We live on the ruins of two empires — the Russian Empire and the USSR, writes Valdai Club expert Alexei Miller. We have inherited, as the pillars of our collective identity, an unyielding desire to preserve our sovereignty and great power status. From the Soviet imperial experiment, we inherited the institutionalisation and territorialisation of ethnicity in the form of autonomous republics, which predetermines the impossibility of building a nation-state in Russia. It presupposes the need for a creative transformation of the imperial legacy in the development of future forms of political life within our country.
November 2, 2021, marked 300 years since the day when Peter I proclaimed himself emperor, and Russia — an empire. In the same years, the concept of “nation” entered the Russian language and began its varied adventures. In Peter the Great’s time, the word “nation” was used almost as a synonym for empire, as a designation for sovereign polity. In this sense, there was no tension between these concepts. In the first unofficial Russian essay on international law, published by Vice-Chancellor Pyotr Pavlovich Shafirov in 1717, the concept of nation was not used. However, the concept of “political peoples”, which Shafirov used, appeared as “civilised nations” in the English translation of his book which was published in 1722.
However, this meaning did not exhaust the concept of nation, and we can say that in the next 300 years, the concepts of empire and nation had a very complex relationship and were used to discuss several important topics for Russia, which in many ways remain relevant today.
First, this concerns the topic of relations between Russia and Europe. The number of authors who have discussed the significance of the “window opened by Peter to Europe” is in the thousands.
In Europe, Peter’s Russia was viewed as a “barbarian at the gates” or as an “apprentice”. Russian elites easily agreed with the status of a student until they realised that they were going to be kept in this status forever, with the Europeans always being “mentors”. Then they began to listen with interest to arguments about the “decline of Europe”. The question of the place of Russia as a part of Europe or as a neighbour of Europe was solved in different ways by the Slavophiles, Uvarov, and the Westernisers of the 19th century. Today this issue is again relevant, but in conditions where Europe already has a completely different significance in world affairs compared to the era of Peter I. The role of the “disciple” has been resolutely discarded, as is the hope of membership in the collective West. We are coming to understand our relationship with Europe as residents of the same neighbourhood.
Another key topic that has remained relevant since Peter’s time is the topic of political freedoms. In the 18th century, nation meant a noble corporation, and it was about the rights of this corporation in its relationship with the monarchy. After the French Revolution, which reinterpreted the nation as a third estate and the only source of legitimate power, Russia has spent a long time, dramatically and with limited success, figuring out how political representation and participation can be organised.
Closely related to the question of the nation was the theme of the split between the elites and the people, which was aggravated by Peter the Great, who cut off the boyars and nobles’s beards. There was a lot of mythology here, because attempts to present this circumstance as a unique feature of Russian history ignored the fact that among Russia’s neighbours, for example, the Polish and Hungarians, the nobility predicated their identity on cultural and even racial alienation from the peasantry. There, commoners would only be re-imagined as part of the nation in the 19th century.
Over time, in the second half of the 19th century, this topic transformed into a “fatal triangle”: the intelligentsia believed that the state prevented it from enlightening, which would lead the people to happiness, and the state believed that the intelligentsia was trying to poison its harmonious relations with the people. The former intelligentsia, like the former state, has long been the prey of history. However, the old misfortune of not knowing how to value the state’s ability to provide a civilising framework for social life is still with us.
Today we live on the ruins of two empires — the Russian Empire and the USSR. We have inherited, as the pillars of our collective identity, an unyielding desire to preserve our sovereignty and great power status. From the Soviet imperial experiment, we inherited the institutionalisation and territorialisation of ethnicity in the form of autonomous republics, which predetermines the impossibility of building a nation-state in Russia. It presupposes the need for a creative transformation of the imperial legacy in the development of future forms of political life within our country.