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Introduction: Exploring Russian nationalisms

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Introduction: Exploring Russian nationalisms
Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud
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Please cite as:
Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud (2018) Introduction: Exploring
Russian nationalisms in Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud, eds,
Russia Before and After Crimea: Nationalism and Identity,
20102017. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 120.
Introduction: Exploring Russian nationalisms
Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 marked a
watershed in European history: for the first time since the
Second World War, a European state violated the sanctity of
international borders and appropriated part of the territory of a
neighbouring country. Western states reacted strongly and
negatively, and RussiaWestern relations may well have been
severely damaged for the foreseeable future.
Politicians and scholars alike are struggling to
understand how this situation came about. Like all historical
turning points, the current breakdown in RussiaWestern
relations has both immediate triggers and a longer history of
gestation. We can choose to focus on the details of the political
confrontations in and around Ukraine that led up to this event:
Ukraine’s parallel negotiations with the European Union (EU)
and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU); President Viktor
Yanukovych’s abrupt decision not to sign the Deep and
Comprehensive Trade Agreement with the EU in November
2013; the massive protest this decision unleashed in the
Ukrainian population; and finally, Yanukovych’s flight and
dismissal. Alternatively, we can broaden the timeframe to
include the growing distrust between Moscow and
European/North American capitals over the last two decades
fuelled by among other things NATO’s eastward expansion
and deployment of ballistic missile defence in former Eastern
Europe, on the one hand, and Russia’s aggressive policy towards
Georgia and other neighbours, on the other. Or we can widen
our analytical lens even further to include the more general
mental framework within which Russian politicians are acting:
the constraints and drivers imposed by perceptions, emotions,
self-understanding and world outlook. This book is an attempt
to contribute to this latter endeavour by examining and
discussing contemporary Russian nationalism in its various
Some have interpreted the Putin regime’s sudden
territorial aggression
towards Ukraine in 2014 as a manifestation of deep-seated
Russian imperialism: that the Russians have never been
reconciled to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and will exploit
any weakness in the neighbouring states to try to re-establish
the lost empire (see, for example, Grigas 2016). As is often
pointed out, Vladimir Putin is on record as having described the
dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as
‘a major geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century’
(Putin 2005). Indeed, part of Putin’s justification for the
annexation of Crimea was that the peninsula was ‘Russian’
territory. Speaking to an expanded session of the Russian
parliament on 18 March 2014 on the occasion of the official
accession of Crimea and Sevastopol to the Russian Federation,
he argued that ‘in people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always
been an inseparable part of Russia’ (Putin 2014a). ‘Russia’, then,
in the thinking of the Russian leader, seemed to encompass
more than the territory of the Russian Federation. This is also
the interpretation which Russian imperialists seek to give this
event. For instance, immediately after the annexation, high-
profile editor-cum-pundit Aleksandr Prokhanov declared: ‘this is
the beginning of the resurrection of the Russian Empire’
(Prokhanov 2014). That view is shared by many of the insurgents
in Eastern Ukraine. For instance, in his The Torch of Novorossiia,
Pavel Gubarev, an early ideologue of the Donbas rebellion,
claims: ‘we are imperialists: we despise … petty, national states’
(Gubarev 2016: 286).
Alternatively, the new Russian policy towards Ukraine
can be seen as reflecting not ‘imperialism’ but ‘nationalism’. In
this interpretive scheme, the emphasis is not so much on the
perceived necessity of expanding the Russian state or
resurrecting the empire, but the fact that ethnic Russians make
up the majority population in Crimea and were allegedly
discriminated against by the Ukrainian state. Also this reading
can be substantiated by quotations from Putin’s March 2014
Crimea speech as when he bemoaned how ethnic Russians
after the fall of the Soviet Union had become ‘one of the biggest,
if not the biggest divided people in the world’ (Putin 2014a).
That claim seems to smack less of Russian state patriotism and
more of ethnically framed nationalism. And indeed, this is how
many Russian ethnonationalists interpret it. For instance, Valerii
Solovei, a leading intellectual in the nationalist camp, noted that
in his speech, Putin employed the ethnic and cultural word for
‘Russian’, russkii, no less than twenty-seven times. Previously,
Putin had used the ethnically neutral and more politically
correct word rossiiskii, even in speaking about such cultural
issues as ‘Russian values’ (rossiiskie tsennosti).1 The switch to
russkii, Solovei claimed, was ‘an ideological innovation’
and signalled that Putin was not resurrecting the empire, as the
imperialists claimed, but was instead building a Russian national
state (Solovei 2014; see also Piper 2014).2
Then again, some observers will deny that we have to
choose between these two interpretations. Well-informed
authorities on Russian nationalism like Emil Pain maintain that
Russian nationalism comes in at least two guises, both imperial
and ethnic (as well as in intermediate varieties) (Pain 2016; Pain,
this volume). While ‘imperial nationalism’ might seem a
contradiction in terms in other parts of the world, that is not the
case in Russia, Pain claims. There is a historical explanation to
this: prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russians had
never lived in a nation-state. As soon as the many Russian
principalities had been gathered into a unitary state led by the
emerging power of Muscovy, the state in the mid-sixteenth
century began to expand into territories inhabited by non-Slavic,
non-Orthodox peoples, such as the Tatars and other Turkic
peoples. Nationally oriented Russians have tended to identify
with and feel pride in this state, regarding it as ‘their nation-
state’ even though it was clearly a multinational state and from
the time of Peter the Great was even officially designated as
an ‘empire’ (Kappler 2001). However, unlike for example the
British and French empires, there was no clear demarcation
between the metropole and the colonial periphery. Everything
was ‘Russia’, and the number of Russian nationalists who would
countenance the truncation of ‘their’ state could be counted on
the fingers of one hand (Szporluk 1989). Before the 1917
Revolution, some Russian nationalists such as Petr Struve could
be regarded as ‘liberals’, and others, like the Slavophiles, as
‘conservatives’, and yet others, for instance the Black Hundreds,
as reactionaries but they were all ‘imperialists’ in the sense
that they took the empire for granted (ibid.).
After the Revolution, one of the fifteen Soviet republics
came to be called the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist
Republic (RSFSR), but this entity was not named after the ethnic
Russians (russkie) living there: it took its name from the former
Russian Empire (Rossiiskaia imperiia). Millions of ethnic Russians
lived outside the RSFSR and felt equally at home wherever they
were living they did not regard the RSFSR as their putative
‘own’ homeland (Kolstø 1995). Also those Russians who did live
in the RSFSR rarely took that republic as their reference point,
but would say, as did a popular song from 1978: ‘My address is
the Soviet Union’. Only when the USSR broke up did the
difference between an imperial and an ethnic national identity
gradually began to dawn upon many Russians.
Between the French and the German models
Contemporary ‘Russian nationalism’ is a variegated
phenomenon with numerous emphases and possible definitions.
The diversity can be quite confusing. In an effort to introduce
some sense and order we can start by arranging ‘real existing’
Russian nationalisms along two axes in a two-by-two matrix (see
Table I.1).
The two vertical axes state-oriented and ethnic in
many respects correspond to the classical distinction between
French and German nationalisms as they developed historically.
While French nationalists celebrated la Patrie and automatically
included all inhabitants of the state as French citoyennes,
German nationalism took the German language and
Kulturnation as its starting point. Ever since Hans Kohn
published his seminal The Idea of Nationalism in 1944, historians
have regularly presented East European nationalisms as
belonging to the German variety (Kohn 1944 [1961]; see also
Plamenatz 1976). However, while this designation captures the
orientation of most nationalists within smaller East European
nations, Russian nationalism is more complex. The reason seems
quite straightforward: whereas nationalism among the smaller
East European nations developed before they had acquired
‘their own’ nation-states, a Russian state has existed ever since
the Middle Ages, and Russians have had a state to identify with.
Even so, the ethnic understanding of the nation is also
widespread in Russia today. Again, the reasons must be sought
in history. The Russian state never seriously pursued a ‘melting
pot’ nation-building strategy: no attempt was made to create a
common cultural identity among the many linguistic and
religious groups residing within the realm. Under the tsars, the
non-Russians retained their separate ethnic identities, which
were determined primarily by language and religion. Only in the
late nineteenth century did the authorities begin to take active
steps to subsume White Russians (belarusy) and the Little
Russians (malorossy, today’s Ukrainians) into a common Russian
ethnic group together with the Great Russians a policy that
eventually failed. Later, under the Bolsheviks, ethnic identities
were instead rigidly codified and institutionalised (Slezkine
1994). As a result of this historical legacy, virtually all varieties of
Russian nationalism today contain elements taken from both
the French state-oriented and the German
ethnicity/language/culture-oriented prototypes (Laruelle
Whereas the two vertical axes in our typology identify
the ‘in-group’ those who constitute ‘the nation’ the two
horizontal axes capture
Table I.1 A typology of Russian nationalisms (adapted from
Kolstø 2016)
Primarily state-
Primarily ethnically
Imperial nationalism
Russian Federation
Ethnic core
the territorial expression of nationhood which state-formation
the nationalists see as their natural ‘homeland’. While both
France and Germany have waxed and waned in size over the
centuries, and the contemporary borders in both states were
not fixed until after the Second World War, there is virtually no
pressure today for territorial expansion. The situation is very
different in Russia, where the multinational empire collapsed as
recently as in 1991. As a result, in addition
to the distinction between ethnic nationalism and state-focused
nationalism, Russian nationalists can be differentiated according
to whether they orient themselves towards the current Russian
state, the Russian Federation (‘core-oriented’ nationalism in
Table I.1) or towards restoring the borders of one of Russia’s
larger, imperial historical predecessors the Russian Empire or
the Soviet Union.
Spanning the ideological spectrum
This two-by-two matrix is complemented by an ideological
overlay. Russian nationalism can be found across the political
spectrum from the national bolsheviks on the far left, to neo-
fascist groupings to the far right. Organisationally, some
nationalists, like the right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovskii,
belong to the political establishment of the Kremlin-loyal
‘systemic’ opposition. More often, however, nationalists have
found an ideological home in various groupings in the ‘non-
systemic’ opposition – or in more marginal, loosely organised
intellectual or para-political circles (see Laruelle 2009). The main
point is the malleability of Russian nationalism it is not
monopolised by any particular ideological persuasion, but can
be found in various constellations ranging from national
democrats to anarchists, from parties inside the State Duma to
fringe groups that engage in nationalistically motivated
Crimea represented a watershed in the structuring of the
Russian nationalist field. With the Kremlin adopting many of the
former positions of the nationalists, the latter were forced to
take a stance for or against the Kremlin’s new political line. As
we will return to below (see chapter by Alexander Verkhovsky,
this volume),
after Crimea it might be more pertinent to categorise Russian
nationalists ideologically according to whether they are pro- or
anti-regime and pro- or anti-Russian Spring (that is, whether
they support the pro-Russian uprising in Ukraine), rather than
according to a traditional leftright axis. While a pro-regime
nationalist stance automatically goes together with support for
the Russian Spring as exemplified by Zhirinovskii’s Liberal
Democratic Party or State Duma deputy Evgenii Fedorov’s
National Liberation Movement (Natsional’no-osvoboditel’noe
dvizhenie) the anti-regime nationalists are further divided into
pro- and anti-Russian Spring. The imperialist Igor Strelkov
(Girkin), famed for his role in the war in Donbas and now
heading the All-Russian National Movement (Obshcherusskoe
natsional’noe dvizhenie), falls in the anti-regime, pro-Russian
Spring category whereas, for example, ultranationalist Dmitrii
Demushkin and his now-banned Russkie (Russians) movement
were both anti-regime and anti-Russian Spring.
However, due to the way the Russian political field is
structured, most ideological groupings beyond the ‘party of
power’ and the systemic opposition represent rather marginal
phenomena. Thus, as argued by Pain in this volume, another at
least equally important distinction in the Russian context is from
where the nationalist impulse originates: from the societal level,
or from the state.
Sources of nationalism: State and society
Societal Russian nationalism can be found in various guises: it
can be ethnic, state-oriented or imperial, it can be inclusive or
xenophobic, and it can be coloured by a range of ideological
beliefs. Common to all such variations of Russian societal
nationalism is, however, that it emanates from below and is
formulated and developed independently of the state. The
Russian state has always been extremely sceptical towards all
such manifestations of autonomous social initiatives,
irrespective of their political message. Societal nationalism is
frowned upon by the authorities, and they actively seek to
supress it.
For its part, the Russian state has been motivated by a
pragmatic raison d’état: the state is its own justification and
purpose. However, as Pain points out, at certain junctures, the
state has elaborated ideological programmes for legitimation in
which it resorts to some variety of imperial nationalism. That
was the case under Nikolai I when his Minister of Education,
Count Sergei Uvarov, developed the ideological doctrine of
‘Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality (narodnost’)’. Towards
the end of the nineteenth century Aleksandr
III and his son Nikolai II also incorporated elements of such
imperial nationalism in their state ideology and, perhaps more
surprisingly, so did Iosif Stalin as General Secretary of the Soviet
Communist Party from the mid-1930s until his death in 1953.
We do not have to believe that these rulers were
‘convinced’ nationalists in any meaningful sense of the word.
Most probably, they were simply using nationalism as a tool to
mobilise support in the population. In any case, in order to
analyse the policies of state nationalism we do not have to look
into the hearts and minds of the rulers in order to determine
what ‘actually’, deep down, motivated them: we can focus on
their words and deeds. Likewise, from a sociological point of
view, a ‘nationalist turn’ in Russian state policy makes sense only
if we can also assume that there exists a pool of nationalist
sentiment in the Russian population the rulers believe that they
can tap into.
‘Crimea is ours’ – the revival of state nationalism
Returning to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, can this short
presentation of the role of nationalism in Russian politics and
society help to explain what motivated the Kremlin to break the
strong post-Second World War European taboo against
territorial enlargement at the expense of a neighbouring state?
We believe yes. When various circumstances converged and
induced Putin and his team to embark upon an adventurous
foreign policy course that they knew would inevitably lead to
confrontation with the outside world, they added a nationalistic
varnish. Previously in his career, Putin had been very wary of
playing with nationalist themes (Hale 2016), but now, when it
was imperative to rally the nation around his leadership, strong
nationalist tropes crept into his rhetoric.
In this volume, we argue that strong currents of
nationalism were evident in Russian society in the decade
preceding the Ukrainian debacle; societal nationalism of various
ideological persuasions was gaining ground. Furthermore, we
see the Kremlin’s decision to resort to nationalist rhetoric in
connection with the conflict in Ukraine as part of the
explanation why Putin could not only annex Crimea and get
away with it, but even capitalise on it on the home front. And
finally and perhaps most importantly we show how societal
nationalism has gone into deep decline after Crimea. The
champion of democratically oriented Russian nationalism,
Aleksei Navalnyi, who made headlines by garnering 27 per cent
of the vote in the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections, alienated
much of his
old constituency due to his principled criticism of the Crimean
operation. Similarly, the radical nationalists behind the annual
Russian Marches have managed to mobilise only a fraction of
the number of people they were able to bring into the streets
only a few years earlier.
What we see, then, is a demobilisation of nationalism in
Russia at the societal level, at the same time as it is being
activated at the state level. This might appear paradoxical, but,
as Pain explains, should probably to be regarded as logically
interrelated tendencies. The state not only ‘taps into’ Russian
societal nationalism it also ‘drains’ it. In times when the state
does not feel that it needs nationalism as a legitimation base for
its own purposes, various groups of autonomous nationalists
can be allowed to operate, thus providing a safety valve for
social frustration. However, in times of turbulence and official
nationalist ferment, the state tolerates no competitors.
Figuratively speaking, state nationalism and societal nationalism
in Russia are connected vessels: when the state vessel fills up,
the other is being emptied.
‘Russian’ as simultaneously russkii and rossiiskii
While we believe the typology described above is helpful in
demonstrating the differences between the various main
strands of Russian nationalism, it is intended as an analytical
model only. The four boxes should be understood as ideal types
in a Weberian sense: very few Russian nationalists can be
unambiguously pigeonholed into one and only one of the boxes
(see Laruelle 2017). This is true also of Russian thinkers and
politicians who like to present themselves as purely ‘civic’ or
purely ‘ethno-nationalist’ in orientation. For instance, during
Boris Eltsin’s rule, two of his ministers for nationality policy the
ethnic Avar Ramazan Abdulatipov and the ethnic Russian Valerii
Tishkov presented models for a nationality policy for the
Russian Federation under a (multi)ethnic and a civic label,
respectively (Kolstø 2000: 21012). The practical differences
between the nation-state visions that these two officials
promoted, however, were not so obvious (Shevel 2011: 18384).
Also under Putin, the nation-state model pursued by the
Russian state appears to have been, as Oxana Shevel (2011)
describes it, ‘purposefully ambiguous’: to allow Russian
policymakers maximum space for manoeuvre, the Kremlin has
been vacillating between a civic and an ethno-cultural
understanding of the nation. Even today, the signals coming
from Putin continue to point in
very different, seemingly contradictory, directions. To be sure,
from around the onset of his third term Putin appeared to be
switching from the Eltsinite rossiiskii nation-building
terminology to increasingly using russkii. The fi rst clear
indication of this was his pre-election article on the nationality
question, where Putin referred to ethnically Armenian and
German citizens of Russia as ‘Russian (russkie) Armenians’ and
‘Russian (russkie) Germans’ (Putin 2012). This was followed up
and even accentuated in his various addresses after the Crimean
annexation (see Putin 2014a, 2014b). Seemingly, Putin was
adopting if not the agenda, then at least the terminology of the
ethno-nationalists. However, just as that conclusion seemed
logical, Putin gave the go-ahead to drawing up a law defining the
rossiiskii nation (rossiiskaia natsiia) (RIA Novosti 2016).4 What
are we to make of this?
While several interpretations are possible, we suggest
that rather than revealing confusion or vacillation in the Kremlin,
this can be seen as a strategy for eradicating the difference
between russkii and rossiiskii. That may not be quite as radical
as it sounds. Most languages do not make a lexical distinction
between an ethnic and civic designation of the nation: neither
the paradigmatic ‘ethnic’ case German nor the paradigmatic
‘civic’ case French has more than one word to describe the
‘national’. The Russian language, on the other hand, not only
allows for a distinction between those two aspects, it also makes
it impossible for Russian speakers not to choose one of the two
words, russkii or rossiiskii, when they talk or write. There is no
‘neutral’ term to describe Russianness. The only way to fuse
those two aspects therefore seems to be to use the two terms
interchangeably, until in the end they are understood as
expressing the same meaning (as the two designations of the
state, ‘Russia’ and ‘the Russian Federation’, do in practice).
Seen in this perspective, the language games of the
Kremlin’s nation-building strategy can be regarded as attempts
to make Russia a ‘normal’ nation-state like Germany and France.
While, as pointed out above, German and French nation-
building have historically been informed by very different
principles, more recently this distinction has been gradually
fading. Contemporary French nationalism focuses very much on
the need to permeate the entire population with French culture
and to teach all citizens to speak proper French; German
nationalists created their own unified nation-state in the late
nineteenth century later modified several times with which
they identify keenly (Brubaker 1998). Today, therefore, it is
probably more accurate to speak of a common FrenchGerman,
or simply
civic–cultural, ‘European’ nation model, which, it can be argued,
the Russian leadership is attempting to emulate at least on the
rhetorical level.
We should note one major caveat, however: modern
European nation-states that identify ‘the nation’ with the
culture, language, citizens and territory of the state no longer
question the state borders, not even in cases when compact
groups of co-ethnics reside outside the borders of the nation-
state. Germany, for example, a country that has experienced
dramatic truncations of the state’s territory over the last century,
does not harbour irredentist aspirations today. For the first
couple of decades after the breakup of the Soviet Union, it also
seemed as if Russia would follow that path, but the annexation
of Crimea belied those expectations. Deeds speak louder than
words, and as long as Russia continues to hold on to and justify
Crimea’s annexation with nationalist rhetoric, it is of minor
importance whether this rhetoric is interpreted as ‘imperialistic’
or ‘ethnic’: in either case, it is clearly not ‘civic’. Therefore, the
annexation is not only a watershed in modern European history,
but also, we argue, a major barrier to Russia’s nation-state
Structure of the book
The various chapters in this book fi t into and lend support to
the interpretive framework developed above. In Part I, we study
the phenomenon of ‘official nationalism’ more closely. First
comes a background chapter by Emil Pain that further refines
this frame. Pain traces the political role and the ideological
content of contemporary Russian nationalism against a
historical canvas that extends from the late eighteenth century
to the present, and explores the understudied and poorly
understood relationship between official state nationalism and
autonomous societal nationalism. The latter variety appeared in
Russia initially as a carrier of ideas of civic and popular
sovereignty, drawing on the ideas of the French Revolution.
Since the late nineteenth century, however, Russian societal
nationalism has been dominated by an anti-liberal tendency.
From its very first appearance, Russian state powers
have attempted to neutralise this societal nationalism by
replacing it with something ostensibly similar but actually very
different: an ‘imperial nationalism’. The fact that state-
promoted imperial nationalism has no rigid ethnic ties, that it is
not transmitted through the channels of cultural tradition but is
developed in response to socio-political challenges, might
indicate that a radical reprogramming is possible,
Pain argues. However, he concludes that today there are no
political forces in Russia that could start the deconstruction of
the imperial consciousness. On the contrary: what we see is the
continued discrediting of the basic tenets of a civic nation.
Eduard Ponarin and Michael Komin, in keeping with Pain,
survey the development of the elite and the masses’ attitudes
towards nationalism across the post-Soviet period. In the 1990s,
new drivers of Russian nationalism appeared on the scene,
making possible two alternative scenarios: either, as a reaction
to globalisation, a return to an imperial nationalism; or,
alternatively, in response to the problems inherited from Soviet
federalism and the ensuing ethnic conflict, a rise in ethnic
nationalism. Ponarin and Komin analyse the changing balance of
imperial and ethnic nationalism and their influence on the
choices made by the Russian government. During Putin’s third
term, they argue, in a reversal of a long-term post-Soviet trend,
the attitudes of the elite shifted dramatically in favour of
imperial projects beyond Russia’s borders. Another long-term
trend has recently accelerated: that of valuing military might
over economic power in international relations. Surveys show
that the share of elite respondents who see the USA as a threat
has now reached an all-time high, standing at more than 80 per
cent. The findings of Ponarin and Komin indicate fairly
widespread elite support for an imperial scenario, with the West
cast as the ‘Other’ against whom the new Russian identity can
Next, Yuri Teper turns to the core of state-level
nationalism, to the Kremlin and its post-2012 quest for securing
legitimacy, and what he describes as an emerging Russian
identity dilemma. His chapter examines the Kremlin’s changing
attitudes towards nationalism since the onset of Putin’s third
term, with special emphasis on the post-2014 period. Changes
are analysed against two primary factors: regime efforts to
sustain popular legitimacy against the backdrop of failure to
deliver on output promises, and the perceived popular need
for a more articulated national identity.
Teper argues that, since Putin’s return to the presidency,
the Kremlin’s approach to the national issue has undergone a
twofold change. First the authorities’ mobilisation strategy
shifted from being reactive to proactive, with the Kremlin seizing
complete control over the nationalist agenda, and the official
discourse on identity turning profoundly national. This ethno-
national trend peaked around the annexation of Crimea.
However, realising the risks such ethnonational rhetoric might
pose domestically as well as in relations with the outside world,
the Kremlin quickly tempered its message and
cracked down on those nationalists who did not fall in line. The
emphasis shifted toward a securitised great-power or imperial
nationalism, as shown by Russia’s subsequent intervention in
the Syrian civil war.
Andrey Makarychev and Alexandra Yatsyk round off the
first part. They propose a distinct interpretation of the making
of Russian national identity by applying the concept of
‘biopolitics’. According to Makarychev and Yatsyk, in recent
years Russia has taken a biopolitical turn, exemplified by the
introduction of regulatory mechanisms aimed at consolidating
Russian national identity by disciplining and constraining human
bodies. They thus contend that the nationalist turn in Russian
state policy during Putin’s third period can be regarded as part
of a general tendency towards a more authoritarian, intrusive
regime type that seeks to control every aspect of the life of the
citizens, including their bodies.
Their chapter discusses the concept of biopolitical
sovereignty, followed by an examination of specific cases that
illustrate practices of biopolitics in legislation on, for example,
the penitentiary system, family and reproductive health and
gender representations. Makarychev and Yatsyk conclude that a
biopolitical agenda currently shapes much of the content and
contours of the Kremlin-promoted nation-building project. The
regime utilises biopolitical discourses and practices to
consolidate its rule, drawing on conservative norms that may be
asserted through religious, gender-based or ‘Russian World’-
grounded discourses. Biopolitics, they argue, offers a specific
way of anchoring the uncertain Russian identity in a set of
consensually understood nodal points that encapsulate bodily
practices of corporeal discipline and control.
The second part of this book, ‘Radical and other societal
nationalisms’, offers a range of perspectives on the societal level,
autonomous nationalism. It consists of four chapters that assess
the ideological-organisational landscape of the Russian
nationalist movement and present key actors.
Alexandra Kuznetsova and Sergey Sergeev examine
organisations that combine nationalist principles with
propagation of revolution and that advocate the violent
dissolution of the existing political regime in the name of the
nation (be it civic, ethnic or something else). They identify four
main categories of such organisations in Russia today: national
bolsheviks, national anarchists, national socialists, and national
democrats. The organisations of the ‘national bolshevik’
category are primarily associated with veteran political activist
Eduard Limonov. While continuously modifying their ideological
orientation, these organisations have all managed to combine
leftist military activism with imperial ideals. The ‘national
socialist’ category, by contrast, consists of proponents of a
‘white revolution’ who embrace various forms of terror directed
against immigrants as well as political rivals. Nationalist and
anarchist ideas are combined in the third group, the national
anarchists; according to their view, after the demolition of the
state, people will live in communities based on ethnic principles.
Finally, there are the national democrats, who seek to combine
ethnic nationalism with political democracy.
Kuznetsova and Sergeev trace the major actors and
dynamics of development within this scene from the early 1990s
up to, and including, the Crimean annexation. They conclude
that, with increased regime repression in the aftermath of
Crimea, Russia’s revolutionary nationalists have now lost
whatever limited influence they once enjoyed.
In the next chapter, Alexander Verkhovsky examines in
detail the changes that have taken place in the Russian
nationalist movement in the aftermath of the annexation of
Crimea. He provides a broad overview of nationalist activities
and initiatives undertaken from below, from the societal level,
while also taking into account the complex relationship and
interaction between the various groups of nationalists and the
The Russian nationalist movement had already started to
disintegrate before Crimea, Verkhovsky argues. At the time, the
decline was not very visible: prior to the onset of the conflict in
Ukraine, the Russian ultra-rights looked, if not very strong, then
at least rather promising but they were already suffering from
internal rifts. Since 2014, however, the nationalist movement
has been torn apart over which side to support in the war in
Ukraine. And with the subsequent increase in state repression
of the ultra-rights, the whole movement has lapsed into total
decline. Verkhovsky’s chapter discusses the separate
trajectories of the pro-Kremlin and oppositional nationalists,
providing a comprehensive overview of the most prominent
nationalist organisations and groups in the contemporary
landscape of Russian nationalists, assessing their public activism
and potential.
Then we move on to individual portraits of prominent
figures on the Russian nationalist scene. Robert Horvath traces
the career of Aleksandr Sevastianov. A disturbing aspect of
current Russian nationalism is the existence of networks of
skinheads and neo-Nazi paramilitary groups responsible for
violent attacks on migrant labourers and other non-Slavic
inhabitants of Russian cities. Horvath examines this
phenomenon in relation to the ideology of
Russian nationalism specifically, to the work of Sevastianov as
Russia’s leading apologist of ultranationalist revolutionary terror.
Horvath shows how violence has been central to
Sevastianov’s vision of a Russian national revolution. The
chapter outlines the evolution of Sevastianov’s revolutionary
project. It traces Sevastianov’s emerging sympathy for the
militant neo-Nazi underground, his compilations of lists of
‘enemies of the Russian people’ in the early 2000s and his
ideological tracts about a global ‘racial war’. Next, Horvath
examines Sevastianov’s interaction with the underground,
which reached its apogee during his campaign in defence of
Nikita Tikhonov and Evgeniia Khasis, two Russian
ultranationalists charged with murdering two prominent human
rights activists. And finally, he shows how Sevastianov has
recently abandoned the underground, redeploying his
arguments to support the ‘Russian national revolution’ in
southeast Ukraine and holding this up as a springboard for the
transformation of Russia itself.
In the last chapter in this section, Sofi a Tipaldou focuses
on the extreme right fringe of Russian nationalism. She presents
the Russian societal nationalist scene as a multifaceted social
movement network made up of organisations with ideologies
ranging from democratic to authoritarian, but with a shared self-
understanding of being in opposition to the powers-that-be.
Within this network, ‘ethno-nationalist’ organisations have
taken it upon themselves to combat illegal migration, promote
Russian ethnic superiority, provide sports and military training,
and develop national socialist ideology.
Tipaldou highlights the career of Dmitrii Bobrov and his
now-banned National Socialist Initiative (NSI). Together with its
close allies, the Movement Against Illegal Immigration and the
Slavic Union, the NSI formed the backbone of the Russkie
(Russians) movement, an umbrella structure aimed at
representing the major trends within contemporary Russian
societal nationalism. The escalation of the conflict in Ukraine
brought these consolidation efforts to a halt, however: Bobrov
and the NSI supported the pro-Russian insurrection in Eastern
Ukraine, while their closest allies did not. Tipaldou concludes
that the conflict in Ukraine exposed the power relations and
coalition potential within the Russian extreme right fringe and
led to a restructuring of this now greatly weakened sector of
the Russian nationalist movement.
In the third and final part of the book, we focus on ‘identities
and otherings’ – more precisely, how the Russian ‘in-group’ is defined
in the encounter with its ‘others’. Up until Crimea, the growing
migrant population provided the nationalists with an easily
identifiable ‘other’, and migrantophobia was on the rise. In their
chapter, Helge
Blakkisrud and Pål Kolstø examine the role that migrants and
widespread migrantophobia play in Russian identity discourse,
through the lens of the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections.
On the eve of these elections, Muscovites identified the
large numbers of labour migrants in the capital as the most
important campaign issue. Blakkisrud and Kolstø explore how
‘the migrant issue’ was addressed at the candidate level as well
as how it was perceived by ordinary Muscovites. First, they trace
what images of ‘the migrant’ the candidates presented; how
they assessed the potential for integration into Russian society;
and what measures they proposed for regulating the flow of
new migrants. Next, drawing on survey data, Blakkisrud and
Kolstø discuss to what extent campaign promises reflected the
positions of the electorate. They conclude that the Moscow
electoral experiment of allowing semi-competitive elections
contributed to pushing the borders of what mainstream
politicians saw as acceptable positions on migrants and
migration policy. In the course of the campaign, incumbent
mayor Sergei Sobianin hijacked the anti-migration agenda of the
democratically oriented nationalists, represented by the rising
star of the non-systemic opposition, Aleksei Navalnyi. As a result,
the elections reinforced the idea of ‘the migrant’ as the new
‘Other’ in Russian identity discourse.
Next, Caress Schenk, continuing on the migrant theme,
discusses how Putin’s return for a third presidential term
ushered in a period of increasingly securitised migration policy.
While the Kremlin’s new policies in this area may be framed as
anti-migrant, Schenk questions whether they in fact reflect an
overt nationalist campaign. To evaluate the extent of nationalist
content in the Kremlin’s migration-related rhetoric, she
structures the discussion around three migration myths:
‘migrants take our jobs’; ‘they are culturally incompatible with
the host society’; and ‘they represent a security threat’. While
she finds that these myths are to some degree consistent with
Russian public opinion, they are not actively utilised by the
Kremlin. To the contrary, Schenk concludes that Putin has
eschewed a populist course, opting for a migration discourse
that seeks to utilise migration for the benefit of the state.
Economically, for example, migrants are framed as a tool for
development rather than a threat to the native workforce.
Though the Kremlin has become more active in addressing
issues of national identity, including immigration, Schenk finds
that rather than backing a narrowly ethno-political agenda, the
state’s migration discourse has remained firmly state-oriented.
In his chapter, J. Paul Goode explores the boundary
between nationalism and patriotism. Whereas for a long time
the Kremlin was
reluctant to engage in nationalist rhetoric, ever since the
beginning of Putin’s first term it has vigorously promoted a
multi-ethnic vision of patriotism and patriotic education in all
walks of life. The outpouring of public support for the 2014
annexation of Crimea and the subsequent Russian involvement
in Donbas in Eastern Ukraine nevertheless demonstrate that
such state patriotism and nationalism are not easily
distinguished, and that one may easily transmute into the other.
When does patriotism turn into nationalism? Rather
than treating the two as categorically distinct, Goode examines
how ordinary Russians understand the meaning and
implications of patriotism in their daily lives. Based on
interviews and focus groups conducted in two Russian regions
his analysis reveals the ease with which state patriotism can be
ethnicised, such that the practical difference between
patriotism and nationalism becomes a matter of political loyalty
rather than ethnicity. Goode concludes that the sudden
outburst of nationalism in Russia in 2014 may be understood in
terms of the ethnicisation of everyday patriotic practices.
In the final chapter, Eleanor Knott addresses the lived
experience of Russian identity and nationalism beyond Russia’s
borders. The chapter focuses on the case of Crimea, a region
where the majority of residents have been assumed to identify
as ethnically Russian. Using the approach of everyday
nationalism, Knott examines the meanings of identifying oneself
as ethnically Russian in Crimea before the 2014 annexation, to
see how being Russian was articulated, experienced, negotiated
and subverted, and opposed to, or combined with, being
Ukrainian and/or Crimean.
The annexation of Crimea has often been explained, if
not legitimised, by framing the peninsula as a region of strong
Russian national identity and support for separatism. Drawing
on fieldwork interviews with actors from across the political and
social spectrum in the years immediately prior to the annexation,
Knott criticises this framing, and argues that a more nuanced
understanding of Russian identity is necessary. She
problematises what it meant to be ethnically Russian in Crimea
and to engage with Russia in terms of identification prior to the
annexation. By doing so, she demonstrates how malleable
ethnic identity can be, and how the ethnic effervescence among
Russians and Russian speakers in Crimea in early 2014 can be
seen as largely a product of political engineering.
* * *
The overall aim of this book is to map and examine major
developments within the field of Russian nationalism in the
crucial years
around the 2014 annexation of Crimea. By investigating the
interrelationship between official, state-level nationalism and
independent societal nationalism, and exploring the internal
dynamics involving various actors, identity entrepreneurs and
groupings at both levels, we aspire to provide greater clarity to
the complex and multifaceted reality of Russian nationalism and
national identity at the time around this watershed event.
The annexation of Crimea is likely to have long-lasting
implications for the development of Russian nationalism. At the
same time, as becomes abundantly clear from the case studies
presented in this volume, the field of Russian nationalism is
dynamic. Above we have described how the Russian state from
time to time ‘drains’ the vessel of societal nationalism. By the
same token, this means that if and when the ‘state vessel’ for
some reason gets emptied of nationalist content, the ‘society
vessel’ may be filled up again. Although at the time of writing
(spring 2017) it is too early to conclude on any long-term
trajectories, we can note some signs of reappraisal and reversal.
By late 2015, the Russian authorities had already seemed to
have drawn the conclusion that the potential for pro-regime
mobilisation to be derived from the Ukrainian crisis and the
Crimean annexation had basically run its course. Coverage of
events in Ukraine gradually diminished in regime-controlled
Russian media, and the topic virtually disappeared from Putin’s
speeches. For instance, in his one-hour state-of the-nation
address to the Russian Parliament on 3 December 2015, there
was not one mention of the conflict in Donbas in sharp
contrast to the address of the previous year, when Putin
referred to Ukraine no less than eighteen times (Putin 2015;
Whitmore 2015). Moreover, some triggers of ethnonational
mobilisation, like the labour migration issue, seem to have been
suppressed rather than permanently removed, and might well
reappear on the political agenda. Crimea led to a radical
restructuring of the field of Russian nationalism, through a
return of the state and a marginalisation of the fledgling pre-
Crimea societal nationalism. However, the understanding of
who constitutes the Russian nation, and what territorial
expression this nation should have, will continue to be the
object of contestation and reformulation.
1. See, for instance, Putin’s ‘Millennium Manifesto’ (Putin 1999).
2. Solovei’s article was later removed from the Internet, but
Solovei has confirmed the content and that this remains his view.
Authors’ email communication with Valerii Solovei, 18
December 2015.
3. The dichotomisation of national identity in a French ‘civic’ and
German ‘ethnic’ model has drawn considerable criticism for its
oversimplification of how nation-building processes unfold in the real
world (Yack 1996; Kuzio 2002). However, in a post-Soviet Russian
context, it makes sense to use the dichotomy as a prism through which
to view and understand the Russian nation-building process, as the
Russian authorities initially opted for emulating the Soviet practice of
simultaneously promoting a civic state identity and ethnicising
individual identity. To avoid giving the impression that a ‘civic’ identity
is ethnically neutral, however, we refer to what constitutes the main
object of reference for the nationalists: territory or group: hence the
use of ‘state-oriented’ and ‘ethnically oriented’ in the two-by-two
4. The rossiiskii nation project was soon shelved, however (see Yuri
Teper in this volume).
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Full-text available
Russia’s post-1991 nation-building project has been torn between competing interpretations of national identity. Whereas the other former Soviet republics opted for nation-building centered on the titular nation, Russia’s approach to national identity was framed by the fact that the RSFSR had been defined not as a designated national homeland but as a multi-ethnic federation. This, coupled with Russia’s definition as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, suggesting continuity and a history of uninterrupted statehood, has enabled a range of rivaling understandings of how to define the “nation.” Focusing on top-down official nation-building, this article examines how, against a backdrop of shifting political contexts, structural constraints, and popular attitudes, the Kremlin has gradually revised its understanding of what constitutes the “Russian nation.” Four models for post-Soviet Russian nation-building are identified – the ethnic, the multi-national, the civic, and the imperial. Over time, the correlation of forces among these has shifted. The article concludes that, despite some claims of an ethno-nationalist turn after 2014, the Kremlin still employs nationalism instrumentally: National identity has undoubtedly become more russkii- centered, but, at the same time, the Kremlin keeps the definition of “Russianness” intentionally vague, blurring the boundaries between “nation” and “civilization.”
Full-text available
En el marco de la guerra entre Ucrania y Rusia en el Donbás y la anterior crisis de Crimea, este artículo trata de identificar y cartografiar, a partir de cuatro discursos de Vladimir Putin, elementos de populismo en las estrategias discursivas y formales de su régimen para justificar y crear una forma específica de conflicto. El análisis muestra cómo, aquí, el populismo va más allá de la dicotomía pueblo/establishment, al basarse en nociones complejas de enemistad y alianza, una definición muy amplia de la nación rusa, una nueva división del espacio político, e introducción de nuevos y reafirmación de antiguos símbolos de unidad más allá de las fronteras de la Rusia actual. Ello proyecta una nueva sombra sobre la política exterior rusa para el espacio postsoviético. Con ello, no solo se quieren esclarecer cuestiones sobre el conflicto en Ucrania, sino también aportar nuevos elementos a la literatura existente sobre populismo
Full-text available
Russian nationalism, previously dominated by 'imperial' tendencies - pride in a large, strong and multi-ethnic state able to project its influence abroad - is increasingly focused on ethnic issues. This new ethno-nationalism has come in various guises, like racism and xenophobia, but also in a new intellectual movement of 'national democracy' deliberately seeking to emulate conservative West European nationalism. Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent violent conflict in Eastern Ukraine utterly transformed the nationalist discourse in Russia. This book provides an up-to-date survey of Russian nationalism as a political, social and intellectual phenomenon by leading Western and Russian experts in the field of nationalism studies. It includes case studies on migrantophobia; the relationship between nationalism and religion; nationalism in the media; nationalism and national identity in economic policy; nationalism in the strategy of the Putin regime as well as a survey-based study of nationalism in public opinion. © editorial matter and organisation Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud, 2016.
This essay defines three categories of Russian nationalist actors: nonstate actors, whose agenda is anti-Putin; parastate actors, who have their own ideological niche, not always in tune with the presidential administration’s narrative, but who operate under the state umbrella; and state actors, in particular, the presidential administration. In the future, the Russian ethnonationalism embodied by nonstate actors is the main trend that could pose a serious threat to the regime. However, the Kremlin is not “frozen” in terms of ideology, and its flexibility allows it to adapt to evolving situations. One of the most plausible scenarios is the rise of a figure inside the establishment who would be able to prevent the polarization of Russian nationalism into an antiregime narrative and could co-opt some of its slogans and leaders, in order to gradually channel the official narrative toward a more state-controlled nationalism.
This chapter discusses the persistence of the imperial legacy in the political life in Russia and its influence on Russian nationalism. The enduring combination of nationalism and imperial consciousness in Russia has led to the creation of ‘imperial nationalism’. While this term may seem unwarranted from a theoretical point of view, such a phenomenon does exist in Russia and has come to the fore several times, most recently after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. The chapter proposes a unified theoretical concept of a ‘imperial syndrome’ which encompasses several analytical perspectives: its political organization (the imperial ‘order’), its political ‘body’ (territorial arrangement), and the type of mass consciousness characteristic of an empire. Moreover, it discusses the causes behind the endurance of authoritarian and imperial features, first and foremost the mutual relationship between cultural traditions, on the one hand, and the intentional manipulations that lead to this persistence, on the other.
This chapter discusses the relationship between regime type, popular support and nationalism in Russia. It describes the political system as ‘patronal presidentialism’. This term refers to a constitutionally strong presidency that exists in a social context where political collective action unfolds primarily through extensive networks of personal acquaintances. Even when such presidents use manipulation, coercion, and fraud to win elections, they run significant risks of losing power if they lose popular support. For that reason, Russia’s presidents have been highly sensitive to public opinion. A domestic political crisis that came to a head in late 2011, when tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets, changed the Kremlin’s calculus, forcing it to seek out new bases of public support. This eventually led to a far more prominent role for Russian nationalism in connection with Putin’s leadership, and helped to bring about the crisis involving Crimea and Ukraine.
Le nationalisme est un sentiment directement lie a l'ideologie sovietique, qui contrairement a l'unite apparente, pronait les droits nationaux et la creation des nations toujours oppressees. La liberation nationale ne concernait pas seulement la Russie, mais bien toutes les communautes qui partageaient histoire, territoire, langue et culture. L'effort de l'A. se concentre sur la vehemence des efforts bolsheviks au nom du particularisme ethnique, qui hostiles et sans concession pour les droits individuels ont favorise les droits de groupes, qui ne coincidaient pas forcement avec les attentes du proletariat. Curieusement, le premier Etat des travailleurs et des paysans, fut aussi le premier Etat a institutionnaliser le federalisme ethnoterritorial, a classifier tous les citoyens en fonction de leurs nationalites biologiques et a prescrire officiellement des traitements preferentiels a certaines populations definies ethniquement x