chapter  10
16 Pages

The Soviet state as viewed by nationalists

In Parts 1 to 3, the validity of the claim that liberal democracy is a more propitious milieu than Soviet authoritarianism for the emergence of inter-ethnic solidarity has been questioned in conjunction with federalism. Here, my critical efforts will be directed towards theories that link democracy with nationalism and explain the ‘tragedy’ and ‘failure’ of the Russian and Soviet history by its supraethnic character. I am trying to show in what follows that a liberal-nationalist critique of Soviet imperialism rests on shaky foundations both historically and normatively. Before getting to that, I need to defi ne the pivotal concept of political nationalism. 1

The notion ‘nation-state’ has been contrasted with the following presumptive opposites: the old dynastic state, the coercive empire and the multinational state. The nation-state can be understood as a state that has evolved to assume responsibilities and competences that its historical antecedents did not have. The functions of the traditional state comprised defence against foreign invasions and the maintenance of law and order. Based on universal franchise, the contemporary nation-state (or a ‘people’s republic’ in communist idiom) is conceived to serve the needs of the entire population rather than the elites and comprehensively so by ensuring not only physical security, property rights and civil freedoms, but also providing for the basic subsistence necessities, educational and healthcare opportunities of all citizens. 2 The second, much older reading of the term emphasises the consent of a solidaristic (male-propertied) citizenry that glues the nation-state (republic) together in contrast to the imperial situation, where disjointed subjects are forced together by aristocracies unaccountable to the people. France and Great Britain have been always referred to as classical singlenationality states in this sense, owing to the anti-absolutist revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Understood as a political community based on inclusive civic principles, this reading of the nation-state takes no explicit account of ethnicity. However, the neo-Romantics of the 1960s-70s and minority nationalists have insisted that it is wrong to designate all modern states or even all liberal democracies, irrespective of their ethnic composition, as ‘nations’ and ‘nation-states’. Pointing out that nationhood and statehood are not identical phenomena, with the former being rooted in demography and psychology and the latter being a legal form, 3 they maintain that the term ‘nation’ should be saved for

politically mobilised groups that share a myth of common blood lineage, and not used to refer to ‘less specifi c human categories such as the people or the citizenry ’. 4 With the two parts thus semantically circumscribed, ethnonationalists further argue that the term ‘nation-state’ must apply strictly to a sovereign nation as a state of and for a particular nation. Walker Connor also attacked the common inclination to understand nationalism as a feeling of loyalty to the state rather than to the nation. According to him, unless it is coterminous with the ethno-nation, the state cannot be the locus of popular loyalty. 5 Similarly, Montserrat Guibernau, who comes across as a Catalan nationalist and currently continues Connor’s line of thought, has reproached Anthony D. Smith for including such parameters as a common legal system and an economy into the concept ‘nation’, as well as of shared citizenship into his defi nition of national identity. She insists that citizens of one state do not necessarily share one national identity, and that there should be a distinct category of ‘nation without a state’ to refer to the formerly independent entities, which had been absorbed into the larger sovereignties in the course of French, Spanish and British ‘nation-building’. 6

The fi rst of the above-mentioned conceptions of the nation-state is characteristic of the historical studies of the European states system and seems neutral, but it is not diffi cult to see that the third conception constitutes a challenge to the second one and to Western liberal democracies, which used to be considered its embodiment. In fact, Connor’s intervention was prompted by the rise of ethnic revivalism in what was thought to be consolidated nation-states of Western Europe. 7 The defenders of the civic integrity of Western states against the ‘postmodern’ ethno-nationalist challenge, who dismissed the assaults as manifestations of an irrational, inferior kind of nationalism, could draw to a large extent on what had been a staple theme of the histories and typologies of nationalism long before the ethnic revival of the 1960s-70s. This tradition posited a bifurcation in European development that resulted in contrasting types of nationalism. According to this typology, the Atlantic world of Western Europe and America developed its idea of nationality within ‘the chrysalis of the state’ – ‘state-nation’, i.e. nations that transcended cultural peculiarities were formed out of states. On the other hand, in Central and Eastern Europe, where ethnic groups were cut by political borders or subsumed entirely under great empires – the idea of nationality evolved within the ‘chrysalis of the individual culture’ – ‘nation-state’, i.e. states formed from nations. 8 Hans Kohn was a mid-century seminal and prolifi c enunciator of the geographical dichotomy between pathological Eastern and salubrious Western nationalisms that refl ected the traumatic experiences of fascism and Nazism. 9

Opinions have differed on what kind of nationalism brought down the Soviet Union: progressive civic or regressive ethnic and whether therefore the change was welcome. Some Sovietologists believed it was of the same progressive nature that had earlier set Western polities on the path towards becoming the

advanced democracies they are today. On this view, the process of national emancipation that has been obstructed for so long by Russian/Soviet imperialism will now even if belatedly lead the post-communist world towards similar positive outcomes. In contrast, less optimistic observers considered post-communist nationalisms anachronistic and destabilising, leading away from democracy and towards Balkanisation. 10 One of the observers who positively correlate nationalism with modernity, Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, dismissed the apprehensive view of the upsurge of nationalist contestation in the Soviet Union as a regression into a destructive tribalism. 11 For her, the nation was unambiguously and ineluctably the vehicle of balanced modernisation and ‘the distinctive feature of civilised humanity’. 12 She believed that the concomitant on separation exacerbation of inter-ethnic confl ict should not be feared since, being a transitional healing process to exorcise the bitterness of the past oppression and humiliation, it would be only temporary and a reasonable price to pay towards a better future.