Saturday, March 21, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘Civic Nation’ Project Said Alienating All Ethnic Groups within Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 21 – Efforts to promote a common civic nation in the Russian Federation threaten both the identities of the individual nations who make up the country’s population and the common culture and political loyalty they share in much the same way that the advocacy of a “Soviet nation” in the 1970s had the potential to do.
Those who advocate the creation of a civic Russian nation (“rossiiskaya natsiya”) say they are modeling it on the American nation, but in fact, Kamil Tangalychev, a Tatar poet from Mordvinia, it represents an updating of the idea of a Soviet nation (“sovyetskaya natsiya”), something the USSR Supreme Soviet rejected in 1977 as a threat to the country’s cohesion.
In an essay posted on the portal today, Tangalychev says that “the term ‘American nation’ serves as a weighty argument [in the minds of some like Valery Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology] for the creation of a faceless conglomerate under the name ‘Russian nation’” (
Indeed, the poet continues, the Moscow ethnographer, who is also a prominent member of the Social Chamber, argues that such an entity already has come into existence and insists that those who deny that reality appear to be blinded by “a lack of enlightenment, narrow-minded nationalism, or political ambitions.”
But in reality, Tangalychev says, many of the most thoughtful people in the Russian Federation oppose this concept, concerned as were Soviet officials a generation ago that efforts to promote a common “nation” as opposed to a common “people”(“narod”) “can destroy or at least harm” the capacity of “people of various ethnic background to live on one land.”
Forcing people to give up their ethnic identities for a civic one in this way represents a threat to the largest ethnic nation, the Russians, and the smallest of the peoples of the North, Tangalychev argues. And he cites with approval Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s dire warning on precisely this point:
“Today the very memory that ‘we are Russians’ has again begun to disturb society. By the way, a ban on that has been placed not on us alone: any recollection of national membership is considered to be shameful now. [But] only a people that has preserved its organic spiritual connection with its ancestors is worthy of enriching the spiritual experience of the world.”
If Russia were a nation of immigrants like the United States, Tangalychev says, then the idea of a civic nation might be appropriate. But Russia not only is not a nation of immigrants but also has evolved a system in which many nations live together as one people, something that could become impossible if individuals are told to exchange their ethnic nation for a civic one.
The great Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin, the writer notes, “called us the Russian (‘rossiiskiy”) people, but this is in no way the same thing as ‘a Russian [“rossiiskaya”) nation.’ The word ‘people’ unlike the word ‘nation’ defines the chief thing that unifies us, a common Motherland in which we live and develop,” with many cultures and many tongues.
“Perhaps,” he writes, “it would have been simpler and more comfortable to have in the state a single ‘nation,’ but historical reality and the natural ethnic truth in Russia were and are different. And it is impossible to develop a country by ignoring this historical reality, one in which the superstructure contradicts the base.”
One of the reasons some of the advocates of a single civic Russian nation give for that idea is their fear of “’ethnic separatism’ in the national republics of the Russian Federation. “But,” he says, “a worthy national-cultural status for each people, above all the development and preservation of languages will be the most effective defense against ‘separatism.’”
Indeed, the whole complex of ideas associated with a single civic Russian nation, including among others the rejection of “friendship of the peoples” as an atavistic survival, is far more “able to give birth to national-ethnic dissatisfaction” -- the very threat the advocates of a civic Russian nation say their project will prevent.
Two parts of Tangalychev’s argument make it noteworthy. On the one hand, the most vociferous opponents of the “civic Russian nation” up to now have been ethnic Russian nationalists who see that idea as a direct threat to the survival of their ethnic nation. Tangalychev shows that many non-Russians see it in much the way.
And on the other, by drawing the comparison with the idea of a “Soviet nation” which Brezhnev-era officials rejected because of its dangers, the poet from Mordvinia is suggesting that promotion of a “civic Russian nation” could prove even more explosive in the Russian context than its rejected predecessor was in the Soviet one.

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