Russian Nationalism in the Soviet Era – David L’Epée – Rébellion – 2016

While the issue of the crisis that tears apart Ukraine today is uncertain after the “revolution” in Kiev and the events in Crimea occurred, the factor of Russian (or pro-Russian) nationalism seems to have invited itself into the debate as a key element without which it is impossible to understand what happened in the East. Thus it seems rather interesting to me to examine the specifics of this Russian nationalism, so foreign to our conceptions, that speaks of empire more often than nation, and to look backwards a bit to discover in what measure it plunges its roots into the Soviet era. The recent publication of the thesis of Vera Nikolski devoted to this subject gives us the opportunity.

Vera Nikolski, a researcher in political sciences of Russian origin, is the author of a thesis entitled “The New Forms of Conservative Thought in Contemporary Russia, from Youth Militancy to its Ideological Foundations.” She published a few months ago, destined for a very large public, a work inspired by her thesis, “National-Bolshevism and Neo-Eurasianism in Contemporary Russia.” She bases her research on various nationalist disputes that accompanied and still accompany the liberal transition of Russia after the fall of the USSR, concentrating more particularly on two figures that the readers of Rébellion know well: Alexander Dugin and Edouard Limonov.

But we cannot understand these two typically Russian and modern ideological phenomena if we do not dive again into the past a bit and question the older forms of Russian nationalism, notably during the Soviet era. Nikolski goes back even further and searches in the 19th century, among the Black Hundreds and in the Slavophile Current, the ancestors of contemporary Eurasianism. It is true that a part of Russian nationalists today like to refer to the old Tsars as tutelary figures but these references, according to Nikolski, are artificial, purely symbolic, and present no ideological coherence with what could have been, in a very different context, the Tsarist nationalism of the era.

The USSR was National-Communist

Many European communists today, forgetful of history and misinformed by the surrounding leftist ideology, have hidden what yet appears as evident when we study just a little bit the events of the 20th century: everywhere in the world where communist revolutions triumphed, from China to Yugoslavia to Cuba, they appealed to a living patriotic feeling and founded regimes that we could rightly qualify as national-communist. The USSR knew a fairly similar history to that of all the other national-communist countries. The patriotic feelings of Lenin were known but above all it was Stalin who, after of a period of questioning so-called imperialist wars (“no war between peoples, no peace between classes”) following the October Revolution occurring in the midst of full world war, oriented his efforts towards a rehabilitation of more traditional Russian nationalism. By replacing in his speeches the communist expression “comrades” by that of “brothers and sisters,” by eulogizing Ivan the Terrible or Alexander Nevsky (a rehabilitation that permitted the realization of the eponymous masterwork of Eisenstein) and, in a much more problematic way, by “ethnicizing” power – “ethnicization” that accompanied certain waves of racist prosecutions against various minorities – Stalin renewed a conception of ancestral power in Russia.

While in contemporary Europe, nationalism is mostly found in the popular classes and it only encounters contempt on the part of the elites (all converted to globalization and to the pro-European catechism), the scheme was very different in the USSR where nationalism was very prized by the intelligentsia, both in the Party (the state intellectuals, that Nikolski already qualifies as National-Bolsheviks) and in the opposition, where we found nationalists with occasionally liberal or democratic sensibilities. It’s this distinction between power and opposition that lead historians to speak of so-called legal and illegal currents in Russian nationalism in this era. If the first often professed atheism and followed the official line, that of dialectical materialism, the second were often Orthodox or had other religious sensibilities, and Nikolski speaks of “collusions between the Orthodox nationalists and pagans”1 Certain nationalists in the opposition yielded to the sirens of the sacred union and validated, often reluctantly, the Soviet regime as the repository of Russian national identity. This voluntary attachment by a part of the traditionalist opinion to a system known for its revolutionary politics of tabula rasa seems difficult to understand for a Western spectator but in numerous cultures – and I remarked on it with China also – it is often difficult to conceive of a nationalism that is not an act of allegiance to the state at the same time2. Other nationalist resistants, more ferociously anti-Communist, refused this concession and preferred to flee abroad where some among them would become involved in European Fascist movements.

The Nationalist Opposition in the Face of Perestroika

But the regime, between the period of Stalin and that of its fall, knew numerous upheavals that equally lead to upheavals in the conception of nationalism. Perestroika constituted a major change both in the relations of power and in the positions of the nationalist camp. During the Andropov years already, they was a cooling in the relations between the Party and the nationalist literary magazines, a harbinger of decline of the legal nationalist current. Perestroika, associated with a weakening of the state and a phase of Westernization, was sharply critiqued by the nationalists and this is the whole paradox: it’s exactly Perestroika, and the regaining of the freedom of expression that it triggered, that allowed the opposition to articulate their critiques without necessarily ending up in the Gulag. Many intellectuals were then torn by this paradox: the writer Alexander Zinoviev, for example, attacks with vigor (and much humor) the reform policies in his novel Katastroika, but it was thanks to these reforms that he could finally return from exile, as did Solzhenitsyn and Limonov – to cite only well known personalities. “The opportunity to return, real or symbolic,” wrote Nikolski, “is especially important for the nationalist authors as it reestablished the coherence of their record that was disrupted by abandoning of the country”3.

Here we are confronted with phenomenon difficult to understand from the outside: while it appeared obvious that the Soviet regime was in the process of weakening, the nationalist opponents, far from rejoicing, despaired. Outside of the problem of the association of the nation with the state (and thus with the regime) of which we will speak of further, this apparent paradox is explained by the emergence of a new opposition parallel to that of the nationalists, the liberal opposition. It benefited like the other from the reemergence of freedom but it made its bread and butter issues new ideas, starting with that of the philosophical and economic influence of the West. “If the opening of the regime offered (to the nationalists) new possibilities, it furnished them no particular legitimacy, that their liberal counterparts enjoyed on the other hand, during Perestroika, a short but intense moment of dedication.”4 The nationalist camp thus reacted by radicalizing its discourse and critiquing the Gorbachev government and its new orientations with virulence. At the same moment, this camp saw emerge from its rank a new type of intellectual, that we could qualify as an outsider: contrary to the communists they did not come out of the official Party schools and contrary to the liberals they were not formed in international institutes headed by the United States, they were mavericks outside of the academic world, writers, journalists, military dissidents, revolting autodidacts. The figures of Dugin and Limonov would emerge from this new wave.

Red Nationalism versus White Nationalism

On the side of power, the conservative supporters of the Party, those who felt the most diminished in the face of the liberal reformers, were tempted by alliances with the nationalists in the legal current. “The alliance between the communists and the nationalists of the imperial – statist tendency constituted without contest the center of gravity of what they began to call the national-patriotic camp.”5 This rapprochement contributed, somewhat in reaction to the new relation of forces, to reinforce the line we could already qualify as National – Bolshevik (without direct reference to its German counterpart in the first half of the 20th century), and which was characterized by an inter-ethnic nationalism, taking into account the imperial dimension of a very mixed Russia. That was, in the ideological scheme, in direct competition with another form of nationalism very present in a part of the opposition, white nationalism, coming from the extreme right and bearing a racialist and often monarchist vision. After the fall of the USSR, National-Bolshevism permanently endured over the nationalism of the extreme right.

This fall, however, would again radically modify the status of Russian nationalism in its complex relations with power. As we knew it, wild liberalization that would lead to, in 1992, hyperinflation, prices exploded, privatizations succeeded each other, and lead to massive impoverishment in the population with dramatic consequences: demographic crisis, the fall of hope in life, breakneck aggravation of social inequalities, quasi-disappearance of the middle class – the joys of capitalism. Like under Perestroika, the reforms led to nationalist outcries, supported this time by communists chased from power and horrified to see the old socialist policy replaced by a predatory market economy. Thus Dugin said : “I said yes to the USSR at the moment where it ceased to exist. As what replaced it was truly worse the question could not be asked … I am a Soviet man, my parents were Soviets. Although I tried to the maximum to eliminate the Soviet in me, the 19th of August 1991 I began to restore this heritage.”6 It was firstly by the intermediary of Eurasianism that Dugin began to consider the USSR as the legitimate heir of the Russian Empire.

Sacred Union Against the Liberals

Following the failure of the rebellions of 1992-1993, the KPRF (the post-Soviet Communist Party) affirmed itself as the sole upholder of red nationalism, the grand dame of nationalist groupuscules that were stealing the show. This party was founded and presided over by Gennady Zyuganov, a major politician in the history of contemporary Russia and who, to this day, is the principal competitor with Putin electorally. Former member of the dissolved CPSU, he reconstructed a party around the same Marxist discipline but on a more conservative and nationalist line than the former. It is possible that the influence of Dugin played a role in this orientation, which would lead to relations with him and his occasional counseling7; Dugin has said elsewhere: “The KPRF, is for the most part a Eurasianist party of the left.”8 Much later, when he would found the National-Bolshevik Party, Limonov would explain that his objective was to surmount the opposition that existed between the programs of the LDPR of Zhirinovsky (nationalist party) and the KPRF of Zyuganov.

During the Yeltsin years that followed the followed the fall of the USSR, we can thus say that that power was liberal and the opposition was nationalist. The scheme would reverse with the arrival of Putin to power. It would be accompanied with a momentary weakening of the opposition as the latter would be surpassed on its own territory by the Kremlin. A part of the opposition, notably that of the National-Bolsheviks, however would find its place in the revolutionary camp, notably on the social front. But that’s already another story.


1) Vera Nikolski, National-Bolchevisme et Néo-Eurasisme dans la Russie Contemporaine : la Carrière Militante d’une Idéologie, Mare & Martin, 2013, p.114

2) In France today, of course, the allegiance to the state, and particularly to the Hollande government, could on the contrary be associated rightly with a form of anti-patriotism…

3) Ibid. p. 117

4) Ibid. p. 117

5) Ibid. p. 126-127

6) Alexander Dugin, interview with Vera Nikolski, Ibid, p.226-227

7) Dugin, during his rapprochement with the European New Right, had even succeeded in organizing a meeting between Zyuganov and Alain de Benoist

8) Alexander Dugin, cited in Ibid. p. 240