Saturday, November 23, 2019

Three Moscow Views on Nationality Issues Certain to Worry Non-Russians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 20 – Three of Moscow’s most influential specialists on ethnicity – Valery Tishkov, Vladimir Zorin, and Leokadiya Drobizheva – discussed some of the most sensitive issues in that field at a small conference at Moscow State University this week. Their views individually and collectively will disturb many non-Russians and some Russians as well.

            The conference did not attract a large audience or much media attention but the remarks of the three were covered in some detail by Kazan’s Business-Gazeta ( Its report is likely to be picked up and discussed by outlets in many non-Russian parts of the country. 

            Academician Tishkov, former nationalities minister and former director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology and a close advisor to Vladimir Putin on nationality and language issues, devoted most of his time to a discussion of the problems of the last two Russian censuses and those of the upcoming 2020 enumeration.

            In the 2002 and 2010 censuses, he says, there were clear distortions with the non-Russian republic governments boosting the numbers and shares of the titular nationality at the expense of other non-Russians and ethnic Russians.  This was a manifestation of ethno-nationalism because “if you increase someone, someone else will be reduced.”

            Tishkov also complained the Russian Duma has not corrected a shortcoming in the earlier censuses which reduced their accuracy. Because census takers are still going to be allowed to rely on government records when they cannot or do not speak to individuals, that will lead to undercounts of many things, including ethnic identity.

            In 2010, the census reported that there were 5.6 million residents of Russia without a nationality, he said. “In fact, those 5.6 million citizens from whom the census did not get data on nationality and those who did not indicate their nationality … are different things entirely” and the difference distorts the overall picture.

            One would expect censuses to miss some people, perhaps a million in the case of the Russian Federation; but not 5.6 million, Tishkov continued.  These undercounts hit the major nations like the Russians or the Tatars especially hard. He also complained about the creation of subgroups for various nationalities as a useless complication.

            But the academician devoted most of his time to the issue of whether those enumerated could declare more than one nationality or language.  “We have a sufficiently large stratum of people who are offspring of mixed marriages and in equal decree speak two languages,” the ethnographer said.

            “Today,” Tishkov said, “bilingualism is characteristic for at least dozens if not more millions of Russians, especially people of non-Russian nationality and from those who come from the Volga region and the Caucasus who in varying degrees speak two languages. And the language of the father and the language of the mother are native for them.”

            “The logic that one’s native language is the language of your nationality reduces the number of bearers of Russian as native among the non-Russian population. Kalmyks, Buryats, Karels, and Mordvins speak Russian above all, and only then if they know it, the language of their own nationality. This isn’t reflected in the census,” and that distorts things.

            Tishkov concluded by saying that non-ethnic civic Russian identity is not about “denying the existence of nations.”  We aren’t trying to force everyone into a single homogenous identity: civic Russian national identity is “a complex formula of self-identification.”

            Vladimir Zorin, another former nationalities minister and deputy director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology responsible for the institute’s work with public organizations, stressed that Vladimir Putin’s 2012 essay, “Russia: the Nationality Question,” had played “an important role” in improving ethnic relations in the country.

            “We confirm that the multi-national people of the Russian Federation and the [non-ethnic] Russian nation are synonyms,” Zorin said, arguing that ‘we insistently recommend to everyone to use this in their daily conversations but up to now, he added with regret, many senior officials have not done so.

            And Leokadiya Drobizheva, a longtime specialist on ethnic issues in the USSR and the Russian Federation who is now a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, said that the situation with regard to ethnic issues in Russia has improved markedly over the past generation.

            “Many young people may not know but those who are older are aware that in the Constitution, there existed the right to self-determination and the possibility of withdrawing from the country. Therefore, we have tried to eliminate the terms ‘nation’ and ‘national self-determination’ and have replaced the word ‘nation’ with ‘ethnicity.’”

            The same thing is true with the term ‘ethnic federalism,” Drobizheva continued. “I am an advocate that that term should be used more rarely. According to the Constitution, we do not have national republics. One should recognize this more often. We have Russian republics, not national ones!” 

In all republics and constitutions, they are proclaimed in the name of the people of the republic,” she pointed out. Yet another terminological change is that “accord” has increasingly replaced the term “tolerance” because the latter has a negative connotation for many given its links to homosexuality and pedophilia.

And in conclusion, Drobizheva said, the status of ethnic Russians is changing as well. Instead of being “’the elder brother’” to all the others, Russians are now to be “equal partners” with them. 

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