Sunday, September 18, 2016

Strengthening Civic Russian Nation More Important than Saving Non-Russian Ethnic Identities, Smirnova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 17 – Svetlana Smirnova, president of the Council of the Assembly of Peoples of Russia, told the First Congress of the Peoples of Chuvashia that “if in the 1990s, questions of the preservation of national culture … were important, now, alongside them issues of strengthening the unity of the [supra-ethnic] Russian nation have risen.”

            Both her words, which included calls for “the formation of an all-Russian civic identity and the strengthening of the spiritual commonality of the peoples of Russia” and the venue she delivered them at, a multi-national meeting in a national republic, show that Moscow is now tilting away from the non-Russian nations and toward an increasingly Russian Russian nation.

            The Chuvash, a Christian Turkic nation in the Middle Volga, form two-thirds of the population of their republic and have been subject to intense russification pressure, including opposition to efforts to increase the role of their language in that republic. (For background, see

            But despite Chuvash protests, Moscow and its allies, including the Russian Orthodox Church, are stepping up the pressure, and the First Congress of Peoples of Chuvashia provides a clear measure of that. Not only did it feature Smirnova’s speech, but the Chuvash formed only 43.1 percent of the delegates (

            Instead, in a replay of Soviet-era tactics, it was packed with representatives of micro-nationalities to dilute the importance of the titular one. Officials said that 128 “peoples” were represented at the congress, but “only 24 of them have more than 100 members, 42 had from 10 to 99 members, and the remaining 70 fewer than ten” residents in the republic.

            Most other speakers echoed the new line. Ivan Boyko, an academic specialist on ethnic issues, told the group that Chuvashia was in the top three regions of Russia as far as inter-ethnic concord is concerned and that as such, it and its congress should become a place for “resolving many issues about the strengthening of the all-civic identity, the ‘Russianness’ of citizens.”

            Veronika Isayeva, a representative of the Center for Russian Culture of the Chuvash Republic, stressed that the assembly could promote the unification of peoples “around the Russian language” as the basis for a broader unity. “We are a single Russian people,” she said. “The similarity brings us together, but the distinctions enrich us.”

            Salman Mayrukayev, “the representative of the head of the Chechen Republic in Chuvashia,” said that he was pleased to take part in a meeting that reflected the existence of “a common home for all peoples living in Chuvashia” and that he was proud his leader had in his first decree asserted “the equality of all peoples living” in Chechnya.

            Bassam al-Balaui, head of the regional section of the Society of Solidarity and Cooperation of the Peoples of Asia and Africa in the Republic of Chuvashia, said that “there are only two nations, good people and bad people” and that one’s “passport, place of birth, and nationality are not so important. What matters is to be a man!”

            Mikhail Ignatyev, the head of Chuvashia, not only echoed these views in his remarks but stayed for the entire five hours that the meeting lasted, taking notes and thus demonstrating its political importance as far as he was concerned.

            But there was some dissent, although just how much is hard to say.  Ferit Gibatdinov, the head of the Tatar National-Cultural Autonomy in Chuvashia, won applause when he said that he could recall that Tatar mothers frightened their children with talk about Chuvash and Chuvash mothers with talk about Tatars. And he said he was opposed to mixed marriages.

            Whether the association this congress created will take off in Chuvashia or become the model for emulation elsewhere in the Russian Federation remains to be seen, but the message the meeting itself delivered is clear: the center wants more stress on a common Russian “nation” and less on non-Russian peoples, whatever the 1993 Constitution says and the people desire.


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