The pressure valve

Russian nationalism in late Soviet society

9 December 2015
Only in en
In the 1970s and early 1980s, a movement of Russian nationalists attempted to reshape the USSR in a Russian-patriotic spirit. Alexander Mikhailovsky considers the reception of this movement among intellectual circles at the time and whether its legacy still plays a role in official Russian politics today.

In his famous article “For official use only” of 1999, the Russian philosopher Vladimir Bibikhin writes:

During the final period of the Soviet Union, the authorities were searching for ideological alternatives to Marxism. As early as 1973, we knew that military and political strategists planned to throw off Marxism and thought about equipping the army with the ideological tool of Orthodoxy.

But, he adds, “this search for openness was kept secret” (Bibikhin 2003, 181-82). When I read these enigmatic sentences at the beginning of the text published in his essay collection Drugoe nachalo (“The other beginning”), I asked myself: How can we verify this? How much of Bibikhin’s suspicion was real and how much of it was “kitchen talk”? For once, it seems clear that Bibikhin’s statement could only have been based on a highly subjective point of view. Even with hindsight, it seems highly dubitable that there really was a targeted “search” at the highest level for ideological alternatives to Marxism. Even if there were, why would Bibikhin have kept his knowledge secret until 1999? Though we can no longer ask him personally, we should still consider the question: what was the ideological context, which persons and ideas could one refer to in order to make sense of Bibikhin’s words?

In this article, I will try to answer this question by looking at the intellectual history of the late Soviet Union. My topic is the so-called “Russian Party” – a movement of Russian nationalists that claimed to reshape the internationalist USSR in a Russian-patriotic spirit and that can be considered as the most conservative alternative to the official Marxist ideology at the time. I use the term Russian Party as a general term for different intellectual groups present both in official and unofficial Soviet culture in the form of their ideology, media, clubs and cultural organizations. What follows provides an overview of these groups and assesses their impact on Soviet political life and its aftermaths.

“Russian nationalism was something like a pressure valve for public opinion during the 1960s, which was characterized by increasing confusion and uncertainty about the fictive status of the ‘new historical community’ of the Soviet people”. Photo: Phongkrit. Source:Shutterstock

The Russian Party

The Russian Party was made up of prominent historians, writers, journalists and editors. These people had access to all the levers that influenced public opinion and created more or less well-organized subcultures. They followed different strategies in their well-coordinated media campaigns. Nikolay Mitrokhin, the author of The Russian Party: Russian Nationalist Movement in the Soviet Union in 1953-1985 (2003) speaks about the Russian party as a “lobbyist group”. I am not sure that this is the correct term, as lobbyists offer arguments, evidence and research to support their groups’ positions in a political process. The publications of lobbyists allow interest groups to influence public opinion, which, in turn, often influences the policy decisions of lawmakers. Lobbyists work to persuade governmental officials. But this kind of political process was obviously not present in the case of the late Soviet Union! There was no open political process of opinion formation; the Department for Propaganda and Agitation of CK KPSS had enough time and capacities to research issues themselves, they didn’t rely on information from interest groups and lobbyists to keep them informed and up-to-date. That is why I don’t think that Mitrokhin’s term “lobbyists” for the Russian Party is a carefully considered one.

On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the nationalist movement had its own advocates in the Communist Party – not at the highest level, but at the mid-level of bureaucrats in the Propaganda Apparatus (e.g. Vladimir Vorontsov, the assistant chief of Mikhail Suslov, the Communist Party’s main ideologist) and among Komsomol leaders (e.g. Valerij Ganicev, director of the publishing house Molodaja Gvardija from 1968 to 1978). And there can also be no doubt that the government was aware of the risk that arose from the nationalist movement: even Suslov, who is considered to have been the chief supporter of the patriotic movement, expressed fear of the dissident Right as a subversive force. Underground conservatives were often detained in mental hospitals (Gennadiy Shimanov, Anatoly Ivanov-Skuratov are examples) and even in labour camps (such as Igor Ogurtsov, Leonid Borodin and Vladimir Osipov).

As opposed to earlier decades under the Soviet regime, when ideological alternatives were simply suppressed, the nomenclatura during the Brezhnev era was interested in the controlled flourishing of ideological niches (i.e. liberal, national-bolshevist or traditionalist ones) of public discourse. The aim was the control of people and of the diffusion of ideas. No protagonist should be able to leave his or her niche, or possibly claim to be the Communist Party’s official voice. The absence of a real public sphere and the lack of real national solidarity was a proper basis for transforming the Communist autocracy into a “cratocracy”1 – to use Vittorio Strada’s apt neologism to describe late Soviet totalitarianism (Strada 1985, 213).

Social, cultural and political contexts

Russian nationalism was something like a pressure valve for public opinion during the 1960s, which was characterized by increasing confusion and uncertainty about the fictive status of the “new historical community” of the Soviet people. From today’s perspective it is clear that during the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev between 1964 and 1982, Soviet cultural ideology underwent some crucially important changes. The staunch Marxist-Leninist paradigm succumbed to a more pragmatic orientation. A “cold peace” with society became the principal objective of the ruling elite. The gradual evaporation of the previous official ideology prompted compromises with the upper levels of society, and drove the regime towards a reluctant recognition of new ideological schemes. One of these schemes was nationalism (cf. Cosgrove 2004, 11-12).

Slavophilism and nostalgia for old rural Russia were already espoused by the Soviet intelligentsia shortly after Nikita Khrushchev’s dismissal from power in 1964. The popularity of “village prose”, Orthodox revivalism and a fast-growing concern for Russian national culture provided the intellectual context for Soviet nationalism, which grew into a veritable opposition to the regime.

Soviet nationalists benefited from a change in ideological mechanisms under Brezhnev. In the 1970s, a lot of cultural and political issues were no longer resolved at the Politburo (cf. Kretschmar 1997, 16). The almost-theatrical performances about issues of cultural politics at the Politburo, which had been typical for the Khrushchev era, were succeeded by the dry prose of Central Committee resolutions. In practice, this meant that the power of the mid-level bureaucracy grew significantly, since it was there where the directives coming out of the Politburo were translated into concrete policies. Exhausting altercations with zealous and hesitant functionaries who took no risks in their uncompromising position was a daily routine of writers, artists and stage directors of the time. Moreover, the Soviet Union used the third wave of emigration (after the waves of 1917 and 1945) as a cultural-political tool. The Soviet Union was compelled to take into consideration the reactions in the West to trials against dissident writers and artists because there was a certain interdependence between the “lessening of international tensions” and issues about human rights in the Soviet Union. That’s why the Soviet authorities sought to avoid criminal cases against dissidents, preferring banishment and deprivation of citizenship instead. The case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1974) was exemplary in this regard, because public opinion in the West regarded his exile as a rather peaceful act of the Soviet government’s, not as repression.

Mapping the “Russian Party”: Nationalist dissidents and the intellectual establishment

In the Brezhnev era, Russian nationalism enjoyed increasing popularity. A key role in the dissemination of Russian nationalist feelings and ideas was played by the Komsomol (The Communist Union of Youth) and its journal Molodaja gvardija (“Young guard”). The painter II’ja Glazunov and the writer Vladimir Soloukhin campaigned in the journal and elsewhere for the preservation of Russian historical monuments, especially churches and monasteries, many of which had been destroyed to make way for the communist future. The public organization “Commission for the Preservation of Monuments of Culture and History” (VOOPIiK), established in 1965, managed to gather the support of hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens. Writers of the “village prose” movement (derevenshchiki), such as Fjodor Abramov, Sergej Zalygin, Vasilij Belov and Valentin Rasputin, praised the spiritual values of the threatened Russian peasantry, opposed the destructive modernization policies of the government and, in some cases, showed sympathy for Russian Orthodoxy. Together with the Komsomol, the Russian branch of the Union of Writers, and a number of the so-called tolstye zhurnaly – “thick journals”, lengthy volumes of more than 200 pages such as Molodaja gvardiyia, Nash sovremennik and Sever – formed the institutional centre of the Russian Party.

It is not an easy task to map the Russian Party because the spectrum of Russian nationalist groups and figures was wide and heterogeneous. It is common practice to divide them into “national-bolsheviks” and vozrozhdentsy, as John Dunlop does (Dunlop 1986), or into “patriots” and “traditionalists” as Vladimir Shlapentokh suggests (Shlapentokh 1990). At one pole, we deal with gosudarstvenniki who favoured a strong Russian state and supported the Soviet government as the legitimate successor to the Tsars. At the opposite pole, we have the vozrozhdentsy who wanted a Russian cultural rebirth based on Orthodoxy and expressed sympathy with early Slavophiles of the nineteenth century (cf. Duncan 1988, 35-6).

However, this division into political nationalists and cultural nationalists is still insufficient, because there were also monarchists, Stalinists, Orthodox believers and neopagans in both camps. The main drawback of the term Russian Party still lies in the fact that the distinction between the “systemic” and the dissident factions of the Russian Party has not been systematically drawn. For this reason, and in order to avoid misleading categorizations, I propose a pure sociological criterion for the definition of the “Russian Party”, namely the type of relation of each group to the Soviet government. If we apply this criterion, we find two clearly distinct factions of the Russian Party: established intellectuals on the one side and an illegal underground on the other. Each faction had their own types of publication, whether the official magazines or samizdat.

From 1971 to 1974, the most important nationalist samizdat journal Veche was published. The journal’s editor Vladimir Osipov had earlier been arrested and sentenced to seven years in the camps. Like the influential official magazines Molodaja Gvardija or Nash sovremennik, the editors of Veche put forward their own alternatives to the Brezhnev regime but preferred to avoid any confrontation with the authorities. Veche was tolerated – in spite of a critical report issued by Glavlit, the Chief Directorate on Literature and Publishing – until October 1972, when Aleksandr Yakovlev who led the Central Committee’s propaganda department published a strong anti-nationalist critique (Semanov, Lotareva 2006, 192-216). In 1974, the KGB finally suppressed Veche‘s publication. Veche declared itself the voice of the “loyal opposition”: “We have to convince the Administration [of the Communist Party] that the existence of a loyal opposition is not to the detriment of, but to the benefit of the state.” It was beneficial for the following reasons: 1) the “loyal opposition is your protection against proliferated bureaucracy that not only the workers, but the leaders themselves consider a burden”; and 2) “it protects against a single-leader dictatorship” (after Yanov 2014).

Having started as a legal movement within the intellectual community, “Russophilism” soon became a part of the underground opposition as well. The Russophiles’ most important dissident organization was the All-Russian Social-Christian Union for the Liberation of the People (VSKhSON) in Leningrad, headed by Igor Ogurtsov, with twenty-eight members and thirty candidates on the eve of its destruction by the authorities in 1967.

In the 1970s there was rather intense interaction between the legal and illegal spheres. Solzhenitsyn, for instance, became a prophet for the legal Russophiles, even though they could not mention his name in their articles, and he would not praise them in the West for fear of hurting their cause. I believe it is important to indicate that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Russian Club (this was the unofficial title of VOOPIiK) became something like a melting pot for Orthodox dissidents and official patriots. The Club met on a weekly basis from the 1960s to the early 1980s to discuss the existing state of native Russian cultural and political affairs. Historian Sergei Semanov, one of the Club’s founding members and editor of the popular journal Chelovek i zakon (“Man and the law”), was critical of the official Marxist government positions and wished to influence the governance of the country in an Orthodox-patriotic spirit. Semanov supposed that Russian nationalism was able to facilitate the mild transformation of the Soviet Empire into an authoritarian state. Vladimir Osipov visited these meetings and communicated with Sergei Semanov and philologist Pjotr Palievsky. These Russian Club discussions were held without any Marxist rhetoric as if there was no Marxism at all. But neither were there any anti-Soviet speeches (cf. Mitrokhin 2003, 320 ff.).

Both the established and the underground Russophiles had good reasons for choosing their status. For example, an established intellectual could take advantage of being published in one-and-a-half million copies and enjoy social privileges. A dissident intellectual was not sure about his future but he had an opportunity to reach an international audience by publishing his articles and diaries in Russian émigré-journals (Posev, Vestnik RSHD). He was interviewed by Associated Press and, in case of prosecution, could count on the attention of human rights advocates in the West.

Alexander Yanov points out the fact that it “was not Young Guard, and certainly not their party ‘cover’, but the illegal nationalists who paid the real price of Sergei Semanovs’s blunder [see below] and the authorities’ crackdown on nationalism in 1982. While chief editor Anatoly Nikonov of Young Guard just moved into the chair of the chief editor of Vokrug Sveta, the editor-in-chief of the nationalist magazine Veche, Vladimir Osipov moved into one of Mordovia’s prison camps” (Yanov 2014). The dissident nationalists became the convenient scapegoats of nationalistic populism of the late Soviet Union.

The ideology of the Russian Party

The Russian Party’s policy was not limited to ethno-nationalism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, as Mitrokhin writes (cf. Mitrokhin 2003, 8-9). His thesis that some prominent figures of the Russian Party tried to combine communist and orthodox views also needs to be analysed carefully. Likewise, the thesis of Shlapentokh, the émigré Soviet sociologist, that Russophilism “was very aggressive toward the West and the Jews, contending that Russia has its own specific history, culture, and traditions that are deeply alien to Western democratic institutions” (Shlapentokh 1990, 223) needs further specification.

In reply to both Mitrokhin and Shlapentokh, I am inclined to interpret the ideology of the Russian Party in a slightly different key: it was undoubtedly a nationalistic ideology, because all of its members attached great importance to the concept of nation. There were surely some elements of an ethno-nationalist doctrine, but most adherents of the Russian Party maintained imperialist ideals. I therefore suggest the term “imperial nationalism” to describe an ideological, not political, movement seeking a greater voice for the nation within an empire, claiming that this will benefit both the nation and the empire.

Moreover we should pay attention to the fact that most Russian patriotic writers did their best to protect the indigenous people of Siberia and to preserve Russian nature. In fact, they became the first representatives of the Russian ecology movement. For example, V. Rasputin suggested that the government should take measures to protect the Russian landscape against the ravages of irresponsible modernization with the same energy that it used for preventing the international exploitation of Siberian mineral resources.

Of course, the Russian Party was anti-western in attitude, fully in line with the tradition of the nineteenth-century Slavophiles. Like Fjodor Dostoevsky or Nikolay Danilevsky, Soviet Russophiles rejected the concept of general patterns of historical development and perceived the history of each people, nation and civilization as developing according to its own laws. Consequently they advanced the idea of the specific character of Russian history based on its unique culture, traditions and morals (cf. Shafarevich 1989). Iurij Davydov, philosopher and sociologist, attacked the western modernist philosophy and its “relativist morals”, and kept insisting that the most important characters of Russian literature from Dostoevsky to Rasputin were inclined toward sacrifices for the sake of others and together, constituted the world’s “single bearer of the moral idea” (Davydov 1989).

Where religious issues were concerned, the books and articles of Nikolai Berdyaev were probably the most read. Besides Russian religious philosophers like Berdyaev, Leontiev, Soloviev, Rozanov and Frank, western authors such as Soeren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger were also popular among people with an interest in religion (cf. Osipov 2012, 39).

Russophiles rejected the fundamentals of the Marxist philosophy of history in favour of approaches that emphasized the decisive role of culture. It is not surprising that Russophile ideology was much more hostile toward Marxism than toward liberal ideology. But there were only a few marginal persons who claimed that Russia was genetically incapable of democracy. The best-known journal of conservative nationalists was called Veche, which means a town assembly democracy in Novgorod. It is therefore rather unlikely that they considered democracy a purely western invention or an impossibility in Russia.

The Russian Party attacked with special vehemence the ideas of proletarian internationalism and world revolution, and it continued to do so into the 1980s. Semanov, one of the leaders of the Russian Party, says:

We were all ardent patriots, supported the Soviet power (adjusted for patriotism, of course) […] We despised the West for its bourgeois culture and it was by mere accident that the West was Communist party’s main enemy as well. (Semanov 1997, 180)

Patriotism, or the worship and love of the state, formed the core of nationalist ideology – not only in its “patriotic” variant. The state was conceived as the great protector of the Russian people. V. Rasputin proposed a widely extended definition of patriotism:

Patriotism means moral consciousness, duty, love for our native land, the good, faith, personality, citizenship etc. […] Patriotism is not a kind of love for an idea but love of fatherland, covenant faithfulness, honouring its ashes, suffering for all Russian sufferings, confidence in its purifying exodus. (Rasputin 1989, 410)

The cult of the Soviet state was also abundant in underground Russophile literature, particularly the samizdat magazine published by Osipov. From the very beginning, Osipov demonstrated his hostility toward the Soviet political order, and bitterly and uncompromisingly lashed out against the so-called modern patriots: individuals who speculated on Russian feelings while continuing to serve the authorities. At the same time, he suggested only the “softening of dictatorship, observation of laws, and tolerance toward the differently minded”. Osipov underscored his acceptance of the existing order as a reality, arguing that “whatever the political fate of Russia, national interests are of primary, supersocial and eternal importance” (after Shlapentokh 1990, 211-12). Consequently, the evolution of Osipov’s views during the 1970s could be described as a shift from traditionalist-monarchist views towards the national-patriotic positions.

Shlapentokh is correct in his observation that despite serious differences on many issues, Russophiles demonstrated a general consensus in their attitudes toward the Soviet empire and its future. Only a few of them (for instance Solzhenicyn) considered the national independence of the non-Slavic people a desirable goal. Since the early 1960s, the majority of Russophiles rejected the idea of dismantling the Soviet empire, i.e. the idea of “Great Russia’s dedicated representatives of all nationalities”. For example, in their search for the ideological basis for a “Great Russia”, intellectuals from the VShSON planned to overthrow the communist dictatorship and establish a new political order on the principles of Social Christianity. In their minds, every imperial acquisition was incorporated into Russia’s identity. Even such an implacable foe of the Soviet system as the “traditionalist” Shafarevich and such a moderate “patriot” as Osipov in the 1970s wanted the empire to survive (Shlapentokh 1990, 214-15).

What was the Russian Party’s core argument for this crossbreeding of Soviet system and (not only orthodox but also neo-pagan) traditionalism? To clarify this, let me quote a short fragment from Letters about Russia (1971-72) by the dissident writer and editor Gennady Shimanov:

What I am really afraid of is a sudden liberalization, the notorious “Western democracy”, which is the pinnacle of some intelligentsia’s hopes […] Until the Soviet power exists, the religious revival in our country cannot be brought to a stop. It could be stopped only by a sudden liberalization after the Czechoslovak model […] Of course, we will have a lot of churches and a lot of people in these churches but it will be not the beginning but rather the end. It will be a foetus and Russia will become the back of beyond and the backyard of the West which is neither cold nor hot.” (after Mitrokhin 2003, 522)

Shimanov means that imperial-orthodox nationalists should support the regime, good or bad, in its struggle against westernizers. In future, there would be no alternative for the regime, accepting either its dependence on the Russian Orthodox forces or its total failure. The agenda was quite clear: to support the Soviet system and to develop its strong institutions of industry, army, education into a prominent bulwark against western liberalism and democracy.


The Russian Party became very influential among the Russian intelligentsia by the early 1980s. The Central Committee’s Department for Propaganda and Agitation maintained a strict watch over patriotic journals (Tavanec 2012), and the KGB seemed to turn a blind eye to the Russian Party’s activity, considering it a counterbalance to the actions of liberal dissidents (cf. Suslov 2009, 329). Continuous stagnation in the economy, a prevalent agricultural crisis, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan pressed the regime to appeal to the patriotic feelings of the Russian people. Sergei Semanov, Vladimir Soloukhin, Vadim Kozinov and others published overtly nationalistic and religious essays in the journal Nash sovremennik. However, in 1981-82 the security service took measures to put an end to “flirting with the little god” (zaigryvaniia s bozen’koi).2

Therefore I cannot verify Bibikhin’s statement that there was a purposeful search for ideological alternatives to Marxism among the authorities. At the same time, the phenomenon described by Bibikhin is entirely in the spirit of the Russian Party. Here the question arises whether contemporary Russian politics are influenced by the Russian nationalists. No doubt, the Russophile ideology had become a dominant ideology in the late Soviet Union. Today it appears to have left the marginal place it occupied during the past 25 years of the post-Soviet era and to reflect the consensus between public opinion and the opinion of the power elite. Nonetheless, today’s curious politico-ideological mixture of militant imperialism, Russian Orthodoxy and the idea of a Russian Sonderweg should not necessarily be understood as the natural result of an evolutionary development. One thing is clear: it points to a certain continuity in the logic of power. There are a lot of ideological niches in the Russian intellectual milieu – one could mention Eurasianism, liberalism, “mystical fascism”, the national democratic movement, etc. – which can provide a convenient set of ideas to reshape the political agenda. The present-day success of imperial-orthodox nationalism in the spirit of the Russian Party is contingent on a series of factors, first and foremost its persuasiveness for a major part of Russian society and its adaptability as the ideological basis for the construction of a political agenda in terms of friend-enemy distinction.


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Davydov J. (1989). “Nravstvennoe vozrozdenije i sud’by Rossii”. In: Za altari i ocagi, Sovetskaja Rossija, 296-315.

Duncan, P. J. (1988). “The fate of Russian nationalism: The Samizdat journal Veche Revisited”. In: Religion in Communist Lands 16, no. 1.

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Suslov, M.D. (2009). “The fundamentalist utopia of Gennady Shimanov from the 1960s-1980s”. In: Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 17, no. 4, 324-49.

Yanov, A. (2014). “Soviet nationalist dissidents: The drama of Veche magazine”,

Tavanec, S.D., ed. (2012). Apparat CK KPSS i kultura, 1973-1978. Dokumenty: t. 2. Federal’noje arkhivnoje agenstvo, Rossijskij gosudarstvennyj arkhiv noveisej istorii, Rurskij universitet (Bochum), Institut russkoj I sovetskoj kultury im. Ju.M. Lotmana.

  1. Power for power, the redoubling of power, or reduction of power to its pure form of machination.
  2. A declassified memo "On the anti-Soviet activities of A. Ivanov and S. N. Semanov" written by then KGB boss Yuri Andropov to the Politburo on March 28, 1981 reads in part: "Recently, in Moscow and other cities of the country a new tendency toward negative and critical thinking has manifested itself in elements in the scientific and creative intelligence sectors. They are referred to as Russianists (rusisty). Under the pretext of defending Russian traditions they are in fact engaged in anti-Soviet activities. [...] The chief editor of 'Man and the Law' journal, Communist Party member S. M. Semanov distributes slanderous stories about Communist Party leadership in the domestic and foreign affairs policies of the government. [...] He emphasizes the need to fight the government. [...] If we ourselves do not resist, we are lost." (Russian text in: Semanov, Lotareva 2006, 366-368).

Published 9 December 2015

Original in English
First published in Eurozine

Contributed by Transit
© Alexander Mikhailovsky / IWM / Eurozine


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