Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russian Preferred Self-Image and the Two Chechen Wars

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Russian Preferred Self-Image and the Two Chechen Wars

Article excerpt

From Yeltsin's announcement in December 1994 that Russian troops would wage a "small victorious war" in Chechnya to "restore constitutional order" to Putin's promise in October of 1999 to "corner the bandits in the ... house and rub them out," (1) and throughout two wars, the self-image of the Russian Federation has been profoundly linked to its ability to deal with the situation in Chechnya. Michael Urban has argued that the re-creation of post-Soviet national communities has taken place largely through two moments: one, a positive moment, rehabilitates national "markers" of culture (for example, "bourgeois" Russian theater) that were suppressed during the communist era; the other, a negative moment, is effected by cleansing the nation of symbols, such as statues of Stalin, that were imposed by communist oppressors. In Russia, the re-creation of a post-Soviet national community has been complicated by the impossibility of blaming someone else for the imposition of communist rule and its continuing harmful consequences for economic and political development. The torturous nature of identity-formation in Russia has contributed to a situation in which everyday political conflict, bargaining, and compromise "easily becomes entangled with the intractable issue of identity." (2)

In this article, I will argue that divergent Russian responses to two remarkably similar wars were based on Russians' preferred images of the Russian state and were strongly influenced by anxieties about forming a positive national identity. The first Chechen war was unpopular with Russians because the way it was conducted contradicted Russians' preferred image of Russia as a benevolent and militarily proficient state, whereas the second war is widely supported because it projects an image of Russia as a strong country capable of protecting its citizens and territory.

Russians' preferred self-image has been influenced by Soviet experiences of a powerful central government providing for citizens' basic needs, as well as by more recent experiences of social upheaval. Russians would like their new state to have territorial integrity, economic and social stability, and domestic security.

Russian citizens, used to decades of state-provided services, would also like to feel that their society is caring and benevolent, rather than aggressive and imperialistic. (3) The Soviet state guaranteed its citizens free or affordable housing, day care, medicine, education, and cradle-to-grave employment; propaganda reassured all "comrades" that they belonged to the most powerful, benevolent union in the history of the world. Thus Russian citizens, raised on decades of state-guaranteed prices and services, have had to contend with great economic and social instability and the struggle to define a "national idea" in an unstable social and economic environment. That search for a national idea both in Russia and in other post-Soviet societies exemplifies the void left by the departure of communist ideology as a guiding force in political life.

The loss of an ideological reference point complicated center-periphery relations that had heretofore been "disguised and justified by reference to a supranational ideology and a compelling version of history that sanctioned the rule of the Communist Party." (4) After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, nationalistic rhetoric by both central and regional political leaders flowered. Dzhokar Dudayev's glorification of an independent Chechnya and a mythologized native "warrior tradition" drew on this rhetoric and on decades of Soviet nationalities policy, which encouraged nationalist ideas by promoting ethnicity in the state apparatus--every republic had its own institutes for the study of national language and culture--but denied regions the fight to anything more than symbolic expressions of that nationalism. (5)

Reasons for the 1994 Invasion

Russia entered the first Chechen war in December 1994, a year characterized by relative calm, modest economic gains, and a cessation of imminent threats to territory. …

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