The Russian People and National Identity

9 august 2008

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.

Resume: 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. The Soviet Union was in many ways no different than other large and ethnically heterogeneous states.

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 status;

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 state.

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) nationalism.’

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 plurality.

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 identity.

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 nation.

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 nation.

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 peoples.


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.

Last updated 9 august 2008, 15:08

} Page 1 of 5