Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Can Moscow Reverse Fundamental Identities from Ethnic to Religious?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 17 – The tsarist authorities in almost all cases divided the population of the Russian Empire by religion and language rather than ethnic nationality, but the nationalizing forces of World War I and Lenin’s calculations after 1917 led the Soviet Union to emphasize ethnic nationality and to eliminate religion as a marker.

            Many in Vladimir Putin’s government and the Russian Orthodox Church would like to reverse this process, not only because they believe Soviet-promoted ethnic identities led to the disintegration of the USSR but also because they are convinced that religion even more than nationality can tie the country’s majority to the state more effectively.

            In addition to the obvious problems that such a strategy entails – almost a quarter of the population is non-Russian, much of it proudly so, and Islam has an increasing number of adherents in the Russian Federation – there is the question of whether such a reversal of historical development is possible at all.

            Because this issue is currently such a lively one in Moscow, that makes discussions about the earlier transition from religious to ethnic identities a century ago especially intriguing.  One such study by Vladimir Rabinovich has just appeared in the Moscow Institute of Sociology’s journal “Vlast” (isras.ru/files/File/Vlast/2013/12/Rabinovich.pdf).

                Rabinovich notes that ever more researchers are examining “the transition from confessional identification typical for the strata system of the Russian Empire to ethnic identification which became one of the subjects of the contemporary history of the Russian state” which has contributed both to state hierarchies and the formation of diasporas.

            Focusing on the diasporas of his city, Rabinovich describes what he calls “three models of the transition of ethnic groups from strata-confessional identity to ethnic ones.”  The first of these is the “nationalist” model exemplified by Poles who while integrated with the surrounding society remained distinct because of the Catholic Church and the presence of numerous members of the nationalistic Polish nobility.

            The second model is the “religious” one, exemplified by the Tatars who moved to Siberia for land.  “Islam for the Siberian Tatars,” Rabinovich says, supported the consolidation of this community and by the early years of the 20th century had become “an ethnic marker” for both the Tatars themselves and those among whom they lived.

            And the third is what the Irkutsk scholar calls the “diaspora” model. It as exemplified by the Jewish community whose members were very distinct from Jews elsewhere but viewed themselves and were viewed by others as representatives of the larger Jewish community in the pale of settlement in the western portions of the empire.

            World War I led to an enormous influx of refugees, and that plus the decision of the Provisional Government to end the strata system transformed the situation of the diasporas in Irkustsk, Rabinovich says, leading the many of the members of these groups to see ethnicity or nationality as a core value and the basis of their survival in a time of troubles.

            Soviet policy toward these groups in the 1920s represented a rejection of the ethnic practices of the Russian Empire and of what became Soviet practice later, the Irkutsk scholar continues, openly a brief window in which the members of these communities could choose among the three models as the basis for identity.

            The Soviets initially set up nationality sections in the oblast governments and national sections in the Russian Communist Party’s branches. But soon, Moscow eliminated these institutions and treated nationality as one of the objects of the party’s agitprop, something that set the stage for later problems given the contradiction between class and nationality at the core of Soviet state construction.

            But even as Moscow promoted class as the higher value just as the tsarist authorities did and some Russian officials now would like to do, Rabinovich points out, nationality because of the ethnicizing experiences of the first three decades of the 20th century made nationality “a significant marker which defined the daily existence of Soviet citizens.”

            Although the Irkutsk scholar does not say so, reversing that process may be a fool’s errand, the latest iteration of the well-known observation that almost anyone can change an aquarium into fish soup but no one has yet found a way to change fish soup back into an aquarium.


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