Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Soviets Left Russia with ‘Ethnic’ Faiths and ‘Nominal’ Nations

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 12 – Because of the Soviet system’s success in “destroying the mechanisms of the translation of culture” especially in urban areas, Communism bequeathed to the Russian Federation a society of “ethnic” faiths and “nominal” nations, groups whose form and content do not correspond in the way many would expect.
If the existence of “ethnic” faiths has long been recognized in discussions about Russia’s “ethnic” Muslims, members of traditionally Islamic groups who know little about the faith of their forefathers, the role or even the existence of “nominal” nations in Russia, whose borders and content are indeterminate, has attracted less attention.
Now, in “Neprikosnovenniy zapas,” Vladimir Malakhov of Moscow Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences explores the way in which “nominal” nations appeared in Soviet times, how they differ from ethnic groups in other countries, and what this means for Russia’s future (http://magazines.russ.ru/nz/2007/1/ma19.html).
Forty years ago, Malakhov observes, the situation with regard to ethnic and racial minorities was fundamentally different in the United States and in the Soviet Union. In the U.S., he argues, “up until the 1970s, the cultures of these groups “were not considered as something deserving attention” from the state or attention by the broader society.
Americans were part of ethnic and religious groups only in their private capacity – and regardless of the church they attended or the languages they spoke at home, it was generally assumed, the Russian scholar says, that “in the public space they could be only Americans.”
“In Soviet Russia,” the situation was “quite different.” The authorities never ceased to stress “the multi-national quality” of the population. Official and public discourse was based not on the category of assimilation (‘the melting pot’) but on the category of variety (‘friendship of the peoples’ and ‘the flowering of national cultures’).”
Because of that, Malakhov continues, “ethnic identity was protected and generously sponsored. To be a non-Russian did not mean that one was rejected. On the contrary, for many categories of citizens, attachment to an ethnic minority served as a means for acquiring and increasing social capital.”
At the same time, however, Malakhov stresses: being “’non-Russian’ did not become prestigious. It never came into the head of anyone to declare something like “‘Udmurt (or Yakut or Chukchi) is beautiful.’” Instead, urban residents of non-Russian origin preferred to assimilate “into a supra-ethnic urban (Russian language) culture.”
That is why, Malakhov says, “the rhetoric of ‘national-cultural rebirth’ so quickly exhausted itself” in Russia. It turned out that in Russian cities at least, “there was nothing particular to be reborn.”
That points to an important reality with which Russian society is still living, he says: “the lack of correspondence of ethnic and cultural-symbolic borders” – a phenomenon that itself reflects the success the Soviet system had in disrupting or even destroying the older patterns of cultural transmission from one generation to another.
This is clear, Malakhov writes, if one compares the status of ethnic groups in Los Angeles or New York with that of supposedly equivalent ethnic groups in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
In the U.S. case, these are “groups set apart by symbolic, status, and cultural barriers from the rest of the population (and sometimes also territorially isolated because of the existence of voluntary ethnic ghettoes).” But in the Russian Federation case, none of this obtains, even though the words used are the same.
In Russian cities, members of ethnic groups are “more units of accounting than consolidated social groups. Moscow Georgians and St. Petersburg Armenians living in these cities over the course of many generations are people well-integrated into society and at the level of social practices almost not distinguished from their surroundings.”
In the Russian case, according to Malakhov, “an ‘ethnic group is more a statistical category than a characteristic of real social interaction.”
This explains, the Moscow analyst insists, not only the inability of these groups to act as units and the lack of clear lines separating them from others but also the particularism of ethnic Russians, who are more inclined to act on behalf of a particular territory or firm than they are on behalf of their supposedly firm ethno-national identity.
In making this argument, Malakhov explicitly acknowledges that he is likely describing a pattern that will pass from the scene relatively quickly. On the one hand, the percentage of people living in the Russian Federation who were not exposed directly to the Soviet system continues to rise.
And on the other, there are an increasing number of migrants into the cities whose rural experience with ethnicity was very different and who, given the collapse of the residence permit controls which allowed officials to structure environments in urban areas, may come to define urban ethnicity in the Russian Federation in the future.
But for the immediate future, he concludes, there can be “few who doubt that ‘peoples’ and ‘ethnic communities’” in Russia are “more than bureaucratic simulacra.” And consequently, Malakhov insists, it is useful to have and use the term “’nominal’ nations” to describe them.

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