Igor Torbakov’s work surveys a broad range of sources in an attempt to conceptualize the failure of the multiethnic states (the Russian empire and the USSR) to produce an overarching common “national” identity for the empire.
Having begun with the current state of art in theoretical literature on nationalism, Torbakov proceeds with the debate between Hrushevskyi and Struve on the unity of Russian history. Torbakov’s own argument is that in case of the former Russian empire two factors contributed to the failure of the imperial project. First, the relative backwardness of the Russian empire and the belated stage at which it attempted to Russify its numerous peoples. Second, the inadequacy and weakness of those practices and institutions that might have carried out the task of Russification guaranteed the emergence of competitive nationalisms (in particular, in Ukraine).
The author then explores the dynamics of the Soviet program of creating a common identity for the “Soviet people”. This exploration mainly focuses on the historical debates, including the conception of the common history of the Soviet peoples, which dated back to the pre-Revolutionary period, the emergence of the Soviet patriotism, which merged communist internationalism with Russian great power chauvinism in an uneasy alliance, and the relationship between these themes and the “local” or national histories.
Torbakov concludes his analysis by bringing into picture different attempts to deal with the issue outside of the linguistic field of the communist scholarship, in particular among the émigrés. Here, Eurasianism and the Smenovekhovstvo played the most significant role.
Finally, Torbakov concludes that there have been three major reasons for the collapse of the imperial project. First, he designates the resistance of the material, which seems to provide an additional argument in favor of some modest primordialism. Second, the Soviet leadership had created the federalist structure of the Soviet state, which was held together by the communist ideology, whose collapse in turn led to the destruction of the state. Finally, the indecisiveness of the Soviet leadership, which could not decide on either a centralized version of the Russian state or the decentralized version of the federation, led to the emergence of the bleak and emotionally unattractive concept of the Soviet people. This concept failed to provide for a common identity for the multinational state and its populations.