Sergey Abashin: A Mishmash Instead of an Identity

Students in the middle group of the seventh form at Moscow’s Comprehensive School No. 282, where more than half of the pupils are children of foreign nationals. Photo: Alexey Kudenko/RIA Novosti. Courtesy of Republic

A mishmash instead of an identity. Why do the Kremlin’s attempts to formulate the concept of a “Russian nation” always end in xenophobia?
Sergey Abashin
April 3, 2021

On March 30, the Kremlin hosted a meeting of the Presidential Council on Interethnic Relations. Vladimir Putin opened the discussion with the following statement: “In the practice of a number of countries, civic and ethnic identities are often perceived as competitors. I consider this approach (in our country, at least) absolutely incorrect, to put it mildly, and I want to emphasize in particular that it is absolutely unacceptable for our country. A person may belong to one or another ethnic group, but we all have one country—big Russia.” It is unclear what countries the president was hinting at and what he meant by making such a contrast, but there will probably be political scientists willing explain his critique. But the arguments about “civic and ethnic identity” are a clear continuation of the previous search for an answer to the question “who are we?”, to which the current Kremlin, which likes to speculate about its historical purpose, returns regularly.

Identity issues
The intrigue in this discussion revolves around its affirmation of very different versions of self-determination. The Russian Constitution states: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation is its multinational people.” The phrase “multinational people” was, in the early 1990s, a political compromise between the idea of the unity and equality of all the inhabitants of the new Russia (“the people”) and its ethnic diversity (“multinational”), which formed the basis of its avowed federal structure. The compromise did not last long, however. After the defeat of Ichkeria/Chechnya, which had declared itself self-declared independent, the Kremlin began  systematically curtailing the rights of the Russian Federation’s constituent territories and strengthening the central government. In the political reality of the 2000s, the formula “multinational people” had begun to look unsuitable: new terms were needed that would place a greater emphasis on unity and community.

In the language of the ruling elite, two competing and co-existing constructions emerged, which, although they did not figure in the Constitution, attained de facto official status. The first was the idea of “Russian civilization,” which historically united different peoples into a single community with its own “genetic, cultural and moral code,” as Putin had put it earlier. The word “civilization” imparted to Russia a lofty and important status as a discrete world, not merely one among a number of countries. It accorded well with its claims to being a great power and an alternative geopolitical center, equal in weight to the entire “western civilization,” and it also referred to the imperial and Soviet past, which could be inserted in the “civilizational” framework. Russian civilization has its counterparts—”Eurasian civilization,” that is, the community of Russia and neighboring countries, and the “Russian world”, that is, the community of Russia with separate regions and groups loyal to Russian culture. The set of countries and groups that fall into these latter categories, however, has no precise outlines and depends more on the ambitions of Kremlin politicians. The relationship between the “Russian” and “Eurasian” civilizations and the “Russian world” and their hierarchical ranking among themselves are not entirely clear, but such an internal contradiction does not really bother politicians, who easily switch back and forth between these concepts.

The second idea, which also took root in the official rhetoric, was the formula of the “Russian nation,” which in theory refers only to a civic identity that incorporates ethnic diversity. At the end of his speech at the council, Academician Valery Tishkov said, “The metaphor of the country as a civilization is important, even interesting, but it seems to me that the stricter category—the nation of the state [natsiya gosudarstva]—is more important.” It is stricter in the sense of being in compliance with the Constitution, since it is easier to bridge “the people” [narod] to “the nation” [natsiya]. And it is stricter in the sense of the language accepted in the world at large, where “nations” and “nation states” are part of the picture, which in turn emphasizes modernity. The formula “Russian nation” [rossiiskaya natsia] no longer reflects claims to historical unilateralism and uniqueness, in which one can detect undertones of isolationism and anomaly, but rather, on the contrary, to normality and usefulness to the rest of the world. “Russian nation,” however, does trigger other doubts. Ethnic minority activists see it as part of a plan to assimilate them, while ethnic Russian nationalists see it as belittling and underestimating the role of ethnic Russians [russkie].

The imperialists, for their part, find in the formula a rejection of the country’s superpower past, echoes of the “prison of the peoples” critique, and an unwillingness to maintain continuity with the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.

So far, “Russian civilization” and “Russian nation” have been used as equivalents in official rhetoric. The antagonism between the two concepts does not bother political officials, instrumentality being more important in their eyes than theoretical disputes. Officials are also in no hurry to abandon the constitutional formula of the “multinational people,” apparently finding advantages in its ambiguousness and the possibility of multiple interpretations. However, in 2020, along with other amendments to the Constitution, the expression “state-forming people” was introduced, further confusing the entire ideology of self-identification, in which “the people,” “ethnic groups” (“nationalities”), “civilization,” and “world” are now mixed up in the same heap. The emphasis on the special role of ethnic Russians destroys the idea of civic identity, since it assumes that (Russian) ethnicity constitutes it. This contradiction, however, has been ignored out of political expediency.

Rhetoric versus specifics
This scholasticism has become quite tiresome, but it is repeated from time to time at all sorts of official meetings. However, there are now issues that have given a new impetus to the discussion of civic/ethnic identity—i.e., migration and migrants, more precisely, the children of migrants, to whom a good half of all the speeches at the council meeting were devoted. Foreign migrants pose a problem for the concepts of “Russian civilization” and “Russian nation,” because millions of people who are not citizens of Russia live and work here. At the same, many of these people are not fully documented (they are “illegal,” so to speak). Not all of them speak Russian, nor have they imbibed the images of Russian history and life that local residents get in kindergarten. In other words, they are not inscribed in the implicit chain of command and thus provoke fear and prejudice among populace and politicians alike.

From a legal and institutional point of view, the children of some migrant workers from the CIS countries pose a problem to Russia’s central government because firstly, according to the law, they have a fuzzy legal status in Russia and, accordingly, there are formal and informal restrictions on their access to schools, and secondly, the schools themselves do not have a federally approved program for working with migrant children, who immediately find themselves in classes with regular pupils—as a rule, among the underachievers, thus spoiling test score stats for schools. The officials who spoke at the council promised to quickly solve these problems, which for years have generated resentment and complaints from human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations working with migrant children.

Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov called the education of children who come to Russia with their parents “a mission for our education system [and] an urgent challenge for us.” He mentioned the upcoming comprehensive system for assessing the individual educational needs of migrant children, which will be used to chart the right educational path for each child, supporting it with psychological and pedagogical assistance. This would seem to imply the creation of preparatory classes in schools, in which the children of migrants would have to acquire the necessary language skills in order to switch to the normal mode of study in general classes. In turn, Valentina Kazakova, head of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Migration Department of the Russian Interior Ministry, assured council members that the law on foreign citizens would be amended concerning the status of minor children, giving them unhindered access to educational institutions. If you believe these responsible officials, Russia is finally going to establish official mechanisms for working with migrant children.

However, legal measures alone do not explain how the Russian state ideologically integrates migrants into the image of “who we are.” In this instance, legislative and institutional pragmatics do not necessarily match the political rhetoric, which is usually focused on excluding migrants as “dangerous aliens.” The Council on Interethnic Relations has borne out exactly this asymmetry. Commenting on the topic of immigrant children, President Putin declared it an “unpleasant area”; he recalled that in Europe and America, “when the level of migrant children in school reaches a certain percentage, local residents remove their children from these schools,” and “schools are formed that are almost 100 percent immigrant children,” which, according to the president, “in no case should be allowed in Russia.” “The number of migrant children in our schools should be such that it enables [them] to adapt deeply to the Russian language environment. But not only to the language—to the culture in general, so that they can immerse themselves in our Russian values system. It will be good for them, and, accordingly, it will not hurt our families; it will not create problems for educational institutions.”

The words chosen were interpreted in the media as a call to “monitor the proportion of migrant children in schools,” “limit the number of migrant children in schools,” and “regulate the number of such children in Russian schools,” thus only causing a media-induced wave of anti-migrant fears.

It cannot be said that this ritual online discussion in the Kremlin was completely pointless. Specific plans to change the policy on migrant children are a cause for cautious optimism. However, the current political elite’s vocabulary and conceptual apparatus makes the depressing impression of being rooted in the archaic past of the twentieth or even the nineteenth century, but not in the twenty-first century. This elite reconstructs answers to the question “who are we?” from dead and moribund ideologies, condemning Russia not to solve, but to reproduce earlier confrontations and conflicts.

Translated by the Russian Reader