Moscow Wants a Population ‘National in Form but Russian in Content’

July 8, 2014
Putin at the Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations 3 July 2014

Staunton, July 7 – In Soviet times, Moscow’s nationality policy was based on the idea that the non-Russian nations should be “national in form but Soviet in content,” a goal intended to Sovietize them by playing up common social ideas and playing down the varieties of their cultures and one that many non-Russians saw as a threat to their futures as distinct communities.

But now the Russian government of Vladimir Putin
is seeking something different and very much more threatening. It wants to reduce the role of the non-Russian nationalities still further by making them “national in form but Russian in content,” an arrangement that would Byurchmake nationality into little more than a decoration and tourist attraction.

The reason for this move, according to Badma Byurchiyev, a commentator for, is that the Putin regime wants to make the population “’mentally unified’” because it is “easier to make such a one-dimensional mass loyal to the authorities”.

The thrust of this new, more assimilationist policy was outlined at a meeting of the Presidential Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations last Thursday. Vladimir Putin took the lead by arguing that the promotion of a new and tighter unity of the population was a precondition for the successful fight against “Nazism.”

And such unity, he suggested, could best be promoted by the elaboration of a monitoring system across the country to identify possible sources of conflicts among ethnic groups and thus to take prophylactic measures to prevent them from erupting into serious clashes that could undermine the unity of the country.

The homogenizing implications of Putin’s words were underscored by Vladimir Medynsky, Russia’s culture minister. Not only did he suggest that non-Russians should devote less time to learning their national languages and more time to studying Russian, but he argued that learning non-Russian history and culture should only be a stepping stone to learning Russian history and culture.

Medynsky presented two ideas which at a superficial level contradict one another. On the one hand, he called for reducing the amount of time non-Russians will spend studying their own languages and cultures. But on the other, he said they must “deeply study the traditions of their own people…from popular military arts to national cuisine.”

But the contradiction between these two ideas is only apparent, Byurchiyev says, because what Medynsky wants is to reduce national identity to a decoration, something others can view as an entertaining diversion rather than a set of values and ideals that hold such a community together.

In his draft on cultural policy, Medynsky asserted that “Russia…must be considered as a unique civilization incomparable to the West or to the East” and that “the enrichment of Russian culture in its interaction with the cultures of other peoples is permissible only to the extent that this does not undermine the basic value core of our culture…[in which] the Russian people was and is ‘the state-forming one.’”

In the course of the discussion of this document, those specific lines were in fact removed, Byurchiyev notes, but he insists that the underlying “tone was maintained: the people must be led to ‘mental unity’ because a one-dimensional mass is easier to make loyal to the authorities.”

If Medynsky and those who think as he does get their way, non-Russian nations will be reduced to “a decoration” and there will “finally appear a ‘mentally-unified’ people,” centered on the notion of “’an individual of the [ethnic] Russian world’” rather than “a faceless [non-ethnic] Russian.”

“It is not hard to guess” what this will mean, Byurchiyev continues. “People on the surface may all be varied, but they will be [ethnic] Russians inside.” Numerically small nations will have their own exotic cuisine or fighting styles, but they will be deprived of the culture out of which these spring.

And in this brave new world, any step to the left or to the right will be punished. In recent days, the Russian authorities have banned a film about Stalin’s deportation of peoples, cut funding to regions which are supposed to help non-Russians, and held that Tuvans are not a nationality and so no one declaring himself to be one can have a Russian passport.