Thursday, May 28, 2009

Window on Eurasia: A New ‘Model’ of Russia Said Emerging among People Beyond the Urals

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 28 – A new “model” of Russia “is being developed not by political technologists in the capital but is arising spontaneously in the provinces” as “an inter-regional project” of Turkic peoples, according to one commentary, and among young people in Siberia and the Russian Far East, according to another.
In an essay posted on the portal today, Stepan Savin focuses on the very different meanings of the new film, “The Secret of Chingiz Khan” for “cosmopolitan and pragmatic Moscow” and for the residents of Yakutsk, Ulan-Bator, Irkutsk, Kyzyl, Ufa and Kazan who saw it first (
“The sources and component parts” of this film, he writes, involve a rethinking for people in the latter places today of “the cultural inheritance of the peoples of Central Asia and Siberia” which is not likely to strike Moscow viewers who in any case now view film as a form of entertainment for the young rather than a place where “a new model of the country” is defined.”
But that is precisely what Sakha film director Andrey Borisov has used it for, Savin argues, and it is certainly the way that his viewers outside the Russian capital are viewing it and its message not just about the times of Chingiz Khan nearly a millennium ago but about their country now and what it can and should be.
Making a film in Sakha now about Chingiz Khan is an event as legitimate and predictable for people there as it is “incomprehensible for residents of central Russia,” Savin continues. As a nomadic people without a large number of written historical monuments, the Sakha can and do view themselves as part of the larger world of which Chingiz Khan was at the center.
“Ethnographic and linguistic data leave a [large] space for various hypotheses” about the historical homeland of the Sakha people, a homeland without clearly defined borders. Indeed, Savin insists, “no one today can with 100 percent certainty assert that the ancestors of the [Sakha] did not live [in what is now Mongolia] or never appeared there.”
Moreover, he continues, in the folklore of the Sakha, Chingiz Khan occupies a variety of places, sometimes as an historical personage, sometimes as the father of the Sakha people, and sometimes, as in the Sakha expression, “at the direction of Chingiz Khan,” as a definer of cultural and even spiritual values.
For the Sakha and for their interpreters, Savin says, “every individual is only a repetition of his ancestors, and therefore his fate is predestined. It is hidden from the individual but known to the people, or to put it more precisely, to the bearers of the clan memory, the elders of the community.”
Moreover, he says, in this understanding of the world, “everyone can be useful to the community,” but he will not find it without the assistance of the elders, who can point to “the correct path,” one of “self-limitation” and one in which “egotism, personal freedom and equality are equivalent to slavery and ruin.”
Central to this understanding of the world as manifested in the film and as suggesting a model for Russia now, Savin says, is Chingiz Khan’s policy of tolerance for religious minorities and peoples combined with a strong state capable of assuring the security and cultural autonomy of everyone.
For many Moscow viewers, the film’s attention to Nestorian Christians among the Mongols probably seems strange, but for viewers in Sakha and elsewhere beyond the Urals, their place and the interrelationships between them and the shamans are not only natural but a model for contemporary behavior.
In Soviet times, Savin writes, “Chingiz Khan figured in textbooks as the creator of the Mongol empire, which gave birth to the Mongol-Tatar yoke, which in its turn became the cause of Russia’s backwardness from the West.” More recently, thanks to the Eurasians and now the Sakha film, ideas about him are changing.
On the one hand, his status is growing because he is increasingly viewed not simply as “part of Russian history but as part of world history. And on the other, Savin says, his position is being reduced because he has been domesticated to the point where his military actions and ideas about social order are subsumed under modern notions.
By restoring Chingiz Khan more fully to his original position, as one integral to an understanding of the peoples of Russia if not to the Russian state, the new Sakha film provides an image of Russia, immeasurably strong but remarkably tolerant of diversity, that appeals to peoples who have experienced too much of the one but too little of the other.
Meanwhile, in a second article posted online this week, Marat Kunayev points to the differences between young Siberians, ethnic Russian and otherwise, and young Russians elsewhere, thus providing another example of the way in which the regions are playing a role in redefining Russia (
Both because the ethnic Russians of Siberia have such a different history – they were never serfs, among other things – and have intermarried with many of the non-Russians there to form a new community, the “Sibiryaks” have always been different from other “Russian” communities, Kunayev says.
And over the last decade, he says, young Siberians have been showing the way for others, demonstrating the kind of independent action and initiative that is not always seen in European Russia. And that has allowed them both in their home areas and when they move to Moscow or other places west of the Urals to take the lead in many cases.
At the same time, however, Kunayev concludes with a remarkable observation. In the national regions of Russia beyond the Urals, he says, the attitudes of young people are being shaped not only by Siberian values but by forces analogous to those in Tatarstan or Daghestan, yet another way in which the regions rather than Moscow are helping to defining the future.

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