Imagining Russia: ethnic identity and the nationalist mind


One way to deal with suspicions about the ethnic other is to welcome that other into one's own fold. Then it is no longer "other," strictly speaking. For Russians this has been a fairly easy thing to do, given the mixed, or indefinite, or downright mysterious nature of Russian national identity to begin with, which was discussed in Part I of this book.
The attitude may be termed assimilationism. To utilize Scheibe's psychological terminology, Russian ethnic identity can be "achieved" in adulthood as well as "granted" by the circumstances into which one was born. Historically, Russians have manifested an "assimilational ability" ("assimiliatsionnnaia sposobnost'") which was already being subjected to the scrutiny of ethnographers late in the nineteenth century. Igor Iakovenko goes so far as to say that assimilationism is part of the "national mentality" of Russians. Perhaps this is an exaggeration, but the evidence for such an attitude is strong. For example, according to a 1994 survey of residents of Saint Petersburg, 37.2% of respondents felt that one was free to choose one's national identity for oneself. This is not a majority, but still, it is a substantial minority. Another poll published in 1995-96 indicates that larger percentages of respondents included love of Russian culture and traditions (84%) or love of Russia as a homeland (87%) as signs of being a Russian ("russkii chelovek") than Russian citizenship (56%), having one or both parents ethnic Russian (51%, 24%) or even the ability to speak the Russian language (80%). The high figures here suggest that in certain cases one need only love Russia, or value her as a homeland, or speak the Russian language - in order to qualify for Russian identity.
An example would be a child of a mixed marriage who, out of love for Russia and things Russian, chooses to identify himself or herself as a Russian in adulthood. Even with neither parent Russian this is sometimes possible, as the proverb indicates: "Papa turok, mama grek, a ia russkii chelovek" ("Papa is a Turk, Mamma is a Greek, but I'm a Russian").
Another kind of example would be the foreigner who moves to (or finds himself or herself in) Russia permanently, and voluntarily chooses to become Russian. This is not a common occurrence today, but it was at certain times during the tsarist period. Nationalist Nikolai Sergeevskii, writing in 1907, declared: "A huge number of good citizens with German first and last names are scattered over the face of the Russian earth. These are ordinary, inconspicuous people, but they are our own, Russian people [nashi, russkie liudi], and we can learn a lot from them." Not all Germans, of course, assimilated to Russian identity - the Baltic Germans were particularly resistant to assimilation, and the controversy over their place in late imperial Russia was rather heated. But with time many Germans and their offspring in Russia did in fact become perfectly good Russians, "our own" people. Their Russian identity was affirmed not only by themselves, but by the Russians in whose midst they lived.
Historically there have been many contexts which have provided an opportunity for non-Russians to assimilate to Russian identity. Edward Thaden indicates some of these contexts:
Since the sixteenth century countless Tatars, Chuvashes, Mordvinians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, and other non-Russians had naturally and voluntarily accepted Russian customs, culture, and language as a result of serving in the army or bureaucracy, marrying Russians, or simply by residing and working where Russian was spoken. In the period innaugurated by the emancipation of the serfs and the Great Reform, the rate of unplanned Russification was no doubt accelerated. The building of railways and economic expansion and modernization brought the borderlands closer to the Russian interior. Development of industry and of the internal market and the improvement of communications and of professional and social services created new opportunities for Russians and non-Russians alike. Impressive achievements in literature, the arts, science, and scholarship made the Russian culture, language, and way of life more attractive than ever before.
In the immediate post-Soviet period such attractions may be rather limited, and few non-Russians are inclined to assimilate to Russian identity any more. But it is important to recognize that at certain points in the past the attractions were abundant, and that assimilation to Russian identity was in fact very desirable.
Assimilationism in Russia is very old. In 1634 an old monk showed Adam Olearius a painting of the Last Judgement over the doors of a monastery north of Novgorod. The painting depicted non-Russians - identifiable by their foreign clothes - as being cast into Hell. Softening this xenophobic message for his foreign visitor, the old monk declared: "Germans and other peoples may be saved, too, if only their souls are Russian and if, fearing no man, they behave in a way pleasing to God." Of course there is nothing in Russian Orthodox doctrine that says one's soul must be "Russian" in order for it to be saved. But the ignorant monk's sentiment is clear. It helps to be Russian. It is possible, moreover, to become Russian, even if one is German or some other nationality.
In some periods the religious component in assimilation was important. A traditional device for assimilating ethnic aliens was baptism into the Russian Orthodox faith. Theologian Aleksei Tsarevskii wrote in 1898:
. . . the not very distant past shows what a potent service the Orthodox faith renders to the Russian cause: by accepting Orthodox Christianity, Mordvinians, Tatars, Chuvash, Cheremis, and other aliens, even [sic] Jews, before our very eyes are so naturally and quickly reborn and attached to the Russian nationality that in two or three generations it is difficult to detect in them any tribal features of their alien origin.
Of course baptism into the Orthodox faith has not always meant Russian ethnic identity was achieved (or immediately achieved). For example, todays's Mordvinians who are believers are usually Orthodox, but they do not necessarily identify themselves as Russians, especially if they do not speak Russian natively.
Still, becoming Orthodox has been an important step in assimilating to Russian identity, and in some cases has been the decisive step. For example, non-Russian nobles in the eastern borderlands could utilize conversion as what Khodarkovsky terms "a fast track to assimilation." Thus "the Tatar prince Abul-Khayir of Siberia was the first of his dynasty to convert, in 1591. While his son was known as Vasilii Abulgairovich, his grandson's name, Roman Vasil'evich, could no longer be distinguished from a native Russian name."
The tie between Russian national identity and Othodox religious identity became firmly established. In the late tsarist period it was difficult to imagine a Russian being any other kind of Christian. As Theodore Weeks writes: "A Catholic Russian might be a theoretical possibility, but only in individual, peculiar instances. As a general category, when 'Russian' was said, 'Orthodox' was understood."
Recently nationalist Pavel Tulaev made the following blanket statement about the feasibility of assimilating to Russian identity:
A Russian is not just somebody who wears a Russian peasant blouse [khodit v kosovorotke], who bears a name ending in -ov, -ev, or -in, or who has a "pure" Slavic origin, but rather is someone who has embraced Russian culture heart and soul, and serves it with devotion. People who assert that "one can become a Russian" are absolutely right. Russification, for the most part voluntary, and taking place by recognition of the virtues and acquisition of the best in Great-Russian culture - is one of the major facts of our history.
Of course much of the russification which has occurred over the centuries has not been "voluntary." It was in fact often characterized in negative terms by critics, for example by Vladimir Soloviev who placed it among the symptoms of "national egoism" ("natsional'nyi egoizm"). The expectation of russification sometimes provoked a rejection of things Russian by non-Russians, or even a reactive nationalism among some non-Russian indigeneous elites within the tsarist empire, and later within the Soviet Union. This is not to say that the expectation of russification always provoked a negative reaction, or that there was even a coherent governmental policy regarding the russification of non-Russian citizens (in the late tsarist period, for example, an inefficient government bureaucracy was primarily interested in preserving the unity of the state and only haphazardly and inconsistently promoted russification throughout the Empire). But it is clear that, in many contexts, non-Russians were expected to assimilate, and sometimes this expectation did provoke a hostile reaction.
Assimilation to Russian identity is an important fact of Russian and Soviet history and demography. Census-takers do not normally demand proof of identity, and demographers admit that population growth within a geographical region can occur by voluntary assimilation as well as by biological reproduction or migration. Russian culture has been perceived, historically, as the dominant culture by most in Russia's midst. Consequently, when assimilation has occurred - for example, in children of mixed marriages, or in newly-urbanized migrants to Russian cities - the direction has been generally toward rather than away from Russian identity ("obrusenie" rather than "ob"inorodchivanie" - the latter term itself being rather odd and clumsy in Russian). Whenever the contact between Russians and some other ethnic group is described as "merging" ("sliianie"), assimilation to Russian identity, not the reverse, is usually what is meant. For example, Education Minister D. A. Tolstoy wrote in 1870: "The end goal in educating all of the aliens . . . has to be their Russification and merging [obrusenie ikh i sliianie] with the Russian people."
There have been exceptions, of course. In some parts of Russia in certain historical periods, assimilation to the indigenous, non-Russian ethnos has actually occurred to a significant extent. For example, outnumbered Russian settlers in Siberia sometimes became "Iakutized," "Samoedized," etc. as the Russian empire was expanding eastward. This phenomenon tended to provoke surprise or even revulsion in later Russian visitors. Such reactions indicated that russification, not de-russification, was the expected, unmarked norm within Russia.
During the Soviet period, as indigenous peoples developed their own national consciousness, assimilation to the nationality of the indigenous parent became the rule in children of mixed marriages. This tendency, however, was not as strong if the nonindigenous parent was Russian. There was also variation by location. In some parts of the Soviet Union - most notably Russia (RSFSR), Ukraine, Belorussia, and Moldavia - Russian was the identity most likely to be chosen by children from mixed families. Elsewhere, such as in Central Asia and Kazakhstan, the local nationality was preferred. A child from a mixed marriage in Saransk was highly likely to choose Russian identity, while a child from a mixed marriage in Ashkhabad would most likely choose the local identity.
In Russia today some ethnic groups which seemingly have not fully assimilated to Russian identity still have their own names, for example: Meshcheryaks, who are descended in part from the Volga Finns; Kamchadals, who are Russians on Kamchatka with Itelmen ancestry; Karyms, who are essentially Russified Buriats; Kolymchans, of mixed Yakut and Russian ancestry; and various others. Many - perhaps most - individual members of these groups also consider themselves to be "Russians" ("russkie") - and who are we to question them?
One of the side-effects of assimilationist attitudes is a relative dearth of racism in Russia. There are plenty of ethnically-hostile Russians, but they tend not to be racists, strictly speaking. Nikolai Berdiaev observed that "the mysticism of race and blood is alien to Russians." Instead of focusing on difference from the ethnic other, the Russian ethnonationalist would in many cases like to absorb that other in a spirit of expansive, ethnonational grandiosity. Various scholars have noted this. Writing about the scarcity of specifically racial prejudice among Russians in late Imperial Russia, Eli Weinerman says: "Traditionally, Russians thought that the Russian dusha (soul) and dukh (spirit) - not blood - were the prime manifestations of Russianness. Thus, they believed that what every genuinely assimilated non-Russian should possess was not a biological but an emotional quality." The important thing is that you could somehow, magically acquire this quality. For example, Fedor Gershel'man, reacting to what he perceived as very mild signs of separatism among Georgians in the late tsarist period recommended, among other things, that greater efforts be made to educate young people in the Caucasus area "in the Russian spirit" ("v russkom dukhe"). This, Gershel'man believed, would facilitate russification ("obrusenie") of the area. "Russian spirit" could thus apparently be acquired by native Georgians in childhood.
Biological heritage was irrelevant. If German racists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thought Jews were forever barred from becoming Germans by a racial-genetic barrier, Russian nationalists of the same period were more likely than not to accept Jews who converted to Russian Orthodoxy as real Russians. The converted Jew had acquired the necessary "dukh" or "dusha" to be a true Russian, a "russkii evrei," not merely a "rossiiskii evrei." Weinerman names many prominent figures in the history of the Empire who were converted Jews, such as: Baron Petr Shafirov, Vice-Chancellor of Peter the Great; Chancellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Count Karl Nesselrode; Ober-Procurator of the Holy Synod Aleksandr Samarin; explorer and scholar Petr Semenov-Tian'-Shanskii; Crimean War hero Admiral Pavel S. Nakhimov; and others.
Weinerman also offers numerous examples of famous anti-Semites who were hostile to the advancement of Jewish national culture within Russia, but who nonetheless welcomed the assimilation by baptism of Jews. True, some suspected that the converted Jew was not quite "Russian enough" for comfort, and in 1912 certain restrictions were enacted against converts, including a ban on their entering the Corps of Cadets. These restrictions were not racist, strictly speaking, as Weinerman shows, but reflected the (often accurate) perception that Jewish conversion to Christianity was only half-hearted, or a pretense. "Russian Jews" might not be sufficiently assimilated to defend Russian interests in the Empire, in the opinion of some. Assimilation was possible, but it was not always considered complete. And insofar as it was not considered complete, anti-Semitic hostility remained in force (e.g., the restriction on enrolling in the Corps of Cadets).
By the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods Russian Jews who have remained in Russia have been assimilated for the most part. Most of them think of themselves as ethnic Russians ("russkie," as well as "evrei"). Yet a suspicious attitude toward their assimilated identy is widespread, especially among Russian nationalists. For example, although Alexander Solzhenitsyn generally holds to the idea that Russians are those who consider themselves to be Russians, he has often had difficulty accepting the fact that Jews too can be Russians. Extremist Duma deputy Nikolai Lysenko, although he advocates political ties with Israel against Arab countries, refers to Russian Jews with the derogatory term "assimilianty," saying that they have no feeling of a birthland ("ne imeiushchie chuvstva rodiny") and that they try to force their political decisions on "us" - meaning Gentile Russians
From the viewpoint of those Jews themselves who have assimilated, a residue of psychological conflict has often been present. This happened even in the most assimilated of Jews, such as early twentieth-century philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Gershenzon who, although he would go so far as to write "we Russians" in some of his publications, nonetheless felt torn over his double Jewish-Russian identity. During the Soviet period the same ambivalence could be detected in many assimilated Jews. Larissa Bogoraz went so far as to declare that she was neither a Jew nor a Russian, although she had reason to call herself either, or both. She seems to have been one of those unusual people without an ethnic identity. Most Russian Jews today, however, are content to identify themselves as just that - both Russian and Jewish.
People who choose to "become" Russians do so for personal reasons which vary in each individual case. The assimilation, moreover, may seem completely voluntary from the individual viewpoint. From a broad social or historical perspective, however, it must be admitted that pressure to assimilate has been bought to bear on individuals. Sometimes the pressure took a rather aggressive form, as when restrictions were placed on the use of the Ukrainian language in Ukraine by a tsarist order in 1863 (Interior Minister Petr Valuev even declared that the Ukrainian language did not exist). Or, baptism into the Russian Orthodox church was forced on Jewish children who were called up for service in the tsarist army after 1827, and forced baptism of Tatars was still occurring in the middle of the nineteenth century. Polish children were forbidden to speak Polish among themselves in the schools - even during recess - when A. L. Apukhtin was head of Warsaw educational district at the end of the nineteenth century. Seventeenth-century Cossacks and traders in parts of Siberia captured and enslaved individual natives, then pressured them into converting to Orthodoxy.
The path of Russian history is strewn with many such attempts to force non-Russians to assimilate. However, forced assimilation (which is sometimes only what is meant by "Russification") is not the only kind of assimilation. Or rather, the degree of "force" applied varies, and can be quite subtle, indeed in many cases may not even be thought of as "force." For example, starting in the late eighteenth century, Jews who were willing to depart their legal status as Jews by converting to Russian Orthodoxy were granted certain tax exemptions, given money or land, and incorporated into one of the estates ("sosloviia") of the Empire. Peasant workers who migrated from rural to urban areas in the late tsarist and early Soviet periods were improving their economic lot as they and their offspring became Russified. Non-Russian elites in tsarist Russia could hope for advancement up the Table of Ranks and even ennoblement if they were ready to russify themselves to the extent of serving in the imperial government. An example of this is Russianized Crimean Tatar Ismail Bey Gasprinskii, who took advantage of his double identity to promote rapprochement between Russians and Muslims in the late nineteenth century. Gasprinskii went so far as to say: "My travels and observations have convinced me that no people treats a subjugated and generally alien tribe as humanely and as sincerely as do our big brothers the Russians."
The local elites of titular nationalities during the Soviet period understood that the Russian nationality was "first among equals" and "big brother" within the multinational empire, and that they could gain certain economic and practical advantages by at least learning Russian as a second language. If the best schools were conducted in Russian, if the key career-qualifying exams were conducted in Russian, if the most informative newspapers were in Russian, etc. - then certainly there was pressure to adopt Russian on an everyday basis. The pressure might not be thought of as "force," but rather as incentive. Yet "force" it was too, for to resist speaking Russian in public was to risk social disapproval, loss of employment, or in some cases even worse. Those who insisted on speaking only Ukrainian in Soviet Ukraine, for example, might be suspected of being "Petliurite," "Banderite," or "bourgeois nationalist." The consequences could be disastrous for individual Ukrainians.
From the viewpoint of those Russians who wanted non-Russians to become more like themselves, assimilation seemed a natural and desirable thing. But in many cases this attitude reflected an underlying hostility toward the non-Russians. For example, those anti-Semites who welcomed converted Jews with open arms were no less anti-Semitic for that. In 1911 publicist Lev Tikhomirov was perfectly happy to see Jews trained as Russian Orthodox priests, but still he saw Jews as a dangerous element aiming to take over Russia and the Russians. Jurist Nikolai Sergeevskii, in his enthusiastic 1907 defense of the "Russian spirit" ("russkii dukh"), describes how an open-minded Orthodox priest used to go fishing and swimming with a Jewish friend, but this author nonetheless calmly refers to the Jewish friend as a "Yid" ("zhid"). Emigre anti-Semite Vasilii Shul'gin, who also was given to using the Y-word, did not mind it at all when Russian-speaking Jewish emigres referred to themselves as "Russians." He even felt a solidarity with them.
These anti-Semites were hostile to Jews as Jews, but they could accept them as Russians. Assimilation was the key. Or at least it was the key to deleting hostility in the mind of the individual anti-Semite. As long as the anti-Semite accepted an individual's assimilation as a fact, then the anti-Semitism was suspended. But if the anti-Semite did not accept the assimilation (regardless of whether or not it was made in good faith), then the anti-Semitism remained in force. The aformentioned Shul'gin, for example, was tolerant of assimilated Russian Jewish emigres, as we saw, but he remained very hostile to assimilated Bolsheviks. He ranted against them, he made a list of them so that everyone could see that they were hiding the fact of their Jewish origin (Trotsky is Bronstein, Zinoviev is Apfelbaum, Kamenev is Rosenfeld, and so on). Understandably, Shul'gin hated the Bolsheviks, for he fought on the side of the Whites during the Civil War. But it was not enough for him that they were political and military enemies. They had to be evil for another, more profound and insidious reason, their bad politics had to be explained by their hidden Jewish identity.
In many cases, of course, assimilation could hardly be hoped for. Various peoples of the Caucasus region were particularly resistant to assimilation. Nationalist Nikolai Danilevskii, writing a few years after the capture of Imam Shamil and the pogroms and deportations of Caucasus natives, complained that the European press failed to understand these events as a victory for civilization, and focused his attention on Europe's hostility to Russia. His chapter titled "Why Is Europe Hostile to Russia?" makes no acknowledgement of Russian hostility toward the Muslim mountain peoples (which includes today's Chechens, for example), much less ask why such hostility should exist. Indeed, it is part of Russian national character to avoid hostility, and to avoid use of force or violence, according to Danilevskii. Slavs generally, unlike the "Romano-Germanic peoples," are not inclined to violence, they are free of hostile feelings toward others, they actually have an "inborn humanism." Yet when Danilevskii says that "our numerous Finns, Tatars, Samoyeds, Ostyaks, and other tribes are predestined gradually and imperceptibly to blend with that historical nationality [the Russians] among which they are scattered, to be assimilated by it, and to serve in increasing the diversity of its historical manifestations" - he is barely disguising Russian hostility toward these peoples, in effect declaring that there is something wrong with them as they are. As for the assimilation-resistant peoples of the Caucasus, Danilevskii expresses (his) Russian hostility openly: "by their fanatic religion as well as by their way of life and customs and by the very nature of the country they inhabit they are inborn predators and robbers." The supposed "inborn humanism" of the Russians is difficult to detect in this straightforward ethnic slur about "inborn predators and robbers" which was censored from the 1991 edition of Danilevskii's book, but which may be found in the 1871 original. Danilevskii's hatred is clear - which is not to deny that equally intense hatred of Russians has been - and to this day continues to be - expressed by Islamic fundamentalists in Russia.
The assimilationist haters of non-Russians were particularly incensed when non-Russians only pretended to be Russian, or only partially assimilated to Russian identity. General Aleksei Kuropatkin, writing in 1910, characterized alien elements in the Russian government as follows:
Nowadays there are people entering government service and even the Advisory Council and the Duma who, when asked who they are, will reply: "I'm a German, I'm a Pole, I'm a Finnlander, I'm a Latvian," etc. They consider themselves Russian subjects [russko-poddannymi], many of them are distinguished by an unwavering dynastic devotion, but they do not consider Russia their native land, they do not recognize themselves as Russians, they use Russian only at work, and at home speak their local language.
The solution to this (supposed) problem, according to Kuropatkin, was to allow government service only to those who were willing to make Russian their native language (i.e., use it at home as well as at work), to consider Russia as their native land, and, preferably, to be baptized into the Russian Orthodox faith. More generally speaking, the best treatment for the dangerous "weakening of the Russian tribe" ("oslablenie russkogo plemeni") within Russia was to give ethnic Russians more rights than other ethnic groups in the Empire. That way the non-Russians would be motivated to assimilate, and to assimilate completely ("stanet vygodno obratit'sia iz inorodtsa v russkogo"). Kuropatkin was clearly an assimilationist, and his assimilationism was clearly grounded in hostility toward the ethnic other.
The assimilationist attitude of Russians toward non-Russians has been made possible by the cultural, economic, political, administrative - and ultimately, military - dominance of ethnic Russians in Russia. On the other hand, the fact of Russian dominance has also induced many non-Russians to assimilate to Russian identity. This two-way street of assimilation - hostile desire of Russians in Russia to incorporate the ethnic other, willingness of the ethnic other to assimilate to Russian identity - has resulted in a readiness to confuse or to conflate citizenship in Russia with Russian ethnicity or nationality. That is, assimilationism has brought with it a tendency to confuse what is "rossiiskii" with what is "russkii." We saw examples of this in the writings of Lev Gumilev (above). Another example is the attitude of conservative journalist Mikhail Katkov, who worried about the influx of Poles into the western borderlands of late nineteenth century Russia, but was willing to tolerate their presence if they accepted "Russian citizenship" ("russkoe poddanstvo," not "rossiiskoe poddanstvo"), that is, if they became "Russian citizens" ("stanovilis' russkimi [not rossiiskimi] grazhdanami"). A stark example is the very title Russkoe [not Rossiiskoe] musul'manstvo (1881) by Russianized Crimean Tatar Ismail Bey Gasprinskii - as if it were the easist thing in the world for a late imperial Muslims also to be ethnic Russians! Some nationalists have openly encouraged the equation of categories: "Our national consciousness," says Georgii Fedotov, "should simultaneously be Great Russian, Russian, and all-Russian [velikorusskim, russkim, i rossiiskim]." If the conflation has not been complete, certainly is has been closer to complete for ethnic Russians than for unassimilated members of ethnic minorities. As James Warhola points out, "Citizenship was to become essentially coterminous with nationality for ethnic Russians to a far greater degree than for the multitudes of ethnic minorities brought under Muscovite control."
The same may be said for the Soviet period of the empire's history. There was a tendency to equate or conflate "Soviet" ("sovetskii") with "Russian" ("russkii") both in the Soviet Union and in the West. This, again, was because the Russians were the dominant ethnic or national group within the country, and assimilation to Russian identity was implicitly or explicitly encouraged. The dominance was expressed in a variety of empirical measures, including demographic size, size of working class, proportion of urban dwellers, number of scientific workers, quantity of publications, and others. In all of these the numbers overwhelmingly favored the Russians over other nationalities. Russians were also more likely to occupy positions of real power in the central government (indeed Iosif Stalin, the country's dictator from 1929 to 1953, was a Russian chauvinist). In addition, Russian dominance was greatly facilitated by the fact that Russian was the lingua franca of the country.
"Soviet" was thus often taken to mean "Russian." Dissident Andrei Siniavskii could pun in 1974: "A Russian is our own (ours, Soviet [svoi (svoiskii, sovetskii)]. From our own comes no evil, evil always comes from those who are alien." There is also a curious linguistic similarity between "Russian" and "Soviet" which iconically supports the conflation of the two concepts: like the term "Russian" ("russkii" - see above, 000), the term "Soviet" ("sovetskii") can serve both as noun and as adjective. Indeed, there is no properly nominal term either for "Russian" or for "Soviet" (e.g., English "the Soviets" has to be rendered "sovetskie," since the noun "Sovety" has a different meaning). So both of these Russian words give a rather "adjectival" impression. Just as one feels impelled to add a noun form to "russkii" to make it complete (e.g., "russkii chelovek," 'Russian person'), so too one must add a noun to "sovetskii" (e.g., "sovetskii chelovek," 'Soviet person').
One can only imagine how insecure in their identity people who think of themselves as "post-Soviet persons" must feel. Psychoanalyst Mikhail Reshetnikov actually utilizes the term "post-sovetskie" as a noun in a 1995 article. And those who persist in equating "Russian" with "Soviet" even in the post-Soviet period have an especially hard time, for then they must be both "post-Soviets" and "post-Russians." They cannot accept the new Russian Federation as the "real" Russia, for it is only an artifact of the Belovezh'e Accords and has an uncertain future at best.
As I mentioned, Russian was the language most commonly spoken in the Soviet Union, and served as the country's lingua franca. Members of the country's approximately 120 ethnic groups spoke Russian. Everyone was required to learn Russian in school, Russian was the primary language in the government bureaucracy and in the press, it was the only language permitted in the Soviet Army, and so on. For many minority ethnic members, however, Russian was a second language, particularly in the early Soviet period. In other words, unassimilated bilingualism was common among non-Russian ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union, with certain exceptions such as eastern Ukrainians and Belarusans. By the late Soviet period, however, Russian was a first language for a significant proportion of the populations of various non-Russian ethnic groups, such as Tatars, Buriats, Kazakhs, Kalmyks, and some others. The shift toward Russian as a first language was reflected in the fact that younger members of various minority groups were more likely to report Russian as a mother tongue than older members. In ethnically labelled areas where Russians and titular nationals lived side by side, Russians were much less likely to learn the titular language than titulars the Russian language. Linguistic assimilation was unidirectional for the most part.
Curiously enough, this dominance of the Russian language during the Soviet period had an adverse effect on Russian ethnic identity. Because so many people of non-Russian ethnic origin spoke Russian reasonably well, fluency in Russian was no longer an indicator of specifically Russian ethnic identity, at least by the late Soviet period. As Tomas Venclova put it in a perceptive but neglected 1980 article, Russian lost it's "role of stimulating ethnic self-consciousness." Semiotically speaking, Russian was the unmarked category. The same could not be said of the other languages of the Soviet Union, say, Ukrainian or Kazakh, which were marked categories in the Soviet context, and which in the post-Soviet period are important facilitators of their corresponding national consciousnesses. Soviet and pre-Soviet Russian imperialism thus had the same linguistic side-effect as British imperialism: many Russian-speakers today are no more "Russian" than English-speakers are "English."
Russian continues to be the lingua franca in the Russian Federation and in some of the other fourteen previously-Soviet areas. Today practically everyone in the Russian Federation can speak Russian, and non-Russians in many non-Russian ethnic areas (for example, Volga region, North Caucasus, and parts of Siberia) nonetheless speak Russian as a first language. Even in rebellious Chechnia the primary language of public communication and politics is Russian. But local languages are also gaining importance, and the titular language in many ethnically labelled areas now has the same official status as Russian. In the future these languages may become dominant and unmarked in some of the republics. In central governmental institutions and the mass media, however, Russian continues to be heard almost exclusively, and positions of power and influence are dominated by Russian-speaking ethnic Russians.
What has been said about the semiotic potential of the Russian language may also be said of Russian culture generally. Ethnic Russian culture was (and is) the dominant culture in Russia. But to the extent that it was conflated with Soviet culture during the Soviet period, it suffered a dilution of its own national identity. As Zinaida Sikevich puts it, the Russians were transformed into the "denationalized core of the Soviet people." In addition, they were deprived of various national institutions that other nationalities enjoyed. There was an "All-Russian" ("Rossiiskaia") Federal Republic in the Soviet Union, but not an ethnically Russian ("Russkaia") one - even though there were ethnically marked Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Armenian, etc. republics. There was a Soviet Communist Party, but there was no Russian Communist Party (neither "russkaia" nor "rossiiskaia") until the Soviet Union was already disintegrating - even though there was a Ukrainian Communist Party, an Armenian Communist Party, and so forth. Similarly, there was no Russian Academy of Sciences, no Russian radio or television, etc. Geoffrey Hosking is quite correct in saying that the Russians were thereby "disadvantaged" in the very culture they dominated. The nationalists among them felt particularly disadvantaged. As Valery Tishkov puts it: "What was considered russification by the non-Russian intellectuals meant 'Sovietization' for Russian nationalists." Or as nationalist scholar Viktor Kozlov formulates the issue, it was a matter of "Soviet Russophone culture against Russian culture."
As if to add insult to injury, the breakup of the Soviet Union dealt a greater blow - in some respects at least - to Russsian culture than to the other cultures of the empire. As Simon Dixon put it, "the Russians' intimate identification with the Soviet regime has left them uniquely disadvantaged . . . in being unable to blame anyone but themselves for its failure." Sociological surveys indicated that Russians scored higher on "depressive-asthenic" measures than did other nationalities in 1990-1993. At the same time, measures of "consolidation" - i.e., feelings of self-esteem, freedom from falsehood, pride in one's own nationality, responsibility for what is going on in one's own country - were lower for Russians than for any other nationality in the (former) Soviet Union. The very structure of the relationship between "Russian" and "Soviet" thus worked to the disadvantage of "Russian" during the early 1990s. In addition, many post-Soviet Russians feel economically and politically disadvantaged by the special privileges and rights accorded to non-Russian republics within the new Russian Federation. Post-Soviet Russian nationalists often assert that Russians are being taken advantage of, even "exploited" by non-Russians within the Russian Federation and by foreigners.
Although it is true that Russian culture was in some respects disadvantaged by Soviet cultural policies, by historical events which took place during the Soviet period, and eventually by the breakup of the Soviet Union - still, the nationalists sometimes exaggerate the damage, descending into self-pity and resentment. Sometimes also, seeking a target for their resentment, they ethnicize the damage in an inappropriate way. Here the phenomenon of ethnic hatred again raises its ugly head. For example, it is observed that Jews were disproportionately represented among the Bolshevik leadership (true), and it is then concluded that "The Jews have taken over political Russia" (false) or that "the Jews were the organizing and directing force in the Red camp" (false), or that "the Communist Party is run by Jews" (false). Or, it is concluded that the persecution of Orthodox believers and the violent collectivization of Russian peasants was a "Jewish" conspiracy (also false). In other words, a paranoid element often (but not always) creeps into the Russian nationalist discourse about the Soviets. Aleksandr Barkashov declares, for example:
By means of genocide the representatives of one nation, in this case persons of the Jewish nation, destroyed the upper layers of the Russian Nation (the clergy, the officer corps, the intelligentsia) and took over positions thus freed up. Furthermore, they subjected Russian peasants to genocide in order to break their resistance and make them obedient performers of their plans. It suffices to recall the collectivization of the peasants.
This anti-Semitic stupidity is typical of today's extreme nationalists, including some who once upon a time wrote "village prose," such as Vladimir Soloukhin, Vasilii Belov, and Valentin Rasputin.
The same kind of anti-Semitic paranoia has recently become acceptable in the chambers of the Russian State Duma. For example, in December of 1998 Viktor Iliukhin, head of the Parliament's security affairs committee, spoke of the "genocide" of the Russian people which has taken place during the 1990s. This crime would not have been possible, Iliukhin declared, if it were not for the preponderance of Jews in the Eltsin administration.
As we saw earlier, Jews who are blamed for the bad things which happen to Russians can in some circumstances and in some respects remedy the situation by becoming Russians. It must be admitted, however, that not all anti-Semites are assimilationists. That is, there are - and there have been - some true racist anti-Semites in Russia. For example, nationalist Mikhail O. Menshikov promoted the "Aryan" myth in the right-wing paper Novoe vremia during the early years of the twentieth century, warning his fellow-Russians not to interbreed with the "lower races" - including Jews - within the Empire. Around the same time rightist lawyer Aleksei S. Shmakov rejected intermarriage of ethnic Russians with Jews, claiming that the Russians would thereby acquire the bad features of Jews.
More generally speaking, although assimilationism has been the predominant view in Russia, there are contexts where anti-assimilationism or even racism comes to the fore. In the post-Soviet period, for example, there has been a spurt of pseudo-scholarly tirades against ethnically mixed marriages in Russia. Some of today's neo-Paganists are racist rather than assimilationist, declaring that the White Man ("Belyi Chelovek") is an endangered race and warning against marriage and even sexual relations with non-Russians. A particularly virulent racism is spouted by the National Front Party. One of its leaders, Ilya Lazarenko declared in 1994 that "the racial mission of our nation is not only to preserve itself, but to liberate other white peoples from the Yid-Masonic yoke!" "Our goal," he added, "is to bring racial order to the planet, so that the races occupy positions that they should occupy. The whites are the bosses, the yellows are servants, and the blacks are slaves, that's all. . . ."
Few Russians today would find such racist drivel acceptable. Yet anti-assimilationist views are surprisingly common among ordinary folk. Thus about 49% of a 1995 representative sample of citizens of the Russian Federation agreed with the statement that "Ethnic identity [natsional'nost'] is given to a person by nature or by God, and it cannot be changed." As much as 25% of a sample of ethnic Russians believed that both parents must be Russian in order for one to be Russian. The figure was much higher for followers of nationalist candidates Vladimir Zhirinovskii (38%) and Gennadii Ziuganov (40%) in the 1996 presidential elections.
At a 1997 conference on "The Russian Question" in Moscow national-Bolshevist leader Eduard Limonov proposed the introduction of a rule regarding the ethnic origin of all future presidential candidates: the president of Russia can be as little as 50% Russian, but if such is the case, then the other 50% must at least be Slavic blood. All those present understood that this proposal was directed at Limonov's rival, Vladimir Vol'fovich Zhirinovskii, whose father was Jewish. It is doubtful that any of the assembled nationalists understood, however, the biological irrelevance of these racist references to blood percentages.
Even in the literary realm anti-assimilationism may be detected. Kathleen Parthé discusses recent right-wing nationalists who believe that "Russian literature" is not merely literature written in the Russian language, but rather literature that is ethnically, spiritually, politically, and artistically "Russian" as well. This excludes much, to put it mildly. In a parody of this attitude theater director Mark Zakharov referred to Pushkin as "a Russian-speaking poet of Ethiopian origin." Zakharov's remark was intended as a joke, yet there are some racist Russian nationalists who actually disapprove of Pushkin because of his African ancestor. Dmitrii Pokrovsky, late head of a popular folk music ensemble, reports an incident from the late 1980s:
It was in Moscow, at the House of Artists. We were performing a mixed program of folk and sacred music that included a spiritual song composed for us by Schnittke on a text of Pushkin. When we began the Schnittke, there was a loud foot-stomping in the audience. And then a note was passed up to the stage: 'How come you aren't ashamed to sing this music; it's twice not Russian.' What the note-writer meant was that Schnittke is of German and Jewish descent and Pushkin was part black. I got angry and said from the stage that it was a shame to talk like this and write these notes, and we had a fight. It turned out that those people - there probably weren't more than ten of them who stomped their feet - were from Pamiat'.
This incident indicates that the Pamyat people - at least in their late Soviet incarnation - were anti-assimilationists and true racists. Their appeal to the wider Russian public was never great, however.
In all seriousness Anatolii Krotov, editor of Molodaia gvardiia, has stated his antagonism to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the following terms: "Personally, I do not consider him to be a Russian writer, but a Russian-speaking writer [ne schitaiu ego russkim pisatelem, no russkoiazychnym]." Such a statement is reminiscent of the KGB campaign to make Solzhenitsyn appear Jewish by alleging his real name was "Solzhenitser." It is doubtful that, even if Solzhenitsyn were to change his mind about certain things, Krotov would accept him as a true Russian writer. Assimilation is just not possible. But again, such a view is not really common. Indeed, to state the obvious, Solzhenitsyn is generally acknowledged to be a Russian nationalist writer. Most literary critics greet Krotov's assertion with laughter.
Also hilarious is Tatiana Tolstaia's 1990 article parodying the nationalist penchant for finding foreign names behind the "pseudonyms" of questionably Russian writers. It turns out that Pushkin is really Pushkind, Lermontov is Lerman (Moishe Lerman). The "chief russophobe" of all was Lev Tolstoy - really Leib Grossman - who penned attacks on the Russian army ("After the Ball"), the Russian family (The Kreutzer Sonata), Russian women (Resurrection), and even Russian railroads (Anna Karenina). This effective parody on the paranoia of right-wing nationalists helps to marginalize them. It appeals to the underlying assimilationism of the Russian intelligentsia. In effect: who cares if Pushkin or Tolstoy or Dostoevsky were not racially pure Russians?
Right-wing nationalists who would automatically exclude Jews like Isaak Babel and Anatoly Rybakov from the ranks of "Russian" writers are often inconsistent. For example, some accept Pasternak and Mandelstam because these particular writers embraced Christianity. In other words, what look like racist literary critics sometimes turn out to be assimilationists after all. In any case, the nationalists who are consistently racist operate on a firm foundation of ignorance, as do all racists. Again, there are no "Russians" in a genetic or racial sense.
Elsewhere on today's right there are also abundant signs of assimilationism. For example, Tatars in Tatarstan, and Bashkirs in Bashkortostan are now permitted to join the Russian National Unity (RNE) movement, a fascist group which advertises strong anti-Semitic and other ethnically hateful messages. All that is required is that candidates get baptized into the Orthodox faith - whereupon they automatically become Russians. Aleksandr Barkashov, infamous leader of this movement, stated in a press-conference in February of 1997 that nationality is a question of "spirit" ("dukh"), not origin. A Russian, from the viewpoint of the RNE, is "one who is a Russian in spirit, one who loves Russia." The terminology is of course familiar from a century ago (whether Barkashov would be open to assimilation of Jews is unclear, however).
As for the Barkashovites themselves, they sport an emblem which looks remarkably like the Nazi swastika. It is supposedly an old Pagan symbol. But any connection with the former fascist aggressor against Soviet Russia tends to be denied (this is in keeping with the tendency of most nationalists today to reject the epithet "fascist"). At an RNE demonstration someone asked the following question of an elderly Russian woman who had participated in the war against Nazi Germany: "How do you feel about the fact that the emblem of these young fellows is a swastika?" Her reply: "This is not a swastika, this is a Russian symbol." An anonymous article in the Barkashovite tabloid Novyi poriadok claims that the swastika has been more widespread in Russia as a religious and cultural symbol than in any other country in the world. Barkashov himself writes that "the swastika is the most ancient and chief Russian symbol." The important thing for the Barkashovites is that this particular swastika is a Russian symbol. Not only is there denial of any identification with the former aggressor, there is insistent - overly insistent - assertion of current Russian identity. The Barkashovites seem to be not quite sure of their own Russian identity.
This problem is often encountered with Russian nationalists generally. For example, it crops up among those who insist on calling themselves "Aryan," e.g., Viacheslav Demin who defines himself as a "Russian-Aryan" ("russkii-ariets") - as if "Russian" were not clear enough by itself, or as if there might be other kinds of "Russians" besides "Aryans." There is also the famously unclear case of anti-Semite Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who sometimes affirms his Jewish background (his father was Vol'f Isaakovich Eidel'shtein), sometimes denies it. National-Bolshevist Eduard Limonov baits Zhirinovsky, calling him a "fake Russian" ("samozvannyi russkii"), a "false Ivanov" ("Lzhe-IVANOVYM"), "not Russian enough" ("nedostatochno russkii"), "a non-Russian Russian nationalist" ("nerusskii russkii natsionalist"), and so on - although the name Eduard Veniaminovich Savenko, Limonov's full real name - does not exactly sound very Russian either. Also worthy of mention is Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn, who reacted with exaggerated vehemence to the idea that he might be Jewish rather than Russian. Perhaps we have here a connection between the unstable ethnic self-identity of some Russian nationalists and the overall phenomenon of Russian assimilationism. The issue would bear further investigation.
Another extremest group in today's Russia with strong assimilationist tendencies is the National-Bolshevik Party. The aforementioned Limonov, head of the group (and former ally of Zhirinovsky), declares:
Ours is a civilizing nationalism. A Russian is anyone who considers Russian history, language, and culture to be his or her own, is anyone who has shed or is willing to shed blood for Russia and only for her. This includes Tatars, and all the Muslim-Russians with whom we are fated to oppose the West. We trust the Tadzhiks, Kalmyks, and all our Asiatic brethren more than we trust a mythological union with NATO or Western Europe.
Limonov's "red nationalists," although they believe that "war freshens the blood of the nation," are not particularly interested in the purity of that blood. Perhaps this is a strictly political decision: "You can't build a significant political policy on racist emotions today." But whatever the motive, Limonov's nationalism is generally assimilationist. The only exception to Limonov's assimilationism is his racist attitude toward the Jews. In a 1997 issue of his political newspaper Limonka, he welcomes people of all national backgrounds to join his party. But in case there is any question as to who is eligible, he adds: "Here the party will decide who is a Jew, and who is not."
One of today's right-wing groups which has shifted from a racist to an assimilationist ideology has also shifted its name accordingly: "[ethnic] Russian Liberation Movement" ("Russkoe osvoboditel'noe dvizhenie") has recently become "Russian Peoples' Movement" ("Rossiiskoe Obshchenarodnoe Dvizhenie") - both abbreviated ROD. S. P. Semenov, ideologist of the group, now grants that the basis of Russian identity is not blood but "Russian spirit" ("russkii dukh").
The relative dearth of truly racist or anti-assimilationist views among Russian nationalists may be explained, in part, by the multiethnic background of many Russians themselves, and by the multiethnic essence of the tsarist (and later Soviet) Empire. Most Russian nationalists have not been blind to the great ethnic diversity of Russia. Other factors may have been at work as well. Historically, too much true racism would have increased the danger of the Imperial borderlands falling away, so that assimilationism was to be desired instead. The term "inorodtsy" ("aliens") may have eventually taken on the connotation of non-assimilable peoples, but the underlying intention was nonetheless to assimilate them. Nationalist figures like prime minister Petr Stolypin and even Black Hundreds leader Vladimir Purishkevich favored assimilationism as the route to preventing the Empire from breaking up along ethnic lines. Among today's nationalists there is recognition that adherence to strict racist standards is politically unfeasible (as we saw with Limonov and Semenov), or that anything other than an assimilationist view of Russian identity would actually endanger the size of the ethnic Russian population. Thus Evgenii Troitskii writes:
Voluntary, natural assimilation of people of mixed blood and even of alien ethnic origin is becoming a categorical imperative of out time. It would seem that it deserves all possible encouragement from the state and from society. Russians do not give birth much, one has to become one [im nuzhno stat']. A Russian is one who loves the Fatherland and who really wishes for its prosperity and glory. It is important that as many citizens of Russia as possible come to feel that they belong to the Russian nation.
This wish may be grandiose, or rather, it may be a reaction to a perceived threat to grandiosity. But it is not racist. An assimilationist may be as preoccupied with grandiosity as a racist is. But an assimilationist is more in touch with reality than a racist - if only for the reason that races do not exist. But there are usually other reasons as well. In this particular case the assimilationist Troitskii is willing to grant that such famous writers as Pushkin, Lermontov, Nabokov, and others were of mixed ethnic heritage and that they were Russians. Patriarch Nikon and his opponent Archpriest Avvakum were both Mordvinians and were both Russians. The true Russian racist would deny that these individuals were of mixed or alien background, or would deny that they were Russians. Racism requires such denials. Assimilationism, all other things being equal, places fewer denials between the self and reality than does racism.

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