Staunton, September 26 – Rashit Akhmetov, the editor of the Kazan weekly Zvezda Povolzhya, says that Vladimir Putin’s promotion of the idea of a “Russian world” is the death knell for a civic Russian identity and that this, combined with his authoritarian and great power chauvinist approach, is exacerbating ethnic identities of Russians and non-Russians alike.
In this week’s issue of his paper (no. 35 (715), September 25-October 1, pp. 1-2), the Tatarstan editor says that efforts to promote such a non-ethnic civic identity for residents of Russia over the past two decades have never been very successful because they are roughly equivalent to the promotion of Esperanto as a universal language and the Soviet people as an identity.
Just as an Institute of Literature cannot create a Pushkin at will, Akhmetov says, identities have to be born and grow on their own. Efforts to promote them typically fail. Esperanto was never widely accepted despite early Soviet interest in it, and few identified as part of the Soviet people. Had it been otherwise, the USSR would not have disintegrated so quickly.
Many assume that Valery Tishkov, the former Russian nationalities minister and current director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, came up with the idea for a civic Russian identity on the basis of the Soviet people, but in fact, the Tatar editor says, the academician did so by drawing on the American experience.
But in doing so, Tishkov and his government backers failed to take into account the enormous difference between the United States and the Russian Federation. The US is a young immigrant-based society consisting of people who have already by coming from somewhere else signaled their willingness to adapt and change.
The peoples within the Russian Federation in contrast are nations with long histories of their own who were conquered or otherwise absorbed. And that second aspect is equally important in explaining why a “melting pot” model simply won’t work in the Russian case: Unlike the US which has won over people to a common identity by a remarkable level of tolerance of diversity, the Russian state has sought to impose one and thus kept people apart.
Neither the Russian Empire nor the Soviet Union was capable of becoming a melting pot society. Instead, their populations remained ethnically defined, and the more pressure the regime has imposed on people, the greater the likelihood that they will value their own distinctive identities and go their own way.
And that pattern continues: 23 years after the disintegration of the USSR, Russia’s leadership has proclaimed the existence of “a Russian world,” a distinctly ethnic concept and Russians and Ukrainians, two nations which historically were extremely close, are now fighting a war with each other.
Indeed, that war itself says a lot about the different ethno-national futures of Russia and other countries, Akhmetov says. Ukraine is not trying to create a non-ethnic “Ukrainian” identity like the one Tishkov and others have promoted for Russia. Instead, Ukraine accepts the existence of a variety of ethnic groups within its population and wins support from them because it does.
Moscow in contrast by continuing to press for a single “supra-national” identity clearly does not accept their distinctiveness, and thus from the point of view of non-Russians represents a threat to their existence. As a result, Akhmetov concludes, Tishkov’s idea of “Rossiyane” has finally collapsed with Putin’s “Russian world” and his “Novorossiya” project.