Marlene Laruelle: "Nationalism is part of “normality” of society and it is naive to think we can eradicate it as if it was an illness"
Marlene Laruelle, Research Professor of International Affairs; Director, Central Asia Program; Associate Director, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
2018 — Russian Nationalism. Imaginaries, Doctrines and Political Battlefields, London: Routledge.
2018 — Understanding Russia. The Challenges of Transformation, Lanham, Boulder, New York: Rowman & Littlefield, co-authored with Jean Radvanyi.
2014 — Russia’s Arctic Strategies and the Future of the Far North, New York: M.E. Sharpe.
2013 — Globalizing Central Asia. Geopolitics and the Challenges of Economic Development New York: M.E. Sharpe, co-authored with Sebastien Peyrouse.
2012 — The ‘Chinese Question’ in Central Asia. Domestic Order, Social Changes and the Chinese FactorLondon, New York: Oxford University Press, and Hurst, co-authored with Sebastien Peyrouse.
2009 — In the Name of the Nation. Nationalism and Politics in Contemporary Russia New York: Palgrave/MacMillan.
2008 — Russian Eurasianism. An Ideology of Empire, Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Press/Johns Hopkins University Press, paperback 2011.
To be an academic you never reworded financially well. So who influenced you to become a researcher: your family, your high school teachers or anyone else?
I come from a family of professors and teachers, so I have been raised in an intellectual tradition in which writing and teachings are the highest values, money is not.
I don’t have Russian roots. I studied Russian at school when I was 15. It was perestroika time and in France at that time a lot of interest were given to Gorbachev’s reforms. I was curious about what was happening there. I fell in love with the country immediately, went for the first time in the Soviet Union in 1990, and then decide to study slavistika at university. So perestroika was, for my generation, my “Gagarin” time—even if it ended less gloriously for the country!
What are the main stages of your academic career? You are a co-director of PONARS-Eurasia. Can you tell a few words about that program?
I received my PhD and my habilitation (our French “doktorskaia”) in France, working already on Eurasianism and on Russian nationalism. But I was also interested in Central Asia and spent 5 years at the French Institute for Central Asian Studied, based in Tashkent. So I worked on both Russia and Central Asia in parallel for years. I got my first post-doctoral grant in Washington, at the Kennan Institute, in 2005, and then stayed in the US. I arrived at GW in 2011, created the Central Asia Program there in 2012, and took the co-direction of PONARS in 2016. I have alternated periods of time working on Russia and some others on Central Asia. Taking the PONARS codirection offered me the opportunity to read and work on the whole region, I learned a lot on Ukraine and the South Caucasus for instance, which were never part of my research portfolio. I also began working more and more on Russia’s Arctic regions—an old fascination for Siberia that I am realizing now.
After the collapse of Soviet Bloc the public opinion was that growing ethnic nationalism in East and Central European countries is created by ineffective system of socialism. After the transition to democracy people of those countries would be able to overcome the obsolete identity concept and join with advanced European nations, which are successfully moving from the civic nation identity to global Humankind In contrary now we observe the growing ethnic trend in leading EU countries and the US as well. What are the main reasons for such phenomenon? Are there any possibilities to change that dangerous trend?
I think nationalism is part of “normality” of society and it is naive to think we can eradicate it as if it was an illness. It expresses people’s anxieties and should be taken seriously, not negate as a “mistake” taken by some parts of the social body. The changes in Central and Eastern Europe—and I include Russia in it—since three decades have just been huge, politically, economically, culturally, in terms of behaviors, perceptions, worldviews, values. It is normal to get a certain backlash after the kind of euphorical entry of some of these countries into the EU in the 2000s.
I wouldn’t focus so much on ‘nationalism’ as the main feature of what is happening in this region and in the rest of Europe and in the US, but on something broader, called ‘illiberalism’. It is bigger than just ethnonationalism, it is about values that reign in our society, which kind of social contract we want, which kind of domestic and world order.
The anxieties expressed through the rise of illiberal values are deep and many of them are legitimate—some others are more a political construct. Finger pointing them as a “mis-thinking” we should eradicate will not help, our societies need to offer another social order to calm down these anxieties. So I think this trend is there for long, and will conduct to more structural adjustments of our societies in the years/decades to go, it is a critical turning point signaling the end of “post-Cold war liberalism” as formulated in the 1990s-2000s.
In my opinion, Russians do not possess the strong ethnic identity. They would rather differ, according to Dostoevsky, by intrinsic “worldwide responsiveness”. You have a lot of publications regarding Russian Eurasianism and Russian nationalism. How do you think there are any distinction between national identities of Russians and other European nations?
Indeed, historically and even today, ethnic nationalism is not strongly developed in Russia as it can be in “smaller” (in the sense of non-numerous) nations in which the feeling of an ethnic unity and survival that can be threatened is higher. Ethnic nationalism is weak because it is competed with by a more imperial nationalism, in which Russians’ status is highlighted not by any kind of “purity” but by a “civilizational mission,” both in the neighboring spaces of Eurasia, and sometimes in a more universal dimension— from Moscow Third Rome to Soviet internationalism and to, in a sense, today’s Russia’s “conservative values” mission.
The possible contradictions between ethnic and imperial nationalism is compensated by a strong derzhavnyi nationalism sponsored by the state that helps keeping all the different interpretations of the “Russian nation” together. So if ethnic nationalism is less developed than in some other European countries, nationalism in a broader sense of feeling superior and having some rights associated to this is high—but not necessarily higher than, for instance, in the US.
Current relations between Russia and NATO members echo the Cold War situation. Under those conditions some colleagues are becoming a propaganda agents. I cannot justify my Russian colleagues doing that, but I do understand their motives. Almost all academic activities in Russia are concentrated in state institutions. The stuff of those institutions has been significantly reduced in recent years. Currently the “patriotic” statements become, as “communist” ones in Soviet era, an instrument of surviving in difficult economic and political situation. But I cannot understand why some American academics are involved in the state propaganda? There are a lot of private universities in the US and therefore academics are more independent from the state. Timothy Snider is the most obvious example of such indecent activities. It is worth mentioning that you (http://www.ponarseurasia.org/node/9910) and many of your colleagues criticize Timothy Snider for his disregarding academic standards. How would you explain such unfortunate trend?
That is true that the room for Russian scholars not to show some level of conformity with the general Zeitgeist is reduced—for both financial, institutional, cultural and some political reasons. American scholars do not have the same limits, but still, as a foreigner living in the US for a decade now, I feel a strong ideological framework that “pushes” you to think in a certain way. We can discuss if this just conformism, or more structured propaganda, but it is there: it is difficult to go against the policy mainstream, especially in a city like Washington. Many people in the US still believe in the country’s universalism and mission to bring democracy and market economy to the rest of the world, and see any regime, group or country challenging that idea as an adversary.
In the current context of deeply deteriorated relations with Russia, there is a whole “ecosystem” that has been created (or recreated, as it existed during Cold War decades) to promote in media, fund financially, and reward institutionally, those who present themselves as the exalted prophet of US values in the world and therefore a Russia-bashers. This is of course very damageable to what a genuine plurality of opinions should be.
What are your academic plans?
I am working on two book projects now. A small book, with a Russian colleague, on the rehabilitation of the White past in Russia and memory issues linked to that. A bigger on the production of ideologies in today’s Russia, mapping the different groups that compete to deliver ideological products to the state institutions and the public opinion.
Thank you very much for your interview