How does identity politics distort the public order?


Viatcheslav Morozov

To person

Viatcheslav Morozov is Professor of EU-Russia Studies at the University of Tartu. His current research is concerned with the question of how Russia's political and social development was conditioned by its position in the international system. His approach is outlined in his recently published monograph "Russia’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World" (Palgrave, 2015).

Viatcheslav Morozov describes in his analysis a “new old identity politics”, which is shaped, among other things, by the question of Russia's relationship to Europe and its urge to assert itself as a great power.

Russian identity is torn between clinging to traditional values ​​and developing into a modern society. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)


Russian identity politics and - in a broader sense - the development of the country in modern times have been determined by two fundamental divisions, namely between the elite of the empire and the great mass of peasants on the one hand, and between Russia and Europe on the other. The current conservative turn aims at overcoming the internal division by aligning the politics of the state with the mass consciousness with its alleged preference for "traditional values". This strategy ignores the fact that Russia today is a modern, urbanized society. In the long run, it is likely to undermine the Kremlin's efforts to achieve and consolidate great power status.

New old identity politics

The current Russian identity politics represents a peculiar combination of well-known elements. The official discourse has emphasized "traditional values" and "spiritual brackets" since 2012 and thus refers to an assumed genuinely Russian culture and a Russian spirit that has not yet been through centuries of westernizing modernization are contaminated. At the same time, the Russian state continues to claim continuity with its imperial predecessors, which includes a civilizing mission with regard to its own population, but also the status of a great power and a prominent role in world politics. The importance of the latter dimension has become increasingly clear through the interventions in Ukraine and Syria, while the resulting confrontation with the West intensified the search for the "truly Russian" self. Attempts to fuse the imperialist narrative with the traditionalist-nativist are not entirely new, but have never been particularly successful in the past.

European Empire or Organic Tradition?

In order to grasp the difficulties in connecting different narratives of identity, it is important to consider the historical background. The development of Russia in recent times has basically been determined by two constitutive divisions, on the one hand by the gap between the elites of the empire and the great mass of peasants, and on the other hand by that between Russia and Europe. According to the British historian Geoffrey Hosking, the first division goes back to the division into the nobility (who had to serve in the army or the bureaucracy of the empire) and the taxable population. This division was introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries and was consolidated under Peter the Great, who forced the elites to adopt European culture and customs. As Alexander Etkind notes, this created a deep rift between the Europeanized, "shaved" Russians and their "bearded" compatriots that went so far that their relationship could best be described as one between colonizers and colonized.

These developments were largely driven by security and foreign policy considerations. The territory of Russia has always been vulnerable to invaders. The rise of Western Europe brought about by technological and social innovation created a feeling of nakedness on this flank in Russia. This created incentives for Europeanization in order to catch up with the most progressive countries. However, as Leon Trotsky was the first to clearly point out, the geopolitical "knuckle of external necessity" has not led to the careful transplantation of "progressive" European institutions. In fact, Russia followed what Trotsky calls "combined development": institutional borrowings were tailored to meet the needs of a vast empire whose mission was to control diverse populations and mobilize resources for continued military efforts.

This combined development, it could be argued, could be responsible for the fact that Russia has never been able to fully integrate into the European cultural area. The Norwegian political scientist and social anthropologist Iver Neumann has argued that Western Europeans in their hegemonic position have always been very sensitive to the question of how other countries are governed: Russia's authoritarian governance is viewed with suspicion and contempt and is often viewed as a threat to the entire European liberal Order has been presented. The reasons for this mistrust can be easily reconstructed by following the current discussion about Moscow's subversive policy towards Western democracies. That was the reason for the second great gulf mentioned above, that between Russia and (the rest of) Europe.

Both dividing lines are essential for Russian identity. Basically, the most important problem that Russia has had with its identity since the 18th century is the question of whether it should continue to Europeanise itself in the hope of eliminating the differences with Europe, or whether it should turn its back on the West and transform society according to traditional values. The elites would then give up their unnecessarily refined culture and pursue the simpler lifestyle of the masses. The first option has always been extremely attractive, not only because of the chance of being fully recognized as a major European power. It also represented a way to create resilient institutions anchored in civil society, capable of curbing the almighty, corrupt bureaucracy. However, this also involved risks, as mobilization from below threatened the unity of an empire in which ethnic Russians made up less than half of the total population. The Russians themselves were predominantly peasants, culturally alienated from the elites and suspected of being unpredictable and prone to rebellion. The elites, too, were increasingly fragmented: the emergence of a democratic intelligentsia towards the middle of the 19th century posed a drastic challenge to the legitimacy of the state, and it meant an increasing fragmentation of the public space into hostile groups and groups.

The second way ("go with the people and move away from Europe") seemed safer at first glance, but implicitly meant abandoning or at least postponing social modernization. This predicament brought Russia under Trotsky's "stick of external necessity". Another, more subtle, but ultimately more fatal difficulty was the fact that the people were not adequately represented in discursive and political space. The farmers were largely illiterate and did not have the means to express their "traditional values" in a way that could be used politically. These values ​​existed largely in the imagination of intellectuals, especially in the great Russian literature of the 19th century. This gap began to close in the early 20th century. However, it would certainly be an exaggeration to say that we know a lot about the farmers' ideas of an ideal society, or to actually claim that the farmers had some broader social utopia in common that went beyond contradicting common sense.

Against this background, the current change in Russian identity politics could be understood as a repetition of the old pattern of conservative reaction after a recent round of painful and destabilizing reforms. However, the current situation is special in one important respect.

Traditionalist Identity for a Modern Society?

As mentioned, society in the Russian Empire was deeply fissured. The gaps between the elites and the masses of the population were so great that the state actually had to undertake a civilizing (or colonizing) mission in relation to its own population - including ethnic Russians. With regard to the core countries of the empire, which roughly included the European part of today's Russian Federation (excluding the North Caucasus), Belarus, eastern Ukraine, and the urbanized parts of Siberia, Kazakhstan and the Far East, the Soviet Union has largely completed this mission. Social mobility as well as the displacements and expulsions caused by Soviet modernization and totalitarian repression have removed the cultural walls between social groups. The new hierarchies that replaced the old ones from the Tsarist Empire were much flatter. They were then transformed again by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most important, however, was that general, standardized higher education was introduced in the Soviet Union and that a mass culture emerged that appealed to all social classes and was accessible. Thus, Russia's post-Soviet society is much more homogeneous than any of its predecessors. This does not mean that there is no inequality or that class differences are not culturally marked. But, with regard to the question of national identity, two randomly chosen Russians would always be able to have a conversation and, by and large, they would use the same discursive codes. Such a conversation between a peasant and an intellectual would have been inconceivable in the 19th century: When the Russian "Narodniki" decided to "go to the people" in the 1870s, it took a considerable amount of time and effort to find a common language and to find the confidence with which politics could be discussed. The issues currently being discussed, however, are by and large the same as those discussed by Westerners and Slavophiles in the 19th century and their successors: Is Russia a European country? Should it try to catch up with the West, or should it go its own way? Should it be ashamed or proud of its differences to Europe?

Hardly anyone in Russia or outside the country will deny that there are still considerable differences between Russia and most of the EU in terms of socio-political issues, the structure and quality of institutions and certain behavioral patterns. This is hardly surprising when you consider that the country has never been able to break out of the vicious circle of dependent, semi-peripheral development. Stalin's modernization was a giant step forward in this regard, but it was based largely on imported technology (in exchange for the farmers' grain). The late Soviet Union developed an oil dependency, which was exacerbated in the post-Soviet era. The fact that the state relied on pensions rather than taxes distorts social representation, undermines democratic accountability and creates widespread corruption.

While most Russian political and intellectual leaders today would likely agree with this diagnosis, most of them shy away from radical reforms. They do this for the same reasons as their 19th century predecessors: They don't trust their own people. There is a fear that activism from below, if not strictly monitored by the state, could lead to chaos and destruction. This view is also supported by the interpretation of the 1990s as "dark times" of recent history of Russia, as a modern "time of turmoil", as well as the idea of ​​a conspiracy in which the West exploits any weaknesses of the state to stage a "colored revolution" in Moscow. However, instead of speaking with the population at eye level as with enlightened, reasonable beings, the conservative elites prefer to perceive them as peasants from the 19th century, who with the help of a promotion of Orthodox religion, traditional family values ​​and a "patriotic" view to the story in which the tsars and their people stand together in a kind of spiritual, superhuman unity, can and should be kept under control. Paradoxically, the conservatives are supported in this by most liberals, who never tire of lamenting the barbarism they perceive around them. Rather than conceptually apprehending Russia's differences in institutional and historicist terms, as a result of a specific pattern of delayed modernization, Russian Westerners essentialize these differences as a cultural phenomenon by highlighting the differences in the tenacity of a "peasant consciousness", a "Soviet mentality" or to attribute to an "authoritarian Russian spirit". It is only a small step from such "essentialism" to supporting the regime as something the Russians actually deserve. It should be emphasized that while it is the elites who determine the course of the country, society as a whole is involved in the identity discourse that is behind these decisions. So it is not just the leaders who do not trust the masses - in a sense, the entire Russian people have no confidence in themselves. Everyone is in a hurry to repeat the stereotypes of Russia as a radically and irrationally abnormal case. Whether this ascription is made with somber pessimism or with unrestrained exhilaration is of secondary importance. This explains - among other things - the effectiveness of official propaganda: not that everyone would believe everything that is presented as truth on television, but most would say that some brainwashing is necessary in order to discipline fellow citizens who are otherwise out of control might advise.


A modern power with a claim to global leadership can only try to a limited extent to convince its people that it will fare better as uncivilized natives than as modern citizens. For one thing, appealing to spiritual values ​​may be good as long as the majority of the population still has access to the benefits of modern civilization, but this is constantly being challenged by radical traditionalists. Potential explosives include issues such as the right to abortion and access to modern communication technologies, both of which could affect substantially large populations.

Even more important is the fact that the Russian state is at the peak of its international engagement with its meddling in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria and with the global confrontation with the West. There is obviously a danger of imperial overstretching, not dissimilar to the tendencies that have overturned the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. The combination of the structural economic crisis and the drop in oil prices brings with it the need to mobilize all available resources. Ultimately - and this is what the government admits - the task of making Russia great requires economic and technological modernization.

If modernization is indeed necessary, the conservative turnaround could be helpful for social mobilization, but its short-term benefits are clearly outweighed by a backward trend in education, health and other key elements of social infrastructure. In other words: if the state continues to promote "traditional values", it will perpetuate the technological and institutional gap between Russia and the developed world, which inevitably also has consequences in the field of foreign policy. The "knuckle of external necessity" will no doubt strike again, although it may take some time before it happens.

Translation from English: Hartmut Schröder

Reading tips

  • Etkind, Alexander: Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience, Cambridge: Polity 2011.
  • Hosking, Geoffrey: Russia. People and Empire, 1552-1917, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1997.
  • Morozov, Viatcheslav: Russia’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan 2015.
  • Neumann, Iver B .: Russia as a Great Power, 1815–2007, in: Journal of International Relations and Development 11.2008, No. 2, pp. 128–151.
  • Trotsky, Leo: History of the Russian Revolution, Berlin, 1931/32.

The Russia analyzes are carried out by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen and the German Society for Eastern European Studies. The Federal Agency for Civic Education / bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.