Russian Identity: The Risks of a New Russian Nationalism

The collapse of the Soviet Union has created an ideological and identity crisis in Russia. Prior to the collapse, the U.S.S.R was a multinational, multicultural state with the ideological mission to be the vanguard of a worldwide Communist revolution.  Afterwards, Russians foundered to find out who they were, what ideology they should embrace, and where they fit globally.  Initial attempts at liberalization seemed to have been a spectacular failure, and attempts to define themselves have bred a new form of nationalism that is not necessarily compatible with Western ideals.  This article examines immediate threats as well as the potential future risks as Russians define themselves and their place in the world.


In the last thirty years, Russians have experienced an identity crisis. In 1982, Russia was the center of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; a multinational, multicultural state that saw every person in every country as a potential ally in the worldwide fight for communism. This multiculturalism was not new to Russians. Even during the reign of the Czars Russia was a multicultural empire.[1] By 1992 the Soviet Union was no more. Russia tried to maintain its centrality through the Commonwealth of Independent States, but the country was a mere shadow of what had existed before. Russia's belief structure was also a failure. Marx and Lenin were wrong. There was no socialist utopia waiting just over the horizon.

Boris Yeltsin in 1991, staring down a coup. (Reuters)

So, with their beliefs and national identity in tatters, Russians ran headlong into the arms of free market capitalism and liberal democracy. This was not a resounding success, and by 1998 the Russian economy had collapsed.[2] Apparently, free-market liberalism was not the solution the Russians were looking for either. What came into being after that was a more managed form of democracy and capitalism. The new system that emerged in the mid 2000’s was dubbed “Sovereign Democracy.” Sovereign democracy was more than just a way of managing government; it was a way of life. As described in 2006 by Alexander Sokurov, the man who coined the term, sovereign democracy is:

…a form of political life of society, under which the authorities, their organs and actions are selected, formed, and directed exclusively by the Russian nation in all its variety and completeness so that all citizens, social groups, and people comprising it achieve material well-being, freedom, and justice.[3]

In other words, the Russian nation would do what was best for individual people: the individual people would not dictate to the nation. Liberalism, if it was not dead now, soon would be. A new collectivist nationalism was beginning to take shape, but it was still just a way of controlling the people. It was not a complete political ideology akin to liberal democracy, fascism, or communism.

So, if there was going to be a new “Russian nation in all its variety and completeness,” what would it consist of? In the early years of the Russian Federation there was a civic nationalism built around being a citizen of the new state.[4] By the turn of the millennium things began to change. Ethnic nationalism was starting to gain credence; the Russians were looking for an identity, and the idea of a Russian ethno-religious nationalism was starting to gain ground. Putin felt it was necessary to address the movement in one of a series of newspaper articles published before the 2012 elections.[5] Putin’s 2012 article rejected ethno-nationalism; two years later, however, he used the concept to justify the annexation of Crimea, and although coy, enlarged the term to mean anyone who self-identified as Russian.[6] Putin’s words made clear who he was talking about:

Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.[7]

Since 2014 Putin has increased his use of the term russkiy (ethnic Russian) over the term rossisskiy (Russian citizen).[8] That said, Putin does not appear to be a true believer in the ethno-nationalist cause; he is simply using its appeal for his own purposes. He does seem to have learned its power with the Russian people as well as with others abroad,and one way he may be intending to use that power is to gain further territory is through Russia’s compatriots.

Immediate Threat: Identity and Compatriots

Compatriots is a term used by Russia to identify citizens of the former Soviet Union who had historic ties to Russia, as the government saw them at the time, now stranded living outside of the Russian Federation. The collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union left islands of people who had some affinity for Russian culture and language living in countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, or the Baltic states, countries that were now not Russian. As a result, the breakup left nearly 25 million Russians living in what were now non-Russian states.[9] Moscow felt a close cultural and linguistic bond with these people, many of whom claimed Russian citizenship.

A flag with the logo of the Russkiy Mir Foundation (Modern Diplomacy)

The changes in the Russian Federation’s compatriot policy mirror the changes in its political philosophy. The compatriot policy passed through the same three phases: a multicultural phase through the 1990s, a transition phase through the early 2000s, and a mono-cultural consolidation in the last decade. The first phase began almost immediately with the new Constitution of the Russian Federation in 1993. In the constitution, the compatriots were expressly provided protection.[10] Much of the discussion in designing new policies revolved around who the new compatriot policy would protect.[11] Initially it was thought the compatriot policy should cover every former citizen of the former Soviet Union, but after the Orange Revolution in 2004, things changed. The idea of protecting every former Soviet citizen lost traction, and was replaced with a self-identified connection with Russia. By 2007 the Russkiy Mir, or “Russian World” Foundation was established to work with compatriots abroad.[12] Over time the idea of the Russian world morphed from one of compatriots living abroad to a way of seeing Russia in the world:

The implicit geopolitical meaning, civilizational rhetoric and anti-Westernism of the “Russian world” concept came at the fore when Russia was reconsidered recently as a “state-civilization.” This rhetoric frames the vision of the “Russian world” as a distinctive civilization, situated on a distinctive territory, ruled by a single political subject, and struggling with other civilizations for resources and influences. Its meaning became associated with the idea of “recollecting the Russian lands,” which is far from, perhaps even the opposite to its initial meaning as the network community of deterritorialized Russian-speakers.[13]

Russians had found a new sense of self, of who they were and where they fit in the world. But it was a sense that was divided and incomplete.

From a defense perspective, the idea of the Russiky Mir may be the most immediate source of concern. It can be used as a justification for extraterritorial activities in Russia’s near abroad. Crimea is an example, as it offers a look at what Russia could do to recollect Russian lands where there is a strategic justification and sufficient compatriot population to ensure success. Despite all the bluster, it is unlikely Crimea will be returned to Ukraine while there is still a majority Russian population living there. The U.N. Charter embraces the ideals of popular sovereignty, which offers a method for Russia to consolidate gains where enough of the population see themselves more as Russians than as Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Moldovans, or Estonians. Once borders stabilize in the Donbass, it will also likely go the way of Crimea. It also offers a window into locations where Russia may seek to recollect other lands.


However, even with a large amenable population and a strategic justification, Russia may not be able to successfully use its compatriots. This is because the compatriots may not react enthusiastically to reunification with the motherland. Consider the example of Narva, a town in Estonia very near the Russian border and with a majority Russian population.[14] It represents perhaps the farthest north-eastern city of size in the NATO alliance. If Russia wanted to create an incident that would test NATO’s commitment to the Baltics, and perhaps drive a wedge between the U.S. and NATO, Narva might be an ideal place to do it. There is only one problem. Just as Russia has spent the last thirty years forming its new national identity, the Russians of Narva have begun to feel a closer affinity for Estonia than Russia:

Due to the long-term residency in Estonia and with fewer practical and regular connections with Russia, Estonian-Russians are developing a strong territorial identification with Estonia. Identification with the body of compatriots is ambiguous due to the low resonance that Russia’s compatriot policy has among Estonian Russians. The gap is most noticeable for younger generations of Estonian-Russians who more often than not distance themselves from Russia, especially politically and economically.[15]

It’s possible Russia’s ability to use compatriots as part of their extraterritorial ambitions may have an expiration date.

The Future Threat: Identity and Ideology

As one threat passes another may be on the rise.  This is the potential for the new Russian identity to merge with a new Russian ideology.  At the same time Russians lost their identity as the vanguard of the workers revolution, they lost their ideology.  Communism was a failure.  Russia felt the sting of the collapse of communism so acutely that they included a provision in their new constitution that there would be no single ideology.[16] But over the years, as sovereign democracy and the new Russian identity began to form, some new ideas about where Russia should move ideologically began to be discussed.  The one that may present the greatest threat is an updated fascist ideology that seems to be gaining ground in Russia.

Russia’s recent history may favor the rise of fascism. There are historical parallels between Germany prior to fascism’s success there and Russia’s recent experiences. Like Russia, Germany has a long history but only became a unified state in 1871. It was still creating its national identity when fascism came along 50 years later. Germany had suffered defeat and had a brief-but-failed attempt at liberal democracy. Germany had suffered an economic collapse that hastened the end of the democratic experiment and caused Germans to seek a strong leader. A similar set of circumstances could be laid out for Italy, which also only reunified in 1871 and saw the rise of fascism a decade before Germany. If there is a set a precursors events that favor the rise of fascism, it would appear Russia has experienced many of them.

At first this seems patently absurd. The Great Patriot War, or World War II for the rest of us, has always been portrayed as Russia’s victory against fascist Nazi Germany.  To sidestep this thorny issue, a popular Russian political philosopher has created a narrative that rebrands fascist ideology as something new and potentially very Russian. In Fourth Political Theory Alexander Dugin claims the three great political philosophies—Liberalism, Fascism, and Communism—have all failed. Russia must now create a new ideology.[17] But what Dugin advocates is a form of neo-fascist Eurasionism.[18] Eurasionists believed various historical, geographical, linguistic, and other unifying characteristics of the territory of the Tsarist and Soviet empires were sufficiently unique to declare the existence of a separate Eurasian civilization, different from what they called the Romano-Germanic culture of Central and Western Europe. Dugin’s version of Eurasionism is radically anti-Western. It is very much in line with the concept of Russiky Mir. Luckily, Dugin’s ideas are currently considered extreme, and while he is gaining in popularity he is still a fringe personality.[19] Yet, his ideas offer a view of a potential future where Russia creates a new ideology all its own, based on a deeply anti-Western form of neo-fascist Eurasianist identity.[20]

In the near-term, it is unlikely ideas like Dugin’s will gain a foothold in mainstream Russian politics, at least while Putin is still in charge. For now, Russia has less of an ideology than a cult of personality. Putin means more to the Russian people as the nation’s leader than the institution of the presidency or the constitution.[21] But Putin cannot stay in power forever. As his popularity wanes, he may seek to garner support from whatever sector he thinks he can control. His change in language from rossisskiy to russkiy could be seen as a sign that ethnic nationalism may be gaining strength in Russia and he is willing to align himself with it where it suits him.

What is clear is that Putin will not remain in power forever. Over the next two decades he will likely lose control and be replaced. Through his consolidation of power he has set the stage for another strong central leader to take over. It is likely that Russia will continue to develop its identity and its own political ideology. Who comes after Putin, and what ideology they espouse, may pose a significant risk to Western countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2015. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)


The Russian people are still somewhat malleable when it comes to their identity and political ideology.  Where they see themselves in relation to other European and Western countries can have a profound impact on their near abroad in the immediate future, as well as the world as time goes on. The opportunity for extraterritorial adventurism based on stranded compatriots may be passing, but a new threat may still await us in the near future. What ideology Russia embraces may pose a wider threat beyond their near abroad. The current vector does seem to be towards a system that is capitalist, centrally managed with a strong individual leader, has a utilitarian socialist or corporate slant, and formed around a newfound ethnic identity. These are similar to the basic building blocks of fascism.[22] But events could cause it to change direction towards liberalism or, even more unlikely, a return to communism.  It is too soon to tell. But how Russia develops its identity and ideology will likely pose a potential threat both currently and over then next few decades.

Stanley Wiechnik is a prior-enlisted officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, serves in the Office of the Chief Army Reserve, and writes on political legitimacy and democratization. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Russian Nationalism (AAM)


[1] Kolstø, Pål. "The Ethnification of Russian Nationalism," in The New Russian Nationalism: Imperialism, Ethnicity and Authoritarianism 2000–2015, ed. Kolstø Pål and Blakkisrud Helge (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University, 2016) 18-45.

[2] Ellman, Michael and Scharrenborg, Robert. “The Russian Economic Crisis.” Economic and Political Weekly 33, no. 52 (Dec. 26, 1998 - Jan. 1, 1999): 3317

[3] Sakwa, Richard. "Sovereignty and Democracy: Constructions and Contradictions in Russia and Beyond." Region 1, no. 1 (2012): 3. p. 21.

[4] Kolstø, "The Ethnification of Russian Nationalism”

[5] Kolstø, “The Ethnification of Russian Nationalism”

[6] Putin, Vladimir. “Address by the President of the Russian Federation,” March 18, 2014,

[7] Vladimir Putin, “Address by the President of the Russian Federation.”

[8] Zakem, Vera; Saunders, Paul; Antoun, Daniel. “Mobilizing Compatriots: Russia's Strategy, Tactics, and Influence in the Former Soviet Union.” CNA’s Occasional Paper, Department of the Navy. November 2015.

[9] Heleniak, Timothy. "Migration of the Russian Diaspora After the Breakup of the Soviet Union." Journal of International Affairs 57, no. 2 (2004): 99.

[10] Suslov, Mikhail. “’Russian World’: Russia’s Policy towards its Diaspora.” Russie.Nei.Visions, No. 103, Ifri, July 2017.

[11] Kallas, Kristina. “Claiming the diaspora: Russia’s compatriot policy and its reception by Estonian-Russian population.” Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe 15, no. 3, (2016): 1

[12] Suslov, “’Russian World’”

[13] Suslov, “’Russian World’”, 24

[14] Kallas, Kristina. “Claiming the diaspora: Russia’s compatriot policy and its reception by Estonian-Russian population.” Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe 15, no. 3, (2016): 1

[15] Kallas, “Claiming the diaspora,” p. 17.

[16] Krylova, Ninel S. “The New Constitution of Russia: Main Principles and Features” Akron Law Review 27, no. 3,4. (1994): 397.

[17] Dugin, Alexander. ”The Fourth Political Theory.” Translated by Mark Sleboda; Michael Millerman. (Budapest: Arktos Media, 2012).

[18] Alan Ingram. “Alexander Dugin: Geopolitics and neo-fascism in post-Soviet Russia.” Political Geography,  20, no.8, (2001): 1029-1051.

[19] Umland, Andreas. “Alexander Dugin – A Russian scarecrow.”  New Eastern Europe. March 20, 2017.

[20] Umland, Andreas. “Why Aleksadr Dugin’s “Neo-Eurasianism” is not Eurasianist.”  New Eastern Europe. June 8, 2018.

[21] Budraitskis, Ilya. “How conservative is the Russian Regime?” Open Democracy. 8 August 2018.

[22] Griffiths, Richard. “The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Fascism.”(Duckworth: London, 2000)