Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Pomors, Seen in Moscow as Ethnic Russians, Gain Backing for Being Treated as Distinct Nation

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 26 – There are important variations within what Moscow defines as the ethnic Russian nation, but especially in recent years, the center has sought sometimes with success and sometimes not to suppress them lest such differences lead to the emergence of groups who claim to be a distinct nation.

            Moscow has at least two fears. On the one hand, the emergence of such groups as nations would have the effect of cutting into ethnic Russian majority in the country, a majority that has been in decline since the USSR came apart. And on the other, the appearance of such nations would cast doubt on Kremlin claims about the monolithic quality of the Russian one.  

            Some of the groups are quite large, such as the Siberians, who number in the millions; but most are smaller, with only a few thousand people involved. But given the centrality of ethnicity as a flashpoint even in Putin’s system, even the aspirations of the latter for acceptance as nations represents a serious problem.

            In many ways, the people who are the litmus test of where the Russian authorities are on this issue are the Pomors, a traditional fishing community who live on the seacoast near Arkhangelsk and who number from just over 3,000 according to the 2010 census to several times that number according to activists.

            Over the last decade, members of the Pomor community have sought the status of a separate nation; and Moscow has responded by charging those who do so with various crimes including treason and making it clear that they are ethnic Russians and nothing else. (See windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2017/01/a-people-within-people-pomor-challenge.html).

            Now, however, it appears that the Pomors have gained a new advocate in Moscow,  although as Vzglyad reports, he faces serious opposition from Academician Valery Tishkov, former head of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology and a close advisor to Vladimir Putin (vz.ru/news/2018/11/22/951709.html).

            Andrey Babushkin, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, says that in his view, the Pomors are “a separate and self-standing people” and should enjoy all the special benefits that the Russian government offers the numerically small peoples of the North.  He is calling for regional authorities to conduct research to confirm that fact.

            “It must not be allowed to happen that peoples who have existed over the course of many years should disappear from the face of the earth. But independently of whether the Pomors are recognized as an ethnos or not, it is necessary that the Russian settlers in the north get the very same guarantees which the indigenous numerically small peoples of the North now do.”

            Babushkin, who some have suggested is pushing this idea because of supposed attachment to the Old Believers says the Sakha Republic’s approach to such groups hould at a minimum be extended to the Pomors in the Arkhangelsk area. There is no basis for making a distinction, he argues in a blog post (president-sovet.ru/members/blogs/post/3500/).

            Varvara Osipova, the press secretary of the Presidential Human Rights Council, says that Babushkin is expressing his personal opinion and in no way that of the Council as a whole.  But the leading opponent of his position is Tishkov, who says that “the Pomors are in no way a separate people or a minority.” They are “one of the forms of identity of the ethnic Russians.”

            “In the census,” the academician continues, the Pomors “are counted as Russians just as the Cossacks are. They can be separated out as a special ethnographic variant connected with historical tradition but this is in no way makes them a separate people.”

            Moreover, Tishkov continues, the law on numerically small peoples does not provide support for all peoples numbering fewer than 50,000 but only to those who continue to live according to their traditional way of life.  Many smaller groups don’t, and they aren’t given any special benefits.

            But Mikhail Todyshev, a specialist on the rights of the indigenous peoples of the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East, notes that “the Pomors have for a long time aspired to having the rights which are given to [the others] extended to them. And this is based on their way of life and traditional economic activity.”

            “Naturally, not having any defense, [the Pomors] are exposed to the take over of their land by industrial development and this represents for them a serious threat.” In  his view, deciding whether they are a separate ethnos or not is less important than providing them with the assistance they need.

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