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Russia's Extreme Right; Review of Walter Laqueur, Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia (New York: HarperCollins, 1993)

Russia's Extreme Right; Review of Walter Laqueur, Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia (New York: HarperCollins, 1993)

Mini Teaser: Russian nationalism is the most important but least understood force to have emerged from the shadows following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

by Author(s): Paul A. Goble

Russia's Extreme Right; Review of Walter Laqueur, Black Hundred: The Rise of the Extreme Right in Russia (New York: HarperCollins, 1993)

Russian nationalism is the most important but least understood force to have emerged from the shadows following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is the most important because it increasingly defines Moscow's domestic and foreign policies. But it is the least understood both because of the peculiar history of relations between the Russian state and its people and because of the particular way scholars have studied this phenomenon. Consequently, we can only welcome Walter Laqueur's chilling survey of its more extreme forms, forms all the more disturbing because their impact now extends not only to other Russian nationalists but to many Russians who would deny that they are nationalists at all.

Seldom has Russian nationalism been lucky in either its history or its historians. Prior to the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian state and the Russian nation developed along lines very different from those in both Western and Eastern Europe. First, the Russian state became an empire long before the Russian people consolidated as a nation, leaving more open than elsewhere the boundaries--both physical and psychological--of Russian identity and forcing Russians to subordinate their identities to a larger collectivity. Second, the Russian state largely preempted nationalism as an issue, thereby bureaucratizing the concept and all too often forcing the intelligentsia into opposition rather than allowing it the opportunity to be a leavening force. Third, Russia did not pass through some of the key experiences that helped shape national identity and nationalism elsewhere. It did not experience directly the Renaissance or Reformation and its contact with the Enlightenment was highly filtered by the state. And its economic development did not produce a middle class that could serve as both a carrier and moderating influence on nationalist thought.

Each of these was exacerbated by the policies of the Soviet state. The Soviet state preserved the empire but treated the Russians and non-Russians in different and profoundly affecting ways. By failing to give the Russians their own state--the RSFSR was never viewed as truly a Russian entity--and treating the Russians alone as deserving of extraterritorial rights, the Soviet state thought it was binding the Russian core to it. In fact, it was further truncating the development of Russian identity and Russian nationalism and sowing the seeds that have produced many of the weeds that Professor Laqueur describes with such elegance. The Soviet state also sought to coopt nationalism, being far more willing to incorporate non-threatening Russian nationalist ideas than to absorb democratic ones. And again, like its czarist predecessor but until near the end far more effectively, the Soviet authorities sought to isolate the Soviet population from broader social developments and to prevent the emergence of social groups that might be the bearers of challenges to itself.

Each aspect of this pattern was subjected to a sudden and curious inversion by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For the first time, the nation was both more powerful and more active than the state itself. Because the Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union, Russians suffered the trauma of the loss of empire; because it is not Russia--25 million Russians remain outside its borders and 30 million non-Russians remain inside them--they again faced the prospect of self-definition. This time, the state was too weak to preempt nationalism as had the czarist and Soviet states in the past. The weakness of the Russian state and its interest in cooperation with the West dictated a different course, thus leaving the population adrift without any clear set of values.

Indeed, most of the old values had become discredited; and in some cases, there had been an inversion of values, with anything the Soviets denounced looking good for that reason alone. The state was not able to prevent the sudden and uncontrolled influx of all sorts of ideas nor to prosecute reforms quickly enough to produce a new class of supporters even as the old structures were destroyed. All three of these factors helped to define the extremist nationalism that Professor Laqueur has chosen to describe.

Russian nationalism has been even more unfortunate in its historians than its history. The reasons are not far to seek. First, most students of the subject have focused on its more extreme and colorful aspects and confused them with the totality of national assertiveness. This tendency flows from the fact that Russian nationalism is the nationalism of a dominant nation. In Soviet times, for example, if an Uzbek built a mosque, he was a nationalist; but if a Russian built a church, he was religious. Consequently, students of Uzbek nationalism included within that term a broad range of phenomena, whereas students of Russian nationalism tended to include only those--usually extreme groups--who described themselves or were described by others as nationalist, thus distorting the true picture of nationalism in that community.

Second, because the Soviet state and its czarist predecessor were so authoritarian and did not provide the opportunities for using polls or other means of assessing the relative strength of groups, students of Russian nationalism have tended to present the spectrum of Russian thinking in ways that suggest virtually every portion of this spectrum is equally important, again distorting reality and overstating the importance of highly visible and mediagenic groups. And third, because Russian nationalism is a powerful force in a powerful country, most students of the subject have been more interested in evaluating it than in analyzing it, with most denouncing it as an evil force and others defending it as the necessary response to Russian conditions or even a positive contribution to world civilization.

To a certain extent, Walter Laqueur falls into each of these traps, but with his usual ability, he transcends them as well. He tends to describe the actions of the non-Russians as nationalist tout court while carefully restricting his use of that designation when talking about Russians; but he saves his book by carefully limiting himself to what he calls "the Russian extreme right" rather than attempting to discuss all of Russian nationalism. He also relies almost exclusively on literary evidence but carefully sprinkles his text with warnings about generalizing from the writings of only one or another group. And he spends a great deal of time denouncing what he and all decent people must see as the dangerous aspects of his subject, even as he provides an analysis of the problem usually far deeper than those of many of his colleagues in this field.

Laqueur's book provides a useful history of extremist nationalist ideas in the imperial and Soviet periods, a rogues gallery of the far right spokesmen who emerged in Russia under Gorbachev, and the right-wing politicians and activists who now play an increasingly important role in Russian life. In each case, he is using often obscure sources--his bibliographic guide at the end of the book is likely to be one of its most useful features--and as a result, he makes some specific factual errors which specialists will criticize him for. But to concentrate on these is both a mistake--they are not fundamental--and unfair to Laqueur's accomplishment: highlighting the underlying patterns of thought of these extremist groups which set them apart from both moderates at home and nationalists elsewhere.

Laqueur divides the Russian extremists from the Russian moderates in the following way. The extremists, he writes, are "those who seek the cause of Russia's misfortunes entirely in the machinations and intrigues of foreign and domestic enemies;" the moderates, on the other hand, consist of people "willing to engage in introspection, self-criticism, and, where called for, penitence." A similar, if equally diffuse line, divides extremists and moderates in other countries. But Laqueur argues--and I believe convincingly--that the extreme right of Russian nationalism has certain features that set it apart from other national extremists elsewhere.

Flowing from the history outlined above, these features include:

--a paranoid style that sees enemies everywhere and invents them even when they do not exist,

--a passionate belief in conspiracies--Judeo-Masonic, Russophobe, and otherwise--directed against Russians, conspiracies so strong that Russia is always the victim rather than an independent actor; and

--a set of ideas which in other countries would be confined to the lunatic fringe but which, because Russia lacks the established social channels found elsewhere, have spread more broadly.

It is this last point that is especially important. All countries have their lunatic right-wing and left-wing fringe groups, but in most of them, these groups remain just that. What is it about Russia now that gives these groups a broader influence? Laqueur's catalogue is frightening:

...the feeling of national humiliation following the breakup of the Soviet Union; the need to pursue an assertive policy vis-a-vis the former republics in view of Russian interests and the presence of many millions of Russians abroad; the bad economic situation and the need to engage in unpopular reforms; the frequent impotence of the authorities in the face of a breakdown of law and order; the fact that democratic institutions are not deeply rooted in Russia; the traditional psychological need for a strong hand; the old Weimar dilemma of how to run a democracy in the absence of a sufficient number of democrats; the deep divisions on the left.

But still, as he points out, even this garden will not necessarily allow the dangerous weeds he has identified to take over the entire plot. Where are we to look?

The answer is to be found in what is probably the most serious but superficial criticism one could make of Laqueur's study: namely, he fails to define with precision the limits of his subject. Part of the reason for this is the old Wittgenstein dictum that a precise definition of a fuzzy concept is necessarily fuzzy, but a more important part of it is that there is no sharp line between what Laqueur has called the extreme right and the more moderate Russian nationalists and even some of the democrats.

Many of the arguments of the extreme right touch a far broader nerve, as Professor Laqueur demonstrates when he repeats them, not to criticize but rather to agree (e.g., his assertion that "There never was a Byelorussian nation nor is there an 'objective need' for one now" would please even the most right-wing Russian nationalist, as would his repeated expressions of regret about the end of the Soviet Union and his suggestions that Russians are being driven from their homes in Lithuania). But most importantly, in this time of uncertainty, trauma, and extreme hardship, the extreme right has three bridge issues into the very center and even left of the Russian political spectrum:

First, the issue of Russia's status as a great power. Both elites and masses feel that Russia is being treated as some kind of second-class beggar, as a country that is no longer important. As a result, there is a growing desire to strike out both to demonstrate their independence from the West and to prove to themselves that they still have the ability to act as a great power. It is probably no accident that the idea of a "good little war" (the Russo-Japanese War) was pioneered in Russia at a time of difficulty; it helps explain the attractiveness for many in Russia of Moscow's current pressure on the non-Russian states. As Laqueur himself notes, "it would have been suicidal for the Russian democrats to leave patriotism and the defense of national interests to the right." What he does not say is that by adopting the right's program in these areas, the democrats in fundamental ways cease to be what they claim and become what they deny.

A second rightist issue with broad appeal is the question of the status of Russians abroad. Closely related to the issue of Russia's status, and indeed a polite way of talking about it, is the current uproar about supposed massive mistreatment of ethnic Russians in the non-Russian countries. That there are real problems no one would deny, but that the Russian right--or in some cases even liberal democrats like Professor Laqueur--are correct in their descriptions no one should accept. Indeed, the failure to challenge Russian claims on this point is already leading to Russian policies that could make this claim into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If Moscow seeks to offer its "protection" to Russians abroad, that offer in itself tends to make the regularization of the status of these groups more, not less problematic.

A third pattern with appeal beyond the right is the tendency to blame others. Professor Laqueur sees this as a characteristic of the extreme right. I would argue that it typifies most of Russian political discourse from one end of the spectrum to the other. Those who are truly prepared to be penitent--one part of Laqueur's own definition of moderate--are rare. One thinks of Sakharov, Solzhenitsyn, and only a few others. Overwhelmingly, Russian political figures of all stripes blame others for their problems: the Soviet past, the non-Russians, and the West for failing to help or helping in the wrong way, to name but three. This is a long way from blaming imaginary conspiracies of Jews and Masons, but the impulse to avoid responsibility is all too similar and offers a bridge to the right that as it has become more "respectable," may make it possible for the right to either come to power on its own or more likely to increasingly define the agendas of those who deny that they are nationalists at all. In short, a rightist policy by leftist hands, just as at the end of the Gorbachev era.

None of this is inevitable. In each case, there are reasons to believe that this awful end can be avoided. But it will require thoughtful and forceful actions by Russians and the West as well. The most dangerous thing about a study like Laqueur's is that it could convince people that either these extremists are totally irrelevant or that they represent all that Russian nationalism is. Both views are wrong, and both contribute to inaction. Fortunately, Professor Laqueur, as so often in the past, has not only pointed to a danger but--even more importantly--indicated that it remains within the realm of moral choice, and that both we and the Russians must take responsibility lest new horrors be loosed upon the world.

Essay Types: Book Review