Staunton, Dec. 16 – When Vladimir Putin rammed through constitutional amendments that had as their primary goal allowing him to remain in power indefinitely, many Russians were pleased by the inclusion in the amendments of a provision mentioning the language of “the state-forming nation” of the country.
While the actual text did not refer to the ethnic Russian nation as being in this role – many have suggested it refers either to Russian speakers or even all the people who are loyal to the central authorities – there is good reason why many Russian nationalists jumped at the chance to argue otherwise.
And that is this: in all the constitutions of Russia ever adopted, the Russian people has been mentioned independently a grand total of once – in the Brezhnev constitution of 1978 – and hasn’t been referred to since because the RSFSR authorities and then the Russian Federation ones dropped that reference in future basic laws.
This politically significant curiosity is discussed by Aleksandr Vereshchagin, a Russian scholar at the University of Essex who edits the Russian-language journal, Zakon (“Law”) (apn.ru/index.php?newsid=42848).
He points out that the RSFSR constitutions of 1918, 1925, and 1937 contained no reference to the Russian people as the source of power. “This was completely logical given that the chief phobia of the Soviet authorities always was Russian nationalism” or what they called “great power chauvinism.”
The constitutions of all the union republics in the 1920s followed the Marxist line that power lay with the workers and peasants rather than with any peoples. But by 1937, all the union republics at least made reference to the titular nation, all that is, except two – the RSFSR and Georgia, Vereshchagin continues.
Stalin did not want the ethnic Russians to view themselves as the true rulers of the RSFSR and he extended the same principle to Georgia, his native country. What is intriguing is that in the elaboration of the constitutions of all the other republics, this notion broke down and references were made to the titular nation as the source of power.
That is how things continued until Brezhnev’s times, the Russian legal scholar says. But in the 1978 RSFSR constitution adopted after the new Soviet one, there is the following declaration: “the formation of the RSFSR guaranteed the Russian people and all the nations and peoples of the Russian Federation favorable conditions for all-sided development.”
At the same time, however, Vereshchagin continues, the 1978 document “did not call the RSFSR a multi-national state.” At that time, “only the USSR was called that.
This reference to the Russian people did not last long. In the 1993 Constitution, which used language from the December 1990 declaration of the Congress of Peoples Deputies of the RSFSR, all references to the Russian people were dropped and instead there appeared a statement about “the multi-national nature” of the RSFSR
Specifically, the 1993 basic law declared that “the bearer of sovereignty and the source of state power in the RSFSR is its multi-national people,” without any special reference to the Russian people. “In essence,” Vereshchagin says, “’the democrats’ of the late perestroika period returned the country to ‘the Leninist norm.’”
That remains to be corrected, he suggests.