Staunton, October 24 – The next round of the disintegration of the Russian state, Stanislav Smagin says, is far more likely to resemble what happened in 1917 than what occurred in 1991. That is, the collapse of central authority will lead to regional and not just ethnic secessions and may be followed by the partial and even rapid re-assembly of the country.
That is because, the Moscow commentator argues, in 1917, ethnic identities were in most cases relatively weak at least in comparison to 1991 when, because of Soviet promotion of ethnic identities, they were far stronger except for the ethnic Russians who by 1991 identified not ethnically but as Soviets (apn.ru/index.php?newsid=36763).
Smagin cites the research of A. Savedyev and B. Vingogradov who reported in their boo, “Becoming Russian in Russia,” no more than 30 percent of those the state counted as Russians by nationality were in fact “ethnic Russians” who knew little of “the history, culture, traditions and faith of the Russian people.”
That figure was far lower that the case of the non-Russians, especially in the union republics, who were encouraged by their own officials more or less all the time and by Moscow on occasion to think in ethnic terms as well as Soviet ones. But even among these groups, there were many who were effectively not ethnically tied to their nations.
As a result, when the central government of the USSR weakened, the Russians were too weak in self-identification to hold the country together or try to reconquer it immediately while the non-Russians in the union republics at least were largely if not completely mobilized on ethnic grounds and claimed independent statehood.
Within the Russian Federation, there were some regional movements, most prominently in the Urals, but they did not really take off, Smagin says; and Moscow was gradually able to tighten the noose against them, although it has never completely eliminated regionalist attachments and goals.
The situation in Russia 74 years earlier was entirely different, he argues. Russian identity was state focused but when the state disintegrated, Russians split into warring camps and to a large extent moved to promote regional identities like Siberia or Cossack, and most non-Russians, the Balts, Finns, and Poles are the exceptions, were unable to mobilize as effectively.
Some were independent for a time, as in the case of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, but they were reconquered by the ideologically driven Red Army (but not by an ideologically defined ethnic Russian nation) as were within four or five years almost all of the former Russian Imperial space.
The situation now is more like 1917 than 1991 with respect to ethnic issues, Smagin continues; but the crisis is still some time away because despite the decay of nationality policy, “the situation with regard to national separatism in Russia has still not achieved the level of 1990-1991.”
There are three reasons that is the case. First, “the general state crisis has not reached the level” of 26 years ago. Second, “the share of Russians in the Russian Federation is significantly higher than was the case in the USSR,” and despite their passivity, their self-consciousness is greater than it was in 1991 and thus can serve as the basis for moves against the non-Russians.
And third, “the former autonomies and republics inside the RSFSR became in the Russian Federation became in the Russian Federation analogues of ‘first-rank’ Soviet republics only a quarter of a century ago,” a third of the time given to the union republics to promote identity and the demand for independence.
Chechnya and Tatarstan were partial exceptions, but they have been reined in by force and by geography and clever policies. As a result, he argues, separatism is less an immediate threat than a long-term one, something that Moscow may have to deal with not this year or next but sometime in the future.
He makes two further points which again suggest that the future will be more like 1917 than 1991 as far as disintegration is concerned. On the one hand, the government itself is increasingly showing itself incapable of running the country. And on the other, regions are emerging as an even more important factor than ethnic republics.
Smagin points to three in particular: Kaliningrad, the Cossack North Caucasus, and the Urals in general and Sverdlovsk Oblast in particular. All of these pose challenges to the territorial integrity of Russia because they are supporting alternate paths of development and even more important alternate identities, not so much ethnic as regional.