Thursday, February 28, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Russians Incapable of Organizing Themselves to Defend Their Interests, Moscow Sociologist Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 28 – Unlike ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation, ethnic Russians are currently incapable of organizing themselves into a unified force to defend their interests, the result less of the current policies of the Russian state than of social and economic change over the past century, according to a leading Academy of Sciences sociologist.

            This weakness is reflected in their inability to form their own political party, Leonty Byzov of the Moscow Institute of Sociology says, as well as in the rise of regional identities within the Russian ethnos and the failure of Russians to organize collectively even in non-Russian areas where they might be expected to behave as other minorities do.

            In an interview with Aleksey Polubota of “Svobodnaya pressa,” Byzov argues that the Russian government is the only factor responsible for this situation. Instead, he says, “the process of the degradation of [ethnic] Russians has been taking place over decades and its roots are to be found in Soviet times” (

            But he suggests that this process is currently accelerating and that the authorities “really do not understand how to solve this problem” and may “no even sense it.”  That is because “they think only about the present day or in the best sense about tomorrow.” But they “do not think about what will be the case after a decade or two.”

            This shortsightedness is not limited to the Russian government, Byzov continues. It is also a feature of the Russian people. And that means that “it is difficult to say to what extent the process of the degradation of the Russian ethnos is reversible” or whether it has gone too far for the Russian nation to recover as a nation.

            Besides the numerical decline in the number of ethnic Russians and the depopulation of historically Russian regions, Byzov says, there has been “a general loss of passion, an atomization of society, and the loss of a creative basis which were characteristic of the Russians over the course of many centuries.”

            The reasons for this disturbing trend are to be sought in the consequences of forced collectivization and rapid urbanization, in which the traditional Russian way of life was destroyed and nothing collective was put in its place. Indeed, Byzov argues, “it is possible to say that [ethnic] Russians as a nation do not currently exist.”

            There is little or no chance to reverse this, he says. On the one hand, “the return to the Russian tradition is hardly possible. And on the other, “life in the conditions of a contemporary city, the impact of mass culture, and the deepening psychology of a consumer society all are leading to an intensification of the processes put in play in the 20th century.”

            Byzov says that the argument that the failure of the Russians to organize reflects their majority status, but he says that argument falls apart if one considers the fact than even when ethnic Russians find themselves in the status of minorities in some non-Russian republics in the Russian Federation, “they do not overcome their divisions” and unite for their interests.

            Instead, even where social science suggests they should organize, they remain “quite passive.”  That is not the result of state policy but rather “the extremely low capacity of contemporary Russians for self-organization.” Clearly, “if there is no sense of commonality, then no national cultural autonomy will help.”

            None of the various proposals for a definition of Russian ethnic identity has found wide acceptance, Byzov continues. There is no possibility of returning to traditional culture, and Russian Orthodoxy is seen by “the majority of Russians” as “a formal identity: when they call themselves Orthodox, people in part do not know what this means.”

            Today, there is no “clear definition of who is a Russian” either among specialists or among ethnic Russians themselves. Instead, “identity among Russians to an ever greater extent is connected with regions or place of residence.” Siberians, for example, are “more inclined to identify themselves regionally than nationally.”

            Many believe that ethnic Russians will unite because of the increasing number of immigrants, but this appears unlikely, Byzov says.  Rather, he suggests, “[ethnic] Russians are beginning to retreat and representatives of diasporas and ethnic communities advance even when they are given formally equal opportunities.”

            That process, which is most in evidence in major cities in central Russia, bothers Russians, but “no one knows” how to reverse it. One reason it has gone so far is that in the 1990s, “spheres in which Russians were traditionally stronger – science, education, and defense – degraded,” and ever more Russians found themselves competing with non-Russians in small business where “Russians do not have special abilities and traditionally lose” to other groups.

            Another reason for the degradation of Russians lies in the corruption of the state and society in Russia, but here too, Russians do not appear to understand how it affects them.  “Systemic corruption is now a form of existence for society,” reflecting the rise of “informal ties and agreements.” Non-Russians find it easier to navigate that than do ethnic Russians.

            Indeed, Byzov  says, “it is perfectly obvious that a situation of total corruption is more profitable to them than to the [ethnic] Russian indigenous majority.” But changing that situation will require more than a crackdown on corruption; it will require both a change in the norms of society and the values in the Russian community.

            Unfortunately, Byzov says, the possibilities for that are currently limited. Under Putin, he suggests, “a bureaucracy has arisen which today in essence has privatized the state,” works for its interests rather than those of the society.  But the only way to change that is to increase political action by the population, something that has not happened.

            Russians remain divided even ideologically. On the one hand, there is “the traditional form of Russian nationalism, national-patriotism.”  But it is confined largely to representatives of the older generation and “today it has lost its monopoly.”  On the other, there are now some national democrats who want to carve out of the empire a distinctly ethnic Russian state, a trend that “is still not very popular.”

            Obviously, “nationalist attitudes” are increasing in the Russian Federation and even among ethnic Russians, Byzov acknowledges. But he points out the gap between the 50 or 60 percent of ethnic Russians who have nationalist attitudes and the four to five percent who are prepared to vote for groups that articulate them.

            Until that changes – and until ethnic Russians find a new basis for unity among themselves – no strong nationalist political party is likely to form, Byzov concludes, the current situation of ethnic degradation of the Russian nation is likely to continue and, the sociologist implies, may even get worse.

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