The Caucasus and Russia’s new nationalism
In-text references have been omitted from this post for clarity, but a bibliography of texts cited is at the end.
The North Caucasus is not ballast, but one of the pearls of Russia.
—Vladimir Putin, August 2011.
The separation of all non-Russian territories could be the last chance for the survival of the Russian nation. Better amputation than gangrene.
—Konstantin Krylov, President, Russian Public Movement, January 2011.
As the Soviet Union fractured and broke up, scholars wondered which forms of nationalism would emerge in the newly-independent states of the great, multi-ethnic empire. In the Russian Federation, nationalism and Russian national identity have been continually debated by both the people and the political elite. This post analyses the evolution of post-Soviet Russian nationalism, with particular reference to its recent – largely populist, extra-parliamentary and grass-roots – incarnation, manifested best in the ‘Russian March’ and ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ movements. The latter phenomenon, gaining publicity during the public protests which followed the 2011 Duma election, has focussed on attacking the federal financing of the republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan. Its composition – the fusion of a number of smaller nationalist groups – provides a clear picture of the wider trend at work in the evolution of modern Russian nationalism. Instead of remaining a tool of Kremlin ideology used to reconcile civic difference and orchestrate the national agenda from above, modern Russian nationalism is resurgent as a popular, bottom-up movement with grievances symptomatic of a state undergoing transition, modernisation and social flux.
To form a tentative hypothesis explaining the path nationalism is taking in modern Russia, we may turn to the classic theoretical literature on the subject; namely Gellner’s work on nations and modernity and then Anthony Smith’s celebrated theory of ethnosymbolism, which both translate well to the Russian context. Smith’s conception of the ethnie; ‘a named human population with a myth of common ancestry, shared historical memories, elements of shared culture, an association with a specific “homeland” and a measure of solidarity’ can accurately apply to the ethnic Russian population whom the modern nationalists largely comprise of, and claim to represent. Gellner’s definition of nationalism as ‘a principle that holds that the political and national unit should be congruent’ is evocative of the Russian nationalist desire to forge a renewed political entity in which the rights of the Russkii majority have primacy.
In short, the ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ movement is a response to the nascent modernity of post-Soviet Russia and the changes it brings – in immigration, crime, welfare and federal funding – whilst also being grounded in the tension between different ethnosymbolic traditions forced to inhabit the same emerging political space. These ideas will be the yardstick against which we can assess the provenance and motivation behind the ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ movement and the development of the ideology that engendered it.
Building the nation: contextualising the evolution of modern Russian nationalism
In the years following the Soviet break-up, scholars analysed the emerging nationalisms that arose both in former Union republics and Russia’s new ethnofederal subjects. The ethnic Russians themselves, whether in Russia or in the Russian diaspora across the post-Soviet space largely failed to politically mobilise in the same way, remaining submissive to the economic ‘shock therapy’ being waged around them. Anatol Lieven has characterised this lack of interest in renewing the Russian national identity as ‘the exhaustion of Russian idealism’, arguing that, with the withdrawal of Soviet internationalism, ethnic Russians were left without a defining national idea on which to build a new identity. Speaking in 1991, nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovskii described Russia as ‘the most humiliated and insulted nation’.
The ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ movement highlights the reversal of this ennui. Nationalism has become sufficiently important to bring large numbers to the streets and for 58% of respondents in a recent Levada survey to say they support the term ‘Russia for Russians’. The movement evidences the broad shift from the downtrodden 1990s nationalism of Zhirinovskii’s LDPR and the Communist Party to a popular nationalism projected on to the ethnic Other. Marlène Laruelle has compared 1990s ‘red’ nationalism – which held the West as its principal Other – with the patriotic nationalism of United Russia:
[. . .] the first nationalism is that of the defeated. It expresses a refusal of the post-Soviet world and of the pauperization resulting from the reforms of the 1990s. [. . .] the satisfied nationalism of United Russia is that of the winners, of those who have profited from the changes of these last two decades. The first sort of nationalism has not disappeared; it can be seen with the development of the skinheads and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration. After its main battle theme, national identity, was revived by the authorities, this first nationalism shifted its focus onto a second object, namely the migration question [. . .].
Laruelle’s analysis is right in acknowledging that there is still a plurality of views in Russian nationalist thought, from patriotic Communism to Dugin’s Eurasianism. The overwhelming trend, however, is to movements like ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’, which reject the corruption and ineffectiveness of public politics and its shallow brand of sanctioned nationalism.
The migration question Laruelle mentions is the main concern of all major nationalist groups. Unburdened by the Soviet system, in which resources – human and capital goods – were moved at the behest of central planners, large numbers of people have moved to Russia’s urban centres in search of work. Most arrive from Central Asia and the Caucasus. The latter is largely terra incognita to most Russians who don’t have ancestral ties to the region, demonstrating how the call of modernity has upset the ethnic balance of many regions, fermenting nationalism.
Overall, the problem with nation-building in the wake of a collapsed empire, as one scholar argues, is that ‘the existing borders were drawn by the imperial power not to reflect actual ethnic and national differences, but for its own convenience’. ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’, in this sense, tells us that modern Russian nationalism is a response to the federal nature of modern Russia, in which ‘nation’ and political space are not one whole. The extreme anger felt by nationalists towards the ethnic Other also shows how failed any attempts to build civic nationalism were in Russia in the 1990s.
Fed up with Federalism? Statism and Russia’s ‘new nationalism’
Putin has described himself as a gosudarstvennik; a statist, commited to the preservation of a strong and secure Russia as a ‘community of citizens’. However, the task of ruling such a vast state, with so many constituent federal subjects with wildly divergent economies and local governance structures, necessitates a high degree of intervention from the Centre. This is especially true in Chechnya, which Russian nationalist groups say receives 90% of its federal budget from Moscow. The idea that this funding is solely being channeled towards Chechen criminal gangs and the ruling kleptocracy of Ramzan Kadyrov is common in the nationalist community and amongst the wider Russian public, with 30% of those polled in a 2011 survey claiming the defining feature of Kadyrov’s leadership is his clan’s full control of the republic.
The underlying issue in the nationalist’s desire to cut off federal funding to Chechnya is the perceived preferential treatment the republic is receiving, making obvious the extreme inequality in federal financing across Russia. Head of the National Democractic Alliance, Alexei Shiropaev has described how a ‘new nationalism’ has evolved as a result of Moscow’s flawed North Caucasus policy:
‘Russians need their own Kadyrov’. This is a logical consequence of the development of the old Russian nationalism: reactionary ideology oriented on authoritarianism, a closed society, paternalistic, archaic and medieval moral values. Old Russian nationalism openly declares disdain for democracy, civil rights and dislike of ‘persons of a certain nationality’ [. . .]. The vector of the old Russian nationalism – the Eurasian, the Horde, the Imperial, the anti-Western – this Russian nationalism is trying to gain support for the most odious regimes, whether it’s Chechnya, or Iran. It is objectively a pro-Putin political movement, which speculates on the most reactionary remnants and stereotypes of Russian society.
The anger over federal funding of the North Caucasus has made the nationalist movement into a serious opposition group. As Russia’s internal security depends on maintaing strict control of the Caucasus, it is unlikely there will be any respite to the funding, but the national discourse over the issue tells us that Russian nationalism has evolved past the traditional Russian ‘imperial-thinking’ expansionism that Shiropaev describes. It has become a movement which, having closely observed Putin’s pyrrhic victory in Chechnya, is unsure whether the volatile ethnic regions Russia has fought for so many times are really worth fighting for. ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ might be a movement containing extreme nationalist elements, but a large part of its message is based on a latent tiredness with the violence stemming from its most volatile regions.
The development of an ‘uncivil society’
The growth of ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ and similar movements is reflective of the rise in what Andreas Umland has termed Russia’s ‘uncivil society’. This network of ‘nonstate institutions and networks in Russian society contain ultranationalist, fundamentalist, and protofacist subsectors whose nature casts doubt on the use of the construct civil society to designate them’. Modern Russian nationalism then, has developed an eco-system of websites, media outlets, groups and associations to spread its message in the same way that political parties do, with charismatic leaders such as Dimitri Demushkin of the now-banned Slavic Union, performing a similar function to the LDPR’s Zhirinovskii. Indeed, the rapprochement between the LDPR and the main contemporary nationalist groupings was evident in a 2011 roundtable, held in the State Duma, on ‘the Russia question’. The rising popularity and appeal of modern nationalism has resulted in a clear sign of entry to the mainstream; co-option by a party represented in the Duma.
The SOVA Centre, which monitors Russian nationalism, has argued that nationalist organisations are forming new, stronger alliances following the banning of a number of groups. Their aim is to ‘evade total marginalization due to the accumulation of resources, and secondly to burst onto the field of public politics by demonstrating a ‘unified nationalist front”’. State attempts to ban different sections of this emergent ‘uncivil society’ suggests the threat they feel from a popular nationalist bloc. The gradual merger and consolidation of different groups, with the influence of more mainstream political figures like Zhirinovskii suggest that federal funding of the North Caucasus is becoming a more politically volatile issue.
Out of the myriad personalities in Russian nationalism, Alexei Navalny has proved the most compelling. Popularised in the role of anti-corruption blogger, shareholder activist and doyen of Russian liberals, Navalny’s star has been rising of late. But it is the undercurrent of nationalism underpinning much of his public commentary that is potentially most important to the future of Russian politics. Uniting Russia’s burgeoning protest movement on a platform of anti-corruption and fair elections, Navalny is also admired by many for his participation in the annual Russian March and his expressed desire to ‘stop feeding the Caucasus’. The flakiness of Russia’s opposition is infamous, with many parties being creations of the Kremlin necessary only to draw votes away from the Communists and LDPR at election time. In contrast, Navalny is the first opposition figure who appears genuine and who could possibly unite the dispersed liberal vote and wage war on Putin. This is what the Kremlin is afraid of.
The exact character of Navalny’s nationalism, and the potential nationalities policy of any political party he may come to lead, will determine how the issue is discussed in Russia over the next presidential term. What is for sure is that the conversation over Russian nationalism is now out of the Kremlin’s hands. The currents of change and political awakening surging around in modern Russia will decide what identity the majority of Russians will strive for, not the Kremlin propaganda machine.
Geoffrey Hosking’s description of Peter the Great ruling over a ‘multi-ethnic [. . .] service state’ sounds remarkably similar to the country that the Russian government currently oversees. Russia’s vast population, with its ethnic differences previously drowned out by the tune of the Soviet Internationale, is experiencing the profound change that adjusting to a new political space brings. The ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ movement signifies how the feeling of imperial expansionism fuelling nationalist rhetoric in the 1990s has been displaced by a widespread popular desire to actually allow the secession of restive republics like Chechnya. A November 2011 Levada poll of 1500 people across Russia showed that 34% advocated a separation of Chechnya from Russia, with a further 23% saying that they felt neutral about a possible secession.
Migration, modernity and ethnic factors underly this considerable shift in the preferences of the Russian people. The incredible growth Russia experienced during the 2000s inured the population to a prosperity-for-stability deal with the Kremlin. The flow of money towards the Caucasus palliated the security situation there and was tolerated when living standards were rising, but the economic crisis of 2008 signalled an end to the popular acceptance of statist federal subsidies.
The evolution of Russian nationalism, then, is a path of defeat, modernisation, crisis and renewal. ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ highlights the initial failure of post-Soviet nation-building policies, the weakness of civil society and the transparency of patriotic, Kremlin-nationalism created only to justify ‘the interests of the ruling class, which by promoting confusion between the public and the private has succeeded in carving up the most profitable political, bureaucratic and economic functions.’ Ironically, the migration caused by the aggressiveness of Moscow’s North Caucasus policy is now the main factor causing nationalists to call for the region’s starvation or secession. Ethnic tension is rarely combustive when all sides are enjoying prosperity; it is only ignited when inequalities emerge, so ‘Stop feeding the Caucasus’ also attests to the drastic social change, economic transition and loss of values in the Russia of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
© 2012 Christopher Leigh
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