Russian Nationalism, 1856-1917

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 17 Pages

History - Asia



The roots of Russian nationalism can be found in its ancient Greco-Byzantine heritage. The political divide between the East and the West created by Napoleon, the cultural antagonism between the Roman-Catholic and German-Protestant West on the one hand, and Slavic-Orthodox East on the other hand, were the main driving determinates behind the evolution of Slavophile thoughts and the Panslavic ideology in the 19th century. As well, the rise of Nationalism in Western Europe, and the political unifications in Italy and Germany, gave a huge boost to the emergence of modern Russian nationalism.

The first movement associated with these ideas was that of the Slavophiles. The Slavophiles were different from their French contemporaries, who saw their identity in relation to the French state. For the Slavophiles, culture, consisting of the Russian language and literature, and the belief in Orthodox Christendom and not so much the state brought about national unity. Vastly influenced by their German neighbors to the West, in the time of Romanticism, Slavophiles tried to cultivate and enhance the idea of a Slavic people and a national community through their writings, and by accentuating the common belief in Orthodox morality and the purity of the rural folk against the decadent West. The Slavophiles had their basis mainly among the intellectuals, what was perceived as Russia’s cultural elite. During the first half of the 19th century, Russia, as the only independent Slav state, with its vast population and its political might, was seen as the heartland of Slavic people.

It was after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-56, when Slavophilism emerged into a political ideology and entered the sphere of politics. Now, intellectuals wanted to put Slavophile ideas on the political agenda, which ought to liberate the smaller Slavic communities from Ottoman, Austrian, and Prussian yoke and bring them under the protection of their bigger brothers, the Russians. Despite its attractiveness and support among Russia’s intellectual elite, and other Slavic intellectuals, the Russian Tsar and officials hesitated with the political ideas of Panslavism. Not all of Russia was populated with Slavic people, but there were also Jews, Baltics and Germans. Further, not all Slavs identified themselves as Orthodox and wanted to be ruled by Russia, for example the Poles. Moreover, Panslavic ideas were responsible for nurturing independent national movements, who were fighting for their right of self-determination from any foreign rule. Confronted with the impact of these ideas, the Russian authorities half-heartedly approached Panslavism. Official Russia, in its nationality policy, pursued the russification of its Western territories through Russian language and education, but dismissed Panslavic ideas in its high politics like in foreign policy, despite in rhetoric.

This paper will present the issue of Russian nationalism and nationality policy during the last decades of the Romanov Era, 1856-1917. This analysis is based on six different monographs dealing with this issue at different periods of Russian history. Each has a different approach and at times a different thesis on Russian nationalism or an interpretation of the political events accompanying the Russian nationality policy.

On the following pages, the author will give a brief summary on the six books discussed in this paper. Then, the author will provided the main thesis of each book, and underline them by author’s arguments. Finally, in the last chapter, the book’s arguments are compared with each other in a historiographical manner, to see where similarities between the arguments exist, where the books complement each other and at which points they disagree with each other.

Susanna Rabow-Edling, Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism

Rabow-Edling analyses the role of Slavophile intellectuals, who as one of the first, articulated a comprehensive idea of Russian national identity.[1] She dismisses the prevalent view that Slavophilism was a conservative and utopian movement that was isolationist and antagonistic to the West. She also disputes the overall view that Slavophiles had an abstract philosophy, promoting Russian customs and institutions, with an interest in Russian history, folklore, and the philosophy of the Orthodox Church – but who ignored social realities of contemporary Russia.[2]

Instead, her thesis is that Slavophilism was a critical assessment of contemporary Russian society and a real attempt to change social problems. It was also a rational approach to solve an identity crisis among Russian intellectuals, who saw their own country lacking culturally behind the rest of Europe.[3] In the 18th century, Russia had to imitate Europe, to become part of it. In the 19th century, however, they had to contribute something to it, if they wanted to be part of it.[4]

Rabow-Edling reinterprets Slavophil thought in the context of cultural nationalism, in contrast to political nationalism. Whereas political nationalism is founded on a civic admiration of the state and government, cultural nationalism is based on the historicist view of a nation’s true character, which is manifested in its culture, in its arts, thought, and the way of life.[5] Cultural nationalism, she says, seeks to unite the different aspects of the nation, the traditional and the modern, the rural and the urban, reason and faith. For Slavophiles, the glory of a country did not come from its political power, but from the culture of its people and the contribution of its thinkers and artists to humanity.[6]

Alexander Pygin, the court historian at this time, coined the dictum “Official Nationality,” which the Slavophiles and other independent thinkers rejected. These intellectuals recruited themselves from the gentry and they saw themselves between the people and the government. What united them, was not their class, but their intellect and their wish to find an own Russian way within the European Enlightenment.[7]

Their emphasis on the village commune implied the approval for local self-government and criticism of the state bureaucracy. They believed in the necessity of freedom of thought and expression. Though Slavophile intellectuals were not able to discuss their ideas in public, they were forced into private spheres of salons, clubs, and social circles. There, their essays were read and debated, and questions of literature and philosophy were discussed freely. By engaging in self-censorship and dealing only with a-political themes, moreover, by avoiding references to the Tsar and his government, potentially subversive articles could pass the censor. Therewith, Slavophiles tried to find answers about Russian society and culture identity.[8]

Rabow-Edling focus is on the historical context, rather than the philosophical meaning and originality of Slavophil thought. She says that Slavophiles participated in a public discussion concerning the state of the Russian nation and culture. This discourse was conducted in the idiom of Romanticism, which aimed to find a central role for Russia in Europe; therefore, they had to find and give Russia and themselves an identity first.[9]


[1] See, Susanna Rabow-Edling, Slavophile Thought and the Politics of Cultural Nationalism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), p. 67-71.

[2] Ibid, p. 1.

[3] Ibid, p. 22-27, 101-105

[4] Ibis, p. 2, 35-37, 135-137.

[5] Ibid, p. 2-4, 62-71.

[6] Ibid, p. 5, 85-92.

[7] Ibid, p. 117-128.

[8] Ibid, p. 9-10, 93-99.

[9] Ibid, p. 4, 31-34, 45-50.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
513 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
The American Central University – Department of History
B+ (2)
Russian Nationalism



Title: Russian Nationalism, 1856-1917