The relationship between ethnic groups and the Russian State

“Мы многонациональное общество, но мы единый народ.” – Vladimir Putin.

“We are a multicultural country, but a single nation.”

Russia has more territory than any other country in the world. Around 142 million people live in the vast nation, a population of which 80% are ethnically Russian. However, Russia remains a diverse and multi-ethnic country in which there are more than 185 ethnic minorities. Today, whilst many non-Russians identify both with their natural heritage and the official Russian citizenship, ethnic diversity is often a source of conflict nevertheless, and it remains an important theme in Russian politics today. Is it possible for minority groups to continue to upkeep their traditional way of life, whilst also adhering to the laws of the Russian state, or do the modern values of the Russian state promote homogenisation and undermine the cultural heritage of minority groups in Russia? Of course, multiculturalism and questions of integration are apparent the world over but it is particularly interesting to reflect on Russia as a specific case study due to its long history of merging nations and, more generally, struggle to find its place in the modern world as a country which has arguably gone through the most diverse changes in contemporary history.

The idea of ​​multiculturalism in Russia started to become more evident in the early 1900s as Russian policy focused on the problem of the growth of nationalist behaviour. Lenin always believed that nationalism would disappear under communism, a system that he thought would instead create a single Soviet people. However, this view was fundamentally idealistic and Russian nationalism did cause ethnic conflict during the era of the Soviet Union. Several ethnic republics demanded independence from the Russian state, for various reasons such as economic problems and cultural and linguistic differences. Today, such tensions still exist between the republics and the Russian state. Perhaps this tension is most obvious in the Caucasian republic of Chechnya. The Chechen people have been engaged in a long history of resistance to Russian rule. In 1917, together with Dagestan, Chechnya declared its independence as the Mountain Republic. However, a few years later, Russian troops invaded Chechnya and the region was forcibly admitted to the Soviet state. There were various uprisings throughout the 20th century, as well as non-violent resistance to Russification and collectivisation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, attempts to regain independence ended in two wars with the Russian state. Chechen culture has a strong value of the concept of freedom; many of the Chechen heroes are figures who fought for the independence of their nation against the Russian ‘enemy’.

In the Republic of Buryatia, 3,000 miles to the east of Chechnya, natives continue to fight for recognition of their heritage. In 1937, the Buryat-Mongolian ASSR (Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) was divided on Stalin’s orders, a separation which caused deep resentment. Nevertheless, the Mongolian cultural influence remains strong and there was a revival of Buddhism in the 1980s. In 1992, a group of Buryat intellectuals announced that the division of the Buryat lands in 1937 was contrary to the Constitution. A movement began to revive Buryat culture, a culture long suppressed under Soviet rule. Just as in Chechnya, one of the important cultural differences in Buryatia is religion. Buddhism contributed to the cultural development of Buryatia, as Islam and ancient spiritual belief have done in Chechnya. Different religious faiths arguably act as one of the strongest impetus for independence, not only from political rule but also from the cultural constraints and conflicts of faith. After the abolishment of the enforced atheism of the Russian nation, imposed during Soviet times, people now have more freedom to practice different religions and this freedom is vital to insure good relationships with the Russian government.

Ethnic communities in Russia not only often adhere to belief systems that are quite different than those of the ethnic Russian, who tend to be of Orthodox faith, but also use languages other than the standard Russian. The Buryat people speak a Mongolian dialect, one that is already considered endangered, like the vast majority of localised, spoken languages in the world today. Some schools and local media outlets offer ways to connect with the Buryat language, but in republics where the nominal language ​​does not meet an official status, such as in Karelia, which lies on the Russian-Finnish border, the predominance of local languages ​​is falling faster. Unfortunately, this fact would appear to be replicated globally. Tove Sktunabb-Kangas, a Finnish linguist, has predicted the rise of ‘linguicisim’, discrimination encountered through language barriers. Giving a conference about linguistic rights and the marginalisation of minority languages, Skutnabb-Kangas announced a worrying prediction: in 100 years, 90-95% of spoken languages in the world today will either be extinct or severely endangered. Whether or not the ethnic republics of Russia are integrating into society, it would seem that national and global homogenisation is, already perhaps, inevitable.


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