Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Promoting ‘Multi-National’ Russia as ‘Single Nation’

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 13 – Maksim Travnikov, Russia’s deputy minister for regional development and a member of the “first hundred” of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential reserve of administrative cadres, argues that because “national delimitations” have led Russia into “a blind alley, Moscow must promote that idea that “multi-national” Russia is “a single nation.”
In making that argument during a discussion of his ministry’s information project, “Many Peoples, One Country,” Travnikov, 35, provides one of the clearest indications yet of how Medvedev hopes to balance the demands of various ethnic communities as Moscow seeks to rein in rising xenophobia and nationalism (
Russia has “more than 180 peoples who speak more than 230 languages and dialects,” Travnikov points out, a diversity which represents both “an enormous creative potential” but also “can contain potential risks,” something his ministry is now seeking to address because of the mounting impact of migration in various parts of the country.
The primary goal of the ministry’s new media project in this area, the deputy minister continues, is to explain to society and the mass media how “multi-national Russia” is now “a single nation” and how “ethnic identity relates to a common civic one,” thus promoting “the strengthening of the unity of the Russian [rossisky] nation.”
The second goal of the ministry’s media effort, Travnikov continues, is to support “the ethno-cultural development of [all the] peoples [of the Russian Federation] as well as the culture of inter-national communication” in order to limit xenophobia and other harmful forms of nationalism.
In doing so, he says, “it is important to explain to people that no one will try to assimilate them, that our common identity, formed as an all-Russian one is interesting and many-faceted to a large extent because it consists of the contributions of various peoples, including [the ethnic] Russians.”
“We all belong to one all-Russian [rossisky] nation,” Travnikov sums up. “This is our civic unity and a collective term for all of us.”
The deputy minister said that his ministry had examined and rejected both the American model and the European model of integration. According to him, the American model is one in which “people coming from various territories arrive at a new place and form themselves only according to the principle of civic identity.”
In the American context, he argues in terms with which many may disagree, “their identity ceases to have importance for the country as a whole. They can preserve their ethnicity inside themselves, practice it in a narrow circle of relatives and friends, but for the state, it is not important.”
The European model, which Travnikov says he would “conditionally call the French” model, is very different. Under its terms, those who arrive “must associate themselves with the titular ethnos and fuse with it. This model has its shortcomings,” he continues, because these ethnic groups lose their uniqueness and “integration is not always successful.”
Russia has a different model, he insists. “Our all-Russian identity was formed initially as a synthetic one. But Russians [Rossiyane] are not an ethnos or a nationality. This is a civic membership. It is possible to be a Russian or a Tatar while being at the same time a Russian in the civic sense.”
Ethnic Russians, who form “80 percent” of the population, “must be certain,” Travnikov argues, “that they have the right to ethno-cultural development and to their own identity. Of course, nothing threatens the Russian language. But today, not a few Russian traditions unfortunately are being lost and are not practiced at all by urban residents.”
“In this regard,” Travnikov says, “the Russian [russky] people turns out to be in an even less favorable position than other ethoses who carefully attempt to preserve their traditions, culture, and customs.” And that situation, one that many in the Russian Federation have complained out, has contributed to confusion.
“On the one hand,” he argues, “representatives of national minorities fear assimilation when they connect all-civic identity with the identity of the ethnic Russian majority. And on the other, the ethnic Russian population has the sense that someone is attempting to substitute their identity by another.”
“Certain people do not understand,” Travnikov says, “that Russian ethnic identity is not one and the same thing will the all-civic one, although in the relatively recent past such a substitution often occurred,” a confusion that foreigners have unintentionally promoted by referring to everyone in the Russian Federation as a Russian in the ethnic sense.
. Three aspects of Travnikov’s remarks are especially noteworthy. First, they are an indication that the powers that be view ethnic problems in Russia today as increasingly the result of migration both within the country and from abroad, population flows that are quickly changing the ethnic mix of many places.
Second, Travnikov, a graduate of MGIMO who served in Russian missions in Europe before being named to his current post in 2008, clearly wants to position Russia’s approach to ethnicity within an international context rather than a historical one, something that opens up new possibilities but that many in Russia will view as a threat to their historical status.
And third, his words suggest that at the highest levels of the Russian government, officials are worried not only about the growth of nationalism among non-Russian groups but also about nationalism and xenophobia among ethnic Russians and are trying to figure out how they can balance concessions to one without exacerbating problems with the other.
That is not a balance any Russian government is going to find it easy to achieve, but the fact that people at Travnikov’s level and not just commentators and intellectuals are talking about it means that Moscow may soon try out some new approaches, a possibility that makes Travnikov a man to watch.

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