Over the course of the past year, the Kremlin has been pushing the notion of the existence of a “civic Russian nation” (rossiiskaya natsiiya). This idea is meant to unify the ethnically, religiously and politically divided population of the Russian Federation. However, it is likely to prove just as weak and subject to dissolution as was the notion of a “Soviet people,” which the Communist leadership in Moscow supported at the end of Soviet times, but which was rejected by the population overnight, in 1991, in favor of alternative identities. The latest example of this current misguided Kremlin strategy came in mid-November, when the government offered a legal definition of patriotism (Politsovet.ru, November 16).
Such a pessimistic conclusion regarding the predicable failure of the civic nation idea stems from three main reasons: First, like the notion of the existence of a Soviet people, the idea of a civic Russian nation is being imposed from the top down by fiat (see above), rather than emerging as an organic development from below. Thus, it will likely last only as long as the regime remains in a position to force people to identify in this way. When that regime weakens or disappears, the civic Russian nation identity, like its Soviet analogue, will disappear remarkably quickly, putting the Russian Federation at even greater risk than it would otherwise be. Many Russian experts, like sociologist Leokadiya Drobizheva, have made this point (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 28).
Second, the argument that a civic Russian nation is analogous not to the Soviet people but to the American nation—most prominently expressed by academician Valery Tishkov—collapses on closer examination. America, which bound together immigrants from many places into a single nation, emerged not because it was proclaimed from above but because its members were participants in the political and social project known as the United States and thus became e pluribus unum. Not only are the residents of Russia not permitted to be participants in the political process in any serious way in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but they are arguably not even offered any realistic vision of a united future by the Kremlin (Kasparov.ru, November 5, 2016).
And third, many groups within the population of the Russian Federation are already defined by older, stronger and more vital identities than the notion of the rossiiskaya natsiiya. These include nations, religions and, increasingly, regions (see EDM, May 18, November 9). Such identities are vastly more important to many there because they provide the basis for powerful imagined communities that are highly unlikely to be supplanted by the bloodless concept of the civic Russian nation. That said, these more sectarian or localized identities may be submerged for a time by a regime ready and willing to insist on fealty to the rossiiskaya natsiiya notion and punish those who reject it. That worked for the Communist leaders with the Soviet people—until it suddenly did not. And it will likely work for post-Soviet Russian leaders who are enforcing the idea of all Russians belonging to the civic Russian nation, until it does not—and for exactly the same reason. Many who hold those alternative identities sense that the Kremlin is imposing a civic identity on ethnic Russians who do not want it, and an ethnic-Russian identity on the non-Russians and many regionalists who do not want it either (Izvestia.ru, April 20).
These realities are increasingly being recognized by Russian scholars, if not yet by the Russian government. They are a major reason why “the law on the civic Russian nation” Putin has backed for more than a year has been renamed and why its introduction for consideration by the Duma has been pushed back again and again. Among the most thoughtful and critical of these has been Igor Yakovenko. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s observation that a real nation is a true “imagined community,” Yakovenko argues that Putin’s notion is simultaneously banal and meaningless and thus a delusion to the leadership and a threat to the country (Kasparov.ru, November 5, 2016; Afterempire.info, November 13).
An unavoidable consequence of the lack of freedom, he suggests, is “degradation and, in the first instance, degradation of the administrative hierarchy, a trend that, in turn, leads to the commission of administrative mistakes, among which the share of ordinary stupidities only increases. To the number of such stupidities has been added a decision to adopt a law about the civic Russian nation that is condemned to become laughable for some, a scarecrow for others and an object of indignation for still a third.” That draft measure, he continues, fails to deal with the reality that if everyone in Russia is called a civic Russian (rossiyanin), how will Chechens or Tatars react (Kasparov.ru, November 5, 2016)?
According to Yakovenko, the specific problem of those who live on the territory of the Russian Federation is that their population “cannot become a political nation because it consists not of citizens but of subjects. Putin’s ‘civic Russian nation’ has television as the place of its assembly.” Namely, from the box emerges “the vaunted ‘unity of the people,’ be it civic or ethnic Russian. Television is the organ of collective imagination in which ‘the civic Russian nation’ exists,” and which can be transformed instantly into the ethnic-Russian nation and then back again. On television, “this is easy.” In real life, not so much (Kasparov.ru, November 5, 2016).
As a result, the only place a civic Russian nation really “exists is in the imagination of Putin and his entourage.” They view the population as clay they can turn into anything they like. But history shows that things do not work like that; and Putin, just like Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, is going to experience that “unwelcome surprise” at some point, Yakovenko argues (Kasparov.ru, November 5, 2016). Russia is composed of real people, and their “imagined communities”—ethnic, religious or regional—are going to become real, while Putin’s, in all likelihood, will eventually be shown to be something else entirely.