The Faces of Contemporary Russian Nationalism

The Faces of Contemporary Russian Nationalism

by John B. Dunlop

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In contrast to the substantial output of Western works on the revival of nationalism among the non-Russians in the USSR, the critical phenomenon of Russian nationalism has been little studied in the West. Here John B. Dunlop measures the strength and political viability of a movement that has been steadily growing since the mid-1960s and that may well eventually


In contrast to the substantial output of Western works on the revival of nationalism among the non-Russians in the USSR, the critical phenomenon of Russian nationalism has been little studied in the West. Here John B. Dunlop measures the strength and political viability of a movement that has been steadily growing since the mid-1960s and that may well eventually become the ruling ideology of the state. Professor Dunlop's comprehensive discussion depicts for the Western reader the gamut of Russian nationalism from Solzhenitsyn to the vehement National Bolsheviks.

Originally published in 1984.

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The Faces of Contemporary Russian Nationalism

By John B. Dunlop


Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05390-5


The Historical Background (I) 1917-1953

Die Arbeiter haben kein Vaterland.

Das kommunistische Manifest

... the Revolution means the people's final break with the Asiatic, with the seventeenth century, with Holy Russia, with ikons and with roaches.

Lev Trotskii

... via Bolshevism, Djugashvili joined the Russian nation.

Robert C. Tucker

When the Bolshevik party seized power in 1917, it appeared that the days of Russia as a separate cultural and political entity might be numbered. In the words of historian E. H. Carr, "Never had the heritage of the past been more sharply, more sweepingly or more provocatively rejected; never had the claim to universality been more uncompromisingly asserted; never in any previous revolution had the break in continuity seemed so absolute." Fervent believers in world revolution, captives of a vision in which national distinctions would be submerged in a rising tide of proletarian internationalism, Lenin and his colleagues set about with dedication and flinty ruthlessness to achieve their utopian aims. Since Great Russian patriotism had served as one of the legitimizing props of the old order, the communists were particularly anxious to suppress its manifestations and ensure its eventual extinction. In the course of the first years of the Revolution, the sentence from the Communist Manifesto, "the workers have no fatherland," was everywhere repeated, while words such as "patriotism" and "motherland" virtually disappeared from the Russian vocabulary.

In his 1914 essay "On the National Pride of the Great Russians," written to counter the patriotic upsurge that had accompanied Russia's entry into the First World War, Lenin made clear in what narrow and restricted a sense Russian patriotism would be permissible: "We are full of a sense of national pride, and for that reason we particularly hate our slavish past ... and our slavish present. ... The interests of the Great Russians' national pride (understood not in the slavish sense) coincide with the socialist interests of the Great Russian (and all other) proletarians. Our model will always be Marx, who, after living in Britain for decades and becoming half-English, demanded freedom and national independence for Ireland in the interests of the socialist movement of the British workers." Only those Great Russians who had devoted themselves to the struggle against the tsarist state — Radishchev, the Decembrists, Chernyshevskii, the revolutionaries of the 1870s, the revolutionary working class of 1905 — were singled out by Lenin for praise.

Once established in power, the Bolsheviks proceeded to attack the pillars of the previous order: the family, the Church, the school. Divorce on demand was legalized immediately after the revolution, and abortion on demand followed in 1920. An explosion of sexual license took place, accompanied by a greatly increased use (and abuse) of alcohol and tobacco. Budding theorists speculated that the rearing of children should become a communal responsibility. A campaign was launched to eradicate religious survivals from the Russian land. Traditional school curricula were jettisoned, to be replaced by militant political indoctrination. Not all of this was to the taste of even the Bolshevik leaders; in a sense, the revolution seemed to be hurtling on with a momentum of its own.

A gifted strategist who combined revolutionary fanaticism with a strong streak of pragmatism, Lenin realized during the period of War Communism (1918-1921) that the country had to be slowly and carefully nurtured toward socialism. The countryside in particular, a bulwark of Russian traditionalism, had to be handled delicately. With the successful conclusion of the civil war, therefore, Lenin braked the momentum of the revolution and ushered in the historic "compromise with capitalism" known as the New Economic Policy (NEP). The constituent elements of the NEP were: "the substitution of a tax in kind for the exaction from the peasants of arbitrary quotas of food, so as to increase their incentive to produce; the legalization of a wide measure of freedom of internal trade; and the granting of concessions to private capitalists for the running of industrial enterprises."

Lenin viewed these economic concessions, as well as a certain relaxing of ideological vigilance in cultural matters, as tactical and temporary, something that some Russian nationalists both at home and in the emigration failed to see. Thus in 1921 there appeared in Prague a collection of essays entitled Smena vekh (Change of Landmarks), written by former participants of the "white movement." Although the authors do not agree on all points, a common thread .runs through their contributions: "The revolution is in process of evolution [Revoliutsiia evoliutsioniruet]." The NEP and the Kronstadt uprising of 1921 were interpreted by the contributors as signs that Russia was beginning to devour the Bolshevik Revolution, that the revolution was approaching its Thermidor. The most gifted of the collection's authors, N. V. Ustrialov, felt that Lenin, whom he termed a "great opportunist," had no choice other than to be led by the nose toward Thermidor. Ustrialov placed his hopes on this historical process, rather than on any "white movements" that would, if they wished to succeed, inevitably have to ally themselves with foreign powers not having Russia's interests at heart. As émigré scholar Gleb Struve has pointed out, Ustrialov seems to have seen smenovekhovtsvo as a "Trojan horse" whose aim was to transform the revolution from within. Ustrialov was a self-proclaimed "National Bolshevik" — the term would reappear in the 1960s — who sharply distinguished Bolshevism from communism. Another contributor to the volume, S. Chakhotin, went so far as to argue provocatively that émigré should go down on their knees before the Bolsheviks, the servants of history, as Emperor Henry IV had kneeled in penance before the Pope at Canossa.

As might be expected, the Change of Landmarks collection caused a stir both among the émigrés, where its arguments were largely rejected, and in intellectual circles in Soviet Russia, where its message was received with interest and some sympathy. In 1922, even Lenin had to admit that the smenovekhovtsy expressed "the mood of thousands and tens of thousands of bourgeois of all sorts" in Russia. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems odd that attentive observers of the Soviet scene should have thought that the revolution had spent its energies some three to four years after taking power, but one must remember that the NEP did represent a significant and deceiving step backward from revolutionary élan and maximalism. As it turned out, however, it would be almost half a century before the revolution could be said to have expended most of its energy.

Lenin's death in 1924 was, of course, followed by Iosif Djugashvili-Stalin's successful bid for power. Stalin's achievement of autocratic power was eventually to signal an important shift in the fortunes of Russian nationalism. One must remember that Stalin's identification with the Bolsheviks meant that he was parting ways with the majority of Georgian revolutionaries, whose sympathies were with the Mensheviks. Stalin was quite aware that the Bolsheviks represented the "Russian party" among the Marxists; in 1907, for example, he pointedly noted that at the London party congress, "whereas the majority of the eighty-five Menshevik delegates were Jews, with Georgians in second place numerically and Russians in third, the great majority of the ninety-two Bolshevik delegates were Russians, with Jews coming next, then Georgians, and so on." Disenchanted with his fellow Georgian revolutionaries, Stalin was delighted to join the predominantly Russian Bolshevik party and its forceful leader, Lenin, whom he seems to have idolized. However, since he was not a Russian, Stalin apparently felt no inner need to share Lenin's belief that Russia had to "atone" for past sins against the minority peoples of the Soviet Union. Nor, it turned out, was he as intense in a belief that Russia had to immolate herself for the cause of world revolution.

In the jockeying for power that followed Lenin's death, Stalin, as is common knowledge, used the slogan "socialism in one country" as a cudgel against his chief rival, Trotskii, and the latter's doctrine of "permanent revolution." "Socialism in one country" was not Stalin's invention; he borrowed it from Bukharin, but, unlike Bukharin, he made it a centerpiece of his thought. The significance of the victory of Stalin's Russia-oriented socialism over Trotskii's militant internationalism is very great. In fact, some scholars would date the rise of Russian nationalism in the Soviet period from the triumph of this doctrine.

With Stalin's ascent, there ensued a gradual downgrading of the internationalist thrust of the revolution. Until 1928, a member of the Soviet Politburo had headed the Comintern (the Communist International); after 1928, this ceased to be the case. In spheres other than foreign policy, however, hostility to things Russian and to vestiges of Russian patriotism continued unabated. In fact, the same year of 1928 that marked Stalin's consolidation of power also witnessed the scrapping of the NEP and a new and radical communist "leap forward" — forced industrialization. As E. H. Carr has commented, "the deduction [of a Russian Thermidor] proved unsound. The proclamation of socialism in one country was followed, not by stabilization on the basis of NEP ... or by further retreat into capitalism, but by a feverish drive for the development of heavy industry — the traditional stronghold of the class-conscious worker ... In other words, while socialism in one country made its concessions to nationalism, and thus seemed to diverge from the high road of Marxism, the proletarian or socialist element in it was also perfectly real."

And Carr goes on:

The party continued to carry the political programme of the proletarian revolution. The history of the revolution consisted of the impact of this dynamic force on a society dominated by a backward peasant economy. The coming of NEP had appeared to many to mean that the force of the revolution was spent, and that the party, as the bearer of this force, would be quietly reabsorbed into the traditional society. ... In reality, the party leadership compromised far enough with the traditional society to ride out the storm; this compromise was the essence not only of NEP, but of socialism in one country. Yet in the sequel it had retained its revolutionary dynamic unimpaired, and imposed on the society the consummation of "revolution from above."

A skilled tactician and pragmatist, Stalin, like Lenin before him, was willing, when necessary, to brake the momentum of the revolution and make concessions to the inchoate traditionalism of the populace. Yet his genuine commitment to what by this time had become known as Marxism-Leninism required that Stalin accelerate the revolutionary process when this proved feasible. Rapid industrialization and forced collectivization were the results.

During the late twenties and early thirties, persecution of Russian particularism continued apace. The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) kept a sharp lookout for any indications of Russian chauvinism, while in historical studies, Mikhail Pokrovskii, Vice Commissar of Education, and his disciples dominated the scene with their rigidly orthodox Marxist views. For them, prerevolutionary Russia represented a period of virtually unrelieved darkness. A fanatical economic determinist, Pokrovskii had no interest in glorifying human personalities, especially if they happened to be tsars or tsarist generals. During the period of Pokrovskii's reign, distinguished Russian historians, such as Platonov and Tarle, were suspected of sympathy for prerevolutionary Russia and charged with "bourgeois objectivism," which resulted in their arrest and exile. As for the Russian Orthodox Church, waves of persecution rolled across this once powerful body, seeking its annihilation.

Thus, although Stalin tempered the internationalist thrust of the revolution during the 1920s, he permitted — indeed, encouraged — the antinational and antireligious momentum of the revolutionary process to continue into the 1930s. "Socialism in one country" was not matched by any similar retreat on the domestic front. Then, in 1934, Stalin unexpectedly slammed on the brakes. In the words of émigré sociologist Nicholas Timasheff, "the Doctrine [Marxism-Leninism) remained intact up to 1934, when it was entirely rejected and replaced by its very opposite, making flaming patriotism one of the basic virtues." Timasheff's statement is hyperbolic, but the change initiated in 1934 was indeed extraordinary, and Timasheff is justified in referring to a "great retreat," though "great tactical retreat" might be a more apt term for what occurred.

Why the change? There seem to have been two weighty considerations behind Stalin's decision: Marxism-Leninism had resulted in social catastrophe at home; and there was the growth of fascism in Europe and the threat of impending w. Both factors required that Stalin act decisively and expeditiously.

The Communist Manifesto had spoken contemptuously of the "bourgeois family" and Soviet Russia had not been sparing of the hallowed prop of the old order. Divorce on demand, abortion on demand, the de facto legalization of big-amy, and the general weakening of family ties had led to deleterious results. There was a dramatic drop in the birth rate and a marked rise in juvenile delinquency, the latter the result of broken homes. Schools had become "revolutionary clubs for young people," which meant that basic education was spurned and ignored. The upshot of all this was the threat that there would not be enough people to carry out the industrialization of the country, while the wretched state of the schools meant that there would be a lack of trained specialists or even minimally educated persons to direct the Soviet Union's plants and factories.

Stalin decided to act In 1935, a campaign against abortion was initiated, and in the following year, a stiff law was passed against abortion on demand. Freedom of divorce was curtailed and then virtually abolished. Wedding rings reappeared in the shops. In Timasheff's words: "Destruction, then reconstruction; that was the pattern of the Communist rulers regarding the family." Similarly, the anarchy in the field of education was suppressed; school curricula were drastically overhauled; it was decided to teach history chronologically and to resume the study of geography. And, in a throwback to tsarist times, uniforms were introduced for school pupils.

The prospect of war, and especially of an invasion, required that Stalin seriously ponder how to mobilize the populace against an aggressor. He apparently concluded that the slogans of Marxism-Leninism had little appeal and that patriotic symbols were needed. The terms rodina (motherland or homeland) and otechestvo (fatherland), which had been out of currency since the revolution, were permitted to make a dramatic reappearance. Soviet citizens heard that they should now love their fatherland. Russia's past was also rediscovered. History, which had been taught only in terms of mass activity, now reappeared as a sequence of great deeds performed by national heroes. Russian historical figures whom Pokrovskii and his school had either ignored or castigated now became objects of a cult, especially Aleksandr Nevskii, Dimitrii Donskoi, and Peter the Great. Even Prince Vladimir, the baptizer of Russia and a canonized saint of the Orthodox Church, was brought back from oblivion. To commemorate the twenty-first anniversary of the revolution, Sergei Eisenstein's patriotic film "Aleksandr Nevskii" was shown on November 6, 1938.


Excerpted from The Faces of Contemporary Russian Nationalism by John B. Dunlop. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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