Saturday, September 17, 2016

Nations Vary Widely in Shift to Non-Ethnic Russian Identity, Tishkov Concedes

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 17 – Academician Valery Tishkov, the former head of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and current vice chairman of the Presidential council on interethnic relations, says that most residents of the Russian Federation now identify as political rather than ethnic Russians (rossiyane instead of russkiye).

            But he concedes that in Tatarstan, where he delivered his remarks, the population is evenly divided between the two and that “perhaps in Chechnya and Ingushetia, ethnic identity exceeds civic Russian identity” while in Mordvinia, civic Russian identity is greater because “the level of assimilation in favor of ethnic Russians is high” (

            Tishkov’s remarks are certain to be controversial and even offensive to many non-Russians because he so closely links Russianization and Russification of their communities to a common but not ethnic civic identity and because he dismisses their concerns about the need to do more to preserve and develop their national languages and cultures.

            Noting that Stalin had been the first peoples commissar of nationalities between 1917 and 1924 and introduced both the nationality line in Soviet passports and the division of ethnic communities into nations, nationalities, and ethnic groups, Tishkov says that he “can call himself the second” narkomnats because he served as Yeltsin’s first nationality minister. 

            Tishkov argues that “despite all the repressions and the deportation of several peoples, nationality policy in the USSR was extremely successful” because he says, as he has insisted before the evidence offered by others notwithstanding that “over the course of the 20th century not one people and not one language disappeared.”

            With regard to post-Soviet Russia, he is more critical. The ethnographer says that in the draft 1993 constitution it was said that “’we are a multi-national people of the Russian Federation’” but says that in his view, it would have been better to say that “we are a multi-people [mnogonarodnaya] nation.’”   

                Tishkov continues by saying that “for 20 years” he has been saying that “we must understand Russia as a multi-ethnic civic nation,” and he argues that “now this has become a given.” Moreover, he says, “the very idea of a single Fatherland of the Russian Federation allows for the consideration of ethnic and confessional as well as regional and local specifics.”

            Russian federalism, he suggests, was built via negotiations between Moscow and Kazan in the early 1990s of which he was a leading participant and involves the delegation of part of the authority of the state to the regions, “one of the conditions for its successful and peaceful existence today.” 

            In other comments, Tishkov suggests that “separatist attitudes are booming not in the national republics but in the heads of those who raise the issue of the need to establish a Russian Republic.” Doing that would put the country at risk just as would be the case if China called the Hans the state formers of that country. Beijing would lose Tibet and Xinjiang, he says.

            “If Russia wants to subject itself to this risk and write in the Constitution that the state-forming people is only one of the ethnic communities, then this will put all our country and all our federation at risk. There will be the temptation for the Chechens to write that the Chechens established Chechnya, the Tatars Tatarstan, and a whole chain reaction thereafter.”

            Consequently, Tishkov says, “if we want to preserve the country then we have to make certain sacrifices: we must recognize distinctions and acknowledge the special status of positive discrimination when the majority is discriminated against in favor of the minorities.”

            Moscow made that mistake in Soviet times, he argues, “when the ethnic Russian part of the population, the ruling nation, on many indicators was left behind the Balts, the Germans and so on regarding standard of living, the state of health, life expectancy and material conditions.”  That mistake must be and is being corrected.

            “In the new conception of nationality policy,” Tishkov writes, “the advantage and leading role of the ethnic Russian people, of their culture and of the Russian language” is directly asserted. As a result, “the Russian people now is also a subject of nationality policy” unlike in the past when only “minorities” were.

            Flowing from that, Tishkov explains why in his view, Russian “cannot ratify the international charter on languages because it would be very expensive to support a hundred languages at the level of higher education.” Russian must predominate and the non-Russians must become either bilingual or give up their birth languages.

            Bilingualism is “a contemporary trend,” he says, and “for the majority of Kalmyks and Buryats, Russia is a native language in a greater degree than Kalmyk or Buryat.”  That is not a problem because their respective identities “in fact do not suffer as a result,” despite the complaints of some national activists.

            Tishkov says that UNESCO’s list of language in Russia that are at risk is “completely absurd.” The UN body says almost all non-Russian language in Russia are at risk.  According to the Moscow ethnographer, only about ten are. The languages of the larger peoples, he says, are in excellent condition.  But Russia can’t support higher education in all of them.

            As for bilingualism among ethnic Russians, Tishkov says, that it is a problem, one found around the world, because “the speaker of a powerful language doesn’t want to waste his time in the study of a local one,” a formulation that may be true but that put in these terms is not only offensive but dangerous.

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