Thursday, November 17, 2016

Moscow May Impose Common Name on Russia’s Peoples But That Won’t Make Them Feel United

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 17 – Discussions about a new law on “a civic Russian nation” that Vladimir Putin is promoting have highlighted rather than overcome the negative stereotypes people in various nations and regions inside the Russian Federation currently have about each other, according to a new study.

            As Aleksandr Uspensky notes, “even if the state adopts a new name for a single people, that won’t end” the stereotypical views residents of various regions and members of various nations have about others,  many of which are longstanding and more often negative than positive (

            Using Yandex searches following the format “why” is this or that group “this or that way,” the Yodnews journalist found among other things that Russians and non-Russians on the periphery view Muscovites and European Russia as “evil,” those in the Primorsky kray as “people who speak too fast,” and people from Sakha as “beautiful.”

            That many about whom there are negative stereotypes may not be pleased is suggested by a large number of articles which have appeared complaining about them. Today offers one of the most dramatic and dangerous: It is from “Tuvinskaya Pravda” and is headlined “Why do They Take Us for Chinese?” (

Aydin Losan, a journalist for the paper, begins by recounting a conversation among Tuvins who were waiting at a rail station. Some Russians who passed by called them Chinese, an action that prompted one Tuvin to ask another: why?  The second replied “We are Tuvins and not Chinese?”

And what’s the difference the first asked? “Tuva is part of the Russian Federation and it is shameful not to know this,” the second replied. Unfortunately, Losan says, such ignorance and prejudice is not only widespread but is promoted by the educational system, the media and even government policy.

“Why do the residents of one country know nothing about their compatriots, about those whom they live next to and whom they must be prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder to defend it?” he asks rhetorically.

Today, Losan continues, “the average resident” of the central part of Russia “doesn’t know what republics are part of the Russian Federation, often mistakenly calling a Nenets or an Ingush an immigrant or a foreigners. Muscovites moreover automatically view someone of non-Slavic appearance as an immigrant or a gastarbeiter.”

“Russia is a multi-national and poly-cultural country in which officially are represented three world religions, in which live more than 160 ethnic communities who speak 174 and according to some more than 1000 languages and dialects,” he writes.  This “multiplicity” has evolved historically and makes Russia “unique.”

It has contributed to its vitality and to its defense, and consequently it is worth asking “why then have certain present-day Russians forgotten how variety and multi-faceted our country is?” Geography lessons in schools clearly aren’t sufficient to do that, and even those with university degrees sometimes ask “Isn’t Izhevsk perhaps in Belarus?”

What is interesting, Losan continues, is this: “Even the programs of federal TV channels do not give the whole picture of the Russian ethnic world. Films are mostly made by directors in the capital who in turn typically use only Moscow actors. Those actors with non-Slavic features are as a rule confined to certain “extremely specific roles” and not positive ones.

“Caucasians most of all are marginal personalities, terrorists or separatists. Asians are traders or comical people. Perhaps, I am mistaken,” he says, “but for the entire Soviet period, no Russian cinematographer made a single film the main hero of which was someone who had a non-Slavic visage.”

In the United States, Losan says, “there exists an unwritten cinematographic law according to which there must be present Afro-Americans, Asians, Hindus or Latinos. That is, all the varied representatives of American society.” There is no counterpart to this in Russian films at present.

TV is if anything worse. Not only are ethnic Russians the only ones in key roles in talk shows and serials, but there is so little news about the non-Russians that when it does occur, that is an occasion. “Even in forecasting the weather,” Moscow television “somehow forgets about the republic.” And advertising is the same. “In recent decades,” he says, he does not remember “a single advertisement with people of non-European looks.”

Indeed, the situation is so dire that not long ago, the leadership of one St. Petersburg university photoshopped a picture of students there so that a Bashkir student’s face was replaced with an ethnic Russian. That sparked Internet protests, but it reflects a far larger problem, the Tuvin journalist says.

“There are a mass of other issues” as well, he says. “For example, why in one of the most prestigious units of the Armed Forces of our country, the Kremlin regiment, are accepted only those who look Slavic?” That all contributes to ignorance of Russians about the non-Russians and that ignorance contributes to stereotypes and hostility.

In the US, there was at one point a drive to create ethnically specific television and radio channels, but that won’t work in Russia if the point is to unite all the ethnic and regional groups into a common whole.  What Russia should do, however, is “a complicated question” that requires careful  consideration and handling.

            “To decide these questions in a noisy way by raising them in the State Duma or the Government of the Russian Federation will only harm things,” Losan says.  Instead, everyone involved needs to think calmly and more forward step by step rather than in a sweeping and incautious way.
            Otherwise there will certainly be even more problems, something no one needs. And the residents of the Russian Federation should feel a common identity “not just before the Day of National Unity or the Day of Russia but in the daily weather predictions” offered now by Moscow television.

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