20 years under Putin: a timeline

In a recent article, Vladimir Putin plagiarized points of a nationalist agenda  from a number of sources. Historian Alexander Yanov discusses the lesser-known inspiration for Putin's ideas, 19th century Slavophile thinker Nikolai Danilevsky.



One couldn’t say that Putin’s “Russia: The National Question,” published in Nezvavisimaya Gazeta in January, was well-received in the blogopshere. For starters, the author was accused of plagiarism. It turned out that at least one-third of Putin's text consisted of a layman’s retelling of a book by Alexandr Danilyuk, Alexandr Kondakov, and Valeriy Tishkov with the long, academic title Concepts of Moral and Spiritual Development and Character-Building for Russian Citizens  (Moscow. Prosveschenie: 2009.) A fine book, but a cheat sheet nonetheless.

This should be embarrassing. It’s not fitting that a presidential candidate should copy his homework like a schoolboy when trying to answer one of the critical questions facing Russia today.  And yet, the discussion that followed was full of excuses for his behavior. People would say things like:

“That bare-torsoed gentleman Putin is a cheater to top it all off. How embarrassing.”

“Stealing intellectual property is usually illegal.”

“No citation? Well, that’s amoral.”

“But it is normal for a paper to have sources.”

I can understand this indignation. But what many forgot in the heat of the discussion was that Putin had borrowed only one-third of his article from the respected academics – this third being the only decent part.

What isn’t immediately obvious to those who don’t study history is that the article’s  approach to the national question in modern Russia was borrowed (or stolen, as some would say) not from the recent academic monograph, but from an old Slavophilic myth found in "Russia and Europe" (first published in 1869) by Nikolai Yakovlevich Danilevsky.

Danilevsky is quite a popular figure among contemporary Russian nationalists. But since not all political commentators are well-read in nationalist literature, I will say couple of words about this author. The Soviet Encyclopedic Dictionary, 1989 calls Danilevsky (1822-1885) a thinker who justified “the czarist regime’s chauvinistic aspirations to great power.” This rather blunt blurb from the Soviet dictionary is, curiously enough, not far from the truth.

Suffice to say that Danilevsky was one of the writers providing a theoretical basis for the counter-reform policies of Alexander III, who led one of the most backwards regimes in Russian history. Anyone who has ever read Danilevsky couldn't confuse him with any other author – that’s how talented he was! The rhetorical devices, the terminology, the very language of Russia and Europe make it clear that it was this book that served as the primary source for presidential candidate Putin’s article on the question of nationalism.

Where else could he have gotten claims, such as that Russia is a “unique civilization” with an entirely individual “cultural code” and “historical experience unlike any other nation’s”? Why else would it be that the word ‘empire’ is never once mentioned in this article, despite the fact that the official name of the state for almost three centuries has been the Russian Empire? Any why isn’t there any mention of the brutal conquests of other nations that make up the history of the Empire, but instead there are euphemisms like “mastering great territories” and the “collective labors of many nations”? Who else but Danilevsky could have considered such collective mastering the manifestation of Russia’s special “cultural code”?

Could it be a mistake?

Unfortunately for the quality of their critique, none of this was mentioned by any the commentators in the blogosphere. Instead of trying to figure out the origin of the article’s archaic language, commentators took to making fun of a trivial blunder. The blunder itself seems quite inexcusable, no doubt about it. Or at least it does at first glance. Presidential candidate Putin had allowed himself to sneer at the failure of the multiculturalist policies in Europe and then, without taking a breath, he tasked Russia with “creating the conditions for the harmonious development of a polycultural community.” “But 'polycultural' is the same thing as ‘multicultural,” smirked commentators, enjoying their small triumph. Was Putin asking Russia to do what he had just sneered at?

Is it really as obvious as seems? Was this really a mistake?

If the bloggers had looked at the writings of Danilevsky, they would have found his myth of completely autonomous “cultural-historical types” (in today’s academic jargon these would be called “local civilizations”), and seen that Putin did not misspeak.

According to Danilevsky, the withering ‘Roman-Germanic type’ (which is how he referred to Europeans) is nothing but clumsy, and thus, all of his projects end up failing, even the best ones. The young, exuberant, and ambitious Slavic type, on the other hand, can reanimate the failed Roman-Germanic projects and make them work. This is why the so-called “harmonious development of a polycultural community,” which proved to be a failure with the Roman-Germans, has a good chance of succeeding in Russia.

Considering the contemporary cultural and political situations, Danilevsky’s ideas seem unbearably outdated (and in fact, they even seemed that way in the 1860s, when he first thought of them).  But there is truth in the idea that for the “Roman-Germans,” the failure of their multiculturalism project is based in the crisis of the very “model of a nation state—that is, a state with historical roots in a single ethnic identity,” while “historically, Russia is not ethnically-based,” in the words of Putin this time, and not Danilevsky.

The problems of federalism

As we may see in Putin's article, the traditional Slavophile concept of Russia was merely taken to its logical conclusion, if not carried to the point of absurdity by the historian Danilevsky (represented today by his intellectual heir, N.A. Narochitskaya, who is most likely the one who delivered these ideas to the Putin camp). The problem is that the decline of the nation-state model that Putin speaks of has nothing to do with present-day Russia. Russia ceased to be a nation-state almost five centuries ago, after it conquered the Kazan’ czardom (which had been a small Empire itself).

At the same time, the most straightforward understanding of today’s Russia is vis-à-vis the federalism that Putin attempts to eliminate from the equation. Isn’t it strange how presidential candidate Putin not only avoids the Russian Empire’s historical name, but also its contemporary name, the Russian Federation? In his entire very long article, the RF is mentioned only once, and even then in a negative context, as part of a tirade about how the “deputies of the RSFSR (read: Yeltsin) had initiated the process of building a 'nation state' while in the midst of a political struggle with the “Soviet center.”

However, with the exception of China, every multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation comparable to Russia (i.e. Canada, Brazil, the US, India, Australia) is a federation. And none of the nations listed above are undergoing a crisis because of that. Most importantly, nowhere among these states is the national question as acute of an issue as it is in Russia.

None of the nationalities in any of these countries is demanding the title of the official state nationality (which is what Putin encourages in Russian nationalists). It's hard to imagine, for instance, a demonstration in Canada where citizens call for a Canada for Anglo-Saxons, although the majority of the Canadian population is indeed Anglo-Saxon.  It would be even harder to imagine a movement that calls for the state to “stop feeding Quebec.”

So perhaps we can say that the acuteness of the issue of a national identity in Russia was caused almost entirely by the absence of the federal model. And who did his best to eliminate federalism in Russia? Right, Putin did.

Appropriating the myth

To return to the central subject of this essay, I don’t think it will require many further arguments to convince the reader that Putin’s queer conception of Russia as a “historical state” (as though other countries appeared out of thin air) is surely plagiarized from Danilevsky.

Only this act plagiarism has much graver implications than the one discussed in the blogosphere. This (fictional) uniqueness of Russia as a “civilization-state” is the very basis of Putin’s rejection of federalism. But how could an effective program for future development come out of lies about the country’s past?

This serious accusation demands serious proof. My argument is that these lies are inherent in the work of Putin’s ideological predecessor; Danilevsky will bear witness against himself (and thus, against Putin) with his own texts.

Danilevsky's main contribution to political philosophy (besides the above-mentioned doctrine of “cultural-historical types” and his furious struggle against the theory of evolution) was the theory that Russia had been built by “collective exploration and ythe development of vast territories,” which is the very thesis used by Putin. According to this theory, all of Russia’s conquests were actually the Roman-Germans’. Danilevsky was very critical of the imperialism of other nations. He called conquest “politically-motivated murder” referring to “national murders and mutilations.” Nothing like that could have ever happened in the history of Russia!

When Russia and Europe was published in 1869, Russia looked very different from how it does today. Azerbaijan and Northern Caucasus had been just recently been conquered, Central Asia was in the process of being conquered; both Poland and Finland were part of the Russian Empire, and, as a result, in constant upheaval. The political situation in which Danilevsky had to prove his thesis was complicated to say the least. And yet, with notable courage (unlike Putin), Danilevsky nonetheless attempted to prove the un-provable. How he did it is another story.

We will follow Danilevsky's arguments from North to South. Yes, he admits, Finland was conquered by Russia. But do Finns really constitute a nation that could be murdered politically? “The Finnish tribe, inhabiting Finland like all the other Finnish tribes, has never led an historical life.”  That is why its annexation to Russia “ can be compared to the fertilization of the soil a plant grows in.” Generally all of the “Finnish, Tatar, and Samoyedic tribes are predestined to merge with the historical ethnos they are surrounded by, to become assimilated... They have no right to political independence. You can't kill something that was never living.”

Of course, equating the Finns, Tatars and Samoyeds is completely absurd. But you wouldn't confuse the Polish with the  Samoyeds, although Russia governs them both. Danilevsky’s reply, “Yes, unfortunately Russia rules Poland! But it possesses Poland not by the virtue of conquest... but out of sentimental generosity.”  A fit of generosity that lasted for a century and a half. Interesting, isn't it?

And what would he say about the ancient Christian kingdom of the Georgians, who would also be difficult to confuse with the Samoyeds? Indeed Georgia was exhausted by continuous battles with Turks and Persians, when they asked the Russians to give them a hand. But what they requested was help, not “political murder.” Danilevsky insists that, “it was not at all a conquest, we only offered a helping hand.” A helping hand that made Georgia lose its independence and become the province of a foreign empire...

“Furthermore, along with Georgia, several Mohammedan khanates [modern Azerbaijan] were conquered. We may as well call it a conquest, although the people who were conquered only benefited from it.”  So we do admit to some conquests, without a single word about ”national murders and mutilations,” since those who were mutilated only gain from having been murdered politically. “It must be said,”  Danilevsky cedes through clenched teeth, “that the people of the Caucasus were not happy about being conquered by the Russians.”

So that's what the “collective exploration and development of vast territories” really looked like. I will not speak for the reader, but the impression I get from such ”arguments”  leaves no doubt that they constitute no more than a crudely constructed myth. This is the most pressing problem: the misappropriation of other people's intellectual property is one thing (we would leave this matter to the criminal justice system), but a presidential candidate appropriating a myth that falsifies the history of his homeland is a completely different matter. This is politics, and manifestly deceitful politics at that.

Presidential candidate Putin's article on the national question resembles a patchwork quilt that his speechwriters hastily sewed together from a hodgepodge of ideas. Some of Putin's speechwriters (for instance, the authors of Concepts of Moral and Spiritual Development and Character-Building for the Russian Citizen) were concerned with education in Russia’s future, while others desperately longed for Russia of the past. Some missed Soviet Russia, while others missed pre-revolutionary Russia, but in both cases what they were missing was an Empire. And in both cases, one built on false premises.