Staunton, April 18 – Many Russians and others have struggled with the fact that the Russian word for ethnic Russian (russky) and the one for those who are not ethnically Russian but part of the Russian political space (rossiisky) are not the same, a reflection of the multi-national composition of the Russian state, tsarist, communist and post-communist.
Those who advocate the creation of an ethnically Russian nation state have run up against the problem that in some ways the state is too large – there are many non-Russian nations within its borders – and in others too small – there are still some millions of ethnic Russians living on the territory of neighboring states.
Until very recently, Moscow has tried to balance between these claims, generally leaning in the direction of supporting a political rather than an ethnic definition of Russianness. But now Vladimir Putin has tilted very far in the direction of an ethnic one, something that creates problems both for Russia’s neighbors and for Russia itself.
But as the editors of Nezavisimaya Gazeta point out today, the problem in Putin’s new tilt toward ethnic Russians is further complicated and potentially more explosive because the Kremlin is not embracing all ethnic Russians but at least in Crimea and Ukraine only “the socially close electorate” that has supported him in the past.
As the paper points out, “Vladimir Putin speaks about [ethnic] Russians as the most important of the divided peoples,” many call Sevastopol an Crimea “Russian” and because “Russia ‘does not surrender its own,’” comes to their defense. In this case, Russians are classified by language, and as “a significant part of the residents of south-eastern” Ukraine are Russian speakers, Putin and Moscow are treating them as “’their own.’”
This approach has boosted Putin’s standing in the polls, the paper continues, as such strategies often do. “Politicians’ appeals to ethnicity can lead to the maximum consolidation of society around this or that figure, but such superficial consolidation is not long lasting [because] it does not correspond to the complex structure of society.”
“The political elite can continue to hold onto ethnicity as a consolidating factor,” the editors say, “but in this case, the criteria of belonging to the ethnos (in [Russia’s] case, to the [ethnic] Russians constantly is being reconsidered in response to circumstances.” And that has consequences immediate and long term.
What Putin has been doing in Crimea and elsewhere is “not only about the defense of [ethnic] Russians. It is about the defense and with regard to Crimea the unification of the socially close, known, and understood Putin electorate,” an approach that means the terms “Russian” and “left electorate” are beginning to approach one another and their borders to correspond.”
But of course, “people who speak and think in Russia have a variety of views. They may be, for example, liberals, Westernizers, and opponents of the so-called large state. They may not support Russia’s policy in Ukraine. Thy may even be residents of primarily Russian-speaking regions” of that country.
They may in short “be Russian ethnically but in essence they have ceased to be that politically.” And that is so even if Putin now views Russians “politically” as those who “share a definite – conservative, leftist or event revanchist – collection of views.”
Given that, the Nezavisimaya Gazeta editors say, Moscow can either stop using ethnicity or continue to “exploit” it even as they try to make it fit their own needs and views. But the problem with that is the following: “this is divisive rhetoric which can marginalize a significant part of the citizens” who may join the opposition and prompt the regime to use force.
That this may already be happening is suggested by demonstrators in St. Petersburg last Sunday who made clear, as Novyye izvestiya reports, that not all Russians in the Russian Federation favor making “compatriots” in neighboring countries their fellow citizens but want a more selective approach even with regard to those who speak Russian.