By Paul Goble
Most Russian nationalists believe that Russia will either become a nation state or it will cease to exist, one of their number Dimitry Savvin says. But they disagree profoundly about what model of nation building they should employ with many plumping for that of Ataturk and his transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish nation state.
Support for that approach, the Russian nationalist says, is completely understandable and appears to be precisely what Russia needs to undergo. But there are other models available which should be considered, Savvin continues; and one that may be even more important for Russia is the Greek (afterempire.info/2019/02/20/saavin-rysskiy-nacbilding/).
Why should Russians be talking about Turks and Greeks rather than Czechs, Estonians or Koreans? the Russian activist asks rhetorically. The answer lies, Savvin says, in the fact that “the Russian situation is anything but ordinary.”
Most nations have emerged out of empires in which others dominated them and thus have no problem with identifying their friends and enemies as far as the past is concerned. “We live on our land,” they say; “alien arrivals from outside oppressed us, we heroically liberated ourselves and we are building our own new state on the ancient traditions of our ancestors.”
That model doesn’t work for those who have emerged from an empire in which it appears they were in charge. “If so, then whom did they did they liberate themselves from? [and] What traditions should they return to?” According to Savvin, “without a clear answer to these questions, the transit from empire (or quasi-empire) to a nation state won’t occur.”
But in fact, that is the situation Russians have found themselves in since 1991. They don’t know which past they should reject and which they should celebrate. And consequently, they look to Kemalist Turkey as a model; but in important respects, that model doesn’t work for Russians.
Ataturk was able to create “a successful Turkish national (nationalist) myth,” one that worked because it explained “why the empire (in that case, the Ottoman) was alien and hostile to the titular nationality, the Ottoman Turks.” It specified that the Turks were not the masters. Instead, they were ruled by Greeks, Armenians, and Jews.
That notion was inaccurate and ultimately led to genocide, but it provided a basis for Turkish nationalism. It worked because Turkish nationalist emerged when the Ottoman institutions still existed and had to be destroyed for a Turkish nation state to be established as Kemal did.
Not surprisingly, many Russians look to the Kemalist model, forgetting that the Russians did not have the imperial institutions to destroy but appeared on the scene after that empire had been demolished. And that fact, Savvin argues, makes a consideration of the Greek model especially important for Russian nationalism.
“As an independent political force,” he continues, “Greek nationalism appeared earlier than the Turkish,” and from the outset, it displayed some unique characteristics which make it a model for Russians. “On the one hand, Greek nationalism has been informed by the democratic ideals of the 1830s and 1840s.”
“On the other hand – an dup to this day! – it has had a religious and even clerical character.” Moreover, and this may be even more instructive, Greek nationalism has always had a very positive and complementary attitude toward the Byzantine imperial heritage,” something that Greek nationalists stress up to now.
Unlike the Turkish nationalists who completely rejected the Ottoman imperial heritage, the Greeks accepted the Byzantine past even as they rejected the Ottoman system although they looked back to the Byzantine empire in positive ways and celebrated the Christian religious component of that earlier empire.
“The anti-Ottoman radicalism of Ataturk was historically without any alternative,” Savvin says. It existed and had to be defeated if a Turkish nation state was to be created. “As far as the Byzantine imperial heritage is concerned,” however, the Kemalists had no clearly expressed views, although they did allow the Constantinople patriarchate to exists.
That meant that religion was treated as an enemy by the Kemalists. In Greece, in contrast, the Byzantine tradition opened the way for religion and even clericalism to survive in Greek nationalism and the Greek nation. And that provides a useful model for Russian nationalists, Savvin says.
The Russian situation in many ways resembles the Greek one: “Our historical enemy and oppressor was the Bolshevik horde, the Soviet Union.” And Russian nationalists must do everything they can to wipe out its influence. But such hostility should not extend to the Russian empire.
“If the USSR is our Ottoman yoke, then the Russian Empire is our Byzantium,” the Russian nationalist theorist says. Just as Byzantium informed Greek nationalism, so too the Russian Empire must become “our Byzantium which could and must (as in the case with Greek nationalism) become a cultural-philosophical ad symbolic resource of a new nation state.”
Savvin continues: “Just as in the case of Greece, today there are no ethnic Russian imperial institutions which would block the development of Russian national identity … and that means that fighting with them is fighting with windmills,” a war that does not benefit Russians or open the way to the formation of a flourishing Russian nation state.