Russia and Poland: Born and Built Through Nationalism?

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Nora Kalinskij

Cambridge University student, Intern at Rethinking Russia

The concept of ‘nation’ lacks a strict definition to this day. Some, like A.D. Smith, argue that the nation is an ethno-cultural concept that predates the formation of the modern state, whereas others, like Gellner, argue that the nation and nationalism were created by the ruling elites for atomised industrialised societies. Gellner argues that industrialisation, in particular the modernisation of infrastructure, played a key role in raising ‘national consciousness’. Since the 19th century the ‘nation’ has been conceptually tied to the ‘state.’ The concept of ‘nation’ has been appropriated by intellectuals writing against foreign occupation that they rejected. ‘Nationalism’ became the ideology of ‘nations’ seeking political self-determination, consolidation of their state against external threat and recognition of their ‘national’ state in a well-defined territory by others. This article explores the relationship, if any, between nationalism and state building in Russia and Poland. It is argued that nationalism, in particular religious nationalism, was essential to state-formation and state-building in Poland. In Russia, on the other hand, nationalism did not have a comparable role in state-building.

From the fall of the Rzecpospolita in 1795, Poland’s nationalism was constructed against foreign occupation, with the absence of a Polish state. The Russian occupation of part of Poland in the 19th century and Poland’s integration in the USSR in the 20th meant that Polish nationalism was in large part created in opposition to Russia. This antagonism is still relevant in today’s tense diplomatic relations between Russia and Poland. During the period of the Rzecpospolita Polska (2nd Polish Republic) two main currents of Polish nationalism emerged. One group of nationalists accepted Russian patronage, because its administrative and repressive capacities could be used to keep the unity of Poland from within. This group had amongst its aims the regaining of territory that they considered to rightfully belong to Poland (parts of Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine). Those who supported Russian patronage were in large part the richer szlachta, the ‘whites’. The main dangers, according to this first group of nationalists, were on the one hand other nations that could try to win over part of the Polish population, then much more ethnically varied, and on the other the so-called ‘reds’ that contested the nobility’s privileges. The ‘reds’ were mainly bourgeois and nobles from poorer szlachta families who were interested in a reversal of the balance of power at the top of the political hierarchy. Other nationalists, on the contrary, saw Russia as the historical enemy against which it was necessary to align with Austria and Germany. The concern of the second group, led in the Republican years by head of state Joseph Pilsudksi, was the loss of statehood of the Polish ‘nation’. Both nationalist groups disagreed in their convictions, but converged in keeping a concept of ‘Polish nation’ alive during the occupation years. Polish nationalism was key in developing and maintaining a common popular identity that acted as a basis for claims of Polish self-determination after World War I. The idea of a ‘Polish nation’ was used to give legitimacy to the new Polish republic.

Arguably the most important point that prevented Polish assimilation into Russian Imperial society, and later in the USSR, and that was served as a uniting factor for nationalists, was Catholicism. Most Poles refused to embrace Russian Orthodoxy, the official religion of the Russian Empire. Later, during the Soviet period, Catholicism was instrumental in binding together underground nationalists opposing the officially atheist Communist government. Attending church services was a sign of protest: even people who were not religious did so. The Solidarity movement, formed in 1980 to oppose the Communist government, gained a lot of support from the Church. During the Communist period, in particular when martial law was introduced in 1981-1983, the Catholic Church negotiated with the government so the latter would relax control over the population. The Communist government agreed to compromise with the Church because of its authority in the Polish nationalist circles. The election of the pope John Paul II, a Pole, in 1978, galvanised Polish nationalism. Catholicism both rallied Polish nationalists that opposed the atheist Communist government and provided them with an additional argument for the formation of a new, ‘independent’ Polish Republic.

The Catholic Church continues to play an important role in Polish political life today, though no longer as much as a contributor to state-formation and state-building. Since the Round Table Agreements of 1989, religious nationalism has actually posed some difficulties to state- building. Indeed, Poles today tend to disagree on the role the Church should play in Polish identity and thus by extension in the Polish state. Some argue that the Catholicism is not essential to Polish identity and support a secular conception of the state. Others believe that the Catholic Church should play an important role in shaping post-Communist Poland’s state institutions. This unsolved tension in the 3rd Republic is present both on the level of the political elite and on the level of the wider population. In 1998 it materialised itself in the ‘War of the Crosses’: a group of nationalist Catholic Poles planted crosses in the ground next to the former German concentration camp of Auschwitz as a reminder of the Polish Catholic martyrs that died there. This action was a result of disagreement over whether or not to accept on the national level the (largely foreign) interpretation of Auschwitz as a symbol for Jewish suffering or rather to perpetuate the memory of the site as a symbol of Polish suffering. This disagreement embodies the current tension in Poland between the idea of an ethno-religious nation and that of a civic, secular nation. These competing conceptions of the nation introduce uncertainty into the type of government institutions that best fit Polish society. Depending on the historical context, Polish religious nationalism played an instrumental role in state-formation and state-building or on the contrary was a factor slowing down these processes. It is in periods of direct foreign occupation, when the ‘common enemy’ was strongest, that nationalism contributed most to Polish state-formation and state-building dynamics.

State formation in Russia from the Kievan Rus’ to the Russian Empire of the 19th century was not grounded in nationalism. The Russian term for ‘state’, ‘gosudarstvo’, is not a territorial concept, as it is in English, testifying for the lack of nationalist ideas, in the sense of one territory for one ethnic group, in the development of the Russian state. Instead, ‘gosudarstvo’ shares a route with ‘gosudar’’, the lord. The Tsar’s power was rarely challenged by the ‘dvoryanstvo’, the Russian nobility. When it was, as during the Dekabristy revolt in 1825, the ruler was only challenged by a small portion of the elite. The Russian state expanded for strategic defence: most of its territory was easily conquerable flatland on which enemy troops could rapidly advance. The long-term strategy of tsarist Russia was to reach natural boundaries such as the Caucasian mountains, from which it could better protect itself. As it expanded, the Russian empire incorporated new ethnic groups. The tsars did not attempt to create a common Russian identity for all peoples incorporated into the empire. Instead, different ethnic groups were permitted to speak their language and (mostly) to exercise their faith. Local elites were often co-opted into the Russian dvoryanstvo, as was the case with Georgians for example. The lack of attempts from the top to create the idea of a unitary nation can be explained by the likely resistance such attempts would have encountered from ethnic minorities. Furthermore, because of the size of the Russian Empire, and the low level of industrialisation, it was unforeseeable for the idea of a common nation could take root amongst vastly dispersed populations that barely interacted with each other. Patriotism, the desire to protect one’s homeland, was certainly mobilised by the Russian political elite, for example during the Patriotic War of 1812, but the Russian political elite saw no necessity to transform ‘love of the fatherland’ into ‘love of the nation’.

From the 19th century onward, in particular after the Dekabristy revolt of 1825 and the Russian defeat in the Crimean War in 1856, the Russian Tsars and their high government officials continued to develop the concept of service to the fatherland, ‘otechestvo’, which came to dominate over the idea of personal service to the Tsar. The idea of ‘fatherland’ was accompanied by the idea that serving in the state administration meant serving the common good. An aim of cultivating these ideas was to unite the Russian nobility in support of the Tsar after the revolt and the first losses of imperial territory. The idea of ‘fatherland’ was further spread by the Communists, who appropriated it for their purposes of industrialisation and later of defence. Russian state- building in the Tsarist period cannot be described as related to nationalism, because that idea was virtually nonexistent among Russians at the time. Rather, state-building was driven by concerns of defence against foreign invasion and by patriotism.

Likewise, the USSR was not built on nationalism, but rather on ideological conviction, and on patriotism. The USSR was portrayed as a community of people who were first of all Communists, and only then members of their ethnic group: the political identity was prevalent and united citizens of the USSR across cultures. The government cultivated a form of civic-ideological patriotism constructed against the ‘liberal-capitalist’ West. People in the USSR had a political- ideological ‘duty’ to engage in building a powerful state that could compete equally with the West on an industrial level and that would have the technological capacity to defend itself against attack from its competitor. Accompanying the common Communist political identity was the idea of serving the ‘fatherland’, inherited from the Tsarist period. Patriotism, the desire to defend one’s land and pride for one’s state’s achievements, was a central motivation for the population to engage in state-building, accompanied by their political ‘duty’ to do so as Communists. The media was mobilised to this effect, in particular during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45. Some wartime posters, for example, created a parallel between the knights of Rus’ and the Soviet soldier, who were both defending the ‘fatherland’. The Soviet people of all fifteen Soviet Republics did not form one ‘nation’ as an ethnic-cultural construct. They shared a common ideology and understanding of patriotism, and these two elements are the dynamics that drove Soviet state-building.

After the break up of the USSR, Yeltsin attempted to construct a civic identity for Russian nationals based on the carrying of a Russian passport. The civic concept of the nation that he propagated is described by the adjective ‘rossiykiy’, meaning ‘related to the Russian state’, as opposed to ‘ruskiy’, which refers to an ethno-cultural Russian identity. Though there was much enthusiasm in Russian society in the early 1990s about liberal democracy and the market economy, people were quickly disillusioned by the political corruption and skyrocketing inflation. As a result, there was no strong faith in a political ideology to back Yeltsin’s civic nationalism, leading it to failure. Tolz (1998) discuses other concepts of nation that were present in Russian academia of the Yeltsin period: the nation as an imperial people, as a community of Slavs, as defined by the Russian language, as defined biologically… Concepts of the ‘nation’ abounded in a multi-ethnic state trying to redefine itself and with an ambiguous relation to its imperialist and Communist history. In a poll by the Public Opinion Foundation in 1995 conducted in the entire Russian Federation, 87% of Russian considered “to love Russia and view it as a homeland” as an important characteristic of a Russian. These criteria came top of the list. “Looking Russian” and “having Russian parents” came at the bottom. The broadness and inclusivity of these criteria of ‘Russian-ness’ reflect both the multi- ethnicity of that state and its shifting borders. After the destruction of the Communist political identity, many people hung on to the other component of Soviet patriotism: love of fatherland. Yeltsin’s civic nationalism was disconnected from this patriotism that had been part of the Communist identity, partly explaining its lack of appeal. The top down attempts to create a sense of ‘Russian nation’ did not include ‘love of fatherland’, which is probably why it never became popular and could not be used in a nationalism that would contribute to state-building.

Under Putin, the government appears to have taken up the linguistic concept of the Russian ‘nation’, amongst the other conceptions, most likely because of its inclusiveness. Perhaps for the first time in Russian history, Putin’s government is strengthening the state’s apparatus based on the idea that a strong state is needed for the ‘Russian people’’s interests to be respected internationally. It is the first time in Russian history the government uses a linguistic, inclusive, nationalism as a tool for effective state-building. This linguistic nationalism is accompanied by two elements that differentiate it from Yeltsin’s civic nationalism, and connect it with the Russian past. A central pillar of the concept of ‘Russian–ness’ used by today’s government in Russia is the common historical heritage of the ethnic groups of the Russian Federation, as is understood, for instance, from the state hymn’s words. Another central pillar is the idea of ‘fatherland’ that is to be nurtured and protected from external threat. By defining the nation inclusively, and connecting this concept to the common past, Putin’s government has deployed a nationalism that is rather successful in motivating people to build a strong state that will be protected from external threat. Despite its relative success, this concept of the Russian nation leaves certain problems unsolved, for example what, if any, are the political duties of the Russian Federation towards Russian speakers outside its borders.

The concept of the ‘nation’ and more particularly of nationalism as a means towards building a strong, independent state has been mobilised in Russia since the 2000s. Despite the relative newness of this Russian nationalism it is anchored in other concepts, such as that of the ‘fatherland’, that have long contributed to Russian state-building. In Poland, unlike in Russia, nationalism is an old dynamic of state-formation and state-building. The importance of nationalism in Polish, compared to Russian state-building can be related to the greater ease of conceiving a Polish nation. Indeed, Russia was and is very ethnically diverse – such was the case even of the imperial elite. In Poland, there were much less ethnic differences amongst members of the elite, which was both the main thinker and ‘audience’ of nationalism during the period of Polish partition. Poland emerged from the horrors of World War II as ethnically homogenised. The large number of Jews that had lived on Polish land before the war, for instance, had been wiped out. Following 1945 therefore, it was not as much of a challenge for Poles to embrace a unified conception of ‘nationhood’ as it was for Russians from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. It is interesting to note that while Poland was a nation without a sovereign state, nationalism was a uniting ideology, whereas, since the demise of Communism, it has increasingly turned into a divisive force in politics and in society. This division is related in particular to the disagreement on the role of the Catholic Church in Polish nationhood. Even in a state with high ethnic homogeneity tension over the concept of ‘nationhood’ subsists. Studying the relationship of nationalism and state-building in Russia and Poland brings out both the ambiguity of the concept of ‘nationhood’ and the fact that despite this disagreement, nationalism can still be an important drive of state-building.

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