Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Meaning of Ethnic and Regional Identities Evolving in Post-Soviet Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 8 – More than a century ago, Otto Bauer, the great Austro-Marxist theorist of nationality, pointed out that when one talks about the specific content of a nation, one must specify a decade or even a narrow range of time because such entities and identifications with them change to rapidly.

            Most of the time, however, commentators and even some scholars treat the nation as almost eternal and national identities as stable. But Bauer’s observation applies with special force to the situation in the Russian Federation where some national and regional identities are relatively weak and almost all have been changing rapidly over the last two decades.

            Scholars at Tomsk State University have launched a project on “The Human Being in a Changing World: Problems of Identity and Social Adaptation in a Changing World.”  Dmitry Funk, head of the project and a Siberian expert at the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, discusses its focus (ria.ru/tomsk/20131004/967673001.html).

            The proect has two goals, he told the RIA interviewer.  On the one hand, it is to produce a generation of people who can teach anthropology and ethnology.  And on the other, it is intended to promote an understanding of “how people are adapting in a rapidly changing world and how this adaptation can be optimized.”

            Within this second task, Funk continues, “the final goal is to define the role of identity in this process.”  Identity, he argues is not something that is just given and that “simply exists.”  Instead, it is “a combination of a number of factors which allow an individual to associate himself with someone or something.”

            For people of his generation, Funk says, who great up in the Soviet Union, there “undoubtedly is something in common.” And all those with that experience will recognize signs of that commonality.

            “National identity, one way or another, exists with any national formation which has statehood.  When statehood appears, national identity immediately appears.  In various forms and with various qualifications and conditions because for a long time always and everywhere regional identity is preserved,” sometimes with an ethnic coloration and sometimes not.

            According to Funk, “we all represent some regional community or other. For example,” he says,  he “never says of himself that I am a Muscovite although [he] has lived in Moscow for many years. [He] is a Kemerovan once and for all. [He] is a Siberian.  But what is a Siberian? That is difficult to say.”

            Self-identifications, he continues, depend on circumstances. When they change, so too do the identifications.  “Identity is not given to you once and for all at your place of birth.”  It can come from a variety of sources and change over time.

            “A Siberian is someone who identifies himself as a Siberian,” Funk says.  It doesn’t necessarily refer to someone who lives there. But like other identities, it is based on an opposition of “my own” and “the other.”  With regard to Siberians, “residents of European Russia were always the other.”

                Another question about Siberian identity is the relationship between Russian-language communities there and the indigenous populations.  “I do not know now what role the indigenous peoples pay in the formation of a Siberian identity, but I can say that abroad, Siberia is associated with the indigenous numerically small peoples.”

                The indigenous population and those arriving from outside “typically” complain about each other, with the former stressing the negative impact of the latter on their way of life and the latter talking about their civilizing contributions.  That is “not productive,” Funk says, and “one must find points of contact” between these different cultures.          

            Some people see regional identities as a way of overcoming ethnic ones, Funk says, but the Soviet experience shows that however much one tries “not to notice ethnic groups,” they do not go away but find means of survival.

            “The ethnic groups which existed at the beginning of the 20th century in a somewhat different form continue to exist no.  And people remember this. Everyone is accustomed to consider that Altays live in the Altay [because that was the Soviet definition] but there are six different ethnic groups [which have continued to exist despite that].”
            Funk acknowledges that his interest in Siberia and Siberian identity is not just a matter of intellectual concern.  “If one speaks about Siberia – where it begins – one understands that it does when we cross the Urals.” But where does it end?  “For me,” Funk says, “as someone who was born in Siberia, Siberia always ends out there where there is a border with the US.”
            But for others, both the dimensions of Siberia and the nature of that identity are different.  He gives as an example a conversation in Chita when he asked whether the people there were Siberians.  Funk says he was told: “Yes, not far away are two villages where Siberians live. One can go and look at them.”  That means, of course, “everyone else is not a Siberian.”

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