Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 10

By Vera Tolz

This is a condensed version of a paper presented at the annual conference of the British Association of Slavic and East European Studies. The paper will be published in its entirety in a forthcoming issue of Europe-Asia Studies.

The collapse of the USSR has reopened the debate over Russian state- and nation-building, with direct implications both for Russia’s reform process and for its policies towards other newly independent states. A great number of ideas about what the Russian nation is are to be found currently in the Russian Federation. This piece explores the views of intellectuals on the Russian nation and analyzes their impact on government policies.

Reading books and journal articles written by Russian intellectuals in the post-Communist period, we can identify five main definitions of the Russian nation, which are put forward especially often:

1. Russians defined through their imperial mission. This view’s proponents argue that decades and sometimes centuries of existence within one state (common history) form the basis for the continuation of a multi-ethnic state within the borders of the former USSR. Many supporters of this view, especially the authors of the right-wing newspaper Zavtra and the ideologists of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, see the Russian empire/USSR as a unique civilization, superior to the ‘decadent West,’ from which it has nothing to learn.

The belief that the formation of a Russian national statehood is impossible unless a full-fledged economic, political and military union is revived on the territory of the former USSR has been reflected in the policies of President Boris Yeltsin’s leadership and his entourage as well as in the actions and pronouncements of the Communist and nationalist opposition in the State Duma. To cite just a few examples: in May 1996, Nezavisimaya gazeta published a working paper of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, a body staffed