One of the most striking features of Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and his promotion of Russian secessionist movements in Donbas in 2014 was the prominent, independent and divided reaction of Russian nationalists to those events. Many Russian nationalists, of course, supported the Kremlin leader’s agenda and even went to Ukraine to fight for it. Still, others opposed his moves, seeing them as a threat to the Russian nation, speaking out against his actions and even going to Ukraine to fight against them. This time around, in the course of Putin’s expanded aggression against Ukraine, even more Russian nationalists are backing him, but far fewer have spoken out in defense of Ukraine, let alone gone there to fight for that nation and against their own.
The almost universally accepted explanation for this difference is that Putin has won over the nationalists with his promotion of traditional values and his notion that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians are branches of one nation and must be reunited into one powerful state. Such positions explain the support Putin has among some Russian nationalists, but they do not explain all the difference between the situation now and that of eight years ago. In the intervening period, Putin crushed the Russian nationalist movement, arresting and jailing its leaders, forcing others into silence or emigration, and seeking to create pocket Russian nationalist groups to replace those he feels are too independent-minded, even though they back what he is doing. As a result, the Russian nationalist movement is in disarray and far less capable of taking any independent action either in support of Putin’s policies or in opposition to them. (On Putin’s actions against the Russian nationalists, see MBK News, December 9, 2019; Semnasem.org, January 20, 2020; Gazeta.ru, July 9, 2017; OpenMedia.io, November 15, 2019).
But while the most thoughtful Russian nationalists admit they have suffered a major defeat and even are in retreat, some are now talking about how to recover, with a few seeing the war in Ukraine not as the end of the road but rather as an occasion for the revival of their fortunes as supporters of democratic values and opponents of Putin’s imperialism. Two such nationalists have presented especially cogent arguments that are likely to gain traction the longer Putin’s war in Ukraine goes on and the more losses Russians suffer.
The first of these is Sergey Khazanov-Pashkovsky, an émigré who writes for the Riga-based conservative Russian nationalist portal Harbin. He has been arguing for the last two years that Russian nationalists must recognize that currently imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, for all his faults, supports Russian nationalist causes as well as liberal ideas and that the nationalists should make it “an affair of honor” to back Navalny and even his commitment to democracy in order to oppose the neo-Soviet Putinist state and its imperialistic and anti-national goals (Harbin.lv, August 19, 2019; similar views by other Russian nationalists at AfterEmpire.ru, March 24, 2019; Kasparov.ru, November 16, 2017).
And the second is Sergei Levitov, another émigré nationalist who also writes for the Harbin portal. He directly addresses the current war in Ukraine and argues that Russian nationalists must see it as an echo of Stalin’s failed Winter War against Finland in 1939-1940. Further, he argues that Russian nationalists today must draw the lessons Russian nationalists did then (Harbin.lv, March 18, 2022). That is because what the Winter War was for Stalin, the Ukrainian war is becoming for Putin, and consequently, Russian nationalists have good reason to take heart.
Like Stalin, who expected the Red Army to make short work of the Finns and allow him to incorporate Finland into a Karelo-Finnish Union Republic within the USSR but was blocked by Finnish resistance, Levitov argues, Putin expected the Russian military to quickly defeat the Ukrainian one and allow him to incorporate all or most of Ukraine into a single state of his “Russian world.” But he, too, has been blocked from doing so by heroic Ukrainian resistance. According to the émigré nationalist writer, however, the parallels between Stalin’s Winter War and Putin’s Ukrainian one are not exhausted by that, especially for anti-Putin and anti-communist Russian nationalists.
In the Winter War, he writes, “Russian anti-communists saw the war between the Finnish ‘David’ and the Bolshevik ‘Goliath’ as a testing ground for a future war for Russia.” As a result, Russian émigrés flocked to Finland to fight on the Finnish side, despite the obstacles they faced—the most important was that the Finns had great difficulty distinguishing “Russian” from “Soviet.” But despite that, enough took part, including no less a personage like Stalin’s former secretary Boris Bazhenov, who wrote about it, that an important idea arose among anti-communist Russians. That idea, Levitov says, was that Russian nationalists must recognize that their chief challenge is at home, that they must pursue a policy of national liberation rather than civil war and that they must unite with others opposed to Putin’s rule rather than remain locked within their own intellectual ghetto.
It is far from clear how far these ideas will resonate—for the enormous difficulties they face (see especially Harbin.lv, March 2021), but the possibility is they cannot be excluded. And if they find support among the Russians, that will help them overcome two problems that have long plagued Russia. On the one hand, such ideas would make it possible for Russian nationalism finally and completely to separate itself from Russian imperialism and focus on domestic problems rather than foreign expansion. And on the other, it would end an even more fundamental Russian problem, one that has limited Russia’s possibilities for progress; and that is this. Russia’s tragedy is that unlike in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, its liberals are not nationalists, and its nationalists are not liberals. If they can come together, Putin and his imperialists will face a nemesis they helped create by invading Ukraine.