The Nation and the State in Early Slavic History


This is a reflection on Serhii Plokhy’s The Origins of the Slavic Nations. Plokhy offers the definitive account on the origins of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Justin Kempf considers the implications of their history for how the nation and the state are considered.

Dividing the Nation from the State

The division between the nation and the state is important to understand the construction of Europe in the twentieth century. The collapse of multiethnic empires gave rise to the nation-state. So complete has this transformation become, it is a challenge for the contemporary theorist to distinguish between the nation and the state. The terms have become synonymous, but the distinction between them clarifies the conflict and chaos of the modern era. 

The nation is a source of identity, while the state is the institutional framework for governance. So while the nation is a fluid concept, the state is no less complex. The state is used to describe the bureaucracy and the political bodies such as the courts, legislature, and the executive. Indeed, the entire political apparatus is wrapped up into what is called the state. Nonetheless, inconsistencies between the formal law and the instruments of state power weaken its overall capacity. The state is strongest when its different components work as one unified whole, but it is never completely clear when the state ends and a distinct political institution begins so the concept of the state remains riddled with contradictions. 

Nations, as mentioned, are a source of identity. They are not necessarily tethered to the state, but can easily coalesce because national identity confers common interests.Collective action depends on group identities in the absence of formal mechanisms of enforcement. National identity encourages collective action among a wide group of people based on common features like language, religion, or other cultural similarities. But the aspects that define a nation are never set in stone. People may share a religion, but belong to different nations while others belong to separate faiths, but do belong to a common nation. The definition of every nation are fluid and change over time. 

The Nation-State

The nation-state, therefore, became a natural alliance because it took an informal sense of identity and gave it formal mechanisms to reinforce itself. The problem, however, for the nation-state is the nation is informal, while the state is a formal structure. National identity changes over time, but the boundaries of the state depend on a sense of permanence. So the nation-state can never escape a sense of tension that underlies its development. The nation continues to evolve as the state works to remain the same. 

The Soviet Union collapsed when its identity fragmented into different nationalities. Some of these nations formed independent states like Ukraine. Others did not like Chechnya. Still others wanted to preserve the Soviet Union, but felt compelled to form a state without a clear sense of national identity like Belarus. Its collapse offers lessons about the ideas of nations and states.The formation of new states reinforced these reawakened national identities. But it also developed new cleavages within their societies like in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.

Belarus has stumbled onto a newfound sense of itself after two decades of independence. Lukashenko developed a fierce sense of independence from Russia, but has found it turned against him through widespread protests in the recent presidential election. Nationhood reinforces the legitimacy of the state through commonalities in interests and aspiration, but it often found an alliance in demands for liberalism and democracy. Nationalism relies on a combination of inclusion and exclusion. The twentieth century emphasized the ways nationalists exclude minorities, but the nineteenth century emphasized the ways nationalism argued for political equality and civil liberties for the nation. Reminiscent of the nineteenth century, nationalism has shaken the Lukashenko regime because it challenges his monopoly on power. 

The Emergence of Nations Among the Slavs

Nonetheless, it is a disservice to believe the Slavic nations had no framework for independent national identities before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite inconsistencies and occasional incompleteness, the Slavic Nations of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus were largely defined before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Soviet Union recognized their distinct heritage in the formation of separate oblasts for these different territories. So the national project was present throughout the Soviet Union even as it pretended to submerge these different nationalities into a larger nation under the Soviet regime.

Serhii Plokhy makes sense of the development of the Slavic nations. His history works through the different incarnations of Rus’, Ruthenia, and Mucovy. His history explains why the West failed to recognize the dormant identities repressed under the Soviet Union. Slavic national identities developed under the auspices of empire. Lithuania, Poland, Austria, and the Mongols held formal political control over the Slavic regions during critical junctures of the formation of their national identities. But the size of their territories often granted significant autonomy to their region so nationhood developed alongside state formation despite the lack of formal independence. 

Belarus, for example, developed a nascent sense of national identity as early as the era of the Rus’. Kiev held only formal control over Polatsk so the territory of Belarus held significant autonomy despite its political dependence on Kiev. Nonetheless, Belarus never obtained formal independence outside of a year or two following the first world war. Its culture was subsumed into a larger Slavic identity known as Ruthenia. Indeed, its most unique cultural attribute was its adherence to the Uniate faith, but the Russian Empire eventually outlawed this religion so even this distinct form of cultural identification was lost to history. 

Russian Empire and “Ukraine”

Russia, on the other hand, developed its own empire. Plokhy quotes Geoffrey Hosking to explain the importance of empire for Russia. Hosking writes, “Britain had an empire, but Russia was an empire – and perhaps still is.” Moreover, the Russian empire was not a conquest of the Slavic lands. Rather, it was realized through the conquest of diverse peoples and regions into a single multi-ethnic state before the ascendance of Peter the Great. The Orthodox Church strives to define Russian culture, but Russia has long found room for people of many different faiths and cultures. Muslims have always had a place in the Russian empire, because Muscovy conquered Islamic territories without any aims for conversion. 

Indeed, Russia did not turn to the West until after it was already an empire. For some time it found mixed success in its aims to incorporate the Slavic peoples of modern Belarus and Ukraine. History became an avenue to legitimize its claims to the Slavic territories in Eastern Europe. In contrast, Ukraine and Belarus have drawn distinctions in their local history to justify their independence. Indeed, it is peculiar how Russian national identity strives to claim the history of another country as the source of its own origins.

The term “Ukraine” did not emerge until the nineteenth century. The region has been called Rus’ and Ruthenia. It is the home of the Cossacks. A substantial part even made up the territory of Galicia. National identities evolved over time based on religion, culture, and political allegiances. But over time it became known as Ukraine. Nonetheless, it is difficult to know whether Ukraine is another stage toward a new sense of national identity or whether its national identity has become fixed due to the process of political modernization. 

Fluid Nation, Fixed State

The transitory nature of nationalities makes state formation increasingly difficult. The concept of the nation-state leaves little explanation for how states will evolve as nations diverge into different identifications or converge with their neighbors. Moreover, the nation-state never offered a reasonable explanation for the role of minorities or immigrants. The United States has portrayed itself as a melting pot where cultures dissolved over generations as their descendants identified as Americans. But African Americans were never offered this opportunity. They remain American, but have been kept apart both formally and informally. Indeed, prejudice, discrimination, and in some cases, genocide have been the natural consequence of the darker side of nationalism. 

Moreover, the liberal state undermines nationalism through the recognition of minority rights. But it does so through an appeal to a new sense of nationalism defined by a reinterpretation of citizenship. Still, it remains unclear to me whether liberalism requires a redefinition of the nation or whether it demands a redefinition of the relationship to the state. And yet, the division between the nation and the state will require a new justification for territorial boundaries and allegiances. Liberalism appeals to the universalism of human rights, but does not offer any reason for the territorial integrity of Germany, France, or Ukraine. 

Inevitably Unstable?

The Civil War in Ukraine is largely a consequence of the national project. Of course, nobody can deny Russia is a villain. Putin has often played the black knight who has defended authoritarians against democracy. Nonetheless, Russia has exploited cleavages which already existed in Ukrainian society. Samuel Huntington had predicted conflict in Donetsk in the mid-nineties. Still, the presence of conflict is not enough for a referendum on public sentiment. It is unlikely that a union with Russia or independence would resolve the war. The people of Donetsk itself appear conflicted over their own national identity. Indeed, this is why the nation is an unstable source for the legitimacy of the state. 

Americans, on the other hand, have strived to base their sense of nationhood on principles and ideals. It has long offered the best solution to incorporate ethnic minorities and immigrants into the national project. But America has rarely lived up to its ideals. Indeed, the closer it has come to their realization, new cleavages arise. It is ironic how white nationalism lays a claim on American culture yet rejects the essence of its ideals, principles, and vision. The “American Culture” they defend is a perversion of American identity. Its sense of America abandons everything Americans believe.

Final Thoughts on the Nation

The history of the Slavic Nations clarifies the concept of the nation. Western European nations developed in combination with the formation of the state, but the Slavs developed their nations in opposition to the state. Russia was an exception, but even there, the nation developed within a larger empire. Territorial boundaries have not defined the Russian people. It remains a diverse political entity that is challenged to reinforce its sense of national unity and may face further disintegration in the future. 

So does the nation confer stability onto the state or is it a source of instability? And if the state becomes independent of the nation, what is the justification for its boundaries? It remains unclear how the end of American hegemony will affect territorial integrity. Will states fragment into smaller entities or will they consolidate into larger unions for mutual defense? These are questions I have not resolved and political theory has largely avoided. 

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