Vienna, February 1 – For most of their history, Russians, because of the power of their state and the attractiveness of their high culture, assimilated others. But over the last century, members of this nationality have been assimilated by others, both in the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union and now in the independent successor states as well as further afield.
This shift from a nation doing the assimilating to one being assimilated, especially given the demographic trends within that nation, fuels one of the deepest fears of many Russians helps to explain the influence of Lev Gumilyev’s ideas on “chimera nationalities,” government support for compatriot programs, and slogans like “Russia for the Russians.”
But few statistics or academic studies are available – the issue is just too politically explosive for that – and most discussions are confined to the pages of Russian nationalist journals and are cast in such apocalyptic language that few people not immediately involved take them seriously.
An exception to this is provided by commentator Aleksandr Sivov in an essay posted online last Friday entitled “Russians without Russia,” in which he discusses the assimilation of ethnic Russians beyond the borders first of the USSR and now of the Russian Federation more in sorrow than in anger (www.apn-spb.ru/publications/article4797.htm).
Sivov stresses that his subject is not the emigrants who moved to the US, Australia or Israel, but rather about ethnic Russians who “have lived as compact groups over the course of generations on their own land” which first after 1917 and then after 1991 found themselves within the borders of another country.
In addition to parts of the former Soviet republics, he continues, ethnic Russians lived as distinct and historical communities in Bialystok, which is now in Poland, the Lemko region in north eastern Slovakia, the Danube delta and adjoining regions of Romania, and the Kars district of Turkey.
Sivov writes that he has visited all these places as well as many former Soviet republics and that, in the course of his travels, he has “encountered all stages of the assimilation of the Russian people” by other nations, a trend for which he blames Soviet ideology, the attitude of the Russian government, and the impact of the policies of the governments where Russians live
Both because of the imperatives of the civil war following the 1917 revolution and the internationalist ideology of those who won it, the Soviet leadership’s “lack of interest in the problems of the Russian people living beyond the borders of the USSR continued for a long time.”
Moreover, he continues, “to one degree or another, the assimilation of Russians took place also within the USSR.’ In non-Russian republics, many Russians especially in rural areas did not learn Russian well at school or use it in their daily life because they were surrounded by people speaking another language.
After the demise of the USSR, these “assimilationist processes sharply increased,” with what Sivov says is the “first stage of assimilation” being very much in evidence in Ukraine. There, ethnic Russians are gradually losing their language and knowledge of Russian history as a result of Kyiv’s educational policies and Moscow’s own approach to this community.
On the one hand, young people find that they can more easily get ahead if they master Ukrainian and identify with Ukraine, especially since questions about Russia and Russianness are viewed as an unacceptable form of nationalism or even a variety of fascism, attitudes that over time discourage many from asking them.
And on the other, Sivov points out, the Russian government has contributed to this process, with its embassy personnel often telling Russians there to learn Ukrainian in order to overcome difficulties and Moscow itself acting as if the only salvation for ethnic Russians in Ukraine is “Suitcase. The railroad station. Russia.”
What Sivov calls “the second stage” of the assimilation of the Russian people abroad is on display even among Russians who still continue to view themselves as Russians. They know perhaps 200 to 300 words of the language and may appear to be Russians during a brief conversation, but they lack the skills to read or comprehend more.
The third stage is shown among Russians in Romania and Poland. Many in these communities find it difficult even to conduct a simple conversation in the language. Indeed, the only people left in these places who speak Russian well, he says, are priests of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The fourth stage is shown in the lives of the ethnic Russians who live in the Kars region of Turkey. Even the current head of the Russian Old Believer community there “does not now a word of Russian,” Sivov reports, adding that he was able to conduct a conversation with him only in English.
And the fifth stage is found among those who had been ethnic Russians in Kars but who, having moved to Istanbul and Ankara in order to find work, no longer “maintain [any] connections” with that community and are disappearing into what Sivov calls “the ‘melting pots’ of the Turkish nation.”
Sivov concludes by suggesting that the Russian regime at present is indifferent to or even supportive of the “maximum assimilation of Russians beyond its borders,” because if that happens and Russians become “Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Azerbaijanis Estonians and so forth,” Moscow won’t have to deal with the problems of Russians abroad.
His judgment about what the Russian government wants in this area will certainly be disputed by many in the former Soviet republics and occupied Baltic States, who see the Russian government trying to help ethnic Russians there survive as communities, maintain ties with Moscow, and help promote Russia’s and not just Russian interests where they live.
But Sivov’s words are important, however tendentious and even wrong they will strike many, because they indicate that many Russians in Russia fear that ethnic Russians living outside of the Russian Federation will not maintain that identity into the future and that Moscow, whatever it appears to others, is not doing enough to try to reverse that trend.