Thursday, November 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Word ‘Russky’ Now Irreversibly Ethnicized, Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 21 – Both because of the rise of ethnic sensitivities in the Russian Federation and Moscow’s promotion of “rossiysky” as a term to describe people and things attached to the Russian state politically, the word “russky” has become “finally and irreversibly” limited to the Russian ethnic nation, according to a Moscow scholar.

            On the one hand, this development reflects the strengthening of ethnic Russian identity in response to more frequent contacts and conflicts with non-Russian groups. But on the other, by eliminating a certain ambiguity, one that created a penumbra of ethnic closeness between ethnic Russians and others, it drives another wedge between the two communities.

            And that in turn means that the Russian government’s much-ballyhooed plan to push for a civic identity, however philosophically justified it may be, is contributing to the promotion of the ethnicization that it was intended to overcome less among the non-Russians than among the ethnic Russians themselves.

            In his new book, “Cultural Differences and Political Borders in the Era of Global Migration” (in Russian; Moscow: NLO, 2014), Vladimir Malakhov of the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, discusses how “russky” came to be limited and why this matters for the future of the country (

            Malakhov begins to focusing on the issue of whether a nation embracing all the people of the Russian Federation exists. He argues that it does “to the degree that those who live there a) identify themselves as ‘rossiisky’ citizens and b) relate themselves to a common communications space.”  These two things – citizenship and common communications – “permit residents of the country to imagine themselves as members of one society.”

            According to the Moscow scholar, “the most adequate name of the cultural-political community which exists in present-day Russia is the ‘rossiisky’ nation.  The adjective ‘rossiisky’ must not and cannot be replaced by the adjective ‘russky.’” That is both normatively and practically impossible for three reasons

            First, there are “the ethnic connotations of the term ‘russky’ which the latter acquired in the  Soviet period of Russian history;” second, there is “the poly-ethnic character of the cultural space of Russia;” and third, there is “the specific nature of the (post) contemporary socio-cultural situation, the most important aspect of which is the struggle for recognition.”

            Each of these, Malakhov argues, need to be considered in turn.  Those “authors who propose to interpret the adjective ‘russky’ in a super-ethnic sense are appealing to a situation which existed in imperial Russia” when the term meant both loyalty to the throne and cultural and religious identification with the dominant culture.

That situation no longer exists and it “cannot be reconstructed above all because the term ‘russky’ during the years of Soviet power acquired firm ethnic connotations.” Under the Soviets, ethnicity was used “as a means of dividing the population and dividing territory,” of distributing goods positive and negative and thus of power.

That contributed to the ethnicization of “russky,” Malakhov says, “but it was not the only cause.”  Another was “the war in Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2000). The Trauma connected with this was is so deep and large” that it destroyed all “illusions” that somehow non-Russians and Chechens in particular could at some point “accept the self-designator ‘russky.’”
            However, even if this possibility did exist, the Moscow scholar continues, “it is hardly possible to hope that those residents of Central Russia who support the slogan ‘Russia for the Ethnic Russians!’ would agree.”  And their numbers, he adds, “as is well known” are large and growing.

            Consequently, “whether we want it or not, we have to recognize that the word ‘russky’ has been finally and irreversibly ethnicized,” that it is not a supra-ethnic term but “the eclusive definition which separates one ethnic group from others.”

            Some writers nonetheless try to save this earlier and broader meaning by talking about “’rossiskaya’ culture,” but the argument against that use was made definitely by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “we have a ‘rossiiskoye’ state but a ‘russkaya’ culture.”  That in turn means that non-Russians have the right to “accept ‘russkaya’ culture” or “develop their own.”

            Such efforts reflect the fact that many non-Russians have accepted “’russkaya’” culture and contributed to it, Malakhov says, but that does not mean that all do or that the state can succeeded in making them all do so, however hard it tries – or that mechanically combining all the cultures of the country will produce a common “’rossiiskaya’ culture.”

            Such a culture if it appear is a “super-ethnic” one, a culture that combines ethnic cultures and participation in a broader one, much as has already happened in Great Britain, Austria and Turkey, Malakhov argues. It could happen in Russia, but there are forces working against it, especially the media.

            “Regional and ethnic communities are positioning themselves in the media space ... not as autonomous geographic and political (‘national’) units but as component parts of nation states.”  Representatives of Wales, the Basque country, Corsica, and Buryatia all do this. They do not speak as “representatives of Great Britain, Spain, France and Russia”

            It is “impossible” to reverse this trend, Malakhov says. “To propose, let us say, to the Circassians or Kalmyks that they be assimilated into ‘russkaya’ culture is an undertaking just as doubtful as suggesting to the Welsh or the Scots that they be assimilated into ‘English culture.’” For most, this simply won’t work but rather generate a negative reaction.

            Consequently, Malakhov concludes, “to classify the culture of contemporary Russia as ‘russkaya’ would be not only incorrect in a normative moral plane but also counter-productive in a pragmatic and political one.”

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