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9 August 2016

The history of the motto “Russia for Russians”

To what extent do contemporary Russian right-wingers resemble their predecessors?

How did the motto “Russia for Russians” come to be? What did it mean at the time? What does it mean today? To what extent do contemporary Russian right-wingers resemble their predecessors?

The author of the book “The call of nationalism: the motto “Russia for Russians” in pre-revolutionary social thought”, maintains that the watchword “Russia for Russians” first appeared in the Russian media on November 15, 1867 in an editorial for the “Vest” conservative newspaper.

The editorial staff opposed the idea of providing economic and military support to the Slavic population of the Austrian Empire. In those days, Russian right-wingers demanded that the government provide help to the suffering “fraternal” people. The editorial staff of “Vest” expressed their sympathy for the Slavs, but noted two things: that the Slavs in Austria were better off than the Russians in Russia, and that Russia already had lots of domestic problems – teetering on the edge of poverty and coping with Asian lawlessness – and had no reason to spend money on helping other peoples.

As “Vest” saw it, “Russia for Russians” meant that Russia should only be dealing with the problems of Russian citizens, and that the fate of the citizens of other countries was none of its concern.

A famous Slavophile at the time, Ivan Aksakov, criticized the stance of “Vest’”. His article, in which he fervently argued about the immorality of “Russia for Russians” was published in the “Moskva” newspaper on November 25, 1867. Russia, Aksakov argued, is obliged to help all European Slavs without exception, since it is the leader of the Slavic world. It is Russia’s historical and moral mission to free the Slavs from the yoke of the Germans and Turks.

This sparked an impassioned debate. Right-wingers accused “Vest” of cruelty akin to that of the cruelest of landowners. The newspaper appealed to common sense and the experience of European countries in self-defense. Aksakov blamed “Vest” for defending the interests of large landowners, while ignoring the aspirations of ordinary Russian people who, as was well-known, lived in poverty but were ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of freedom in Montenegro.

As a result, the motto was propelled into general use, with its meaning altered time and time again.

The editorial board of “Vest” borrowed the idea from American political journalism. “The Monroe Doctrine” – the declaration of the principles of American foreign policy as of December 2, 1823 – talked about “America for the Americans”. The United States was preoccupied with the affairs of the citizens of the country, and didn’t care about Europe’s problems. “Vest” mechanically transferred the motto to Russian soil, having suggested ceasing further conquests and focusing on the development of its already-conquered territories.

But the economic pacifism of “Vest” enraged the nationalists. Russian right-wingers, confident that all Slavs should become subjects of the Russian emperor, saw a betrayal of Russia’s interests in this motto.

Subsequently, the motto received several new interpretations, although none of them were what “Vest” had insisted upon. After the assassination of Alexander II, “Russia for Russians” was taken over by the right-wingers who supported absolute monarchy.

In an effort to hold on to the throne, Russian right-wingers claimed that the motto really meant that Russians should occupy the highest position in the hierarchy of the peoples of the Russian empire. And, at the same time, Russians should and were obliged – as their sacred duty! – to protect the monarchy against liberal plots.

Russian nationalists tirelessly replicated texts about the way non-Russians humiliated Russians while honing both topics: the supremacy of Russians and the defense of the emperor. They also bragged about how beautiful the Russian monarchy was.

Germans and foreigners in general were declared the main enemies of Russians. According to the general opinion of the right-wing at the time, it was easier for a foreigner to make a career in Russia than for a native Russian to do so. Peter the Great was to blame for that: he had artificially diminished Russians, despite their blazing talents and achievements. He had made Russians cringe before the West, and forced them to learn from it. This had oppressed the Russian people. The nationalists claimed that Russians were in fact more intelligent and gifted than Europeans. The Russian Emperor, loved by Russians to bits, should cast off the German yoke by his sovereign decision, and raise Russians over non-Russians.

However, the meaning of the motto “raise Russians over non-Russians” was not explained. Russians were supposed to be “above” anyway, but it was up to the emperor to define exactly how. But the requirements were vague and emotional in nature. The extreme demand made of Peter was, roughly speaking, “to issue a decree that every Russian was better than any non-Russian”.

The only requirement that could seriously be considered was the requirement to introduce protective duties on British goods, so that the life of the Russian entrepreneur that the Russian nationalists were mainly dependent on was good, and to make life worse for the non-Russians who did not pay the nationalists and did not intend to.

As regards the eternal Russian question of “Who are the Russians that Russia is for?”, this was answered at various times. In the beginning, right-wingers, including Dostoyevsky, wrote that a Russian was an Orthodox believer. Later on, they decided that a Russian was any person speaking Russian. Subsequently, this meant any person who had acquired Russian culture.

Still, the main characteristic was nevertheless intended to be a political one, according to which a Russian was anyone who loved the Russian emperor and obeyed his every whim.

This was one who suffered Russian hardships in silence. One who meekly paid for tsarist projects out of their own pocket, no matter how colossal the project seemed. One who would risk their health and life in wars started by the emperor, without hesitation and requiring no explanations.

The motto “Russia for Russians” in the mouth of right-wingers meant that Russia was for those “who absolutely committed themselves to the emperor”. And he who was not faithful to the emperor was not a Russian, even though they may be Orthodox and Russian-speaking.

It was further noted that the imperial administration stopped using the motto “Russia for Russians”. Right-wing columnists fought the Germans with ink and goose-quills. They had nothing but the utmost admiration for the wisdom of the tsar. However, the crown stayed silent. Remaining aristocratic in spirit, the empire thought it was beneath its dignity to speak to its subjects in the language of the newspapers.

Russian nationalists fed the poorly-educated agricultural population fairy-tales that were clear to understand and close to their hearts.

During World War I, Russian nationalists focused on the persecution of Russified Germans, carefully avoiding their favorite topic of the “aliens” who were allegedly robbing Russians of their last pennies. The motto then “Russia for Russians” disappeared from the right-wing agenda. A war was being waged, and the empire needed millions of soldiers to fight it, including those of non-Russian descent. One had to fly against the wind not to disrupt the plans for the military draft.

What does “Russia for Russians” mean today?

More recently, it was used as a hard anti-immigration motto, prior to the annexation of Crimea, and was necessarily accompanied by “Moscow for Muscovites” during the “Russian marches”. According to Russian right-wingers, the motto “Russia for Russians” meant that Russia belonged to its indigenous population – to those who had lived in Russia from the very beginning. Immigrants had no rights to the social benefits enjoyed by Russians. They could not take up a job as long as there was an unemployed Russian somewhere. Russia helps Russians first of all!

Another extension of the motto is “Stop feeding the Caucasus”. According to nationalists, the government should have drastically cut budget subsidies to the republics of the North Caucasus, or separated from them. This motto was so popular that while prime minister, Vladimir Putin spoke of its harmfulness in 2012. In response, the notorious leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) Vladimir Zhirinovsky said that Putin was a good leader for Jews only, and that he did not care about Russians.

The motto then acquired new meaning after the annexation of Crimea, at which time problems with immigrants and the North Caucasus began to pale into insignificance. A fantastic project to increase the territory of Russia at the expense of the former Soviet republics that had gained independence after the collapse of the USSR then came to the fore. Its goal was for Russia, as the state of Russians, to regain the lands inhabited by the Russians, as Russia had reclaimed Crimea.

Moreover, the language of religious respect for the Russian government was again employed by right-wingers after the annexation of Crimea. Prior to the annexation of Crimea, they had criticized Putin in their own way. But Putin began to be treated as a fully-fledged emperor after Crimea. The famous Russian writer and leader of the National Bolshevik Party, Eduard Limonov, saw the emperor in Putin during a special TV program entitled “Direct line with Vladimir Putin”. The writer Zakhar Prilepin, who had earlier cooperated with the National Bolsheviks, could not have agreed more with him, and the same goes for Nikita Mikhalkov, who openly proclaims his endearment for the absolute monarchy and serfdom.

Apparently, the next step will be the identification of Russia with the emperor, as it was in the nineteenth century. The meaning of “Russia for Russians” will change again, into the motto “Russia is the emperor; the Russians for the emperor and the emperor for the Russians”. This old concept, according to which a Russian is the one who is religiously devoted to the emperor, will reemerge. In fact, it has already happened to some extent, if we are to treat the words of the Head of the Presidential Administration Vyacheslav Volodin seriously. He asserts that “Putin means Russia; no Putin – no Russia”.

Yes indeed, the president of Russia is not anointed to reign like emperors and Russian tsars were, starting with Ivan the Terrible. On the other hand, Putin is a genius, as the Russian media have convinced the Russians. From the point of view of this propaganda and the Russians who have been convinced by it, Putin’s genius far exceeds any anointment to reign, and is the basis for his legitimacy as an emperor. 

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