Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russians Divided on Whether Religious Groups Promote Social Concord

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 3 – In advance of the Day of Popular Unity tomorrow, a poll conducted by the SuperJob agency found that slightly more than a third of the Russian people say that religious groups cannot contribute to social concord, slightly under a third say that religious groups can, and just over a quarter saying they found it difficult to respond.
In the issue of “NG-Religii” published today, Lidiya Orlova, a journalist for that publication, described the poll which her weekly magazine had commissioned and its findings which call into question some of the more extravagant claims of the Russian Orthodox Church in this regard (
At the request of “NG-Religii,” Superjob asked 3,000 Russian adults across the country two questions: “Can religious organizations make possible civic concord in Russia?” and “Are religious organizations making possible civic concord in Russia [now]?” Neither set of answers provide support for the claims of either Patriarch Kirill or President Dmitry Medvedev.
In response to the first question, 38 percent of the respondents said that the religious groups could not play such a role, 34 percent said that they could, and 28 percent said they found it difficult to answer. Younger and middle income groups were the most negative, older and wealthier ones the most positive, and older and poorer ones the most unsure.
In response to the second question, Orlova said, the results were similar. Forty-three percent of the respondents said that religious groups were not currently playing that role, 27 percent felt that religious groups were, and 30 percent were unsure, with the results varying among age and income groups in roughly the same way.
More interesting perhaps than these global figures were the specific comments of some of those with whom SuperJob spoke. One 39-year-old manager from Moscow suggested that the Church should deal with its own business and not try to impose “its dogmas” on anyone else. And he said that the growing influence of the Church in public life was for him unacceptable.
Another respondent, a 39-year-old tax and bookkeeping consultant from St. Petersburg said that “our religious organizations are capable only of blackening the reputations of one another and nothing more,” a negative assessment that reflects the often sharply critical coverage of religious groups in publications like “NG-Religii” and Interfax-Religion.
As far as the possibility of a religious role in promoting civic accord is concerned, several comments from those surveyed are potentially even more interesting. A 28-year-old Moscow lawyer said that it was difficult to say what “civic accord” would be given that in the Russian context, “the very word ‘citizenship’” remains undefined.
And a 25-year-old resident of Toliatti suggested that religion could do little to remedy the basic divide in Russian society between the rich and the poor. “We have a very clear border between [these two groups},” he said, and “religion is not bringing them together or uniting them” in any way. “Those who are full don’t think about the hungry.”
Among those who saw a positive role for religion in this regard, most said that “only the Russian Orthodox Church could promote the strengthening of civic accord in the country.” According to one 44-year-old from St. Petersburg, “Besides the Russian Orthodox Church, unfortunately, I don’t know of other religious organizations which could do that.”
But some of those polls “denied such a possibility from religious organizations,” Orlova reported. One 33-year-old manager from Moscow said that sometimes religious organizations are the cause of civic conflict rather than promoters of accord. And another suggested that religious institutions “and especially the Russian Orthodox Church” are “the cause of all misfortunes.”
Overwhelmingly, it appears from Orlova’s article, the Russians surveyed appear to believe that in a secular and increasingly multi-confessional state, religious groups must be allowed to practice without interference from the state but at the same time that they must avoid interfering in the activities of the state.

Window on Eurasia: Belarus Becoming More Belarusian, Mensk Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 3 – Like the Russian Federation, Belarus has experienced a decline in its overall population during the last two decades, but unlike its eastern neighbor, the percentage of the titular nationality has risen because of sharp declines in the numbers of ethnic Russians and of most other minorities registered there.
This announcement is important for three reasons. First, it comes on a day when Russian media are reporting that the overall population of that country has declined and that the share of non-Russian groups there is rising, especially Muslim groups in the North Caucasus and migrants from Central Asia.
Second, it calls into question the widespread assumption in both the Russian Federation and the West that Belarusian national identity is not a very real thing. Were those views true, the numbers Mensk is reporting this week would likely be very different, with the share of ethnic Russians remaining higher than it has.
And third, the sharp decline in the number of ethnic Russians reduces the utility of this group for Moscow as a lever it can use against Alyaksandr Lukashenka. With the ethnic Russians forming an ever smaller share of the Belarusian population, those promoting the idea that these two nations are really one face an increasingly uphill task.
These three factors making the timing of this announcement thus a very political one, all the more so since the Belarusian census agency noted that in the conduct of its enumeration, the nationality of residents was recorded on the basis of their declarations, something many in Russia have good reason to doubt has been true in their own country.
Yesterday, the Belarusian National Statistical Committee said that the October 2009 census had found that the number of ethnic Russians there had declined from 11.3 percent to 8.3 percent of the total, an absolute decline of some 356,000 people, some of whom left, others died, and others re-identified (
The next largest ethnic minorities in Belarus are now the Poles with three percent of the population, the Ukrainians with 1.7 percent, followed by smaller groups of Armenians,Tatars, Azerbaijanis and Lithuanians. As a result, the Belarusians now constitute 83.7 percent of the country’s population, 2.5 percent more than a decade ago.
Most of the other traditional indigenous nationalities, the statistical agency said, have experienced a decline as well, with the number of Jews falling by more than half, the number of Ukrainian s by a third, and the number of Roma by 29 percent. As a result, the percent of residents of Belarusians declaring themselves to be Belarusians has risen.
But the number of non-traditional nationalities resident there had increased dramatically, at least in part because their numbers then and now are still extremely small. Compared to 1999, the number of Chinese living in Belarus had increased by “more than 20 times, the number of Arabs by 2.7 percent, and the number of Turkmens by 2.3 times.
Belarus as a whole is thus becoming more ethnically homogeneous, a sorting out of nationalities that is typical of former Soviet republics except for the Russian Federation, which is moving in the other direction, but the nationality mix varies considerably across the country. In Brest and Mensk oblasts, for example, Armenians form one of the larger minorities.

Window on Eurasia: Can Translating Erotica Save a Finno-Ugric Nation in the Middle Volga?

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 3 – Given Moscow’s cuts in non-Russian language instruction and declining interest among many younger non-Russians in retaining their national languages, an Udmurt editor has come up with an unusual strategy: He is translating the Kamasutra into Udmurt in the hopes of attracting a new generation of readers to that language.
In an interview with “Moya Udmurtia” television last week, Pyotr Zakharov, the chief editor of the Udmurt-language journal “Invozho,” said that at a time when readers of the national language are “becoming fewer and fewer” and “interest in a small local language is being lost,” projects like this one are absolutely necessary (
The translation of the famous Indian encyclopedia of love will first appear on the website of his journal later this month, he said, and then be published as a richly illustrated separate book, in a few copies to start but more if there is demand, all in the aid “of preserving interest in the native language” of the Udmurts.
The editor then told the Susanin News Agency that he and his colleagues in fact had begun work on translations of erotic texts in the 1990s but had then turned to other tasks. Now the fate of the Udmurt language and hence of the Udmurt nation hangs in the balance, and so he had resumed work on the Kamasutra (
The translation has not been easy, he continued, because “the book must have its own unrepeatable national coloration,” even as it “corresponds to the general idea of the original Indian variant.” At present, he said, he is involved in editing the translation, making sure that the Udmurt words about anatomy and about attitudes toward various aspects of love are correct.
“The creation of an Udmurt sex handbook must ensure the preservation and popularization of the [Udmurt] language,” Zakharov said, arguing that “if there is a Tibetan ‘Kamasutra’ and an Indian one, then there must be an Udmurt one as well.” And he said he will ensure that one does appear.
At one level, of course, this effort by an Udmurt editor qualifies as a humorous anecdote given the size of the Udmurt nation and the improbable nature of the translation of such a work into its language. But at another level, it reflects a far more serious problem, one that many smaller nations inside the Russian Federation now face.
On the one hand, both because of Russian state policy and the pressures of globalization, these languages are in many cases declining, often unable to keep enough young people interested to ensure that they will remain widely used in the next generation. (On that problem see
And on the other hand, there is a risk that some efforts to preserve these languages end by reducing them to small isolated niches or turning them into a laughing matter, much as some translations of obscure works by émigrés in Soviet times – one thinks of the Belarusian translation of the complete works of Plato, for example – did then.
But there may be another side to this story: Zakharov is using the most modern forms of communication – the Internet and TV --to promote his translation of a book many young Udmurts may want to read, and there is the precedent that languages and peoples that were a joke for some turned out to have a better future than even those supporting them dared hope.