Staunton, February 13 – The history of Russia is the history of a state without a nation, according to a new book by Sergey Sergeyev; and that lack, he suggests, both reflects the way in which the Russian state has dealt with the people under its control and explains many of the country’s current problems.
The Gefter portal reproduces the introduction to the Russian historian’s volume, The Russian Nation, or the Story about the History of its Absence (in Russian, Moscow: Tsentrpoligraf, 2017). What follows is based on a reading of that portion of the book rather than the book as a whole (gefter.ru/archive/21085).
Sergeyev begins by pointing out that according to the electronic catalogue of the Russian State Library, “there does not exist in the Russian language a single book with the title, ‘The History of the Russian Nation.’” That may seem strange, but “in fact, behind this fact stands the logic of Russian history.”
Russian historians in the past and now very much “prefer to describe the history of the Russian state but not the history of the Russian people,” a reflection, the historian says, of the fact that with rare exceptions of periods of crisis, it has been the Russian state rather than any Russian nation that has played the primary role.
But that leads to the question: “Did and does a Russian nation exist as such?” Sergeyev stresses that he is talking not about an ethno-cultural community but about an “ethno-political one,” that is, about “a people acting as a political subject with legally defined rights.” Considered from this perspective, a Russian political nation has rarely if ever existed.
The idea of a nation arose in Europe as a result of the influence of two factors: Christianity which stressed the spiritual uniqueness of peoples and feudalism with its clearly defined set of rules and privileges. Russia has had the first but put it to “Asiatic” imperial use. It did not have the second and that is the cause of many ills, Sergeyev says.
He cites the words of Russian philosopher G.P. Fedotov who pointed out something many ignore: “In Western democracy, it was not that the nobility was destroyed as that the entire people came to inherit its privileges” vis-à-vis the highest authorities. That has never happened in Russia because the aristocracy did not have any political privileges to hand over.
Only at the time of Catherine the Great did the nobility of the Russian Empire “receive defined rights but then only civil and not political, and precisely after this began the development of Russian national self-consciousness in the precise meaning of the word,” Sergeyev continues. But that consciousness was limited to only a small part of the nobility and clashed with the needs of the imperial state.
“Only after the 1905 revolution did the construction of the foundations of a national state in Russia begin,” Sergey continues, “a process that was broken off by the world war and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks who restored in a new form all the same super-legal structure of power” and who left that as their inheritance to Russia today.
Consequently, he writes, “Russians in the course of their entire history, with the exception of the brief period between 1905 and 1917 were not a political nation. They were and remain ‘state people,’” on whom “all the incarnations of the Russian State” from Muscovy to the Russian Federation rest.
The Russians made many contributions to the expansion of this state but “this ‘state-forming’ ethnos did not have and does not have any political rights. For six centuries in a row, supreme power has done everything possible in order to destroy among Russians even a hint of the institutions of national self-administration.”
Historian Aleksandr Yakovlev recently observed, Sergeyev says, that “Russian statehood rests on three foundations: ‘1. Russians against foreign enemies fight like lions, 2. among themselves everyone is a wolf to everyone else, and 3. in front of the bosses, they are dog-like’” in their obedience.
The author of the new book says that he would add a fourth characteristic to this list, one he takes from Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili who observed that “’Russia exists not for the Russians but by means of the Russians.”
To maintain this situation, Russian rulers have encouraged the following notions, Sergeyev says. They have argued that “Russians are not a specific ethos but a mysterious super-people who do not have an ethnic content.” Further, they say that “Russians don’t need material well-being and political rights [because] they should think only about higher spirituality and thus fulfill their universal mission, the salvation of humanity.”
Third, he continues, they argue that “Russians are not the masters of Russia but ‘a matrix’ united it, not a goal in itself but a means for the execution of great undertakings of the bosses.” They say that Russians “must put up with and silently bear” any repressions or otherwise the country will fall apart. And they insist that without harsh rulers, everything will collapse.
If all this were true, Sergeyev says, it would be reasonable to ask why anyone should write “a history of the Russian nation” which after all, “has not existed and doesn’t now.” But there is a compelling one: while there is no Russian political nation, there are aspirations among some Russians for its creation, not top down as some would have it but from the bottom up.
Tragically, because the Russian state has no desire to give up any of its power, the history of such efforts has not been a happy one. Those who are strong, talented and show initiative among Russians have been the drivers of such progress as the country has made, and the state has been willing to exploit them for its purposes.
But, Sergeyev says, “when [such people] begin to make demands for independence …. They are either eliminated, pushed to the periphery or forced to conform,” where the tragey continues as they “prostitute themselves” to save their lives at the cost of their values and commitment to the creation of a genuine Russian political nation.