From the Shadow of Empire: Defining the Russian Nation through Cultural Mythology, 1855–1870
University of Wisconsin Press
As nationalism spread across nineteenth-century Europe, Russia’s national identity remained murky: there was no clear distinction between the Russian nation and the expanding multiethnic empire that called itself “Russian.” When Tsar Alexander II’s Great Reforms (1855–1870s) allowed some freedom for public debate, Russian nationalist intellectuals embarked on a major project—which they undertook in daily press, popular historiography, and works of fiction—of finding the Russian nation within the empire and rendering the empire in nationalistic terms.
From the Shadow of Empire traces how these nationalist writers refashioned key historical myths— the legend of the nation’s spiritual birth, the tale of the founding of Russia, stories of Cossack independence—to portray the Russian people as the ruling nationality, whose character would define the empire. In an effort to press the government to alter its traditional imperial policies, writers from across the political spectrum made the cult of military victories into the dominant form of national myth-making: in the absence of popular political participation, wars allowed for the people’s involvement in public affairs and conjured an image of unity between ruler and nation. With their increasing reliance on the war metaphor, Reform-era thinkers prepared the ground for the brutal Russification policies of the late nineteenth century and contributed to the aggressive character of twentieth-century Russian nationalism.