20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia begins a series of publications by prominent scholar Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this introduction, the author discusses his new project and explains the difference between nationalism and patriotism.



It is an exceptional event for contemporary man to be present at the birth of a new sphere of knowledge. I will offer the reader of these pages just such an experience with respect to a sphere of knowledge that is indeed fundamentally new. Does a history of Russian literature exist, from its origin to the present day? What kind of a question is this? How about a history of Russian music? That goes without saying. A history of socialist ideas in Russia? I should think so! There are histories of anything you want, including a history of Russian cuisine. But there is no history of Russian nationalism (or, in other words, the “Russian idea”)—not in Russia, not anywhere else in the world. Why is that?

While there are many reasons for this, two stand out.   First, there is the strict specialization in modern historiography. Each historian “ploughs” his own “patch of land.” He knows everything about this particular patch, but outside its boundaries he knows little, if anything at all. For instance, there exist a great many studies on Slavophilism. There are serious books on Pan-Slavism, there are some on the Black Hundreds movement, but none of them explains the main characteristic of the “Russian idea.” That characteristic, as formulated by my intellectual mentor, Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov, consists of the fact that it must inevitably degenerate. Before Solovyov, for example, it had not been clear why the “gentle” national liberal Slavophilism of the 1840s turned into the belligerent Pan-Slavism of the 1870s, with its animosity towards the rest of the world, which, in turn, led to the xenophobic, anti-semitic Black Hundreds movement of the 1900s. Nor have scholars recognized the fact that in the 20th century, under the Soviet regime, this degenerating cycle repeated itself: the underground Christian Democratic Union, gravitating toward Slavophilism, led to the Pamyat society, which loudly proclaimed ideas previously espoused by the Black Hundreds.

In other words, the conventional historiographic approach to studying any of the varieties of the “Russian idea” is acceptable when it is treated as something that exists in a static state. Such an approach can explain neither the “Russian idea’s” dynamics nor its degeneration. Using such a methodology, how can a specialist in Slavophilism, who studies the subtle syllogisms of civilized, European-educated people, explain a chastoushka (jingle) popular with officers during the Civil War period: “We will go to battle without fear/ To defend holy Russia/ And we will beat up the Yids/ Scum as they are?” Let alone the modern-day phenomenon of Alexander Dugin, who yells into the frenzied crowd: “Russia is everything, others are nothing!” Yet all of the foregoing are nationalists.


Muddle: the “Russian Idea” and “State Patriotism”

The fact that historiography in this area is divided into “patches” cannot be the only reason for the absence of a history of the “Russian idea.” Division into narrow specialties dominates all other fields of modern historiography as well. There had to be something else, something that did not exist in other fields. This something else has its origins in the second quarter of the 19th century, under Nicholas I, when the state determined that the only possible way to love one’s Fatherland was by being faithful to its regime. In other words, the regime usurped patriotism by turning it into an instrument of governing.

The 1856 capitulation became a turning-point in the history of Russian nationalism. Not only did it throw Russia from the Mount Olympus of superpowers—it also infected it with a thirst for revenge.

Roughly speaking, this monstrous mixture, which Alexander Herzen at the time referred to as “state patriotism,” confused our problem to such an extent that this muddle still has not been sorted out. Vladimir Putin1 has recently announced something similar to the Federal Assembly: “In patriotism, I see a consolidating basis for our politics.” Let us, however, go back to the historical muddle where, as we will see, matters are not so simple.

After Russia’s mid-19th century catastrophic defeat in the Crimean war, it can be said that society, in some fashion, responded to the regime’s patriotic summons. The 1856 capitulation became a turning-point in the history of Russian nationalism. Not only did it throw Russia from the Mount Olympus of superpowers (where it had remained out of inertia after its victory over Napoleon), and reduced it, so to speak, from the rank of generalissimo to a private—it also infected it with a thirst for revenge, which was expressed in the simple sentence: “In spite of Europe, Constantinople will be ours!” After all, the Crimean war happened because Europe had refused to give Russia control over the original center of Eastern Orthodoxy.


After the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sophia was converted into a mosque. Since 1935, it operates as a museum.


Since this moment, the “Russian idea” has been practically identified with patriotism. As a result, Russian minds began to struggle over delimiting these two key but opposite notions: the former, a pure and intimate feeling of love, natural like breathing, toward one’s home; the latter, a strict and cold ideology of “state patriotism” aimed at consolidating power. Has this struggle succeded? Have Russian minds managed to tear patriotism away from the “Russian idea” and clear the way for a history of Russian nationalism? Alas, only partly. It is true that the ideologeme2 “national patriot” sounds rather ambiguous in our time; however, it does not prevent today’s national patriots, such as Alexander Prokhanov or Eduard Limonov, from considering themselves the only true Russian patriots.


Solovyov’s “Staircase”

We have yet to take the first steps along our road (and this promises to be an almost two centuries-long journey).   As soon as we try to explain why there is no history of the “Russian idea” in our taxonomy of thought, then many unexpected and debatable questions emerge. This is only the beginning! How many hidden dangers await us; how many serious fighters from both sides will we encounter (mainly in the 19th century, of course).

We simply cannot afford starting such a perilous journey without our own Virgil, if you will, our guide. Without hesitation I have chosen my mentor for this role, simply because no one knew the problems of Russian nationalism as a whole better than Solovyov. Only he has succeded in formulating it in one short sentence, whose flawless accuracy has been confirmed by Russian history:

“National self-consciousness is a great thing, but when self-consciousness turns into complacency, and complacency into self-admiration, it can only end in national self-destruction.”

The reader understands, of course, why I called this formula Solovyov’s “staircase” in one of my old books.

Vladimir Sergeyevich passed away almost 15 years before the fateful days of July 1914, when patriotic journalists suddenly remembered the “ancient prophecy about the liberation of Constantinople from Hagarians3,” when a cross for Saint Sophia was being hastily manufactured, and when “the times were slavophiling,” as solemnly announced to the whole world by prominent philosopher Vladimir Ern. Solovyov could not have known any of this. But his prophecy did come true. Barely three years later, Petrine Russia self-destructed.

How could this happen? One example will explain everything better than a thousand arguments.


The Case of Dostoevsky

Here is a monologue, and it is up to the reader to decide, on which step of Solovyov’s “staircase” a famous Russian classical writer found himself in 1877:  “If a great people does not believe that the truth is only to be found in itself alone (in itself alone and in it exclusively); if it does not believe that it alone is fit and destined to raise up and save all the rest by its truth, it would at once sink into being ethnographical material, and not a great people. A really great people can never accept a secondary part in the history of Humanity, nor even one of the first, but will have the first part… But there is only one truth, and therefore only a single one out of the nations can have the true God… Only one nation is 'god-bearing,' that's the Russian people.”

As many will recognize, I was quoting Shatov’s monologue from Demons. In 1877, Dostoevsky returned to these ideas in A Writer’s Diary, and this time he defended them in his own name, leaving no doubt that he had been expressing his own beliefs through Shatov. This time, he did not content himself with just a monologue and, in addition, offered recommendations to the government: “Constantinople must be ours, conquered by us, Russians, from the Turks, and must remain ours forever.” Even if just to spite Europe. After all, we are the first in Humanity, this is our will, and so be it!


In life, Fyodor Dostoevsky (right), who espoused nationalist views, and Vladimir Solovyov, who was a consistent critic of nationalism, were friends.


Dostoevsky violently argued with Nikolay Yakovlevich Danilevsky himself, the main ideologue of the pan-Slavism movement, who was also sure that a new war with Europe for Constantinople was an imperative for Russia. However, Danilevsky believed that it should be ruled jointly by all the Slavs. Dostoevsky thought that was nonsense: “How can Russia share possession of Constantinople on an equal basis with the Slavs, each of their little nations separately and all of them taken together are in no way equal to Russia?”

Indeed, something strange happened to this remarkably lucid mind, whenever he touched on the question of Russia’s superiority over the rest of the world. On the one hand, he wrote in his Diary that “perhaps the Russian idea will be the synthesis of all those ideas that Europe is developing in its separate nationalities,” and even that “Russia decidedly lives not for itself but only for Europe.” On the other hand, when referring to Constantinople, he warns Europe not to touch what is ours (actually, not ours but somebody else’s, that we still have to conquer at the cost of a bloody war)! We will not share it with Europe, for which, seemingly, we live in this world—we will not even share it with the “little Slavic nations,” so dear to our Orthodox heart.

Is that truly the same Dostoevsky, whom we know as a prophet glorifying “everyman?” Alas, the very same. Berdyaev knew about this strange duality of his: “That selfsame Dostoevsky, who preached the everyman and appealed to a universal spirit, preached also a most fanatical nationalism: he raged against the Poles and the Jews, he denied that the West has any right to be considered as Christian.”

“The internal contradiction between true patriotism…and the false claims of nationalists…has destroyed Slavophilism.”

Berdyaev knew this, but could not explain it. Although he also considered himself Solovyov’s disciple, he proved a rather mediocre one, knew nothing about his fateful “staircase” and about the fact that the degenerative “Russian idea” can turn intelligent and sensible people into aggressive maniacs. Meanwhile, Berdyaev’s and my intellectual mentor repeatedly wrote about those, who, like Dostoevsky, proclaimed their people as “holy, God-chosen and God-bearing, and therefore, in the name of all this, advocated a policy that could bring no honor to a saint and God-bearing people, nor even to common mortals.” Solovyov also wrote that “the internal contradiction between true patriotism, which believes in making Russia as good and prosperous as possible, and the false claims of nationalists who assert that Russia is better than all the rest, just the way it is, has destroyed Slavophilism.”

Is this not what happened to Dostoevsky? The national liberal Berdyaev, who was stuck on the second step of Solovyov’s “staircase” (the step of “national complacency”) was shocked by Dostoevsky’s aggressiveness. But for Dostoevsky himself, who had already slipped to the next step—“national self-admiration” (the last step before “national self-destruction”)  and who firmly believed that Russia was “already better than anyone else,” this aggressiveness was natural. Such is the power of a degenerative idea—even over a strong and talented mind.


A Collective Insanity?

Dostoevsky was not alone in this way of thinking. For all their disagreements, the luminaries of 19th century Russian nationalism, including Ivan Aksakov, Danilevsky, and Konstantin Leontiev, also preached a barbaric nationalism and also supported a war and the forceful seizure of Constantinople to spite Europe—even if this was suicidal for Russia. The poet Fyodor Tyutchev wrote brilliant verses on this subject: “Then Sophia’s ancient vaults / Will once more house Christ’s altar in restored Byzantium / Fall before it, oh Tsar of Russia /  Rise as Tsar of all the Slavs!” Isn’t this beautiful?

All these serious thinkers, the ideologists of the “Russian idea,” thought that they knew Russia’s true interests better than anyone, and that those interests lay not in settling immense, uninhabited Siberia, but in annexing another piece of a foreign land.  Could they have all simultaneously lost their sanity? But how else can one explain why they pushed a country they loved inexorably into an abyss of self-destruction?

In 1877, War Minister Dmitry Milyutin said that Russia will be destroyed by a large war. Three decades later, the same was said by Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, who asked for twenty years of peace for his reforms. But no, 19th century nationalists and their successors could not sleep well without a cross on top of Saint Sophia. If it did not work out in 1877, they would try again in 1914. They tried…


1 Here the author notes an unintended pun in the Russian text: “muddle” in Russian is putanitsa which is very close in sound to “Putin.”

2 For a discussion of the term “ideologeme,” see the second paragraph of the section “Narrative and history.”

3 From the name Hagar, concubine of the Biblical Abraham, mother of Ishmael, and thus the original matriarch of the Muslims.