Russian Nationalism: What It Is and What It Is Not

The idea of nationalism, in various shades of Slavophilism, obtained an incomparably deeper development than any other principle grasped by our society.

Originally appeared at: The soul of the east

After the 1905 Revolution and consequent establishment of a Western-style parliamentary system in the Duma, the Orthodox monarchist Lev Tikhomirov (1852-1923) felt it necessary to respond to the growth in nationalist sentiment that had manifested with the rise of mass politics in Russia. Tikhomirov saw quite well that while national solidarity is generally a positive phenomenon, without a clear definition and basis in the spiritual culture and organic development of a people, it is easily manipulated by the forces of subversion. Translated by Mark Hackard.

At present there has surfaced something akin to a fashionable nationalism. There is a faction of nationalists in the Duma, there are various societies of nationalists, and there has even arisen a “new Slavophilism,” which also paints itself in a certain national likeness. Whether this movement toward national values is stable will be shown by the future, but meanwhile, we can say only that the indefinability of its content especially threatens its future.

Within today’s nationalism, one sooner senses “words” rather than “understanding,” and this is all the more surprising, as nationalism is hardly new in Russia. Its idea, in various shades of Slavophilism, obtained an incomparably deeper development than any other principle grasped by our society. And nonetheless, although the word “nationalism” is sounded everywhere, what makes up the content of this word, and to what action contemporary man’s “nationalism” obliges him, is still almost impossible to define.

A national idea has been cultivated in Russia in the least measure for an entire century by hundreds of prominent institutional staff, philosophers, scholars, historians, ethnographers, and even jurists to some degree. We’ll not begin to reprint the pages of the late Koyalovich’s History of Russian Consciousness, but it is sufficient to mention the names of KhomyakovKireevsky, Aksakov, Samarin, Soloviev, Danilevsky, K. Leontiev, M. Katkov, Dostoevsky, etc. Of course, the national idea has not escaped its own type of “factions,” but its common foundations are in any case established so clearly and so stably that it would seem modern nationalism could know very well what it is, what it wants, and by which paths it can act. But none of this is present.

Within the movement we sense not so much consciousness as the voice of instinct, and namely its weaker aspect – by reason of which Russia has not been able to independently master the European Enlightenment, has forever yielded to foreign ideas, forever copied foreign institutions and in general has distinguished itself with the tragic feature of “aping,” something characteristic of any “barbaric” nation that has not reached self-awareness.

This lack of awareness also comprises the weakest trait of the contemporary nationalist movement, placing under question its future. A lack of awareness hinders, first of all, the creation of a practical program for action, and second of all, it provides full possibility for entering the ranks of “nationalists” to people imbued with the completely opposite views and sympathies. In such a manner, under the flag of nationalism, there can develop activity directly hostile to it.

We should remember that the anti-national pro-European movement in Russia, including the so-called liberal and “liberation” groups, have made themselves known with a unique mark of falsification, the counterfeit of foreign labels as a means of struggle. Deeply national movements never do this. Luther, rebelling against Papism, did not cloak himself in the title of a “true Papist,” but proceeded honestly and directly as a new force. Aiming to overthrow the monarchy, the French Revolution did not resort, as in our land, to the distortion of concepts of supreme authority, but simply transferred supreme authority to the people. Yet we have everywhere counterfeits. Those who war against Christ call themselves true executors of Christ’s commandments. Those who war against Orthodoxy and against the Tsar call themselves truly Orthodox. And to take his power away, they compose various forgeries as a perversion of the understanding of autocracy and supreme authority. The less awareness we have in religion, sovereign law and in relation to those or other principles, all the more successfully this mendacity and falsification, this sign of internal weakness, is able to act. The predominance of instinct in the nationalist movement makes it easily accessible to the deliberate distortions of our adversaries.

We are not making mention of non-premeditated distortions, such as the import of the formula “Russia for Russians” here. There are peoples for whom such a formula is indeed nationally-minded, inasmuch as it flows from their very spirit and from the circumstances of their history. In Russia it is difficult to even comprehend precisely what kind of program such a formula is capable of giving us, moreover one borrowed from foreigners. Meanwhile, we see no program that flows from the content of the Russian spirit and the conditions of Russian life and history.

So in order to have a future and become a movement both progressive and salutary, contemporary nationalism should foremost develop within the masses that certain understanding, that Russian consciousness found by this time only among individual thinkers. And in this regard, it is imperative to elucidate to the mass of society and the people the very conception of nationalism.

In actuality this conception and this principle are clear in the higher degree and bring us to the conclusion that we should be ourselves. The nation, the people, as an individual person, has its special character and metaphorically speaking, its own personality. This character is created both by tribal particularities and the circumstances of a people’s historical existence, its own labors for its organization, its moral and intellectual work, etc. Nationalism is the principle by which we should live in accord with our national characteristics, for only founding a life in conformity with them may we direct it and live happily, may we work energetically and productively, raising our nation, and giving through its work something useful for humanity in general.

For those who understand the principle of the content of nationalism, it is completely clear that we can be nationalists only inasmuch as we are imbued with the knowledge and spirit of our historical existence, the knowledge and spirit of our people in the past and present, the knowledge and spirit of our ancient institutions and all that has been developed by our nation. Only by being Russians in such a way, in spirit and in substance, are we capable of creating our present and our future nationally.

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