglier variants. They should push for a version that aligns with the republican idea of “we, the people” instead of “he, the ruler.” It would be a form of nationalism that focuses on all Russian citizens and gives everyone a sense of ownership over the country. This desperately needed shift could find inspiration in the past. In eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, nationalism was a democratizing force that brought down imperial monarchies. In the late twentieth century, it did the same for communist regimes.
One obstacle today, however, is the lack of usable national symbols in Russia. The current flag has long been disdained by nationalists who associate it with Putin, and more recently, it has been besmirched by the invasion of Ukraine. That is why nationalists have often turned to imperial symbols, such as the black, yellow, and white flag. The Russian language, for its part, belongs to far more people than just Russian citizens, since it is in wide use across the former Soviet Union, making it an unwieldy vehicle for nationalism. The Society. Future movement has tried to position the kosovorotka—a collared shirt traditionally favored by Russian peasants—as a national costume, but the idea has yet to take off. Nationalist myths are also lacking. Russian folklore is of little interest to most Russians, and history textbooks are all about wars, dictators, and imperialism. The traditions of Novgorod and Pskov—medieval states that boasted some republican institutions and basic voting rights—are largely forgotten.
It will be entirely up to Russians to reinvent Russian nationalism. Politicians, civil-society activists, intellectuals, ordinary people—all could play a role. They will need to accept that much divides them while focusing on what unites them. They will need to stop sniping at one another and instead consider themselves compatriots engaged in a joint effort to change, and thus save, the country they love.
FROM EMPIRE TO NATION
Even in this hopeful scenario, a nationalist turn in Russian politics would be fraught with many risks and little hope. Unable to confront its domestic problems, Russia could choose to develop a supremacist vision of russkii identity and descend into an internecine fight against supposed internal enemies—this time ethnic enemies, rather than merely political ones—leading to the collapse of Russia as we know it. Or Russia could once again be seduced by the allure of achieving greatness abroad, building up a ruthless state and embracing an aggressive foreign policy.
Russia is now home to a dizzying array of nationalist movements, and it is hard to say what form Russian nationalism will take after Putin. But if it takes a welcome form, one that focuses on building solidarity and sharing power with Russia’s other nationalities, it would offer a fleeting opportunity to address the core driver of Russia’s recent aggression: the conflation of greatness with imperial ambitions. Russians could finally see their country not as an empire but as a nation.
(c) 2023, Foreign Affairs