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What Is a Nation?
Putin claims he is reuniting the Russian people. But nations have never been purely about ethnicity.
On February 21st, Vladimir Putin turned a declaration of war into a history lecture. As his troops massed for that week’s full-blown invasion, the President declared Ukraine to be an “inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.” Flitting from the medieval past to the October Revolution, Putin concluded that the separation of Ukraine from Russia by the Soviets was “worse than a mistake.” Invasion was not an unprovoked attack, but a correction of the historical record.
Putin’s strange claims that day can be traced to an almost 7000-word essay he published last July. Titled “On the Historical Unity and Ukrainians and Russians,” it described the two countries as “brother nations.” Ukraine, Putin claimed, was long indistinguishable from Russia itself, until the malign intervention of nationalists split them apart. “[W]estern and eastern Russian lands spoke the same language.” They possessed “shared cultural traditions” and were united by their Orthodox faith – a “spiritual choice” which “still largely determines our affinity today.” Since Ukrainians emerged from the Malorossy (“Little Russians”), and Russians from the “Velikorossy” (“Great Russians”), the two nations were in fact a people bound by blood. In their supposed ethnological affinities, Putin claimed the Ukrainians as kin to be conquered.
It's tempting to dismiss these ramblings as a Putinist quirk. Years surrounded by sycophants may have taken their toll on his judgment. But the Russian President is not alone in his reasoning. The logic of ethnonationalism has long justified aggression and violence, from Germany’s invasion of the Sudetenland to the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Much as we might wish otherwise, we still live in a world gripped by the fallacies and fictions of Putin’s thought. To dismantle them, we need to examine their origin point in 19th century Europe.
In 1882, Ernest Renan gave a history lecture of his own. For the title of his address, the French historian and orientalist had come up with a question: What is a nation? It was a pertinent, even pressing, query. Over the past decades, Italy and Germany had forged their scattered provinces into a single country as nationalist movements swept through Europe. The world of nation-states we live with now was only just taking shape, and Renan’s lecture aimed to uncover its foundations.
Renan’s address would be more than just an academic inquiry. At heart, it was a statement of political principle, a plea for nationhood based on choice rather than coercion. And it aimed to rebut an unusually insidious notion: that nationhood could be based on ethnicity and kinship, or, as it was then commonly called, “race.”
In his choice of target, Renan was something of a French patriot. In 1871, the Prussians had seized Alsace-Lorraine back from France; the region’s perceived Germanness made it one of the last jigsaw pieces to be slotted into Bismarck’s new nation. Its loss was a profound blow to France. One infantry captain used to lead secret patrols through the pine woods of these redrawn borderlands, to gaze down on the now-German city of Colmar. “On our return from those clandestine expeditions,” he wrote, “our columns reformed, choked and dumb with emotion.”
As Renan’s address continued, something of that feeling was detectable in his denunciation of “race.” “According to this theory,” he remarked, “the Germanic family… has the right to reclaim its scattered members, even if these members do not ask to rejoin it.” It was for Renan a deeply dangerous and undemocratic principle. Taken to extremes, its logic could only result in “the destruction of European civilization.”
If race talk encouraged a philosophy of brute force, it also rested on falsehood. The unity of a given “people,” or the supposed ethnic commonality that entitled one nation to help itself to the lands of another, simply did not exist. “Germany is Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic,” noted Renan. And the same might be freely said of his own nation: “The Frenchman is neither a Gaul, a Franc, or a Burgund. He is that which has escaped the great boiler in which…the most diverse elements were together fermented.” European ancestry was so inescapably muddled that no stable French or German ethnicity could be isolated in the first place. “Race,” he concluded, was “something that is made and unmade.”
It provided therefore no real basis for defining the nation. Instead, “the primordial right of races” was “narrow and full of danger for true progress.” Trying to apply its tortuous logic not only made little sense, but had no conceivable end. Just as the Germans claimed kin beyond their borders, so might the Slavs look to Germany, searching for their own ancestors to annex. Renan’s conclusion had more than a little professorial wryness to it: “I very much like ethnography. It is an unusually interesting science. However, as I wish to live free, I desire that it have no political application.”
If Renan had swatted away the nationhood based on “race,” he had yet to propose a better theory. To do so, he turned away from “anthropological traits.” Rather than some natural phenomenon found in blood, the nation, Renan declared, was “a soul, a spiritual principle.” This principle was consent: “the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received.” Nationhood was a voluntary construction which required constant renewal, “a daily plebiscite” whose legitimacy came from the free choice to live and flourish within the same borders. Coercion and invasion could never truly answer the question of what a nation was. “No one,” remarked Renan, “has the right to go about the world examining men’s heads and then grabbing them by the throat, saying, “you are of our blood; you belong to us!”
One hundred and forty years later, we are still asking Renan’s question. Looking on at events in Ukraine, we would do well to remember his answer too. There is no such thing as a single, static “people,” with a diaspora it is entitled to conquer and ingest. Of all countries, Russia is a peculiarly diverse one, with at least 150 different ethnic groups and over 100 minority languages. Putin’s notion of “brother nations” can only rest on the very fictions that Renan skewered. “Man,” Renan reminded his audience, “is a slave neither of his race, his language, his religion, the course of his rivers, nor the direction of his mountain ranges.” He was instead a creature of volition, as the nation was too.
If consent is the principle upon which nationhood stands, Renan identified a vital force which bound its citizens together: “[a] heroic past with great men and glory.” Only by weathering the trials of history together could the nation continue to exist. “One loves,” he concluded, “in proportion to the sacrifices that one has committed and the troubles that one has suffered.” As Volodymyr Zelenski fights on in Kyiv, and his compatriots take up arms across Ukraine, that suffering and sacrifice bursts forth with every passing day. Putin has sought to break the idea of a Ukrainian nation. But he may have only made it stronger.
Nathaniel Rachman is a contributing editor at Persuasion and a Master of Philosophy student at the University of Cambridge.