Saturday, March 28, 2020

On Nationality Issues, Khodorkovsky and Putin are Remarkably and Dangerously Similar, Sidorov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 24 – Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Putin, who are correctly seen as polar opposites on most issues of democracy and freedom, share remarkably similar views on nationality issues, a commonality that should disturb both non-Russians and ethnic Russians alike, Kharun Sidorov says.

            The Prague-based Muslim Russian analyst says that this similarity is striking if one examines Khodorkovsky’s new online book, A New Russia or Gadarika: Ten Commandments for Russia of the 20th Century (in Russian at and especially its key chapter,  “Empire or Nation State.”

            In a detailed, 4800-word essay, Sidorov shows using extensive quotations from Khodorkovsky’s new study and Putin’s various speeches and articles just how similar the views of the two are on the nationality question in general and on the ethnogenesis and meaning of the ethnic and non-ethnic Russian nation (

            Khodorkovsky argues, Sidorov begins, that Russia faces a choice between remaining an empire or becoming a nation state, but his understanding of the latter gives the non-Russians and in a way even the Russians fewer choices than if the latter is established on the Jacobin model of homogenization he proposes – and that Putin shares. 

            “The nation state,” the Russian opposition leader says, “is a state of all the peoples of Russia who express the desire and will to become its co-creators. It has nothing in common with a state which offers privileges on the basis of blood or belief. But,” he continues, “it cannot ignore the simple fact that the political space on which is has arisen was formed with the active participation of the ethnic Russian people and on the basis of its culture.”

            At its core, this is not really different from what Vladimir Putin wants to insert in the Russian Constitution when his amendment calls for declaring that “the state language of the Russian Federation on all its territory is the Russian language as the language of the state-forming people included in a multi-national union of equal peoples of the Russian Federation.”

            The similarities between the two men are even clearer if one considers Putin’s words in his Strategy of State Nationality Policy. There he says “the goals of the state nationality policy of the Russian Federation are … the rooting of an all-Russian civic self-consciousness and the spiritual commonality of the multi-national people of the Russian Federation (the non-ethnic Russian nation).”

            In short, the views of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Putin on the Russian language as the integrator of the peoples of Russia into a non-ethnic Russian nation are identical,” Sidorov says. Moreover, and like Khodorkovsky, Putin has never declared his goal to be the creation of a Russian empire but rather a single people in a single state.

            There is another way in which the two have much in common. While others believe that self-determination is an open-ended right inherent in peoples, both Khodorkovsky and Putin believe that all the peoples within the current borders of the Russian Federation have already expressed their right to self-determination in becoming forever part of it.

            That is not what the peoples of Russia said in 1918 at the Constituent Assembly, and it is not what they have declared in the 1993 Constitution. The latter begins “We, the multi-national people of Russia,” “not, ‘We, the non-ethnic Russian nation.’”

            It should not really come as any surprise that Khodorkovsky takes this position. After all, shortly after he was freed from prison, he told Yevgeniya Albats that he was not prepared to countenance even a peaceful separation of Chechnya from Russia but would if things came to that be quite ready to go and fight to keep Chechnya within Russian borders.

            “If the question is the separation of the North Caucasus or war, then this means war. And if you ask me personally whether I would fight, I would. For the North Caucasus. This is our land; we conquered it,” Khodorkovsky said. Putin would not have responded any differently, Sidorov suggests.

            Some may not see the difference between “multi-national people” and “multi-people nation,” but those who oppose them understand that difference immediately. The first recognizes states that continue to retain their rights; the second views these peoples as having the right to autonomy at best and being candidates for assimilation in the end.

            In his “manifesto,” Sidorov continues, “Khodorkovsky does not conceal that he intends to take from the peoples of Russia the results of the realization by them of self-determination, the very thing which the Constituent Assembly and Constitution to which he appeals in fact recognized.”

            In the future Russian nation state, he writes, “megalopolises will become territorial centers: the capitals of new structural formations – the lands.”  Those will replace the existing oblasts, krays and republics and make it impossible for the nations within the borders of the Russian Federation to be able to realize any of the right of self-determination.

            In short, the future Khodorkovsky wants to see is not that different from the one Putin is seeking to put into practice, a future in which there won’t be ethnically defined republics reflecting the aspirations of the peoples involved but rather territories created by the center for its convenience and not based on any recognition of their rights.

            If this is a direct threat to the non-Russians in the thinking of both Khodorkovsky and Putin, the two men also converge on another aspect of the nationality question, their views of Russians, Russian ethnogenesis, and Russian state continuity.

            Both of them are “followers of a single line of the construction of the non-ethnic Russian nation and its nation state which was formulated in the same circles and at the same time,” Sidorov says. Those were the followers in the early 1990s of Gleb Pavlovsky and Stanislav Belkovsky. They later broke with the government but many of their followers remained.

            They advanced the idea of a non-ethnic civic Russian nation in order to oppose all political movements which called themselves ethnic Russian nationalists and sought to label them all “’Russian fascists.’”  To that end, they were prepared to “de-ethnicize” the Russian nations, reducing it to those who spoke Russian and were loyal to Moscow.

            They talked about the historical continuity of Russians from Kievan times to the present and made Russian-speaking state loyalists the only true members of the non-ethnic Russian nation they wanted to create.  Others including Putin and now it appears Khodorkovsky as well continue their arguments.

            Despite the similarities of the views of Khodorkovsky and Putin, there is one big difference: Khodorkovsky wants to achieve his ends, he says, by democratic means in which everyone will have a choice. Putin in contrast has no use for democracy except as a decoration and deception and is prepared to use force.

            That ensures that Khodorkovsky’s goals would not be achieved unless he was prepared as he may well be to use force, while it makes possible that Putin’s could be because he is committed to the use of force from the outset. But the consequences for non-Russians and Russians alike as nations are dire in either case, Sidorov suggests.

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