Imagining Russia: ethnic identity and the nationalist mind


An important part of imagining Russia is imagining what is not Russia, and an important component of an ethnic Russian's self-identity is imagining what a non-Russian is. This was particularly the case in wartime situations, where there was a life and death struggle with the relevant non-Russians (e.g., the French in 1812, the Japanese in 1904-5, the Germans in 1914-18 and 1941-45). The issue of non-Russians within the borders of Russia has also been highly charged, e.g., the Jews at the time of the Pogroms in late tsarist Russia, or more recently the Chechens during their struggle for independence from Russia. But even without wars and interethnic crises, the dichotomy of Russian self versus non-Russian other has persisted as a latent nationalist structure in the Russian mind. There has always been a sense of "us versus them" ("svoi" versus "chuzhoi") in the ethnic Russian population, with "us" being positively regarded, "them" negatively.
The dichotomy of favored ingroup versus disparaged outgroup is of course not peculiar to Russians. It is a universal of human social interaction, as psychoanalysts, social psychologists, sociologists, and others have shown. In the case of Russian ethnic identity, the dichotomy can refer to the division between ethnic Russians ("russkie") and non-Russians ("inorodtsy") within the multiethnic country which is Russia. Or it can refer to the division between Russians and peoples outside of Russia ("inostrantsy"), especially the West.
Although the "us-them" dichotomy is important, many - perhaps most ethnic Russians when war is absent and the economy is not a major issue - are tolerant of other ethnic groups. For example, sociological surveys conducted by L. M. Drobizheva and her colleagues in Saratov and Leningrad in the 1970s and 1980s show that up to 90% of respondents did not mind socializing with non-Russians in the workplace. More than 60% of those surveyed said that they did not care what nationality the future spouse of a daughter, son, brother, or sister would be. By the late 1980s these figures came down, but only slightly.
If the majority of Soviet Russians surveyed did not mind socializing with other nationalities, or did not mind a person of another nationality marrying a close relative, still, a minority did mind. Such Russians were at least potentially prejudiced against, if not actually hostile to non-Russians.
In the post-Soviet period fear of ethnic conflict in Russia increased substantially. For example, in the period 1992-95, 17-22% of a yearly Moscow sample believed there existed strong interethnic tension and the possibility of ethnic conflicts. Substantial percentages of the same sample - as well as of other samples (from the cities of Petrozavodsk, Ufa, Yakutsk, Samara, and elsewhere.) - reported encountering various forms of ethnic hostility on an everyday basis.
Ethnic hostility thrives in a climate of socioeconomic turmoil. Some individuals in the stressful post-Soviet situation have felt an increasing need for an "image of the enemy" ("obraz vraga") to help sustain them. Sociologist Galina Tumarkina says: "The intensification of economic problems and the collapse of the Soviet Union provoked feelings of fear and uncertainty. In such a situation people naturally begin to look for who is at fault, and it's always easier to blame strangers ["chuzhakov"]." In other words, scapegoats had to be found, and they were found in accordance with the principle of dividing people into an ethnic ingroup versus outgroups.
Such a division can itself be anxiety-provoking, however, insofar as it further fragments the multiethnic body of beloved "Mother Russia." Psychologist Juhani Ihanus speaks of a "split into ideal objects ('we,' the righteous believers and patriots) and persecutory objects ('them,' the conspiring aliens, Jews, Freemasons, Muslims, etc.)." Consequently, "the unity of the national (maternal) body is falling into pieces resulting in severe anxieties of persecution, of being trapped and atomized into merciless chaos." And of course the literal, geographic body of Mother Russia is threatened with fragmentation by the separatist tendencies of some republics, especially Chechnia. According to surveys conducted in 1993-95, ethnic Russians disapprove (at ratios ranging from 14:1 to 2:1) of the idea of nationalities within the Russian Federation forming their own, independent governments, or having the right to secede from the Federation.
Russia has had its chaotic periods before, of course, and they were in some cases more severe than what is taking place as Russia enters the twenty-first century, for example, the "Smuta" ("Time of Troubles") before the Romanov dynasty was established in the seventeenth century, or the early-twentieth century wars and revolutions which brought that dynasty to an end. But this time around we have much more empirical information on how individual Russians - and not only politically influential Russians - feel about the whirl of events. Indeed, a whole empirical field of what some scholars term "ethnic psychology" or "ethnopsychology" has grown up around the dismantling of the Soviet Union and post-Soviet nationality problems.
A hostile attitude toward outgroups is particularly well documented for post-Soviet Russia. According to L. D. Gudkov, in just two to three years after the 1991 breakup, measures of xenophobia in Russia increased by 1.5 times on average. There is considerable diversity to the targets of hatred. Ukrainians, Tatars, Jews, Estonians, Uzbeks, Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Gypsies, Chechens, and others are objects of ethnic hatred in Russia today. But not all the objects are hated equally. For example, whereas more than half of the respondents in a 1993 survey indicated hostility toward Chechens, only 1 in 5 displayed hostility toward Jews.
Vilen Ivanov and his colleagues report that 27%-39% of their yearly (1992-95) sample of Muscovites admitted to having feelings of ethnic hostility ("nepriiazn'"). In most other Russian cities sampled the percentages were about the same, or not quite as large as in Moscow. A sample of exclusively ethnic Russians in cities apart from Moscow yielded a range of 9%-23% who felt hostile toward some nationality or nationalities. The nationalities most often named as the target of hostility in the Ivanov study were Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, and "people of Caucasus nationality" generally. The percentages of respondents expressing fearful or hostile feelings toward other groups in a 1996 sample were: 10% towards Jews; 28% toward Azebaijanis; 41% toward Gypsies; 47% toward Chechens.
Sociologist Zinaida Sikevich found that nearly half (48.4%) of a 1994 sample of ethnic Russians in Saint Petersburg expressed hostility toward one or more other nationalities. Of this representative sample, the percentage expressing ethnic hostility was particularly high among youth (70.3% in the 18-25 age category), and low in older persons (38.5% in the 46-55 age category). The most frequently mentioned targets of hostility were peoples of the Caucasus region or visitors from that region. Sikevich believes that this hostility is facilitated, in part, by irresponsible media discourse on "black gangs," "Caucasus mafia," "Chechen terrorists," "racketeers," etc. The now widespread hostility hostility toward the peoples of the Caucasus area is sometimes termed "caucasophobia" ("kavkazofobiia") by nationalities specialists.
Gudkov reports that one in three respondents in 1993 believed that Russia's misfortunes were caused by non-Russians living in Russia. Since this attitude is patently false, it may be characterized as paranoid, that is, based on an irrational or excessive suspiciousness of others. Gudkov further reports that 57% of respondents believed that non-Russians had too much influence in Russia. On average, 53% of respondents believed that ethnic Russians should have more rights in Russia than people of other nationalities. I. Kliamkin and V. V. Lapkin found that 47% of their sample agreed or tended to agree with the statement that a government should be formed in which ethnic Russians are recognized as the primary ethnic group ("glavnaia natsiia"). However, only 16% of the 1996 sample by Kutkovets and Kliamkin asserted that Russia should be for the Russians ("dolzhna byt' gosudarstvom russkogo naroda"). 43% of a 1999 sample taken by the All-Russian Public Opinion Institute believe that ethnic Russians should be declared the leading ethnic group. 18.8% of Sikevich's Saint Petersburg sample agreed with the statement that "Russia is a state primarily for the Russians."
The slogan "Russia for the Russians" has actually been legislated in one instance. Lawmakers in the Krasnodar krai have recently passed a statute which - in violation of the Russian Constitution - explicitly singles out Cossacks and the Russian people as privileged elements of the population. Violations of the civil rights of Meskhetian Turks is especially common in the Krasnodar area.
In the summer of 1998 the International Youth Games were held in Moscow. After a grand opening ceremony at the Luzhniki Stadium on the evening of 13 July, people streamed out onto the streets and into the metro singing songs and shouting slogans. Among the slogans heard repeatedly by witnesses at the scene was: "Moscow for the Muscovites, Russia for the Russians!"
Vilen Ivanov found that 39% of a 1993 sample of Muscovites thought the best way to decrease ethnic tensions was to clear Moscow of "visitors." Asked how this should be done, most replied that "ethnic cleansing" ("etnicheskaia chistka") was necessary.
There are politicians who hold (or pretend to hold) these xenophobic and ethnocratic views, and who play the "Russian card" in their political game. Extremist political figures such as Nikolai Bondarik, head of the Russian Party, declares that today's multiethnic Russia should be ruled exclusively by ethnic Russians. "The Russian State for the Russians!," "Russian Television for the Russians!," "Russian government for the Russians!," and similar slogans are published by the Russian Party. This approach of course recycles old ideas, in particular tsarist general Aleksei Kuropatkin's advocacy of "Russia for the Russians."
A hostile attitude toward the West is also common in post-Soviet Russia. This is most obvious in the orientation of extremist politicians, almost all of whom take an anti-Western stance (e.g., Zhirinovsky's brochure Spit on the West [Plevok na zapad]). In 1997 a nonpartisan "Anti-NATO" coalition was formed in the State Duma, and there was talk of a planned Drang nach Osten on the part of Western governments. But many ordinary citizens as well have a negative attitude toward the West, and recently anti-Western prejudice has even exceeded ethnic hatred in prevalence. Hostility toward the NATO countries and especially toward the U.S. took a sharp jump with the onset of bombing of Yugoslavia in March of 1999. 49% of a sample of Russians viewed America as "mainly bad" or "very bad" after the bombing started, more than double the amount from three months earlier. A majority (63%) of a sample of Russian citizens blamed NATO for the Balkan conflict (and fully a third of the sample did not know what caused the conflict). To judge from these figures, the genocidal campaign of Serb forces against Kosovar Albanian civilians was not uppermost in the minds of Russian onlookers.
51.5% of Sikevich's Saint Petersburg sample agreed with the statement that "It is in the interests of the West to weaken us."S. V. Ryzhova found that a little over 18% of a sample agree with the statement that "Russia has a special place in history and has nothing to learn from the West." On the other hand, a little under 82% of respondents in her sample agree with the statement that "It wouldn't be bad for Russians to learn from Americans, or Europeans, or Japanese." Thus there is a preponderance of what Ryzhova calls the "open type" over the "closed type" of ethnic Russian. But still, again, the share of "closed" responses is considerable. Ryzhova found, moreover, that "closed" responses are greater at the lower end of the social spectrum (less educated manual laborers), and decrease with increasing social-professional status.
A "closed" attitude would also be indicated by hostilty toward the introduction of market reform in Russia. A 1993 survey of 34 Russian oblasts revealed absolute disapproval of the transition to a market economy in 11-34% of respondents. The lowest end of the percentage range of responses was from urban dwellers (especially those born urban), the highest from rural dwellers (especially those born rural). There is thus a contrast between what Jerry Hough and his colleagues call the "psychology" of the city and that of the countryside. Small city and country dwellers are the most opposed to basic economic change, are the least "modern," to use Hough's term.
The same survey indicated strong - and growing - hostility toward the West in the mid-1990s:
When asked whether they thought the West was attempting to weaken Russia with its economic advice, affirmative answers outnumbered the negative by 2 to 1 in 1993 and 3 to 1 in 1995. A vague question about whether "there exist definite forces who are guilty for the misfortunes of our country" elicited an affirmative response of 4.5 to 1 in 1995.
This, like the findings of Gudkov, is an indication of paranoid thinking among post-Soviet Russians (Hough and his colleagues do not use the term "paranoid," as they are not concerned with psychological matters properly speaking; Gudkov speaks of xenophobia, which is of course a species of paranoia). There are also clear linkages between such paranoid thinking and the perception of Russia's dismal economic situation, perceived widespread lawlessness, and discontent with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Imagining Russia     Previous Chapter     Next Chapter     "Panorama"

InterReklama advertising
InterReklama Advertising Network