Do Russians in Ukraine indeed require protection, and who counts as a Russian?
Russia is showing a lot of care for its “fellow countrymen” and is carrying out an informational attack in the post-Soviet territory, including in Ukraine. This forces one to contemplate what meaning is attached today to the simple and seemingly self-evident word Russian. What does it mean to count as one? Who should be considered a Russian? What are the consequences of this identification? These questions are clearly simply for academics, because the answers to them will determine specific policies in Ukrainian national security.
For starters, one word is used to refer to four or five different types of communities. (The Russian word can refer to three to four groups, as we will see below.) The first type is the ethnos itself – “Great Russians,” descendants of Eastern Slavs who have inhabited the territory of several western regions in what is now the Russian Federation at least since the 7th century A.D. The second type, more numerous than the first one, embraces the autochthonous, largely Finno-Ugric tribes that lived more to the east and north and were assimilated back in the Middle Ages as evidenced by genetic analysis, local toponymy, ethnographic materials, and so on. All this research should be used with utmost care to avoid a racist approach, but anthropology as a science is still valid, but specifics are needed in order to at least neutralize the demagogical ideology of “three brotherly Slavic peoples.” (For the sake of justice, it should be mentioned that Ukrainians themselves are a motley crew in equal measure, so there is hardly any need to boast of "racial purity".)
There is a third type of Russians – any citizen of the Russian Federation, including those living in the Urals, Siberia, the Far East, the Volga Region and the Kuban, i.e., people who speak the language and identify themselves as part of the Russian cultural community regardless of their ethnic origin. One may take the liberty of calling them political Russians. They include, quite legitimately, descendants of Germans, Greeks, Tatars, Jews, Kalmyks and Ukrainians no matter how many generations ago their ancestors began to identify themselves with this nation. As is well known, the policy of the Russian Empire was aimed at the rapid assimilation of so-called inorodtsy (non-Russians, the official term at the time), while official records kept track of religious affiliation rather than nationality as was the case in Soviet times. This fact led certain people to speak about some extraordinary Russian tolerance with references being made to “Ethiopian” Pushkin, “Scot” Lermontov and “German” Blok. In fact, this phenomenon was quite typical of the oldest European states, while exotic distant ancestors are still sometimes considered an attribute of aristocratic lineage.
However, there is also a fourth type of Russian – representatives of national minorities in the Russian Federation who have not lost their ethnic and cultural roots and live largely in so-called national autonomies. They include people who have preserved their way of life, language and religion almost unchanged (such as the North Caucasian peoples) and those who have been assimilated almost to the point of no return (Chuvash, Mordvins and others).
Finally, the fifth type includes so-called “compatriots” living outside the Russian Federation who are identified as such without regard to their ethnic background but simply as former subjects of a no longer existing state.
An additional obstacle to putting the Russian terms narod (people), natsiya (nation) and natsionalnost (nationality) in European context is partly due to Vladimir Lenin. Proceeding from either his notions of justice or personal psychological traumas, he insisted that the USSR be constructed as a multitiered entity in which autonomies were preserved to the greatest possible extent — hence all the republics, regions and territories which obtained nominal, decorative sovereignty. This extravagance made life much more difficult for new rulers of the restored empire. After the demise of the USSR, the leadership of the Russian Federation had to come up with two terms: russkiye (Russians in any of the first three types) and rossiyane (citizens of the Russian Federation).
EDUCATING CITIZENS OR MANUFACTURING SUBJECTS?
The framework that holds these overlapping entities together is identification with the empire. Without it the entire edifice makes no sense. It is not a question of state but of a special order with certain hierarchies, interaction patterns, delegation of power and, of course, its own mythology. To many people, inclusion in the “Russian project” is perhaps the most important personal identification factor, in a certain sense more significant than personal fulfilment, career, well-being, etc. This project of making citizens has gone through several incarnations. While it cannot be reduced to specific political dogmas or strategies, it remains an artistic formula which permits some to carve up the budget pie to suit themselves and steal natural resources while others are left to fill their lives with illusions. Thus, the project has been experienced a number of transformations: “collecting lands,” “a window to Europe,” “gendarme of Europe,” “protection of fellow believers” (incidentally accompanied by the seizure of Constantinople), “autocracy, Orthodoxy and nationality” and, finally, “uniting proletarians of all countries.” However, its core meaning from day one until now has been expansion.
Russia is not the first empire whose main goal has been to expand its borders and impose its rule on conquered territories. Each one of these empires, from Rome to Austria-Hungary, looked not to meet its subjects’ interests but secure gain for the ruling class and above all sought power for power’s sake. The Russian Empire offered its subjugated people education, access to its culture (within strictly censured limits), social advancement and an opportunity to enter into the existing hierarchies at the cost of the complete renunciation of their own future scenarios and, ideally, originality and identity. In the last years of the USSR’s existence, many representatives of the local elites – both in its European part and in Central Asia and the Caucasus – completely abandoned their native language in favor of the official language used by the central administration.
Final homogenization was a priority — it even justified the neglect of Russia’s economic interests and allowed the elite to provide subsidies to certain provinces. It should be acknowledged that the “titular nation” (Russians in the first and second category) did not have preferences in this kind of system; they suffered from lawlessness and arbitrary rule in equal measure, but did receive moral compensation sufficient to justify the sacrifices in their own eyes.
Meanwhile, the “political Russians” — the representatives of conquered nations — sometimes assumed this identify willingly and without much hesitation. Some of them as neophytes even turned out to be more consistent, insistent and uncompromising defenders of “higher” interests. Ukrainians have such telling examples among their own numbers as Teofan Prokopovych and Dmytro Tuptalo, the “architects” of the Russian Empire; Nikolai Gogol, the guardian of Muscovite Orthodoxy; and a number of leading figures from Bezborodko to Khrushchev.
An elaborate system of rituals and an excelling culture were other important attractions in the case of Russia, just like in almost any other empire. (To a significant extent culture was created by recruited foreigners, for example, Italians Antonio Solari and Aristotile Fioravanti worked on the Kremlin and Rastrelli, Quarenghi, Rossi and Thon on Saint Petersburg’s architecture). However, the main identifying marker was the Russian language, as well as Russian Orthodoxy and, later, communist doctrine. Language as a universal identifier stopped being a property of Russians-1 and Russians-2. It turned into a kind of lingua franca, an attribute of one’s recognition of and loyalty to the empire. The fact that Hertsen and Solzhenitsyn wrote dissident texts (in the classical sense) and, for example, Galich and Vysotsky produced freedom-loving poetry in Russian does not alter its political function in the past and present. Language was the cement of the empire. Unfortunately, it remains a tool with which attempts are being made to restore it.
Even in its contemporary form, made primitive to suit the needs of pop singers and characters in reality shows, Russian preserves its ideological function of being the carrier of certain values (expressed in disparaging sayings about America, for example) and a certain type of political culture (“the vertical of power,” “rub them out in the outhouse,” etc.) After all, language is a collection of texts articulated with its help, so no one is capable of completely cleansing it of the current connotations.
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO
The breakup of an empire is always a dramatic process. Global processes take no account of the lives and feelings of individuals. It is easy to picture the melancholy of a patrician in a remote province of the Roman Empire in the face of rebels (barbarians in his eyes) whose emotions had not in the least concerned himself until that moment. One can relate to the despair of those “barbarians” who had adopted the language and customs of the dominant nation and already felt they were full-fledged Romans but suddenly lost their system of reference. Recoding takes more than one generation, while affected nostalgia for the lost psychological comfort can continue to recur for years. (For example, despite historical tension, it is still a status symbol to speak Polish in Lviv these days.) However, when empires dissolve, their loyal, so to speak, fragments are doomed to marginalization or repatriation. At the same time, a typical individual scenario involves reclaiming some of the identity lost by the previous generations. It does not necessarily mean a total change of conduct, including linguistic behavior, but at least an awareness and acknowledgment of certain values which were previously deemed unacceptable or irrelevant. These subjects would be forever lost to the mental empire.
We could argue about how fast the Russian language and the Russia-oriented part of Ukrainian culture would give up ground in Ukraine. Similarly, we could debate about the rights of the Russian-speaking community (Russians-5) based on concepts of human rights. But it would all be in vain, because the factors that affect these processes are targeted actions on the part of Russia and its local lobbyists, not to mention the natural advantages big markets have over small ones. Consequently, the existing total dominance of Russian and Russian-language products (even those that are produced locally but geared toward the Russian market) in Ukraine’s contemporary cultural space forces one to call a spade a spade, because care for the Russians or the Russian-speaking population in our country is clearly coupled with silencing several foundational circumstances:
1. In the existing situation there is no question of any cultural exchange. There is only Russia’s unidirectional and unchecked ideological and political influence on Ukraine.
2. A large part of Russian-speaking Ukrainians do not need or want to have protection from the outside. It would make them uncomfortable at best.
3. Russia is not a mono-ethnic state but a multinational federation, at least officially, so from a formal standpoint, it is not clear why it should concern itself with the rights of just one of its numerous constituent ethnicities.
4. Russians in Ukraine are largely a political, rather than ethnic, community, so satisfying their needs has a definite character which, without being limited to culture only, benefits the state with which they still identify mentally.
5. The vast majority of informational and artistic products that flow to Ukraine from the Russian Federation have nothing to do with the great Russian culture of Chekhov and Tolstoy, Meyerhold and Stanislavsky, Tarkovsky and German, or Brodsky and Okudzhava. It bears the marks of mass culture adapted to suit aborigines and carries an ideological burden fitted to the task.
The scope of the resources Russia expends to conquer Ukraine’s cultural and information space points to the purposeful and conscious nature of its actions. In this case, it is the duty of our state as represented by competent bodies to analyze the situation, recognize possible real or illusory threats and produce an balanced response.