Ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republics are declining in number not only because of flight and an excess of deaths over births among them but also because some in these communities are increasingly identifying with the titular nation and even assimilating with it. This challenges the widespread assumption in Moscow and the West that Russian identity is strong, united and fixed and that in these regions, as in the Russian Federation, only non-Russian identities are subject to disappearance. And because that view is so widespread, relatively few studies have been conducted about this crucial development in the opposite direction.
Ultimately, this trend could strengthen the countries in Russia’s periphery while further reducing the area of President Vladimir Putin’s much-ballyhooed “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) and his insistence that ethnicity is more important than citizenship. Due to these possible outcomes and the evidence this trend provides that Russian identity is not as strong even within the borders of the Russian Federation, that makes a new poll conducted in May 2023 in Estonia especially important because of what it indicates not only about trends in that country but also about broader future trends in the post-Soviet space. Not surprisingly, though the survey has attracted relatively little attention in the West, it has set off alarm bells in Moscow with calls for immediate action.
At the end of May, Turu-uuringute AS, a Finnish-owned polling agency that has been active in Tallinn since 1994, interviewed 1,256 residents in Estonia at the request of the Estonian government. Its findings challenge many of the assumptions regarding ethnic identities there and how these have changed over time (Eesti Rahvusringhääling, June 7). Specifically, the survey found that only 28 percent of people of Russian ethnicity residing in Estonia define themselves solely as Russian, while 68 percent define themselves as Estonian-Russian, Russian-speaking Estonian or both Estonian and Russian—self-descriptions that suggest they are moving away from their earlier identities. At the same time, however, the sociologists found that those of Russian identity have not made a complete transition to an Estonian identity, a step that would constitute assimilation of the Russians by the Estonians. According to the poll, only 3 percent of people of Russian identity now define themselves solely as Estonian.
With regard to those Russians in Estonia who retain Russian citizenship, this survey remarkably found that only a few more than a third—38 percent identify themselves as Russian only—while a majority—51 percent—now declare one of the hybrid identities used by ethnic Russians in Estonia who are not citizens of the Russian Federation, an indication that even Russian citizenship does not do much to slow this process (Eesti Rahvusringhääling, June 7). Furthermore, the study found that ethnic Russians and even Russian citizens in Estonia feel far less attached to Russian symbols that the Putin regime considers central to that identity, including Victory Day and the Georgian ribbon.
Despite what some may be inclined to think, Estonia, though a member of the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is not an outlier in this regard as far as the post-Soviet space is concerned. This is confirmed by two other recently published studies: One, a survey by the VTsIOM polling agency in Russia, found that, over the past 30 years, personal ties between Russians in Russia and Russians in the former Soviet republics have collapsed, with three out of four Russians in the Russian Federation now saying they do not have any such ties. As a result, fewer links exist between ethnic Russians in Russia and ethnic Russians in the former Soviet republics and formerly occupied Baltic states—not only absolutely but also compared to the links that ethnic Russians have in the former republics to the titular nationalities there (Wciom.ru, April 25).
The other survey, which examined changes in the share of pupils studying Russian between 1988–1989 and 2019–2020 and the relationship of this change to the percentage of ethnic Russians in the population, reported that the share of Russians in the populations of the former Soviet republics has declined everywhere and that the share of pupils studying in Russian has fallen everywhere except in Belarus, key measures of the attachment ethnic Russians living outside the Russian Federation feel to “Russianness” in general (QMonitor, March 29).
Given Putin’s views, it is not surprising that many Moscow analysts and commentators have expressed alarm about the trends highlighted in the Estonian poll. One of the most intriguing of these comes from a regular commentator on Russian foreign policy, Vladislav Gulevich, who argues that what is happening in Estonia would be entirely natural if the actions of ethnic Russians there were entirely voluntary; however, he argues that their re-identification in whole or in part is not natural but the result of the Estonian government’s discriminatory policies. Thus, Gulevich says, Moscow must respond by taking steps now to actively promote Russian identities among ethnic Russians living beyond Russia’s borders and demand that the governments in Estonia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet space change their policies and allow ethnic Russian identities to flourish (Vpoanalytics.com, June 22).
At the same time and in defense of his ideas, which appear to call into question the assimilation policies of Moscow at home, Gulevich argues that assimilation in Estonia and these other countries is fundamentally different than the ongoing assimilation of non-Russians within the Russian Federation. According to him, nations like Estonia do not allow for multiple identities, something he says the Russian nation does. According to the Russian analyst, “Estonian identity does not have the ability to include within itself other peoples while allowing for the preservation of their national self-consciousness—unlike the Russian,” which he argues does make such arrangements at the levels of legal and social practices. “In Soviet times,” he continues, “the words russky and rossiisky acquired a different meaning; but in tsarist times, russky meant rossissky” (Vpoanalytics.com, June 22). That will be unwelcome news both beyond the borders of the Russian Federation and within—but few of Moscow’s demands are likely to achieve their ends given the tectonic shifts in these societies that are weakening Russian national identity and allowing more space for the development of non-Russian ones.