Saturday, October 5, 2019

Muscovite Images of Non-Russians Inadequate and Dangerous, Chuvash Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 3 – In the late 1980s, the National Geographic Society in the United States published a map of “The Peoples of the Soviet Union.”  Around the map of the USSR as it then was were portraits of representatives of some of its nations. The Ukrainian was shown in a peasant dress, the Latvian in a pre-war military uniform, and the Uzbek in a long traditional coat.

            But the Russian, identified as such, was shown in a space suit, the only one who looked to be contemporary. That image, one that was typical in imperial times in which the Russians were viewed as another European nation while the rest were seen as backward peoples or even aborigines, faded in Soviet times but has returned with new force in Putin’s Russia.

            In Soviet times, communist ideology had a vested interest in presenting the modernization of non-Russians as one of the regime’s great achievements. Consequently, its treatment of such groups distorted them in another way, focusing on industry and housing blocs and downplaying culture and language.

            Such imagery was wrong, but now it has been replaced by the imperial one that in many ways is even worse and certainly more dangerous as far as the futures of the non-Russian nations are concerned, peoples whose “primitive” and “backward” nature means they should acculturate and assimilate to the Great Russian nation.

            Now, however, the imperial attitude has returned in force, with Russians viewed as a modern nation and the others as primitive and backward whose pasts as cultures and language communities should be sacrificed in the name of acculturating and assimilating to the Great Russian nation.

            In a commentary for the IdelReal portal, Chuvash historian and journalist Timer Aktash focuses on an example of this attitude, a new film on the history of that Christian Turkic nation that was made not by a Chuvash studio with Chuvash directors and actors but rather by people in Moscow with a very different sensibility (

            The film, called Etker (which in Chuvash means “dignity” or “heritage”), is being promoted by a picture from the end of the Russian imperial period showing two obviously poor Chuvash peasant girls, an image that reinforces the view many have that that nation like other non-Russian peoples is backward and should give up its backwardness and become Russian.

            In Soviet times, Aktash says, such images would have been offered only as “the before” in a before-after story, contrasting what the Chuvash lived like under the tsars with how much better they lived under the communists, even though the Soviets routinely trivialized the cultural and linguistic aspects of Chuvash identity.

            But now in a post-Soviet film, made in Moscow, the message is different, Aktash says. The Chuvash are to be treated as backward then and still backward, even as their language and culture is denigrated and attacked.  That may not both Russians or others, just as the National Geographic map didn’t in the main, but it is an insult that justifies assimilation.

            “To again show on the centenary of the Chuvash autonomy of 2020 poor and barefoot rural Chuvash girls of the 19th century is not very logical. This negative image does not correspond to the new realities. Chuvash in Russia and beyond its borders long ago acquired a new contemporary visage.”

            “Now the task of the nation is to preserve its native Chuvash language and the nation itself from assimilation,” Aktash says; but the spread of such imagery means that Chuvash are being encouraged to view themselves as something less than the Russians, a perspective that only “accelerates assimilation.”

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