Thursday, April 24, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin Says Cultural Unity, Not Passport Nationality, is What Matters

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 24 – In a comment that many non-Russians in the Russian Federation are certain to see as a threat to the existence of their groups and some Russians may view as a danger to Russianness as well, Vladimir Putin said yesterday that “it is not so important what is written in the ‘nationality’ line; what is important is how an individual identifies himself.”

            In a conversation with Vladimir Tolstoy who is overseeing the state project on “The Foundations of State Cultural Policy,” the Kremlin leader continued that “what is important is who he considers himself to be, what underlying cultural principles are part of him from childhood, in what milieu he is raised and to what he is oriented toward in a moral plane” (

            Putin’s words could be nothing more than a situational response to Tolstoy’s effort.  After all, that effort is focusing on culture and cultural identity rather than on ethnic or national ones. But they will send and almost certainly were designed to send a broader message about Putin’s thinking and the direction of his policies toward the latter.

            The Soviet government introduced a system of almost completely fixed national identities, one in which with only rare exceptions individuals could change the nationality indicated in their passports and other documents and on which the Soviet system of ethno-federalism rested.

            (There were three exceptions: Children of ethnically mixed marriages could choose which nationality to have. Ethnically Ukrainian and Belarusian military officers and political figures reaching a certain rank were allowed to declare themselves to be Russians. And some others were allowed or even forced to change in support of specific ethno-national policies.)

            With the demise of the USSR, that system partially but not completely collapsed as well. The 1993 Constitution prohibited requiring people to set a fixed nationality, and nationality lines in official documents disappeared. Nonetheless, members of various nationalities have viewed the retention of nationality as important (

            Non-Russians, especially those which have autonomies, view nationality as their last line of defense against Putin’s attacks on ethno-federalism, his amalgamation of non-Russian areas with predominantly Russian ones, and his stripping of these state institutions of ever more of their marks of sovereignty. They will thus view Putin’s words as a new threat to themselves.

            And ethnic Russians have viewed nationality not only as a defense against threats to their numbers including the rise of groups like the Cossacks or Siberians but also as a way of maintaining their drive for the creation of a Russian nation state on the territory of the Russian Federation.

            Because the Soviets used the nationality line invidiously against various groups, most notably against the Jews, many liberals have pushed for an end to such “officialization” of ethnic identity and demanded that the state allow people to identify however they want to at any particular time.

            While some might view Putin’s comments as fitting in that tradition, a more sinister interpretation seems justified given the Kremlin leader’s general approach. That interpretation holds that he wants to undercut nationality as such for the non-Russians by promoting a more expansive definition of Russianness.

            That judgment is supported by Putin’s own words yesterday when he said that “what is very important” to him is “the creation of a single cultural space.” Such a space would be Russian in culture, of course, and that would further call into question the vitality or even survival of non-Russian groups within the country.

            They are thus certain to feel threatened by this and to oppose it to the extent they can.  But many Russians are likely to oppose this idea as well, fearing that it will dilute what it means to be Russian by eliminating a clear line between their nation and others and especially by eliminating the political dimension of official nationality.

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