In his book Heroic Failure, Fintan O’Toole describes the recent re-emergence of English national consciousness. Whereas a few years ago most people in England recorded their nationality as British, they are now more likely to describe themselves as English. O’Toole mentions this partly because that ‘Englishing’ process was and is a feature of Brexit. The rise of English nationalism seems to have played a part in motivating English voters to reject the EU.
Reading O’Toole’s book evoked a memory for me. In 1990 the Spectator ran an article about Russia in which the author suggested that the Russian part of the Soviet Union was seeing itself as increasingly separately from the USSR. The accompanying cartoon depicted a map of the Soviet Union with the Russian part taking the shape of a waking mammoth. A year later the mammoth broke free.
Both these re-emergences are paradoxical. In each case the ‘emergent’ country actually dominated the union from which they were emerging. In the UK, England is top dog both in numbers and in political power. Russia likewise dominated the Soviet Union.
So, what was there to break free from?
Breaking free from a nation
The problem seems to have been a kind of dominant invisibility. The dominance of the Russian nation was never fully acknowledged within the USSR, as it didn’t fit the soviet myth of equal nationalities. Despite its position, Russia’s identity was muted. But that changed in 1991. The USSR disintegrated and Russia re-emerged.
For England it’s not so much denial as confusion. For years people have used ‘England’, ‘Britain’, and ‘The UK’ interchangeably, and England’s historic distinctiveness was diluted and confused with the multinational UK.
But that has changed. People in England are becoming more consciously English, less British.
Lots of similarities between England and Russia
Nor were English and Russian dominance confined to their backyards. For centuries the UK and Russia were imperial powers with interesting similarities. Both countries started by colonizing large blocs of temperate-to-arctic territory; North America for the British, Siberia for the Russians; starting at roughly the same time in the late 16th – early 17th centuries.
Later they both expanded southward; Central Asia in Russia’s case, and South Asia and Africa in Britain’s. And in the 20th century both lost most of their empires, Britain slowly in the 20 years after 1947, Russia suddenly between 1989 and 1991 (but it kept Siberia).
Loss of empire has had an impact on the culture of both peoples. There is pride, nostalgia, and some resentment. The resentment is partly against former subject peoples, but also against other European peoples who, despite lesser imperial pedigrees, are prospering more. And that resentment connects with another similarity.
Both Britain and Russia were victors in World War Two, and for both, that victory is supremely important in national consciousness. For the USSR The Great Patriotic War was the ultimate vindication of the Soviet state, and as Weir points out, Russia has inherited this preoccupation. For England likewise, though the sacrifice and suffering did not begin to compare with the Russian experience, the war remains a national preoccupation, as Kowol describes.
For both nations, it seems, it’s a way of feeling special – special that they saved the world, and that the world owes a debt of gratitude to them. More recently both countries have experienced a sense of decline and diminution as their empires disappeared, and the memory of victory provides an antidote to that. It manifests in many ways, some innocuous, some inspiring, and some aggressive.
It bequeaths a narrative of unity, but it also encourages hostility to those seen as outsiders.
Hostility to outsiders
There is also similarity in their relationship with their shared neighbour, the EU. In both cases, as Gideon Rachman suggests, this is somewhat fraught with suspicion and mistrust. It is also influenced by the aforementioned memories of World War Two.
In the UK those tensions arise from Brexit. Britain’s departure was bound to include some tension, but the Johnson government has exploited this to stir up anti-EU hostility. Folk-memory of war with Germany is a strand in that narrative, as is centuries old mistrust for the French. These are played on by Johnson and his mouthpiece media.
For Russia the present hostility dates from the development of Putin’s nationalist programme since 2000. He can also play on memories of Germany as an enemy.
Also, the two countries both have territorial resentments against the EU. Putin is unhappy about the accession of the Baltic States, once part of the USSR and imperial Russia, to the EU and NATO.
More recently, as part of the Brexit negotiation, Northern Ireland has retained a quasi-membership of the EU, despite being part of the UK. That is stirring up resentment in England and among Ulster unionists, inflamed by government megaphone diplomacy. That in turn feeds antagonism toward the EU. So, at both ends of Europe we have ex-imperial powers glowering resentfully at the EU. The symmetry is striking.
We are the Russians
I’m pushing these similarities as far as they will go, and they are, in truth, rather selective. So what is the point? Why search for similarities with a country so different? I think that is the point. I’m applying an unfamiliar framing to something that is so familiar as to be invisible.
By equating England with Russia, I can see England differently. And that helps me to see England as others see it. Russian-ness is only one facet of Englishness. It’s largely invisible to us but I think it’s significant, partly because the Russian version of England is in the ascendant at the moment. Johnson’s England is distinctly Russian. The facet of England or rather Britain where I’m comfortable – European, liberal, diverse, devolved, open, and humane – is, by contrast, low on the horizon.
But like it or not, I need to understand the country I’m in. Science Fiction master Nigel Kneale had his character Professor Quatermass declare that ‘we are the Martians.’ My suggestion is more modest. We are the Russians.