Friday, January 25, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Assimilation of Northern Peoples Threatens Russia’s Security

Paul Goble

Baku, January 25 – As it has throughout its history, the Russian nation continues to assimilate members of many smaller ethnic communities, but if this process helped to build both that community and the state in the past, it now highlights the demographic weakness of the Russian nation itself and even threatens the security of the country.
Following new genetic studies confirming that the Russian nation was formed by the assimilation of others ( and a report that one of the smallest of these groups – the Vod – may soon be absorbed altogether ( ), a Komi social scientist has offered a provocative discussion about what this process means for the future.
In the latest issue of “Finno-Ugorskaya gazeta,” Yuliya Yushkova-Borisova, who conducts sociological research and writes frequently about her fellow Finno-Ugric nationalities, argues that their absorption by the Russian nation not only threatens them but the Russians as well ( ).
On the one hand, she says, the small Finno-Ugric groups inside the Russian Federation may ultimately disappear altogether, something everyone, and not just the members of these communities, who cares about linguistic, cultural and even genetic diversity, should find disturbing.
But on the other, the continuing assimilation of these communities by the Russian nation highlights the demographic failures of that people rather than its success and may mean ultimately lead to serious divisions within the Russian nation itself and to Moscow’s loss of control over much of the country.
The 2002 census showed that the number of ethnic Russians in the country had declined by 3.3 percent between the 1989 and 2002 censuses, Yushkova-Borisova notes, but that decline would have been even steeper had many non-Russians not chosen to re-identify as Russians during that period.
According to the Komi scholar, “as many as half the young people from the total number having Komi roots [now] consider themselves Russians,” and many “pure-blooded Belarusians born in the Komi Republic do the same.” That helps to explain the decline in their numbers by almost a third during this intercensal period.
But this decline in the number of non-Russians also means that “these demographic reserves” on which the growth or even survival of the Russian nation depends “can disappear in the immediate future,” something that the sociologist says represents a real danger to it as well.
Because assimilation of non-Russian groups is proceeding so quickly at least in the regions she has studied, the Russian nation itself is being transformed, with regional differences reflecting the cultural backgrounds of those it has absorbed becoming ever more important.
Such differences, she said, could lead to conflicts among these groups, clashes that could be as sharp as those among different ethnic groups, even though all those involved would identify as “Russians.” And that could even spark a regional separatism just as powerful as the national separatism of the late Soviet period.
According to Yushkova-Borisova, however, there is an even more obvious and immediate danger from the destruction of non-Russian groups through assimilation: the loss of Moscow’s ability to hold the enormous regions of the country where these people have traditionally lived and where most of its natural resources are.
“If a state does not have the human resources to populate a territory rich with natural resources,” she argues, “then sooner or later this territory will pass from its control to that of a state which has these resources -- or at a minimum those lands will become the latter’s protectorate.”
Up to now, the Finno-Ugric communities and the other numerically small peoples of the North have held that region for Russia by their presence. They are genetically and culturally adapted to that area, the Komi sociologist writes, but if they are absorbed, then they and the Russian state could lose control.
Consequently, she continues, the Russian state has a compelling interest, even if it does not recognize it and even if businesses working there have a different one – all too often, she says, corporations would be happy if the local population would just disappear -- in the protection of these communities.
The minority peoples of this region thus have a responsibility to help Moscow recognize that “the interests of the corporations and the interests of the Russian state” are not the same Yushkova-Borisova writes. “They can coincide only partially and only in the short term.”
That will not be easy, she suggests, and many of the reasons for that are to be found in the minority communities themselves. Members of these groups must stop thinking about themselves as victimized minorities and start viewing their communities as important parts of the Russian state.
Because of recent history, most of them “do not consider Russia as their own country. I fear,” she rites, “that the situation is even worse. I think that the greater part of the peoples of Russia small and not so small also do not consider it to be their country. Russia is a state of the Russians in their understanding.”
Unless they change their view and unless Russians support them so that they can, the Finno-Ugric and other smaller peoples of the North will continue to “kill themselves” with alcohol and accidents largely because of their inclination to keep their anger inside themselves.
The first thing these communities need to so, she suggests, is to publicly recognize how dangerous things now are for them as communities so that individuals will have something to rally around, and the second is to overcome their sense of victimization and their related fear of being accused of nationalism.
Those fears, bred into the smaller nationalities by Soviet power, have kept them from having the kind of social cohesion as communities that will not only help them overcome the pathologies that are destroying them but also allow them to adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of today’s Russia.
If the Finno-Ugrics are able to take these steps, she argues, there is hope for them and for Russia because “the country needs us. If we are part of Russia, then we are part of its greatness. And that in turn means that the greatness of Russia depends on us” – and hence on the survival of these small nationalities as separate peoples.

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