12.10.2006
Kondopoga: A Warning Bell
№4 2006 October/ December



It seems that the tragic events that
rocked the small town of Kondopoga in Russia’s northwest region of
Karelia began as a spontaneous bar brawl with an ensuing murder,
but later acquired all the dimensions of an ethnic clash. That
social conflict in late August and early September 2006 flared up
like gasoline, as a moment of ethnic strife quickly spiraled out of
control and revealed an ugly dilemma: “Are you with us or with
them?”

 

This country typically veils issues
of ethnic policy in silence. There is no clear understanding of
what is considered to be a nation, an ethnos, a people, or a
nationality. Instead of bringing clarity into this confusion, we
confine ourselves to meaningless platitudes about “universal
equality,” as well as a “multi-ethnic and multicultural society.”
The in-depth elements of human psychology that are linked to
everyone’s ethnic identity have traditionally been cast aside in
Russia; they have never been discussed openly in society, but have
always been stigmatized.

 

The problem of ethnoses does exist in
contemporary Russia. Thus, if descendants from the Caucasus travel
to a northern town with a Russian-Karelian population and start
engaging in a specific business based on ethnic connections, the
situation will eventually aggravate social tensions. The events in
Kondopoga took the form of an ethnic pogrom, where neither culprits
nor victims could be identified, even theoretically. Such conflicts
never have clear victims and clear aggressors, and it is impossible
to find and punish the true instigators in such a situation. When a
conflict involves the ethnic domain, the notions of the innocent
and the guilty, the victim and the butcher, or the instigator and
the sufferer simply vanish. The participants, however, of this sort
of clash naturally feel a sort of collective responsibility. They
start to act tough against one’s perceived foe, since the ‘other
side’ acquires the status of an ethnic enemy. That is why the
events in Kondopoga meant a large-scale – by Russian standards –
ethnic collision, as this country has not seen anything of this
kind of late.

 

riots in Kondopoga. September 2006

he Russian government lacks a
consistent ethnic policy based on a clear understanding of what
‘Russian identity’ really is. There is no education system that
would teach the Russian people – especially the youth – to live in
society together with peoples of different ethnicities. The
rhetoric about tolerance is meaningless, since the term ‘tolerance’
is obscure and does not belong to any legal categories. So why
should the authorities demand that the people act in accordance
with certain rules? They do not know them, as no one has formulated
them. In absence of an unambiguous ethnic policy, anyone is free to
build extravagant concepts, including those that demonize other
ethnic groups and justify any sort of actions in one’s own eyes or
in the eyes of kindred people.

 

We must examine more closely the
differences between the ethnic self-consciousness of the local
Russian population and the ethnic minorities, who emerge – without
historical prerequisites – in traditionally Russian areas of
residence as new ethnic and social groups. With regard to civil
rights, Russian nationals, as well as those people who have the
necessary legal documents for living and working in Russia, enjoy
the freedom of movement around the country. The legal side of the
matter is impeccable, but members of small ethnic communities
maintain much stronger cohesion with one another and have a
stronger sense of mutual support and assistance than the indigenous
communities. Moreover, they continue to organize their business
activity and social life along their ethnic cultural archetypes. No
one teaches them how to behave in the environment of the indigenous
population.

 

When the Russian people, who comprise
the majority of the population in this country, was at the point of
a spiritual and cultural rise, the assimilation of small ethnic
groups or their mere adaptation to new conditions progressed on its
own. Now the Russians have problems with their own self-identity,
as the Russian idea has become an object of derision, and a kind of
complex has been imposed on the people with Russian identity. The
very fact that there is ethnic association with Great Russia
[historically Great Russia used to be opposed to Little Russia, or
Ukraine, and White Russia, or Belarus – Ed.] is viewed as something
shameful. Intimidated members of the ethnic Russian majority lose
points to the boisterous and dynamic ethnic minorities that decide
to settle in neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of Russians.
From the legislative viewpoint, this is a normal and understandable
situation, but from the socio-cultural viewpoint, it is fraught
with a surge of psychological tensions that will sooner or later
grow into violent ethnic pogroms.

 

All of these factors were present in
Kondopoga. A drunken scuffle with an ethnic Azerbaijani bartender
exploded into a mass brawl involving armed ethnic Chechens. The
fighting claimed the lives of two men and left many others severely
injured. Rumors about cutoff ears and shouts of “Allah Akbar”
snowballed rapidly around the story, creating a show of solidarity
with the “friends” who had been victimized, and a demonstration of
hatred for the “foes” who had acted as aggressors. The abhorrent
corruption latent among the officials in local government and the
police who preferred not to interfere, only added fuel to the
flames.

 

Such a situation compelled the
Russians to develop solidarity with those who had been victimized.
All ethnic conflicts have this underlying danger: one can ignite
them, but it is very hard to put out the fire. Rumors based on
hatred quickly get wrapped in a multitude of episodes and striking
details. In the end, collective blame was apportioned to all the
ethnic Caucasians.

 

The Kondopoga drama did not stop
there, as radical nationalist organizations, which wasted no time
pouring fuel into the fire, quickly politicized the situation. It
is very unlikely, however, that nationalist radicals acted of their
own will only – even lunatics cannot seriously argue that “Bash the
aliens!” slogans are pure manifestations of the national idea. At
the same time, Russia’s enemies revel in positioning patriotic
forces as a “gang of pogromniks.”

 

Appeals for ethnic strife serve
exclusively the objectives of destabilizing the social situation
and driving the country into chaos. Unfortunately, the tactic of
fomenting that strife and whipping up a chain reaction of ethnic
conflicts has a good chance of confronting the authorities with
grave problems and dealing a blow to relations between government
and the people that is taking shape right before our eyes. This is
especially tarnishing on the eve of elections due in 2007 and
2008.

 

The latter factor is the most
vulnerable point, since the authorities are not ready to declare a
clearly shaped ethnic policy, or to harmonize the aspirations of
the different ethnic groups that inhabit this country’s
territory.

 

The Kondopoga story reveals, most
importantly, the presence of objective inter-ethnic variances that
arise from the depleting cultural identity of the Great Russians
against the background of a persisting and growing self-identity of
minority ethnoses. This creates a critical situation and naturally
provokes xenophobic tendencies in the grassroots. In the meantime,
grassroots chauvinism and xenophobia are far more dangerous than
the well-defined ideological forms of nationalism, since they are
scattered amongst the population and it is all but impossible to
localize them. Household xenophobia is growing visibly. This growth
has several objective factors, which play into the hands of
marginal political forces trying to gain more political
weight.

 

It is necessary to reconcile the
Great Russian identity with the legitimate and justified
self-expression on the part of other ethnoses living in this
country. In my view, only the Eurasian ideology offers a chance to
bring to rights the revival of the geopolitical power of the state
with the aspirations of ethnic minorities. The time has come for
moving Eurasianism from merely a public movement or school of
thought to an actual official government policy.

 

The Eurasianist response to the
events in Kondopoga would consist in lifting taboos and bans from
the dissemination of the Great Russian national self-identity. This
is bound to produce an immediate positive result, since an
individual who knows his or her traditions well and loves them
cannot by the very virtue of this love despise or hate the
traditions of other peoples. The crux of the matter is that in a
situation where the Russian identity is evaporating, attempts to
maintain the identities by other peoples naturally incites
prejudice, irritation and even hatred.

 

It so happened in history that most
Russians have been torn away from their roots and traditions. We
were prohibited to raise the very issue of our ethnic legacy, while
those who attempted to bring up the subject more often than not
perished under the millstones of repressions. Now it is time to
lift those bans and legitimately retrieve the feeling of national
pride of the Great Russians.

 

At the same time, this feeling must
combine with it a profound knowledge of the culture and history of
other ethnoses inhabiting Russia and countries of the Near Abroad.
We must be able to distinguish a Chechen from an Azerbaijani, an
Armenian from an Avarian, a Lezghin from a Yakut, and a Tajik from
an Uzbek. These are entirely different peoples with entirely
different histories. Some of them reside in Russia and have every
right to do so.

 

Today, the representatives of other
nations – the Chinese, for instance – live in this country too. And
each of them, as well as the behavior typical for them, requires
special treatment on the part of the Great Russians. On the other
hand, members of those ethnoses now living in Russia should also
study the basics of Russian culture and follow our traditions and
customs. However, this is what the guests of our urban and rural
areas are usually reluctant to do.

 

Ethnic culture is a subtle thing. It
does not manifest itself in appearance only. The modes of behavior,
looks, gestures and intonation have significance, too. And if the
guests to our cities and villages want to be received with a broad
Russian embrace and hospitality, they should adjust themselves to
local morals and manners. Likewise, those Russians who move to
traditional neighborhoods of foreign nationalities are obliged to
study the local lore and customs and reconcile with them.

 

To sum up, our only salvation will
come from the love we have for our ethnic roots and from a
persistent, harmonious, and well-defined ethnic policy.

 

The story of Kondopoga shows that the
time has come and we can no longer procrastinate. The events that
exploded to the surface in that small microcosm of Russian society
reflect the country’s situation on the ethnic, professional and
psychological plane. Kondopoga may blaze a trail into the abyss for
all of us, as the road of interethnic tensions will only lead to
Russia’s collapse, to a finale where it will lose its leading
positions in global geopolitics.