20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by well-known scholar Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism in the USSR. In this essay, which will be published in two parts, the author tells the story of a dissident faction of the opposition nationalist wing—represented by Veche, a samizdat magazine—and Nikolai Danilevsky, the Pan-Slavism ideologue who became the torch-bearer for this movement.


Veche was a self-published magazine that was described by its authors as a Russian uncencored typewritten Orthodox patriotic magazine. It was published every three months, and its circulation was about 50-100 copies. Photo: gefter.ru.


Mitrokhin’s mistakes

In previous articles we saw that Nikolai Mitrokhin, author of The Russian Party: Russian Nationalist Movement in the Soviet Union in 1953–1985, no matter how priceless and unique his research may be, is not always accurate in his assessments. For instance, he unfairly disdains the liberal opposition in Russia—a movement whose members I call the “Russian Europeans.” It suffices to recall how he characterized them as a “union of good people, sealed… by sitting together in the kitchen for decades.”

In fact, it was through the dedication of these “good people” that the most vibrant opposition events of Soviet times came about: the protest by the “Heroic Seven” on Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (“For your freedom and ours!”); the public speech by Andrei Sakharov against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; the night vigil of thousands of people at the Russian White House during the putsch of 1991, when tanks rolled into the streets of Moscow and no one could predict how that fateful night would end. The nationalist opposition did not display such courage.

Understandably, the author who devoted his work to the nationalist opposition was frustrated by the fact that the majority of those who wrote memoirs about the Soviet era were “under the sway of a powerful and persistent myth that within the Soviet establishment the liberals—” (to include members of the dissident movement) “—were the only opposition to the existing regime.” No doubt, this was a mistake on their part. A blunder. But can we, on the other hand, disregard the fact that during that period, liberal trends in society prevailed over nationalist ones for a decade, while the liberal period of the February Revolution lasted only ten months? And this happened precisely because of the “sitting together in the kitchen” that Mitrokhin so inappropriately snipes at.

There’s another inconsistency in Mitrokhin’s work, which we have already mentioned in passing: the Russian Party’s policy was not limited to ethno-nationalism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, as the author is inclined to think. Even Young Guard magazine, as we saw, put forward its own alternatives to the Brezhnev regime, not to mention VSKhSON. My late friend and dissident Andrei Amalric distinguished between the nationalism of small nations, limited to animosity toward other ethnicities, and the nationalism of imperial nations. In his Memoirs of a Dissident (1982) he wrote: “Nationalism of small nations can be understood as a means to protect their culture, although even in these cases it sometimes takes a repulsive shape. But a great nation’s nationalism is not a means to protect. It is rather an instrument of pressure, both internal and external.”


Fear of disintegration of the country

Perhaps most important is this. In contrast to Western empires, Russia was a continental empire: its possessions were not located somewhere overseas; they were in the neighborhood. And although, like all empires, it was haunted by a perpetual fear that one day its conquered neighbors would demand independence, unlike the Western overseas empires, the Russian imperial regime had at its disposal an effective means to prevent such a turn of events. Specifically, in the people’s minds, every imperial acquisition was incorporated into Russia’s identity. The country’s rulers pushed this idea for so long, that eventually they themselves came to believe in such an identity.

In the first cycle of our series, I quoted Emperor Alexander II, who was sincerely bewildered: “Poles want an independent state, but this would mean disintegration of the country.” Tsarist generals won the civil war for the Bolsheviks because they perceived them as being able to put together the disintegrated country. When, in 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev tried to persuade Lithuania not to separate from the Soviet Union, his arguments were exactly the same as those of Alexander II: “But you will destroy the country!” To what was Vladimir Putin referring when he declared the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”—the separation of Russia’s imperial acquisitions or the disintegration of the country? Of course, disintegration of the country.

For Russian rulers, this notion of Russia’s identity (as inclusive of and dependent on its acquired territories) was a given—they absorbed it with mother’s milk. And this identity was a historic achievement of the Russian empire’s regime, as it harnessed all the power of true patriotism and love of country to pursue its imperial ambitions. If it were not for this dubious identity in people’s minds, the Russian empire would have disappeared, most likely back in 1918, just as other continental empires did, most notably the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

But that identity proved resilient: having captured the masses, the specter of ​​“disintegration of the country” became a material force, a heavy artillery of ideas, easily crushing liberators of Russia who tried to rid the country of the “evil empire.” Some so-called “patriots” argue that Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin betrayed the country, brought about its collapse and disintegration. Today’s anti-Ukrainian hysteria has the same roots. What will happen once all the current flag-waving patriots realize that Putin has lied to them, that there will be no Novorossiya (New Russia), and that the promised reunification of the country will not go beyond the annexation of Crimea?

My mentor, Vladimir Solovyov, a man “bearing the mark of genius on his brow,” taught us that patriotism is as natural and powerful as the love between parents and children. He also showed us how easily patriotism, when directed outwards, transforms into an ethnic, tribal nationalism. Recall the infamous “patriotic hysteria” we discussed in detail in the first round of our series that eventually destroyed Petrine Russia. Solovyov also taught us how to unravel this age-old muddle, and to separate patriotism (and ethnic hysteria) from imperial nationalism, which brings about the degradation of the country.

That is why Nikolai Mitrokhin’s emphasis on ethnic nationalism seems wrong to me. After all, in Russia today there are fifty-three nationalist organizations (many of them call themselves parties), but only seven of them, to my knowledge, are based solely on the idea of ​​ethnicity. These are the Black Hundreds, the National Socialist Party of Russia, the National Sovereign Party of Russia, the Russian National Unity (aka the Barkashov Guard), the Union of Orthodox Banner Bearers, the Minin and Pozharsky Popular Movement, and the banned Movement Against Illegal Immigration. The remaining forty-six do indeed offer alternative programs for the transformation of the country. A similar setup, albeit not so diverse, existed in the Soviet Union.

But the main drawback of the “Russian Party” still lies in the fact that in Mitrokhin’s book there is virtually no distinction between the “systemic” and dissident factions of the Russian Party, i.e. between the censored Young Guard and the illegal underground. Of the eleven chapters in the book, only one is devoted to dissidents: “Russian Nationalists’ Samizdat.” This distinction, not found in Mitrokhin’s work, is also important because it was not Young Guard, and certainly not their party “cover,” but the illegal nationalists, who paid the real price of Sergei Semanov’s blunder and the authorities’ crackdown on nationalism. While chief editor Anatoly Nikonov of Young Guard just moved into the chair of the chief editor of Vokrug Sveta, the editor in chief of the nationalist magazine Veche,” Vladimir Osipov, moved into one of Mordovia’s prison camps. For eight years.


The fate of Veche

The publication of thick political and public affairs magazines is an old-age Russian and, later, Soviet tradition. But to publish a thick, typewritten, dissident magazine with the name and address of the editor on the cover, more or less freely distributed in the Soviet Union for almost four years—that was something phenomenal. Of course, Veche declared itself the voice of the “loyal opposition” and substantiated that quite reasonably: “We have to convince the Administration [of the Communist Party] that the existence of a loyal opposition is not to the detriment of, but to the benefit of the state.” It was beneficial for the following reasons: 1) the “loyal opposition is your protection against proliferated bureaucracy that not only the workers, but the leaders themselves consider a burden”; and 2) “it protects against a single-leader dictatorship.”

The Russian imperial regime empire was haunted by a perpetual fear that one day its conquered neighbors would demand independence, and it had at its disposal an effective means to prevent such a turn of events: in the people’s minds, every imperial acquisition was incorporated into Russia’s identity.

Edited by Osipov, the magazine was published from January 1971 to March 1974, when the editorial staff split up. That same year, Osipov was arrested (and later convicted). Thus ended the brief life of Veche. But this drama, which eventually resulted in a rift between members of the editorial staff, was unique. It was a wonderful, in my opinion, albeit failed attempt by a group of Russian national-liberals to guard their readers against the fate of the pre-revolutionary Slavophiles—that is, against degrading into a nationalism of the “Black Hundred” variety.

That is why Veche has been analyzed in detail and interpreted in the modern context of works of such luminaries of pre-revolutionary nationalism as Nikolai Danilevsky, Konstantin Leontiev, and Mikhail Skobelev. The magazine also deeply and thoroughly investigated issues related to the environment, architecture and urban planning, and the ethnographic and literary heritage of the country. Overall, the samizdat Veche is almost two thousand pages of very serious content, so I definitely do not share the cynicism of Mitrokhin, who not only did not single out Veche among the humdrum of dissident and “Young Guard–type” nationalist publications of those years, but also sneered at its “pseudo-historical exercise.”

Osipov and many of his associates were real national-liberals, not adhering to the generally accepted notions of liberalism, but rather embracing the ideas of imperial nationalism. But their desire for freedom is beyond doubt. They were neither conformists nor the Black Hundreds. For this reason, the historical essays published in Veche are certainly worthy of serious consideration.


In search of an alternative

A series of historical events that led the Soviet Union to a policy of “détente” in its relations with the West, such as Nixon’s visit to Beijing, a dangerous rapprochement between China and the United States, forced the national-liberals to seek an alternative to “reconciliation” with the West. In an interview with Stephen Broening, an Associated Press correspondent, Osipov formulated it quite clearly: “In the face of imminent threat from Communist China and the continuing hostility of the cosmopolitan West, Russian society should not be ideologically feeble.”

As we saw previously, Young Guard’s criticism was aimed at the “Americanization of the spirit.” World drama, as described by them, boiled down to saving humanity—above all Russia, as humanity’s only hope—from the “temptation of bourgeois prosperity” and “permissiveness.” In this drama, Russia, with its “distinctive moral character,” was assigned an active role, that of a messiah, if you will. There was no place in this harmonious picture for the Chinese threat.

It was not easy to come up with an ideological alternative. It required a level of intellectual strength that neither Young Guard, with its philippics against the “Americanization of the spirit,” nor VSKhSON, with their “theocracy,” possessed. It required intellectuals who were traditionally opposed to the regime that existed in Russia. And in Veche there were many such intellectuals, albethey “patriotically minded.”

The challenge facing them was complicated by the fact that Veche initially promised not to engage in politics. They had to play by the rules of the game and speak of modern-day themes in Aesopian language, pretending that they spoke of the past—a practice perfected over the centuries even by official magazines. That is why Veche so willingly printed historical essays.

An essay on “The role of [Nikolay] Danilevsky in the world historiosophy” was central to the magazine. Among Russian nationalists, Danilevsky is an iconic figure to this day. There is even a theory that he was the basis for the idea of the ​​Russian Titan of thought that was adopted by Oswald Spengler in his work The Downfall of the Occident. This is nonsense, of course. But Danilevsky really was an original thinker, the progenitor not only of Russian Pan-Slavism, but also, in a certain sense, of today’s Izborsky Club. And it was his century-old idea that Veche tried to interpret, adapting it to the context of the 1970s, and thus, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (recall his famous Letter to the Soviet Leaders), initiating a dialogue with the leaders of the Soviet Union. But what did Danilevsky offer to Russia and to the world?


The progenitor

This is what he offered: Forget about the “benefit of all mankind,” and most of all beware of this dangerous (in his opinion) nonsense invented by cosmopolitan Europe for its own aggrandizement. He told us, “The really serious danger lies in the accession of a universal human civilization.” Such a civilization would be a deadly blow to the messianic dreams of Veche’s censored rivals at Young Guard. Danilevsky’s message was this: it is Russia that has to be saved, because there is no humanity and it’s senseless to try save it.

But what is there, then? According to Danilevsky, there are separate “cultural-historical types” (or “local civilizations”), as dissimilar to each other as different species, such as fish and lizards. The core of each of these civilizations is a “historic nation,” distinct in that each has its “own historic purpose, a national idea.” There cannot be alliances between civilizations, just as fish and lizards do not enter into alliances. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—this is what governs relations between states.”

As for the loser nations, those that do not have their “own historic purpose,” they are doomed to remain “ethnographic material” for the historic nations. There are, however, also nations that have exhausted their historic purpose and “died a natural death, in senility.” According to Danilevsky, examples of such “living dead” were China and Turkey, which nevertheless resist transformation into “ethnographic material,” not allowing Russia to fulfill its historic purpose. Europe, decaying in its permissiveness, was also in the process of becoming a “living dead,” keeping afloat the doomed Turkey.

Such was the overall picture of the world in 1871, according to Danilevsky. What were the policy implications of it for contemporary Russia?

First, Russia must become strong enough that Europe wouldn’t have a chance to stop her from finishing off Turkey, as it did during the Crimean War. Second, on the ruins of Turkey, Russia should “become the leader of a distinct independent political system of states, to counterbalance the rest of Europe.” The idea behind this giant “distinct system that stretches from the Adriatic Sea to the Pacific Ocean” was that it would be self-sufficient and would not need Europe. Third, after that, Russia should barricade itself off from the West and wait patiently for cosmopolitan Europe to completely “decompose” in its Sodom, to become like China, a “living dead.” And then Europe would be suitable for cultivation. At that point, “the historic purpose” of Russia could supposedly be considered completed, and its “national idea” realized.

How did the editors of Veche intend to interpret this hopelessly archaic and, frankly, disgusting strategy? Could such a strategy serve as an alternative to the policy of “détente” in the USSR’s relations with the West in the 1970s? Could it keep the “patriotic masses” from degrading into the Black Hundreds, as Veche expected? And finally, what is liberal about this strategy, considering that Danilevsky, believe it or not, was also a national-liberal? These are points we will discuss in the second part of the essay.