National Minorities in Putin’s Russia

Jon K. Chang

Federica Prina’s National Minorities in Putin’s Russia is an excellent successor to Rasma Karklins’s Ethnic Relations in the USSR (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986), Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), Mark Beissinger and Lubomyr Hajda’s The Nationalities Factor in Soviet Politics and Society (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990) and especially Dmitry P. Gorenburg’s Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Prina’s study most closely resembles Gorenburg’s in methodology, scope, and theoretical underpinnings (Gorenburg studied ethnic identity and mobilization for the Chuvash, Khakass, Bashkir, and Tatars all within their own autonomous territories).

The vital importance of this book is that it covers the period after Vladimir Putin’s ascension to the Presidency in 2000 and its turn away from ‘Russian democracy’ and or developmental capitalism and a re-mooring of the Russian state and society based on revamped notions of Russian nationalism and neo-Eurasianist ideas. By 2002, Putin and his associated siloviki (politicians from the security or military services, many of whom were former state security and military intelligence officers) were firmly in control and would dictate domestic public policies including social, civic, and ‘nationalities’ policies.

National Minorities in Putin’s Russia examines the interplay and construction of nationalities polices since 2000 and is based on Prina’s fieldwork in Russia focusing on three national minorities: the Tatars (Volga), Mordovians, and Karelians. These policies are now increasingly infused with prerequisites regarding Russian patriotism and the promotion of Russian cultural primacy. These informal requirements as well as the general direction of minority rights and representation function to acculturate national minorities to Russian culture, language, and values (pp. 30-35, 124, 146). This is counterbalanced by a ‘Russian revolution’ on the ground, whereby Russia is becoming increasingly Muslim and non-Slavic (Asian and Caucasian). Meanwhile, the latter trend is hardly recognized by state or is portrayed as separatist and dangerous.

Chapter 4 examines Russian statist and centrist policies which ‘level’ cultural and linguistic differences while at the same time proclaiming that cultural autonomy and international laws on minority rights are being followed. The ‘informal practices’ of the state appear to remove or reduce minority resources except for minority language education. Prina did not discuss how much was spent on educational materials for minority languages which are a real determinant in the effectiveness of language acquisition and learning (that is, if they are using the same books year after year, this would not be effective language education). In sum, Russian state agencies and institutions often provide the veneer of cultural autonomy with very little implementation of its associated programmes (pp. 70, 74, 79).

The next chapter ‘Homogenising Centralism’ is very detailed and excellent. Prina details how Putin’s government and centralized power has taken away representation and power from autonomous republics, regions, and okrugs such as Tatarstan, Mordovia, Karelia, Bashkortostan, and others through the process of centralisation while removing or completely dissolving previous federal representative councils and institutions. The previous federally representative legislatures, institutions, and leaders were voted into power locally. The devolution of power to several of the autonomous republics such as Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, and Tatarstan actually began in the Soviet period (peaking in 1990) and produced locally elected leaders and political cliques loyal to regional ‘national’ (ethnic) leaders. These structures have been destroyed or neutralised under Putin. National Minorities in Putin’s Russia details how the regime dealt with the ‘dictatorship of the [autonomous and regional] law’ by removing the elections process of local leaders in favour of federal appointments which were controlled primary by the office of the President. Many other measures were introduced such as the ‘municipal filter’ law, the early elections which favoured Kremlin backed incumbents and the exclusion of regional (i.e. national minority) leaders from the Federation Council which is the Russian Parliament’s upper house (pp. 108-114). In many cases, the autonomous regions are now represented in the Council by representatives who are not national minorities and are simply bureaucrats from Moscow or St. Petersburg. In other cases, the so-called minority representatives are far removed from the regions that they claim to represent as their educational, professional, and political moorings emanate entirely from Moscow or outside of the represented regions. Thus, these representatives could hardly be expected to fight for the critical issues of their constituents in Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Karelia, and other areas. Their loyalties to the centre were the primary consideration for their ascension (p. 110-111).

This centralism along with Law 309 transferred local and regional authority in ‘minority language’ and autonomous regional educational programmes from the national autonomous regions to Moscow. Chapter 8 chronicles the further disempowerment of regional and national minority representation and federal authority through the NCAs’ (National Cultural Autonomy representative bodies). The NCAs’ ‘provided no real autonomy to minority groups’ and Prina gives a detailed description of how these structures were neutralised beginning with the shift from NCAs’ representing ‘national territorial’ regions and peoples to ‘national-cultural’ principles. National Minorities in Putin’s Russia did not explicitly explain how this affected the authority or federal funding of the NCAs’ but it is assumed that these representative bodies became limited to locally funded and elected representatives which could not affect decisions made by the Kremlin and the Federation Council. The author concludes by noting that the policies and politics of the Russian Federation have produced ‘declining levels of linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversity’ (p. 228).

Prina’s National Minorities in Putin’s Russia is an excellent monograph based on fieldwork, interviews and surveys. The anonymous interviews and especially the quotes gave both ‘voice’ and realism to the fears of Russia’s national minorities and their loss of representation and rights under the post-2000 ‘centralisation’ of cultural autonomy. Some of the quotes were startling regarding the trend towards the ‘atomization’ of national minority identity and representation. They point to the fact that the maintenance of these minority identities will increasingly have to be maintained and expressed by the individual (rather than through state funded community institutions) despite the said persons residing in ‘autonomous’ regions bearing their titular ethnonym. Finally, a precautionary warning to the phenomenon of ‘cultural and minority disempowerment’ that National Minorities in Putin’s Russia chronicles is in order.

There has always been some degree of primordialism in the nomenclature and identity politics of Soviet and Russian national minorities and indigenes. They are seen and named (in Russian) as Russian-Poles, Russian-Germans, Russian-Finns, Karelians, Chuvash, Tatars, and so forth (rather than as Polish-Russians, German-Russians, Finnish-Russians, etc.) with the placement of the noun, for example, in the word ‘Russian-German’ as the key marker of identity and political loyalty. The ethnic nomenclature ‘Russian-German’ used in Russia indicates that at one’s core, there is some degree of essentialized Germanness that still remains affecting one’s character and worldviews even after eight to twelve generations in Russia such as in the case of the Volga Germans.

Since the year 2000 in the Russian Federation, ‘cultural autonomy and representation’ have been severely curtailed and attenuated. The desire for the representation and expression of national (i.e. ethnic and non-Russian) identity will not disappear due to its primordialist, linguistic, historical, and cultural foundations. There is the possibility that these national minority sentiments, groups and identities will reappear or reassert themselves in religious or political forms which would be considered ‘extremism’. This would constitute a far more dangerous threat to the Russian state than the costs of a healthy debate between civic-minded representatives, their institutions, and the time and cost factor that these discussions incur.