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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A State Nation Among Nation States

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 31 August 1998 (RFE/RL) --Underlying all of Russia's current problems -- the collapse of its currency, stock markets and public confidence in its government -- is the fact that the Russian Federation is a country different from most others around the world.

Russia is a state nation rather than a nation state. That is, the Russian people define themselves in terms of the state rather than the state being defined by the people, a pattern that undermines the state's ability to maintain authority when its power is weak.

In contrast to most of its neighbors, the Russian state thus lacks the authenticity that states rooted in a nation generally have. Consequently, it cannot count on either the authority that such rooting often gives or on popular willingness to go along with the state when it is unable to deliver but has to make tough choices.

And that in turn predisposes the Russian state whenever it finds itself weakened to try to demonstrate its effectiveness either by relying as now on outside support or by using coercive measures to compel its population to go along.

Neither of these means represents a full solution to its political dilemmas, but the absence of the kind of natural deference to the political authorities that a nation state provides gives the Russian state few alternatives and helps to explain why historically it has been so difficult for Russia to escape from one of its periodic times of troubles.

This very contemporary Russian problem has its origin in a special feature of Russian history. Namely, the Russian state became an empire long before the Russian people became a nation.

Beginning half a millennium ago, the Russian state began a rapid expansion across an enormous territory coming to embrace dozens of different peoples and cultures. But because the central authorities, first Tsarist and then Soviet, defined the population as Russia's, the ethnographic group known as the Russians was left in an extremely difficult position.

On the one hand, their identities were defined by the state, leaving them at the mercy of its strength and also with no clear definition of who they were and equally important who they were not. And that in turn meant that they seldom were clear about the borders around themselves and their people.

On the other hand, the state could claim the allegiance of these people not as its representative because of who they were but only in terms of its ability to demonstrate power and deliver the goods.

Whenever the Russian state has been strong, the loyalty of the Russian people to it has been impressive, even remarkable. But whenever the Russian state has been weak, that loyalty has tended to snap, further reducing the ability of the state to gain the kind of support it needs to regain its strength without taking measures that will repel others.

Just how serious this problem is for Russia becomes clear in any comparison with the nation states that surround it. Sometimes the relative success of the non-Russian countries which gained or regained their independence in 1991 is explained by their small size.

Sometimes it is explained by the fact that these countries generally view the collapse of the Soviet empire as a gain rather than like most Russians as a loss.

But underlying both of these is the presence in many of these countries of a bond of loyalty between the state and the nation, a bond that is inevitably complicated and imperfect but one that allows the state to count on at least some support even when it is relatively weak and when it cannot deliver everything it promises.

To take the most dramatic example, the Estonian state immediately after the recovery of independence was able to ask its nation to make some extraordinary sacrifices in order to allow the country to escape the consequences of Soviet domination.

Despite economic measures that hurt many people in that country, Estonians generally supported the state precisely because they saw an identity between its interests and their own.

Since 1991, the Russian state has not been able to draw on such a reserve of support. And while that does not explain all of Russia's current difficulties, it does help to explain why they are as large as they are and why both the Russian state and the Russian people are having a far more difficult time than other states and nations in the region.