> Russian Imperial Syndrome Keep Ethnic and Civic Nationalism Weak But with Fading Success, Emil Pain Says

Russian Imperial Syndrome Keep Ethnic and Civic Nationalism Weak But with Fading Success, Emil Pain Says


Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 30 – Russian intellectuals view ethnicity and nationalism as negative phenomena, failing to recognize that the maintenance of the imperial syndrome in Russia is keeping not only ethnic identities they dislike but also the civic identity they say they want weak, according to Emil Pain, a leading Russian specialist on ethnicity and ethnic conflict.

            But despite the efforts of the Kremlin to maintain the imperial syndrome at the expense of these other identities, demographic changes, including both shifts in the ethnic balance in the non-Russian republics and both immigration and mass migration by Russians are gradually undermining the imperial approach (mbk-news.appspot.com/sences/postimperskaya-situaciya-gra/).

            Russia is not an empire according to its 1993 constitution, Pain continues, but “as Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote, ‘the strictness of Russian laws is softened by the fact that they are not applied.” And the Russian empire remains in place with the imperial syndrome still dominating the regime and the population.

            This imperial syndrome has three main elements, he says: an imperial arrangement in which peoples live separately and are not integrated into a broader whole, a state system in which subordination is the most important consideration and the center can change things at will, and an imperial consciousness involving “’a cult of the state,’” the deification of the ruler, and “imperial ambitions.”

            According to studies by the Moscow Institute of Sociology over the last 25 years, the existence of this syndrome can be seen in the very different ways non-Russians and Russians rank ethnic, regional and national identities. The non-Russians name ethnic identity first (71 percent), regional identity second (61 percent) and all-Russian identity only third (49 percent).

            Russians display an entirely different pattern. Among them, 73 percent identify primarily with an all-Russia identity, Pain continues, with only 47 percent identifying with a region and only 31 percent identifying in the first instance with their ethnicity. That makes their identity statist rather than civic and often hostile to political participation.

            As a result, the ethno-sociologist says, one sees in Russia what Erich Fromm described in his classic book, Escape from Freedom, “an atomized individual who is losing the remains of horizontal civic ties and ever more seeking to link himself too the power vertical, to a strong personality, to leader.”  

                Over the last two decades as the state has come to dominate Russian society more and more, it has promoted and manipulated this imperial consciousness by promoting hatred of outgroups or those who question authority.  Joy over the annexation of Crimea reduced this set of attitudes briefly, but now xenophobia has returned.

                Xenophobia, Pain notes, “most often is defined as fear and dislike of ‘outsiders,’ but people with such dislike are not necessarily attached to ‘their own.’” Nationalism, in contrast, is all about that attachment. But until very recently, those who called themselves Russian nationalists have been exclusively tied to the state and church but not to the Russian people.

            “Only in the 21st century,” he says, “has a Russian nationalism appeared which could be included within the category of classical nationalism.” But so far it remains marginal eclipsed by “Russian state nationalism” which is “more imperial than nationalist” because it mobilizes people around the ideas of “the greatness of the power and not those of the nation and society.”

            But several long-term social and demographic processes are “leading to a weakening of the imperial syndrome.”  The ethnic Russian presence in the areas the state colonized is falling, and while Moscow has accepted this in the North Caucasus, it supports Russians in other non-Russian areas where they still form larger shares of the population.

            An important example of this support is the July 2018 law eliminating the requirement that all residents of non-Russian republics study the language of the titular nationality in them. “Such a law,” Pain says, “shows a shift of the Russian authorities from the classical imperial model of administration t the principle of ‘reliance on the ethnic majority.’”

            The same thing happened at the start of the 20th century in the Ottoman and Russian empires, the scholar points out, “and in both cases it marked the twilight of those imperial formations.  Such a process inevitably pushes national elites to stand in opposition to the imperial order.”

            The changing ethnic balance in the regions and republics is not the only factor pushing in that direction. Urbanization, which promotes civic ties, and migration, which detaches people from traditional arrangements and leads them to seek broader ones, also is having that effect. For the time being, the imperial syndrome is holding firm; but only for the time being, Pain suggests.