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January 20, 2005 by AK

Nationalism against imperialism (a follow-up on comments to this post)

Putin and his crowd may be as primitive as they are incompetent. But they shouldn’t expect ordinary Russians to share his imperialist instincts.

Russia was a peasant country a hundred years ago, and to this day a peasant (not imperial, but specifically peasant) mentality keeps hold of millions of minds when it comes to politics. For the post-Soviet “peasant,” the most important are his (I have a male head of a household in mind) family, his home, his job (if he’s lucky); he also respects the Tsar, the Church and the Army — as long as the Tsar has a big stick for the bureaucracy and leaves him, the peasant, alone; as long as he does not have to attend church services; as long as his kids don’t have to serve in the army. The ultimate value is the survival of one’s family, and the rest of the world can go down the drain.

To go on, Russian society needs cohesive values. Russians are diverse in the values department; can one identify a shared “attractor” value? I’d say yes, but it’s not an abstract idea, nor a religious belief. It’s simply the nation; and the corresponding ideology is, of course, nationalism.

A sense of belonging to a group can alter its members’ behavior. Behavioral patterns are major determinants to the group’s success or failure. A shared sense of belonging is the last resort when no common ideology, faith or value system is in place. This sense is already there, it only needs to be fostered and informed. There is no lack of negative enforcement: for instance, every other interview a Russian citizen gets with a Western embassy clerk, is a painful reminder of the former’s national origin. Hence a nationalism of necessity, based on the most obvious observation: we Russians are all in the same sinking boat; we’ve got nowhere to go, and it makes perfect sense for all to play by the same rules to survive. We are tremendously talented — even though the mighty and the noblest perished in the 20th-century grinders — our creative vitality is still enormous, but without the common rules, our human capital will depreciate at a rising rate.

But this is too apophatic, too us-versus-them: we now have to define what “we” stand for. Surely Russia does not need nationalism’s “bad” varieties — ethnically exclusive, divisive, totalitarian and eventually suicidal. The “good” nationalism should be inclusive and humanistic, in addition to being simply a necessity. We don’t have to break down local affiliations to build nationhood: outside of the elites and some “ethnic” regions, they are too weak. Our immediate neighbors are our family and friends; the nation should become an extended family and a bunch of old school buddies. No blood ties or genetic affinity required: you don’t have to like your mother-in-law but she’s, well, your mother-in-law. Period. Whatever her politics or habits, you’re supposed to buy her medicine when she gets sick.

The nation as a small-s, small-f society of friends will necessarily revolve not around some abstract idea (which most Russians don’t get anyway) but the individual and the family. The Russian citizen’s safety (safety what we want for our family) will be alpha and omega.

As I’ve said before, “safety” is “freedom” in Russia: one is safe when one is free from predators both in the private sector and the government. “Safety” is stretchable to cover rule of law and access to education (to safeguard our children against benightedness), accessible health care (obviously) and economic growth (so we can all buy country houses and be safe from the urban pollution), but it starts with freedom from the fear that both private and government lawlessness instills when excessive. Hence “safety-based” nationalism will have to be liberating.

To keep nationalistic sentiment from catching the imperial virus, Russia will need to have another look at its history and reconsider the role of Moscow in particular, to give due credit to the colonizing achievements of long-gone generations, to their prevailing over and settling the steppe, to their tenacity and patience in the face of adversity — and to recognize the centralized, autocratic state as a once-necessary evil, not a transcendent political value.


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