While studying the history of Eastern Europe during the last century, I found that one of the main issues was the Pan-Slavic movement. For example big events such as World War I or the current civil war in Ukraine was a consequence of this movement.

Such movement consider people descendant of the Slavs as members of a international community which currently has the foundation and direction in Russia.

Interestingly such feeling did not develop in others civilizations, for instance Spain, France and Portugal cultures are somehow descendants of the Roman culture but there is not such thing as Pan-latin movement.

There are several accusations stating that Russia is enhancing the Pan-Slavic feeling for the purpose of expanding their influence. Is this a realistic statement? If so, was it the case for the past century or if not, is the Pan-Slavic movement just a natural consequence of the nations finding an identity?

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    Pannationalism did develop in other cultures, for instance Pan-Germanism or Pan-Celticism or Pan-Scandinavianism. Whether Pan-Slavism specifically was or is encouraged by Russia, is not mutually exclusive with it emerging naturally.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 9:29
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    I am skeptical of your underlying assumption. Everywhere there is an ethnic identity, there is a moment to maximize that identity. There is no pan latin movement because "latin" is a linguistic phenomena, not an ethnic phenomena. I'm familiar with several pan-celtic idealists. France is the result of a pan-French movement through the vehicle of the French Revolution. Pan-Slavic just has better publicity.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 11:44
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    There was also a Pan-Arabism movement. They attempted to unite Syria, Livia and Egypt and for some time they were successful. Pan Slavic movement was strongly supported by the governments of Russian Empire in 19th century and by Stalin in the 20th century.
    – Alex
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 12:24
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    I might be wrong but pan-slavist is a mere excuse for the current Ukraine conflict, like Putin say "you are our slavic friends", to try to make allies in the west. However this does not seem work at all, as the other slavic countries feel like they are part of "the west" now (not everyone of course, but the general consensus)
    – Bregalad
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 12:39
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    @Bregalad Panslavism is definitely not Putin's invention. As I describe in my answer, it dates back to the 19th century and used to be an idea of mutual kinship. In the 20th century, most other Slavs got a better idea of what Russia was really like, and consequentially Stalin's or Putin's attempts to invoke that kinship are unreciprocated.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 20:54

4 Answers 4


Origins of Pan-Slavism

Speaking as a (western) Slav, panslavism was indeed a big topic in 19th century politics.

The primary reason for this seems to have been that outside of Russia, most Slavic populations were not in fact in their own nation states, but rather were subjugated by other national groups. This included, for instance, Czechs under Austrian rule, Slovaks under Hungarian rule, Poles under German rule and various Southern Slavs under Turks (and others), et cetera.

It was a desire of a lot of these Slavic nations to have their own nation states, but achieving this on their own seemed unfeasible, which is why the idea of pan-slavism and associated pan-slavic statehood emerged.

Specifically in the modern day Czech Republic, the Czech population was being subjected to a program of germanization since the 17th century. In the 18th century a backlash started in the form of a national revival movement, the aim of which was originally to reconstruct Czech culture. Gradually, though, it also took on political goals of greater autonomy for the Czech kingdom.

From this, two political lines of thought emerged. One was austro-slavist and argued for cooperation with the Austrians in hopes of greater autonomy and eventual federalization; their hopes were slashed with the formation of Austria-Hungary, when Austrians decided to rely on a Hungarian "alliance" instead.

The other line was pan-slavist which argued for cooperation with other slavic nations, foremost of them Russia on account of being the only Slavic nation-state around. This didn't work out very well, as most prominent pan-slavists only remained pan-slavist until they actually visited Russia (Karel Havlíček Borovský is one instance).

By the time the Great War rolled around, both models were thought unfeasible and instead independent nation-states were created after the war.

It is possible that Russia would have politically supported pan-slavism, though it was mostly an internal affair on our end. Anyhow, most pan-slavist sentiment disappeared to political fringes after the fall of communism, for obvious reasons.

Edited to add: I see I forgot to address the role of pan-slavism in the conflicts you mentioned, so here's an addendum.

Great War

I don't rightly see how pan-slavism could be blamed for starting this war. Most slavic nations where this was a political current were under the rule of their mostly Germanic overlords and didn't get much say in international politics.

It could be argued that Russia supported Serbia against Austria-Hungary because of pan-slavist ideals, and this has certainly been claimed; the problem is, that due to the singular role of Russia in pan-slavist thought, there is no practical difference (from a Russian viewpoint) between pan-slavism and Russian expansionism/expansionst propaganda. Hard to say here, really, but it's highly unlikely that selfless slavic solidarity was Russia's principal motive.

Russian invasion of Ukraine

In the early 20th century, pan-slavist sentiment was not prominent in mainstream politics outside Russia; formation of Slavic nation-states gave most Slavs hope that they could now make it on their own, and mainstream politics had little desire to emulate Soviet Russia. It was kept alive mostly by Communists, who held the Soviet Union up as the paragon of social development and wanted to either follow its example or join it outright.

After the Second World War, Soviet Union staged or sponsored Communist coups in practically half of Europe. Czechoslovak-Soviet (or Polish-Soviet, Hungarian-Soviet, etc) friendship became the official political line that had to be followed under the pain of persecution. An infamous joke describes this rather well:

A Western tourist arrives in Czechoslovakia and goes sightseeing. Having looked around, he finds a local and says to him:
"There's one thing I find fascinating in this country. Everywhere I look, there's some homage to Russia; here's a picture of Lenin, there a statue of Stalin, over there a huge sculpture of a hammer and a sickle. You guys really have to love Russia!"
"Yes," replies the local, "we have to."

In case of Slavic satellite states, the "friendship" propaganda always had a pan-slavic element, and was officially heartily reciprocated. Unofficially, well.

After the fall of Communism, when people were free to express their disgust with the forced friendship, many eagerly did so.

If Putin currently uses pan-slavic rhetoric to justify his invasion of Ukraine, the sentiment is unreciprocated.

The way I heard it, though, the conflict is mostly painted from the Russian side as Russia protecting its nationals (who were transported and made to settle in Ukraine during Soviet times) against Ukrainian neo-nazis or some such; pan-slavic rhetoric would seem at odds with this official line.

  • +1, particularly for the second paragraph. In light of this answer, it would be good to take a second look at the target of the assassination that started WWI. Archduke Ferdinand was thought to be in favor of granting the Slavs more autonomy. His ascension to the throne would have strengthened the "austro-slavists", to the detriment of then pan-slavists. His wife was a Slav (Czech), so this opinion would likely have had some spine. He was next in line to the throne, and the Emperor was in bad health...
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 19:38
  • @T.E.D. Oh yes, I didn't want to complicate the explanation with that. The thing is, though, that even after that, the Washington Declaration came as a surprise to many, so at least austro-slavism couldn't have been completely dead. This suited the Black Hand, because they were more of an independence-or-bust kind of group.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 20:28
  • @MikeL. The accounts I have read place the Serbian Military Intelligence at the centre of the plot to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand and relegate the Black Hand to an incidental role in the assassination. Could you expand as to why you state: "This suited the Black Hand [...]" and not the Serbian Military Intelligence?
    – BOB
    Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 18:26
  • @BOB I gather there was non-trivial overlap between the two; anyways, the distinction is hardly relevant to the answer.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 19:45
  • There is no connection between USSR politics in Eastern Europe and Pan-Slavic ideas whatsoever. Pan-Slavic rhetoric is a 19th century thing, it hasn't been used since WWI. Current Russian propaganda has a noticeable Soviet smell: "people's friendship", "fascists" and such. Commented May 2, 2015 at 17:09

It wasn't just about the Slavs; people everywhere were feeling this way.

It essentially happened because the idea of Nationalism: that people in ethnically, geographically, culturally, and linguistically coherent areas should owe their allegiance only to their own single native governments, became a popular sentiment worldwide. Ethnic nationalism was in fact a big deal throughout the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries pretty much world-wide.

Prime examples of this would be the German and Italian unification movements. Before these movements started there was no concept of a "Germany" or "Italy", except perhaps geographically, and at first both were just ideas in the heads of their proponents.

The concept was enshrined in WWI allied propaganda, as well as the agreements that actually ended the war. It could also be said to have proven itself in the war, as by and large the nation-states performed far better in that war than did the polyglot "empires".

After WWII, (and to a lesser extent between the wars), it had a great deal to do with the decolonization process in Asia, Africa, and India.

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    I'd disagree that German and Italian nationalisms were the same thing as pan-slavism. Nationalist movements, including the slavic ones, were derived from language (until WWII, Austria was commonly thought to be a part of German nation, for instance); there were multiple slavic nationalist movements (and initially even some disagreement on how many distinct slavic nations there are in the first place) and pan-slavism existed on top of those, proclaiming an overarching common origin.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 20:35
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    Austria and Prussian "Germanism" were seen as different, and a war was fought to expel Austrian influence from Germany as a step toward Prussian unification of Germany.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 23:47
  • @Oldcat sure, but then Austria was anschlussed on account of being "a part of the German nation". This really only shows that ideologies in practice are flexible and submit to politics.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 0:00
  • And presumably so would pan-slavism if it had ever gotten off the ground far enough to have politics.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 0:11
  • Basically pan-things this was just a fashion in the late 19th and early 20th century. Nowadays it is separatism that is in fashion (Former soviet republics, that dozen of ex-Yougo countries, Slovakia, Catalogna, Scottland, Flanders, etc....)
    – Bregalad
    Commented Mar 27, 2015 at 8:13

For a rather long while slavic peoples were a popular target for slave trade (hence the word "slave"), genocidal endeavours (such as Ottoman campaigns to Bulgaria and the Caucasus) and overlordship (such as the case of Czech republic under Austria, or, interestingly enough, Belarus under Poland). Pan-slavism developed as a form of multi-nationalism, if you will, to motivate members of different but closely related cultures to assist each other in need. Recognizing the need to organize into their own nation-states if they were to preserve their culture and population, but lacking the resources to do so, slavic peoples often relied on the help of those slavic nation-states who already achieved autonomy.

Now, strictly speaking, Russia cannot be viewed as a nation-state in itself, but rather a multinational one. On paper, it is a federation, just like the United States or Canada, which consists of autonomous republics performing administrative roles in their territories. Russia might as well be split into Muscovian, Adygean, Yakutian, Kalmykian and whatnot nation-states. Through different circumstances, however, these lands ended up building one federative union. It is true that the various regions were culturally more prosperous in USSR due to the strict policies of developing the periphery (as opposed to concentrating in the administrative center that we see today). So at least for a while we see a sustained development of different nationalities’ cultures while together they are involved in one “superculture” which ended up forming the Russian society that we know today. Still, in Yakutia you will much rather see Yakutian politicians, state officials, and so on, than ecdemic ones from Moscow or wherever else. This is true for other national regions as well.

Effectively, pan-slavic movement is assistive rather than a militant one. Even today, with the recent rise of militant nationalism, you will more often see militant nationalists advocating “national purity” rather than multinational brotherhood. Specifically nationalist movements in Russia tend to act adversarially towards other slavic nations.

The idea behind the whole existence of this pan-slavic phenomenon is rather simple: none of the slavic peoples are capable of sustaining autonomous independent nation-states of their own without the assistance of others. The most reliable allies for slavs tend to be other slavs, as is known from experience. Now, they (slavic nations) might not feel particularly compelled to acquire and maintain their own nation-states, but experience shows that overlordship by other states tends to come with significant extermination efforts.

This pan-slavic thing is not unique, though. We have since seen some sort of pan-jewish (example part of pan-jewish movement was Izrael Asper's media mogul Canwest with its strict political censorship regarding Israel) and pan-germanic movements. More than that, there are various pan- movements based on religion and also pan-capitalist and pan-socialist movements. Generally, people who find something in common enter into cooperation more easily and quickly than those who do not.

  • Modern Russia, unlike USSR is clearly a nation state by UNESCO definition. Yakutia and other "republics" inside Russian Federation are the former Authonomous SSR, and are the remains of Soviet national politics and administrative division and have little or no sense today. More on the issue here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_delimitation_in_the_Soviet_Union Anyway, it's off topic. Commented May 2, 2015 at 17:23
  • And I have to say that only the last 2 paragraphs of your answer actually deals with the OP question. Commented May 2, 2015 at 17:24

There certainly were other "pan" movements. German unification and the early expansion of Nazi Germany was driven by uniting all German speakers under one flag. Italy had a Italia Irridenta movement that looked to grabbing land from Austria Hungary. Mussolini parlayed some of this into the Fascist Party.

  • I'd disagree that those are the same thing; nationalisms were mostly language-based, and there was thought to be one German nation, one Italian nation, etc. pan-slavism built on various slavic nationalisms, where it was understood that there were distinct slavic nations (three or more, depending on who you asked) which however had some unifying overarching identity.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 20:31
  • And there were not several Germanic nations - Prussia, Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria?
    – Oldcat
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 20:34
  • Not really. There were several Germanic states, and the aim of nationalism was the unification of all of those, arguing that they were a single people divided only by politics. Both Prussia and Austria played into these sentiments, and the Grossdeutschland vs. Kleindeutschland "dispute" rose out of that.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 20:49
  • To clarify, "nation" was originally identified with "language", and consequentially Prussians or Hannoverians would not have thought themselves to be different nations.
    – Mike L.
    Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 20:50
  • @MikeL.: Keep in mind that a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot. The idea that the many (often nearly mutually incomprehensible) language varieties that we now know as German dialects actually form one language, as well as the adoption of a single German language standard, is to a considerable extent a result of the same pan-Germanic movement that had driven political unification. Even to this day, varieties such as Low German or Swiss German can be treated as separate languages in linguistic literature. Commented Mar 26, 2015 at 23:42

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