Friday, January 10, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Could ‘Back-Trailers’ from Siberia Transform Russia?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 10 – Russians living in areas of the country their co-ethnics only recently settled such as Siberia, the Far East, and the Far North have very different values than those who remained at the center, and the return of the former could have a significant impact on the values of the center and hence of the Russian Federation as a whole.

            That is just one of the intriguing possibilities suggested by an ongoing research effort to apply the ideas of American historian Frederick Jackson Turner to the study of the contemporary Russian life. (The reference to “back-trailers” comes not from that study but rather from the title of the concluding volume of Hamlin Garland’s “Middle Border” series in the 1920s.)

            Yesterday, the “Open Economy” journal of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics published a summary of the recent work of Anna Nemirovskya who is a researcher at that institution and Roberto Foa, a Harvard doctoral student, with whom she is collaborating (

            As the journal points out, new communications and transportation technologies “are reducing the significance of the distribution and geographic border among people, but Russians living in central Russia and those on territories distant from the center remain carriers of different mentalities and values.”

            This variation, Nemirovskaya and Foa find, drawing on Turner’s ideas but applying a sociological rather than historical approach, reflects “not only of how close or far people are from the capital or the influence of western and eastern civilizations but also how these [different] Russian territories were initially settled.”

             Their working hypothesis, the “Open Economy” article says, is that the way in which new territories were absorbed and populated continues to have an impact “on the psychological and socio-cultural characteristics in various countries.

            They have made a detailed comparison of the differences between the center and the frontier in Russia, the United States, Canada and Brazil but have devoted particular attention to Russia.  And that is what the “Open Economy” article focuses on.

            Nemirovskaya and Foa designate as “the frontier of Russia” those regions of Eastern Siberia, the Far East, and the Russian North “which were settled in large numbers [by ethnic Russians] only in the 20th century.” And they compared those regions with the center on the basis of the World Values studies conducted between 1981 and 2013.
            According to the two scholars, in all the countries they studied, “residents of the frontier, in contrast to residents of the center were more often inclined to trust those around them and more open to other ethnic communities and cultures but at the same time more conservative in relationship to the norms of their own culture.”

            Their research helps explain tensions between the center and periphery in countries like Russia. “The ruling elites in the capital and the population of the center of the country identify themselves with a ‘European’ and more modernized population while the residents of the internal territories ... consider themselves ‘an indigenous population’ and the real masters of a country which has absorbed enormous areas,” Nemirovskaya says.

                These differences in turn, the two scholars found, often lead to conflict “between the cosmopolitan, liberal and refined norms” of people in the center and “isolationist, politically conservative” but “economically liberal values of those living on the frontier who also tend to believe more than those in the center that people should rely on themselves rather than the state.

             As a result, those on the frontier in most countries are inclined to organize and engage in political activities, including protest movements.  Polls show that Russians in the frontier areas say they are more inclined to do so than Russians at the center, the researchers say, but in fact, Russians in frontier areas so far have been less likely to take such actions.

            But the scholars say that in fact, Russians on the frontier may be engaging in “a special kind” of protest: “voting with their feet” by moving away from the frontier back to the center to take advantage of opportunities there, a reflection of the fact that people on the frontier tend to be more active and adaptive and “ready for change.”
            By going back to the center as it were, those from the frontier effectively challenge and change the culture of those at the center.  That has happened in many countries which have both a center and frontiers, Nemirovskaya and Foa point out; it is entirely possible that it will in time happen in Russia as well.

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