Imagining Russia: ethnic identity and the nationalist mind


Could it be that the various ways in which Russians long for unity ("edinstvo," "vseedinstvo," "tsel'nost'," "Monument edineniia," etc.) somehow reflect an underlying biological unity of the Russians?
No sooner is the question asked than it must be answered in the negative. There is no known way to identify "the Russians" anatomically, physiologically, or genetically. This is so if only because the biological heritage of Russians is extremely diverse. It is a commonplace of Russian historical thinking to observe that Russians descend not only from Russians, but also from such heterogeneous groups as Finns, Ukrainians, Tatars, Mongols, Germans, Swedes, etc. Even in the heart of European Russia, in the area around Moscow and the upper Volga, the local Russians are described by ethnographers as having a decidedly mixed ancestry. But such is typically the case with ethnic groups and nationalities, as Walker Connor has demonstrated, for all over the world "the sense of unique descent" is a "myth" which tends not to accord with factual history.
Among Russian nationalists it has been the Eurasianists who have been the most willing to recognize the mixed genetic roots and the assimilationist background of Russians. For example, in the 1920s emigre Prince Trubetskoi wrote about the "Turanian" element in the history of the Russian ethnos. This somewhat ill-defined category was very large and very diverse, and (to use Trubetskoi's classification) included: Finno-Ugric peoples, such as Finns, Estonians, Mordvinians, and Magyars, as well as some extinct groups such as the Ves and Meria; the Samoyeds; Turkic peoples, such as the Turks, Tatars, Meshcheryaks, Bashkirs, Turkmen, Uzbeks, the extinct Khazars, etc.; Mongols, including the Kalmyks and Buriats; Manchus, including the Tungus and Gold. According to Trubetskoi, Russians interbred with all of these ethnic groups: "Cohabitation of Russians with Turanians runs through all of Russian history;" "the connection of the Russians with the 'Turanians' is established not only ethnographically, but also at the level of physical anthropology, for without a doubt, along with Slavic and Finno-Ugric blood, Turkic blood flows in Russian veins." In Trubetskoi's estimation, Russians should be just as proud of their "Turanian" as of their Slavic background. They should not be ashamed of their relations with their "Turanian brethren."
Trubetskoi's "Turanian" category may itself be "highly questionable," as Riasanovsky says, but the point about the mixed ancestry of today's Russians is well taken. Where lineages are recorded, interbreeding can easily be proven. The first extensive investigation in this area was carried out in the nineteenth century by Evgenii Petrovich Karnovich. Karnovich observed that, during the reign of Catherine II, the standard formula utilized in the genealogical records for tracing the family names of Russian nobility was: "Left for Russia from such-and-such place in the service of such-and-such grand duke." In other words, it seems that most of the Russian nobility was of foreign extraction.
Karnovich offers numerous examples of what he terms "blending of Russians with foreigners." The Sheremet'evs, Saltykovs, and Morozovs are all descendants of Prussian immigrants. The Apraksins trace their ancesty to a Tatar, the Tolstoys - to a German, the Golovins - to a Greek. The Likhachevs and Likhovichi descend from a Lithuanian. The Khomutovs derive from the English name Hamilton, likewise the poet Lermontov descends from a Scot named Learmont (plus a Tatar on his mother's side). The Urusov princes descend from the famous Tatar Edigei. General Kutuzov of Napoleonic war fame was of German ancestry. Poet Denis Davydov had an ancestor who was a Tatar murza. Count Rostopchin was a Tatar by origin. The Orlov counts of Catherine's time were German in origin. The poet Derzhavin descended from the Tatar murza Bagrim, while nationalist poet and historian Nikolai Karamzin was also of Tatar ancestry. Playwright Aleksandr Griboedov was Polish in background, poet Zhukovskii was Turkish on his mother's side, and the great Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin descended from a German on his father's side and an Ethiopian on his mother's side. These are only a few of Karnovich's examples, and his examples themselves constitute only a sampling.
George Vernadsky, a historian who has investigated Rus' and Russia in more scholarly depth than any of the other Eurasianists, speaks of the "melting pot of Russian civilization with its heterogeneous ethnic elements." Vernadsky comments that it is "both paradoxical and typical" that "the 'Westernizer' Chaadaev was of Mongol extraction and 'Slavophile' Aksakov family was of Varangian ancestry" (the names themselves are both of Turkic/Tatar origin). Andreas Kappeler's more recent survey of the history of the multinational Russian Empire emphasizes the Tatar origins of many "Russian" gentry in the eighteenth century. Mere enumeration of some well-known Russian names of Turkic/Tatar linguistic origin should give pause: Arakcheev, Artsybashev, Bakhmet'ev, Berdiaev, Karamzin, Kochubei, Muratov, Musin, Nazarov, Saltykov, Tiutchev, Shakhmatov, Sheremet'ev, and others.
The historical fact of interbreeding between Rusians/Russians and Mongols/Tatars is a particularly sore spot for some. Russians lament their past relations with this imprecisely defined alien class when they speak of the Mongol-Tatar yoke ("mongolo-tatarskoe igo"). Georgii Fedotov goes so far as to speak of a "Tatar Rus'" ("Tatarskaia Rus'"), and asserts: "Not from without, but from within the Tatar element took possession of the soul of Rus', penetrated its flesh and blood." Russian thinkers sometimes blame the "uncivilized" character features of their own ethnos on the Mongol-Tatars, as when Vladimir Kantor speaks of the "internal Steppe" within Russians and the "steppe element in the Russian" - especially within the Bolshevik Russian - which resulted from "imitation of the Mongol system of rule." Ever since the "secondary barbarization" of Russia under the Mongol-Tatars, according to Kantor, Russians have been seeking a way out of this "most difficult situation of a non-historical and countercivilized conduct of life."
Yoke or no yoke, barbarization or not, interbreeding with the peoples of the steppe is a fact of Russian history. As the proverb has it: "Scratch a Russian and you'll find a Tatar" - "and the reverse," as Lev Gumilev sensibly adds. After all, it has always taken two to tango.
Specialists in physical anthropology in Russia have granted that there is much genetic variety in the background of today's Russians, yet have also insisted on the existence of a Russian physical "type." For example, V. V. Vorob'ev, writing in 1900, characterized the "physical type of the contemporary Great Russian" as possessing, among other features, eyes ranging from dark to light, greater than average stature, moderate brachycephaly (short-headedness), and "well-proportioned and well-developed limbs."
V. V. Bunak and his colleagues at the Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnography and the Institute of Anthropology at Moscow State University undertook a massive study of the physical characteristics of about 17,000 adult Russians during the 1950s. The characteristics measured included body length, hair and eye color, and various facial and cranial features. The results of this study are reported in numerous tables, graphs, and maps of regions within European Russia. The investigators discerned some 12 regional physical "types" of Russians. They also found what they believed was a "general Russian type" ("obshchii russkii tip"), although nowhere in the study is it made clear just what the overall distinguishing features of this "type" are. At most the authors point to certain features, such as nasal height, which supposedly differs from that of "Western European groups." Some passages in the study seem to contradict the idea of a "general Russian type," e.g.: ". . . despite the fact that the formation of the Russian population took place on a relatively uniform [physical] anthropological basis, to a significant extent not only morphological but also genetic variations entered into its composition." In other words, elements of "local pre-Slavic groups," i.e., non-Slavic elements, entered into the composition of the Russian population. This study, almost despite itself, leaves the impression that the Russians are not a coherent group in any biological sense.
The impression is correct. "The Russians" cannot really be described in a physical anthropological sense. There is no such thing as "the Russian race" ("russkaia rasa") - to utilize anti-Semite Vasilii Shul'gin's expression. Pavel Miliukov understood this already in 1929: "to speak about the 'racial' differences of nationalities in our time would be an impermissible anachronism revealing inadequate knowledge of current scientific knowledge." "The Russians" simply do not exist as a coherent biological or genetic entity. There is no blood test or genetic diagnostic for "Russianness." The Human Genome Project (and the associated Human Genome Diversity Project) will not be isolating a gene or gene configuration for "Russian" - or for any other ethnic group or nationality for that matter. This is because modern geneticists have already found that diversity within human populations today is biologically more significant than differences between populations. That is, genetic differences between individuals tend to be much greater than genetic differences between putative racial or ethnic units. When patterns of diversity form over a geographic area, they tend to be clinal rather than racial. Unlike many other animal species, humans never did split into genetically isolated races or supspecies. The demographers and census takers are wise to rely on the reports of their subjects, and to avoid biology.
Russian nationalists from earlier periods may perhaps be excused for making ignorant assertions such as: ". . . mixed Russian-Jewish marriages place the Russian race - the weaker in terms of blood - in danger, in danger, that is, of being swallowed up by the Jewish race." But today's Russian nationalists (for example, members of the Russian National Unity Party) who long for endogamy, inveigh against mixed marriages, and who worry about the "purity of the gene pool of the Russian nation" ("chistota genofonda Russkoi Natsii") are simply ignorant of contemporary biology. Russians are not a "race" with any definable "gene pool," but an ethnic group. There is no such thing as a Russian either by blood or by genes - the former being just a metaphor for the latter. There is only a relatively poorly-isolated, genetically highly diverse population which has been in existence for a biologically trivial period of time, 20-30 generations at most. Scratch a Russian, then, and you will find neither a Tatar nor a Russian, but a psychosocial construct.
No doubt certain gene-frequencies do change among people who consider themselves Russian when particularly large population changes occur, such as the emigration of the Dukhobors, extermination of the Kulaks, heavy losses in the Second World War, etc. Russians are biologically justified in lamenting damage done to the gene pool (not the "purity" of the gene pool) by Soviet power, although the claim by some nationalists that Russians have been subjected to genocide ("genotsid") is an exaggeration. There is also the direct damage done to the genes of Russians by exposure to radiation and imbibing of alcohol. But still, those who remain and reproduce after gene-frequency distributions change and direct genetic damage has been done are nonetheless still "Russians." The category of "Russianness" is ethnic, or national, or cultural, or psychological, or historical - anything but biological.

Imagining Russia     Next Chapter     "Panorama"

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