Staunton, November 13 – Russian scholars and officials are proud of the fact that the share of Russian residents who identify with non-ethnic civic Russian identity has risen from 65 percent to 75 percent over the last 12 years, Igor Yakovenko says, forgetting that this is only one of the identities people have and can dissipate faster than any of the others.
In an essay for the AfterEmpire portal, the Russian commentator points out that people identify with their country, their region, their nationality and their religion. Sometimes one is more important than another, and sometimes it can disappear overnight as the antecedent of the non-ethnic Russian nation, the Soviet people, did in 1991 (afterempire.info/2017/11/13/monolit/).
As Benedict Anderson pointed out, “a nation is an imagined community. [It] exists when people have in their consciousness a mental image of the community as something united within itself and different from all other communities.” Such a definition means that nations are not linked only to the state, as Moscow imagines, but to other things, including regions.
Regional identities are powerful in many parts of Russia, but they remain largely under the radar because any push for a regional identity is blocked by legal restrictions and punishments and by the degradation of those, the regional heads, who might otherwise be expected to play a leading role in its articulation, Yakovenko says.
“The differences among various regions of Russia are greater than between European countries,” he continues; but the Kremlin seems to think it can run them with people trained cookie-cutter fashion to be one and the same, as if the only way to administer the country is “as a military unit.”
But this is what the Kremlin has forgotten: efforts to run all the regions in their diversity in exactly the same way is “the most reliable means of destroying the country” and that the Moscow leaders by their actions “are doing more than ever before for the disintegration of Russia,” making that outcome in fact, “the only possible scenario for the future.”
“The unity of the Soviet people turned out to be a fiction. [That] imagined community disappeared and no one wanted to fight for its preservation except for professional communists who di and do this in such a cowardly and unwilling fashion … that even their supporters understood” that their actions were meaningless.
Why is regionalism even more than nationalism so powerful? Because, Yakovenko argues, at its basis “lies the desire of the individual to live in that community which consists of people close to him by culture, language and norms of behavior. Such people are inclined to believe that they will be comfortable in such a community.”
Democratic nation states make provision for these regional identities in various ways because otherwise they grow into threats to the integrity of these countries. But “imperial regimes – and in Putin’s Russia, there is a clearly expressed regime of an imperial dictatorship – they do not give people the slightest chance to realize their right to self-determination.”
Denied the chance to do so within the system, these regional identities become the basis for demands to exit, for the right to create their own state in “parallel” to the one they have been living in. In the past, that meant secession. But now it may mean something entirely different – that that, Yakovenko suggests, may prove an even greater challenge to such empires.
Evidence of the growth of “an alternative Russia” are in evidence already, he says. “Ever more people as their chief identity choose not so much the citizenship of the Russian Federation as a virtual community of those people close in spirit to themselves, in communion with which they acquire comfort.”
Ever more Russians are learning to earn their incomes online and to make use of virtual currencies like Bitkoin. Indeed, “the Bitnation platform, based on the blockchain technology, allows for the creation of virtual states and virtual peoples” whose “imagined communities” increasingly often “do not correspond with those who have the same citizenship.”
“The state as an institution arose when the main source of wealth was land; and therefore the most important function of the state was the protection of its territory and in some cases, its expansion,” Yakovenko says. But now, “the structure of social wealth has changed in a cardinal way.”
He continues: “The lion’s share of it consists of the brains of people, their intellects and the technologies established by them … Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Ma are much stronger than any state for the simple reason that each of them feeds this state, and if the state acts badly, then each of them has the chance to move” himself and his wealth to another.
That has serious consequences for states: “Contemporary states,” Yakovenko continues, “understanding this consider as their main function not so much the protection and growth of territory as the saving and growth of intellect.” An increasing number of Russians in the regions understand this even if Moscow doesn’t yet. But time is very much on their side.