Requiem for Ethnos. Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology
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Valery Tishkov

Valery Tishkov is Academician-Secretary in the History and Philology Department at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is Director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, and a Member of the Presidential Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations.

dramatic events of the last two decades have entailed a deep crisis
of the Russian social science, which reflects, in acute detail, the
crisis of Russian society itself. But if the problems of the 1990s
resulted, to a large extent, from the absence of “objective
conditions” necessary to resolve them, the current problems are
rooted in the lack of “subjective abilities” of Russia’s political
elite and scientific community to advance the nation and its


notorious isolation of Soviet society, which prevented Russian
scientists from addressing  critical
problems, can no longer justify the present frustrating status of
Russian sociology. This situation permits us to speak, if not of
Russian social scientists’ loss of the ability for original
thinking, then at least of the lack of the intellectual courage to
resist the existing dogmas. Against this backdrop fundamental works
dealing with theoretical problems and seemingly apparent questions
cannot but draw our attention. Amongst the books of this genre, one
deserved of consideration is Requiem for Ethnos by Valery Tishkov,
a prominent Russian historian and sociologist,  Director of the Institute of Ethnology and
Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

for Ethnos is written in a manner that is not typical of the
contemporary Russian social science. The book is defiantly
provocative: the author deliberately makes many sharp statements,
which strive to involve his colleagues in polemics. The book
demonstrates not only the author’s profound knowledge of the actual
processes now taking place in society, but also his knowledge of
the diverse opinions held by his Russian and foreign colleagues.
From the very first pages of his book, the reader will appreciate
how important it is for the author to establish a personal
position, and Tishkov has devoted several decades of energetic
scientific activity to this task.


to Tishkov, the 20th century was “the most historic” for mankind in
many respects (p. 501), which witnessed “the emergence of an
enormous number of new entities with group self-identity” (p. 498).
However, the scale of this process naturally resulted in a
“negative” self-identification: in most cases, each entity defined
“itself” as being different from “the others” or “the alien,” and
was realized through overstating religious, linguistic, cultural,
historical and other distinctions. This is by no means a
progressive tendency of socio-historical evolution since it does
not stimulate a “positive” self-identification which would lead to
more stability, while it causes the continuous separation of
increasingly smaller communities from the more significant


The author
makes a convincing conclusion that the ‘supporters of separatism
and self-determination of individual ethnic groups always turn out
to be more numerous than the existing and emerging states…
because the more states there are the more minorities emerge; newly
determined borders result in separated communities while cultural
diversity entails group distinctiveness from the new dominating
group” (p. 347). This is the reason why constructing identities on
the basis of religious and ethnic distinctions ultimately leads to
a dead end (p. 345 and others). Tishkov uses the illustrative
example of the Romans who avoided a “negative” self-identity; as
the author stresses, the Latin term natio was used to denote
various peoples, but not the Romans, who were named populus, an
entirely specific community that was formed over the course of many
centuries (p. 98).


At this
point of discussion we are approaching one of the key theoretical
problems raised in the book – the correlation between the concepts
of ’nation’ and ’ethnos,’ as well as the related question of the
validity of national and ethnic grounds for self-identity. Tishkov
maintains that the use of many similar concepts such as ’nation,’
’people,’ ’ethnos,’ etc., makes it difficult or even impossible to
assess how factors such as history, culture, political processes
and the self-identification of a people affect the formation of a
community. The correlation of these concepts comprises the most
important parts of Tishkov’s book.


Tishkov does not accept the objective (or, to be more exact,
objectivistic) component of the ’ethnos’ concept. His line of
argument follows a very convincing logic. He starts with the
statement that “biologically there is no clear-cut division of
people into races” (p. 67) and proves the dubious character of the
assertion that the primacy and consistency of ethnic distinctions
are conditioned by the historical evolution of a people,
traditionally ranked amongst a particular ethnos (p. 102). It
should be noted that the author does not say that the term ’ethnos’
is inadmissible or useless in studying ethnic specificities, he
only draws attention to the fact that these specific features have
a cultural, not historical basis. “An idea or myth about a common
historical destiny of the members of a community, but not a common
origin, is the sign of ethnic commonality,” he writes (p. 116).”
The author defines an ethnic group as a “community formed on the
basis of cultural self-identification with respect to other
communities with which it maintains fundamental ties” (p. 115).

history proves that the crucial role in the life of individual
peoples and their interaction with each other belongs not to their
racial or other natural features but to specific aspects of their
culture and social organization (for more details see p. 86). It is
precisely the interaction between the cultural tradition
(characterized by a certain historical continuity) and social forms
(more apt to change) that determines the nature of self-identity,
which, in the author’s opinion, is what determines an individual as
being ranked among a given ethnic community. “Ethnicity is a form
of social organization of cultural distinctions… An ethnic
community is a group of people, whose members have common names,
elements of culture and historical memory, enjoy the myth about
their common origin, associate themselves with a specific territory
and have a sense of solidarity” (p. 60). We will get back to these
arguments that may cause serious objections a bit later.


At this
time I would like to briefly consider a somewhat different aspect
of the problem, namely: What is the social and political mechanism
for forming ethnic affiliations? Responding to this question, the
author proceeds from the fact that communities, which are based on
kinship and group solidarity and which can be considered as ethnic
groups, have always existed (pp. 96-97), but “interethnic”
contradictions have rarely led to conflicts and wars (pp. 105-106).
Presently, however, we are witnessing a different situation where
problems of ethnic self-determination are coming to the forefront.
Here, Valery Tishkov argues that fighters for ’ethnic originality’
justify their efforts by the danger that allegedly threatens
’ethnic minorities.’ However, “the enormous majority of
contemporary ethnic groups… emerged not as a result of the
historical evolutionary process or the ethnogeny, but due to
factors of a different kind” (p. 105); the very threat to their
existence is not obvious, and moreover, doubtful. People who
support the rights of ethnic minorities are motivated by the fear
that their small communities will be destroyed under the influence
of the more powerful entities, much the same way that species
disappear under the impact of human activity. But, in the author’s
opinion, these fears are groundless. Having a perfect knowledge of
the history and culture of the peoples of Russia, Tishkov points
out that, despite the fact that “in the opinion of many scientists,
since the 19th century, languages of the ingenious peoples of the
North that are small in numbers have been constantly and inevitably
disappearing, … the data of the 2002 census shows that all these
languages have been preserved and the size of those groups is
either constantly rising or staying at the same level” (p. 64).
Furthermore, “during the 20th century… not a single small culture
disappeared in the Soviet Union and, in fact, the whole ethnic
mosaic of the country remained intact” (p. 247). However, Tishkov
admits that the situation is not the same around the world. He
argues that one of the reasons for the present hysteria is the use
of the ethnos and national minority concepts as synonyms. This is
inadmissible because the ethnos was formed historically, while
national minorities emerged as a result of migrations and other
processes known as ’local ethnization’ (p. 105). This is a very
important conclusion by Valery Tishkov, which has an enormous
practical signifi-cance.


In the
contemporary world there is an incredible excess of definitions and
concepts, dogmas and ideas, religious doctrines and ideological
trends. Scientists themselves often become entangled in them and
politicians (as well as extremists) occasionally take advantage of
this fact. Concepts such as ’ethnos’ and ’people,’ ’cultural
community’ and ’ethnic group,’ ’people’ and ’nation,’ and ’policy
of multiculturalism’ or ’multiethnic policy’ have no clear
boundaries. Yet, they are imbued with different meanings because
they are used by “scientists from different countries with
different historical and cultural experience, and because their
descriptions are usually linked to ’foreign’ peoples and cultures”
(p. 58). As a result, fertile ground is being prepared for
extensive demagogic rhetoric (pp. 139-10).


Tishkov maintains that European and world history of the 18th-20th
centuries makes it possible to trace the main stages of “the global
legitimization of the concept of ’nation’ as a synonym of ’state’”
(p. 155); this process ended in the mid-20th century when the
United Nations was established. In fact, the event equated the
concepts of ’nation’ and ’state,’ even with respect to those
peoples whose lan-guages (for example, Chinese) do not contain the
notion of ’nation’ at all (p. 155). The author argues that the
concept of ’nation’ that has become synonymous with ’state’ is
losing its significance; therefore, it would be desirable and
correct to “reject the phantom word ’nation’ altogether (and its
derivations as well), along with the term ’nation state,’ which is
meaningless from the scientific point of view and inapplicable in
the political and legal sense” (p. 167).


ongoing speculation about ’national’ ideas and principles leads to
the emergence of artificial lines of tension in society, promotes
its division and fragmentation and, eventually, threatens the
functioning of civil society (p. 145). Valery Tishkov stresses that
different “societies differ from one another not so much by their
ethnic diversity as by how much importance is given to this
diversity and what policy is conducted in this area of people’s
life” (p. 230). He urges us “to forget about nations for the sake
of the peoples, states and cultures” (p. 171).


Thus, the
author calls for rejecting the wide use of the notion ’nation’ in
the scientific discourse, as well as rethinking the notion of
’ethnicity.’ The question is: Is this proposal substantiated enough
and how convincing are the arguments? 
Being neither an ethnologist nor an anthropologist, I cannot answer
these questions. However, as a political scientist and economist, I
can qualify most political and scientific discussions about
national and ethnic minorities as clearly artificial and demagogic.
An analysis of social science literature shows that scientists are
entangled in schemes that they themselves have created, while an
analysis of the current practice proves that politicians are unable
to resolve contradictions within this sphere.


for Ethnos provides the reader with a detailed argumentation for a
conclusion that is the rarest in the history of science: the author
sets out not to prove the mistaken character of the notions
’ethnicity’ and ’nation,’ rather, he focuses on the fact that they
are detrimental to social development. His work is not an ordinary
theoretical treatise; this is an ambitious study with the main task
formulated in a way that is rather unusual for contemporary
science: Should practical rationality be subordinated to
theoretical purity? Should we disregard society’s interests for the
sake of establishing the “truth”? Tishkov answers these questions
firmly and convincingly: “No!” We cannot and should not disregard
the principles of justice and expediency even in those cases when
the objective truthfulness of sociological definitions is being
lost; the interests of the people should not be sacrificed to the
needs of abstract theories. This is one of the important lessons of
the 20th century. The remarkable peculiarity of Requiem for Ethnos
is that the author’s general theoretical reasoning is supported by
extensive factual data. To substantiate his theses, Valery Tishkov
uses the example of the two largest and most developed
’multiethnic’ communities, the United States and the Soviet Union
(and now Russia). He proves how the ’attention’ to ethnic and
national ’questions’ has generated acute interethnic and
international conflicts.


He writes:
“In the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik-declared right of ’nations’ and
’nationalities’ to self-determination under the tough communist
regime was transformed into the “ethno-national principle in the
country’s political and administrative system” (p.159). After the
collapse of the Soviet Union, this principle was preserved solely
in Russia, the “only one of 15 [post-Soviet] states which has kept
the idea of a nation in the doctrinal property of some
administrative units that form it” (p. 166). Since 1926, when the
Soviet Union conducted a population census, and a question of
’nationality’ was included amongst the list of questions offered
(p. 160), the destiny of the state was in fact predetermined, while
the creation of ’the Soviet people’ as a ’new historical community
of people’ was doomed to failure long before the question was
appropriately formulated.


Tishkov asserts that the present situation in Russia actually
continues the Soviet tradition. Statistics prove that over 85
percent of the country’s current population is comprised of
’Russians’ (their share in the Soviet Union did not exceed 55
percent) (p. 414). Thus, we may conclude that Russia is a very
monoethnic country. However, nationalism and xenophobia are
increasing in Russia at an unprecedented rate (pp. 407-408), while
the politicians continue competing in rhetoric on defending the
rights of national minorities: “having not enough experience in
counteracting extremism”  (p. 330)
they, nevertheless, contrive “to keep searching for a national
idea” (p. 425). When presenting the 1996 Triumph Award to a
Georgian (Rezo Gabriadze), a Serb (Vladimir Voinovitch), a Jew
(Yevgeny Kisin), and a Russian (Leonid Filatov), as well as to a
half-Uzbek and half-Tatar (Rustam Khamdamov) as representatives of
the ’Russian intelligentsia,’ Boris Berezovsky was right in his
remarks that reflected the popular 
statement by Pyotr Struve who said that all those who participate
in creating a nation’s culture could, and should, be considered as
belonging to this nation (p. 110). According to Valery Tishkov’s
assertion, this is the reason why dangerous tendencies are emerging
in Russia today, while it remains, at the same time, attached to
old ideological dogmas. These tendencies are fraught with
unpredictable consequences.


In the
author’s opinion, the United States faces a different situation (it
has arisen from a different historical route), but it is similar to
Russia’s situation through the potential conclusions, however
paradoxical this may sound. As is known, the first settlers in the
U.S. were immigrants from Europe who decided to leave the Old World
with no national or ethnical motives whatsoever. For some time
“none of the immigrants represented any ethnical group at the
moment of resettlement” (p. 105). This is the reason why ideas
concerning ’Americanization’ and nation-building were quite
natural, and no serious attempts were made to reject them until the
start of the 20th century. Later, however, as national
self-consciousness grew stronger in the ’donor countries,’
immigration to America became absolutely different (incidentally,
the Americans are only beginning to realize this today). As a
result, immigrants to the United States are being ’Americanized’ to
a lesser degree; instead, they continue to form more diasporas,
that is, “segments of the population living outside their homeland”
(p. 441), “culturally distinctive communities based on views of the
common native land, common relationship [and] group solidarity” (p.
446). As Valery Tishkov stresses, diasporas are essentially not
ethnic; they are actually an instrument to assert political rights
of a certain localized group and nothing more (p. 458).


Today, the
United States is actually practicing methods that were typical of
the Soviet Union and, thus, threatens to seriously jeopardize
itself. American policymakers themselves are forming a
quasi-national self-identification of immigrants, when, for
example, they include a ’Hispanics’ category in the census.
Spanish-speaking Americans are becoming aware of themselves as
being a separate group, in part be-cause the census results “are
interpreted on a mass level and are included in the provisions of
national and state budgets as well as in legal documents” (p. 182).
If, by the start of the 2010 U.S. census, notions of ’race’ and
’ethnicity’ are not removed from the census and other official
statistics, the United States will have inevitably accepted the
“formula of ’multinationality’ that is destructive for any state…
[and that will become] a possible “farewell to America” (pp.
200-201). The consolidation of these diasporas, which are taking
increasingly bold actions, thus strengthen-ing their own
legitimacy, not only results in social controversies inside the
U.S., but also creates centers of instability abroad. As an
example, the author refers to the “Tamil diaspora in the countries
of the West and in India, which has been providing money to armed
Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka for over 20 years now” (p. 354.)
Separatism – as a misinterpreted self-determination (p. 343) – is
becoming the main source of domestic conflicts and global


Is there
any way out of this situation, which exists both in theory and in
real life? The answer that Valery Tishkov gives is extremely
simple. He urges us to get back to the ancient truth and, by
recognizing the correctness of William of Ockham’s  “pluralitas non est potenda sine necessitate,”
to follow the example of Latins, who in their time considered the
Egyptians and Syrians as naturally belonging to populus Romanus. As
we have already said before, Tishkov proposes that we cast aside
our desire for nations for the sake of peoples. Is such an approach
logical from the scientific point of view? Unfortunately, the
answer is not obvious. Given the present situation, is it necessary
to carry out such an idea? Undoubtedly, yes. Would such a proposal
be feasible? Only time will tell.


this new book by Valery Tishkov, I have probably concentrated too
much on those aspects that I consider to be positive, as well as on
those conclusions by the author that seem correct. This does not
mean, however, that his work is free from controversies and
incompatible assumptions. But its unquestionable advantage lies in
the predominance of rational thinking over abstract theorizing.
That is why some methodological rough-edged places do not affect
its overall importance to contemporary social science. From this
point of view, even some factual inaccuracies do not spoil the
picture: like the story about the reaction of French president
Francois Mitterrand, who died in January 1996, to two goals that
were scored by France’s national soccer team player Zinedine Zidan
in the 1998 World Cup final (p. 136.). Such unfortunate
inaccuracies in no way affect the high value of Tishkov’s book and,
I would say, his scientific valor.


Vladislav Inozemtsev, Doctor of Science (Economics), is
Director of Research at the Center for Post-Industrial Studies,
Editor-in-Chief of the Svobodnaya Mysl-XXI monthly, and Chairman of
the Board of Advisors of Russia in Global Affairs.