Unity in a Vacuum
November 4, 2015
All holidays are rituals of unity, and it is hard to imagine society functioning without them. November 4, however, is a truly odd day, whose originators ask us to experience unity for its own sake. It reflects the emptiness of official ideology, which claims the role of a national idea.
National Unity Day (Den’ narodnogo edinstva) will never be a truly popular, grassroots holiday. Whatever our attitude to living holidays like International Women’s Day (March 8) or Victory Day (May 9), despite the vulgarity surrounding them and the distortions of their original meaning, they are still bound up with significant societal needs: honoring wives, mothers, and heroic forebears. The sense of unity experienced by millions of people at tables laden with champagne and Olivier salad is maybe illusory but it is not groundless. But who besides thuggish nationalists is capable of feeling the narcissistic pleasure of “unity” as such, especially since it is totally unclear what we are called on to rally around?
The search for a national idea in post-Soviet Russia has resembled the quest for the philosopher’s stone, and has been just as fruitless. According to the Russian Constitution, the sovereign power in the Russian state is “its multinational people,” who are usually designated by the semi-bureaucratic term rossiyane [citizens of Russia, as opposed to russkie, ethnic Russians]. And yet multiculturalism (the coexistence of different ethnic traditions within a single society) is considered a dirty word, and federalism has finally been shunted aside by the vision of Empire. Promotion of ethnic nationalism, “Russianness,” and its concomitant Russian Orthodoxy, the official “spiritual bond,” has led to the fact that Chechens, Dagestanis, and Buryats, for example, are often not regarded as “citizens of multinational Russia,” but as suspicious foreigners like the migrant workers from the once-fraternal former Soviet republics.
However, as it flirts with Russian ethnic nationalism, which has served it well in Ukraine, the regime at the same time fears its devastating consequences for empire. While reacting morbidly to the most innocent speeches about federalization, the Kremlin also prevents the holding of the so-called Russian Marches. The regime’s rhetoric contains an explosive ambiguity. On the one hand, the regime constantly tells us about the “Russian world,” thus stoking ethnic chauvinism. On the other, it talks about the country’s multinational people and the danger of nationalism.
When they invented a holiday to replace November 7 (Revolution Day), the Kremlin’s ideologues deliberately chose the vaguest phrasing possible: “national unity” or “popular unity” [narodnoe edinstvo]. But what is “the people” [narod] today? The word is hardly equivalent to “nation” or “ethnic group.” In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the word denoted all the non-privileged classes, the “simple folk,” especially the peasants. The people was distinguished from educated society by its special (unique and authentic) way of thinking and living, as well as its perennial disempowerment and oppression. In other words, it was more a class and cultural notion than an ethnic or official legal concept.
Later, a new supranational identity, the Soviet people [sovetskii narod], was constructed. We can argue whether it was a reality or the stillborn offspring of communist propaganda. However, this concept cannot be denied its logical shapeliness. The Soviet people was the unity of working people, freed from the yoke of the past and headed towards a post-capitalist future. Unqiue, authentic tradition gave way to Soviet society’s social authenticity and uniqueness. It had overthrown tsarism and capitalism, successfully defended its independence in the fight against fascism, and was proud of its unprecedented historical mission.
In post-Soviet Russia, however, there are no longer any communal peasants or builders of communism. Russia has no monolithic ethnic foundation or alternative social project that it could show to the world and itself. All that can be said about our society it that it is post-Soviet. But there can be no “post-Soviet” people. The mutilated shards of the imperialist, Soviet, and westernized mindsets have generated a postmodernist mishmash that a disoriented and atomized populace gags on and vomits out. It is not the nation or the people but the unscrupulous regime, which has no other purpose than self-reproduction, that is only the glue binding this stagnant society, a society bereft of guideposts. The November 4 holiday is a vacuum into which the ruling class gazes, a void that will eventually swallow it.
Translated by the Russian Reader