Twenty years ago, on July 10, 1991, Boris Yeltsin was inaugurated as President of the Russian Federation. Many Russians who were ready and willing to go to the barricades for him ended up filled with a sense of bitter disappointment. Both his supporters and critics agree that he was the man who forged a new nation.
Twenty years ago, on July 10, 1991, Boris Yeltsin was inaugurated as President of the Russian Federation. His legacy is as controversial as his character. Many Russians who were ready and willing to go to the barricades for him ended up filled with a sense of bitter disappointment. Both his supporters and critics agree that he was the man who forged a new nation: Russia. However, even today, only three percent of Russians consider June 12, Russia Day, the most important national holiday. According to a Levada Center poll, 60% of Russians still back closer union with the other former Soviet states, including 15% who advocate the restoration of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin was keenly attuned to these popular attitudes and in 1995 claimed that “Russia never said a word against the Union.”
In 1992-1993, political parties and movements were polarized between the two extremes. Liberals – or “democrats,” as they tended to be called in Russia – advocated building a new, independent Russian state and denounced the old Soviet empire. Their main political opponents, the Communists, sought the restoration of the Soviet Union. The essence of Yeltsin’s project lay in state-building through the creation and stabilization of new state institutions within the borders of RSFSR and the inviolability of the borders between the former Soviet states. The problems of Russian ethnic identity and the new Russian diasporas were deemed politically insignificant. The project stressed civic patriotism and de-emphasized the allegedly artificial character of the Bolshevik-era borders of the RSFSR which, in any case, in no way reflected the broader reach of Russian culture, language, religion, and traditions.
This unarticulated Russian national consciousness is a key factor in explaining why the Soviet Union broke up so peacefully, especially when compared with the bloody disintegration of another communist federation – Yugoslavia. There, most Serbs had a much clearer concept of national identity. Perhaps, a Russia lacking clear-cut historical and cultural boundaries was the only possible peaceful solution to the “Russian question” after the Soviet Union collapsed. However paradoxical it may sound, inconsistent, muddled relations between Yeltsin’s federal center and the republics constituting the Russian Federation combined with policies toward ethnic Russians across the post-Soviet space that ranged from modest to highly inefficient, helped guarantee security in Eurasia during the early post-Soviet transition period. Attempts to establish a clear-cut approach to building a nation-state could have resulted in catastrophe, as they would inevitably have required a revision of Russia’s political borders. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Moscow’s nation-building and interethnic relations policies were often unintelligible – but that does not mean they were futile. These benefits emerged more by luck than by design, not because of Yeltsin’s wisdom, but thanks to his utter weakness and inability to clearly formulate the country’s national interests.
Shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed, it seemed that many factors existed that created favorable conditions for a strengthening of Russians’ own ethnic identity, and their own understanding of their leading role in the formation of a new Russian national identity. For the first time in the past two centuries, Russians, who now make up about 80 % of the country’s population (compared with 43 % in the late 19th century Russian Empire and 50 % in the Soviet Union), are the dominant ethnic group in the country. Russian ethnic nationalism received a strong intellectual impetus from the oeuvre of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was the first great thinker to challenge the supranational tradition in its imperial form. The deep economic crisis of the 1990s and the difficulties faced by ethnic Russians in neighboring nationalizing states created all the prerequisites for political mobilization around this issue. The inflow of migrants to big Russian cities over this last decade spurred on the spread of xenophobic attitudes and extremist groups. However, Russian ethnic nationalism has not become a serious political force in Russia yet, and it does not have any significant impact on the country’s policy toward neighboring states. Supranational aspects of Russian identity in various forms (Imperial, Soviet, civilizational and universalist) continue to play a role, in spite of the rising tide of xenophobia.
Yeltsin initiated the process of nation-building in Russia; it still remains incomplete. The Russian nation within the present borders of the Russian Federation is young, unstable and weak. To build a real civic identity, a nation must have legitimate and, desirably, historically grounded borders, as well as stable and effective state institutions. Regular elections, political parties, common social and economic problems, and politics could gradually become a shell for a new political nation. However, the absence of democratic institutions and the host of unresolved issues between the different ethno-territorial entities of the federation and the center are serious obstacles to this scenario. The North Caucasus provides an extreme example of the difficulties that efforts to build a common civic identity may face in Russia. This poses a serious potential threat to the security of not only Russia but the whole world.