Nationalism, Myth, and the State in Russia and Serbia: Antecedents of the Dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia

On 2 November, the Centre for Comparative History and Political Studies hosted a lecture by Professor Veljko Vujačić titled “Nationalism, Myth, and the State in Russia and Serbia: Antecedents of the Dissolution of the USSR and Yugoslavia”.

•             Veljko Vujačić - European University at St. Petersburg, Department of Political Science and Sociology, Provost, Professor of Sociology Oberlin College, 1996-2015.

In his book Professor Vujačić examines the role of Russian and Serbian nationalism in different modes of dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in 1991, raising two questions: why did Russia's elites agree to the dissolution of the Soviet Union along the borders of Soviet republics, leaving twenty-five million Russians outside of Russia; and why did Serbia's elite succeed in mobilizing Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia for the nationalist cause? The author highlights the role of historical legacies, national myths, collective memories, and literary narratives in shaping diametrically opposed attitudes toward the state in Russia and Serbia. Along the way, he explores the unintended consequences of the communists’ national politics, demonstrates that these politics correlate with institutional factors and presents the scenarios of the USSR and Yugoslavia dissolution in 1991.

According to Vujačić, there was an inter-war institutional gap between Serbia and Yugoslavia as Serbian institutions which existed before World War I (Monarchy, Royal Army, Serbian political parties) were utterly different from the Yugoslavian institutional model. The Yugoslavian model can be interpreted as an attempt to equalize Serbs with others through federalism despite the fact that Serbia had its own institutions. Thus, ethnic Serbs were not a designated “Staatsvolk”. The presenter noted that Serbia was cut down “to the necessary size” by creating autonomous provinces (Kosovo, Vojvodina). Therefore, Serbian particularism was growing in opposition to postwar communist federalism, but it also contained strong pro-Yugoslav and pro-state components.

In the USSR there were other tendencies. The October Revolution destroyed the imperial Russian statehood. However, the institutions in the USSR and the Russian Empire were quite similar: the RSFSR existed without its own party, government or cultural institutions, and it was also called Russia in the period of the Russian Empire. Russians were perceived as an elder brother in the Soviet family of nations, i.e. they were recognized as “Staatsvolk”. In addition, it is remarkable that Stalin’s goal was to give a Soviet content to Russian national identity, making Soviet Russians. Thus, Russian particularism asserted itself in opposition to the Soviet state.

The research framework of Vujačić consists of a multi-disciplinary approach combining sociology, history, political science, Slavic studies and theoretical contributions by Max Weber (a small-n study) and other historical sociologists to understand nationalism and its reliance on mythopoetic historical memory.