19 December 2021
by Viktor Kogan-Yasny
Romantic nationalism, in which the people and the state are ascribed individuality and a soul in addition to a range of other peculiar features, was an original poetic tool in Gogol’s imagery system, and it allowed him to say a great deal that he would not have otherwise been able to say.
However, as a practical political philosophy it was dangerous in that era, and it would go on to be the destructive cause of worldwide tragedies. It’s natural for the human soul to want a bit more than is possible… But people rarely because of that step completely out of line: individuals keep themselves in check, act in a measured manner, use good judgment, take care of themselves, and are inclined to compromise.
But if the masses are acknowledged to have a “right to a soul,” then it’s nearly impossible to stop “excessive desires”… In 20th century Europe, the inability to reconcile the desires of the different “souls of the people” led twice to the tragic deaths of many millions.
As for “tragedies on a smaller scale”, it’s difficult to even remember all of them… Peoples tend to attach their “soul” to abstractions, to sacrifice the individual for what is seen as the common good, and are far less prone to compromise than are individuals. And they don’t have too much difficulty in accepting the sacrifice of victims: victims for the masses and for their leaders are both romantic and abstract.
The development of the technical means to wage war, which created the sense that major and uncompromising goals could be attained, made romantic nationalism the fatal scourge of the twentieth century. The end of that century appeared to mark the passing of this worldview. But it’s back — and never mind that it looks a bit like a parody on TV as performed by Putin, Republicans in the US, or nationalists in the former Soviet republics or former Eastern bloc countries.
Obviously, all these people want a little more than even the simplest reality could provide, let alone the complex world in the creation of which they play a more than active role. A bleak worldview from the past with a touch of parody generates tragedies, troubles, and problems that are in no way a parody. And one hopes that the thirst for self-affirmation “based on” “protecting the interests of the people” will not turn out to be unlimited… Afterall, we all want to live …
Translated by Nina dePalma