Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin’s Nationality Policy Won’t Work as He Intends

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 20 – Both the five specific planks of his nationality policy that Vladimir Putin outlined yesterday and problems underlying his entire approach to this issue guarantee that the Russian president will offend both Russians and non-Russians and produce the very outcome he says he is trying to avoid – more ethnic tension in the Russian Federation.

            In his speech to the Presidential Council on Inter-ethnic Relations, Putin argued that the main task of any nationality policy must be “the strengthening of harmony and accord” among Russian citizens, “regardless of their ethnic or religious memberships” so that they will see themselves “as citizens of a single country” (

            But each of the five specific ideas he offered is certain to offend ethnic Russians or non-Russians and sometimes both at what is likely to appear to members of both groups as an uncertain and inconsistent set of policies that is likely to intensify their anger not only at each other but at the leadership in the Kremlin.

            First, Puin declared that the Russian language is “the fundamental basis of the unity of the country.”  That will please many Russians, but it is certain to offend many non-Russians who will see Putin’s position as containing within it an implicit threat to their national languages, and as the Tatars and Finno-Ugrics have shown in recent months, they are certain to react badly.

            Second, the Russian president called for the creation of a single standard national history textbook, one which stresses “the uninterrupted path of Russian history and the interconnection of its various stages” and which calls for “the respect for all the pages” of Russia’s national past and which ensures that all citizens will “know the genuine history of [the country’s] peoples and the ingathering of Russian  lands into a single powerful multi-national state.”

            There is no agreement among Russians on whether their history is continuous or discontinuous, with some viewing the Soviet period as part and parcel of their past and others seeing it as something alien. And there is no agreement between Russians and non-Russians over their history: 1552 will never mean the same thing in Kazan that it does in Moscow.

                And many people, Russians and non-Russians alike and especially the intellectual elites of both groups, are profoundly disturbed by the notion that they should return to a state-controlled history rather than continue to explore the complexities and diversity of their past and present as they have been doing over the past two decades.

Third, Putin said he supports the work of the 989 national-cultural organizations, a promise that will offend both Russians and non-Russians. The Russians will see this as undercutting the president’s commitment to a single people in the country, and the non-Russians will view it as the opening salvo of another attack on the existence of the autonomous republics.

Fourth, the Russian leader said that he opposed the return of cultural monuments confiscated by the Soviets because to allow that would open a “Pandora’s box of problems. That will please some among both Russians and non-Russians who will retain them, but it will anger many more, who seek the return of exactly such buildings and other valuables.

And fifth, Putin said that holding major sports and other international meetings will help fuse the various peoples of the Russian Federation into one. But discussions about the Universiade in Kazan this summer and the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year suggest that these are divisive for many in a variety of ways, not least because these events have used up funds that could be spent for other reasons.

These programs are divisive enough, but there are two underlying problems with Putin’s approach, reflecting his lack of understanding of the nature of ethnicity and identity in his country, that guarantee each of these will have more serious consequences than would otherwise be the case.

On the one hand, Putin has spoken at such a level of generality on such things as the promotion of a non-ethnic identity that various people are seeking to connect the dots in ways that will exacerbate this sensitive issue.  That has already happened in the last 24 hours, with one United Russia legislator saying that Putin wants to promote a single “non-ethnic Russian nation” ( and many non-Russians expressing concern.

For many outside the former Soviet bloc, that may seem to be a tempest in a teapot or at least little more than playing with words. But words matter, and for Russians and non-Russians, a nation is not a people. Even the Soviet government never sought a Soviet nation because that would have struck at the non-Russian identities many retained.  Even suggesting that Putin plans to do that is incendiary and shows he does not fully understand what is at stake.

In Russian parlance, a people can include various ethnic, religious and linguistic groups who may practice endogamy within their distinct membership, but a nation is one in which there is a single language and where endogamy is coterminous with its entire membership. That would be the deathknell for many smaller nations; it would undercut the nature of Russianness for many Russians.

But on the other hand, as historian and commentator Aleksandr Yanov points out in an essay in “Novaya gazeta” today, Putin has not yet learned to “distinguish patriotism from nationalism” and thus has not escaped from a division which has split Russian society for centuries and which continues to divide it (

Yanov suggests that Putin has fallen into this trap because he has sought to replace the classical Uvarov Russian trinity of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” with a new one that makes patriotism, sovereignty and tradition the primary values.  The problem begins, the historian says, because as no one should be surprised, there are many traditions.

There is a tradition which places the nation and its values above the state, one that extends from Nil Sorsky in the 15th century to Andrey Sakharov in the 20th, but there is also a tradition which celebrates the state and its police powers and which holds that the people must be subordinate to and serve it, not the other way around.

Putin, Yanov argues, would like to take something from each, but the problem with that is that the Russian president’s celebration of the state may appeal to some Russia nationalists, it will offend many others, especially those of the “creative classes,” and it will alienate even more than they now are the overwhelming majority of the increasingly numerous non-Russians.

It is thus obvious, Yanov says, that Putin “does not suspect how long Russian thought has tried to cope with the delimitation of these key but contradictory phenomena – the bright, intimate, and natural as breathing FEELING of love for the fatherland from the cold harsh IDEOLOGY” imposed by the state.

“Putin’s trinity,” Yanov concludes, will thus “fall apart in front of our eyes.”  For him, “patriotism is indistinguishable from nationalism” and thus he is driving the country into a trap.  His predecessors, Aleksandr III and Nicholas II experienced this.  And if Putin understood what he was doing, he would retire. 

Instead, Yanov’s article suggests, the current Russian president seems unwittingly committed to making his own situation and that of his country worse by articulating a nationality policy that is not based on an understanding of the nature of his country’s history and its problems and that consequently  is exacerbating rather than reducing all of its difficulties.

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