Thursday, March 6, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s ‘Compatriots’ Vary Ethnically and Every Other Way

Paul Goble

Baku, March 6 – The people whom many in Moscow call Russia’s “compatriots abroad” are an extremely and increasingly diverse group, something that not only complicates the Russian government’s dealings with them but raises questions about the appropriateness and utility of the term itself.
Last week, the Moscow Institute of Russians Abroad organized a roundtable discussion on this issue. An extensive summary of its deliberations has now been posted online, and the site promises that it will publish the texts of presentations in the future (
But even what has been released so far shows that Russians in Moscow and the “compatriot” communities are discussing the problematic nature of the terminology they have been using far more fully than in the past, a discussion that could presage yet another shift in Moscow’s approach.
Sergei Panteleyev, the director of the institute, led off by pointing out that the origin of the term “compatriot” suggests that it may not have been entirely accurate. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many in Moscow began talking about 25 million of “our compatriots” beyond the borders of Russia.
But that number, he pointed out, was derived from the Soviet census about nationality memberships rather than any link to the Russian Federation. Thus, he argued, “it would be more correct to speak not about [non-ethnic] Russian compatriots than about [ethnic] Russians.”
And he continued by observing that the 25 million number was thus both too large and too small: too large in that many of the ethnic Russians did not identify themselves as such and too small in that many not counted as ethnic Russians nonetheless identified and continue to link themselves with the Russian state.
Other speakers at the meeting provided additional details. Oleg Nemenskiy, of the Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that the compatriot terminology fails to capture “the diversity of Russian communities abroad, living on their historic territories and the [various] émigré diasporas.”
Moscow must focus on these distinctions, he said, because there is relatively little in common between the problems and interests of the Russians living in Severodonetsk in Ukraine and those of others who have made their homes in Great Britain except for attachment to “the Russian land” and thus “the Russian state.”
Mikhail Petrov, the head of the Russian Institute in Estonia, agreed. He said ethnic Russians may have a common fate because they are linked to the Russian land but that the notion that “[non-ethnic] Russian compatriots” have an equally common one is nonsense, at least to him.
And both Sergei Provatorov, the editor of Ukraine’s “Russkaya Pravda” newspaper, and Vladimir Namovir, the editor of the “Russkiye v Kazakhstane” internet portal, reinforced this point, pointing out that the post-Soviet states, by their actions, had made ethnic – including Russian -- rather than political identities more important.
The summary of this meeting released earlier this week does not point to a consensus. Instead, judging from both the speeches reported above and the even more brief reports about the remarks of other participants, there are now three competing ideas about the future of “compatriots” as a term and a project.
First, some of those involved in this issue apparently would like to see the term acquire a more sharply ethnic dimension, one that would stress the “Russianness” of the compatriots rather than any links to the Soviet past.
Second, at least some want to stress a broader set of identities, linked not to nationality as such but rather to notions like “the Russian land” or “Russian civilization,” an emphasis that would rope in many more people than the first approach.
And third, most, while acknowledging the problematic nature of the term “compatriot,” want to continue to use it rather than risk both their programs and Moscow’s influence by significantly modifying or even dropping it.
But the very fact that a debate about this term has now re-opened after more than a decade in which Moscow officials and commentators used it without quotation marks suggests that many other Russians both within the Russian Federation and abroad may now join this discussion and thus affect its outcome.

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