The Russian People and National Identity
No. 3 2008 July/September
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.

Mechanisms for affirming national identity as a foundation of
Russia’s statehood have long been the source of much controversy
among Russian policymakers and experts, while debates on this issue
are superficial and overly emotional. Juggling with such
fundamental notions as ‘people’ and ‘nation’ involves serious risks
for society and the state. In the Russian political vocabulary, the
word ‘nationalism’ is attributed a negative meaning. Meanwhile,
nationalism played a key role in the formation of modern states and
largely remains a major political ideology of the modern age.

In Russia, these debates have contributed to the development of
three main characterizations of Russian society and the state:

First, Russia is a multination state, which
makes it totally different from other countries;

Second, Russia is a state of ethnic Russians
(Russkii) with a host of other ethnic minorities whose members can
either identify themselves as Russians or acknowledge that the
ethnic Russian majority rightfully enjoys the state-building

Third, Russia (Rossiya) is a national state
featuring a multi-ethnic “Rossiyan” nation (Rossiyane) underpinned
by the Russian language and culture, and embracing members of other
ethnic communities (usually defined as peoples, nationalities,
ethnic groups or nations).

The Russian authorities, including the current and former
presidents, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin, have embraced this
final characterization, which advances the notion of the Rossiyan
people as a historical entity or civic nation. While it has its
opponents, particularly among champions of ethnic nationalism who
have proclaimed “a failure of the construction of a civic nation,”
this interpretation of Russia’s current identity has been accepted
and supported by a large number of intellectuals and policymakers
as the only feasible option for Russia. Indeed, the formula is in
line with the state (civic) national identity that has been adopted
and proven successful in other major multi-ethnic countries around
the world.


Throughout the world, public policy discourses have come to
embrace the perception of nations as territorial and political
entities featuring complex – although integrated – social and
cultural systems. No matter how ethnically or religiously
heterogeneous some countries might be, they invariably define
themselves as ‘nations’ and consider their states ‘national’ or
‘nation states.’ ‘People’ and ‘nation’ are synonyms here, and it is
these two categories that impart primordial legitimacy to a modern

The perception of a united people/nation is a key factor in
ensuring stability and accord in society, and is as strong a
guarantee of the state’s strength as the Constitution, the Army and
the guarded borders. The ideology of a ‘civic nation’ embraces the
following attributes: the ethos of a responsible citizen; a unified
education system; a commonly shared vision of the country’s past –
both good and bad; a calendar and symbols; feelings of attachment
to the country; loyalty to the state; and the upholding of national
interests. All these factors form what is called ‘state (civic)

Civic nationalism exists in contrast to the ideology of ethnic
nationalism, which embodies exclusively one or another ethnic
community, often either a majority or minority of the given
country’s population. That community considers only its immediate
members, rather than all fellow countrymen, to be part of the
nation, and, in instances of ethnic nationalism, seeks its own
statehood or some form of preferential status. Clearly, there are
important disparities between the two types of nationalism,
especially given that ethnic nationalism stems from an ideology of
exclusion and a rejection of diversity, while civic nationalism is
based on an ideology of solidarity and readily integrated

Extreme nationalism among ethnic minorities presents a risk to
the state – and to civic nationalism – particularly if they seek to
secede from the country through the use of force. Admittedly,
ethnic nationalism on behalf of a dominant group can likewise carry
some serious risks. If such a community attempts to claim exclusive
ownership of the state, it in turn risks engendering opponents of
this state among the various subordinated ethnic communities.

For example, in India, Hindu nationalism on behalf of the
Hindi-speaking majority sparked a string of domestic civil-war-like
confrontations. Therefore, the Indian authorities now want to
bolster the notion of an Indian nation that can encompass the
country’s multitude of ethnic, religious and racial communities,
both large and small. Since the times of Mahatma Gandhi and
Jawaharlal Nehru, local elites and the state have been working to
shore up civic Indian nationalism as a counterweight to Hindu
nationalism or any other nationalism on behalf of ethnic or
religious minorities. Thanks to a focused endeavor to sustain that
ideology, India continues to enjoy its national integrity.

In China too, the dominant ethnic group (Han) and the concept of
the Chinese nation (Minzu) largely correspond in terms of
demography and core culture. Nonetheless, the Han have been unable
to promote themselves as the dominant state-making ethnic nation
due to the 55 other non-Han ethnic groups (or nationalities) that
exist in China, which account for over 100 million people. Han
chauvinism, criticized since the times of Mao Zedong, poses a
threat to Chinese statehood for the very reason that it risks
provoking discontent and separatism by non-Han communities, leading
to the eventual disintegration of China. The concept of a civic
Chinese nation made up of all the country’s citizens was developed
a few decades ago, and it appears to be working well toward
establishing and sustaining a unified Chinese national

These two national identities, both civic and ethnic, similarly
coexist in many other countries (Spain, the United Kingdom,
Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mexico, Canada, etc.), including
Russia. Understandably, such nations feature a complex ethnic,
religious and racial mix of communities, yet the dominant culture,
language and religion nearly always provide the national cultural
framework: English for the British nation, Castilian for the
Spanish, Han for the Chinese, and Russian for the Rossiyan

Therefore, while there are certain unique features of Russia’s
nation-building ideology and its practice of using the ‘nation’
category, modern-day Russia is generally not exceptional in terms
of its construction as a nation.


A state is considered legitimate if its population views itself
as a united nation loyal to its state. In Russia, this is the
Russian (Rossiyan) people (Rossiyane). This notion emerged in the
times of Emperor Peter the Great and scientist and writer Mikhail
Lomonosov and was further developed by outstanding public figures,
starting from Nikolai Karamzin.

Russia developed a notion of Russian (Rossiyan) or “pan-Russian”
(Pyotr Struve) nation at the same time (in the 18th and 19th
centuries) as Europe and America formed the idea of modern nations
based on civic nationalism. The words ‘Russkii’ and ‘Rossiyan’ were
largely synonyms. The word ‘Russkii’ referred more to local customs
and culture, while the word ‘Rossiyan’ referred to the whole

For example, according to Karamzin, being a Rossiyan primarily
amounted to having the capacity to feel a profound bond with the
homeland (not the Tsar alone) and the desire to be a “perfect
citizen.” This understanding of the notion of Rossiyan-ness was
built on the basis of Russian culture and Orthodox Christianity (as
well as on Catholic cultures in western Russia and Islamic ones in
the Volga region). It imposed itself as the dominant school of
thought, marginalizing the potential for ethnic nationalism not
only in the country’s center, but also across its far-flung
provinces (except for Poland and Finland).

Following on from this notion of a civic Rossiyan national
identity, manifested in its various liberal-imperial and federalist
forms, Struve quite rightly concluded that “Russia is a nation
state” and that “while seeking to expand its core geographically,
Russia has turned into a state featuring both national unity and
multi-ethnic diversity.”

However, in Russia there were also supporters of an ethnographic
Great Russian (Velikoruss) identity, according to whom the
territory and the dominant culture of the empire was the sole
preserve of the ethnic Russian majority. In fact, the long-standing
endeavor to re-conceptualize the empire as a nation state of the
Rossiyan “multi-peopled nation” (as defined by Ivan Ilyin) had
still not been fully completed by 1917. While this was
understandable given the enormity of the task in such a
geographically vast and ethnically diverse country, it was
primarily the result of a narrow-minded and ideologically
disoriented ruling autocracy and political elite. Nevertheless, it
would be a mistake to think that, since pre-revolutionary Russia
was an empire, it therefore was not a nation state.

Pre-revolutionary Russia already invoked, in the minds of its
many different countrymen, a clear understanding of national
territory, national economy and national interests. Furthermore,
there existed a relatively large and both ethnically and
religiously diverse stratum of educated professionals and civil
servants who perceived themselves as members of the single Rossiyan
people and regarded Russia as their homeland. It was not accidental
that during the revolution and the Civil War opponents of
Bolsheviks were united by the slogan of “defending a single and
indivisible Russia.”
The perception of pre-revolutionary Russia as a “patchwork empire”
and a “prison of peoples” was invented in Soviet times due to the
revolutionary rejection of the past. Recent studies of nationalism
suggest that pre-1917 Russia, far from being a historical anomaly,
was in fact some form of emerging nation state, with its national
core being built around the Russian language and culture.


Under the Soviet regime, the nation-building project placed
greater emphasis on recognizing the rights and separate identities
of Russia’s ethnic groups. Ethno-territorial autonomies acquired
“ethnic statehood” in the form of Union and autonomous republics.
Finally, ethnic communities and regional/religious/tribal
identities were engineered into “socialist nations.”

Starting in 1926, Soviet population censuses featured a
mandatory nationality question that forced all citizens to identify
with the ethnic background of one parent. The country’s population
was thus broken down into “nations” and “nationalities” (ethnic
groups), whose overall number depended on counting procedures and
political-ideological guidelines. The content of the notion
‘Russkii’ changed and began to denote only former “Great Russians,”
while the latter term disappeared first from public usage and then
from people’s self-consciousness. People living in “Little Russia”
(now known as Ukraine) began to call themselves Ukrainians;
Belarusians remained Belarusians; but both groups ceased to
consider themselves Russians at the same time.

Nonetheless, the Soviet model – while entrenching new ethnic and
cultural divisions – also sought to provide a unifying ideology
that would bind all the peoples of the Union of Soviet Socialist
Republics together. In this way, through narratives of
internationalism and friendship among peoples, bolstered and
enforced by iron-rule authoritarianism, the Soviet Union fostered
an ideology of Soviet patriotism. In fact, while such a reality was
never admitted or acknowledged by the leadership, the Soviet people
actually constituted a civic nation, with the Soviet Union being a
kind of nation state. While its specific ideological framework was
unique, the Soviet Union was in many ways no different than other
large and ethnically heterogeneous states that have been and are
known as nation states, such as the United Kingdom, Spain, China,
India, Indonesia, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and others.

The granting of statehood to ethnic territories was one of the
factors in the Soviet Union’s breakup in the name of “national” –
that is, ethnic – self-determination. After the breakup, the Soviet
nation as a community was declared to be a chimera, and the Soviet
Union was the “last empire.” However, despite the radical upheaval
of the 1917 revolution and the watershed shift that took place, a
series of studies have convincingly argued that the Soviet Union
was an extension – in terms of its civic project – of the
pre-revolutionary Russian state. At the same time, the word
‘Rossiya’ disappeared from the country’s name, as did the notions
‘Rossiyan people’ and ‘Rossiyans’ from the language.

The Soviet modernization and cultural policy, for all their
distortions, helped small cultures to survive and develop, while
common historical trials and accomplishments contributed to the
consolidation of a civic nation in terms of entrenching similar
social, cultural and behavioral patterns among the Soviet


Due to the inertia of political and legal thinking, the Russian
Constitution continues to feature the concept of multi-nationality,
but this would be best substituted by the concept of a
‘multi-peopled nation.’ It is necessary to consistently affirm the
notions ‘nation’ and ‘national’ in the official civic sense,
without rejecting the established practice of using these notions
in an ethno-cultural capacity.
The coexistence of two different meanings for such a politically
and emotionally loaded notion as ‘nation’ is possible within the
framework of one country. At the same time, the primacy of the
civic national identity is indisputable for its citizens, however
hard ethnic nationalists may dispute this fact. The political
leadership must explain that these two forms of identity are not
mutually exclusive and that the notions ‘Rossiyan people,’
‘Rossiyan nation’ and ‘Rossiyans’ do not deny the existence of
ethnic Russian identity, Ossetian identity, Tatar identity, or that
of any other people living in the country.

The overall effort to sustain and develop the languages and
cultures of the peoples of Russia should proceed hand in hand with
acknowledging the Rossiyan nation and Rossiyan identity as a
fundamental characteristic of its citizens. This innovation is long
overdue and is already recognized at the level of common sense and
practiced in everyday life. Public opinion polls and everyday
practices of Russian citizens show that their civic and state
affiliation and the recognition of their Rossiyan-ness is more
important to them than their ethnic affiliation.

Some current proposals are unfeasible to affirm in Russia the
notion of not a ‘Rossiyan’ but a ‘Russian’ nation and to reanimate
the pre-revolutionary notion of “Russians” as all those who
consider themselves to be so. Ukrainians and Belarusians living in
Russia will never agree to be called Russians again, while Tatars
or Chechens have never identified themselves as Russians. Yet, all
these and other ethnic groups in this country view themselves as
Rossiyans. The prestige of Russian-ness and the status of Russians
can and must be enhanced not by rejecting Rossiyan-ness but by
affirming the double (Russian and Rossiyan) identity; by improving
living conditions in regions largely populated by ethnic Russians;
and finally, by promoting their social and political representation
in the Russian state.

Modern states have come to acknowledge multiple and
non-exclusive identities at the community and individual level.
This weakens ethno-cultural borderlines within co-citizenship and
promotes national consolidation. In addition, it more adequately
reflects the self-consciousness of people born of mixed marriages.
In Russia, where one-third of its people come from mixed couples,
there still persists the practice of mandatory registration of a
single ethnic affiliation. This practice results in personal
violence and in heated debates about ethnic affiliation. In order
to promote national consolidation and better reflect the
ethno-religious diversity of Russia’s citizens, the forthcoming
population census should allow for the registration of multiple
ethnic affiliations.

In the light of the new doctrine, there should be no strict
limitations on the use of the word ‘nation.’ At the same time, the
state should refer to national priorities and strategic national
interests as “national policy,” while the policy of sustaining and
managing the country’s ethno-cultural diversity should be termed as
ethnic or ethno-cultural policy.

Today, all states in the world consider themselves nation
states, and Russia has no grounds to be an exception. A ubiquitous
effort is underway across the globe to establish the concept of a
nation as free from racial, ethnic or religious dimensions. A
nation is forged as the result of a sustained effort on the part of
any given country’s political and intellectual elites, articulating
and disseminating their self-perception as a unified nation with a
common set of values, symbols and aspirations, rather than striving
to achieve ethno-cultural uniformity.

Such general views exist in countries with a more disunited
population than that of Russia, whereas Russia features a real
community of Rossiyan nationals (Rossiyane) sharing a single set of
historical and social values, patriotism, culture and language.
However, a large part of the Russian elite seek to deny this
community, so there is an urgent need to change the situation.
National identity can be developed through a host of tools and
strategies, with the primary objectives being to assure civic
equity, pursue education and awareness programs, cultivate the
state language, develop the symbols and calendar, and sustain
cultural and mass-media activities. Following the completion of
crucial political and economic reforms, Russia now needs to review
its ideological and doctrinal documents underpinning the ongoing
effort to achieve civic solidarity and national identity.

This material was prepared for a discussion at the symposium
“Foresight: Russia in the 21st Century,” organized by the
international forum of Deutsche Bank, the Alfred Herrhausen
Society, in partnership with the Russian Council on Foreign and
Defense Policy, and Policy Network, a British think tank.