Russia’s Multi-Layered Ethnic Policies
No. 1 2008 January/March

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

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


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.

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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.

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


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

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.

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
  • 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

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

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

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

, 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

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

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