James Harris is a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Leeds University where he specializes in the history of Stalinism. James has published several books and articles on the Stalin period. His most recent book is The Great Fear: Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s.
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- By Sean — 13 years ago
In his masterful narrative of Imperial Russian history, Russian: People and Empire, Geoffrey Hosking stated that Russian nationhood is caught in an irreconcilable binary between russkii and rossiiskii. The former signifies the ethnic category for Russian, which has its roots in the Slavs who established Kievan Rus’ in the 9th century, while the latter suggests a category for subjects or citizens of the Russian Empire despite their ethnic identity. Russian state and national development, agues Hosking, is in many ways characterized by the effort to reconcile these two concepts. “The great question for Russian leaders during the 19th and 20th centuries,” he wrote, “might be formulated as whether they could inculcate an analogous compound national identity in their empire’s more diverse elements.” (xxi)
Efforts to solve this question abound. Peter the Great attempted to create civic categories with his Table of Ranks, eschewing ethnic difference as something that could be overcome through service and loyalty to the State. Nicholas I addressed the civic and ethnic binary via his Digest of Laws (1832) by codifying Russian estates or soslovie coupled with an aggressive policy of Russification. The Bolsheviks attempted to reconcile russkii and rossisskii by Bolshevizing the problem. They suppressed Russian and ethnic nationalism while celebrating sovietization, preached the vague “national in form, socialist in content,” and attempted to create an overarching national-civic category of Soviet. However, as the collapse of the Soviet Union shows us, both the Tsarist and Soviet systems failed in uniting these seemingly contradictory categories. In fact the recent resurgence of russkii in the form of extreme nationalism and racial violence suggests that like during the late Imperial period, rossiiskii is taking a back seat. It appears that the problematic that plagued Russia’s state building continues to nag its post-Soviet development.
Nothing suggests this more that the current law before the Duma called “On the foundation of State national politics of the Russian Federation.” The bill is full of the problem the binary russkii and rossiisskii poses. Ethnic minorities within the Russian Federation see the bill as yet another attempt to codify Russian ethnic and cultural dominance. The State Council Committee on Culture, Science, Education, and National Affairs of Tatarstan, for example, has denounced the bill as chauvinistic and harking back to the “unrealistic experiment” to create a Soviet nation because it singles out a privileged position for the Russian people (Article 16) and declares that Russian (rossiiskii) citizens are “duty bound”(Article 20) to know the state language of the Russian (Rossiiskii) Federation—Russian (Russkii). Further, Article 21 states that “the violation of the legislation of the Russian Federation on the state national politics is a criminal penalty.” Once again, russkii trumps rossiisskii. In the view of Indus Tahirov, a deputy of Tatarstan’s Parliament, such Articles, especially with its provisions guaranteeing non-Russian’s right to use and preserve their native culture and language, makes the bill
a very insidious law. It gives the impression of defending the Russian people, but in essence it is directed against the Russian people. It appears to compliment the Russian people but actually it sets the Russian people up against all the other peoples. Then there is that terrible article where it states that citizens of the Russian Federation are obliged to know the Russian language. What does it mean: “obliged”? If they have to imprison me, what will they do?
Empire leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And any effort by the Russian majority to create an overarching civic category based on Russia (rossisskii) recalls a well known bitter taste.
The Radio Free Europe article on the matter states that the impetus behind this bill is fears of demographic change in Russia. Russian society is becoming more diverse and the growth of the Muslim population, the Kremlin fears, will one day whittle down Russian ethnic and religious dominance.
However, I feel the problem is more at the heart of Russian concept of nationality than the materialism of demography. It seems, (and by the way Russian concepts of nationality and ethnicity are shamefully understudied and under theorized), that nationality (natsional’nost’) and the people comprise it (narod) are becoming more and more synonymous with the concept of race. Here in the United States, for example, we tend to think of race as biological, and nationality and its members as more civic (though certainly not completely lacking biological markers). Both are more or less distinct categories. However, in Russia, race, nationality and its members (narod) seem to be intersecting more and more because the latter two have always been understood as a biological-cultural category, that is, it is blood and culture. This means that one’s nationality or nation is determined by biological lineage, language, culture and to some extent geographical origin. This conflation of nationality (natsional’nost’) and people (narod) with race seems to be recognized in the Duma bill because two distinct terms are used when speaking of, say, the “Russian nation” in the text. When it talks about the Russian nation as a civic entity it uses “Russian nation” (Rossiisskaia natsia), whereas when denoting an ethno-national entity it uses “Russian people” (Rossisskaia narod).
The Russian concept of nationality, therefore, forecloses the creation of a purely civic identity because the civic category rossiisskii cannot be separated from its ethno-biological roots. Rossiisskii is inherently based on an ethnic concept: Russia is a geographical territory where Russians (russkii) are its foundation. Nothing says this more than the first line of Article 16: “The Russian people (russkii narod) are recognized as the “state-forming” (rosudarstvoobrazuiushchii) people who have constituted itself in all territories of the Russian Federation.” No other ethnic group is given such a primary and privileged position in the law. In fact, no other ethnic group is specifically named. They are silenced as they are subsumed into the general category of narod. The Russian people’s (Russkii narod) primacy is only furthered by the following statement:
Organs of state power of the Russian (Rossiiskii) Federation, organs of state power subject to the Russian Federation and organs of local government under working and implementation of federal, regional and local programs of social-economic and national-cultural development of the peoples (narod) of the Russian Federation are duty bound to take into consideration the needs and interests of the Russian people (russkii narod). (Article 16)
How can an overarching civic category based on rossiisskii be created if it must make particular consideration of the “needs and interests” of the ethnic category of russkii? The above statement seems to negate that possibility thus making the bill “On the foundation of State national politics of the Russian Federation” to end up being yet another failed attempt.
- By Sean — 3 years ago
Many people have asked me about the theme song to the SRB Podcast. So instead of answering the question over and over by individual request, I’ve finally decided to post it on the blog for all to enjoy.
The song is Moya Marusechka (Моя Марусечка) by Petr Leshchenko, 1898-1954 (his Russian Wikipedia page has a more extensive biography). Leshchenko is considered the “King of Russian Tango.” He was born in the Odessa region but ended up in Romania after he was wounded in WWI. He only returned to Odessa during the war, where he performed as the Romanians occupied the city in 1941. After the war, he was arrested by the Romanian secret services in 1951, interrogated and imprisoned, until his death in 1954 in a prison hospital.
His music wasn’t officially available in the Soviet Union because tango and the foxtrot were considered counterrevolutionary and generally corrupting of good Soviet youth. It also didn’t help that the Soviet’s considered him a White. I have no doubt the fact he played a few concerts in occupied Odessa didn’t help either.
Leshchenko’s musical style was a blend of popular jazz and cabaret of the interwar years with a large helping of Roma influence.
Moya Marusechka was written and composed by Gerd Wilnow and released by Bellaccord-Electro Records in Latvia in 1937. Recordings of Leshchenko performing the song weren’t officially available in Russia (though I’m sure it was available nonetheless as was a lot of banned music) until Melodiia released a recording in 1988. Leshchenko’s music experienced a resurgence in those late Soviet days. Though the song was featured in the 1969 Soviet war film “The Path to Berlin” and Leshchenko’s music was played on Soviet radio and television. It just wasn’t available as a purchasable recording.
The song itself is a typical pop tune of boy walks into a party, sees girl dancing her heart out, boy falls in love. The lyrics are hardly a masterpiece but they’re saved by the music and Leshchenko’s singing. Here’s the last verse:
And so I want to live with you,
I can’t take it, I beg you-
You’re my babydoll,
You’re my darling.
And so I want to live with you,
I can’t take it, I beg you-
Hardly a work of literary genius. But hey, most good pop songs aren’t.
As part of a general fascination with Russian and Soviet emigres, let alone a general rehabilitation of the “Whites” under Putin, an eight part miniseries about Leshchenko’s life was broadcast on Russian television in 2009. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a copy with English subtitles for all you non-Russian speakers. Here’s the first episode (the rest can be watched on YouTube).
There’s no rhyme or reason why I picked Moya Marusechka as the podcast’s theme song. I have a CD collection of old Russian tunes from the interwar period and I just thought the song sounded cool. Apparently many podcast listeners do too.
- By Sean — 8 years ago
I often tell my students that Russian politics is a zero sum game. You’re either in or you’re out. One’s political patronage begins and ends with one’s institutional authority. Without the ability to dole out favors, and more importantly protect your clients, you’re nothing in the world of Russian politics. Zip, ziltch, nada, nichego.
There’s no meaningful tradition of a Russian elder statesmen. There is no custom of ex-politicians having a visibly influential hand in politics. There are no Bill Clintons and no Henry Kissingers. And certainly no Richard Nixons. Once a powerful Russian politician retires, or what happens more often, is forced out, the sun sets on their power. It’s an old Russian practice dating back to Muscovy when Grand Princes had to sideline rival boyar clans, placate them through compromise, or for those who didn’t fall into line, simply exile or have them slaughtered. Remember when Peter the Great threw his half-sister Sophia into a convent and exiled her co-conspirator Vasily Golitsyn to the north. Or have the conspirators in the Tsykler plot executed over the exhumed corpse of Ivan Miroslavsky, the head of his stepmother Maria’s clan, and had their blood “sprinkled on the dead carcass which in some places was rotten and consumed.” Peter was good with the symbolism. And punishment was often collective. As the 1649 Law Code stated: “If someone commits treason, and after him survive a father, or mother, or brothers, or uncles, or any other member of his clan in the Muscovite state…conduct a rigorous investigation…If it is established conclusively that they knew about the treason of that traitor, punish them with death.” Interestingly, the same principle was applied during Stalin’s terror.
In the Soviet period, the way to get rid of a rival was to physically annihilate him. Remember Leon Trotsky, Nikolai Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev. Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 changed the calculus. Rivals were no longer physically annihilated, only politically, and were allowed to live out their lives quietly. Remember Vlacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Georgi Malenkov, and Nikita Khrushchev. Old Molotov spent his final years in the main reading room of the Lenin Library working on his memoirs and appealing the Politburo to get his Party card back.
This zero sum game appears to have ramped up since the collapse of communism. Some even say that the Russian elite has reverted back to its feudal past and readopted the “Muscovite model” of rule. Whether Russia continues to be a feudal society is a matter of debate. It can’t be denied, however, that Putin’s presidency and Medvedev’s succession have maintained a stable oligarchy in power not seen since the 1930s. Putin’s only revision to post-communist “feudalism” is the notion of the Tandem, which thus far has maintained political stability between liberal and conservative elite factions. Still, it had to purge the major political players from the 1990s from the halls of state power to get to this point. The current oligarchy’s rivals are either dead, driven into exile, in prison, blackballed and besmirched, or, if they’re lucky, left to peacefully live in political obscurity, as long as they keep to themselves. It’s not difficult for those in power to maintain this tradition. Since many Russian power brokers gained and maintained their power through nefarious means, once they lose their position, they immediately become vulnerable. It’s not just because they no longer have the privilege of the office to hide behind. It’s also because the loss of position means being deprived of the clients who gave a patron his power in the first place. Given this, it is no surprise that investigations of theft, corruption and fraud emerge after a broker’s fall. It is because of this naked vulnerability that I believe Putin will be around for a long time. Not on account of his love for power per se, but because he doesn’t like prison or exile.
Still, why does the zero sum politics remain? My theory has to do with elite class consciousness, particularly in the old Marxist adage about a class in and for itself. Russia’s elite is a class in itself, but it has yet to become a class for itself. Meaning, the Russian ruling elite has yet to realize that it doesn’t have to cannibalize itself to maintain power. All it has to do is recognize its corporate class interests and see their rivals as essentially all part of the same gang. There can still be factions and low level conflicts, but these never seek to completely destroy a rival.
There is no better recent example of this zero sum game than ex-Moscow mayor and former major political player, Yuri Luzhkov. Luzhkov was the last of the Mandarins from the 1990s. It’s amazing that he held on as long as he did. But eventually he did fall, and what initially appeared as soft landing has now turned into a full speed head-on into the pavement. At first, Luzhkov didn’t understand the rules of the game, which is surprising since he’s been at it so long. A mere week after his firing, like so many before him, Luzhkov declared himself a “democrat” and vowed to continue in politics. That venture was short-lived because at the same time the ex-mayor was manufacturing his democratic credentials, he was also desperately trying to find an EU country willing to give him residency. Their response: Yuri go screw yourself.
The charges of mass theft, particularly on the part of his construction mogul wife, Elena Baturnia, are coming to fruition. Two weeks ago, a Moscow city audit accused Luzhkov of embezzling almost $8 billion during his tenure as mayor. The Ministry of Interior has been investigating his wife for embezzling $440 million through her company Inteko (my guess is that they’ve been keeping documents on them for a long time).
Well, the chickens have finally come home to roost as masked Interior Robocops raided Baturnia’s company. The Moscow News describes the tangled web of theft as follows:
The prosecutor’s eye is homing in on a deal in 2009, when Bank of Moscow lent 12.76 billion roubles to Premier Estate. The company was created three months before the deal, Interfax reported.
The little known company used the funds to buy a 58 hectare plot of land from Inteko for 13 billion roubles, although its charter capital was just 10,000.
The transaction took place three weeks after Moscow City Duma approved a 14.99 billion rouble transfer from city coffers to Bank Moskvy, Kommersant reported.
By selling the land, as well as some shares in Sperbank, Rosneft and Gazprom, Baturina reaped 27 billion roubles. Of this, 18 billion went to pay off debts, to Gazprombank and other creditors.
But it wasn’t just the company that benefited. “The money, received as a loan from Bank of Moscow and worth around 13 billion roubles, was transferred into the personal account of Elena Baturina,” the British Home Office’s press service told Kommersant.
Baturina’s brother says that she’s already fled the country. You’re damn right she did. Apparently, the whole Luzhkov family is stewing in Britain. No matter, the Russian authorities have no problem trying fallen oligarchs in absentia.
Others of his clan are going down too. Lukhkov’s metro boss, Dmitry Gayev, will soon find himself charged with embezzling $3.8 million. Gazeta.ru is reporting that his former head of sport has been sacked by Sobyanin. And Luzhkov’s vice mayor, Vladimir Resin, is rumored to resign in the coming days. Whether they will be investigated too remains to be seen.
The purge of Luzhkov’s people is heating up. And with that the survivors in the zero sum game begin another trot around the board.
Image: RIA Novosti