At an October 31 meeting of the Interethnic Relations Council, President Vladimir Putin approved the idea to adopt the “Law on the Russian Nation” (rossiyskaya natsiya), which would legally define the term (Kremlin.ru, October 31). This proposal, and its potential legalistic consequences for the country’s non-ethnic-Russians has sparked widespread controversy and discussion within society and throughout the various regions of the Russian Federation.
In most world languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, etc.) the word “Russian” refers both to Russians as an ethnic group, and to Russia as a state. However, in the Russian language, there is a clear distinction between the words “russkiye,” indicating the ethno-cultural community, and “rossiyskiy,” which refers to the country of Russia. The proposed Law on the Russian Nation consciously uses the second form of the word in Russian. Nonetheless, according to the president of the Russian National Strategy Institute, Mikhail Remizov, “The term ‘Russian nation’ [rossiyskaya natsiya] is perceived both by ethnic Russians and by other peoples of Russia as an attack on their identity” (Novyi Den, November 4).
After Putin’s endorsement of this law, the leader of the Just Russia Party, Sergei Mironov, proposed including language into the bill describing the “state-forming” status of the ethnic-Russian people. Moreover, he advocated that the Law on the Russian Nation become a basis for state ideology (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 8). The Russian Constitution explicitly forbids the adoption of a state ideology, but many of the country’s current politicians have increasingly been calling to overturn this ban (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 10). Naturally, the embrace of a state ideology would harken back to the era of Soviet Communism, while the proclamation of a dominant role for the Russian ethnicity could spark inter-ethnic conflicts across Russia.
According to the 2010 census, ethnic Russians represent about 80 percent of Russia’s population. Nevertheless, the country is traditionally considered “multinational,” given the presence inside Russia of 21 national republics and 4 autonomous regions inhabited by other ethnic groups. Even the column “nationality” in Soviet-era passports referred to ethnicity. Current terminological confusion, fraught with inter-ethnic problems, persists because of this heritage. Therefore, unlike in Europe or the United States, the word “nation” in Russia is treated not as a mark of citizenship, but as signifying membership in an ethnic group.
For these and numerous other reasons, the representatives of various national republics within the Russian Federation have been openly critical of the proposed Law on the Russian Nation. For example, Ivan Shamaev, a deputy in the local assembly of the Siberian Sakha Republic (Yakutia), rejects the term “Russian nation” itself, arguing that it marginalizes Russia’s national (i.e. ethnic) diversity (Regnum, November 2). This view is shared by Dr. Damir Iskhakov, a prominent ethnologist from Tatarstan: “If the concept of the ‘Russian nation’ is adopted as law, it would effectively mean the state’s non-recognition of many nations” (Proufu.ru, November 4). Karelian journalist Andrei Tuomi, meanwhile, has directly compared this desire of the Russian authorities to construct a unified imperial nation with German Nazism (Mustoi.ru, November 8).
Ekaterinburg economist Evgeny Yushchuk has suggested that the idea of enshrining into law the notion of a “Russian nation” sets up the conditions for pushing through radical administrative territorial reform and the abolition of national republics within the Russian Federation (Politrussia.com, November 7). Indeed, such an outcome might become feasible if the proposed legislation specifically identifies the “Russian nation” (rossiyskaya natsiya) as the only nation recognized by law: this would make the existence of the country’s national republics appear illogical.
Because Russia lacks a true federalist system (see EDM, May 13), the state policy is based on unitary slogans. So perhaps the Law on the Russian Nation was in fact designed to bolster “patriotic” mobilization, which has been faltering under the negative influence of Russia’s economic crisis. However, in practice, civic nation are created not by legal laws, but through social and historical processes. And as Ukrainian journalist Valery Portnikov has noted, this process can be observed in real life, not just in the history books: “I watched it in the Ukrainian example. I saw quite a fantastic solidarity in Maidan 2013–2014. Civic nations are born in uprisings, wars and reforms. Without any decrees and laws” (Grani, November 3).
In contrast to other former Soviet republics, the Russian Federation was not born a historically new country. Rather, it considers itself a direct continuation of the Soviet Union and the tsarist Russian Empire before it. As a result, imperial consciousness has continued to shape modern Russian society and impeded the emergence of a new civic nation. The pro-Kremlin expert Konstantin Kalachev has explicitly stated that the proposed Law on the Russian Nation is an extension of the imperially grounded ideas of the “Russian Spring”—a triumphalist narrative about Russia being on the march, which gained in popularity after the annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine (Gazeta.ru, October 31).
Furthermore, the unitary “Russian nation” idea looks like an analogue of the “Soviet people,” which was explicitly written into Leonid Brezhnev’s 1977 Constitution. When the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, then-president Boris Yeltsin tried to replace the notion of the “Soviet people” with “Russians” (rossiyane—i.e. residents or citizens of the Russian state), but this word failed to take root in common parlance. Instead, Russians prefer to use the word russkiye, which has a clear ethnic-based connotation. Today, Putin’s neo-imperial policies are, thus, a synthesis of the legacy of the “Soviet people” combined with the nationalist idea of the “Russian world” (Russkiy mir).
Igor Eidman, a Russian sociologist who has emigrated to Germany, believes that ideological propaganda is most effective when it is based on a primitive but effective substitution of notions in people’s minds. “The Putin regime is identified with the interests of the Russian people. Accordingly, those who oppose Putin are declared opponents of Russia,” he has noted (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, November 11). Moscow-based professor Boris Sokolov fears that the Law on the Russian Nation will end up being used in an equally repressive manner as other recent Russian legislation. Sokolov argues that this law may justify the prosecution of those who deny the “unity of the Russian nation” (Day.kyiv.ua, November 2).
Indeed, the aforementioned October 31 meeting of the Interethnic Relations Council also proposed organizing a “Year of Russian National Unity.” Presumably this may fall next year, in 2017. If so, the year’s commemorations may explicitly seek to eclipse the 100th anniversary of the February Revolution of 1917, when Russia overthrew absolute monarchy and briefly became a democratic republic.