Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Should Russia Restore ‘Nationality’ Line in Official Documents?

Paul Goble

Staunton, September 8 – “Nationality is sufficiently important to define the state structure of the country but insufficiently so to mentioned in official documents,” a situation that politicians and religious figures say is problematic, but today not so much for non-Russian minorities as for members of the ethnic Russian majority.
In Soviet times, the so-called “fifth” line in passports and official documents required the bearer to declare his or her ethnic nationality, a rule that was often used to discriminate against Jews and other groups. But after the collapse of Soviet power, this line was eliminated because that the Constitution specifies that a Russian citizen can declare his nationality or not.
When the nationality line was dropped, many people expected that would lead to a diminution of ethnic problems, although in fact the consequences have been almost exactly the reverse. And many are upset that as a result of this rule change the word “Russky” for ethnic Russian has practically disappeared from official discourse.
Consequently, some in that country are again wondering as the census approaches whether such a line should be restored. And as it often does on such disputed issues, the news agency has asked groups of parliamentarians and religious leaders and activists for their views ( and
The news agency interviewed ten parliamentarians and eight clerics and religious activists. Because many of their comments duplicated one another, only the answers of some of the 18 are presented below, answers that underscore both how sensitive this issue is and how Russians have changed their views about it over the last decade.
Vladimir Gusev, who represents Saratov oblast in the Federation Council, said he was completely behind the restoration of the nationality line “in all official documents,” adding that “by listing one’s nationality, an individual stresses what he remembers about his ancestors and is proud of them.” He said that he was proud to be a Russian with Russian ancestors.
Vasily Duma, a senator from Kostroma oblast, on the other hand, said he was opposed to restoring the nationality line. “In a multi-national state, one should not ‘show off’ one’s nationality.” Instead, “citizens living in Russia have one nationality – [they are non-ethnic] Russians.”
Aleksandr Pochinok, who represents Krasnodar kray in the upper house of the Russian parliament, agreed with Duma. The only time nationality should be “important” is in census documents. Otherwise, he said, “national membership must not have importance for anyone.”
Sergey Lisovsky, a senator from Kurgan oblast, however, said that “the nationality of an individual is important from all points of view” and that the dropping of the nationality line was “unjustified” and should be reversed. He said that “the success of an enterprise to a large extent depends on the ethnic composition of its workers.”
Amir Gallyanov, who represents Amur oblast in the Federation Council, also favored restoring the nationality line. Doing away with it is leading to a situation, he said, in which “we forget who is who, nations and nationalities disappear, and we are being converted into a faceless mass without family or tribe,” much like the United States.
Akhmar Zavgayev, a United Russia Duma member, said people should not be prohibited from declaring their nationality on official documents, but they shouldn’t be required to do so either. Otherwise, there will be “the danger of dividing Russia along national lines.” People should be free to identify themselves as “a citizen of the Russian Federation.”
Boris Reznik, another United Russia deputy, however, disagreed. He called the decision to drop the nationality line “absolutely justified.” Even without that, he said, “we often encounter manifestations of chauvinism, nationalism and xenophobia,” something that constant references to nationality will only exacerbate.
Aleksandr Moskalets, a third United Russia deputy agreed. Even talking about taking this step could divide the country. “Russia is not Japan and not Korea where it would be possible to speak about the significant of the nationality line. We are far from a monolithic society.” Instead, we are “a federation of the most serious kind.”
Nikolay Kharitonov, a KPRF deputy, said dropping the nationality line was yet another action taken in haste. People should be able to declare their nationality. Moreover, he said, parents should be able to decide the nationality of their children independently of what their own nationality is, something that would lead to changes in the ethnic balance.
But Elena Drapeko, a Just Russia deputy, said restoring the nationality line would be a mistake: Russian citizens today “are devoting too much attention to their national roots already.” Requiring them to declare their nationality in official documents would only make things worse. Instead, Russians should be encouraged to think about cultural and religious traditions.
Among the religious group interviewed, Father Dmitry Arzumanov, the pastor of an Orthodox church in Zhulebino, said he favored restoring the nationality line and did not see any connection between such a line and ethnic conflicts. But he said that people should be free not to declare a nationality if they so choose.
Suleyman-khazrat Zaripov, deputy mufti of Tatarstan, also favored restoring the nationality line, something that he said would promote “nationalism ‘with a human face’” by encouraging people to think more about the values of their nations. He said that there would “nothing to fear” by the restoration of the line.
Roman Silantyev, the director of the Human Rights Center of the World Russian Popular Assembly and a controversial student of Islamic affairs, said he would like to see a line in official documents listing the religious affiliation of Russian citizens. That was the practice in tsarist times, one that indicated that those who accepted Orthodoxy were [ethnic] Russians.
Finally, Sergey Rogunov, deputy director of the Patriarchate’s School for Youth Service, said he favored restoring the nationality line because its absence had “marginalized” the word “Russian.” That in turn, he said, has led to a confusion of Russian and Orthodox, one that risk s making “the Church into a kind of ‘Russian ghetto.’”

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