‘Russianness’ is a ‘Synthetic Category,’ Moscow Ethnographer Says

April 6, 2014
Photo: flickr.com/people/parsival

Staunton, April 6 – “Russianness” is a “synthetic category,” one in which the father of a family can be Mordvin, the mother a German, and the children ethnic Russians, a reflection of the floating quality of identity in that country, government policies, and personal choices, according to a leading Moscow ethnographer.

In an interview with Postnauka.ru, Sergey Sokolovsky, a senior scholar at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the editor of the Etnograficheskoye Obozrenie, says that as long as nationality is defined by self-identification, it will vary among both Russians and non-Russians.

He points to the fact that “from census to census in Russia, the numbers [of people identifying with one or another nationality] change so significantly that you can’t explain this by demography alone.” Often, he says, it reflects personal choices about which identities give them the most benefits.

Thus, for example, the Moscow ethnographer reports, “certain Komis are becoming Nentsy because the Nentsy are allowed to go on a pension five years earlier, have the right to bear and acquire weapons several years earlier than do the Komi, have benefits in education, and so on.” Consequently, one should not speak about any permanently fixed identities.

That brings Sokolovsky to the more general problem of the definition of national minorities. The Russian government does not have one, he points out, and most Russian scholars simply rely on the Council of Europe Framework Convention on Minority Rights which defines such a minority as any group with less than 50 percent of the population on a given territory.

But that presents problems for the Russian Federation given its asymmetric federalism, the ethnographer says, because in the national republics, the titular nationality may or may not be the most numerous but it sees itself as having the right to dominate whatever other groups think, while in the country as a whole, ethnic Russians are the majority and all others minorities.

A further complexity, Sokolovsky says, exists “when we consider the hierarchy of power. The dominating group is the one which, participating in normal democratic procedures can impose its choice and thus guarantee its interests in the course of referenda, direct voting and the like. A minority does not have that resource.”

As a result, he continues, as various countries have found, it is necessary to introduce “compensatory mechanisms” so that minorities are able to be protected.

Lacking an official legal definition of “national minority,” Sokolovsky says, Russians typically speak of “ethnic minorities.” The difference is that “the term ‘national’ means that in general only citizens of the country are included” and not migrants from other countries who retain citizenship there.

“In this sense,” Sokolovsky says, “there is no difference between Ukrainians and Tatars” if both are Russian Federation citizens. “The difference is only in their actual interests and demands. Ukrainians inside Russia typically do not demand language rights. [But] the situation with the Tatars is quite different.” Tatar leaders want Tatar-language schools even if parents do not.

Many parents, including some Tatars and many more ethnic Russians, oppose such schools because they feel that the time devoted to Tatar language instruction is reducing time spent on other courses that will be more valuable for their children after graduation. And some of them have gone to court to defend their interests.

Moreover, even those who want Tatar language schools face a problem: it is difficult to find or prepare teachers and textbooks for such classes. That requires money “and not just political pressure. The politicians do not take all these circumstances into account,” Sokolovsky says.

The ethnographer concludes his interview with two more general but equally interesting and important observations: On the one hand, he says there are five characteristics of national minorities: cultural distinctiveness, relative size, lack of dominance, group solidarity, and citizenship in the country in which they live.

On the other, the ethnographer notes that only the term “people” (narod) has survived in Russia from the Soviet-era collection of terms, narodnost, natsiya, natsionalnost and narod. What he calls the “Stalinist trinity” of the other three “are used today only by scholars of extremely advanced age” and reflect a long-discredited Marxist view on history.