20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the series of articles by prominent scholar Alexander Yanov on the history Russian nationalism. In this installment, the author talks about the phenomenon of spontaneous “patriotic hysteria” that began with the brutal suppression of the Polish uprising in 1863–64 and that has been occasionally disrupting Russia ever since.


Fragment of a graphic pannel by a Polish artist Artur Grottger ("Polonia" series), depicting the Polish uprising of 1863.


To be honest, when I set out to tell the history of Russian nationalism, I didn’t think it would be so difficult. Frankly I should have expected as much from selecting such an unexplored topic. You do not need to be Socrates to figure out that if a branch of knowledge did not exist until now, its theory and its conceptual apparatus did not exist either. And what good are facts without these? As the eminent Russian historian Vasily Osipovich Klyuchevskii wrote, “Fact that was not contained in a [conceptual] scheme, is only a vague idea without possibility of scientific use.” The famous French historian Fernand Braudel confirmed this with another expression, when he said that “facts are dust.”

Not only did there not exist a theory of the Russian idea, but there were no terms—there was no language through which the topic could be explained to the reader. All of this had to be created on the fly, so to speak, or else compiled from multiple sources—and this had to be done in a situation in which some readers, not to mention politicians, often use the term nationalism as a synonym of patriotism, separated by commas. Is it any wonder that the picture that emerges from all this is sometimes quite surreal?

Here is a recent example: The ideologists of the Izborsky club were completely convinced of the Tatar origin of Russian statehood, insisting that it was patriotic to think so and declaring that the very idea of ​​national background originated in the pernicious liberal Westernism, Russo-phobia. This is obviously nonsense. Yet no one, including them, noticed this somehow.


Terminological annoyances

As a result of all this, I had to devote my first five articles, published in May and early June, to the boring, prosaic work of searching for language adequate to this new branch of knowledge, and to making my readers familiar with the terms. This lesson must be hidden, subversive, if you will, embedded in the living tissue of the historical narrative, where it is nearly imperceptible. The reader is not a student: he won’t visit your blog if he is bored by the content. But are boring fights about terminology important? In any audience, there are ideological opponents; for them, the proposed terms are nonsense at best, and at worst, sedition. For the defender of autocracy, the slightest degradation of the Russian idea is an insult to the “traditional values ​​of the Russian people.” For any former teacher of scientific communism, which has now been renamed the “global economy,” the concept of the Russian idea is absurd—for where is its economic justification?

I could hardly cope with all this alone. I thank the great thinkers—Peter Chaadaev, Vladimir Solovyov, Alexander Herzen, Vasily Klyuchevsky, Georgy Fedotov, and Antonio Gramsci—who have done the most difficult part of the work to clarify the terms associated with the dramatic evolution of the Russian idea—from Nicholas’s doctrine of Official Nationality and early Slavophilism to the wild Black Hundreds of pre-revolutionary years.

We underestimate the ideological influence of Nicholas’s Official Nationality. Meanwhile, it managed to erase the noble patriotism of the Decembrists from the minds of Russians. It was replaced by the state-sponsored imperial patriotism put forth by their executioners.

Without their help, I could hardly succeed in convincing the reader that patriotism and the Russian idea are two incompatible things, as well as a genius and an evil. Or of convincing them that Slavophilism defeated post-Nicholas Westernism in Russia, ascending to the status of the era’s “hegemonic idea.” Or, finally, that the fate of the country lay in solving the ideological struggle between socialism and the Russian idea. In this struggle, pro-Western liberals, together with the nationalists, insisted on “war to the bitter end,” and they were nothing more than mere observers. That’s why they lost the February Republic so ignominiously.

However, even with all this help, the five preceding articles were not enough to give order to our terminology. We have to continue as before, squeezing into the chronological sequences of events explanations of these new terms for the reader’s sake.

Today, we turn to the concept of the spontaneous “patriotic hysteria” that occasionally shakes Russia. Where did it come from, I ask, and how did it arise in an autocratic country that was under the supervision of the police? Why did this country suddenly begin to have “episodes,” akin to epilepsy? The first time such hysteria swept the country at the national level was in 1863, when Poland didn’t reconcile to its fate and rose up against the empire once again. And we shall speak about this.

It happened, as the reader knows, in the midst of the Great Reforms, when it seemed that the liberal European Russia had won on all fronts and Alexander Herzen’s liberal publication The Bell had attained, for all intents and purposes, the status of the “nationwide auditor.” The Polish uprising suddenly revealed that all this was an illusion. Even quite educated people in Russia came to thinking that the idea of fatherland was tightly grown together and fully identified with the empire. And the country, from Moscow to the suburbs, unanimously rose up against the Polish rebels, who demanded the unthinkable: independence. Did they, in other words, want the disintegration of Russia? The Russian Emperor, Alexander II, genuinely indignant at the arrogance of Poles, explained this to the French ambassador: “The Poles wanted to create their own state, but this would mean the disintegration of Russia.” (Italics added.) “Why?” you might ask.

As outstanding Slavophile Yuri Samarin explained: “The Polish state fell because it was a carrier of violent Catholic principles. The verdict of history is irreversible.” This is a weak explanation; France and Spain were carriers of the same “principles,” but they are still in a good shape. Or is it just that Russian hands didn’t reach far enough to strong-arm “the verdict of history”? Mikhail Katkov, the editor of the Russian Gazette, offered a stronger explanation: “History placed the fatal question of life and death between these two nations [Poland and Russia]. These states are not just rivals, but enemies who cannot live next to each other; they are the enemies to the end.” And the famous Russian poet, Tjutchev, raged further:

In the blood, we are fighting with the dead
Who resurrected for new burials.


“The murder of a whole nation”

Modern German historian Andreas Kappeler expressed with caution: “The preservation of empire became the major task in the Russian political life after the fall of the serfdom.” And I ask you: if this was not imperial nationalism, what would you call it? We will see just how many justifications the smart Russian people contrived for this sudden seizure of murderous ethnic hatred. For now, it is important for me to demonstrate that almost the entire country shared the emperor’s outrage toward the Poles.

Countless letters were sent to the czar—from the noble assemblies and city councils, from Moscow and Kharkov universities, from Siberian merchants, peasants, and the Old Believers, and from the Moscow Metropolitan Philaret, who had blessed on behalf of the Orthodox Church “the killing of the entire [Polish] nation,” as Herzen termed it. For the first time since 1856, Alexander II became the new darling of Russia.

Meanwhile, Herzen was right: it was precisely the murder of a nation. Even in 1831, after Czar Nicholas suppressed the Polish uprising, the violence was not this atrocious. Yes, then Russia’s international obligations were stomped, and Poland’s constitution, which Alexander I granted after Vienna’s Congress approved it, was taken away. Yes, Nicholas publicly threatened to wipe Warsaw from the face of the earth and leave the place empty forever. But he didn’t wipe it out. He didn’t even ban the Polish libraries. No, something entirely different was going on during the reign of the Czar-Liberator.

The mass hysteria that bristled up Russia in 1863 not only silenced The Bell, but also taught the regime to manipulate the national consciousness and induce patriotic hysteria artificially.

The native language was forbidden in Poland; children were taught in Russian even in primary schools. The National Church was destroyed; its property was confiscated; monasteries were closed; and the bishops were dismissed. Nicholas may have destroyed the institutions and symbols of Polish autonomy, but the Czar-Liberator took aim at the heart of Polish culture—the national identity of the country, in its language and religion. These actions were in full compliance with Katkov’s characterization of the relationship between Russia and Poland as a matter of life and death.

The kindest Slavophile, Alexei Koshelev, admired the way the new governor-general, Muravyev, who went down in history as the “cannibal” and “Muravyev-the hangman,” drowned Poland in blood: “Ah, Muravyev! What a man! Shoots and hangs. Hangs and shoots. May God grant him good health!” Russia was going mad.

Even the censor Alexander Nikitenko, a modest man, not a politician, not an ideologue, who had not long before cursed (in his diary) Nicholas’ anti-Petrine coup, gave this original justification for what was happening: “If it comes to that, Russia is more necessary for mankind than Poland.” And no one, not a single soul in this vast country, had in his mind the simple and obvious questions that Herzen, who was dying in exile in London, asked in The Bell: “Why don’t we live with Poland as a free with a free, as an equal with an equal? Why should we take our serfdom to all? Are we better than they?”

I do not know any adequate explanation as to why this mass mind-obscuring happened under the most liberal autocrats of the nineteenth century, during the reign of the Czar-Liberator. I’ll try to offer my own theory, relying on Vladimir Solovyov’s formula, which is already known to the reader: We underestimate the ideological influence of Nicholas’s Official Nationality (as today we underestimate the impact of its Stalinist incarnation). Meanwhile, it managed to erase the noble patriotism of the Decembrists from the minds of Russians. It was replaced by the state-sponsored imperial patriotism put forth by their executioners. For decades, this concept of patriotism sowed the poisonous seeds of “national self-adoration.” And the harvest was terrible. If there is anyone, whether among the monarchists or the “Soviet professors,” who has a better explanation, I would be grateful to hear it.


Alexander Herzen (left); Alexander II (right).


But in 1863, Herzen admitted: “Nobility, writers, scientists, and even students [were] infected by an epidemic: the patriotic syphilis sucked in their blood and tissues.” The reader sees that I suggest a more politically correct term to qualify this madness. A more important terminological point to make is that the fatal word “nationalism” was not uttered even in the midst of the fierce debate over Russia’s response to the Poles (and for Herzen’s The Bell, the debate was truly a matter of life and death; the publication folded in 1867). As far as I know, Solovyov was the first to contrast “patriotism” to “nationalism” in a serious political dispute. But this didn’t happen until two decades later, and it was a kind of terminological revolution.

Anyway, the mass hysteria that bristled up Russia in 1863 not only silenced the “nationwide auditor,” but also taught the regime and the “hegemonic idea” to manipulate the national consciousness and induce patriotic hysteria artificially. This was a dangerous game. It ended when the later hysteria of 1908–1914 buried the Russian Empire beneath itself. Alas, buried with it was an unreasonable monarchy that never found the strength to become the only legitimate form of royal power, and thus missed its chance to survive in the twenty-first century as a constitutional monarchy.


“We saved the honor of the Russian name”

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, and I’m afraid that amid all this terminological fuss, the reader might lose sight of the image of a true hero of 1863, the man who was the real heir of the Decembrists and who dared to remain a free man, even in the middle of a raging sea of ​​hatred and subservience. I'm talking about the man who said “We are not slaves of our love to our country; we are not slaves of anything. A free man cannot recognize such a dependence of his land that could make him be involved in any matter which is alien to his conscience.” In the subsequent history of Russia, perhaps only Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov has earned the right to be held on the same level as the person who uttered those words.

The reader has already guessed, of course, that we are talking about Alexander Ivanovich Herzen. Here’s what he wrote when his life’s work was dying in front of his eyes: “If our challenge cannot find sympathy, if no rational beam can penetrate through this dark night, and not even one sober word can be heard over the noise of the patriotic orgy, we are left alone with our protest, but we will not leave our protest. We will repeat it in order to have evidence that at the time of general intoxication of narrow-minded patriotism, there were people who felt the strength to renounce the decaying empire in the name of Russia’s future, and they had the strength to be charged with treason in the name of love for the Russian people.”

Herzen’s fate was sad. Of course, his call to “live with Poland, as equal to equal” then seemed desperate; today it is trivial, and it is taken for granted. Even Katkov’s direct heirs, the singers of Empire—the izborists—do not dare to challenge the “verdict of history.” But here is the paradox: knowing that Herzen was right, they still consider him a traitor. And this is today, one and a half centuries later.

In the end, Herzen gave himself the cruelest of all possible sentences: he sentenced himself to silence. He decided to “just disappear somewhere in the back of the country, grieving of that lifetime mistake.”

Broken, he lived but a short time after that. He died in obscurity in a foreign land, maligned by his enemies and half-forgotten by his friends. Herzen’s funeral, according to the writer Peter Boborykin, “was more than modest, it did not cause any sensation, any honor in his memory. I do not remember that the major representatives of the literary or journalistic world came to say goodbye to him, to his apartment or at the grave, or that it was anything even resembling of a farewell celebration with Turgenev’s body in Paris before it was moved to Russia.”

There was no better posthumous fate for the hero who, like no other in his time, earned the right to say, “We saved the honor of the Russian name.” His country rejected Herzen at the moment when it needed him more than anyone else. And then he was resurrected blasphemously to serve as an icon for another “rotting empire.” And again, he was rejected, when it rotted in its turn. Cruel fate.


This year marks the 150th anniversary of that mad patriotic hysteria, and there was only one Russian who didn’t fall for it. Will anybody remember him? Will anyone mention him with a good word? I do not ask whether his remains will be transported to Russia. Why him? He's not a singer of the dictatorship like Ivan Ilyin. And he was not the white general...