Wednesday, December 22, 2021

For Many in Russia, Language Now Less Important than Other Factors in Defining Their Ethnic Identities

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Nov. 2 – Both in Soviet times and again and even more so under Vladimir Putin, the authorities have viewed language as the most important definer of ethnic identity and insisted that when someone changes his or her language for another, he or she is undergoing assimilation to the ethnic community of the latter.

            The centricity of language in defining ethnicity in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia means that officials routinely have defined people as members of a nationality on the basis of their declared language and insisted – and this is especially true now under Putin – that the language community is more important than the nation defined in other terms.

            That has led the Kremlin leader to insist that what he calls “the Russian world” includes all those who speak Russian even if they would be listed as members of other nations were other objective or subjective measures to be used. But because of one official change in the census and the campaigns of certain ethnic groups about it, this linkage seems set to become problematic.

            On the one hand, the current Russian census allows people to declare more than one nationality, something that means they could logically have two native languages. In fact, however, they will rarely be allowed to declare more than one native language and so there will be a division between language and identity as a result.

            And on the other hand, activists from a number of non-Russian nationalities are urging people to declare themselves members of non-Russian groups and speakers of non-Russian languages, in the latter case, even if their native language is in fact Russian and they don’t know the language of the nationality they are urged to list.

            (At the same time, there are some more radical Russians who have decided to declare themselves members of non-Russian nationalities if they have anyone among their ancestors who was a member of those groups so as to reduce the percentage of ethnic Russians in the population and the ability of the Kremlin to reject the multi-national nature of the population.)

            Zoya Simbirskaya, a journalist for the IdelReal portal, reports on this phenomenon. One 42-year-old man in Chuvashia told her that he works mostly in Moscow, that his native language and that of his children is Russian, but that as far as nationality in the census is concerned, he is labelling off of them Chuvash (

            “Nationality,” the Chuvash man says, “does not necessarily require a knowledge of its language. My children seldom hear Chuvash. But they are Chuvash and their children, my grandchildren also will be Chuvash. In them is my blood and the genes of our ancestors. This is enough to consider all of us part of the people.”

            Simbirskaya spoke with one of this man’s neighbors who said much the same thing. He and his wife are Chuvash and speak the national language, but his children are “also Chuvash. The daughter knows the language but the sone doesn’t know it at all. But they grew up in this city and therefore they have this history,” he continued.

            This trend has enormous implications for the political stability of Russia. Putin and his regime are counting on Russianization to lead to Russification and believe that if they can weaken the non-Russian languages as they have been doing, they will be able to minimize non-Russian ethnic identities.

            But in fact, the reverse may be true. Non-Russians who speak Russian but identify as non-Russians may have even more experiences of conflict with members of the Russian nation. That is a worldwide pattern. After all, the British Empire was brought low not by Hindi-speaking peasants but by an English-speaking Hindu named Gandhi

            And even more relevant in this connection is another case of a former failed empire: the Irish did not become genuinely nationalistic until they mostly ceased speaking Gaelic and adopted the language of the imperial occupier instead. Now that they have won independence, the Irish are promoting Gaelic.

But the Irish remember and others do as well that they won independence not when they spoke their national language but when they spoke the language of empire.


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