Monday, March 20, 2017

Official ‘Ethnic Russian Nationality’ Arose Only 120 Years Ago

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 20 – Whether a civic Russian nation will ever arise is still an open question, but it is possible to specify the exact year – 1897 – when the tsarist regime recognized ‘ethnic Russian nationality’ (russkaya natsional’nost’) as an official category for one portion of the population of the Russian Empire, Mikhail Kulekhov says.

            The Siberian regionalist says that St. Petersburg took that decision when it decided to conduct its first all-imperial census. “Before this there was no such term in the Russian language.” Everyone instead was “a subject of the Russian tsar,” regardless of language, ethnicity or religion (

                What prompted the imperial authorities to make this innovation, Kulekhov continues, was that the category of “nationality” had appeared in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time where there was taking place “’a parade of nationalisms.’” But the authorities soon discovered that this change “gave rise to a plethora of problems.”

            First of all, “in many gubernias people were ‘bilingual’ and frequently spoke two or even more local languages.  How should they define themselves, as ethnic Russians or as something else? Many simply thought of themselves as subjects of the tsar and residents of a particular gubernia.

            Not surprisingly, Kulekhov says, in 1917 after the revolutions, with the liquidation of the monarchy, “in each gubernia,” people began “spontaneously to lay the groundwork for their own statehood.” Some like Poland and the Baltic states succeeded in becoming independent countries, even with leaders who spoke Russian better than their “titular” language. The others didn’t.

            “When ‘the second wave’ of the collapse of the Russian Empire (already in the format of the USSR) arrived in 1991, bearers of the word ‘Russian’ in the nationality line also were in the first ranks of the formation of the new nations.”  Today, he says, “there is no sense of talking about ‘ethnic separatism’” at all.

            But at the same time, Kulekhov argues, “there is no ‘single ethnic Russian people.’ Russians above all are a category of being subjects and now can designate a certain attachment to a civilization. Russians are those who are able to read Pushkin without a dictionary and hardly anything more than that.”

            “A nation is something entirely different;” it isn’t defined by language alone but rather by the sense of a shared “historical fate” among its members; and that sense is what is captured by Benedict Anderson’s classic formulation of the nation as “’an imagined community.’”

            No matter how many laws about the nation Moscow adopts or how many “’national conceptions’” it issues, “it is clear to all that as long as Russia exists, Kmachatka and the Primore, the Transbaikal and the Priamurye, Yurgr and the Urals remain ‘feeders’ and colonies for the Russian bureaucratic elite.”

            That is because Russia is now what it has always been: “a bureaucratic empire,” and the changes from the time of the tsars to those of the Bolsheviks to those of the democrats haven’t changed anything in that regard as a result of “its regional-geographic nature and pattern of organization.

            What after all is the Russian Federation? “The correct answer is a collection of states,” at least if one judges from the Russian constitution. “85 Russian states is the foundation in which nations are already being formed. Call them ‘proto-nations’” because in reality the process of their formation as communities of fate is only beginning.

            Adopting a law on the civic Russian nation or not adopting it doesn’t matter. Academician Valery Tishkov, a moving force behind this idea, is right when he says that “society is not very prepared for the acceptance of such a concept as a single nation uniting all nationalities.”

            No state can create something like that which doesn’t emerge organically from the bottom up, Kulekhov says; and any state that tries will discover that it is trying to do something that at best will be a failure and at worse will be counterproductive.

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