Dear readers, the posts by both Blaise and Burt have put me into a contemplative mood. The mention of the Romanovs and Massoud put that germinated into a thought: What does it cost to make a nation. And by nation, let us understand I mean the IR definition of nation. A people, an identity with shared language, culture and religion. It may or may not express itself as a state. States can exist without a nation, and vice versa. The kurds are a nation but not (technically) a state. Great Britain is a state, but is actually a composite of 4 nations. What is the process for creating a nation? How do people go from tribal, cultural or ethnic identities into something larger?
The case of the Romanovs is instructive. The great project of the Romanov Tsars was to turn a disparate, sprawling empire into something at least resembling a nation. It tried through religion. Russian Orthodox Christianity was a major force in the nurturing of Russian identity. It tried language. It tried encouraging culture, works of authors and the creation of great modern cities like St. Petersburg. But all of that was not enough. In the end it took one man’s mad ambition to craft the Russian national identity. It took Napoleon.
The defining question of the 19th century, as the Enlightenment waned and romanticism waxed was that of nationalism. The French Revolutionary War and Napoleon would take the genie out of the bottle. The Romanovs, the Hohenzollerns, and the Habsburgs fought for their very survival. They mobilized their own people, with various levels of success toward a “people’s war”.
The results were mixed. The costs were horrific.
The “First War of the Fatherland” may have cost Napoleon his empire, but it was paid with a terrible price by the people of Russia. Aside from losing about 1% of its population simply in the service of arms against the invader, several hundred thousand more died from either direct abuses or from the “requisitions” taken by the French Army.
Yet for all these horrible costs, they became the foundation of national myths. Popular history, great orchestral pieces, epic literature all came out of the horrific “Patriotic War” or “War of the Fatherland.”
Afghanistan is not doing well. But let’s not pretend “western enlightened civilization” happened without bloodshed, or without horrific abuses. Or that the lesson from all these wars was that white people should stop fighting eachother and invade/civilize the rest of the world.