Modern Europe Journal: Russian Nationalism Post-Communism

The second Modern Europe research project to be presented via a blog post comes from History/English Lit double-major Jenna Kaliszewski (’12).

In 1996 Boris Yeltsin created a commission to find a new Russian national identity.[1]  The question that faced Russians, and what I wanted to research was how would that identity be constructed? What would post-communist Russian identity look like?

the Tri-Color flag of Russia
Tri-Color Flag of Russia – Russiapedia

Broadly, “Nationalism locates the source of individual identity within a ‘people,’ which is seen as the central object of loyalty and the basis of a collective solidarity. The ‘people’ is the mass of a population whose boundaries and nature are defined in various ways…”[2]

It was this definition that Russia was trying to find after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the search for a Post-Soviet identity began in the late 1980s, during the thaws that occurred under Gorbachev and eventually the dissolution under Yeltsin.[3]

Historically under imperial Russia, “the Russian national idea consisted in the following: First, the nation was defined as a collective individual; second, it was formed by racial, primordial factors such as blood and soil; and third, it was characterized by the enigmatic soul or spirit.”[4]

Flag of the Soviet Union
Flag of the Soviet Union – Wikipedia

Then with the Bolshevik Revolution and under Soviet rule that identity was changed. The Russian Orthodox Church, and religion in general, was forced from public life in the Soviet Union and the state was declared atheistic.[5] Under Soviet control Russians were persuaded to identify with the empire as a whole, rather than create a national solidarity based on ethnicity. Ultimately there was no specifically Russian identity, but a Soviet identity, which made the fall of the Soviet Union a pivotal moment in the construction of Russian identity. [6]

In the ideological vacuum opened after the Soviet fall, multiple theories emerged about how Russian identity should be characterized. In theory both Yeltsin and Putin supported the civic definition of Russian nationalism, which became the official version of Russian identity.

This concept recognized the citizens of the Russian Federation as Russian, and “defines Russian identity around democratic institutions, the rule of law (constitutionalism), and the populist-democratic uprising against the Soviet Union.”[7]

Mikhail Perfilov, Russia's National Symbol: the Double-Headed Eagle
Russia’s National Symbol: the Double-Headed Eagle – Mikhail Perfilov

Indeed, Yeltsin attempted to commemorate events surrounding the fall of the USSR, but these found little popular support and success. Popular opinion did not identify with the events founding the Russian Federation, instead the belief in Russia after the initial excitement in 1991 was that Russia did not gain independence but lost power and prestige in the world.[8] The acts of Yeltsin that were popular included the restoration of the imperial tricolor flag and two-headed eagle, and in 1995 the Soviet flag was recognized as a state symbol.[9]

While Yeltsin was in office it became apparent that anti-communism was not a popular stance, and Putin favored communists a little more. He combined tsarist and Soviet Union symbols, trying to create a multi-ethnic identity based on the positive elements from the imperialistic and Soviet traditions.[10]

Under both Yeltsin and Putin it was recognized that a completely new Russian identity could not be created. Popular opinion did not support nationalist identification with events associated with the fall of the Soviet Union, but related back to both the imperial and Soviet history of Russia. This created an interesting blend of the two with the democratic trimmings that were brought in after the collapse of the USSR.

The Lenin Mausoleum
“Lenin’s Mausoleum” – Wikipedia

The physical manifestations of this reveal the complicated creation of a new Russian identity in association with both the imperial and Soviet past. Post-soviet Russia was more successful in figuring out what to do with old monuments rather than creating new national symbols. In Moscow the names of streets did not retain the names of Soviet leaders and famous people, but were restored to their old names, those they had under imperial control.[11] Yet the Lenin Mausoleum, despite its controversial symbolism, was never destroyed.[12]

Victory Park on Poklonnaya Hill
Artist: Arthur Lookyanov, Victory Park

Sites relating to the Great Patriotic War have been glorified as a Russian victory maintaining their significance.[13] Also popular are Tsarist-era sites that connect back to Russia’s spiritual and cultural heritage. The rebuilding of Russian Orthodox churches, like the Kazan Cathedral, is significant because these were torn down by the Soviets.[14] With the Soviet Great Patriotic War monuments and Tsarist-era cites the new Russian identity was formed. For example resumed construction of Victory Park, a Soviet vision for a memorial of the War, included religious elements from the Tsarist history in the post-Soviet vision.[15]

Victory Park is a perfect example of the new Russian identity being shaped in this time period, consisting of a little bit of old and recent history. Instead of constructing a national identity, from the events surrounding the fall of the Soviet Union and turning to a civic-democratic ideal and symbolism, the new post-Soviet Russian identity was constructed from the past, both imperial and Soviet.[16]

– Jenna Kaliszewski

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[1] Peter J. S. Duncan, “Contemporary Russian Identity Between East and West,” The Historical Journal 48 (March 2005): 286-7.

[2] Liah Greenfeld, “The Formation of the Russian National Identity: The Role of Status Insecurity and Ressentiment,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 32 (July 1990): 549.

[3] Alexander Agadjanian, “Public Religion and the Quest for National Ideology: Russia’s Media Discourse,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40 (September 2001): 353.

[4] Greenfeld, “Formation of Russian National Identity,” 590.

[5] Alexey D. Krindatch, “Changing Relationships Between Religion, the State, and Society in Russia,” GeoJournal 67 (2006): 271.

[6] Benjamin Forest and Juliet Johnson, “Unraveling the Threads of History: Soviet-era Monuments and Post-Soviet National Identity in Moscow,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92 (September 2002): 527.

[7] Forest and Johnson. “Unraveling the Threads,” 328; Duncan,“Contemporary Russian Identity,” 286.

[8] Duncan,“Contemporary Russian Identity,” 286; Forest and Johnson, ”Unraveling the Threads,” 538.

[9] Duncan,“Contemporary Russian Identity,”  286.

[10] Ibid.,  287.

[11] Olga Gritsai and Herman van der Wusten, “Moscow and St. Petersburg, a Sequence of Capitals, a Tale of Two Cities,” GeoJournal 51 (2000): 40-41.

[12] Forest and Johnson, ”Unraveling the Threads,” 532-4.

[13] Ibid., 531.

[14] Gritsai and Wusten. “Moscow and St. Petersburg,” 40-41.

[15] Forest and Johnson, ”Unraveling the Threads,” 531-2.

[16] Ibid., 543.

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