Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Increasingly Defined by Negation, Russian Nation Fraying at the Edges and Even at the Core

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 11 – Their identity increasingly defined not by what they are or want to be but by what they fear and view as alien, Russians as a nation are fraying at the edges with some like the Siberians identifying in terms of a region, others like the Cossacks in terms of a specific historical community, and still a third because of inter-marriage with other groups.

            Today, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center released a survey on this complicated process.  It found that “44 percent of Russians said that while a Ukrainian could be called an ethnic Russian if he or she had lived in Russia for many years, only 7 percent thought the same could be said of a Chechen or Dagestani from Russia’s North Caucasus” (

            According to Valery Fedorov, the head of the Center, “this split reflects the existence of two different linguistic concepts for understanding Russian identity: while the Rusian word ‘russky’ implies an ethnic Russian identity, the word ‘rossiisky’ denotes Russian citizenship and an allegiance to the Russian state.”

            But these divisions are nonetheless very deep for many Russians at the present time: 57 percent of the respondents in this Federation-wide poll said that Chechnya is “not really Russian (rossiisky) territory,” a position 54 percent of the sample took regarding the Republic of Daghestan.

            This poll was undertaken in support of President Vladimir Putin’s so-far unsuccessful search for a definition of Russian national identity and in advance of a Valdai Club meeting next week at which he, Patriarch Kirill, and various officials and experts from Russia and abroad will meet to discuss the possibilities.

            One of those who will be attending, Richard Sakwa,a  professor at Kent University in the United Kingdom, told RIAN that “the experience of failure [of the Soviet Union] itself has left a mighty legacy over Russia today: the fear of really articulating a positive vision because of the way that positive visions in the past have been exclusive and imposed by violence.”

            Most commentators have focused on the ethnic divisions within the Russian Federation as a threat to the unity of the Russian nation and hence of that country, but the poll suggested that Russians are deeply divided by other issues that make the formation of any common national identity on a positive basis extremely difficult.

            Among these are attitudes toward homosexuality  -- 51 percent of Russians say they would not want to have a homosexual as a neighbor or colleague “under any circumstances” – religious affiliation, disparities of wealth, and generational differences, the Public Opinion Research Center found.

            But perhaps the most interesting finding in this poll is the difference between the identities Russians give when they are asked to select from a list provided by the surveyors and the identities they offer to an open-ended query where no such list is provided.

            In the first case, 57 percent of the sample identified themselves as Russian citizens, 35 percent as residents of a particular place, and 16 percent as members of an ethnic group.  Sixty-three percent said they were “proud to be Russian citizens” and 83 percent could correctly identify the colors on the Russian flag.

            But in the latter case, 32 percent said they were their “own person and didn’t identify with any group.” The next largest number –11 percent – identified as middle class, six percent said they were pensioners “and just four percent as ethnic Russians,” according to the RIAN write up of the poll.
            An article in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta” provides an intriguing supplement to this data.  Written by ethnographer Semen Kozlov and entitled “The Birth of Ethnic Self-Consciousness,” it describes the way in which colonizers change their identities after moving far away from the metropolitan country (

            Kozlov devotes most of his attention to the way in which the English and Spanish became Americans, Canadians or Australians, on the one hand, and members of various Latin American nations, on the other.  But his most interesting comments involve Russians who moved as colonizers east of the Urals, a process that took place at roughly the same time.

            In that case, he says, “new Russian language communities simply couldn’t arise” in the same way that new English or Spanish ones did.  But in the course of adapting to “new natural and economic conditions and various contacts with the indigenous population,” these people were involved in “the formation of unique ethnographic groups, including metizas.”

            Most of these groups were small and isolated, Kozlov continues, enumerating some of the most important in Sakha, Kolyma, Kamchatka, and in the Far North.  But because they intermarried and because they had to adapt to local conditions, they were transformed  into something very different than they had been.

                Despite that, he says, “all the groups named and the people who formed them with rare exceptions preserved their Russian language and their consciousness of belonging to the large Russian nation,” although he concedes that “real live daily gives us many confirmations of the importance of understanding these processes, especially those involving inter-ethnic relations.”

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