Monday, November 17, 2014

Window on Eurasia: An Ethnic Russian Nation Does Not Exist, Russian Nationalist Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, November 17 – Russian nationalists have long insisted that a supra-national non-ethnic Russian identity not only doesn’t exist but undermines Russian identity, but now one of their most prominent theorists is arguing the unthinkable. According to Pavel Svyatenkov, an ethnic Russian nation does not now exist while a Ukrainian nation very much does.


            Svyatenkov says in an article today that his reflections on this point have arisen both because of the divisions among those calling themselves Russian nationalists over what is taking place in Ukraine and because of the strength of “inclusive” Ukrainian nationalism, a quality that Russians must promote rather than denigrate if they are to become a nation (; also at


            Most people think that the Russian national movement is about defending “the Russian people and a single Russian identity,” Svyatenkov says, but if one considers the question more closely, it turns out that what is called “the Russian national movement” consists of “a great multitude of mini-identities,” Cossack, regional, fan clubs and the like.


            Thus, instead of being a movement itself, the Russian national movement “is in essence a union of subcultures,” something that wouldn’t be a bad thing “if the subcultures existed on the basis of a single Russian identity.”  But that is not the case. Instead, each represents its own “small ‘nation,’” and there is no larger one.


            “In other words,” Svyatenkov says, “people call themselves Russian nationalists but do this on the basis of a subculture, on that of their own mini-identity. And if Russians as a whole are a people but not a nation, the subculture [of each] begins to replace the nation” as a whole and undermines the possibility of its formation.


            Ethnic Russian identity is nor formulated clearly, something which becomes obvious if one compares it to Ukrainian identity, which is based on “consciousness” and “the acceptance of Ukrainism as an ideological anti-Russian doctrine,” which often takes the form of the conviction that “’Ukraine is not Russia,’” as Leonid Kuchma titled his book.


            A very important quality of this Ukrainian identity is its “ability to integrate outsiders: study Ukrainian and say that you are a Ukrainian and ‘welcome to the club.’”  But that is not how Russians who call themselves Russian nationalists act.  Instead, many of them are in the business of excluding people on the basis of genetic background or something else.


            At present, Svyatenkov says,  “the concept of ‘a drop of non-Russian blood’ dominates,” which means that someone who has any non-Russian ancestors won’t be accepted as a Russian even if he wants to be and which has the effect of excluding from the Russian nation even its national heroes like Pushkin and ultimately all Russians as well.


            While it “deprives Russians of Russian identity, this concept does not lead to the appearance of any new self-identification.” Instead, it reduces Russians to the status of “a nameless biomass which does not even have a self-designator” or its  own state and which is easily infected by “the virus of Soviet [-style] racism.”


            The success of Ukrainianism as an inclusive national project, Svyatenkov says, is having a demonstration effect on many of the Russian mini-cultures such as the Pomors or Sibiryaks who are beginning to think about advancing their own agendas by being welcoming to others but not about forming a single Russian nation.


            These groups have not been successful so far because “Russians are still a sufficiently homogeneous people” even if they are not a nation. “But gradually the split will grow” given that the regime views the Russian as “a Eurasian slave who does not have a Motherland” and “sooner or later” there will be “an explosion of separatism and the formation on the basis of the Russian people of several, already not Russian but possibly anti-Russian nations.”


            The logic of such groups who are “’running toward Ukrainianism’” is clear, Svyatenkov says, and it can only be opposed by an analogous effort to promote an inclusive vision of a Russian nation, one that accepts people on the basis either of their origin or their desire to be a part of it and strives to form a single nation with its own state.


            “If Russian identity is not made ‘inclusive,’” Svyatenkov warns in conclusion, “the split of Russian identity will only deepen and not only on the Ukrainian issue. It threatens to pass into the entire people. Preventing that from happening,” he says, “is our task.” But it is quite clear from his words that this will not be an easy one.


            Svyatenkov is far from the only one wrestling with this problem. In a survey of discussions by scholars and politicians about it today, Anna Bryzgalova of cites the opinions of three others who are seeking to identify what a Russian nation is or might be in the future (


            Raisa Barash, a researcher at the Moscow Institute of Sociology, argues that the problem of the Russian nation today is a reflection of the fact that “Russians were deprived of the chance to realize their right to their own ethno-subjectiveness,” that is, of their right to form their own state.


            Because of that, she says, “Russian” became a synonym of “Soviet” in Soviet times and now of “non-ethnic Russian” in post-Soviet times. Events in Ukraine this year have sparked an interest among many Russians to change that situation, but so far, the Russian state has not been willing to allow such a development.


            In Barash’s view, “Russianness is not so much an ethnic as a socio-cultural reality. However, today it bears to a significant degree a declarative character” only because of the failure of many to be able to articulate with clarity what Russian “identity” means or should mean other than in terms of the state.


            Mikhail Starshinov, the first deputy chairman of the Duma committee on nationalities, says that the only way for this to change is for “the task of the ethno-cultural development of the Russian people” to become the focus of “a separate federal program” so that the state can structure this national identity.


            But Dmitry Demushkin, one of the organizers of the Russian Marches, is doubtful that will work. The state focuses on Russians from time to time but never for very long. As a result, no real changes have come from above. Instead, he implies, they must come from within the Russian people themselves if they are to become a real nation.

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