Saturday, June 3, 2017

‘Russians have Never Defined Themselves as a Nation in Ethnic Terms,’ Byzov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 3 – Leonty Byzov, a Moscow sociologist who has attracted attention for his writings on what he calls “the new Russian nation” says that “Russians as a nation have never defined themselves in ethnic terms” and that it is not very clear just what people mean when they speak of “’ethnic Russians.’”

            The Russian Empire, the Institute of Sociology scholar says in the course of an interview given to the Rosbalt news agency, “was a gigantic melting pot” and consequently drawing precise borders between Russians and Mordvins or some other group is not only extraordinarily complicated but also fundamentally unconvincing (

            Throughout the course of Russian history, Byzov argues, “the ethnic factor never occupied first place …. There always were and are an enormous number of ‘half-castes,’ people of Russian culture but who are not ethnically Russian in the strict sense of the word.” Indeed, ethnic membership “did not have and does not have essential significance.”

            When people speak about “’the truly Russian’” Russians, most often they are referring to the Pomors because the Pomor region was the only region in all of Russia which no enemy ever conquered, where there was no Tatar invasion, and where the Russian ethnic genotype as it were was preserved in an untouched way.”

            “But,” Byzov says, “to reduce ‘the native Russian nation’ to the Pomors is wrong because it is only one of the sub-ethnoses” which make it up; and consequently, in the Russian case, it is “unwise” to divide people into indigenous and non-indigenous groups given the ethnic intermixing of almost all of them.

            He goes on to note that “in recent years, it has become unfashionable among [Russians] to be Europeans. But that is irrelevant given that the Russian people over the course of centuries was split” between a European noble culture and the communal subculture of the peasantry. “Which is these now would you insist on considering the real Russian and which not?”

            “The Russian people is extremely complicated; and in this are both its shortcomings and its advantages,” Byzov says.  On the down side, “we have not been able to create a model of statehood which will ensure us stable positions in the 21st century.” But on the other hand, these divisions “enrich Russian culture.” 

            According to the sociologist, Russia’s misfortunes have arisen from the fact that “as a result of the cataclysms of the 20th century, we have moved too far from our historic roots. And however much we talk about spiritual bindings today, they no longer function” to hold the people together.

            “The present generation of Russians [and it is here that he uses the term rossiyane for the first time] is very little oriented toward its history. Of course, there are exceptions, but the generation born after 1991 is entirely dissimilar from the one which grew up in the Soviet era.” And this break and lack of continuity makes it difficult for Russians to define themselves.

            Asked about his “theory of ‘a new Russian nation,’” Byzov says that he has somewhat revised it but still considers that “the former mechanisms of identity which were characteristic at first for the Russian community and then for people of the Soviet era have already lost their function.”

            That is the source of “the majority of our problems.” It isn’t that we have preserved “too much” but that we have preserved “too little” and have no foundation on which to stand. Young people  “life as if they were born yesterday and not formed by any past” whatsoever, Soviet, Russian Imperial or any other.

            “Therefore,” Byzov continues, “there are grounds for asserting that the new Russian nation consists of people who grew up in post-Soviet times which in terms of numerous value orientations are sharply distinguished both from traditional Russian culture and from Soviet” culture as well.

            That is why so many Russians today spend time talking about how to define themselves – and also why the answer to that question is so difficult for them to seek, a pattern that stands in sharp contrast to other nations within Russia and beyond who still hold to their national values rather than viewing themselves in terms of “all-human” ones.

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