Thursday, July 4, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Identity No Longer Primary One for Russians, Tishkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 4 – Russians increasingly identify themselves not in ethnic terms but in others, a development that the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology says should not lead anyone to conclude in “alarmist” terms that ethnic Russians are “losing their self-identification.”

            Instead, Valery Tishkov told a Moscow roundtable yesterday, “contemporary enlightened people have other identities such as civic or professional” which may be more significant, adding that “in our world there are many flexible and dynamic identifications” and ethnicity “is only one of them” (

            On the one hand, the academician’s words reflect his longstanding commitment to the promotion of a common non-ethnic civic identity among people of all ethnic backgrounds in the Russian Federation.  But on the other, they appear to be a response to recent expressions of concern among some commentators that Russian ethnic identity is weak and fragmented.

            But whatever his motivation in this case, Tishkov’s statement yesterday is certain to produce a firestorm of reaction among Russian nationalists who have long argued that he and the Russian government behind him are not doing as much to support ethnic Russian national identifications as they are to back existing non-Russian ones.

            Tishkov appears to anticipate that. He argued that “without the introduction in the regions of contemporary life, the desired ethno-cultural rebirth [of the Russian nation] won’t happen,” adding that “if we want to see a real rebirth of Russian culture and traditions, we must integrate the Russian village to the maximum extent possible into the social-cultural life of Russia.”

            Further, the Moscow ethnographer said, again in apparent anticipation of what his nationalist critics will say, the recently approved nationality strategy document “talks a lot about the need to work for the unity of the [non-ethnic] Russian nation but doesn’t say how” this is to be achieved.

            He suggested that “one of the directions” that such work should proceed would involve investments “in the development of [ethnic] Russian provinces and villages,” and he said that “without literate scientific-enlightenment work on the ethnic history of Russia … the rebirth of traditional cultures of the peoples of the country will hardly go forward.”

            Tishkov’s reference to the strategy document, of course, touches on a neuralgic issue for Russian nationalists.  They remain extremely upset that in deference to the non-Russian population in the country, the authors of that strategy, including Tishkov, dropped references to “the state-forming role” of the ethnic Russians and referred only to their “unifying role.”

            Another participant at the roundtable, Sergey Chernov of Moscow State University, observed in the words of the report that “the striving for national identification” in Russia today “divides people rather than unites them,” something that could be overcome only by promoting “modernization.”

            Tishkov readily agreed with Chernov, but many Russian nationalists will not, seeing such statements as yet another indication that Moscow today is no friend of the ethnic Russian nation, a conclusion that is likely to lead more of them to explore non-Moscow-centric identities such as Siberian regionalism and thereby weaken a common ethnic Russian national identity still further.

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