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  • The Return of Russian Nationalism
  • John B. Dunlop (bio)

Under Leonid Brezhnev, Russian nationalism represented merely one of several repressed political tendencies in the Soviet Union. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, it has surged to a position of prominence, due both to the greater liberties permitted under glasnost and to the "dialectics" of the intense political struggle that developed between Gorbachev and his conservative opponents. The extraordinary rise of national and religious self-awareness in the non-Russian republics has also served to stimulate the national consciousness of ethnic Russians.

When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, Russian nationalists were a loose cluster of individuals united by an acute sense of alarm over the fate of Russian historical monuments (ancient churches, in particular) and of ethnic Russians themselves, who suffered from rampant alcoholism, a plummeting birth rate, and diminishing life expectancy. The nationalists viewed the disappearing Russian village as a repository of salutary traditions and mores under attack from the headlong modernization sponsored by the Soviet regime. They also took a strong interest in Russia's prerevolutionary past.

Beyond these core concerns, Russian nationalists parted company on a variety of fundamental issues. Many, perhaps a majority, felt an allegiance to the national religion, Russian Orthodoxy. On economic and political questions, they were in complete disagreement; some were strong statists and others sought to liberate the individual from the shackles of the state. Their views toward the West ranged from a sense of friendly competition to virulent hostility. Finally, the nationalists disagreed about the proper stance toward the rapidly decaying official [End Page 114] ideology of the Soviet Union—some embraced a form of "National Bolshevism," largely for tactical reasons, while others rejected Bolshevism and all its works.

By the end of 1987, what unity there was among the nationalists had been shattered, largely due to a vigorous preemptive strike launched by Gorbachev and his allies in the party apparatus and intelligentsia. The aim of this blitzkrieg was to remove all perceived conservative opponents—entrenched Brezhnevite bureaucrats, neo-Stalinists, and right-wing Russian nationalists—from positions of power and influence. Following a "divide and rule" strategy, Gorbachev sought to split off the more liberal Russian nationalists from their conservative brethren. Thus he recruited to his own coalition such leading liberal nationalists as Dmitrii Likhachev (who was made chairman of the Soviet Cultural Foundation) and Sergei Zalygin (who was appointed editor-in-chief of the prestigious monthly Novyi mir).

Threatened with a loss of jobs and influence, Gorbachev's conservative opponents came together under the leadership of Politburo member and party secretary for ideology Yegor Ligachev during the spring of 1987. What could be termed a "conservative coalition" of neo-Stalinists and right-wing Russian nationalists was formed at the March 1987 session of the Secretariat of the RSFSR Writers' Union and the April 1987 conference of the USSR Writers' Union. For the past three years, this coalition, though formed in haste and under duress, has held remarkably firm.

The Liberal Nationalists

The small but influential group of liberal nationalists champions political democracy and a market economy; they also advocate peaceful relations with the minority peoples of the Soviet Union and with the West. They are distinguished from Western-style liberals, with whom they are frequently allied, by their often fervent attachment to Russian Orthodoxy and Russian national traditions and by their especially pronounced abhorrence of Marxism-Leninism. The liberal nationalists have fought tirelessly for the rehabilitation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his writings. If Solzhenitsyn were to return to the Soviet Union—and this might occur in the foreseeable future—his presence could greatly enhance their strength. Like his fellow Nobel laureate, the late Andrei Sakharov, he might become a major player on the Soviet political scene.

The journal Novyi mir, which currently has a circulation of 2.7 million, serves as the principal mouthpiece for the liberal nationalists, though its editorial board also contains Western-style liberals. At present, the liberal nationalists do not have their own daily or a weekly newspaper, though they are often invited to speak out in the pages of Literaturnaia gazeta. [End Page 115]

The views of critic Alia Latynina may be taken as emblematic of liberal nationalism...


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