A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. All the powers of Atlanticist Europe have entered into holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: the European Union, NATO, the OECD and the G7. Russia is wielding the weapon of nationalism to rend asunder the European project painstakingly built over the post-war decades.
But is Russia using nationalism as an end in itself or merely as a means to an end? If one looks more closely, one will find that Russia and nationalism go together like oil and water. Therefore, Russia can only be cynically employing the tool of nationalism as a short-term strategy and will no doubt do away with it once it no longer serves any useful purpose.
While it is no particular secret, Valeriy Korovin, an important Russian thinker who is a member of the influential Izborsk Club, nevertheless let the cat out of the bag in a 2016 interview when asked to explain the contradiction seen when railing against right-wing nationalists in Ukraine while supporting right-wing nationalists in Europe.
Korovin begins by repeating the usual tropes that the Russians feed to their newfound European nationalist friends: that globalism is denuding Europeans of their identity and denying them their sovereignty, only leaving them to be inundated by borderless multiculturalism, and that nationalism is the answer.
As to why Russia is talking from both sides of its mouth, Korovin explains that Russia itself is a delicate patchwork of many different ethnicities — a veritable melting pot. Were nationalism allowed to run loose in Russia, why then this would spell the end of the very idea of Russia! The Chechens would go their own way and create their Islamic republic, the Tatars would create their Tatarstan, the Slavs would fashion their own Slavland, and so on and so forth. Russia cannot countenance its own disintegration.
And he is of course right. Russia is allergic to the idea of nationalism. Russia is not, and never has been, a nation-state. Rather, it is a multinational state, and this has always been the case throughout its thousand-year history. If Russia is seen as a continuation of the Byzantine Empire, as many Russians believe, then Russia has been a multinational state for millennia.
Whereas Europe has been deeply influenced by Romantic nationalism, the idea that the state ought to reflect a communal identity based on a shared language, culture or race, Russia has been left untouched by this most notable product of modernity. Russia shares this characteristic with other even older multinational states like China, India and Ethiopia, whose existence have spanned millennia.
While Slavs make up the overwhelming majority of Russians, there are close to 200 different Russian ethnicities (or “nationalities”, as they are referred to in Russia), and before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there would have of course been many more, Slavs at that time only constituting a slight majority of the vast country. Indeed, Stalin spoke Russian with a thick foreign accent. The reality is that Russia has been “celebrating diversity” for the last thousand years.
So why all this stirring up of nationalism in Europe when it is altogether incompatible with the Russian idea? The only rational explanation is that the Russians are employing a variation of the US Marine boot-camp method of breaking down recruits by denigrating them and crushing their self-esteem only in order to build them up anew as Marines.
Even as the Russians advocate for nationalism and a return to borders and sovereignty in Europe, they in actual fact harbour dreams of a continental Eurasian Union that will replace the European Union, a great space stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Alexander Prokhanov, a highly respected thinker and one of the Eurasian Union’s boosters, refers to it as Russia’s “Fifth Empire”, an empire that will be able to accommodate the disparate elements of East and West, Christian and Muslim, Jew and Gentile, capital and labour. If anybody is going to do it, then who better than the Russians, who have already done it for many centuries?
In its current, fledgeling form, the Eurasian Union consists of the Russian Federation together with the Republics of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. But remember: it envisages stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, or from Brest to Vladivostok. Whatever the case, it envisages stretching across the whole Eurasian great space.
I got a taste of what this entails when doing visa runs while residing in Moscow for most of 2016. When returning from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Moscow, I found that once passport control was cleared in Belorussia, the flight from there was treated as an internal flight. Were this ultimate vision of a Eurasian Union to be realised, then it would be a Schengen Area on steroids.
So much, then, for all the talk of nationalism and sovereignty. So much for Marine le Pen and the National Front, for Alternative for Germany and the Golden Dawn. The Russians only mean to replace the European project with their own bigger, grander project. It will involve many more people, many more cultures, and many more ethnicities. It will, indeed, be Russia writ large.
But what Russians are not faking is their belief that Europe, indeed the whole West, has lost its way. The slow apostasy that modernity represents started to make its way at a walk during the Renaissance then proceeded through the Enlightenment at a trot, and then picked up to a gallop during the 1960s, with postmodernism and all the rest of it. The West has run its race and is now at a point of exhaustion.
All that is left to be done now is to apply the coup de grace.
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