Monday, November 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Half of Moscow Residents Were Born Elsewhere and That Matters, Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 25 – Moscow residents have been obsessed in recent months with the number of gastarbeiters who have moved into their city, but a new poll shows that many who identify as Muscovites in fact are not native to the city and only a quarter can trace their ancestry in the Russian capital back two generations.

            According to a new survey, only 27 percent of the residents of the Russian capital are both the children and grandchildren of natives of Moscow, although 50 percent said they were third, second or first generation Muscovites, a pattern that reflects rapid urbanization there that in turn helps explain some nationalist attitudes (

            The urban-rural divide in Russia of which the Moscow-rural one is the most dramatic at present has long played a central and in comparison with other coutries distinctive role in the nature and evolution of Russian national identity, according to Leonid Vasilyev, a historian at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics (

            In an article in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” last Wednesday, Vasilyev traces the ways in which the village and the city in Russia diverged from the times of the Mongols.  Those from the villages always had national feelings, he suggests, but “there as no possibility for the demonstration of these feelings”and therefore there arose “a sense of incompleteness.”

            The “mechanical social solidarity of the fatherland’s communal arrangements,” he continues, “was at an extremely low level” because Russians “were forced every several years to divide up, relocate and create in new places communes.” That had effect of causing such people to divide the world between us and them in an extremely narrow and immediate way.

            Only in the 16th and 17th centuries did the “mir” become more stable, a development that made enserfment easier than it otherwise would have been and also represented “a dividing line of the national feelings of the indigenous population,” the historian continues.

            Russia’s cities were initially composed of those serving in the military and “recruited from outside,”such as the Germans, Poles, Lithuanians and baptized Tatars. But one aspect of urban existence set it particularly in opposition to the mir: cities were divided between the privileged and the poor while the rural commune was far more egalitarian.

            That put the city and the rural areas of Russians at odds, and this division meant that the rural area as a communal “mir” was always a threat to the urban areas, especially when the cities began to absorb more and more rural people during the industrial revolution in the 19th century and then under the Soviets.

            As a result, Vasilyev argues, “the communal traditions of the indigenous” population came into conflict with the new “metis” city. “Cross cultural communication” took place, but “the weakness ofthis process in arge measure was conditioned by the fact that the average [Russian] city” was dominated by the arrival of indigenous rural people.

            The end of the USSR “changed a lot,” Vasilyev says.  People in the cities increasingly took as their standards western urban values rather than those of the communal world from which they sprung. “But the majority of the indigenous having been deprived of much was especially harsh” toward those who were in a position worse than their own.

            This development, the historian argues, reflects “the complex of incompleteness,” of the sense among many that they are “the victims of discrimination.”  In the past, anger arising from that sense was directed “againt the flourishing West with its Latins and Lutherans.” Under the Bolsheviks, this anger was aimed at the bourgeoisie.

            But now, the historian says, the Muslims have become the outsider-enemy for those recently urbanized and feeling incomplete rural Russians. The Muslims may even look similar, but they behave differently, their birthrates are higher, and they are thus seen as the preeminent outsider rather than just as one group among many.

            “The time is coming,” Vasilyev says, “when the explosion of national self-consciousness of the population of Russia will begin to go beyond the limits of acceptable norms andovershadow all the other problems of Russia.”  But it is important to understand what is going on and what is not.

            This Russian feeling is “in no way xenophobia” of the classical kind. It is something else, leading to the solidarity and   self-identification” Russians have lacked in the past.  With some luck this feeling may take the form of civic nationalism, but because of continuing shadow of the commune past with its hostility to outsiders, that is not the only possible outcome.

            In Western Europe, there is a great deal of hostility to Muslim immigrants, Vasilyev points out, and he urges Russians “not to be surprised that in our country, crudely primitive with its aging archaic mark and further from democracy than are other Europeans, the masses will react to this problem more harshly.”

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