Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Russian Collective Identity Decaying Faster at the Center than on the Periphery, Zhordan Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 2 – Drawing on the ideas of Peter Turchin, Igor Zhordan argues that Russian ethnic identity is decaying faster at the center than on the periphery because, as in all empires, a sense of threat promotes the rise of identity and any sense that the threat has passed opens the way for its decay with increased social divisions as result.

            Turchin is a Russian professor at the University of Connecticut who is a leader of the cliodynamics movement which seeks to use large amounts of social and economic data to plot societal change. Zhordan is a Russian commentator who writes for the After Empire portal on regional and ethnic issues.

                In his latest article on that portal (, Zhordan cites Turchin’s hypothesis that the strength of collective identity (asabia) “is increased at meta-ethnic border regions and is reduced in the central sections of large states” because the former face still face conflict and the latter increasingly feel secure (

            (Both Turchin and Zhordan use the medieval Arabic term asabia that Ibn Khaldun, a 14th century scholar, used to describe the identity of people living within the Muslim world spread by the Arab armies and the fate of that identity after the era of military conquest receded into the past.)

            The cliodynamics specialist argues, Zhordan says, that “all empires pass through a period of territorial growth which is accompanied by an increase in asabia but then to the extent the center feels it is secure, the asabia of the ethnos weakens … [At the same time], the speed with which elites devour one another grows.”

            Turchin also offers another suggestion that Zhordan argues is instructive for what is happening in Russia now: “during times of troubles, one should expect ‘a narrowing’ of the profile of asabia. That is, although in good times, members of the elite may consider themselves bellowing to an all-empire ethnos; in bad ones they will return to their regional identities” (

            In other words, Zhordan says, “in a period of crisis, the value of its core qualities and features sharply falls off and members of society no longer are inclined to be proud of belonging to that empire.”   But “the reputation of the regions remains,” as shown during perestroika, when a resident of the RSFSR beyond its borders shifted from calling himself “a Soviet man” and instead said he was “a Leningrader or Siberian,” but not a Russian.

            “The disintegration of the USSR sparked the first phase of the crisis in the national self-identification of Russians,” Zhordan says. “The looming disintegration of the Russian Federation is deepening this crisis.” After 1991, no Estonian or Georgian had to ask who was an Estonian and who a Georgian. 

            But for “very many Russians the question arose with the first disintegration of the empire: ‘What does it mean to be Russian?’”  Some looked to folklore and ethnography, and others talked about Russia’s great cultural history.  Those were fine answers for the educated minority, but they did nothing for the Russian “man in the street.”

            For decades, that individual had been told that “to be Russian is to be Soviet, that is, that there is a certain general ‘universal’ nationality’” involved with that. When the USSR collapsed what was left of that notion? 
            Zhordan cites Zhvanetsky’s oft-quoted aphorism about Russians that “they will not help in a fight but in war they will win” to formulate what he says is “the tragedy of the Russian people.”  Asabia doesn’t help as far as mutual assistance is concerned, but it reemerges and is strong if there is a war.

            That is why, he continues, “propaganda now feeds Russia with the idea of a foreign threat as the last drug” that keeps people together.

            “For centuries,” the commentator observes, “a Russia was either a worker on the land, a soldier or an official.” With the destruction of the peasantry, the Russian state fell apart once. Soon it will fall apart again. And “in place of national self-consciousness will be a black whole out of which very unpleasant monsters may emerge.”

            Because Russians formed such a large share of the population in tsarist and Soviet times, they became accustomed to equate the ethnos with “the non-ethnic imperial state.” But now, “the imperial (Soviet) Russians are condemned to historical (not physical) collapse, that is, to ethnocide because the collapse of asabia touches both statehood and ethnic self-consciousness.”

            In the process, there won’t even be left a straw to clutch at. The situation will be worse at the center and somewhat less bad on the periphery because Russians there not only feel threatened by others but see themselves as “the object of colonial exploitation.”  Many no longer see themselves as “bearers of the imperial idea” which allows them to become more genuinely ethnic Russians and to form “a new regional statehood” for themselves.  

            According toZhordan, “a resident of Krasnodar is a Russian and a resident of Vologda is too, but the similarities between them are no more than between the residents of Milan and those of Naples or even between a Swede and a Spaniard.”

            “When the rotten tree of the empire begins to fall down, the ethnically non-Russian regions will have the easiest time of it from the point of view of self-identification.”  But for the Russians in the regions, the task will be harder because they will have to decide whether they identify only with their own regions or with other “Russian” regions as well.

            The USSR’s disintegration in 1991 was “not complete” because “the Russian Federation is the specific historical phase of the ongoing dissolution of the Soviet Union.”  And it may be that the process of its final dismantling won’t happen all at once but will take place in stages with intervals in between.

            That likelihood is horrific because it means that the largest surviving element at any one time is likely to strike out violently against one or more of the seceding parts, just as Moscow did against Chechnya.  At the same time, residents of such a large surviving element will almost certainly find out “what a real dictatorship is about.”

            “The collapse of asabia,Zhordan notes in conclusion, “is “the main but not the only cause of the disintegration of empires.” Other factors include demography, economics, and political choices; and he promises to return to those in future “letters” about how the Russian Federation will come apart.

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