Thursday, April 24, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Language and Culture Not History ‘Main Unifying Factors’ for Russians, Valdai Club Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 24 – The Russian language and Russian culture are today “the main unifying factor[s]” for the citizens of the Russian Federation, unlike history which continues to be a source of divisions given that different groups have different understandings of past events, according to the Valdai International Discussion Club.

            The Moscow Higher School of Economics has summarized the club’s discussions on this point last fall in a new report entitled “National Identity and the Future of Russia.” Yesterday, Olga Vandysheva discussed its contents in an article on the “Expert Online” portal (

            In addition to the group’s conclusions about the relative utility of language and culture, on the one hand, and history, on the other, the report suggested that “the potential of a factor like the tradition of defending the country from eternal or internal enemies is also exhausted” because “people are tired of conflicts.”

            And the report continued, the enormous size of the country, “which could become a colossal resource for strengthening national identity, is not viewed by the majority of Russians as a source of identity,” even though the country’s size and wealth “exert an enormous influence on national character.”

            At the presentation of the report this week, Igor Makarov, who teaches at the Higher School of Economics, said Russians think about the size of their country “abstractly” because “very often, not having the feeling of being a master in their own country, people do not understand what they can love.” That explains, he said, the lack of patriotism in some groups.

            Valery Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, commented that few were prepared to accept the idea he and others began to propound in the early 1990s that “the Russian Federation is a multi-ethnic civic nation.” Skeptics dismissed it as something Yeltsin had dreamed up and that only ethnic groups could be nations.

            That has left Russia in an “anomalous” position, he continued. It has all the features of a nation but does not have a nation as such. Thus, the ethnographer said, he welcomed the new report’s recognition of the non-ethnic Russian [rossiiskaya] nation as having its own identity and self-consciousness.”

            Irina Khakamade, a member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, said that it was important to stress that there is “no contradiction” between liberalism and patriotism, despite what many think, but she added that linking the national self-identification of Russians to the defense of the country as many do was out of date.

            Vandysheva quotes the report: While the defense of the country has long been part of Russian identity, “it is incorrect to define this cult of force as a manifestation of aggressiveness or a desire to beat the weak ...  Today the psychology of living in a besieged fortress inherited from Soviet times is [still] strong ... [but Russia] has overcome” the sense of weakness of the 1990s.

            Khakamda said that the current understanding of patriotism is “closely connected with geopolitical thinking: our country is large and we will be happy if it will be still larger.” She said she doesn’t accept this line of thought because expansionism is being used to distract attention from problems at home.

            “The most important thing,” she said, “is not a large territory but that the state in dealing with it creates good conditions for the individual” by establishing a meritocracy.

            Leonty Byzov of the Moscow Institute of Sociology said that already ten years ago, his surveys found that Russians closely link patriotism and social justice. He said that Russians had experienced “a crisis of identity” in the 1990s and looked to the strengthening of the state as a means to overcoming that problem.

            But the sociologist said that he “does not see imperial ideas” behind that trend. “Those values are not popular. On the contrary, people are extremely negative about various diasporas” and not to the Ukrainians.  “These are not characteristics of an imperial nation.” Rather, he said, they point to “a strengthening of the idea of a nation state” consisting of “ethnic Russians and those people who are integrated in the frameworks of the Russian project.”

            Russians have “a paternalistic consciousness,” he continued. They want a strong state but the state must be just and “defend the interests of ordinary people”

            The Higher School of Economics report stressed that Russian values have changed over the past several decades. “Now,” it says, “material well-being and consumption are in first place in the system of values.”  That has the effect of undermining spiritual values, Khakamada suggested.

            Byzov agreed. “The communal mentality has passed into history. Now people live in an atomized way and the impact of social ties is extremely limited” beyond one’s immediate family and friends. Few are prepared to sacrifice very much for the state or for any broader values, he said his studies showed.

            The sociologist concluded that “Russians often stress their distinctiveness” from others, but he suggested that this should not be exaggerated, especially now.  Both Russia and the West are consumer societies, he said, adding that when Russians say their country is not part of Europe or Asia, one needs to remember that Asia and China are “rapidly westernizing.”

            Consequently, he said, the opposition between East and West “is losing its meaning because the East is ceasing to be the East and the West the West.  Mass culture, connected with a common information space is overwhelming the traditional differences  in mentality.”

Window on Eurasia: Might Moscow Lose Control of Forces It has Unleashed in Ukraine?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 24 – It is notoriously easier to spark a protest movement than to control its direction thereafter or to ensure that it does not become a model for others one does not want to be involved.  That risk is now on display in eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow activists are not only seeking to undermine Kyiv’s control but also attacking their own oligarchs.

            Moscow has actively promoted and organized protests in eastern Ukraine against the authorities in Kyiv as part of its effort to weaken and dismember that country, but the Kremlin is likely to be less pleased by one direction these protests are taking: attacks on their own oligarchs, a group with which the Kremlin has sought to work and on which it relies in Russia itself.

            As Aleksey Verkhoyantsev of “Svobodnaya pressa” noted yesterday, “experts have long predicted that the political crisis in Ukraine would soon acquire a social dimension” and that the mixing of these two elements “could lead to unpredictable [and potentially uncontrollable] consequences” (

                Boris Shmelyov, an expert at the Moscow Institute of Economics and a professor at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, told him that one of the reasons for this is that “for the majority of citizens of Ukraine living in the South-East, the term ‘federalization’ is not very well understood.”

            The ordinary miner there isn’t interested in such details, and consequently “now we see that the residents of the Donbass are advancing social demands” which are both more understandable to them and more explosive. As the situation in Greece shows, such demands will only intensify as Kyiv seeks to meet the demands of the IMF.

            Verkhoyantsev asked Shmelyov directly: Could this movement escape the control “not only of Kyiv but of Moscow as well?” Might the radicals “who today are calling for the creation of peoples republics in the South-East refuse to recognize the power of the oligarchs and, for example, nationalize the mines and other major enterprises?”

            The Moscow economist did not respond directly but said that dual power already exists in many parts of eastern Ukraine but that real control is passing more or less quickly into the hands of those opposed to Kyiv. The social dimension of the protests will only accelerate this process, but at the same time, it will radicalize the anti-Kyiv forces.

             “The dissatisfaction with the oligarchs in the Donbass and Luhansk is great,” Shmelyov said. They are to blame for much of the suffering of local workers. “Social anger is growing, and this will lead to a conflict between the population and the owners of factories and mines.”  And that in turn may lead the new powers to nationalize those facilities.

            Consequently, what we are seeing, he continued, “is not only the increasing collapse of Ukrainian statehood and the sharpening of regional conflicts in Ukraine. We are seeking the destruction of that liberal-oligarchic model of social-economic development on which Ukraine had been developing in recent years.”

             Aleksandr Shatilov, a sociologist at Moscow’s Finance University, agreed, adding only that the tensions between workers and owners were growing not just in eastern Ukraine but throughout the country.  He predicted that it was quite likely that there would be “a war not only against Kyiv but also against the Ukrainian oligarchs.”

            And Sergey Vasiltsov, a KPRF Duma deputy who is director of the Center for Research on the Political Culture of Russia, agreed as well and said that despite the problems workers have in uniting, it is quite possible that demands for “’a state without oligarchs’” would soon be sounding in Ukraine.

            Vasiltsov said the solution was for eastern Ukraine to become part of Russia because there is no place now in the world for smaller states. They must be part of some larger one or the satellites of some other.

            It is certainly true that the passions of the miners and workers in eastern Ukraine could at least in the short term help Moscow to further undermine Kyiv. But their attacks on the oligarchs as a group simultaneously pose a threat to the Kremlin because they strike at the basis of the power of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia.

            And just as activists in three Russian oblasts have asked Moscow to “invade” their regions so that they can have the rights Putin has promised Crimea, so too some in the Russian Federation may take away from this latest turn of events in Ukraine not just the nationalist one the Kremlin has been promoting but a social and class one as well.

            To the extent that happens, Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea and his continuing subversion of eastern Ukraine could have serious blowback inside the Russian Federation, causing Russians to question the rule of the wealthy and powerful and thinking about how much better it would be for themselves if they could have “a state without oligarchs” too.

Window on Eurasia: Putin Using ‘New Kind of War’ in Ukraine, Latynina Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 24 – Vladimir Putin has developed “a new kind of war” in Ukraine, one that has achieved many of his goals including the partial dismemberment of that country and the creation of a new region on the basis of his perception of “new international conditions, according to Yuliya Latynina.

            In an article in yesterday’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” the Moscow commentator says that this war has four particular characteristics.  Because the Russian president has used them with such success in Ukraine and because as a result he may apply them elsewhere in the former Soviet space, they deserve close attention (

            The first of these characteristics of the new type of war Putin has launched concerns the use of women and children.  “In traditional wars,” Latynina points out, these are not used “because they are weak. But in the new war, they are “an important military force,” and Putin himself has suggested they must be used: “’Let them try to shoot at their own children,’” he said.

            As Latynina notes, the first to use this tactic were the Palestinians; now it is being used by the Russian “liberators” of Ukraine.  It is based on the idea that “under new world rules, he who shoots at the civilian population is wrong” and the creation of a situation in which one side forces the other to do so or back down.

            The second characteristic of the new type of war is its focus on the media as a battleground.  “PR operatives are a no less important component of it than ‘the living shield’” women and children offer.  More than that, she continues, in this new kind of war, “the goal of one or another operation is public relations” rather than a direct victory on the battlefield.

            Again, this strategy was developed and is used by Hamas, but now it has been taken up by Moscow. Like the Palestinians, Moscow sees the presentation of its side as victims as being “more important than achieving victory” or in fact as the victory it sees.  In such conflicts, “crudely speaking it is no longer necessary to kill others. It is sufficient to kill one’s own and cover that with sufficient PR activity.”

            The third feature is that one invariably accuses others of what one is doing oneself. By so doing, “the aggressor blames others for the victims he has in fact created.” Thus, again like the Palestinians, “Moscow is sending armed diversionists into Donets and organizing the local dregs of the population, but at the same time, it accuses the West of doing that.”

            The fourth characteristic, Latynina says, is that “the main object of attack is the brains of those whom you are liberating.” The main target “is not the opponent but one’s own or ‘liberated’ population.” It is “zombified” through the promotion of hysteria about an enemy that does not in fact exist. Again the Palestinians have shown the way, she writes.

            This is an extension of the world George Orwell described in “1984,” one in which “propaganda and duplicity ... are imposed by society on each of its members” and one in which, even those who retain the ability to think independently go along because they cannot withstand the attacks of fanatics and prefer to be part of “the collective.”

                And by so doing, and again like Hamas, Putin is using the ideology of the West against itself, presenting what he is doing as being based on “the sovereign will of the majority,” something many in the West have trouble responding  to because they forget that democracy to survive must protect more than just that.

            Moreover, by using this new kind of war, Latynina says, Putin is doing an end run around the West which “condemns any application of force by the state but does not take note of force if it comes from ‘activists,’ ‘social organizations’ or ‘the people.’”  That Western failure opens the way for those using Putin’s tactics to use them ever more widely.

Window on Eurasia: Putin Says Cultural Unity, Not Passport Nationality, is What Matters

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 24 – In a comment that many non-Russians in the Russian Federation are certain to see as a threat to the existence of their groups and some Russians may view as a danger to Russianness as well, Vladimir Putin said yesterday that “it is not so important what is written in the ‘nationality’ line; what is important is how an individual identifies himself.”

            In a conversation with Vladimir Tolstoy who is overseeing the state project on “The Foundations of State Cultural Policy,” the Kremlin leader continued that “what is important is who he considers himself to be, what underlying cultural principles are part of him from childhood, in what milieu he is raised and to what he is oriented toward in a moral plane” (

            Putin’s words could be nothing more than a situational response to Tolstoy’s effort.  After all, that effort is focusing on culture and cultural identity rather than on ethnic or national ones. But they will send and almost certainly were designed to send a broader message about Putin’s thinking and the direction of his policies toward the latter.

            The Soviet government introduced a system of almost completely fixed national identities, one in which with only rare exceptions individuals could change the nationality indicated in their passports and other documents and on which the Soviet system of ethno-federalism rested.

            (There were three exceptions: Children of ethnically mixed marriages could choose which nationality to have. Ethnically Ukrainian and Belarusian military officers and political figures reaching a certain rank were allowed to declare themselves to be Russians. And some others were allowed or even forced to change in support of specific ethno-national policies.)

            With the demise of the USSR, that system partially but not completely collapsed as well. The 1993 Constitution prohibited requiring people to set a fixed nationality, and nationality lines in official documents disappeared. Nonetheless, members of various nationalities have viewed the retention of nationality as important (

            Non-Russians, especially those which have autonomies, view nationality as their last line of defense against Putin’s attacks on ethno-federalism, his amalgamation of non-Russian areas with predominantly Russian ones, and his stripping of these state institutions of ever more of their marks of sovereignty. They will thus view Putin’s words as a new threat to themselves.

            And ethnic Russians have viewed nationality not only as a defense against threats to their numbers including the rise of groups like the Cossacks or Siberians but also as a way of maintaining their drive for the creation of a Russian nation state on the territory of the Russian Federation.

            Because the Soviets used the nationality line invidiously against various groups, most notably against the Jews, many liberals have pushed for an end to such “officialization” of ethnic identity and demanded that the state allow people to identify however they want to at any particular time.

            While some might view Putin’s comments as fitting in that tradition, a more sinister interpretation seems justified given the Kremlin leader’s general approach. That interpretation holds that he wants to undercut nationality as such for the non-Russians by promoting a more expansive definition of Russianness.

            That judgment is supported by Putin’s own words yesterday when he said that “what is very important” to him is “the creation of a single cultural space.” Such a space would be Russian in culture, of course, and that would further call into question the vitality or even survival of non-Russian groups within the country.

            They are thus certain to feel threatened by this and to oppose it to the extent they can.  But many Russians are likely to oppose this idea as well, fearing that it will dilute what it means to be Russian by eliminating a clear line between their nation and others and especially by eliminating the political dimension of official nationality.