Pains of Partition. Nationalism, National Identity, and the Military in Post-Soviet Russia

PhD thesis

Simonsen, Sven Gunnar (2002) Pains of Partition. Nationalism, National Identity, and the Military in Post-Soviet Russia. PhD thesis, Oslo.

Read this publication at the Norwegian National Library
  1. Introduction

This is a work whose prime ambition is to contribute to an improved understanding of nationalism and national identity in a state during a period of rapid change. The subject of study is specified further in three steps: I look at one particular state - Russia. I examine it by looking at one institution - its armed forces. And my emphasis is on two dimensions of the upheavals that culminated with the breakup of the USSR: Statehood - the new borders and the loss of territory; and ethnicity - the altered ethnic composition of the country's population, and the altered context for framing ethnic identities. It is a study that deals with national identities in flux, and with nationalist ideologies whose character and expression are profoundly influenced by these developments.
A simple model will serve to outline the study, and to explain where it is positioned in relation to the different academic fields of theory that it connects to. The model starts with three poles, one for each main object of study: the 'state', the 'nation', and the 'military'. The subject of this study - national identity and nationalism in a state during a period of rapid change, narrowed down as explained above - is located in the space between these three. And the findings from the study (and also the origin of the research questions) have a bearing on each of the connecting lines that form the triangle. (these three poles should not be seen as representing rigid, fixed categories. Quite the opposite: at the core of the study is the issue of their content and delineation.)
This study is being conducted in a space constituted by several academic strands of theory. Between the 'nation' and 'state' pole, we encounter theories of nationalism and national identity, and theories of issue orientation and Left-Right placement. Between the 'nation' and the 'military' is the relevance of military sociology, of the political preferences of the military servicemen. And between the military and the state is the field of civil-military relations. The findings of the study have a bearing on each of these strands of theory. At the same time, however, I consider that a particular value of this study is its integration of a diversity of theories, and how its findings also transcend the boundaries between the theories.

  1. Structure of the Study

2.1 Theoretical Setting

Clearly, there is more than one way to explore this dissertation's subject of study; to turn a wide and ambitious project into manageable and profitable research questions. The approach in this study can be explained through the sequence of its chapters. Since this dissertation is made up of seven articles that have been published in different journals, with different audiences, the flow between the chapters is not as smooth as it would have been between chapters in a monograph. Some of the journals in question cover only a certain geographic region, others certain theoretical fields, and yet others only military issues. Nevertheless, there is a thematic flow in this collection of articles, and it is intimated by the subheadings in the list of contents: First, we move from a theoretical to a general overview. Thereafter, the Russian military is introduced: First with an overview article providing a background to the military as an institution, then with a more detailed examination of the political preferences of the military, and finally two yet more specific case studies that both have a bearing on the more general questions raised earlier. In this collection of articles, then, each article provides a basis for better understanding the next one.

2.2 Nationalism and National Identity in Russian Politics and Society

Writings about 'Russian nationalism' have been part of Russian / Soviet studies since the 1960s, but the literature on this phenomenon grew dramatically during the early 1990s. Concerns about this phenomenon have shifted over the years - in 1990, the scare was the much-hyped Pamyat; in the mid-1990s, Vladimir Zhirinovskiy was a household name in the most unlikely places; by the end of the decade, President Vladimir Putin's 'nationalism' made some uneasy. The fact that all these and many other political actors have been put in the same bag alone tells us that 'Russian nationalism' is a term in need of precision - which is precisely the aim of the first chapter of this dissertation. This chapter develops a model of Russian nationalism. Its structure reflects what I consider to be the two main dimensions of the new setting in relation to nationalism and national identity, and also the character of expressions of nationalism that I have been exposed to in my material. The chapter thus systematizes Russian nationalism along two lines; one regarding the extent to which the actors concerned advocate the predominance of one people above others, and another regarding whether the nationalism is state-centered or nation-centered. The latter distinction is closely related to, but somewhat different from distinctions which have been made by different scholars between nationalism and patriotism, and between ethno-nationalism and statist nationalism. Basically, the model presumes that all nationalisms, in order to be just that, must have an inherent element of promotion of the good of a cultural group. The chapter systematizes key contemporary Russian images of 'Russia' by drawing a number of concentric circles around the Russian Federation. An important conclusion is that most of these images portray Russia as spanning wider than does the present Russian state. The chapter intimates that a variance of foreign policies may be justified on the basis of ideas of Russianness; this is an important conclusion that is repeated and expanded upon in several of the chapters that follow. On the basis of the survey of conceptions of 'Russia', I develop a four-square model of expressions of Russian nationalism, which is also put to use in several of the chapters that follow.
The sense of being Russian - in the Russian Federation or in the Soviet Union - cannot be fully understood outside of the context of Soviet nationality (ethnic) policies and ideology. In its constitution, Russia is said to be a multi-ethnic, federal state; its federal structure is a direct continuation of the arrangements made by the Soviet powers. The second chapter, like the first one, highlights the profound, multifaceted impact the Soviet legacy has on how politics is understood and practiced in Russia today. The guiding idea of this chapter is a discussion of two contradictory interpretations of a highly significant element of Soviet nationality politics - the so-called 'fifth point', which implied an obligatory identification of all citizens according to nationality (natsionalnost). Again, we are dealing with an issue that became more acute with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the introduction of a more liberal political system in Russia. Both perspectives imply a constructivist interpretation of nationality policy, but their interpretations are very different. The first perspective holds that the 'fifth point' virtually force upon each citizen an ethnic awareness which he otherwise might not have had. The other perspective argues that the system in practice led to 'hidden Russification'. Through an examination of different political actors' reaction to this change, the chapter reaches the conclusion that the 'fifth point' has served to maintain ethnic awareness among the peoples of Russia.
The third chapter puts my four-square model of Russian nationalism to use, and also serves to add nuances to the model itself. Who are the Russian nationalists? How does their 'score' in my model of nationalism relate to their 'score' on other political variables? This question is an important one to ask when writing on Russian nationalism, as there is still a widely held view in the West that nationalism is the property of actors in only a narrow segment of Russian politics. This chapter argues that nationalism should be addressed specifically in attempts to systematize Russian politics. 'Radicalism' or 'moderation' in terms of nationalism does not necessarily follow 'radicalism' or 'moderation' on other political indicators. Some political actors are simply better categorized by their nationalism than by their position on, say, an economic (state vs. market) or political (liberal vs. authoritarian) scale. This argument is developed in a three-step analysis: First, the chapter discusses typical meanings of spatial terms - such as 'Left', 'Right' and 'centrist' - in modern Russian politics, and existing attempts to model the Russian political landscape. Second, it presents a two-dimensional model which distinguishes between four different expressions of Russian nationalism. Third, it compares various political actors introduced in the first section with each of the two dimensions of nationalism.

2.3 Introducing Russia's Military: A Case Study

In the fourth chapter, I first introduce the Russian military. This chapter should be read as an introduction to the state of the Russian armed forces, as an institution, by the mid-1990s. Its specific ambition is to contribute to the analysis of the current capabilities of the Russian armed forces. The chapter begins with a brief view of the Russian armed forces in general. Thereafter, reports on the state of the Russian navy are considered, before the focus is put solely on the Northern Fleet, for an examination of finances, personnel, and environmental issues, as well as reports that contradict the alarmist media coverage of the Fleet. While this is a quite specific subject of study, it provides a valuable view into the workings of the Russian military in this decade, and a demonstration as to how dramatically its conditions have changed. As the presentation is based on open Russian sources - in particular the Northern Fleet's own newspaper, Na strazhe zapolyarya - it also gives a feel for the public discourse around the military at that stage.

2.4 The Military in Politics: Sympathies and Activities

From this brief introduction, we move on to the interface where the military meets politics. Here, the armed forces are not just an aggregate of people performing military tasks. Its coercive powers constitute a potential for political influence; its members are numerous enough to count seriously in elections, and quite a few military men have already made their way into politics. In the standard theories of civil-military relations, military personnel tend to be described as being more inclined than average towards authoritarianism, conservatism and nationalism: Are such features actually more prominent in the political sympathies of Russian military servicemen than in the population as a whole? That is the important question asked in this chapter. Sociological work conducted within the forces, statements and positions of individual leaders, and reports and analyses of military voting behavior suggest that the military's attitude towards party politics is, on the whole, ambivalent, with few servicemen identifying strongly with any party. The picture changes if one looks at particular leaders, with servicemen exhibiting a decided preference for candidates who are perceived as strong and decisive. The proportion of servicemen who appear to support a direct role for the military in government is low, the existence of such attitudes at all, combined with the more prevalent belief that the military should have sole responsibility for matters of security, should be a cause for concern.

2.5 The Military, the Nation, and the State: Two Case Studies

The dissertation is rounded off with two case studies of specific disputes where the Russian armed forces have been involved on several levels. These cases have three things in common that make them interesting in our context: They are both strongly linked to issues of ethnicity (and also had a bearing on issues of territorial control); they are both cases where the military itself was an object of dispute; and in both cases, military men on different levels of authority did not refrain from involving themselves directly to influence the outcome of the disputes.
The first case regards the withdrawal of the former Soviet military troops from the Baltic states. During the long-lasting negotiations between the Russian and the Baltic authorities, the Russian side repeatedly linked the military presence to the well-being of ethnic Russians and other 'compatriots' in the three states. Essentially, this case has both an ethnic dimension - who are the Russians?, and a geopolitical dimension - where does the expanse of the new Russian state, and its ambitions, end? Along these two dimensions, different interpretations of Russia's policies during the withdrawal have been put forward. Seen in retrospect, how well does each of these interpretations explain Russia's - and in particular the Russian military's - 'diaspora linkage'? This is the question that this chapter aims to answer. I believe that an examination of the sequence of events, and the actors' issue emphasis, leads us to quite firm conclusions to the effect that the 'linkage' is better explained by developments within the military, and on the Russian domestic political scene, than simply by a Russian concern for the diaspora.
In the last chapter, I consider another case with a particular bearing on questions about Russian national sentiments, and the wider question concerning to what extent Russia has come to terms with the breakup of the USSR. The object of analysis in this chapter is national sentiments in Russia in the first three years after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. In this chapter, I make explicit some assumptions that also underlie the other chapters of the dissertation. First and foremost, that concerns what I have termed an 'identity lag'. With the breakup of a state, there will always appear an 'identity lag'. As for the separation between Russia and Ukraine specifically, the pain inflicted on the Russian side got even greater by the fact that the Crimean peninsula was now part of Ukraine. Looking specifically at the Russian armed forces, this chapter first points to some aspects of conservatism and national identity that indicate the existence of an 'identity lag'. Thereafter, it demonstrates how such sentiments expressed themselves during - and were shaped by - the Russian-Ukrainian dispute over Crimea, the city of Sevastopol, and the BSF. In the conclusion, I summarize what I consider to be mechanisms at play that served to reduce the identity lag; mechanisms that brought the officers' image of 'Russia' more into line with the new state of affairs.
These two case studies have a bearing both on perceptions of a Russian 'neo-imperialism' and of a greater identification of the new state with Russian ethnicity in Russian policies in the first years after the breakup of the USSR. While the two cases are similar in this respect, they are very different as to their setting: Most Russian political actors at an early stage abandoned hopes that the Baltic states could be kept in any sort of alliance. Ethnic Russians in Russia felt no proximity to the Balts, but on the other hand identified very closely with their 'compatriots' living in the Baltic states. In the case of Ukraine and Crimea, the ethnic Russians not only felt close to the ethnic Russian majority on Crimea (and the large minority in Ukraine as a whole); the traditional view of the Ukrainians as brotherly malorossy - Little Russians - was still quite prominent. Accordingly, the Kravchuk regime's disinterest in maintaining close ties with Russia was particularly painful. While these cases had very different dynamics, the two chapters come out with similar conclusions - conclusions that are also echoed in the preceding chapter on the political preferences of the military.



  1. Introduction


  1. 'Raising "the Russian Question": Ethnicity and
    Statehood - Russkie and Rossiya'
    (Published in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, vol. 2, no.1, Spring 1996)


  1. 'Inheriting the Soviet Policy Toolbox. Russia's Dilemma
    Over Ascriptive Nationality'
    (Published in Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 6, September 1999

  2. 'Nationalism in the Russian Political Spectrum:
    Locating and Evaluating the Extremes'
    (Published in Journal of Political Ideologies, Vol. 6, No. 3, October 2001)


  1. 'Russia's Northern Fleet in Heavy Sea'
    (Published in Journal of Slavic Military Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, December 1996)


  1. 'Marching to a Different Drum? Political Orientations and
    Nationalism in Russia's Armed Forces'
    (Published in Communist Studies & Transition Politics,
    Vol. 17, No. 1, March 2001)


  1. '"You Take Your Oath Only Once." Crimea, the Black Sea Fleet,
    and National Identity Among Russian Officers'
    (Published in Nationalities Papers, Vol. 28, No. 2, June 2000)

  2. 'Compatriot Games'. Explaining the "Diaspora Linkage' in
    Russia's Military Withdrawal From the Baltic States'
    (Published in Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 53, No. 5, July 2001)

An error has occurred. This application may no longer respond until reloaded. Reload 🗙