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11 August 2016

Russia and Europe: unity in nationalism

The unattainable ideal is getting closer

Social psychology explains how nationalist mobilization is crisis in other forms of self-identification, as well as the failure to build a successful model of social relations based on common ideas about life norms and the future of the country. However, a segregation policy is, in itself – as elevation of oneself above others – still immoral from the point of view of the post-Soviet man. No Russian would acknowledge that they are in favor of the restriction of people’s rights just because of their origin. One can often hear respondents preceding an aggressive remark about, let’s say, Caucasians or Asians with, “Of course, I’m not a Nazi, but…”. It is still bad to be a Nazi. However, if one invents a “decent” reason to believe in one’s own superiority, Nazism could become a cause for concern about the future of the country. The failures (or rather, difficulties) of the European Union in terms of migration policy and construction of a unified state based on the idealistic principles of equality and peaceful co-existence of all, have become one of these causes. Hinting at the problems of Western states helps justify one’s own problems, and additionally explain the need to undertake measures which protect national identity and reinforce existing practices.

One must understand that Russians look at the life of Europeans with concealed envy, since the latter have achieved the high standard of living that we would also like to have. Life in Europe seems satiated and predictable – as we would like it to be. This regret about unfulfilled dreams should somehow be compensated for, so the Russian says, we might be less successful but we possess a unique “warm-heartedness”. And the myth of the non-violent colonization of the peoples living on our territory is very popular for a reason: “We have not conquered anyone, everyone joined us of their own volition”. But if we are as hospitable and kind as the citizens of Russia claim, these peoples should be getting along better within one country compared to the individualistic Europeans. Hence the feelings of Schadenfreude when the European Union fails, and complacency when the EU departs from its motto of “unity in diversity” and begins to build both invisible mental and quite tangible boundaries within itself. The European crisis accompanied by the prospective exit of the United Kingdom from the EU seems to confirm the position about the lack of prospects for the European path. Paradoxically, there are more similarities between Russians and Europeans in this situation than we could imagine.

Russia and Europe: what do they have in common?

To begin with, the priority of national identification. Similarly to Russians, Europeans first associate themselves with their home country and only then with their home town or village, Europe in general and finally, with the European Union. According to Eurobarometer, in November 2015, 92% of Europeans felt attached to their home country while as little as 55% felt attached to Europe as a whole. Residents of countries where the voices of nationalist-populists are the loudest – the United Kingdom, Greece, Turkey and Serbia – identify themselves with “Big Europe” least of all. Russians also find it more important to feel like citizens of a country, rather than as residents of a region or a town. By the way, as little as 23% of Russians are in favor of Russia becoming an EU member state, to a greater or lesser extent. Russia and a number of Western countries share a lack of belief in the future of united Europe. This is not so much about conservative politicians as it is about their typical adherents, who form the basis for any propaganda about “the national revival”.

Secondly, despite the idea of the uniqueness of the people inherent in nationalism, social portraits of an average Eurosceptic are the same in various countries. The UK referendum on exiting the European Union showed that mostly elderly, less-educated and less-wealthy people residing in the provinces voted for Brexit. On the whole, these people are less satisfied with their lives and tend to blame other people for their misfortunes. For them, it is important to have “a stranger” to pass the buck to: it is no coincidence that the emphasis for the “Brexiters” was on the fight against migrants, and that after their exit from the EU Britain would finally regain autonomy and independence, both of which would provide “indigenous” Brits with a decent future. Does this sound familiar? We hear virtually the same arguments from the Russian national-patriotic forces: external threats stand in the way of our country becoming a powerful superpower again, they want to subdue the population, seize our natural resources, and so on. An analysis of socio-demographic data on Russians who are against Russia becoming a full member of the EU provide us with the following information: similarly to Britain, the highest number of Eurosceptics can be found among people with low levels of education, less-affluent citizens, those involved in unskilled labor and retirees. It seems that we are dealing with some international type of right-wing adherents and conservatives.

The universal “redneck”

When asked about the main change in the worldview of Russians between 2011 and 2016, we would probably answer that it was the revival of our self-awareness of being a super power. It would be no exaggeration to say that the surge in patriotism and identification with something big and grand has outlined the domination of the man of “the new formation”, combining jingoism, cynicism and eschatology. Such a person does not see a future for their country, but neither do they want to believe in (or acknowledge) the fallacy of the policies pursued by their government and society. For them, the interrelations between the states assume the form of the Hobbesian “war of all against all”. Relations between people within a state also seem full of contradictions and conflicts. A return to the mythical fundamental principle, national (and to a large extent, nationalist) roots seems the only way to survive in the contemporary world. The growth of discontent with the situation can also be observed in Europe.

The growing terrorist threat and an unsatisfactory level of economic growth for the population of European countries require some sort of solution. But unsolvable problems require an explanation for their failures, demanded by the losers. Populists are best at looking for those at fault, and by strange coincidence, the root of all evil is often found in such complex and therefore unpleasant matters as sensitivity to the stance of others, the equality of rights or personal responsibility. As a result, many Europeans have arrived at the same conclusion: the world is based on the principle of global war and the winner is right. The Russians obviously note with satisfaction that Europe is “sobering up” from its “policy of tolerance”. Our “rightness” is no longer a geopolitical victory, but the victory of values.

The unattainable ideal is getting closer

Age, income and education – these are seemingly the most important factors that have recently ceased to serve as an effective explanation for the level of support for the political regime and the decisions of Russia’s leadership. While Russia is going through a stage of political stagnation and economic turbulence, the West remains the ideal yardstick for Russians to use to assess their lives. The West is a point of differentiation of political views in Russia. Russians realize that the conditions and rules of their lives change very rapidly. The period of rapid mobilization has been replaced by panic due to fluctuations in the exchange rate, followed by the economic crisis. We can also observe the period of adjustment to the deteriorated conditions, right now. The Russians find it impossible to form an opinion about developments in the country, partially because of their low confidence in the media and their awareness of the “falseness” of what is going on in the country. The West seems to serve as a reference point here. Blame it or praise it, life is always authentic there. Elections are not rigged, the power elite is more honest, and even the foodstuffs are organic.

This orientation towards the West, this desire to prove a point to the Europeans or Americans speaks in favor of Russia’s affinity with Europe. In general, the position that we walk our own historical path is devoid of any sound arguments. There are some marginal theories, such as neo-Eurasianism, which are nevertheless incapable of presenting at least one example of a working social institution. There is much ado about the uniqueness of Russia, but it remains undefined. Every second Russian wants to follow a special path, but only every fourth Russian wants to see their state have an absolutely distinctive rule (every third one wants to see a system akin to the Western model). Europe remains an ideal for a large proportion of Russians, even though they are not yet ready to acknowledge these aspirations. Vasily Zharkov points to the comic nature of this contradiction: periods of alienation are followed by re-orientation towards the European experience. But it seems that we are witnessing a period of rapprochement with the European ideal, not because we have become more consistent with political or economic criteria, but because the Europeans themselves have cast them into doubt. 

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