Saturday, January 21, 2017

‘A People within a People’ – the Pomor Challenge to a Broader Russian Ethnic Identity

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 21 – Even as Moscow seeks to promote a broader ‘civic Russian identity’ in the Russian Federation, a reverse process is taking off within the ethnic Russian nation itself as more and more sub-ethnic groups demand the status of an official nationality and the benefits that status confers.

            And while this process which in most but not all cases is taking place far from Moscow has attracted relatively little attention, it represents a serious challenge to the continued existence of an ethnic Russian nation and thus to any possibility that the Kremlin can hope to use that predominant group as the basis for creating a civic one.

            The largest of these sub-ethnic communities, at least from Moscow’s point of view, include the Cossacks and the Siberians; but as is often the case, the experiences of the smaller ones can be more instructive because discussions of them can focus on questions that the importance of the bigger ones makes politically impossible.

            Among the smaller but nonetheless important of these groups within the Russian “nation” are the Pomors of the Russian Far North, and they are the subject of an important new article by Anatoly Bednov on the After Empire portal entitled “A People within a People” (

            Although they have existed as a distinct community for more than a millennium, the Pomors are not yet “officially recognized as an ethnic community,” something that is “a vital necessity” if they are to survive and if Russia is to retain any population at all in its extreme northwest, the analyst says.

            The Pomors, he continues, “are a subethnic group of the Great Russians just as are the Cossacks, the Siberians, the Old Believers, or the isolated peasants of Southern Rus.”  They have their own dialect, their own culture, and their own traditions, all of which set them apart from the usual definition of the ethnic Russian nation.

            Among these differences, Bednov says, are a longer tradition of literacy, higher social status for women, a distinctive religious tradition, a greater commitment to “honest dealings and to democracy, self-organization and entrepreneurialism” and even a separate language based on interaction with Norwegians.

            The Pomors are not numerous at least according to Russian censuses. In 2002, there were 6500 of them; in 2010, about half that number. The decline reflected not genocide but the decisions of Pomors to declare themselves Russian Pomors or Pomor Russians and of the census takers in the latter year to re-identify them as Russians if they did so.

            Bednov points out that few have noticed that alongside the Russian Pomors are the Kaninskiye Pomors, a group which “arose as a result of mixed marriages with the Nentsy,” one of the recognized numerically small peoples of the North with its own territory on the Yamal peninsula.

            Some consider Pomor demands for recognition as a people and for the rights that flow to such communities under the terms of Russian laws on the peoples of the North as simply the work of foreign “agents” who supposedly want to seize this territory or the aspirations of ethnic activists to gain power for themselves.

            But those views are not only wrong-headed but dangerous, and they ignore the fact that elsewhere in the Russian North, communities linked with or even part of the Russian nation have been recognized. In Sakha, for example, the ethnic Russian subethnic groups, the Russko-Ustintsy and the Pokhodchans,” are defined as “peoples within a people” and given benefits.

            “In the final analysis,” Bednov says, “the Soviet term ‘nationality’ and the world-wide term ‘ethnic community’ (which by the way is in the Constitution of the Russian Federation) are in no way synonymous: the latter includes a far broader circle of human communities” and opens the way to their separate identities and legal recognition.

            “If the Pomors were to have the preferences which the indigenous numerically small peoples of the North” already have, many of their problems would disappear. But “today the law does not allow the Pomor community to register for it was not written for longtime Russian residents,” officials say.

            He warns: “if the authorities will continue to ignore the Pomors, then with time, the last of the Mohicans of the Russian Arctic will die out or leave, and territories without people often have new competitors for their control.” In short, Bednov suggests, by not recognizing the Pomors, Moscow is creating the problem it says its “hurrah patriots” say they fear.

            Since 2011, Moscow has in fact attacked the Pomor movement; and at the same time, the Pomors have gotten got up in an ugly competition for resources between Arkhangelsk and Murmansk with the two regional capitals exchanging charges about them and their supposed “separatism.”

            Bednov concludes with a warning: “It is difficult in Russia to be part of the Russian ethnos; it is simpler to attach oneself to autochthonian groups. If one doesn’t, one won’t survive.”  The Pomors recognize this; and some of them are now turning to the Saami – and to the Saami parliament abroad, hardly what Moscow wants or needs.

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