Sunday, July 31, 2016

Russians in Far East ‘Ethnicizing’ Distinctive Regional Identities, Khabarovsk Scholar Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 30 – Russians in the far eastern portion of the Russian Federation and especially those in small and mid-size cities who have had to make their own way without much government assistance since 1991 are increasingly “ethnicizing” their regional identities, setting themselves against Moscow as “a colonizer,” according to Leonid Blyakher.

            In  the current issue of “Druzhba narodov,” the specialist on culture at the Pacific Ocean State University in Khabarovsk draws those conclusions on the basis both of what he suggests are the underlying trends in the region and of what he found by looking at recent developments in three small cities there (

            Most of the time Russian commentators discuss the Russian Far East either in terms of the Chinese threat or in terms of population losses, but these have been longstanding issues there rather than something new.  Much more important because much more changeable has been Moscow’s approach to the region.

            That approach has varied in two important ways, both of which have had an impact on identities there, Blyakher says.  On the one hand, Moscow has sometimes viewed the Far East as a defensive outpost and sometimes as a bridge to China and the Pacific region.  And on the other, the center has sometimes sought to impose its will but at other times allowed the region to drift.

            The coming together of these two trends, with Moscow increasingly wanting the region to be a bridge and to follow the center’s directives rather than living on its own as most of its residents have had to do for two decades is leading to what he calls “the ethnicization of regional discourse.”

            He says that his use of the word “ethnicization” is a metaphor intended to capture “a new phenomenon,” one in which the people in the region have developed to varying degrees “a consciousness of their special nature and separateness,” given that they have been living on their own and that Moscow is now trying to reimpose its control, something they view as threatening.

            In the 1990s, some scholars talked about “the Far Eastern Russians” (“dalrossy”) as a distinctive nationality, but he says that this idea did not spread beyond university walls.  (He points to the discussion on this in V.G. Popov’s “Far Eastern Russians as an Ethno-Cultural Type,” Rossiya na pereputye, vyp. 3 (1999).)

            But today, although such academic discussions are less frequent, the phenomenon, at least in small and mid-size cities in the region, has become more real because this “ethnicization,” the product in the first instance of propinquity to China, “is a means of the defense … of local forms of life from outside interference,” including that of Moscow.

            That development has been less prominent in the major cities of the region because there Moscow has been willing to spend enough money to dominate the political scene, but in smaller places where the center has generally allowed things to drift, residents feel themselves ever more different and ever more at odds with an increasingly assertive Moscow.

            “The collapse of the USSR, the economic crisis connected with the destruction of economic ties, and the introduction of ‘economic criteria’ for the regional economy hit the economy of the Far East, which was based on the military-industrial complex, extremely hard,” Blyakher says.

            The old economy simply died out, but what is important is that something new arose in its place, he continues. “The fall of ‘the iron curtain’ … put the Far Eastern region in the position of immediate neighborhood with global centers located in the Asian-Pacific region,” and they, largely on their own, had to cope with how to deal with that globalist challenge.

            The result, again more in smaller cities than in the major ones, was that “instead of the customary conservation and archaization of the region, it for the first time became independently part of the global economic processes.” And “globalization, with all the qualifications … became a means of survival” for people in the region, whatever Moscow thought.

            Now that the center has recovered its self-confidence and power, Moscow is trying to take control of this process from those who initiated it; and not surprisingly, the Khabarovsk scholar says, this has led to resistance among the victors so far and to talk about Moscow’s “’colonization’” of the region and the need to find a way to “’defend it against Moscow.’”

            Given this substrate of economic and political pressure, it is perhaps not surprising, Blyakher observes, that “the Far Easterners ever more strongly lay stress ont eh search for special characteristics which distinguish them from the common mass of ‘Rossiyane.’”  That is all the more so because Moscow’s turn to the East came during the political crisis of 2011-2012.

            In his 9,000-word article, the Khabarovsk scholar argues that “such a drama is breaking out today in the Far East,” and he focuses on three cities – Dalnerechensk in Primorsky kray, Amursk in Khabarovsk kray, and Birobidzhan in the Jewish AD – to show the ways local groups formed first to survive and then to defend themselves against outsiders, including Moscow.

            Blyakher does not say at least in this essay what may be the most important aspect of this development: so far, these local identities have not linked up into a regional one that could challenge Moscow. But it is clear from his argument that if Moscow continues to behave as it is now, that development is entirely possible and. from the center’s perspective, very dangerous.


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