Putin’s Imagined Community

President Putin’s speech to the Russian nation is being deconstructed by diplomats, international relations specialists, and psychologists. In a passionate defense of his positioning of military forces on the borders of Ukraine and his recognition of the two separatist regions, Putin spoke about the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations in terms of the creation of Ukraine by Russia and their tribal affinities. “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia…” he said. “Ukraine never had a tradition of statehood.”

Putin’s argument is that Ukraine and Russia belonged to the same nation. “From the very first steps they began to build their statehood on the denial of everything that unites us. They tried to distort the consciousness, the historical memory of millions of people, entire generations [of Russians] living in Ukraine.”

By prioritizing the national bonds of Ukraine and Russia, Putin separated the liberal ideal of nation-states, that is that each nation has a state and each state has a nation. For Putin, Russia and Ukraine are one nation; the Ukrainian state is an artificial creation.

Putin’s speech, with its history lessons, had some similarities to a speech he gave in 2015 at the United Nations General Assembly. In that speech, he criticized those who believed in a unipolar world. “We are all different, and we should respect that,” he said. “No one has to conform to a single development model that someone has once and for all recognized as the only right one.”

In addition to arguing against any form of exceptionalism and its exportation in New York, Putin went so far as to recognize the errors of the universalists’ pretensions of Marxist/Leninist ideology: “We also remember certain episodes from the history of the Soviet Union. Social experiments for export, attempts to push for changes within other countries based on ideological preferences, often lead to tragic consequences and to degradation rather than progress”.

In his 2015 speech, Putin was reaching out to the international community, presenting an olive branch for future peace among states. Instead of one exceptional political system, either capitalist or communist, Putin called for plural political systems based on cooperation, recognizing national interests with no overarching ideology. In his recent address to the Russian community, he was revisiting history as the leader of the Russian tribe, much more so than merely the president of the Russian Federation. No olive branch here.

While psychologists, international relations specialists and diplomats are and will be analyzing the recent Putin speech, I would like to look at what Putin said and has said in terms of Benedict Anderson’s pioneering work on imagined communities. For while at the 2015 UN General Assembly Putin spoke to government leaders in rational, geopolitical terms against ideology, the recent address to the Russian people harkens back to Anderson’s study of the emotional importance of belonging and community.

Benedict Anderson’s ground-breaking 1983 book, Imagined Communities, argues that nations are socially constructed, not inherent by blood or territory. Through print and communal rituals – flags, anthems, memorials, etc.- an emotional community is formed which can grow into larger nations.

Putin’s current argument is that Ukraine is part of the Russian community. For Putin, Ukrainian statehood is a false construction. The Russian leader considers Ukraine as part of Russia’s identity. Ukraine and Russia, in Anderson’s terms, are part of the same imagined community, the same nation. The same argument was used by Russia during the Georgia/Russia war of 2008 concerning the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Instead of ideological arguments about capitalism vs. communism, or geopolitical arguments against NATO expansion and spheres of influence, Putin is positioning himself as the leader of the Russian tribe. Ukraine (at least the eastern part), South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Crimea are all part of Putin’s imagined community. Russia and the Near Abroad are indivisible. How far that extends in his mind is hard to say. There have been tensions about the rights of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states, and they too could be part of his imagination.

What is confusing here is the relationship between Putin’s recent communitarian presentation and geopolitics. My former colleague at the Graduate Institute André Liebich wrote a most perceptive article about nationalism in which he proposed that in Western Europe states created nations, while in Central and Eastern Europe nations created states.  In the new Hungarian constitution, for example, it says: “Hungary, guided by the ideal of the Hungarian nation, taking responsibility for all Hungarians living abroad…”. Hungarians living abroad means ethnic Hungarians who may be citizens of Romania or elsewhere.

The relationship between nations and states is complex. As the British-Czech philosopher and social anthropologist Ernst Gellner said: “Every nation should have a state and every state should have a nation. And hopefully they’re the same.” But they are not always the same. There are very few homogeneous nation-states where one ethnic group makes up the overwhelming population. And throughout history, according to Irish academic Fred Halliday, the rare homogeneous nation-states have been genocidal.

A superficial analysis of Putin’s recent speech shows that he has moved beyond the 2015 UN speech along diplomatic, geopolitical lines. His passionate defense of Russian identity, his presentation of his imagined community leaves little room for dialogue or resolution. He presented himself as the leader of a tribe fighting to defend its territory against incursion. This is no longer the Cold War language of communism vs. capitalism.

Appealing to community is emotional. Identity politics are emotional. Given those realities, it is hard to see how a space can be created for peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.