Russia’s Multi-Layered Ethnic Policies

2 march 2008

Alla Yazkova

Resume: Contrary to classical Western versions of nationalism in the past or even nationalism in the era of playing catch-up (like in Asia or Latin America), Russian nationalism is extremely conservative and does not have either a consummate modernization program or even separate elements and that is why it can only lead to a dead end. It perceives any reformist programs as ‘anti-Russian’ or ‘anti-national.’

One of the key topics in international policies at the beginning of the 21st century has been the way that various ethnic groups are moving toward self-realization and how this affects the stability of multicultural countries.

On the one hand, the break-up of the former Yugoslavia is continuing and there have been no signs of progress in the settlement of frozen conflicts in the territory of the former Soviet Union.

On the other hand, a local nationalistic party, which has called for a referendum on secession from the United Kingdom, has won election in Scotland, while a prosperous Belgium is falling deeper and deeper into a wrangle between two constituent nationalities.

These and many other instances show that it is very difficult to identify an efficacious model of coexistence among various peoples in a single state – a task that is especially significant for the Russian Federation.


Russia took shape as a multiethnic power over many centuries for a number of historical reasons. The peoples in the Russian Empire differed from one another in language as well as in their way of life, cultural traditions, levels of social and economic development and, last but not least, religion. The national census of 1897 showed that Eastern Orthodox Christians made up 70.8 percent of the total population, Roman Catholics consisted of 8.9 percent and Moslems accounted for 8.7 percent. In rare exceptions (like Finland, Poland or Bukhara) the empire’s ethnic groups were split among the gubernias, or administrative districts, and did not have their own ‘administrative’ territories. It cannot be ruled out that a nation state in which a synthesis of numerous ethnic groups would produce a civil (rather than an ethnic) nation might have taken shape over time in Russia. One must consider the fact that non-Russian (non-Slavic) peoples have always played a strong role in the formation of Russian statehood and culture.

Contemporary Russians are not simply the descendants of people from Kievan Rus, Novgorod, Pskov or Muscovy. They have a mix of Slavic, Tatar and Scandinavian blood in their veins. They assimilated numerous Finno-Ugric and nomadic tribes and also incorporated the blood of Germans, Swedes, the Scotch, as well as people from Central Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East, who came to Russia to serve the Tsars. This made Russia one of the few countries in the world where the melting pot produced a strongly coherent Russian ethnos at previous stages in history. This ethnos gave shape to the Russian state, which incorporated other nations, whether they possessed their own statehoods or not.

How did the political parties and movements of a hundred years ago view Russia’s national and state structure at a time when the crisis of the state model had become all too obvious?

The Octobrist Party that represented right-wing Russian liberalism – big landowners, traders and industrialists – claimed that “fending of the unity of Russia’s political body and the maintenance of the historically grounded unitary nature of the state system” is “a vital condition for building up Russia’s external might and internal flourishing.”

In contrast to this, the liberal Constitutional Democrats (Kadets) Party recognized the right of the peoples populating the empire to choose self-determination, although it limited this right to cultural self-determination within the unitary state.

Both wings of Russia’s Workers Social Democratic Party (the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks) proclaimed the right to self-determination, but initially saw it as broad local self-government.
The ruin of the Russian Empire and the subsequent formation of the Soviet Union changed the character of ethnic policies in a radical way. In the first phase of the struggle against Tsarism, Vladimir Lenin believed in the importance of keeping the unitary state intact. “We object to a federation as such,” he insisted in a letter to Stepan Shaumian [a Russian revolutionary leader in the Caucasus – Ed.] in December 1913. “A federation loosens economic ties and offers a poor option for a united country.”

In the period between the February and October revolutions in 1917, the idea of a federal structure for the future Russia was mostly promulgated by national parties and movements. “Freedom is inseparable from federation, and a changeover to federalism offers the only salvation for Russia,” claimed Mikhail Grushevsky, the leader of Ukraine’s Central Rada. Leaders of other national movements showed solidarity with him. The idea also found support with the Provisional Government – with a reservation that it deemed the issue subject to resolution by the Constituent Assembly.

As for Lenin, a sober analysis of the overly complicated ethnic and national processes shook his initial notions about the advantages of a centralized unitary state. A need for support on behalf of politicians from ethnic provinces of the former empire emerged after October 1917 and the Civil War. This unavoidably implied a federation and legitimized the arrival of ‘ethnic state entities’ and ‘ethnic cultural autonomies’. And yet, a significant number of Lenin’s associates (except for the ones from ethnic provinces) appeared to be unready to accept his interpretations.

Theoretic precepts aimed at recognition of territorial self-government of nations and ethnic groups in the format of a single statehood (or Joseph Stalin’s idea of autonomization) prevailed in the process of setting up the Soviet Union. One can assume today that Stalin, who insisted on implementing such ideas, was convinced already at that stage of the importance of rebuilding ‘a united and indivisible Russian Empire’ (something where he showed an astounding unity with Russian йmigrй leaders) and espoused the thesis that ethnic issues were subordinate to the problem of maintaining power.

Further promotion of what Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov [a Soviet-era dissident – Ed.] labeled as an ‘ideocratic’ empire was fuelled by the idea of a ‘great power’ and the arrogance toward ethnic minorities that prevailed in the consciousness of various sections of society. In an obvious contradiction to a “class approach” to political processes, explanations appeared insisting that Russia’s successful expansionism in the 18th and 19th centuries rested on its special missionary qualities (this tendency strengthened in the 1930s and the 1940s).

As a result, the Soviet Union took the shape of an extraordinary amalgamation of ‘titular nations’. Some ethnic groups received limited statehood of one type and other nations got another type, while some did not get any statehood at all or were even stripped of their statehood altogether. The hierarchic subordination of union republics and autonomous republics increased the complexity of the situation. Moreover, ‘titular nations’ did not always dominate the ethnic scene in the republics named after them. According to the 1989 census, only ten nations made up two-thirds or a greater share of the population in 53 republican and autonomous entities of the Soviet Union. The ‘titular’ population varied from 30 percent to 50 percent of the total in eleven cases, from 20 percent to 30 percent in four cases, from 10 percent to 20 percent in nine cases, and from 0.45 percent to 10 percent in fourteen cases. On the whole, 60 million Soviets lived outside the territorial entities carrying the title names of their nationalities.

Ethnic Russians live in all parts of the Russian Federation and prevail numerically over others in most regions and cities. Other major nationalities are Tatars (5.5 million), Chuvashes (1.8 million), Bashkirs (1.3 million), Mordvins (1.07 million), Chechens (899,000 prior to 1994), and Germans (842,100 prior to 1990). Russia also has 4.4 million Ukrainians and 1.2 million Belarusians. At the same time, some small ethnic groups of the Far East (Orochs, Aleuts, and Negidals) and in the North Caucasus (Shapsugs) number only a few hundred each.

Russia’s ethnic groups not only vary in population and the presence or lack of autonomous entities, but also in what concerns the type of economic and cultural activity, as well as social and professional structure. The areas where they reside do not coincide almost everywhere with the administrative borders of autonomies. There are millions of people from mixed marriages or members of ethnically heterogeneous families. After generations of living side by side with ethnic Russians, almost all non-Russian ethnic groups have experienced the strong impact of Russian culture and have a substantial command of the Russian language.

Soviet policy toward ethnic groups that did not have their own autonomous entities was marked by contradiction. On the one hand, the authorities made exhibitory efforts to “raise the cultural level and economy of backwater people” and enlighten them in Russian culture and the written language, but the authorities also ignored the self-identical and unique cultural values of these ethnic groups, which were lost eventually.

The position of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union was also dubious. Being the pillar of the union state’s center, it lost its independence to a large degree. Its government agencies were fictitious in many ways and even the ruling Communist Party did not have its own separate leadership in Russia.


The situation changed in 1990 with Boris Yeltsin’s election as chairman (speaker) of the then Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR. He advocated an expansion of powers for union republics and, in essence, propelled the idea of a loose confederation or a union of states on the basis of an agreement wherein they would delegate a rather limited scope of powers to the federal center. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he offered the same pattern to autonomous entities in Russia, labeling it by the famous slogan ‘Take as Much Sovereignty as You Can Swallow!’

Russia’s policies toward nationalities started acquiring new parameters amid conditions of a growing civic society and a developing market economy, and this was reflected in the abolition of ungrounded legislative acts that encroached on the rights of separate ethnic groups. The Law on the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples, adopted in April 1991, helped the then leaders of the RSFSR win over to their side numerous supporters from among those ethnic groups. It is also true, though, that the law was drafted hastily and without taking account of the existing reality, which bore out a series of new contradictions afterwards.

After getting considerable privileges in the course of drafting a new Union Treaty (the so-called ‘Novo-Ogaryovo process’), a number of former Soviet autonomies spoke out against the State Committee for the Emergency Situation that abortively dislodged Mikhail Gorbachev in a coup attempt in 1991. At the same time, conservatives in the union state’s ruling milieu whipped up separatist tendencies among the leaders of Abkhazia and the Dniester region in a bid to use them as instruments to keep the nationalistic pro-Communist structures there in power and to counteract Georgia’s and Moldova’s central governments.

The Federation Treaty of March 1992 mapped out the general contours of the country’s ethnic policy, while the constitution adopted in December 1993 put them into context. It declares the multi-ethnic people of Russia to be the only carrier of Russia’s sovereignty and says that any actions taken by separate agencies of power or expressions of will by constituent republics representing only a part of the multi-ethnic country cannot be viewed as legitimate actions. In the light of this, proclamation of sovereignty by separate republics that did not have the support of the entire multi-ethnic people runs counter to the constitution, although such proclamations could be found in the basic laws of the majority of ethnic republics (with the exception of Ingushetia, Kalmykia and Karelia).

All the constituent territories enjoy equal rights and exist within a unified legal territory. The constitution left the former names of ethnic constituents intact – a fact that the authorities explained by the willingness to keep historical continuity. The constitutions that these republics adopted in the first half of the 1990s are elements of the overall legal system and must correspond to basic law, although actual practice exposed a number of contradictions between republican and federal legislative acts.

For instance, the constitutions in some republics (Saha-Yakutia, Tyva, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Buryatia, and Dagestan) declared their soil, mineral resources, water, flora and fauna to be the national heritage (property) of peoples living on relevant territories. As for state languages, the constitutions of all the republics except Chechnya and Tyva included regulations conforming to Article 68 of Russia’s Federal Constitution. In Tyva, Tyvan has been declared the only legitimate state language, while Russian has been named the federal state language. Discrepancies of this kind could be partly explained for by inconsistency in a range of provisions of the Federation Treaty and the federal constitution.

The “asymmetric federation” the constitution envisioned was one way to keep the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. This concept was featured in agreements between the appropriate state agencies of the federation and separate constituent territories in 1994 and 1995. Meanwhile, the drafting of agreements with ethnic republics brought to light a conflict between the federal authorities and constituents having no republican status – regions (oblasts) and territories (krais). They openly protested against the redistribution of national revenues in favor of ‘backward ethnic provinces’ occupying more than 50 percent of Russia’s territory and viewed this practice as an unfair part of the Soviet legacy.

‘Ethnic provinces’ more often than not surpass Russia’s historical central regions in terms of mineral wealth. For instance, Yakutia accounts for 99 percent of all diamonds produced in the country, 24 percent of the gold and the territory has 33 percent of Russia’s tin reserves. It also has huge deposits of coal, oil and natural gas. As for ethnic republics, they complained that they had had no power previously to handle at their discretion the resources allocated for education and that education had been provided in Russian without their consent (the networks of schools teaching in the main ethnic languages were only relatively well developed in Tatarstan and Yakutia).

In the final run, the regions and territories managed to attain a leveling of rights of all the constituents, a dropping of the word ‘sovereign’ from use with regard to the republics, and elimination of a provision in the federal constitution that gave the republics rights ranging up to secession. At the same time, the federal center put forward a compromise idea, on the basis of which a Law on National and Cultural Autonomy was endorsed in 1996. It granted ethnic communities the right to maintain, develop and use vernacular languages, to choose a language to speak at home and for education, and to preserve and promote ethnic culture. It also granted ethnic cultural autonomies the right to get allocations from the federal budget for socially significant ethnic and cultural development programs.

However, Alexander Osipov from the Center for Independent Sociological Research insists that the ethnic/cultural autonomy today does not have practical meaning for the protection of ethnic minority rights in any possible sense attachable to the words ‘minority’ or ‘protection.’

And yet, the principle of variability in combination with the constitutional provision of equality for all citizens was chosen during the process of determining the Russian Federation’s national and state structure in spite of demands from adepts of unitary statehood. Those who formulated the principle took account of the Russian as well as international experience of building a state that incorporates constituents which join it on different grounds (cf. the status of Poland and Finland and a special system of governance in Central Asian territories in the Russian Empire, as well as the special status of Louisiana within the U.S., the status of Puerto Rico as an associated member of the U.S., and the status of Ontario in Canada and Bavaria and Saxony in Germany).

Thus, a complicated system of relationships between the federal center and constituent republics emerged in the Russian Federation in the 1990s, as the republics assumed a number of powers they were not entitled to under the federal constitution. In addition, many constituents abandoned the constitutional norms they had recognized earlier and started acting independently from the federal government. For instance, Tyva, Tatarstan, Krasnodar territory and Dagestan started signing international agreements without first coordinating them with Moscow. They even set up their own security forces. Bashkortostan recognized the sovereignty of the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia in Georgia. Yakutia introduced English as an official language. Buryatia, Karelia, North Ossetia and some other regions adopted laws allowing them to declare a state of emergency, while Ingushetia legalized polygamy.

Military operations in Chechnya dealt an unprecedented blow to the Russian Federation’s integrity and stability. Both the first and the second campaign radically destabilized the situation across the entire North Caucasus, an area where the problems of inter-ethnic relations and territorial divisions had already bred acute conflicts between Ossetians and Ingushes, Kabardins and Balkarians, Karachays and Circassians early in the 1990s even in the absence of full hostilities.

All of this led to a conclusion on the importance of tightening the federation and harmonizing a whole range of republican legislative acts with federal ones. Yet world experience proves that the abolishment of privileges that have already been won always faces tough resistance, and that is why the federal center faced a hard job of converging the variegated systems of power and creating a more efficacious mechanism of cooperation with constituent republics.


A new stage began with the introduction of the State Ethnic Policy Concept in 1996. Several federal laws facilitated a more precise focusing of its provisions that described the general goals, guidelines and principles of ethnic policies. Along with this, a number of constituent territories issued local laws regulating the sphere of inter-ethnic relations – in a restrictive manner by and large. They mostly limited the rights of forced migrants and displaced persons. This was characteristic of urban centers responding directly to the federal authorities, as well as the regions and republics located in southern Russia.

The federal authorities rolled up their sleeves to unify legislation and improve the country’s united legal territory after Vladimir Putin became president. Steps to revise the principles of forming the agencies of power (the setting up of seven federal districts, a reform of the Federation Council that functioned in the 1990s as an influential collegial agency reflecting the interests of regional elites, and the abolition of gubernatorial elections in constituent entities) overhauled the entire system of relationships between the Kremlin and the regions. Many experts note a gradual dismantling of the country’s federative system and a transition to unitarian principles.

Along with this, ‘restrictive measures’ taken by agencies of law and order against illegal immigrants from CIS countries and ‘non-Slavic people’ who have Russian passports called into question the manner in which national policy guidelines are being implemented. “One gets the impression that a war is going on – a war targeting far more people than only those of Caucasian descent,” said Alexei Malashenko, a notable expert on inter-ethnic relations. “It’s a war against everyone – the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Jews, Ukrainians, and the mass media reproduces it from day to day.”
Against this negative background, the activity of radical rightwing nationalistic groups is moving more and more toward center stage. One of them – the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) – has scored significant successes. It capitalizes on a mix of nationalistic and social slogans, shunning explicit anti-Semitism. It has reformulated xenophobia into a more socially acceptable revulsion against immigrants, the latter notion typically applied to descendants from the ‘ethnically alien’ south and east who live and work in ‘traditional Russian regions.’ An orientation toward anti-immigrant sentiments in combination with support for a swelling social protest has moved DPNI leader Alexander Potkin (who uses the pseudonym Belov, associated with the Russian word ‘bely’ – ‘white’ – and meaning in this case a ‘struggler for the white race’) to the ranks of the most highly quoted representatives of ethnic Russian nationalism.

Anti-immigrant sentiments are only part of a more general phenomenon known as ‘Russian nationalism’. Sociologists Lev Gudkov and Boris Dubin have pinpointed some more of its institutional properties:

  • the conviction that ethnic Russians are superior over non-Russians and that, consequently, they have special rights and advantages, although the justifications of such claims look quite feeble;
  • the belief in the organic unity of all Russians and the ‘sameness’ of their blood, prearranged by the historical destiny of the Russian Empire and embodied in the symbolic autocracy of the supreme state power;
  • isolationism, anti-Europeanism, anti-Westernism, the use of ideologems like “a foe”, “a hostile environment”, projection of hostility and unfriendliness to other societies and countries, combined with fears of an “internal expansion” of non-Russians who “threaten the country’s survival.”

This set of ideas is identified among representatives of the most diverse political, ideological and philosophical camps and social strata. Numerous sociological papers show that xenophobia, rooted in the stifled ambitions to become a great power, has been on the increase in Russia after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In 2006, 55 percent of Russians identified themselves with the ‘Russia for the Russians’ idea (versus 43 percent in 1998), while the number of those disagreeing with it fell to 18 percent from 32 percent.

One can only predict the most dangerous consequences, in the situation that has taken shape in inter-ethnic relations, for Russia’s future development.

Murders of non-ethnic Russians have become rife in numerous cities and regions and this does more than only paint a discouraging image of Russia in the outside world. It also puts the brakes on the inflow of much-needed labor migrants. Moreover, Dr. Valentin Fyodorov points out quite rightly that “we must build an awareness that this country cannot manage without foreign workers and hence we should treat them with more tolerance […] The highly unfavorable demographic processes cast doubt over Russia’s ability to keep up its geographic entity, and however paradoxical this might sound, it is the immigrant that will help it survive its forthcoming trials.”

Emil Payin stresses the same thing, saying that a phobia against immigrants hurts the development of an economy that experiences an acute demand for an inflow of workers. It is also necessary to keep reproduction at acceptable levels.

Today’s practices of inter-ethnic discords in major regions of Russia and the surge of Russian ethnic nationalism breed a reciprocal reaction in the ethnic republics of the North Caucasus, the Volga River basin, the Urals, Western Siberia and Eastern Siberia. As the Russians gradually abandon these regions, the share of titular ethnic groups increases, which may create prerequisites for separatism under certain circumstances.

Finally, it is vital for us to realize that contrary to classical Western versions of nationalism in the past or even nationalism in the era of playing catch-up (like in Asia or Latin America), Russian nationalism is extremely conservative and does not have either a consummate modernization program or even separate elements and that is why it can only lead to a dead end. It perceives any reformist programs as ‘anti-Russian’ or ‘anti-national’.


What could the strategy of Russia’s national policy consist of and what could its tactical decisions look like?

Experts who quote international experience point out three possible directions.

State paternalism, or national/ethnic policies implying that the state uses its resources to exert purposeful influence over the development of one or another nationality, giving them privileges or offering special quotas, etc. The Soviet Union practiced this kind of approach toward indigenous peoples of the North. One can also say it was carried over into the 1999 Law on Guarantees to the Rights of Small Indigenous Peoples in the Russian Federation, even though the law is still not worth more than the paper it is written on.

Multiculturalism that puts stress on creating equitable conditions for the self-realization of each people through public associations and ethnic/cultural autonomies, rather than by stimulating social and economic guarantees for their development. As a result, ethnic diversity will be preserved and the state will act much sooner along the principle of “refraining from obstructions” rather than “aiding.”

Unification or assimilation, most prominently embodied in the melting pot concept. World history does not know a single instance of a successful forcible assimilation, although ethnic groups are drawing closer together everywhere and the parameters of their development are leveling out, too. As regards the various ideas of state structure unifications, they require more cautious steps.

The requirement for caution applies perfectly to projects to enlarge Russian regions, cut their numbers and virtually revert to the system of governorates that existed before the 1917 revolution. Different viewpoints have been aired during discussions of the issue, but the most reasonable of them suggested that the existing administrative structure, complicated as it is, has a definite reserve of durability, while enlargements will eventually produce a far more fragile scheme.

It is probably too much of a good thing to have six types of federation constituents (territories, regions, national republics, autonomous districts and national districts), and yet not more than ten of them can be subjected to painless enlargement, said Russian expert Dmitry Oreshkin. Alexander Veshnyakov, the former chairman of the Central Electoral Commission, agrees with him. “We don’t need exotic projects of unification, we need carefully conceived custom-made projects,” he said. This is evident from the history of attempts to restrict the juridical administration powers of Tatarstan or from unification attempts in the North Caucasus. The very intention to discuss unification of the Adyghei Republic and the Krasnodar territory fueled protests on the part of the Circassian (Adyghe) diaspora abroad, in addition to an outburst of indignation at the local level.

A restoration of the system of governorates, which might have played the role of the melting pot at least in some parts of the Russian Empire on the historical plane, is impossible today. The national/ethnic problem has acquired different dimensions at different stages in the past, but the process of forming ethnic and/or national groups within the areas of their ethnic genesis has prevailed over assimilatory tendencies in the final run. Russia’s path resembles to a much greater degree a puff pastry rather than the ethnic salad bowl based on the idea of creating mono-cultural nation states on the principles of co-citizenship or shared civil properties. This in turn accents the importance of combining ethnic self-identity and integrating ethnic groups into a common pan-Russian territory. Russia’s multi-ethnic community is under constant attack from the informational revolution and the sweeping processes of globalization.

Will the change in the balance of forces between the federal center and constituent members of the Russian Federation that began this decade end with a slashing of regional governments’ powers in virtually all sectors of state and social life and thus inevitably produce a frustrating reaction on their part? Will it facilitate centralization over the long term or will it fuel decentralization, yet another one in the history of the Russian state? Will all of this ensure implementation of the main task on the agenda, which is Russia’s speedy modernization and accession to the family of modern developed countries, and help eliminate the structural deficiencies that were behind the Soviet Union’s and then Russia’s drop behind the dynamic societies of the West and East? And to what degree do the steps that have been taken match the norms of democratic development and constitutional order, which, if ignored, will make Russia’s full-blown cooperation with the European and Atlantic community impossible?

There are no answers to all these questions yet, since Russia has not yet chosen the main version for its national state development in the 21st century.

Last updated 2 march 2008, 13:48

} Page 1 of 5