Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Three Small Moves with Big Consequences on Russia’s Nationality Front

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 20 – Three small developments on Russia’s nationality front this week – resistance by a small ethnos to a oil giant, the Moscow Patriarchate’s hiring of Central Asian Muslims to build churches, and an official acknowledgement that gastarbeiters now live in the center of Moscow – will have far greater consequences than a first glance might suggest.

            First, in the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District, LUKOIL wants to expand its drilling on areas that members of the local nationalitie have used for pasture from time immemorial.  The oil giant, however, has encountered unexpected resistance: a Khanty family has hired a lawyer, says it won’t be pushed around, and is demanding compensation from the company ( and

            As one report puts it, this appears to be simply “a small local problem,” but only for the present because many of the 28,000 Khanty are tired of being pushed around by Russian officials and big oil companies and say that they are ready to press their case first in Russian courts and then at the UN Conference on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

             In the past, the companies used vodka not cash to get their way, and they drilled wherever they wanted, confident that officials would back them up. “The system worked,” the report says, “but now it doesn’t work.”  The local people realize that their land is valuable, and they have heard Russians say that “Russia is for the Russians.”

            If Russia is for the Russians, the Khanty have concluded, why isn’t Khanty-Mansiisk for the Khanty and Mansi?  But they aren’t stopping there: What about “the Sakha and Sakha”? Or the Karels and Karelia?  If Russians have “a home,” why don’t the Sakha or the Karlians? And why don’t the Russians drill for oil under Moscow? “Why do we need Moscow Oblast?”

            “We are all sick of Moscow-centrism,” the commentator continues. “We do not understand what processes are going on in the enormous spaces of our country where live various unfashionable peoples like the Khanty.”  There is some talk about the North Caucasus, but the issues are far broader and include “Russian” areas like Siberia and the Kuban.

            Despite its emotional tone, this development is fascinating in two respects. On the one hand, it shows that Russian nationalism is having an impact even on the smallest non-Russian groups.  And on the other, it is thus an example, albeit a less dramatic one, of the kind of northern activism Edward Topol described in his 1980s novel, “Red Snow.”

            Second, Russians are now focusing on an issue they couldn’t even imagine existed a few years ago.  It turns out that the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church is hiring massive numbers of Muslim workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus to build churches in the Russian Federation (

            Church leaders say they are doing so because they can’t find enough workers among the Russians, but given that the Church offers itself as a defender of all things Russian and it is getting ever more money from the state (, many Russians are outraged.

            An informal poll conducted by found that nearly two-thirds of those responding said this was an outrage, with the remainder being divided between those who thought it was “normal” and those who were indifferent to it. But the blogosphere has been filled with sharp criticism.

            One blogger who said he was an atheist complained, for example, that allowing Muslims to build a church in which they would not be welcome was both unpleasant and unwelcome, especially since it carried with it the implication that the Russians themselves “do not want to work” on such projects” because wages are low.

            Clearly, the Moscow Patriarchate will find it increasingly difficult to present itself as the embodiment of Russianness if it is engaged in a practice that is increasingly triggering anger among Russians. That could limit the church’s authority and influence and open the way for even more radical and extreme forms of Russian nationalism.

            And third, the Moscow city administration of the Federal Migration Service this week published statistics on the number of gastarbeiters in various parts of the Russian capital. Two aspects of its report stand out: On the one hand, Biryulevo where clashes took place this fall is not a place where migrants form a large part of the population (

            On the other, in many cases, migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus are far more numerous in regions near the city center, a pattern that makes them more noticeable than they would be if they lived mostly on the outskirts and one that many ethnic Russians likely view as unacceptable.

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