This essay defines three categories of Russian nationalist actors: nonstate actors, whose agenda is anti-Putin; parastate actors, who have their own ideological niche, not always in tune with the presidential administration's narrative, but who operate under the state umbrella; and state actors, in particular, the presidential administration. In the future, the Russian ethnonationalism embodied by nonstate actors is the main trend that could pose a serious threat to the regime. However, the Kremlin is not “frozen” in terms of ideology, and its flexibility allows it to adapt to evolving situations. One of the most plausible scenarios is the rise of a figure inside the establishment who would be able to prevent the polarization of Russian nationalism into an antiregime narrative and could co-opt some of its slogans and leaders, in order to gradually channel the official narrative toward a more state-controlled nationalism.

Is nationalism a force for change in Russia? If nationalism is an ideology supporting the overlap of “nation” and “state,” then nationalists are those who push for a political agenda through which the nation and the state are intrinsically assimilated into each other. They may, for example, call for the state to grow to include territories that they consider as belonging to the nation, or separate from territories they see as alien to it. In the Russian case, the nation is not necessarily defined by a restrictive Russian (russkii) “ethnicity,” but by a larger vision fed by the country's imperial past. I exclude from nationalism Russia's quest for great power, which I consider to belong to another repertoire, that of legitimizing the country's actions on the international scene and its branding.

There are myriad actors promoting a nationalist agenda in Russia. In this essay, I distinguish three main categories of actors: nonstate actors, whose agenda is anti-Putin and who call for a national revolution to defend the Russian nation against the current regime; parastate actors, who have their own ideological niche, not always in tune with the presidential administration's narrative, but who operate under the state umbrella, in the gray zone of the Kremlin's “ecosystem” of interest groups, lobbies, and personal connections; and state actors, in particular, the presidential administration. This dissociation is critical in order to advance a comprehensive assessment of what we mean by Russian nationalism and to explore its potential for being a force for change in Russia in the next ten to fifteen years.

Nationalisms are diverse, especially in a country like Russia. With the exception of a short period between the perestroika years and the mid-1990s, nationalism among non-Russian ethnic groups (around 21 percent of the country's population was identified as non – ethnically Russian in the 2010 census) has been limited.1 In today's Russia, non-Russian nationalisms do not emerge as a potential force for change for several reasons.

First, the main secessionist region of the country, the North Caucasus, has changed profoundly since the First Chechen War (1994 – 1996). Social resentment is now expressed through Islamism and no longer through postcolonial calls for partition and independence. Second, the “sovereignty parade” of the years of the Soviet collapse seems to belong to the past, even if one could envision its renewal in the event of a new collapse of central authority in Moscow. If there are drivers that could push toward fragmentation of Russia's territorial unity, they are more likely to be shaped by economic realities – for instance, by the Far East's economic interaction with China, South Korea, and Japan – rather than by ethnic issues.2 In the event of a collapse of central authority in Moscow, economic and political decentralization would not necessarily lead to territorial partition.3

Nationalism championed by ethnic Russians would potentially be more powerful than the nationalist sentiments of non – ethnic Russians. But what do we understand by the term Russian nationalism? It is a blurry yet loaded notion. Conventionally, scholarly works devoted to Russian nationalism have tried to dissociate the plural nature of the phenomenon by classifying its contents into two broad categories: imperial nationalism and ethnic nationalism.4 I find this line of division to be artificial and not heuristic. The main ideologists of Russian nationalism belong to both categories: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, often seen as a proponent of an imperial Russia, has been known for making repeated racist statements about the need to protect the Russian nation from external ethnic influences. Aleksandr Dugin, prolific theoretician of neo-Eurasianism, the quintessence of imperial Russia, is also famous for introducing in Russia fascist theories about Aryan races and their “spiritual fight” against Jews. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, champion of an ethnic Russia that would avoid any new imperial temptation, can be defined as “imperialist” from a Ukrainian or a Kazakh point of view, since he called for all territories populated by Eastern Slavs to join Russia. Even Vladimir Putin's statement about Russia as a divided nation, used to justify Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, aroused debates among scholars about whether it should be interpreted as a sign of ethnonationalism or of imperialism.5

In order to avoid the pitfall of over-focusing on ideology, I propose to look at Russian nationalism not through its contents, but through its actors. Historically, the study of Russian nationalism has been part of the field of political philosophy, with the focus on ideas and concepts, their intellectual legacies and logical order. We are thus still lacking a sociology of intellectual life in Russia and an “ecology” of the places of its production: think tanks, media, universities, the Academy of Sciences, and so forth. Ideologies are often fuzzy and shifting, and say nothing about the personal strategies, institutional status, and networks of their producers and funders. Typologies by ideological content tend to remain sterile if they are not combined with a more sociological approach to the strategy used by each group to speak to its constituency and to try to impact the political or cultural arena.

A more sociological approach may thus help us apprehend the mobilization potential of nationalism as a force for change in contemporary Russia. Accordingly, nationalism should be understood as both bottom-up and top-down: it is not a unidirectional message, but one whose function is to create social consensus between elites and the population, the state and the society. Even when propagated by state structures, nationalism is envisioned as capturing the general mindset or zeitgeist of the population, which, to use Weberian terms, consents to this ideological domination.

The Russian nationalists who are easiest to identify are nonstate actors, whose actions are noticeable through two main mediums: the Internet and social media on one side, and street violence on the other. Among nonstate actors, there are three main groups with different ideological backgrounds.

The first on the scene were the National Bolsheviks led by Eduard Limonov – the so-called Limonovtsy – who created a vivid youth counterculture around music, aesthetics, dress codes, and street violence targeting official institutions, such as police headquarters and judicial administrations. They emerged in 1993 – 1994 and have been able to survive red tape and political repression to the present day; they still shape a large part of Russia's youth subcultures and protest mindset.6 The second group is made up of, broadly speaking, skinheads. Russia led Europe in the mid-2000s with about fifty thousand skinheads and other neo-Nazi groupuscules. Their numbers declined sharply in the second half of the 2000s, once the authorities, particularly in Moscow and the Moscow region, realized that they might pose a danger not only to migrants and other groups identified as their enemy, but to state structures as well. Skinheads were particularly influential and visible at the time of Andrei Belov's Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), which was disbanded in 2011. Attempts to unify them under one political umbrella have been numerous, but have always failed, the most structured example being the Russkie movement.7 The third group is made up of national democrats: a rather small cluster that became very visible during the 2011 – 2012 anti-Putin protests,8 then faded to some extent during the Ukrainian crisis, for reasons I will explain below, but is probably destined to become a rising element on the nationalist scene.

These three groups are shaped by one ideological principle: they are all viscerally anti-Putin and believe that the current Russian state is antinational and does not defend the interests of the Russian nation. They all call for a national revolution to overthrow the current elite and establish a new, genuinely national regime. This revolutionary feature sharply distinguishes them from actors operating under the state umbrella and who do not favor a change of regime.

These three groups share a relatively similar sociological background: their members are young people, from teenagers to young adults, who are more attracted by a way of life at the margins of the society and by a strong feeling of community and friendship than by an ideological message.9 Thus, members of one group can easily shift to another: the bridges between them are more important than their ideological differences might suggest. At the organizational level, these movements are relatively similar: weak institutionalization, regular reconfiguration and recreation of new structures, and a cult of personality of the leader, often steeped in paramilitary culture (with some exceptions). The three groups also share an ambiguous relationship to state structures: they proclaim their hostility to the current leadership, but they have “patrons” inside the system, mostly in the security services or among some MPs, who help them avoid or at least limit judicial difficulties. The national democrats can be partly dissociated from the two other groups on the grounds that they also have more intellectual leaders, such as Konstantin Krylov at the journal Voprosy natsionalizma or Yegor Prosvirnin with the website Sputnik i pogrom. Obviously, the closeness of anticorruption lawyer and prominent political activist Aleksei Navalny with the national democrats, very noticeable during the anti-Putin protests but diminished today, contributed to their greater visibility, popular support, and modest respectability.10

Beyond their detestation for the Putin regime, the three groups are deeply divided ideologically. The National Bolsheviks combine Russian nationalism with leftist references to Bolshevism and anarchism, and have been influenced by Western European punk and postpunk culture. They condemn xenophobia and only legitimize violence against state structures and skinhead groups. Skinheads and other neo-Nazi groups position themselves on the other side of the political spectrum: they invoke White Power theories, claim links with Western European and U.S. counterparts, and focus their violence not against state structures, but against anyone identified as alien to the Russian nation: internal migrants, external migrants, Roma, Jews, antifascist groups, and homosexuals.

National democrats see themselves as opposing both National Bolsheviks and skinheads because they see the future of Russia as that of a European nation-state, being both pro-Western in geopolitical terms and pro-democracy in political terms. On that basis, they reject the Bolshevism and anti-Westernism of the National Bolsheviks and the violence and leadership cult of the skinheads. They consider those two groups to be unacknowledged allies of the Putin regime because they both defend authoritarianism. The nationalism that national democrats claim for themselves is that of European populist movements that are able to work within a democratic environment, along the lines of the French National Front, the Austrian Freedom Party, and the Jobbik party in Hungary.

The three groups have seen their ideological stances challenged during the Ukrainian crisis: they had either to rally with Putin and recognize his annexation of Crimea as an authentic nationalist act, or to condemn him, whether for acting illegally (national democrats) or for failing to go so far as to incorporate Donbas (National Bolsheviks and skinheads). Limonov and some others decided to partly reconcile with Putin. National democrats and skinhead groups saw some of their supporters split between fighting on the Ukrainian side with the local far-right groups, such as Pravyi Sektor and the Azov Battalion, and the majority fighting on the side of the Donbas insurgency.11

A second group, parastate actors, operate in the gray zone of the Kremlin's administration. They support the regime in many respects and develop under its umbrella, but they also dispose of their own autonomy and ideological niche. In Putin's system, everything considered a matter of national security or regime security is under his direct or nearly direct supervision, while nonstrategic questions and the everyday management of the state are left to a broader group of patrons, each in charge of supervising a domain, in a somewhat loose hierarchical pattern. Multiple actors operate in this gray zone, maintaining obvious connections to Putin's inner circle's main figures, but without knowing exactly the degree of support they have, the red lines they dare not cross, and the strength and resources of competing groups. These parastate actors can be divided, schematically, into four main categories.

The Russian Orthodox Church constitutes an actor in itself, with an ideological agenda that resembles the state's, but does not overlap with it. First, the Church has a very diverse structure, and second, it has long-term objectives that contradict some aspects of the regime's short-term agenda. We saw examples of such divergences during the conflict with Georgia in 2008 and then with Ukraine in 2014, when the Moscow Patriarchate openly refused to recognize the rupture and played a paradiplomatic role of maintaining good relations with the republic and its elites and offering underground channels to pursue dialogue. Ideologically, the Church does not support the state narrative of rehabilitation of the Soviet regime and remains very critical of it, conducting many memorial activities that directly contradict the state discourse. The Church also has not had all its legal claims satisfied by the secular power.12

The second group of parastate actors consists of all official figures and representatives of the state apparatus, including government members and Duma deputies. Some, like Sergei Naryshkin, former chairman of the Duma, now director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, do not make explicitly nationalist comments, but are still known for protecting nationalist ideologists. Others have built their political legitimacy on an outspoken nationalist position corresponding to a particular ideological niche: for example, Natal'ya Narochnitskaya, who represented political Orthodoxy since the early 1990s, or Sergei Baburin, who has taken a more pro-Soviet nationalist stance. Vladimir Zhirinovsky and, to a lesser extent, Gennadii Zyuganov may be included in this category, as symbols of “constructive” or “systemic” opposition to the Kremlin, each with his own ideological and electoral niche and some official status in the Duma. This was also the case, for two decades, of former Moscow mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who played a critical role in developing Russia's policy toward compatriots.13

A third group of actors includes the military-industrial complex, the army, and all security services. They promote and fund several activities and associations that can be described as nationalist. At the local level, they fund institutions for the patriotic upbringing of children and teenagers, which have flourished all over Russia in the last decade. These include the paramilitary training structures and, more indirectly, the historical reenactment groups and search brigades (poiskoviki) that have come under the media spotlight with the cult of personality of Igor Strelkov, one of the Donbas warlords. At a more ideological level, they fund the Izborskii Club, the nationalist and conservative think tank launched in 2012 that brings together some thirty figures, ranging from Sergei Glazyev, a close adviser to the president, to the journalist and writer Aleksandr Prokhanov, and includes famous nationalist publicists such as Aleksandr Dugin, Mikhail Kalashnikov, and Nikolai Starikov.14 Their political representation is channeled by the Rodina Party, led by Dmitrii Rogozin, deputy prime minister in charge of the military-industrial complex. Rodina works as a launch platform for some radical nationalist themes that the presidential administration does not want to address directly, such as open references to ethnonationalism, nativism, and antimigrant theories, and maintains links with European populist parties and far right groups, including some with a definite neofascist background. This third group displays a Russian nationalism that can be defined as “Red,” in the sense that the Soviet legacy plays a critical role in it, although it has been updated with ethnonationalist and religious references.

A fourth, more loosely defined group would include Orthodox businessmen, the two most famous being Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways until 2015, and Konstantin Malofeyev, who directs the Marshall Capital Partners investment funds.15 These Orthodox businessmen have personal connections to members of Putin's inner circle (Yakunin himself is one of them) and regular contacts with the Moscow Patriarchate. They have built their legitimacy on Orthodox charity foundations and played a paradiplomatic role for the Russian state on several occasions, with Yakunin promoting a “dialogue of civilizations” at an annual conference at Rhodes, and Malofeyev defending Russian interests in Western Europe. Both Yakunin's and Malofeyev's foundations, respectively named for St. Andrew the First and St. Basil the Great, cultivate European far-right networks and monarchist émigré circles. They were, for instance, instrumental in advancing one of Putin's pet projects for France: the construction of the largest Orthodox cathedral in Europe, inaugurated in Paris in October 2016. However, there are some indications, though difficult to document, that these Orthodox businessmen do make mistakes and cross the invisible line of what is authorized or not. This was the case when Yakunin was fired in 2015,16 and when Malofeyev had to pull back from the Donbas insurgency, which he was funding and supporting, after the Kremlin decided the insurgency narrative had gone too far in calling for a national revolution that would threaten Putin himself. In contrast to the third group, this group displays a Russian nationalism that is more White than Red, with implied references to Tsarist Russia, the Romanovs, and the Church.17

It is inherently difficult to assess the level of autonomy of these parastate actors. I define them as nationalist entrepreneurs in the sense that they have genuine room to maneuver, to determine their ideological preferences, and to cultivate their own networks. But their entrepreneurship remains fragile, and must work in permanent negotiation and tension with competing groups and with the presidential administration itself. Just as the oligarchs’ empire is not secure, remaining dependent on individual loyalty, the ideological empire of these entrepreneurs is also unstable and can be challenged and dismembered.

Is the state itself an actor of Russian nationalism today? Here I identify the president and the presidential administration as the critical institutions embodying the state. Can we identify a Russian nationalism that is promoted by the state? I argue that the state does not produce nationalism per se, but rather an eclectic combination of ideological references, closer to a blurry Weltanschauung than to any kind of doctrine.18 In this kaleidoscope, what can be identified as nationalist is much more marginal than, for instance, what belongs to the repertoire of conservatism.19

The role of a state leader is to embody the state and the nation, and to provide a grand narrative for it that goes beyond political divisions, economic ups and downs, geopolitical reconfigurations, and intrasociety socioeconomic and cultural gaps. It is thus, by definition, a language tinged with pathos, with different colors and tones depending on the national culture and historical references. In many aspects, Putin's speeches about the nation – the state-sanctioned grand narratives such as the opening of the Sochi Olympics – are not different in essence from those of many other countries, including Western ones. Emphasizing the uniqueness of the nation, its great qualities, its contributions to the world, or the continuity of the state beyond political regime changes is not specific to Russia.

What is specific, at least compared with many Western countries, is that the nation's master narrative is intimately articulated and instrumentalized by the regime to secure its legitimacy and to marginalize opponents, real or imagined. Putin's speeches therefore are not a sign of an inherent and essentialist Russian nationalism that is different from those existing in the rest of the world; but the state's use of the national grand narrative it produces in domestic political struggle is a critical characteristic of the regime.

Contrary to what some scholars and experts thought they observed during the Ukrainian crisis, Putin and the presidential administration do not favor Russian ethnonationalism. In fact, they consider it threatening to the country's stability and unity. They exhibit respect for ethnic and religious diversity and cultivate their power vertically, creating relationships with the national republics’ elites, which are among the most fervent supporters of the status quo. However, they also have to manage the rise, via parastate actors, of discourses that call for valorizing the status of ethnic Russians, linguistically and culturally. This trend is embedded in the steady level of xenophobia displayed by Russian society, which, though weakened by the Ukrainian crisis, is likely destined to rise again in future years. Moreover, the state-sponsored rehabilitation of the Soviet past, in the hope that a generalized Soviet nostalgia would help to secure the Kremlin's legitimacy, and of Russia's historical continuity between the Tsarist regime and the Soviet one contributed to valuing ethnically Russian elements.

Can we determine whether the language used by the state pertains to a civic or an ethnic nationalism? First, this is an ideal-type that cannot be found in reality. Second, it is a binary grid of interpretation that overlooks the existence of a third way: state nationalism.

It is difficult for Putin and the presidential administration to promote a civic nationalism in the Western sense of the term, since this would mean focusing on the individual rights of citizens to express their support for but also their dissatisfaction with the regime. Civic nationalism understood as giving rights to citizens to criticize the status quo cannot function in the current Russian political environment. This has to be articulated with the loss of legitimacy of the notion of rossiiskii (the Russian state and citizenship), which is still used in all official documents as a legal term, but is slowly losing its meaning in the Russian public space, except for the national minorities, for whom dissociating between civic and ethnic identity makes obvious sense. For the majority population of ethnic Russians, russkii (defining Russians ethnically as well as linguistically) tends to replace rossiiskii, without implying a change of meaning: both terms are considered as equal and interchangeable, as we see, for instance, with the growing overlap between russkaya istoriya and rossiiskaya istoriya (both referring to Russian history).

What the regime is pushing for is state nationalism: the symbol, embodiment, and quintessence of the nation is the state. This state “covers up” for the ethnic diversity of the country, protecting minorities while giving preeminence to ethnically Russian cultural elements; it guarantees stability in exchange for political loyalty and deference; and it embodies historical continuity in the face of regime changes and collapses. This state nationalism combines features from the Soviet regime, growing references to the Tsarist past, room for autonomous voices of national minorities, and ideological borrowings from the globalized culture, ranging from references to the neoliberal managerial world to so-called conservative values. It is an eclectic piece of bricolage.

Putin's aim can be summed up as follows: this vision of the world has to be precise enough to enable the marginalization and delegitimization of those who challenge the regime, but still vague enough that the vast majority of people will subscribe to it. The Kremlin's Weltanschauung thus plays the card of the lowest common denominator, cultivates the register of the implicit, the symbolic, the parable, and provides a large repertoire from which each person can draw almost at will. The flexible character of this Weltanschauung confirms the fundamentally instrumental character of ideology for the Kremlin: the authorities want to avoid tying themselves to an overly rigid concept that would limit their leeway for action, and to be able to shift from one register to another without having to account for it. Flexibility also has another virtue: it consolidates the popular consensus around the regime, since nearly everyone can identify with the broad directives proposed.

There is a shared foundation to this Weltanschauung, a basic minimum for each and every one: namely, to declare oneself a patriot, to show a certain pride in the resurgence of the country since the fall of the USSR, to cultivate a certain Soviet nostalgia, and to criticize the unbridled liberalism of the Yeltsin regime that brought the country to the brink of civil war. Today, those who endorse the pure and simple adoption of the Western model are rejected. Russia's right to oversee its “near abroad” and the reemergence of a “voice of Russia” in the world are considered legitimate. It is good form to defend a cynical vision of the international community as being manipulated by dominant interests masked by great idealistic principles, and to share in a culture of conspiracy. There is support for the idea that Russia cannot permit itself to have a new revolution or shock therapy, and that it has to reform itself in a gradual manner, at its own rhythm.

Atop this foundation, there are several ideologies available for collective consumption, and none of them are given superiority. One can be nostalgic for the Soviet Union or for the Tsarist Empire, and can consider any one of Ivan the Terrible, Nicholas II, Stolypin, Lenin, Stalin, Gagarin, or Putin as the supreme hero of Russian national history. One can desire that Orthodoxy should become the state religion or be glad about the secularity of state institutions and celebrate the country's religious diversity. One can see Russia as the country of ethnic Russians in a permanent struggle for their survival against minorities or celebrate the country's multicultural harmony. One can endorse the most complete isolationism or exalt Russia's commitment to creating a multipolar world with its allies. One can wish for the resurrection of pan-Slavism among Orthodox Slavic “brothers,” or of Eurasianism across the Turkic-Mongolian world, or of the “Russian world” embracing the Russian diasporas, or find a model in the Byzantine Empire or in present-day China.

Based on this overview of Russian nationalism and its contemporary actors, can we identify nationalism as a force for change in the Putin regime?

Nonethnic Russian nationalism could reemerge under the label of Islamism, both in the North Caucasus and, more dangerously for Russia, in the Volga-Urals region, as well as among labor migrants. Ethnic Russian nationalism embodied by nonstate actors with an anti-Putin agenda could pose a more serious threat to the status quo. While the National Bolsheviks and neo-Nazi groups are likely to remain marginal, the national-democrat trend reflects the current sociological evolutions of Russian society, attracted by the European way of life and identifying with Europe as a “white” country facing the threat of “invasion” by migrants and Muslims. This xenophobic nationalism, increasingly linked to what has been defined, for Europe, as “welfare chauvinism” – the view that the welfare state is being exploited by migrants and that only natives should have access to public goods – is mainstream in many European societies. It will probably grow in Russia, too, given the current economic crisis, which tends to intensify symbolic tensions around migrants both domestic and foreign, along with the need for the North Caucasus to be heavily subsidized by the center (thus the “Stop feeding the Caucasus” campaign launched by Navalny and other national-democrat figures). Moreover, Russian public opinion is very much shaped by its reading of Europe's current refugee crisis, and there is an obvious mirror effect between the way the Russian media depict the European situation and how many Russians characterize a threat they want their own country to avoid.

With the current economic crisis, hopes for a continuous rise of living standards in Russia, especially for the middle classes, are collapsing and could produce a chain reaction, partly delegitimizing Putin's regime and giving birth to new waves of popular protests. As in 2011 – 2012, the anti-Putin nationalists would be part of such a grassroots movement and could play a critical role in offering the ideological “glue” necessary to build a coherent anti-Putin discourse: it could link state corruption, ethnic criminality by minorities and migrants, and the endless thirst for public subsidies to the North Caucasus into one story about the regime not giving enough care to the Russian ethnic majority and its needs. It is very improbable that the determinants of such resentment would not include any nationalist claims, one way or another.

However, the state structures – the presidential administration and the parastate groups – are well aware of the risk of a grassroots antiregime nationalism. They discovered it during the anti-Putin protests in 2011 – 2012 with the Navalny phenomenon, but some signs were already noticeable a few years before. Since the second half of the 2000s, some antipolice and antistate corruption narratives have emerged during the numerous antimigrant riots in several of Russia's cities and suburbs. This grassroots nationalism is different from the state- and parastate-sponsored versions in its higher level of xenophobia and ethnonationalism; state and parastate structures are favorable to a more Soviet-style nationalism, believing in the “community of destiny” of all the peoples of Eurasia, and therefore being friendlier to non – ethnically Russian groups.

However, this dissociation works only at a broad, general level. A closer look reveals that the Rodina party positions itself as a bridge between the state and some of these grassroots ethnonationalist movements, especially the skinhead ones. Personal links and supports were solidified in the mid-2000s when Rogozin's adviser, Andrei Savelyov, a member of the Duma, worked closely with Belov and his DPNI movement, with the hope of bringing the street activism of skinhead groups under Rodina's control. The new Rodina, which reemerged in 2012, follows the same logic of connecting with radical grassroots groups as well as their European counterparts. There are therefore some sections of the parastate landscape that support a more ethnonationalist agenda and try to disconnect it from its original anti-Putin orientation.

One may also notice, at the parastate level, a growing trend toward a new brand of Russian nationalism that would engineer a consensual vision of the Russian nation and overcome traditional lines of divide. The Izborskii Club works as a laboratory for producing this new unifying narrative that would satisfy both the Sovietophiles and those more nostalgic for the Tsarist Empire and for Orthodoxy. This push to combine a divergent ideological repertoire has been interpreted by some scholars, such as Timothy Snyder and Alexander Motyl, as a sign of fascism in today's Russia. I reject the terminology of fascism to describe the current regime. The Russian establishment is largely nihilistic in terms of values and does not believe in a revolutionary ideology that would dramatically modify the country and create a new mankind; on the contrary, the narrative promoted by the state is one of the status quo, conservatism, and counterrevolution.

The current Russian regime is not frozen in terms of ideology. It cultivated an intense nationalist atmosphere during the Ukrainian crisis only to calm it down later. Since mid-2016, it has reintegrated some liberal figures, such as former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin, who has been asked to draw up a new economic program for the country, and former prime minister and head of Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, now deputy director of Russia's presidential administration, without having to change its doctrinal paradigm. This flexibility allows it to adapt to evolving situations. Russia's demographics will probably play in favor of a rise of ethnonationalism: as in Europe, the civilizational narrative about a white and Christian Europe having to protect its values from migrants and Islamism could become a dominant frame of discourse for the Russian population, and will have to be accommodated, one way or another, by the political leadership.

How might the probable growth of grassroots nationalism, shaped by xenophobic sentiments, interact with the regime's ambiguous quest for a more definitive ideology in future years? One of the most plausible scenarios is the rise of a figure inside the establishment, such as Dmitrii Rogozin, who would be able to prevent the polarization of Russian nationalism into an antiregime narrative and could co-opt some of its slogans and leaders, in order to gradually channel the official narrative toward a more state-controlled nationalism. The story of Russian nationalism is a story of co-optation by the authorities of topics and leaders, and of mutual interactions with some segments of the population. Whoever succeeds in capturing the mobilization potential of Russian nationalism will, once in power, have to maintain the state as its cornerstone: only a focus on the state avoids a too-radical ethnonationalism that would destroy the unity of the country, and preserves the consensual storyline of Russia as a great power having the right to a say on the future of the world.


Elise Giuliano and Dmitry Gorenburg, “The Unexpectedly Underwhelming Role of Ethnicity in Russian Politics, 1991 – 2011,” Demokratizatsiya 20 (2) (2012): 175 – 188. See also Elise Giuliano, “Theorizing Nationalist Separatism in Russia,” in Rebounding Identities: The Politics of Identity in Russia and Ukraine, ed. Dominique Arel and Blair A. Ruble (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press with Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). Census results are available at


For the 1990s situation, see Dmitry Gorenburg, “Regional Separatism in Russia: Ethnic Mobilization or Power Grab?” Europe-Asia Studies 51 (2) (1999): 245 – 274; Dmitry Gorenburg, Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Elise Giuliano, Constructing Grievance: Ethnic Nationalism in Russia's Republics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2011).


See Nikolay Petrov, “Analysis of Interconnection Between Democratic Institutions Development at National and Subnational Levels: The Case Study of Russia and Its Regions,” Laboratory for Regional Development Assessment Methods, Center for Fundamental Research, National Research University, Higher School of Economics, Moscow, 2015, (accessed May 13, 2016).


Pål Kolstø, “The Ethnification of Russian Nationalism,” in The New Russian Nationalism: Imperialism, Ethnicity, and Authoritarianism, ed. Pål Kolstø and Helge Blakkisrud (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 18 – 45.


See Kimberly Marten, “Vladimir Putin: Ethnic Russian Nationalist,” The Washington Post, March 19, 2014; and Marlene Laruelle, “Misinterpreting Nationalism: Why Russkii is Not a Sign of Ethnonationalism,” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 416 (Washington, D.C.: PONARS Eurasia, 2016).


See Fabrizio Fenghi, “Making Post-Soviet Counterpublics: The Aesthetics of Limonka and the National-Bolshevik Party,” Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity (forthcoming 2017). See also Andrei Rogachevskii, A Biographical and Critical Study of Russian Writer Eduard Limonov (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003). In French, see Vera Nikolski, National-bolchevisme et neo-eurasisme dans la Russie contemporaine (Paris: Mare et Martin, 2013).


See Sergei Belikov, Skinkhedy v Rossii (Moscow: Academia, 2005); Victor Shnirel'man, “Chistil'shchiki moskovskikh ulits.” Skinkhedy, SMI i obshchestvennoye mneniye (Moscow: Academia, 2007); Aleksandr Verkhovskii, ed., Russkii natsionalizm: ideologiya i nastroyeniye (Moscow: SOVA, 2006); and Aleksandr Verkhovskii and Galina Kozhevnikova, eds., Radikal'nyi russkii natsionalizm. Struktury, idei, litsa: spravochnik (Moscow: SOVA, 2009). See also Robert Horvath, “Russkii Obraz and the Politics of ‘Managed Nationalism,'” Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity 42 (3) (2014): 469 – 488; and Richard Arnold and Ekaterina Romanova, “The ‘White World's Future'?: An Analysis of the Russian Far Right,” Journal of the Study of Radicalism 7 (1) (2013): 79 – 107.


Pål Kolstø, “Russian Nationalists Flirt with Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 25 (3) (2014): 120 – 134.


See Hillary Pilkington, Elena Omel'chenko, and Al'bina Garifzianova, Russia's Skinheads: Exploring and Rethinking Subcultural Lives (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).


Marlene Laruelle, “Alexei Navalny and Challenges in Reconciling ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Liberalism,'” Post-Soviet Affairs 30 (4) (2014): 276 – 297.


Marlene Laruelle, “The Three Colors of Novorossiya, or the Russian Nationalist Mythmaking of the Ukrainian Crisis,” Post-Soviet Affairs 32 (1) (2015): 55 – 74. See also Anton Shekhovstov, “Der Rechte Sektor. Zwischen Polittechnologie, Politik und Straßenkampf,” in Euromaidan – Was in der Ukraine auf dem Spiel steht, ed. Juri Andruchowytsch (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2014), 159 – 172.


See Aleksandr Verkhovskii, Politicheskoye pravoslaviye: russkiye pravoslavnye natsionalisty i fundamentalisty, 1995 – 2001 (Moscow: SOVA, 2004); Anastasiya Mitrofanova, Politizatsyia “pravoslavnogo mira” (Moscow: Nauka, 2004); and Nikolai Mitrokhin, Russkaya pravoslavnaya tserkov': sovremennoye sostoyaniye i aktual'nye problemy (Moscow: NLO, 2004).


For more on all these figures, see Marlene Laruelle, In the Name of the Nation: Nationalism and Politics in Contemporary Russia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).


Marlene Laruelle, “The Izborsky Club, or the New Conservative Avant-Garde in Russia,” The Russian Review (75) (4) (2016).


Ilya Arkhipov, Henry Meyer, and Irina Reznik, “Putin's ‘Soros’ Dreams of Empire as Allies Wage Ukraine Revolt,” Bloomberg, June 15, 2014. See also Novaya gazeta, November 21, 2012.


Roland Oliphant, “Vladimir Putin ‘Fires Close Ally Vladimir Yakunin After Son Applied for British Citizenship,'” The Telegraph, October 9, 2015,ñres-close-ally-vladimir-Yakunin-after-son-applied-for-British-citizenship.html (accessed May 13, 2016).


Marlene Laruelle, “Holy Russia: The Revival of Political Orthodoxy and Its Networks Abroad,” article submitted for review, 2016.


On the public relations aspect of this brand, see Andrew Wilson, Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005); and Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia (New York: Public Affairs, 2014).


Marlene Laruelle, “Russia as an Anti-Liberal European Civilization,” in The New Russian Nationalism: Imperialism, Ethnicity, and Authoritarianism, ed. Kolstø and Blakkisrud, 275 – 297.

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