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The Challenge of Russian Nationalism to Soviet Stability

[clock] 20-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Summer 1989

Rather like religion, nationalism has a bad name in the modern world, and, rather like religion, it more or less deserves it. [They] have probably brought more havoc upon humanity than any [other] two forces in history, and doubtless will bring a great deal more. . . . It would seem, then, well to . . .figure out . . .how it might be prevented from tearing apart . . .the societies in which it arises, and beyond that the whole fabric of modern civilization.
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures
. . . a liberalized Russia might be possible but . . . a significantly liberalized Soviet Union is probably a contradiction in terms.
Paul A. Goble, “Gorbachev and the Soviet Nationality Problem”

No less than Mikhail Gorbachev, Americans must adopt “new political thinking.” It has been our habit to think in terms of curbing Soviet power, damaging and defeating it. But realism requires us to recognize that Soviet policy has grown benign through weakness, and we must now learn to think how to spare and save Soviet power. From whom? Primarily from the Russians.

For the sake of an appropriately large view of the problem, let us consider it from the vantage point of the geopolitical and ecumenical concepts of Paul Kennedy and William McNeill. In the total aggregate of economic and military power in the contemporary world, both American and Soviet power are declining. Though the military power of both countries remains intact, the economic power of both is eroding, and both are burdened by “imperial overstretch” (Kennedy), the characteristic economic inadequacy of empires in decline to shoulder the grand panoply of their strategic commitments. These circumstances give the two countries something like a condominium of conservative interests.

If it was appropriate as late as the past decade for the two rival superpowers to do their utmost to curtail each other’s pretensions and to damage each other’s interests, it no longer is. It is not merely that neither of us is quite so super as we used to be. It is that the Soviet Union is more wounded than we are, and if the decline of its military power relative to ours is a favorable development for the U.S., the deterioration of its whole condition, beyond a certain point, is not. What we must do now is ironic and revolutionary: we must exert ourselves to sustain and support a certain degree of its stability and strength—even if cautiously and not too much. Such a shift of attitudes, and of policy, on our part will be difficult at best because the idea of assisting a state so recently called—not altogether implausibly, considering the 1930’s—an empire of evil is repugnant to the thinking of almost all of us whatever our place in the currently confused categories of liberal and conservative. But the enterprise must be undertaken for the most compelling of reasons: because the Soviet presence is essential to the preservation of international order and world peace, and therefore it is essential to our own national interests. While it would be naïve not to recognize, as Mr. Kissinger has suggested, that Gorbachev’s ultimate goal is to make the Soviet Union a more effective antagonist of ours, the observation is beside the point, for the goal is, except in the form of brute military confrontation, quite beyond his reach.

Though it is impossible to measure precisely just how sick and shaky Soviet society is, it is obvious that it has several problems that threaten its survival and that nothing less could have forced Gorbachev’s radical departure from its sclerotic policies.

One such problem is that the economy is sick, as even Dan Rather and Ted Turner have explained to us, though they have missed some of its subtler and more sinister significance. In particular, the dramatic splash of glasnost’, admittedly a revolution in the public media inconceivable only a few years ago, is not a safe index of the likelihood of Gorbachev’s success more generally. It requires no special talent to change the tone or the content of a controlled press in an authoritarian country. To motivate people, to reach into the innermost recesses of their dynamics, is an altogether different order of problem, especially in a culture whose whole folklore and history respond to the idea of the work ethic with a cosmic yawn.

A second unmistakable Soviet problem is ethnic, the diversity of nationalities, their progressive encroachment on the fragile and dwindling majority of Russians, and the increasingly obvious restiveness among them. We have focused more and more hopefully—and foolishly—on this problem. In only the past few months, developments in Kazakhstan, the Baltic, the Caucasus, and among the Crimean Tatars have nourished our expectations.

Admittedly, the Soviet government has done a first-class job of controlling and muting ethnic conflict, and prophets of Soviet doom in the West have exaggerated its short-run seriousness considerably. On the other hand, in the long run, it can hardly remain as manageable as it has thus far been. Insofar as these two problems, the sick economy and ethnic restiveness, can be kept separate, neither is, in the short run, capable of disrupting the country dangerously. The really threatening aspect of the problem is that in the long run they can hardly be kept separate.

It seems likely that the entire Soviet empire, both inside the Soviet Union and outside it—i.e., the 14 non-Russian Soviet republics as well as the countries of the Warsaw Pact— has become a burden and a liability for the Russians. In Eastern Europe, the Soviet bloc initially behaved in a docile and cooperative spirit, surrendered economic assets, and enhanced military security. Nowadays, it is subventioned, pampered, and virtually bribed for obedience, while it thumbs its nose at Moscow with vaiying degrees of impunity and impiety (or sport); and the bloc now only partially enhances military security in a fashion increasingly doubtful. Inside the Soviet Union, the non-Russian republics progressively aggrandize their centrifugal economic interests, establish growing control over the disposition of locally gathered revenues, and dispose of 48 percent or more of a national budget of which only 23 percent was theirs in 1950.

In the long run, therefore, if Gorbachev does not succeed, someone will have to answer a desperate question: how to divide the shortage among the nationalities? And that will be a problem of elemental trauma.

A third problem is far less well appreciated in the West and arguably even more important, more massive, and more dangerous than the first two, in part because it aggravates and catalyzes both. It is the flight from one ideology to another among the Russians.

We often hear it said these days that Marxist-Leninist ideology in the Soviet Union is dead. It cannot be true. When one rises to the top of a hierarchy founded on ideology, one does so by parroting it. The bosses owe their place in the system to demonstrative professions of loyalty, hence the question whether they really believe or not is hardly relevant: they must say that they do, and they must behave as if they do. Gorbachev himself exhibits a good deal of spontaneous passion in his attachment to the ideology (as for example in his Paris press conference). Moreover, we have it on good authority from spies and defectors that the Brezhnev Politburo could not even understand briefings in the politics and foreign policy of the United States unless they were packaged in the terminology of Marxism-Leninism.

On the other hand, among the “broad masses” Marxism-Leninism entirely lacks the power to inspire, and among the intelligentsia, it has acquired the power to disgust. It is singularly insipid, soporofic, anesthetic, hugely numbing. Even Pravda, in its new format, has dropped the ideological piece which for decades appeared in the first column of the front page.

In the flight from the old ideology, the Russians must of course embrace a new one. Deciding what the new one will be is no problem. It will be the oldest and most durable of the isms, nationalism. What communism was to the intelligentsia of France nationalism is to that of the Soviet Union (RSFSR), the opiate of the intellectuals.

This problem is altogether underestimated in the West, and though it is hardly demonstrable, it is not implausible that the most frustrated and discontented nationality in the Soviet Union is precisely the one that is in charge, the Russian. We have assessed this prospect less carefully than the discontent of the minorities simply because we pay less attention to it, but it is the most conspicuous discontent of all. It is all but nakedly displayed in the mass media, and in private conversation one hears over and and over again, from Communists and non-Communists alike, “The Russians live worse than all the rest.” Many Russians seem to regard the party as little more than a conspiracy whose function is to exploit whatever is rich and Russian, both material and cultural fare, for the benefit of the others. They complain of the repertoire of the Bolshoi Theater as much as they do of the distribution of the budget.

Moreover, this problem, the discontent among the Russians, is the only element of the Soviet domestic crisis which has the capacity to precipitate sudden disaster.


Let us have a look at this phenomenon in a broader perspective.

One of the constants of the cultural history of the 20th century has been a nostalgic revolt against the galloping values of material progress, urbanism, and technological innovation, a revolt against modernity. It takes different forms in different places, but for the sake of describing it most inclusively, we can call it romantic conservatism. It is a kind of revolutionary conservatism, or, better, in the name of conservatism, it is in fact revolutionary. One of its early manifestations was a recognizably proto-Nazi literature of Imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic characterized by Fritz Stern as the “politics of cultural despair.”

A similar phenomenon is apparent all around the world these days. Much of it is religious. There are the evangelicals in the U.S., there is the Islamic revival in the crescent of crisis. In its contemporary German form, it is Green, anti-religious, ecologically activist, naïvely democratic, and so wonderfully ahistorical in its consciousness as not to recognize, in its revulsion against the tradition of Nazism, that it shares some of the fundamental impulses of the “NS Zeit.” In a less strident and more poetic form, it is apparent in the popularity of the novels of Michael Ende (especially Die unendliche Geschichte, which treats the preservation of childlike fántasy as something like the quest of the Holy Grail, and Momo, in which a child heroine saves society from an invading race of granen Herren who wish to force everyone to put all spare time in a Zeitsparkasse). In the American South, such manifestoes as I’ll Take My Stand: the South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930) have been replaced by subtler forms, the novels of Ferrol Sams and of Pat Conroy. In France, the spirit of Rousseau is alive and well in the back-to-nature fiction of Michel Tournier (especially Vendredi, a new Robinson Crusoe). Similar attitudes could be found in what Arnold Toynbee would call the revolt of the Zealots in India (Gandhi) and Japan (Mishima).

The Russian intelligentsia had participated in the flowering of attitudes like these, inspired especially by the thought of Herder, during the Romantic Revolt that followed the French Revolution, but the upheavals of the Russian Revolution, the paranoia of Stalin, and the requisite rigors of socialist realism effectively isolated it from the recycling of similar ideas in the 20th century. No more did Russian writers share in the traditions of literary existentialism or antinomianism of Sartre, Becket, Camus, and Vonnegut.

A break occurred in the early 1960’s, and the Russians rejoined the world community of the arts in some sense. In 1963, Solzhenitsyn published what is probably his best and most important piece of work, at least for internal Soviet consumption, “Matrena’s House.” Humble and homely Matrena is an elderly widowed countrywoman whose biography and personal virtues read like the Russian Orthodox embodiment of the Biblical beatitudes. In 1966, Vladimir Soloukhin’s Letters from a Russian Museum was instrumental in inspiring the formation of the Society for the Preservation of Russian Antiquities. From that time, nostalgic nationalism has been the most powerful and the most creative movement in the Russian arts.

The contemporary Russian variety of romantic conservatism is evident chiefly in the school of writers most commonly known as neo-Slavophiles or derevenshchiki (“village prose writers”): Valentin Rasputin, Vladimir Soloukhin, Vasilii Shukshin, Viktor Astaf’ev, Fedor Abramov, Sergei Zalygin, and Vasily Belov.


Material reality in Russia has always been niggardly and ideological ferment—while rarely original—rich. The irony of the Russian Revolution is not merely that it should have occurred in a country so little like those that Marx described as ready to receive it. The greater irony has been the relationship between what Marx called sub- and super-structure. No nation has a culture and none has a history that mocks quite so impiously as do the culture and the history of Russia the Marxist idea that being determines consciousness. Illustrations abound. Both the tsarist and the Soviet governments have pursued foreign policy goals that were idea-dominated, often entirely out of contact with anything like popular national consciousness or national interest. Consider how the national interest was served in 1914—1918 by the war against two kindred autocracies; or by Lenin’s and Stalin’s destruction of the unity of the European left in the face of the Fascist offensive between the wars. The first generation of Russian journalists to acquire something like power in public opinion—Dostoevsky, Belinsky, Herzen, Ogarev, Khomiakov, Aksakov—were Hegelians, St.-Simonians, socialists, Orthodox evangelicals, Westernizers, Slavophiles. Above all, there were Isaiahs. The history of the Russian Revolution itself is the most unlikely story of the interaction of an abstract idea and a truculent reality. It is a story of forcing an empire of forest and steppe to conform, cost what it might, to a brainstorm in the British Museum. What is perhaps more surprising is that the enterprise should so readily have found a large cohort of willing disciples in the population at large. It is as fascinating as it is frightening to follow Lev Kopelev’s account in Education of a True Believer of inflicting a better future of collectivization on a lost generation of peasants— and yet another lost generation in the purges—at incalculable cost in those capital and human resources which it was the alleged purpose of the campaign to multiply. In most parts of the world, ideas do not have such power.

The Russians are a nation of believers. They are a nation of ideolaters, iconodules. They are Socialists, Christians, vegetarians, democrats, authoritarians, anthroposophists—anything but liberals—but they are above all partisans in both a richer brew and a wider spectrum of ideas than we can easily imagine. Nowhere else in the world is there a celebration of cerebration equivalent to that among the Russians.


The Russian intelligentsia is a famed phenomenon among those who know it. It is vastly more volatile than its Western counterpart. It is more vibrant, more colorful, more fantastic. It is not remotely so coolly logical. It takes ideas more seriously, and it mixes them with personal life in a special blend of intoxication. Its intellectual life is more emotional and its emotional life, more intellectual. The mixture is heady and frothy, and we have nothing in our experience to equal an intelligent dinner party with its compulsively alternating orating, embracing, eating, drinking, orating and embracing. For a Western professional person whose occupation is essentially that of a merchant of ideas, there is nothing in our world quite so exciting, quite so attractive as the Russian intelligentsia.

On the other hand, it is drifting distinctly in the direction of nostalgic nationalism, and, in its extreme form, there is scarcely any passion more corrosive and destructive than nationalism.

Fortunately, in Russia as elsewhere there are different forms of nationalism. In 19th-century Europe, there was a clear distinction between the liberal and tolerant nationalism of Herder and Mazzini on the one hand and the violent nationalism of Treitschke and Mickiewicz on the other. Similar divisions are reflected in contemporary Russian nationalism.

Among the liberal nationalists, two stand out. One of them is Sergei Zalygin, editor of Novyi mir. Given the importance of that position and the fact that he recently accompanied Gorbachev to the Washington summit, and given the known antagonism of Gorbachev’s closest adviser in cultural affairs, Alexander Yakovlev, to Russian nationalism, it is inconceivable to assign Zalygin to the extremist group. (I heard Zalygin say on Soviet TV in the summer of 1986: “The first time I entered a Russian village, I felt that I had come home.”) Another such influential person is Akademik Dmitrii Likhachev, a historian of medieval Russian literature whose frequent appearances on Soviet TV attract an audience something like that of the Super Bowl in the U.S. Perhaps the best evidence for his opinion is his little book, Zametki o russkom, in which he relates with considerable enthusiasm his hikes through various foreign rural landscapes. The book has a distinctly Mazzinian tone about it.

The more virulent nationalists are viscerally antagonistic to the West, loathe American mass culture, are strongly anti-Semitic, and believe in the influence of a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy in American policy. A recent correspondence between the popular Jewish historian Natan Eidel’man and the Russian nationalist novelist Viktor Astaf’ev illustrates the outlook of the group. Eidel’man complained in a dignified and respectful letter of elements of racism in Astaf’ev’s work. Astaf’ev responded that he was pleased to be so accused and went on to say that Eidel’man’s father deserved the years which he spent in the labor camps, that he thereby contributed to expiate the sins of his Jewish compatriots who had murdered the Russian imperial family.

Unfortunately, this group is far more massive than the moderate party. Thus, waiting in the wings to supply their favorite remedies should Gorbachev falter is perhaps the world’s largest contingent of armchair politicians and myth-mongering intellectuals, people whose incessant cerebral fever is matched only by their total divorce from hands-on experience. An increasingly prominent organization recently much in the headlines is called “Pamiat‘ “—Remembrance— and it believes that the CIA is planting the bacillus of bureaucratism in the RSFSR in order to encompass the ruin of Russian culture.

Removed from their idyllic Thoughteries, where they possess the charm of free-floating Muses so seductive by comparison with the booted Leviathan outside, these people would be quite dangerous. They would gladly put right the errors of the Soviet administration, making scapegoats of Jews, Uzbeks, and Buryats, opening up new schools as doctrinaire and bizarre as the old ones. By comparison with these people, as Friedrich Meinecke said of Bismarck after Hitler, Gorbachev belongs to our world. For the Communists of the Soviet Union have now had 70 years of the experience of reality to temper the illusions of their doctrine.


There are times in the history of Russia when the most exemplary reforming efforts of Russian statesmen seem to suffer from the curse of a syndrome of damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t. At the end of the old regime, Count Witte sought to save the monarchy by decreeing an industrial revolution. He did it in great part through raising the investment revenues of state capitalism by taxing the peasants, and he thereby destroyed the purchasing power of the domestic market necessary to support a native industry. To make matters worse, he drew up a constitution in order to appease the rampant political discontent in the revolution of 1905; but, unhappily, in the forceful argument of Theodore H. von Laue, the constitution doomed the old regime to revolution, for Russian liberalism was, like most of Russia, agrarian, and agrarian liberals would not burden their own constituency with the taxes required to foster an industrial revolution.

Gorbachev’s predicament, too, appears to suffer from a kind of lockstep of crisis from which no very evident exit has appeared. What liberal constitutionalism was at the end of the old regime, glasnost’ is now, i.e. a double bind of blessing and curse, a promise of salvation and a threat of doom. For example, it is clear that the publicity of glasnost’ is essential to achieving perestroika—to the fighting of corruption, shirking, bureaucracy, to the stimulation of public initiative. On the other hand, it is equally clear, especially in the recent strife between Armenians and Azeris, that glasnost’ catalyzes national consciousness and national conflict.


Though the analogy is by no means exact, there are elements of the contemporary Soviet crisis that are reminiscent of the crisis of dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the time of the First World War. As Frantisek Palacky put the matter as far back as 1848, if the Austrian Empire did not exist, it would be necessary to create it. After 1918, it no longer existed, and the short-term anarchy, the subsequent partition of the area between the Germans and the Russians, and the eventual dominion of the Russians is an appropriate commentary on the wisdom of Palacky’s observation. If the Soviet Union did not exist, would it be, for similar reasons, necessary to create it? The Soviet Union of 1989, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire of 1900 ff., is immodern, obsolescent, and sick. Moreover, like its older counterpart, it holds the subject peoples in what both we and they regard as a good deal of bondage. Yet it imposes order on most of what the Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled in 1900 and on much else both in Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Let us consider the price that the world of international politics would pay for its dissolution. We would see the “Balkanization” of a huge and inveterately troublesome part of Eurasia.

While from the point of view of the many sufferers who have experienced it, the millions in the camps, the leaders of national independence movements, the artists who have fled, not fled, or died, the Afghans, the Hungarians, the Poles and Czechs, and others, the experience of Soviet government has been the antithesis of what we regard as humane and civilized, is it not more rational and more intelligent of us, and in the last analysis also more humane, to consider our attitude toward the Soviet government from the viewpoint of our own interests?

And here is the crucial consideration: viewed impartially in a global perspective, the role of the Soviet government is a civilizing one. It maintains, at enormous cost to the Russian people, a semi-civilized order over two parts of the world almost infinitely disorderly. The first is the Balkans and Eastern Europe, the area that gave us World War I and World War II. The second is the Soviet side of the “crescent of crisis.” How many dozens of Khomeinis may we imagine skulking incognito among the sufis and the dervishes of the Caucasus and Central Asia? In the absence of Soviet power, what it would cost to reimpose a tolerable order on such areas is suggested by the films that we are seeing these days of our experience in Vietnam. To borrow one of Pushkin’s favorite ideas, there is a sense in which the Soviet Union is buffering Western civilization from the chaos of Western Asia today as Russia did in the era of the Mongol Empire.

In this question, our interests and our sentiments conflict, and in the large perspective, it is our interests that are more humane than our sentiments. The preservation of order is more vital for the maintenance of peace in the area than is the satisfaction of nationalist sentiments. Can we afford to be an accomplice in the nationalist crimes of the Soviet state? Can we afford not to be? The preservation of order in this area of the world is more vital than the progress of human rights—to us, to the world at large, and probably, perhaps unbeknownst to them, to the peoples who live there.

Finally, there are three important points to be remembered. First, in current Soviet circumstances, communism is more conservative than nationalism. Second, two superpowers entering an age of the erosion of their power and influence in world affairs will naturally find a variety of common conservative interests. Third, from the viewpoint of American interests, we could scarcely conceive a more advantageous political design for Eastern Europe and Western Asia than an economically unworkable but ethno-politically functional Soviet system.


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