Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Reference to the ‘Titular’ Nations of the Russian Federation Sparks Controversy

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 10 – Speaking in Amsterdam on Monday, President Vladimir Putin referred to Russians, Tatars, Chechens, Bashkirs, Daghestanis, “and others” as “the so-called titular nations” of the Russian Federation, a remark that raises questions about the meaning of that term and has offended Russian nationalists, non-Russian nations and immigrants.

            In an article on yesterday, Stanislav Yeliseyev says that Putin’s use of this “short phrase” managed to offend all at once Russian “nationalists, fellow Slavs and even Lezgins and Dargins” and showed that the president has not figured out how to navigate the difficult landscape of nationality policy (

            On Monday, he reports, Putin spoke about some of Russia’s demographic problems in the course of discussing the issue of the rights of sexual minorities.  In that context, the Russian leader told the Dutch that he would like to see “in Russia above all fertility grow among the so-called titular nations: the Russians, the Tatars, the Chechens, the Bashkirs, the Daghestanis, and so on.”

            On the one hand, Yeliseyev says, Putin’s list raises some serious questions about “the mechanism of the political thinking of the president,” given that he did not list the nationalities of the Russian Federation by size. Ethnic Ukrainians who do not have a national republic within the Russian Federation and the Chuvash who do both are more numerous than the Chechens.

            And on the other, there are real problems with the use of the term “titular nation.”  According to the Russian legal dictionary published in 2000, such a community is “the part of the population of a state the nationality of which defines the official name of that state.”  In the Russian case, that is a controversial issue.

            The Russian Federation, it would seem, Yeliseyev continues, is populated by “Rossiyane,” that is, a non-ethnic civic nation consisting of ethnic “Russians and Tatars and Bashkirs and Chuvash and all the rest of the 190 peoples plus almost 1.5 million people who during the last census did not want to indicate their nationality.”

            There is no ethnic Russian “subject” within the Russian Federation, he points out, but if one uses language and declarations of identity rather than the legal definition of titular nationality, then the ethnic Russians who were reported to number 111 million in the 2010 census are candidates for that status.

            Thus, Yeliseyev suggests, Putin’s “formulation” is a kind of “Freudian compromise,” one that does not reflect realities on the ground.  It lumps together those nationalities which do have an autonomous formation bearing their own name and those which don’t ranging from the ethnic Russians at one end of the scale to the smallest groups at the other like the Aysors and Yukagirs.

            And it conflates the more than 30 indigenous nationalities of Daghestan into a Daghestani single Daghestani nation, thus offending not only the findings of linguistics and ethnography but also the major nationalities of that North Caucasus republic, including in particular the Avars and the Lezgins.

            But even more than that, Putin’s use of this term shows that in the 21st century, “it is time to forget” the notion of a “titular” nation, a concept that was “dreamed up by one of the chief ideologues of nationalism, Maurice Barre, for propagandizing chauvinism at the height of the famous Dreyfus case” more than a century ago.

            Other experts pointed to other shortcomings in Putin’s understanding.  Some at the Institute of Demography of the Moscow Higher School of Economics noted that over the last 21 years, the greatest growth in numbers among the nationalities of the country were among Armenians, largely the product of immigration, and the Chechens, largely the result of high birthrates (

            And these scholars noted that in spite of Putin’s hopes, the number of Russians and Ukrainians had declined over that same period, by 8.8 million and by 2.4 million, the former because of low fertility and high mortality rates and the latter because of those factors and emigration.

            Moreover, noted, these scholars said that “in part increases in the numbers of certain peoples [of the Russian Federation] are to be explained not by demographic processes [like those the Russian president referred to] but by changes in national self-consciousness” as reflected in census declarations, an issue that is a particularly sensitive one among Russians.

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