20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. In this new essay, the author discusses the issues that prevent Russia from joining the “European family.”


Russian army enters Paris in 1814.


What is Nationalism?

There are many definitions of nationalism. Everyone is free to choose the one he likes. For my essays, I chose the definition of Russia’s outstanding political thinker Peter Yakovlevich Chaadaev. I chose him despite the fact that in his time, the term “nationalism” did not even exist. Here is what he wrote in the third of his Philosophical Letters (1829): “Soon we, with our body and soul, will be involved in the global flow and, perhaps, we will not be able to stay long in our solitude. [This] makes our future fate conditional upon the fate of the European community. Therefore, the more we try to merge with it, the better it is for us.”

It is clear that Chaadaev was not speaking of a Russian nationalism like the one we know today: propaganda promoting Russia’s isolation from Europe, its loneliness in the “global flows.” On the contrary, he ridiculed mercilessly the then-nationalists: their “pseudo-national reaction reached the level of a real monomania.... It was enough to be a Russian, this title accommodated all possible benefits, including the salvation of souls.” Pushkin agreed with the definition of his older friend unconditionally: “Woe to a country,” he confirmed, “that is located outside the European system.”

Honestly, when I first read all this, I was breathless. How could Russia’s leaders, I thought—both before and after the revolution, and especially in present time, when there is nothing preventing them, not “sacred” autocracy nor dogmatic Marxism—fail to comprehend what was clear to Chaadayev and Pushkin almost two hundred years ago? Namely, that in leaving their people “alone,” “outside the European system,” they, the country’s leaders, were setting them up for a fall?

I understand that from the point of view of Russian nationalist Chaadaev, and Pushkin, who wrote God knows when, it was unimaginable that Europe with its permissiveness would, two hundred years later, turn into in an example of how NOT to live, or that the Ukrainians would become “deserters and traitors” of the common cause of opposition to Europe, or that all of this is nonsense in general. Such truths only become clear from the point of view of a historian.


What Chaadaev Proposed to Russia

What did Chaadaev propose to Russia? In short, a permanent—pardon me for the academic jargon—criterion of political modernization. Unlike all other forms of modernization (economic, cultural, clerical) political modernization, if we ignore for a moment all its institutional complexities, like the separation of powers and judicial independence, means something basic and understandable to everyone, including Russian nationalists: a warranty against arbitrary power. And time cannot change this criterion. In 1200 years it will be as relevant as it was in the days of Chaadaev and Pushkin.

In their time, in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Europe was the only part of the political universe that had managed to minimize this arbitrariness. We can say without exaggeration that one needed a genius prognostic gift to predict that—despite the inevitable backslides and setbacks, such as the Holy Alliance, despite the fratricidal civil war, in Napoleon’s style—Europe alone (and, of course, its offshoots, whether in America or Australia) had the independent ability, without any assistance whatsoever, to eliminate arbitrary rule. Simply put, Chaadaev foresaw Europe’s potential. And Europe was a reliable workhorse and met his forecast, really living, unlike others, with no arbitrary rule. And no one can take that from her.

Chaadayev proposed to Russia a permanent criterion of political modernization—a warranty against arbitrary power. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Europe was the only part of the political universe that had managed to minimize this arbitrariness.

Furthermore, it would have been difficult to predict in his time that the two most important European communities—German (beginning with the Teutonophiles of the nineteenth century) and Russian (starting with the Slavophiles and Nicholas I)—would develop a clear tendency to oppose themselves to the rest of Europe and the decadent West. This undoubtedly exposed their, so to speak, political failure, or if you prefer, their inability to conduct independent political modernization.

The Germans did not have their Chaadaev. And German thinkers were not particularly bothered by their country’s falling out from the “European system.” Their indifference promised nothing good, however, for Germany. Didn’t the most prominent of the modern British historians, A. P. Taylor, have this in mind when he wrote in 1945: “it was no more a mistake for the German people to end up with Hitler than it is an accident when a river flows into the sea”? And isn’t it true that Germany needed landmark defeats in two world wars, mind-boggling devastation, famine, and partition of the country before it learned its lesson—that it would never rid itself of tyranny as long as it clung to nationalism and isolation from the rest of Europe? But it did eventually learn its lesson, finish with nationalism, and reunite with Europe.

Russia, however, had Chaadaev. And did it pay a lower price for its separation from Europe? I speak not only about terror, the Civil War, and the millions of lives absorbed by the gulag, but also about the fact that to this day, Russia is doomed to tolerate arbitrary rule, which Germany has long forgotten, and to put up with its humiliating second-rate life, with ongoing uncertainty about its future, which depends not on Russia, but on world commodity prices. Russia still has not learned Chaadaev’s lesson. But why?


What Prevents Russia from Learning the Lesson?

In Russia and in Europe, the powerful industry of mythmaking that assures the public that Russia and Europe are strangers to each other, that they always have been and always will be, grew over the course of centuries. We’ve already talked about Russian nationalists and will discuss them further. But for now, recall that in Europe, Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti opposed the unification of Germany and was confident that “Pan-Germanism must be stopped. There are two Germanies, and let them remain two.” The French writer Francois Mauriac gained fame with his cruel bon mot: “I love Germany and I cannot get enough of the fact that there are two of them.” Not everyone, of course, agreed with A. P. Taylor’s statement that Germany as a nation had completed its historic course, but the impression that Germany was too big, too dangerous, and most importantly, a stranger to Europe, was a common perception. And what is left of this impression today?


Russia’s political thinker Peter Chaadaev


Postwar Germany, at least, wanted to reunite with Europe. Russia—its rulers and the nationalist clique—do not want the same. They believe that Russia has always been a “special world,” that this is why it won, unlike crummy Europe, a victory in the Great Patriotic War. Wait a minute, though. Chaadaev’s generation won a greater victory in the Patriotic War of 1812—over Napoleon! They captured Paris. But “no, a thousand times no,” wrote Chaadaev, “we loved our homeland wrong in our young days... We did not think that Russia was some special world.” And we wanted to be part of, in his words, “the great European family.” So from where does this pretentious and deceitful “always” come to the mouths of today’s Russian nationalists?

“We especially did not think,” Chaadaev continued, “that Europe was ready to fall back into barbarism... We treated Europe politely, even respectfully, because we knew that it had taught us a lot, including, by the way, about our own history.” He imagined that all this was the normal state of things. He grew up with it and was terrified of the abyss into which “new teachers” (nationalists were indeed something new in his time) were ready to unleash his country. On one point, however, he was very wrong. He had hoped that the nationalist obsession would dissipate as soon as it demonstrated its harmfulness. “You took everything differently, so let it be,” he wrote, “but let me love my country in the pattern of Peter the Great, Catherine, and Alexander. I believe that the time when it will be acknowledged that such patriotism is not worse than any other, is close…”

Such time, alas, was too far away—in fact, unimaginably far away. Already under Alexander III, in 1880, a faithful follower of Chaadaev, Vladimir Soloviev, had to fiercely protest against the “epidemic [of] nationalism [that] has seized our society and literature.” And in contemporary Russia, his voice was as lonely as Chaadaev’s half a century before. As I'm afraid my voice will sound today, some 130 years later. The obsession has not dissipated. The same endemic nationalism is still around. And derived from it, the outrage is the same.

I’m not even talking about an ethnic kind of nationalism.I am talking about an official, imperial nationalism inspired by Sergei Glazyev, Alexander Dugin, and Natalia Narochnitskaya. Soloviev drew attention to the futility of it when he wrote, “In its national egoism, Russia always was powerless to produce something great or even just significant. Only through very close internal and external communication with Europe has Russian life really produced great political and cultural phenomena (the reforms of Peter the Great, the poetry of Pushkin).”

Advocates of this national egoism do not operate based on reason, but rather by relying on common prescriptions of Chaadaev’s time, like “Russian mystical solitude in the world” or “Messianic grandeur and mission.”

Advocates of this national egoism do not operate based on reason (let alone by drawing on concrete support for their beliefs), but rather by relying on common prescriptions of Chaadaev’s time, like “Russian mystical solitude in the world” or “Messianic grandeur and mission.” Substituting a rational argument with a hazy—pardon me, but I have not found a better word—muttering, this inferior manner of discussion provokes opponents to less-than-academic sharpness. One can understand why the deceased academic Dmitry S. Likhachev, when he argued with the advocates of national egoism, stated, “I think that any nationalism is a psychological aberration. Or rather, as it stems from an inferiority complex, I would say that it is a mental aberration.”

Unlike Likhachev, I will not offend fans of national egoism by questioning their mental health. I will only point the reader to the reality of Russia today, which we owe to this nationalist delusion. This nationalism condemned Russia to an eternity of arbitrary rule by depriving it of the European capacity for independent political modernization. Though one might ask why Germany gained this ability immediately upon uniting with the European Union, and Russia, in all its regimes, did not. Alas, I have little to say about this, except that it is glaring proof that Russia’s leaders are not thinking.

Russia did remember Chaadaev’s recommendation to align itself with Europe—enthusiastically remembered it with an adoring heart—two-hundred years later, not in Moscow, where the powers had never heard of it, but among the opposition and in Kiev. And suddenly it turned out that his message was able to (and is still able to!) inspire and mobilize not only politicians, but also the people! But the answer to our question is contained in this European choice, according to Russia’s greatest minds of all time, Chaadayev, Pushkin, and Soloviev: what prevents Russia from learning the fateful lesson of European history? This looks especially strange since the response to this was formulated not in Kiev, but in Moscow—and for Russia.

Maybe that’s why in this sea of December 2013 slogans, I, as a historian, have come upon the most fitting one—a European slogan, even. This hypothetical but well-known slogan, adapted slightly, would be addressed to Moscow, not with contempt, but with compassion. Perhaps the reader has guessed it? It is, of course, the very slogan that the brave seven launched on Moscow’s Red Square in August 1968: “For your freedom and ours!”