Thursday, May 5, 2016

Regional Identities Intensify Relative to Ethnic Ones Creating New Problems for Moscow, Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 5 – Being a resident of this or that region, Aleksandr Sergeyev says, is now “as a rule significantly more important than belonging to this or that nation,” Russian as well as non-Russian.  That is a development that some in the center may welcome, but it has the potential to create new and potentially more serious problems for the country’s integration.

            On the Kavkazoved portal, Sergey, a specialist on Russian statehood at Moscow’s Kutafin State Law University, says that the importance of regionalism reflects Russia’s enormous size and diversity (

            Indeed, he says, anyone travelling from one country in the West to another there “will not always find as many differences as if one changes one’s place of resident from one Russian region to another, a pattern that reflects how people see themselves and also how the authorities there and in the capital view them.

            These differences arose as a result of the very different ways portions of the country were absorbed, and while they were obscured by “the formal legal unification of the national-state construction of the country” in Soviet times, they have reemerged in post-Soviet times and now play a key role.

            This is as true within the Russians as within others, Sergeyev says.  “The very ethnic Russian nucleus of the state and the ethnic Russians as the state-forming people never came to be a nation of the West European type.” Instead, the ethnic Russian people “at all times viewed itself as a hyper-ethnos including within itself a multitude of sub-ethnic groups.”

            The Moscow scholar offers eight propositions about the nature of regionalism in Russia today:

1.      “Every region of Russia has its own unique identification basis which finds expression in a specific system of socio-cultural codes.”

2.      “The ethno-cultural borders of Russian regions are quite strongly blurred and very often do not directly correspond to their geographic designations.”

3.      “The majority of subjects of the Russian Federation have a multi-national and poly-confessional nature.”

4.      “National self-identification for the majority of residents of the regions of Russia does not have predominant significant over regional self-identification.” Ethnic identities are more likely to matter within regions than between them.

5.      “Inside each Russian region exists a strong self-identification of the population” depending on where it is and how it earns its living. For most, “Russia on the other hand as an ethno-cultural whole” is too enormous and diverse to be a source of primary identity.

6.      “In various regions of Russia, one can separate out the socially-politically active (approximately 10 to 15 percent of the population) who daily integrate themselves in the all-Russian and world ‘agenda.’”  The remainder do not.

7.      “For residents of Russian regions [both ethnically Russian and non-Russian], a definite level of inter-regional and macro-regional self-identification is characteristic.”

8.      “In the era of 20 years of social-economic and spiritual-cultural regress, the ideological and meaning vacuum in the framework of the Russian state as an organic whole in the life in Russian regions has begun to influence the definition of socio-forming factors.”

Sergeyev discusses the eighth point in more detail, arguing that while there are enormous variations among the regions in this regard, one can usefully discuss them in terms of “the following parameters,” including pre-1917 culture and Soviet cultural codes, regional identities, and “the system of post-Soviet socio-culture messages.”

“Unfortunately,” he continues, “to a great extent, [these last] have not a constructive but a destructive character,” although he expresses the hope that they can be turned out and used to promote the integration of all the regions into a common space. But to date, he says, Moscow and the scholarly community have ignored these issues.

Indeed, while Sergeyev does not say so, many in the Russian capital and the West view the rise of regional identities compared to ethnic ones almost as a triumph of Kremlin policies given that ethno-nationalism contributed to the dismemberment of the USSR and threatened to destroy the Russian Federation especially in the 1990s.

But such assessments are almost certainly misplaced and are distracting attention from regionalism based on regional identity.  And the power of the latter can pose especial challenges to Moscow precisely because it is either ethnic Russian or multi-national and thus not undercut by the Kremlin’s policies directed against ethnic identification and assertiveness.

The power of regionalism within the Russian Federation was very  much on display this week at the May Day demonstration in Novorsibirsk where participants marched under banners and flags declaring that they formed “the United States of Siberia” and that the center should remember that Siberia is not Moscow (

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