Is long-distance nationalism getting closer?

East European Migrants

ZOiS Spotlight 5/2017 by Tatiana Golova (12 April 2017)

Sign for a travel agency specialized on Russia in a shopping centre in Berlin Marzahn

Throughout history and in the present day, immigrant minorities have repeatedly encountered suspicions that as a collective, they have no loyalty to the polity in which they now live. The concrete historical forms of this suspicion have varied. In addition to exclusion organised by the state, for example internment or prohibition from certain professions, minorities experience discrimination in relation to access to private or collective goods. But exclusion can also happen outside institutional frameworks, in discourses in the mass media and in everyday life.

For just over a year now, immigrants from the (post-)Soviet space, who in the public perception are often reduced to the largest group of ethnic Germans from Russia (Russlanddeutsche) or even spoken of simply as Russians, have repeatedly been exposed to such collective discursive suspicions. One important event that triggered this was the Lisa case, which rapidly became a transnational issue. It involved a girl from an ethnic Russian family living in Berlin who had allegedly been abducted and raped by refugees or ‘southerners’. Messaging services were used to mobilise opinion, and Russian media carried tendentious reports about the supposedly incapable or indifferent German state, which was said to be unable to cope with the refugee problem. There were emotional demonstrations characterised by feelings of insecurity, at which speeches were made in German and Russian. Even the Russian foreign minister promised to look after ‘our girl’.

After it was established that there had been no truth in the original report, the mobilisation subsided. However, mistrust of the rediscovered group remained, and the case has repeatedly been brought up as an example: Are ethnic Germans from Russia influenced by Russian state media, and are they a kind of Russian fifth column in Germany? Are they becoming Putin’s secret weapon, directed against Merkel? Do they all vote for right-wing populist parties? Are they a threat to our democracy and security?

Sometimes, posing such questions attributes to those concerned a kind of political ‘misconduct’, which is seen as a consequence of insufficient integration into German society. (To put it pointedly: they are still Russians, after all.) However, it is more fruitful to think about the situation with the help of the idea of transnationalism, rather than by using a concept of integration which assumes that immigrants must integrate into German society on all-or-nothing terms. One aspect of complex transnational connections is the way in which many Russian-speaking immigrants also use Russian mass media. This happens in a cross-border, hybrid setting in which multiple channels of information can no longer be divided into offline and online media and are increasingly individually aggregated and (re)produced, for example via social media platforms or messaging services.

There is another respect in which the image of failed integration does not explain much. Data from recent years shows that integration, especially of the quantitatively most significant category of ethnic German resettlers (Spätaussiedler), is very successful when measured against the standard criteria. The second generation—children born in Germany to the large wave of Russian-speaking immigrants who arrived in the 1990s—is now coming on to the scene. These are young people who have passed through the most important stages of their socialisation exclusively in Germany (those who came to Germany as small children can be included here too). According to recent studies, it is not self-evident that they use the Russian language without difficulty in all spheres of life, or that their everyday culture has been shaped by a post-Soviet cultural space. However, the social scientist Daniel Conversi argues that the advancing acculturation of an immigrant group does not of itself mean that there is no further potential for the nationalist radicalisation of that group. It is even possible that fear of losing a shared original identity as a result of cultural adaptation will encourage a revaluation of that identity and add a political charge to it.

For (post-)Soviet immigrants in Germany, this means that their subjective ties with Russia do not necessarily become any less close as individuals become more acculturated. The fact that many of them come from Ukraine or Kazakhstan, rather than Russia, is not important for the moment. A diasporic nationalist identity does not have to be attached to a nation state, as can be seen clearly in the case of pan-Arabism, for example. What Aleksandr Verkhovsky and Emil Pain call civilisational nationalism, which is dominant in the discourse of the Russian state and in the official public sphere, is quite compatible with this kind of identity.

The question of potential sympathies with civilisational nationalism and conservative tendencies in Russia, which would have no direct consequences for the reality of people’s lives in Germany, needs to be investigated empirically. This ‘long-distance nationalism’, as Benedict Anderson calls it, is especially important in relation to people from the post-Soviet space living in Germany, because most of them, as ethnic German resettlers, are German citizens and have the right to vote in Germany. As a result, this kind of orientation would have direct consequences in the political system of the German nation state.

However, there is no guarantee that the political mobilisation of a concrete identity will be an automatic success, and there are always alternatives. A Russian or post-Soviet migration background can take very different forms depending on the type of capital and way of life as well as the migration history and its institutional framing. Two aspects seem particularly important.

Firstly, a subjective connection with Russia experienced as a matter of identity does not necessarily mean loyalty to the Russian state or acceptance of its dominant narratives. Not only highly qualified expats but also immigrants use alternative or liberal critical media, sometimes in a transnational and hybrid setting.

Secondly, all individuals in an immigration society, both locals and immigrants, are shaped by plural and not purely ethnic identities. There can be changes in which of these possible identities takes priority at any given time and serves as the basis for action—that is to say, which of them is mobilised. Mobilisation can also take place in relation to general questions on the basis of particular identities. For ethnic Germans from Russia and Jewish quota immigrants (Kontingentflüchtlinge), for example, these may be questions such as poverty in old age (as a result of pension claims not being recognised) or the recognition of cultural competencies (the inclusion of the second native language in state curricula). Nor are immigrants from Russia the only people in Germany who are concerned about security or preoccupied with the questions of who is entitled to share in the prosperity of German society and who belongs there.

Closer empirical investigation is needed of the extent to which discussions that also take place in Russian, and these immigrants’ conceptions of identity, are imported or have grown in German pastures and are then processed transnationally. ZOiS will be contributing to this investigation with a pilot study in the framework of the research project ‘Eastern Europe is here: transnational linkages among East European migrants in Berlin’.


Tatiana Golova is Research Associate at ZOiS.