Aleksandr Gaponenko: How Can We Build a Russian Nation?

Constitutional reform has started in Russia. One of the main objectives of this reform is to legally enshrine the changes that have taken place in the process of national construction in recent decades and to create institutional obstacles to their dismantling. President V. Putin proposed to introduce into the basic law a number of provisions that would not allow to promote into the top leadership of the country persons connected with other states relations of citizenship or quasi-citizenship. Greater centralisation of the political governance of the country is also being introduced.

The process of amending the Constitution is not closed, and a commission of members of the public and specialists has been established to develop additional legal norms aimed at improving the process of national construction.

Member of the Commission on Constitutional Reform, historian, and political scientist Bogdan Bezpalko spoke in the media about the need to introduce into the basic law a provision on the possibility of adding regions of Ukraine and Belarus, inhabited mainly by Russians, to Russia.

This proposal of the historian caused sharp dissatisfaction among a number of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian social scientists. The author of the idea was accused of all kinds of sins, from attacking the sovereignty of brotherly countries to the implementation of Nazi ideas. Bezpalko actively defends the idea, and the discussion is continuing.

In the ensuing discussion, in essence, the problem of what direction national construction in Russia will go in the near future is debated. Given the great relevance of the problem, I will express my opinion on this subject from the standpoint of a Russian living in dispersion.

There are two fundamental ways of building a bourgeois nation: on the clearly expressed ethnic basis of a people, or on a weak, virtually non-ethnic basis. For example, the English bourgeoisie of the 17th-19th centuries, when it built an English nation on the basis of the English people, went along the first path. The second route was followed by the same English bourgeoisie in the North American colonies in the 18th-20th centuries. It built an independent American nation there, because in the territory under its control it was small and weak, and also in conflict with the mother nation (two wars of independence).

In the Russian Empire, the problem of choosing the path of national construction arose in the mid-19th century. The nobility then advocated the construction of a non-ethnic Russian nation in order not to exacerbate relations with small ethnic groups and maintain its domination in the country. The bourgeoisie was inclined to build a Russian nation on the basis of the Great Russian people, as it tried to get their support in the fight for power.

The project of building a Russian nation was implemented with great difficulty by the bourgeoisie, since the share of Great Russians as of 1912 was only 43.4% of the total population of the empire. Potential members of the Russian nation – Ukrainians and Belarusians – were another 22% of the total population. The rest – foreign to the Russian population – extremely slowly took up the Russian language and Russian culture and there were no potential resources for the development of the Russian nation. The Russian bourgeoisie was small, poorly organised, and occupied by the fight against the nobility for power.

During the First World War, class struggle escalated in the Russian empire, a social revolution took place, followed by civil war and foreign intervention. The foreign ethnic element on the outskirts of the empire in these conditions fell away from the weakened Great Russian core of the Russian nation and tried to build its own nations.

The Bolshevik elites came to power in the country after the revolution, which solved the problem of class struggle through the elimination of both the nobility and bourgeoisie. The question of national construction arose.

The Bolsheviks had an exceptionally high percentage of members of national minorities. The Bolsheviks started to build a non-ethnic Soviet nation from the disintegrated Russian peoples and nationalities. Within this nation, the elites of national minorities gained a range of material and status advantages over the Great Russian elites. Large national minorities were granted the right to establish their state entities at various levels within the framework of the USSR that was formed with their support. For this, minority elites agreed to use the Russian language and learn elements of Russian culture, to disseminate them among controlled ethnic groups. However, this was not a return to the construction of the Russian nation at all. Russian was just lingua-franca, and Russian culture, if we can put it this way, was culture-franca.

The construction of the Soviet nation was quite successful under I. Stalin, who purposefully influenced the process together with his like-minded National Bolsheviks. The tools of construction were quite rigid, but were within the limits of those used at the same time by bourgeois elites. In national construction, the National Bolsheviks emphasised the wide use of the value, linguistic, and cultural works of the Russian people. This allowed them to mobilise the Russians to fight for the survival of the Soviet nation during the Great Patriotic War. However, Stalin did not give the opportunity for the Russian elite to properly form itself, as, for example, the bloody “Leningrad case” shows.

After Stalin’s death, N. Khrushchev, in order to strengthen personal power, started to rely on a group of national communists. He granted them the right to build their own, communist nations in the Union Republics. Khrushchev destroyed the old, violence-based Stalinist system of national construction management, but did not create a new one. This gave rise to the slow decomposition of the Soviet nation into its original ethnic elements during his period of rule.

L. Brezhnev “froze” the decomposition of the Soviet nation for a time, but its construction was not restored and suitable tools were not created. As a result, while the share of people who identify as Russian in the total population of the USSR was 54.7% in 1959, in 1989 it fell to 50.7%. There was practically no Sovietisation of the population in the national Republics, with the exception of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Under M. Gorbachev, the decomposition of the Soviet nation took on catastrophic proportions and eventually led to the collapse of the USSR. Fourteen of the largest nations outside the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic formed independent republics and started to build their own nations.

In the newly formed Republics, according to the most conservative estimates, there are about 25 million Russians and 11 million Russified members of other ethnic groups – a fourth of the whole Russian ethnic group. The fundamental Russian element of the Soviet nation was divided into 15 parts.

Practically everywhere, Russians in the new states were harassed, forced out from their places of permanent residence abroad, and often subjected to genocide.

The bourgeoisie that came to power in Russia in 1991 under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin started to build a non-ethnic Russian nation from the remnants of the Soviet nation. And so the weak, Russian elites found themselves in an oppressed position at this time. Elites in the Russian autonomous Republics and regions maintained their material and status advantages over Russians. All Russians outside of Russia at the time of the collapse of the USSR were abandoned by the new authorities. National construction in the country was based on American spiritual values, culture, and even, to a considerable extent, the English language.

All of this led to the decomposition of the remnants of the Soviet nation in Russia into ethnic elements. Elites in the autonomous Republics successfully built their own nations (Tatar, Bashkir, Yakut, etc.), and it often resulted in an armed fight against the federal center for secession from Russia (the first and second Chechen wars). The question of Russia’s disintegration into many small state entities and the disappearance of the Russian nation has become acute.

When Vladimir Putin rose to power in 2000, he expressed a change in the course of Russia’s bourgeois ruling elite. The gradual transition from the construction of a Russian [Rossiysky – based on the country “Russia” – ed] nation to the construction of a Russian [Russky – based on the Russian ethnicity – ed] nation began. This was logical in a country in which Russians, according to the 2002 census, accounted for 79.8% of the total population.

Elements of the new political course were the enhancement of the role of the Russian language, as well as support for Russian culture and the Orthodox Church. The consolidation of administrative regions started, during which the status of a number of national administrative entities was downgraded. The vertical of federal power and the rule of law were strengthened in order to suppress separatist movements in national republics and regions. Russians living abroad were recognised as an integral part of the Russian nation and given the status of compatriots, they started to be supported in the preservation of their language and culture. They were entitled to the simplified acquisition of Russian citizenship.

When the lives of Russians living abroad were threatened, the Russian state took them under its protection. Thus, in 2008, Ossetians in South Ossetia and Abkhazians in Abkhazia, who were threatened with genocide by Georgia, were able to form their own states. They recognised themselves as members of the multi-ethnic Russian nation.

In 2014 the Russians who were threatened with genocide by Ukraine in Crimea were accepted into Russia together with the lands on which they lived for 250 years. Russia is currently assisting the Russians in the Donbass Republics, who have seceded from Ukraine and are engaged in an armed fight for the right to preserve their ethnic identity against aggressive Ukrainian elites.

All of this can be defined as the reunification of a divided Russian nation.

Will the process of reunification of the Russian nation continue? Undoubtedly, since all bourgeois nations have passed through a stage of consolidation, without which their survival in the modern world would be impossible.

The British completed the consolidation of their nation a long time ago, after the capture of Ireland by O. Cromwell in 1649-1653. The Americans did it only in 1959, after the incorporation of Alaska and Hawaii into the United States.

It is worth mentioning here the German nation, which was divided into parts for the first time in 1919 after losing World War I. The Germans in the then-defeated Austria-Hungary were also divided into parts. In 1938 the German nation was restored by the efforts of the German government led by A. Hitler. All European countries recognised the legitimacy of the reunification of the German nation (so-called “Munich Agreement” and anschluss of Austria by Germany). It was then that A. Hitler started to pursue a racial policy against his minorities and to carry out aggression against other nations.

The second time the German nation was divided was in 1945-1947, after being defeated in World War II. In 1949 the preamble to the German Constitution stated that the German people were divided and that they would be reunited on the basis of the principle of self-determination. In 1990, after the German Democratic Republic joined the Federal Republic of Germany, the unity of the German people was restored, albeit partially. The winners of World War II have not yet allowed the Germans of Austria to unite with the Germans of Germany.

Will there be a reunification of the Russian nation by joining the Russian dispersion to its core in Russia along with the territory on which they live, as the historian B. Bezpalko suggests? It depends. If the authorities of the post-Soviet Republics pursue Russians and expose them to the risk of genocide, then yes, in this form. International conventions prohibiting genocide in any of its forms give the right to do so. Russians who emigrated to Bolivia in the past are likely to be assisted in moving to Russia. Russians who have emigrated to Turkey or Syria will be helped to preserve their ethnic identity and protect their rights. The Russians of Ukraine and Belarus are likely to speak out for reunification with the Russians of Russia under certain circumstances. In anticipation of such cases, the right of the Russian nation to reunification should be enshrined in the Constitution of Russia.

It is most appropriate to make the following amendment to the Preamble of the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Instead of the words “We, the multinational people of the Russian Federation, united by a common fate on our land,…” it is necessary to state “We, a Russian nation consisting of Great Russian and Little indigenous peoples, united by a common fate on our land, guided by the goal of restoring our unity,…” and so on.

If such a supplement is adopted, there is also a need to mention the succession of the current Russian state, the bearer of which is the Russian ethnic group, to the previous state forms.

In the Preamble, after the words “reviving the sovereign statehood of Russia,…” it should be added “which arose in the form of the Old Russian state, and continued in the Russian Kingdom, the Russian Empire, the Russian Republic, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,…” and so on.

This addition will allow to grant Russian citizenship to all citizens of the listed state entities, recognize their right to self-determination, as well as to accept into Russia the lands on which they live.

In order to enshrine the place of the Russian nation in the Russian state, it is necessary to create additional instruments of national construction. However, this is a separate topic for discussion.


Aleksandr Gaponenko

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