20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by well-known historian Alexander Yanov dedicated to the history of Russian nationalism in the Soviet Union. In this essay, the author discusses the change of the cultural code in the 1960s and the revival of nationalism in Soviet Russia.


Ilya Glazunov. The Great Experiment.


Fatal Legacy

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the “semiliterate masses,” so called by Caesar-Stalin, began to force “foreigners” out of the Soviet Union’s vertical of power—a task they ultimately accomplished. In the meantime, much happened in the USSR: collectivization, famine, a policy of guns over butter, terror, black prison vans, and “murderers in white coats.” World War II, a horrible war—and then victory! Certainly, Caesar thought (as his admirers do up to this day) that victory proved him right, atoned for all the sacrifices made, wiped away all the tears shed, and justified all the sufferings experienced. However, if the Bolsheviks hadn’t won in Russia, it is likely there would have been no war, no tears, and no suffering whatsoever.

Nevertheless, Fyodor Tyutchev and Sergei Sharapov’s dream of a “Great Slavic Empire,” which we talked about in the first cycle of this series, came true. This mighty empire, which ruled over Hungarians, Romanians, and Germans, and stretched throughout half of Europe, was under Russia’s rule. And if Russia was still not “first in the world” as it had dreamed (its former “transatlantic brother” had intervened), it was still one of the two superpowers of the twentieth century. And Europe feared it, as it had feared Russia under Nicholas I.

What else could be expected from the Soviet people, who for the first time in history had participated in the liberation of, if not the whole of mankind, at least one-sixth of the global population (and half of the European population) from a system based on the exploitation of man by man? In the USSR, people lived poorly and some even starved, but they believed that the greatness of the empire redeemed all. There was fear, sometimes even terror, but—and here’s the paradox!—no lack of positive emotions. What they didn’t realize was that since the days of ancient Egypt, there has always been the problem of the exploitation of man by the state.

And then one day, the Caesar they had deified died, and his heirs fought with each other. And during that fight, amazing things were revealed. It turned out, for example, that greatness of power had been achieved at the price of transforming the country into a giant concentration camp in which anyone—from the People’s Commissar to Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich—could be detained, and that this greatness had been achieved through slave labor on the scale of that used in ancient Egypt. Something had to change immediately in the kingdom. Caesar had brought it to the edge.

And in the end, Caesar himself fell first victim to these revelations. Ruthlessly he was demoted down the ranks and expelled from the mausoleum in disgrace. After his dictatorship, as always happens in Russia, a “thaw” began, accompanied by frantic attempts at reform. At first, the results were impressive. The Gulag was disbanded; tens of thousands of prisoners were exonerated. Survivors were moved from the barracks and communal camps into independent houses. A policy of confrontation with the world was replaced by one of peaceful coexistence: Soviet military bases in Finland, Austria, and China were returned to their original owners; diplomatic relations with Yugoslavia and Israel were normalized; the world’s first satellite and then the first person were launched into space.

But Caesar’s fateful legacy hung on Khrushchev’s legs like a ball and chain. It turned out that the socialist form of economic system that he tried to build was so unworkable that it could not be reformed. Meanwhile, the “Great Slavic Empire” was seething with hatred. Revolts took place in East Germany and Hungary. Poland was on the verge of explosion—Russia’s long-standing nightmare.

The reformer was declared a “voluntarist” and removed from power. The Soviet authorities accepted the inevitability of the decline of Caesar’s system and the country as a whole. They decided that the nuclear shield provided sufficient security and that, because of its abundance of natural resources, Russia could endure for at least the duration of the lives of its leaders and the nomenklatura—and after that, the deluge. And in the eyes of the authorities, this was enough. Neither Mikhail Suslov nor Leonid Brezhnev nor Yuri Andropov nor Konstantin Chernenko lived to see the deluge. But when it came, the country—for the third time in its history —once again faced an impasse, and there was no sign of a new Alexander II, much less a new Peter I, on the horizon.


The Right and the Left

However, the thinking part of society, the intelligentsia, could not countenance the prospect of the country’s degradation, and so a whole series of alternative proposals for reform were put forth. The ancient division of Russian society into liberals and nationalists was revived, with each of these ideological factions was further divided into “senior” and “junior” groups. Today, among the opposition, these senior and junior groups persist as, respectively, the “systemic” opposition and the “dissidents” who openly confront the authorities and are primarily youth.

Initially, the “systemic” faction of the liberals was inclined toward the idea of bringing together elements of both socialism and capitalism, that is, borrowing the best features of each to create a new system. In short, they were seeking to create “socialism with a human face.” This approach seemed logical in a world where no nuclear superpower could defeat another without destroying the planet. Liberal dissidents, on the other hand, adopted the Western ideology of human rights from the very beginning. “Abide by your Constitution!” they demanded of the authorities. “Live without lies!” It was from this group that the current left wing of the dissidents grew. (From now on, I will use “Left” and “Right” to refer to, respectively, the dissidents within the opposition and the systemic opposition.)

Here, it is important for us to note that the nationalists split in a similar way into left and right factions. If their “systemic” faction perceived Khrushchev’s reforms to be the root of all evil in their departure from Stalinist standards and their destabilization of the system, the dissident nationalist group was ready, in the words of the underground All-Russian Social-Christian Union of People’s Liberation (VSKHSON) movement, for the “national-liberal revolution to overthrow the dictatorship of the Communist oligarchy.” More details of this movement, from which the right wing of dissidents sprang, will be discussed in the next essay.

Even more important for us is the question of why the Russian idea was revived at exactly this historic crossroads. As we saw in the first cycle of our series, this particular concept of Russian nationalism appears only in response to the first threatening symptoms of the degradation of the traditional political system. This is important because it allows us to view the emergence of such nationalistic tendencies as an accurate signal that such degradation has begun. This process occurred in the second quarter of the nineteenth century after the failure of reformist attempts to oust the “voluntarist” Alexander I, the exile of Alexander Speransky, and the defeat of the Decembrist movement. It was repeated in 1960 when the “Russian” movement began. Although the only weapon of this movement, which never grew into a formal party with a charter and a program, was ideas, as we already know, nationalist ideas are powerful and contagious.


The Awakening of the Russian Idea

It is important here to say a few words about the cultural atmosphere of the 1960s and mention some of its key figures. One, for example, was Ilya Glazunov, a famous artist who played the same role in the 1960s as Nikita Mikhalkov today, inspiring the creation of the “Orthodox-monarchist” wing of the Russian movement. Another important figure was Felix Chuev, a troubadour of “red patriotism” who became famous for penning two poetic lines about the “museum of the future,” where:

In the middle is our generalissimo
And his grand marshals

Other names, like Anatoly Nikonov, chief editor of Young Guard (Molodaya Gvardia) magazine, or Valery Skurlatov, a prominent Moscow Komsomol functionary and author of the Charter of Morals (one of the first “samizdat” publications), will hardly mean anything to today’s reader. Nor will the names of Young Guard “stars” such as Victor Chalmaev and Mikhail Lobanov, whose role as pioneers of the “systemic” Right we will discuss in a separate essay. But without them and a dozen more dark functionaries from the Old Square (the location of the headquarters of the KGB and certain other offices of the Soviet government), the Komsomol Central Committee, and the Union of Writers, we wouldn’t be able to understand our history.

The fate of Russian nationalism in the nineteenth century was my academic specialty. In the late 1960s, I was preparing to defend my dissertation, entitled “The Slavophiles and Konstantin Leontiev: The Degeneration of Russian Nationalism, 1839–1891.” The theme was bold, even from a purely academic point of view. Since 1930, Leontiev’s name had been taboo in Soviet historiography, and Slavophile studies had been at a standstill. Against the background of the rapid reawakening of Russian nationalism, this topic was really explosive. History was coming to life before our eyes: out of the mossy wilderness of official ideology, a new voice suddenly emerged, and it sounded just like it did in the 1850s. Here is just one example. A writer for Young Guard, with its million-copy circulation, grieved for “the spiritual degeneration of the educated man, as all sense of humanity has rotted in him, for highly educated people are [now] entirely infected with philistinism.” Such words were impressive.

The Russian idea appears only in response to the first threatening symptoms of the degradation of the traditional political system. This process occurred in the second quarter of the nineteenth century after the failure of reformist attempts to oust the “voluntarist” Alexander I. It was repeated in 1960 when the “Russian” movement began.

Moscow’s intelligentsia suddenly rushed to spend their vacations in poor villages instead of fashionable resorts in the Crimea, the Caucasus, or the Baltic. Young people wandered through the dying Non-Black Earth Belt collecting vintage icons. Discussions revolved around the “people’s roots” and the role of kitchens as “national shrines.” Writer Vladimir Soloukhin appeared in the Central House of Writers wearing a huge ring that bore a picture of Nicholas II. The phrase “Orthodox rebirth” became very popular. Hundreds of adults of different ethnic origins were baptized as Russian Orthodox. In their book The 60s: The World of the Soviet Man, scholars Peter Weill and Alexander Genis described what was happening as follows: “The cultural code was changing.”

Solzhenitsyn subsequently interpreted this change of the cultural code as an awakening of the national consciousness of the Russian people, who were “humiliated, and depressed by Bolshevism.” If he was right, his words could cause only sympathy in the hearts of his hearers. But the strangely familiar and ominous notes that sounded in the general chorus of voices were troubling: the “spiritual degeneration of the educated man” described in Young Guard is only one example. Valery Skurlatov asserted that “there is no more despicable thing than being a thinker, an intellectual,” and that “there is nothing more noble than being a soldier.” He called for “the youth to be ready for a deadly struggle for the global mission of our nation.” He also suggested “introducing corporal punishment for young people in general and especially for women, for throwing themselves onto foreigners, for which they must be stigmatized and sterilized.”

The programs advocated by VSKHSON members and later by Alexander Fetisov’s dissident groups fell on the ears of the people like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. However, the sky was not entirely clear. For example, the following is a snippet from a VSKHSON publication: “Being a sick brainchild of capitalism, communism developed and completed all harmful tendencies that existed in the bourgeois economics, politics and ideology. Communism brought to the limit the proletarianization of the masses, started by capitalism.” In other words, to paraphrase a well-known Leninist expression, communism is the final stage of capitalism. A reasonable question arises: Why did VSKHSON intend to overthrow the “communist oligarchy”? The same publication gives a definite answer to this question: “The state should constitute itself as theocratic.” Ultimately, VSKHSON members viewed themselves as fighting against some sort of “Satanocracy,” by which they meant both communism and capitalism.

Fetisov’s ideas, described in the Chronicle of Current Events, made an even stranger impression. According to the editorial board, these ideas “criticiz[ed] the Soviet system from the standpoint of extreme chauvinism and totalitarianism.” Europe’s history in this view was a “struggle between order and chaos—the latter embodied by the Jews—until the German and Slavic principles—[embodied by] Hitler and Stalin’s regimes—did not put an end to it.” Fetisov’s group “considered these regimes as historically inevitable, positive developments.” Reading these words, hardly anyone who observed the birth of the Russian nationalistic idea could doubt that it cast a long shadow of obscurantism even in its cradle.


Blame It on the West

In the 1920s, as we saw in the previous essay (“The Birth of Imperial National Communism”), the Jews were blamed for everything: “Now Russia . . . [is] Judea, where the ruling people are Jews and where Russians are diminished . . . to the role of a conquered nation.” In the 1930s, “executioners from the Caucasus” were added to the list of culprits. Foreigners were always to blame—but never Russians. From the nationalists’ standpoint, Russians could not turn the country into a giant concentration camp and their native Orthodox churches into stables. Stalin’s purges worked: almost all foreigners (often referred to as “aliens”) were ousted from the ruling vertical and locked up in their native “Bandustans,” while the Jews were turned into rootless cosmopolitans.

In 1939, Russian historian George Fedotov argued that “a Great Russian cannot understand this. He thinks we are all responsible for Bolshevism, and we are reaping the fruits of our common mistakes. But while it is true that the Bolshevik Party absorbed the revolutionary bandit elements from all the peoples living in Russia, [they were not absorbed] equally. The ideologues and founders of the [Communist] party were predominantly Russian. Bolshevism easily conquered Petrograd and Moscow, and the Great Russia hardly knew any Civil War—only marginal territories desperately resisted [Bolshevism].”

However, Fedotov’s opinion was like a sharp knife in the side of the nationalists. Accepting this belief would mean recognizing something that, in their opinion, was impossible—that the Soviet Empire was in fact the Russian state. Solzhenitsyn objected to this idea vehemently: “It is thoughtlessly misleading to consider Russians in the USSR the ruling nation. Russians are the main mass of the slaves of this state.” But if this were true, then who was the Soviet ruling nation? It seems to me that a historical mistake lay at the foundation of Solzhenitsyn’s judgment. I will show this mistake through an example.

The cunning of the traditional continental empires in Eastern Europe lay in the fact that although their elites ruled the state, their people bore the “burden of empire.” Weren’t the Turkish peasants “the main mass of the slaves of the state” in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century? And at that time, could the Turkish nationalists tell, anticipating Solzhenitsyn, that the Turkish people were “exhausted, biologically degenerated, and [their] national consciousness humiliated, crushed?” Does this mean that an identification of the Turks as the ruling nation of the Ottoman Empire is “thoughtlessly misleading”?

But the VSKHSON ideologues rushed to Solzhenitsyn’s rescue. “The Marxist doctrine components,” they contended, “borrowed from the Western bourgeois theories.” And the Soviet government was founded on Marxism, which was borrowed from the West, and this meant that in fact, it was the West that bore the blame for all of Russia’s troubles! Under Solzhenitsyn’s fiery pen, this pale clerical argument turned into a demonic “black vortex from the West” and became a philosophical concept, as outlined in his famous Letter to the Soviet Leaders. In this work, he proposed a deal to the leaders: take as much power for themselves as they wanted, turn their backs on the Western glamour that is so alien to Russia, and let the Russian people breathe and think in Russian. Here are some quotes:

  • “You will still have the unshakeable authority; a separate, strong, closed-loop party, army, police, industry, transport, communications, mineral resources, foreign trade monopoly, controlled exchange rate . . . but let people breathe, think, and grow!”
  • “The people desire for themselves only one thing: freedom of life, spirit, and word. As they don’t interfere with the state power, the people wish that the state not interfere with the life of their spirit.”

Don’t these passionate tirades sound as if they were written by one man? However, Solzhenitsyn actually authored only the first quote. The second one was written more than a century and a half ago by the Slavophile Konstantin Aksakov, and it was addressed to some very different leaders of the time. He, too, was convinced that Russia was enslaved by the Western spirit, and so he wrote a letter to the tsar, the ideas of which Solzhenitsyn repeated almost verbatim in the time of the Soviet Empire: take autocratic power, just give the people the chance to “breathe, think, and grow.”

As history shows, in countries where people do not control the state, the state controls the people. Could it be that, as Aksakov and Solzhenitsyn claimed, the situation was different in the Russian/Soviet Empire? Maybe. But in this case, they should have proven this claim. Otherwise, their appeal to the leaders only served as a justification for the domestic authoritarian tradition.

In general, the “change of the cultural code” in the 1960s left an uneasy feeling in its wake. After the collapse of the Soviet Empire, Putin’s turn toward authoritarian nationalism was, in a certain sense, predetermined. But we’ll talk about this much later.