Sunday, October 3, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Siberian Identity Drive Reflects Continuing Impact of Soviet Approach to Russian Nation, Moscow Commentator Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, October 3 – Because the Russian Federation inherited from Soviet times a system which deprived the Russian nation of any “mechanism permitting it to defend its interests,” ever more people who should identify as Russians are choosing to identify as Siberians or Ingermanlanders, according to a Moscow commentator.
In an essay on the “Chastny correspondent” portal today, Aleksandr Khramov says that in most countries, declarations about nationality “would be of only ethnographic interest. But Russia is a special case,” one where “since Soviet times, the state has been organized on the basis of nationalities (
That means that Tatars or Chuvash or Chukchis are interested in maximizing the number of those who declare for their titular nationality in order to achieve more influence and resources, he continues, but this reality extend to all nationalities except one – the ethnic Russians – because the Soviets and now the post-Soviet government never gave them an ethnic territory.
On the one hand, this means that ethnic Russians lack many of the reasons members of other groups have for declaring their nationality in the census. And on the other, it means that groups within that ethnos such as the Siberians are seeking to promote their identities in the hopes of acquiring an autonomous territory.
In the Russian Federation census later this month, Khramov argues, ‘there is every chance that in Siberia there really will appear a new people – the Siberians. How large it will be is difficult to say, but one thing is clear: Russians as a people at the level of subjects of the Federation do not have a mechanism permitting it to defend its interests.”
“And the more people who recognize that fact, the more Siberians or Ingermanlanders (as certain residents of St. Petersburg and its environs call themselves) will appear.” That is a reality that most Russian nationalists refuse to understand, Khramov says, even though the evidence for it is overwhelming.
The Tatars of Tatarstan have been able to keep more profits from the oil industry than the Russians of Siberia because they have the institutional and political mechanisms to do so, and even the numerically small Evenks have been able to block the construction of a hydro-electric dam they don’t like while the much larger Russian community has not.
That reality rather than some “splitting of a single Russian nation” is what explains the Siberian drive, he says. But there is more to the issue as well, Khramov argues. “In the Russian Empire there was an effort to create ‘an all-Russian nation’ of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Great Russians.” But it “failed.”
“A new effort to construct a Russian nation was not undertaken,” he says, “and the majority of so-called Russian patriots up to now continue to discuss matters in all-Russian categories,” adding that “as a result, the Great Russians up to now have not been transformed into a single nation but rather remain an amorphous mass without rights.”
Indeed, Khramov continues, “those who see the Russians as some kind of ‘product of empire,’ formed in its depths are incorrect: the empire sought to build an all-Russian nation but it was not able to achieve that, and the Russian nation (itself relative to that project a form of separatism) up to the present simply has not taken shape.”
Because the Siberian “nation” movement highlights that reality too, it has drawn fire from many “nationalist” groups, including from the Russian Orthodox Church which has its own concerns about the census, fearful that if the percentage of those declaring themselves to be ethnic Russians declines so will the status of the Church.
That is because the Moscow Patriarchate has insisted that all ethnic Russians are to be counted as Orthodox Christians because that faith is the traditional one of the Russian nation, a claim that sociological research does not support but one that the powers that be in Moscow find comforting at least so far (
There is a way out of the current identity crisis, Khramov says. “If the Russians of Siberia, sensing their attachment to the Russian nation, receive the opportunity to defend their regional interests through effective federal institutions, the regional Siberian identity will remain an important element of the Russian nation,” instead of powering the rise of a Siberian “nation.”
For many in Moscow, such demands for genuine federalism are yet another reason to campaign against declarations of Siberian nationality, but those behind that campaign are certainly playing to it. One activist says that all Russians should declare their solidarity with Siberia by declaring themselves Siberians in the census as well (

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