On Nationalism and Identity: An Interview With Liah Greenfeld
Greenfeld, who is an associate professor of social studies at Harvard, was born in Russia and has written in the New Republic and elsewhere on the problems of Russian nationalism and of current developments in the former Soviet Union. In an interview with The Crimson, she spoke about these issues and her new book, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity.
Q: How do you explain the tremendous force that nationalist ideologies have over people all over the world today?
A: Nationalism emerged because of the dissolution of the society of order, and specifically because of the problems of status. So the function of nationalism was to secure for those groups whose status was threatened their sense of dignity--and, by the way, these groups have all disappeared today....Nobody is interested in the predicament of the nobility today--and yet, nationalism appeals to people because it still serves the very same function. It still guarantees liberty. And this is what you see now. It is because of this function of nationalism that it still is such a powerful force in the world.
Q: Based on your own experience and your research, what do you foresee for the Russian people after the dissolution of the Soviet Union?
A: Now they are in a state of anomie, and in a state of anomie the need for a definition becomes extremely acute--and that's why nationalism is extremely acute. The only identity the Russians know is the old national identity. And that's why it is the traditional nationalism that has re-emerged.
For example, Marxism, as such, began as a force of German nationalism. It was just a reformulation of the basic tenets of German nationalism in economistic terms which paradoxically made this ideology international. This reformulation caused a conflict. And this is what explains why when Communism was abandoned, specifically in Russia, what came in its place was not democracy but the old form of nationalism.
Russian nationalism camouflaged itself with internationalism and communism and existed in this camouflaged form for seventy years. And now it is no longer camouflaged. Today, the whole discourse in Russian press is the same discourse as before 1917. And the main issue is Russian identity. What is Russia about? Is it eastern or western? And how can it assume the place that matches its greatness in the world?
Q: You wrote in your book that for there to be a change in identity there needs to be a crisis in identity. From your own experience, can you shed some light on the crisis of Russian identity?
A: Nationalism was the strongest sentiment for the Russian people. But you have to understand, things weren't discussed, there were only cliches but people couldn't really talk or try to reformulate anything. This international Marxist ideology became for 70 years a part of Russian identity. So when it was cut off, it created confusion--the situation of anomie, and one was only able to find clear identity in the old traditional nationalism that was not contaminated by association of Communism.
Q: You emphasize the desire for identity and status as a motivation for action by individuals. Why is having an identity so important to us? And how do we go about asserting our status in the world?
A: Another thing that happened here is not only that the nation is a particular people but that it is often defined as better than others. So people are not merely vying for status they are claiming the status that is due to them. You see, the members of the Serbs' nation are members of an elite--an elite that is better than the Bosnian elite. This is what they do by humiliating the other people they are at the same time reaffirming their dignity.
Status in general is a see-saw. You can never have an absolute quantity, you can only have more or less than another. And one easy way to get more than another is to acquire status, another way is to humiliate the other.
And why is identity important? It is the need of the individual to place himself within the social universe. Who is asking what does it mean to be Russian? Russians! They want to explain to themselves what they are about. Each one of them wants to understand what is his or her place in the world. What are they expected to do? What is the degree of esteem they can expect from others?