Strife Feature – Nationalism and Lessons from Russia

By Christopher Morton

In 2008 Russia invaded South Ossetia and in 2014 Russia invaded Crimea – both secessionist provinces of Georgia and Ukraine respectively. On the one hand, these interventions can be viewed as a justified defense of the rights of minority populations in these provinces. On the other hand, both interventions were deemed to be disproportionate acts of aggression towards sovereign states, in contravention of international law, reflecting a policy shift from cooperation with the international community to unilateral action in defiance of it. In this post, I shall consider the understandings that lay behind these actions: in particular, Russia’s shift from imitation of Western norms during the nineties, to increasingly strong opposition to these norms. Fanning this hostility towards the West was a nationalist consensus which was rehabilitated and consolidated under Putin, enhanced by NATO expansion which was deemed unacceptable by the Kremlin. Indeed, the events of 2008 and 2014 in part represented the failures of the West to make collective agreements, particularly on security, which could have allowed co-operation between Russia and the West rather than distrust to become the norm.[1] In the final part of this post, I shall consider some lessons that Britain can take from the development of nationalism in Russia as a stronger nationalist consensus emerges and the notion of British identity is reconstructed post-Brexit.

Levan Gabechava/Reuters/Landov. A column of Russian troops prepares to leave the checkpoint at a bridge over the Inguri River in Western Georgia, in October 2008, after securing the secession of Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia region. Russia went to war in Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia in a move justified by an increasingly nationalist tone from the Kremlin.

Since his election in 1998, Putin has been able to build a political consensus around a single idea of the Russian nation by emphasising the notion of Russia’s messianic purpose[2] and rehabilitating the myths and symbolism of former glories.[3] By placing the idea of Russia as a great power at the centre of his politics, Putin at once appeased hardline nationalists and co-opted those disenchanted by the failures of the nineties and searching for a grander narrative in which to root their identity.  In this way, Putin won the support of the very people whose liberty he would curtail in pursuit of soglasie (stability) and a more managed form of democracy. This same rhetoric was also used to alienate opponents. With Russia now portrayed as defending traditional values against the West, opponents were criticised not only as being against Putin, but as being against Russia itself.

In 2005 Putin was still talking about Russia as “above all, a major European power”, progressing “together with European nations” and in 2006 he stressed the importance of relations with the United States and a willingness “to take new steps to expand the areas and framework of our cooperation”[4]. However, such comments seemed increasingly insincere. In 2006, Dimitri Trenin offered a typical assessment of Russia’s attitude towards America and its Western allies. Essentially, Trenin argued that Russia had stopped caring about how the West perceived its actions. This was confirmed, for example, by Russian cooperation with Iran in opposition to Western sanctions against its uranium enrichment.[5] Putin’s apathy towards Western judgment culminated in the invasion of South Ossetia and has become markedly more hostile since. In 2013, Putin described Western norms as “infertile and genderless” and as overseeing “a destruction of values from above”.[6] Similarly, in a speech after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin lambasted the West for their part in inciting and supporting first the Orange revolution of 2004 and then the Maidan protests which led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s Russian-leaning president Viktor Yanukovich.[7] If Russia of the nineties was content to show deference to the West, Russia’s aggressive foreign policy from 2008 confirmed what Putin’s rhetoric suggested: that Russia now identified itself as a leader of the opposition to the U.S-led unipolar world order.

The end of the end of history

It is easily forgotten that in the nineties, Fukuyama’s argument that a convergence towards Western norms was inevitable encapsulated the prevailing mood.[8] After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, had been sympathetic to the so-called Western idea of liberal democracy. However, subservience to the Western model did not do the good that many had hoped. The economic plan implemented by Russia’s “young reformers” under the guiding hand of Western, neoliberal text books and the IMF, had catastrophic consequences for the lives of normal Russians, with poverty increasing from 2% in 1991 to over 40% of the population by 1998. Furthermore, the “privatisation at any costs” attitude of the Western capitalists and their Russian protégés allowed a business elite, now known as the “oligarchs”, to effectively steal national assets. Through the rigged “loans for shares” scheme, the Oligarchs were able to elevate themselves into the stratosphere of extreme wealth, while all around them, normal Russians struggled.

In the nineties, “shock therapy” privatisation led to wealth being concentrated amongst a group now known as the Oligarchs. President Boris Yeltsin has a meeting with CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky in the Kremlin. c:Getty Images

All this created a vacuum in which a new sense of Russian identity could be created. Russians had been told that they were no longer allowed to feel pride in the once great Soviet Union. Nor could Russia find any pride in the adoption of a Western model which seemed to have left their country’s interests side-lined as the oligarchs increased their control over an emasculated state. It was into this vacuum that Vladimir Putin stepped as a relatively unknown figure and Yeltsin’s chosen one. Putin saw an opportunity to give the Russian people something to believe in: a proud Russia with a privileged role in international politics; a Russia that would not accept Western hegemony; a Russia that would reclaim its role as a great power by setting out its own vision for the world, rather than passively accepting the religion of the “end of history”. This is what Alfred Evans called Russia’s “strategy for identity management of social creativity”, as opposed to the strategy of “social mobility” which had been pursued under Yeltsin, whereby the norms of nations perceived as having a higher “social status” were adopted, with the aspiration of joining that group.[9]

May’s Britain

We have much to learn from the gradual embrace of nationalism in Russia. Of course, Theresa May is not Putin and Britain is not Russia, the notion that Britain is slipping slowly into a nationalist mentality is unmistakable – the perils of which are illuminated by the Russian experience. As in Russia, the failings of a system which puts the ideology of profit and privatisation before people has left many disenchanted, alienated in their communities and struggling for something meaningful in which to root their identity. As with Russia, British history, whilst not short of glory, cannot be separated from the legacy of colonial oppression, not to mention more recent catastrophic escapades in the Middle East. However, there is a sense of loss at Britain not being able to wield the influence it once did. Finally, Brexit suggests that Britain, like Russia, is rehabilitating a sense of its own historic purpose independent from international hegemony. In place of building a collective identity with its European neighbours and embracing the notion of a deeper union, Britain has chosen to emphasise its own distinct identity, to which pooling of sovereignty is seen as a threat.

Theresa May has adopted an increasingly nationalist tone and has revelled in the perception of her being a difficult opponent for the EU

Even before a snap election was called, Theresa May had sought not to stimulate debate but to shut it down. In one incident, she accused Caroline Lucas “and some Labour MPs” of being “the first to defend our country’s enemies”. Such divisive nationalist rhetoric is not so far removed from Putin’s reference to opponents as “a disparate bunch of traitors”. Theresa May, the Conservative strategists and the right-wing press are now continuing along this line, repeating ad infinitum that Jeremy Corbyn hates Britain and that he sympathises with terrorists. This discourse creates a stark division between those who considered patriots and those more prone to critique the role played by Britain within the international community. In Brexit negotiations, Theresa May revels in her depiction as a “bloody difficult woman”, appealing to the notion of the EU as a threat, or at least an opponent. Just as Putin gains popularity from depicting Russia’s resistance to the West, so too is Theresa May emphasising her resistance of the EU rather than the need to maintain a sense of collective identity and shared interests, even post-Brexit. The result of this strategy is implicit in Angela Merkel’s recent declaration that Britain, along with the U.S, can no longer be relied upon as partners of the EU.

Like the Russians, British people have good reason to be searching for something meaningful in which to root their identity. In a bid to appease the UK Independence Part (UKIP) wing of her party and mobilise those communities left behind by globalisation, the Conservatives under Theresa May have intensified their use of chauvinistic, nationalist rhetoric, whereby anybody who valorises Britain’s national legacy and makes a sharp distinction between “us” and the unworthy “other” is part of the patriotic in-crowd. However, in constructing a new national identity post-Brexit, there are false dichotomies which need to be fervently resisted. Firstly, the populist dichotomy between “patriots” who love their country and traitors who are quick to condemn it:  it is possible to be critical of one’s country, its policies and its history without hating it or “supporting its enemies”. Indeed, critique is a necessary engine of progress. A second dichotomy, as described by Alfred Evans, is between the opposing strategies of “social creativity” and “social mobility”: of course we want to be bold and “creative” in the actions we choose, standing up for our beliefs and, where possible, taking the lead on matters of international importance. However, we also want to be socially mobile, joining groups which share our interests and our values and strengthening the links that facilitate a convergence of understandings and the formation of collective identities that transcend borders.

As MP Jo Cox put it before her brutal murder at the hands of a neo-Nazi extremist, “we have more in common than that which divides us”. By entering into relationships of cooperation and collective responsibility, rather than seeking to impose our will upon others, this is a truth that can be internalised. This is a model which the EU, with all of its flaws and imperfections, represents through its motto: “United in Diversity”.  As the UK leaves the EU, it is all the more pressing that we remember the value of this aspiration, rather than collapsing into egoistic and suspicious nationalism. The breakdown of shared understandings and collective responsibility between Russia and the West serves as a warning as to the dangers that lie ahead for Britain as jingoistic nationalism in political discourse becomes normalised.

Christopher is pursuing his MA in International Relations at King’s College London. Previously, he studied French and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham before working as a teacher in Paris and London.


[1] Sauer: 88-89; Mearshimer: 79

[2] Kolst/Blakkisrud: p.277

[3] Laruelle: p.24

[4] Putin, 2005/2006

[5] Trenin: p.3

[6] Putin: 2013

[7] Putin: 2014

[8] 1989: 1

[9] Evans: 401


Trenin, Dimitri; Russia Leaves the West (2006)

Evans, Alfred; Ideological Change Under Vladimir Putin in the Perspective of Social Identity Theory (2015)

Fukuyama, Francis; The End of History? (1989)

Kolsto, Pal and Blakkisrud Helge (2005), Nation Building and Common Values in Russia

Mearsheimer, J. (2014), Why the Ukranian Crisis is the West’s Fault: the Liberal Delusions that Provoked Putin

Vladimir Putin Addresses of the Russian Federation (on Crimea), March 18 2014

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential address December 12, 2013

Sauer, T.  (2017), The Origins of the Ukraine Crisis and the need for collective security between Russia and the West

Feature image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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