Imagining Russia: ethnic identity and the nationalist mind


The seemingly tolerant attitude of Russian assimilationists offers a curious obverse to the view propounded by Dostoevsky in his famous 1880 "Pushkin Speech," namely, the view that the ideal Russian is some kind of grandiose "universal human" ("vsechelovek"). This may be termed Russian universalism. According to Dostoevsky, a real Russian is capable of loving all other nationalities in a brotherly fashion, responding to them with complete empathy, even becoming them in some sense. For example, a Russian genius such as the poet Pushkin was capable of "completely reincarnating in himself an alien nationality." In his literary works Pushkin could depict a Spaniard, an Englishman, a Muslim, etc. with uncanny accuracy because he was Russian. Generally speaking, the true Russian can embrace and can embody "alien" nationalities.
Here it is the Russian who supposedly assimilates to the foreigner, not the foreigner who assimilates to the Russian. Note, however, that the Russian who so assimilates remains Russian (Pushkin remains Russian), while the foreigner who assimilates stops being a foreigner and becomes Russian.
Note also that the foreigner one assimilates to is not only the European one looks up to, but also the savage one looks down at. Susan Layton has shown that nineteenth-century literature about the conquest of the Caucasus (Pushkin, Lermontov, Bestuzhev-Marlinskii) expressed Russian admiration for, even identification with the brave Muslim mountaineers. They were "Asian 'others' whom nineteenth-century Russians proved eager to embrace as surrogate selves." For example, Lermontov's famous Ismail-Bey was "the poet's alter ego in Circassian garb." Layton's study offers abundant evidence for the ability of Russians to identify with the non-Russian victims of tsarist oppression. This ability was no doubt facilitated by the oppression of Russians themselves by their tsars and other authority figures.
The idea of Russian universalism had been expressed in one way or another by various of Dostoevsky's predecessors, e.g., the Slavophile Konstantin Aksakov: "The Russian people is not a people; it is humanity." Even earlier Nikolai Karamzin remarked (in 1810) on the "amalgam of customs" - German, Mongol, Byzantine, Roman, and so on - which Russians "loved as their own national heritage."
The universalist attitude was also repeated after Dostoevsky. In 1882 Ivan Aksakov declared that "The specific characteristic of the spirit of the Russian people consists precisely in its many-sidedness, breadth, and its expression of the principles of mankind at large [obshchechelovechnosti]." Poet Osip Mandelstam, writing in 1915, termed Chaadaev's thinking "national-synthetic" and labelled the Russians a "synthetic nationality." Most recently Dmitrii Likhachev has spoken of the Russian "trait of openness and understanding of what is native and what is alien as if it were native [chertu vospriimchivosti i ponimaniia svoego i chuzhogo kak svoego]." Borrowing from Dostoevsky, Likhachev speaks of "russkaia vsechelovechnost'" and asserts that the chief characteristic of Russian culture is its "vselenskost', universalizm." Russian culture has "an open character with respect to the other cultures of humankind." Russian literature, architecture, music, and painting - all borrow freely from elsewhere, all incorporate the alien and make it their own, says Likhachev. Compare Richard Taruskin, who analyzes Glinka's musical eclecticism in the context of Dostoevsky's claim of Russian universalism: "Uniting the best of the West - or, more generally, the best of the rest - was one highly preferred way of being Russian, for it affirmed belief in the universality of Russian culture, and in its salvific mission."
Likhachev quotes Aleksandr Blok's famous lines from "The Scythians" (1918) about the Russian ability to love what is foreign:
Мы любим все - и жар холодных числ,
И дар божественных видений,
Нам внятно все - и острый галльский смысл,
И сумрачный германский гений…

We love everything - the ardor of cold numbers
As much as the gift of divine visions.
We understand everything - the clever Gallic notion
As much as the gloomy Germanic genius.
These lines express a clear desire to "efface the border," as Carol Avins says, between Russia and Europe.
Usually Russian universalism is viewed in tandem with Russian messianism. It it just as interesting, however, to view it as the flip side of Russian assimilationism. If for the assimilationists anyone can become a true Russian, for Dostoevsky, Blok, and the other universalists a true Russian can become anyone. In either case the boundary between the one who is Russian and the one who is a foreigner is decidedly permeable, what distinguishes "own" ("svoi") from "alien" ("chuzhoi") is not so clear.
Such a boundary problem, as we have seen earlier, is precisely the problem an infant has in the process of separating from the mother. Note again, however, the tight-fisted narcissism of this attitude: the true Russian remains a true Russian while becoming someone else, but the foreigner who becomes Russian loses foreign identity. There is a net gain, never a loss for Russians. Only in de-russification (see above) is there loss, but that phenomenon is unusual in Russian imperial history, and in any case is frowned upon.
We saw that assimilationism tends to involve an aggressive or hostile overtone toward the ethnic other. For example, the anti-Semite who welcomes Jews who get baptized - is obviously hostile. The same is true in universalism. The Dostoevskian "vsechelovek" who loves everything Western also happens to be the famous xenophobe who hates Jews, Poles, the French, and Americans. Dostoevsky's intellectual forebears, the Slavophiles who believed they had a mission of universal significance expressed "both a bitter hostility to the West and a tender care for its future," as Nicholas Riasanovsky points out. The Pushkin who identified with Muslim mountaineers in his long poem "Prisoner of the Caucasus" also expressed chauvinistic attitudes toward these people in the same poem. Ambivalence is as much a hallmark of Russian universalism as it is of Russian assimilationism.
Dmitrii Likhachev, as usual accentuating the positive, neglects to mention some other rather negative lines from the same universalist Blok poem in which a paradoxical hatred of the beloved is expressed:
Россия - Сфинкс. Ликуя и скорбя,
И обливаясь черной кровью,
Она глядит, глядит, глядит в тебя
И с ненавистью, и с любовью!

Russia is a Sphinx. In joy and in sorrow,
Bathed in black blood,
She gazes endlessly at you
With hatred and with love.
We love everything the West has to offer, says Blok. But we love it so much we want to eat it up, that is, we hate it as well. The ambivalence here is intense. Cannibalistic images come to fore as the Russian Sphinx contemplates devouring the supposedly beloved West:
Мы любим плоть - и вкус ее, и цвет,
И душный, смертный запах…
Виновны ль мы, коль хрустнет ваш скелет
В тяжелых, нежных наших лапах?

We love flesh, its taste and its color,
And its damp, mortal smell.
Is it our fault that your skeleton crumbles
In our heavy, tender paws?
These gruesome lines are a direct threat. The West had better be careful with newly Bolshevized, newly 'Mongolized' Russia. The Europe Russia once imitated and protected from the Mongols is now about to be devoured. Russia is not indifferent to Europe, she cannot simply turn away from Europe and mind her own affairs. Rather, past love for Europe turns to present hatred. Russia cannot cut the cord with Europe, cannot leave a boundary well enough alone, cannot let Europe simply be.
When the Russian self relates to the Russian other in this way, there is a serious problem with the self. That is, there is a narcissistic problem. The other is not merely other, it is an excessively significant other, a hypercathected target to be assimilated or to be imitated, to be loved or to be hated, indeed to be loved and to be hated ("with hatred and with love" says Blok). Such an other is a threat to the very integrity of the Russian self, and is an instrument for acting on the core narcissistic problem of Russian identity.
More generally speaking, a problematical, ambivalent attitude toward the other always reflects a problem with the self. Any form of preoccupation with the outgroup is ultimately a narcissistic phenomenon. Below I will have more to say about the externalizing and projective aspects of this phenomenon. Here, however, I wish to examine its grandiose aspect, and the shame it hides (or fails to hide). The assimilationist or universalist self is an imperial self, and the assimilationist's or the universalist's narcissism is an embarrassed narcissism of empire. Russian assimilationism and Russian universalism thrive on the overt personal grandiosity and covert shame of individual Russians who are preoccupied with these phenomena.

Imagining Russia     Previous Chapter     "Panorama"

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