On 19 November 1990, Boris Yeltsin gave a speech in Kyiv to announce that, after more than 300 years of rule by the Russian tsars and the Soviet ‘totalitarian regime’ in Moscow, Ukraine was free at last. Russia, he said, did not want any special role in dictating Ukraine’s future, nor did it aim to be at the centre of any future empire. Five months earlier, in June 1990, inspired by independence movements in the Baltics and the Caucasus, Yeltsin had passed a declaration of Russian sovereignty that served as a model for those of several other Soviet republics, including Ukraine. While they stopped short of demanding full separation, such statements asserted that the USSR would have only as much power as its republics were willing to give.
Russian imperial ambitions can appear to be age-old and constant. Even relatively sophisticated media often present a Kremlin drive to dominate its neighbours that seems to have passed from the tsars to Stalin, and from Stalin to Putin. So it is worth remembering that, not long ago, Russia turned away from empire. In fact, in 1990-91, it was Russian secessionism – together with separatist movements in the republics – that brought down the USSR. To defeat the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt at preserving the union, Yeltsin fused the concerns of Russia’s liberal democrats and conservative nationalists into an awkward alliance. Like Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again or Boris Johnson’s Brexit, Yeltsin insisted that Russians, the Soviet Union’s dominant group, were oppressed. He called for separation from burdensome others to bring Russian renewal.
The roots of nationalist discontent lay in Russia’s peculiar status within the Soviet Union. After the Bolsheviks took control over much of the tsarist empire’s former territory, Lenin declared ‘war to the death on Great Russian chauvinism’ and proposed to uplift the ‘oppressed nations’ on its peripheries. To combat imperial inequality, Lenin called for unity, creating a federation of republics divided by nationality. The republics forfeited political sovereignty in exchange for territorial integrity, educational and cultural institutions in their own languages, and the elevation of the local ‘titular’ nationality into positions of power. Soviet policy, following Lenin, conceived of the republics as homelands for their respective nationalities (with autonomous regions and districts for smaller nationalities nested within them). The exception was the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, or RSFSR, which remained an administrative territory not associated with any ethnic or historic ‘Russia’.
Russia was the only Soviet republic that did not have its own Communist Party, capital, or Academy of Sciences. These omissions contributed to the uneasy overlap of ‘Russian’ and ‘Soviet’.
It was Joseph Stalin, a Georgian, who promoted Russians to ‘first among equals’ in the Soviet Union, confirmed by his postwar toast that credited ‘most of all, the Russian people’ with the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. Nikita Khrushchev continued the Soviet commitment to the formation of a multiethnic community that would eventually converge in a shared economic, cultural and linguistic system. In this Soviet melting pot, Russia was a kind of older brother, especially to the purportedly less-advanced peoples of Central Asia. Russian remained the Soviet language of upward mobility, Russian history and culture were the most celebrated, and Russians generally thought of the Soviet Union as ‘theirs’. Like white Americans who marked other groups as ‘ethnic’, Russians saw themselves as the norm in relation to ‘national minorities’.
By the late 1960s, the Soviet Union was a majority urbanised, educated society whose legitimacy had come to rest on its status as a stable welfare state. Freed from the terror, war and mass mobilisation of the previous decades, Soviet citizens spent their leisure time watching TV and listening to records (some officially banned, but easily available thanks to state-produced consumer technologies). After the horrors of the Second World War, in which 20 to 28 million Soviet citizens died, the hard-won stability of the postwar decades led some to wonder what a meaningful life looked like when the era of epic struggle was over. The question was particularly acute for the generation that reached adulthood after Stalin’s death in 1953. They inherited the Soviet state’s crowning achievements – victory over Hitler, the conquest of space – but lacked a unifying world-historical cause. Like their peers in other highly developed societies of the 1970s, they sought answers through self-improvement quests, spiritual awakening, aimless hedonism and environmental activism. Some Soviet citizens idealised the inaccessible West. Still others looked for ‘roots’ in different national pasts. The Soviet empire subsidised distinct ethnocultural identities that were subordinate to a universalising Communist (Russian) one. As the latter grew hollow, the former was ready to fill the void.
The ‘village prose’ writers expressed various nationalities’ sense that they were losing their patrimony. These authors, who were born in rural areas and studied in Moscow, framed village-dwellers as authentic bearers of tradition, in an elegiac key equivalent to foreign contemporaries such as Wendell Berry in the United States or the Irish writer John McGahern. The most catastrophist feared that Russia’s land and people were imperilled by forces beyond their control. Valentin Rasputin’s apocalyptic novel Farewell to Matyora (1976) was inspired by the flooding of his native village to create the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station. In the novel, the old widow Darya condemns the project as an ecological and spiritual catastrophe. She mourns the destruction of her ancestral home but, rather than relocating to the city, she and several others stay behind and drown.
Solzhenitsyn saw Communism as a foreign ideology that separated Russia from its Orthodox heritage
The ‘village prose’ movement was not alone in perceiving Russian identity as under existential threat in the Soviet Union. Their concern was shared by Russian apparatchiks such as the Politburo member Dmitry Polyansky and members of the intelligentsia such as the October magazine editor Vsevolod Kochetov. In their view, the Soviet Union was the reincarnation of the Russian empire, destined to take up its historic mantle as an anti-Western autocracy rooted in a revitalised peasantry. It was supposedly held back by Jews (and, increasingly, people from the Caucasus and Central Asia), who leeched off Russians’ labour and resources, and impeded their advancement. Beginning in the 1960s, the Soviet party-state turned to co-opting Russian nationalist sentiments in order to fortify its weakening legitimacy. Official institutions such as the Young Guard publishing house and the All-Russian Society for the Protection of Culture and Monuments served as key recruitment centres for the Russian nationalist cause.
Much of the culture that Russian nationalists produced was compatible with the Soviet Union’s self-image. The painter Ilya Glazunov glorified figures such as Ivan the Terrible and St Sergius of Radonezh alongside portraits of Leonid Brezhnev, the Communist Party’s General Secretary. The Slavophile critic Vadim Kozhinov declared that Russia had saved the world three times: from Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler. Importantly, praise for Russians’ achievements was sometimes paired with indignation about their mistreatment, and more radical materials circulated in samizdat (self-published form). Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who viewed Communism as a foreign ideology that separated Russia from its Orthodox heritage, was stripped of his Soviet citizenship after a vicious press campaign that accused him of ‘choking with pathological hatred’ for the country and its people.
While Russian nationalists such as Solzhenitsyn were punished for directly challenging the Soviet claim to rule, Soviet rulers were punished for directly challenging Russian nationalism. In 1972, Alexander Yakovlev, the acting head of the Central Committee’s Propaganda Department and later a top advisor to Gorbachev, published a letter in a Soviet newspaper that attacked both dissident and officially aligned forms of Russian nationalism. The article led to Yakovlev’s demotion to an ambassadorship in Ottawa.
The most popular and broadly relatable image of Russian victimisation was created by the writer, director and actor Vasily Shukshin. Shukshin was born in the Altai region of Siberia to a peasant father executed during Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture (a fact that was excluded from his official biography as unbefitting for a Communist Party member). After moving to Moscow, he became known for playful short stories about eccentric rural men who resist conforming to modern life by playing the balalaika or steaming in the bathhouse. By the early 1970s, however, his characters were increasingly lost and marginalised. Shukshin’s last effort as a film director and his biggest hit, Kalina Krasnaya (1974) – released in English as The Red Snowball Tree – was centred on Egor, an ex-convict who struggles to find his place after fleeing hunger in the countryside as a young man. ‘I don’t know what to do with this life,’ Egor tells the saintly pen-pal who takes him in after his release from prison. Egor ultimately reconnects with his rural roots and takes up a new life as a tractor driver, but his redemption is cut short when his former gang shows up and shoots him dead in an open field. ‘Don’t pity him,’ Egor’s murderer says coolly as he smokes a cigarette. ‘He was never a person – he was a muzhik [peasant man]. And there are plenty of them in Russia.’
Shukshin’s allegory of emasculation and deracination reflected his darkening outlook: in private remarks, he lamented the poor and depopulated state of Russia’s countryside, noting that most of his male relatives were alcoholics or in jail. ‘There’s trouble in Rus’, great trouble,’ he wrote in his notebook. ‘I feel it in my heart.’ But his work was wryly sentimental rather than angry or accusatory, and his rise from the peasantry to the intelligentsia modelled official myths of upward mobility. Shukshin won top prizes and benefited from extensive state support.
However, when Shukshin died of a heart attack shortly after Kalina Krasnaya’s release, some nationalists whispered that he, like his most famous hero, was the victim of predation. The village prose writer Vasily Belov, a close friend, wrote in his diary that ‘if [Jews] didn’t poison [Shukshin] directly, then they certainly poisoned him indirectly. His entire life was poisoned by Jews.’ Shukshin’s cinematographer Anatoly Zabolotsky claimed in the draft of his memoirs (written in the early 1980s) that Shukshin had read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion before his death and was shocked to learn that a ‘genocide’ was being committed against the Russian people. Zabolotsky suggested that the actor who played Egor’s killer and his (Jewish) wife had murdered Shukshin to protect the secret.
Until the late 1980s, Russian nationalists’ paranoid xenophobia (which included broadsides against disco music and aerobics) was semi-covert and irrelevant to most. During Gorbachev’s perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness), however, when everything from Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (1973) to astrology was openly permitted, nationalist intellectuals’ concerns found freer and wider expression in political life, where they latched on to broader dissatisfaction. As activists in the Caucasus and the Baltics began demanding greater cultural and political autonomy, in April 1989 Soviet troops crushed a large demonstration in Tbilisi.
Denunciations of this repression kicked off the opening sessions at the televised First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR in May 1989. Valentin Rasputin, author of Farewell to Matyora, was among the delegates. After listening to Baltic and Georgian deputies’ complaints about Russian imperialism, Rasputin took the floor to bitterly suggest that
perhaps it is Russia that should secede from the Union, since you accuse her of all your misfortunes and since her backwardness and awkwardness obstruct your progressive aspirations? … We could then pronounce the word ‘Russian’ without fear of being rebuked for nationalism, we could talk openly about our national identity … Believe me, we’re fed up with being scapegoats, with being mocked and spat upon.
Under the influence of other republics’ demands, Russian nationalists’ long-running resentment was rapidly turning into separatism.
‘Enough feeding the other republics!’ he exclaimed in a speech to industrial workers
Gorbachev’s political and economic devolution of the USSR produced chaos, including severe food shortages. The suddenly uncensored media exposed violence and degradation ranging from Stalinist repressions to the flailing war in Afghanistan. In response to the rush of bad news, the intelligentsia lamented Russia’s ‘total ruin’. The cultural historian and Gulag survivor Dmitry Likhachev said that the communist regime ‘humiliated and robbed Russia so much, that Russians can hardly breathe’. In Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union (2021), Vladislav Zubok recounts how the separatist idea gained momentum in the first half of 1990 thanks to three ‘mutually hostile’ forces: Russian nationalists inside the party and elites; the democratic opposition that dominated Moscow politics; and the masses behind Gorbachev’s rival, Yeltsin, a charismatic apparatchik who transformed into the ‘people’s tsar’.
Yeltsin, who was elected the first head of the Russian Supreme Soviet, riled up crowds by declaring that the Soviet Union was stealing from Russians to subsidise Central Asia. ‘Enough feeding the other republics!’ he exclaimed in a speech to industrial workers, who responded with a chant against Gorbachev. Yeltsin called for Russia’s ‘democratic, national, and spiritual resurrection’ and promised to redistribute resources to the people. Though Yeltsin adopted elements of conservative nationalists’ ideas, he was also pro-Western and pushed for further democratisation and marketisation, which they opposed.
In contrast to Yeltsin, Gorbachev dreamed of creating a ‘common European home’ that would include all peoples of the USSR in a closer relationship with the West. By the end of 1990, all of the Soviet republics had responded to the vacuum of central authority and the example set by former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe by declaring themselves sovereign (and in several cases independent). Yet the future shape of their relationship with the union remained unclear, and possibly still compatible with Gorbachev’s vision of a more equal federation.
In November 1990, Yeltsin travelled to Kyiv as part of a strategy to undermine Gorbachev by building a new union from below based on ‘horizontal’ ties between Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Like other political elites at the time, Yeltsin’s use of the word ‘sovereignty’ in his speeches and promotional materials was ambiguous. According to his advisor Gennady Burbulis, Yeltsin was under the heavy influence of Solzhenitsyn’s recently published essay ‘Rebuilding Russia’, which claimed that the Russian people were exhausted, and proposed dissolving the USSR while retaining a Slavic core of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, along with Russian-populated parts of Kazakhstan. Solzhenitsyn’s view that all three of these peoples ‘sprang from precious Kyiv’ was shared by many Russians who did not necessarily identify as nationalists but assumed they would stay together.
Yeltsin’s expectations for a rapprochement with Ukraine were soon disappointed. In August 1991, the Communist hardliners’ failed coup put an end to Gorbachev’s hopes for a revitalised union and consolidated the power of Yeltsin, who was now the first elected president of the RSFSR. The Verkovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, passed an act proclaiming an independent state of Ukraine with ‘indivisible and inviolable’ territory. Particularly panicked at the thought of losing Crimea, Yeltsin had his press officer announce that the Russian republic reserved the right to reconsider its borders, angering the Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk. Yeltsin’s administration backtracked and recognised all existing borders, and in December 1991 Yeltsin joined the heads of Ukraine and Belarus in the Belavezha forest to officially dissolve the USSR. Conservative Russian nationalists were outraged by the sudden end of Moscow’s control over the region but, as Zubok notes, it was they who had initially raised the question of Russian sovereignty and opposed Gorbachev when he was struggling to save the union.
The Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev learned about Belavezha only after the fact. Yeltsin thought that Kazakhstan should be part of a new commonwealth of independent states but wanted to keep out the ‘Muslim’ republics of Central Asia. Nazarbayev insisted on their inclusion, and prevailed. According to Adeeb Khalid’s book Central Asia (2021), full independence from the Soviet Union was ‘unexpected and, in many ways, unwanted by both the people and the political elites of Central Asia’. As a supplier of raw materials, the region was ill-served by isolation from the union’s economic structures. However great their enthusiasm for strengthening national identity and autonomy, some politicians and members of the intelligentsia still saw weaker union with Russia as preferable to separation. The surprise dissolution at Belavezha was the final irony of Soviet empire: for peoples seen as inferior, even freedom was dictated by Moscow.
Yeltsin’s administration announced a contest for a new ‘national idea’. It never chose a winner
As other countries in the former Eastern Bloc celebrated a ‘return to Europe’, the fusion of the Russian and the Soviet prevented the creation of a national identity based on casting off an oppressive foreign yoke. Yeltsin expected that Russia would be welcomed into the ‘West’ with a massive aid package and NATO membership. Instead, it was left in the ‘East’ and received meagre humanitarian assistance. After decades of being told that they represented the world’s leading civilisation, Russians were reduced to eating expired US military rations. The Yeltsin administration’s economic ‘shock therapy’, carried out in consultation with Western advisors, brought an atmosphere of brutal lawlessness that enriched a few and impoverished many others. The neoliberal Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs and the Harvard Institute for International Development in Moscow helped design Yeltsin’s market reform and privatisation package, and implement it at dizzying speed. Crime and mortality rates skyrocketed as savings vanished overnight.
Reeling from inflation and shortages, several Russian republics and regions developed sovereignty movements aimed at achieving political and economic advantages over other territories (including Yeltsin’s native Sverdlovsk Oblast, which briefly declared itself the ‘Urals Republic’). These were largely brought to heel by Yeltsin’s December 1993 constitution. The republic of Chechnya, however, pressed for full independence, prompting Yeltsin’s disastrous decision to invade in 1994. The Russian Federation was a web of nationality-based republics, autonomous districts and territorial regions without a unifying concept. In June 1996, Yeltsin’s administration announced a contest to generate a new ‘national idea’. It never chose a winner.
Russian nationalist politicians attempted to turn poverty and disillusionment into votes against Yeltsin. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a racist and antisemitic provocateur and head of the misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), argued for the re-establishment of an autocratic Russian state within Soviet-era borders. Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation offered a Stalinist brand of Russian imperialism influenced by Lev Gumilev’s concept of ‘Eurasianism’. These parties achieved moderate electoral success: LDPR performed well in the 1993 elections, and Zyuganov trailed Yeltsin by only three percentage points in the 1996 presidential race. But most Russians, especially in the younger generation, were more interested in the problems and possibilities of the present (including foreign travel and consumer goods) than chauvinist messianism that looked to the past.
Through the 1990s, visions of national disempowerment and revenge gained more traction in Russian popular culture. The lost men of Shukshin’s stories, for example, morphed into action heroes who offered redemptive masculinity through violence. Danila, the protagonist of the hit movies Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000), is a young veteran of Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya from a poor provincial town. In an early scene, his grandmother tells Danila he’s a hopeless case and will die in prison like his father. She sends him to Saint Petersburg to be mentored by his big brother, who turns out to be a contract killer for the mafia. Rather than falling victim, Danila becomes an earnest vigilante who hurts the bad guys (especially men from the Caucasus) and protects the weak (poor Russian women and men).
In the sequel, Danila travels to the US to rescue the victims of an evil empire run by American businessmen in cahoots with Chicago’s Ukrainian mafia and ‘new Russians’ in Moscow. Stereotyped Others embody the threats facing the Russian people; in Chicago, he meets a sex worker named Dasha who is controlled by an abusive Black pimp. In the climactic scene, Danila takes revenge by committing a mass shooting at a nightclub in the city’s Ukrainian district. Moral righteousness is clearly on his side: Danila declares his love for the motherland and repeats Second World War-era slogans such as ‘Russians in war don’t abandon their own.’ At the end, he and Dasha drink vodka on a flight back home as the song ‘Goodbye, America’ (sung by a children’s choir) plays in the background. Brother 2 was released in 2000, the year that Vladimir Putin ascended to the presidency.
Putin kept his distance from nationalists, affirming that Russia was part of ‘European culture’ and cooperating with the US invasion of Afghanistan, while maintaining LDPR and the Communists as a loyal opposition in parliament. Like Yeltsin, he selectively incorporated aspects of their ideas, for example, in his decision to bring back the Soviet national anthem. He rejected other Russian nationalist hobby horses, including open racism and antisemitism. The booming oil and gas prices of Putin’s first two terms (2000-08) significantly improved Russians’ quality of life. Putin increasingly espoused the country’s mission as a bastion of traditional values that was ready to seek payback for the indignities of the preceding years.
An ex-convict considers killing a man he feels has humiliated him, but takes his own life instead
Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea pushed his approval ratings to record highs among ethnic Russians as well as Tatars, Chechens and other groups in the Russian Federation. Yet public enthusiasm for further expansionism remained limited. In January 2020, a poll by the Levada Center found that 82 per cent of Russians thought that Ukraine should be an independent state. Annual surveys have consistently shown that Russians prefer a higher standard of living to great power status (except in the post-Crimea afterglow of 2014). Now, as Putin tries to channel national aggrievement into support for a full-scale war against the neighbour who was once promised freedom, the late-Soviet case serves as a reminder that resentment is an unpredictable tool. Russians’ sense of pride and victimisation propped up the Soviet empire when Communist orthodoxy lost the power to convince. But it ultimately fuelled claims that imperial ambition came at too high a cost for the Russian people, turning them into a disposable resource.
Shukshin died in the relative torpor of the Soviet 1970s, when a sense of national disorientation wasn’t necessarily hitched to a political programme. His work didn’t idealise a vanishing past or a bright future. There are no scapegoats or saviours, and attempts at revenge end in self-destruction. In Shukshin’s short story ‘Bastard’ (1970), an ex-convict from the countryside considers killing a man he feels has humiliated him, but takes his own life instead. During his final moments, he feels ‘the peace of a lost person who understands he is lost.’
Putin came of age in Shukshin’s heyday and knows of his work. Like the Russian nationalists who once whispered about murder, he has tried to appropriate Shukshin’s memory for his own ends. In November 2014, he made an appearance at a theatre adaptation of Shukshin’s stories in central Moscow. The occasion was the Day of National Unity, an imperial holiday brought back by his administration, marking the expulsion of Polish-Lithuanian forces from the Kremlin in 1612 and the founding of the Romanov dynasty. In his onstage remarks, Putin praised Shukshin for showing ‘a simple man, for this is the essence of Russia.’
‘It’s a shame that Shukshin is no longer with us,’ Putin concluded. ‘But at least we have his heroes.
‘Russia depends on them.’