Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 4

By Taras Kuzio

In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the only republic with no institutions of its own was the Russian SFSR. This was rectified only in 1990 by President Boris Yeltsin, who sought to build a power base independent of the Soviet Union, which was ruled by his arch enemy, Mikhail Gorbachev. These new Russian institutions were later supplemented by Soviet ones.

Each of the fourteen non-Russian republics included a titular nation that “owned” the republic as its homeland. These Soviet republican ethnic identities competed with a more civic Soviet identity at the all-union level. Nationality policies in all fourteen non-Russian republics forged intense loyalties to their territorial boundaries, reflected in the high support given to territorial integrity.

In some cases–Central Asia, for example–Soviet policies facilitated nation building and Russification was not so abrasive. In others, like Ukraine and Belarus, Russification was highly intensive from the 1950s to the 1980s in order to produce an eastern Slavic core majority for the Soviet Union. Even today, the Soviet Belarusan identity–which President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has promoted since 1994–is stronger than the Belarusan ethno-cultural one. In Ukraine a Soviet identity was prevalent only in the Donbass in the early 1990s, but it has since declined. Nevertheless, the Soviet legacy produced a more widespread Russophile orientation in the Russified cities of eastern Ukraine.

The Russian SFSR had no republican institutions because “Russia” and the “Soviet Union” were conflated into one identity. In the Soviet era, Russian nationalist groups had a completely different agenda from nationalist groups in the non-Russian republics. Russian nationalism was similar to British, which sought to maintain an empire or great state and prevent the secession of outlying regions. Non-Russian nationalism sought to establish independent states and was therefore more analogous to Irish nationalism within Great Britain. Russian dissident groups, like that of Mikhail Gorbachev, did not seek to take the Russian SFSR out of the Soviet Union, but merely to “democratize” it. Today no major Russian political group–again unlike nationalist groups in the non-Russian successor states–seeks to withdraw Russia from the Commonwealth of Independent States.

A second problem Russia faces is that there is no historical precedent to fall back on in building a nation-state. A minority of Russian intellectuals has proposed that Vladimir-Suzdal/Muscovy be the base upon which to draw a historical antecedent. But Russia’s elites have largely ignored this. The more popular view is of Russia as a “great power,” however untrue it is in the non-nuclear sphere. As a great power the new Russian nation-state needs to seek legitimacy from its imperial and Soviet past, not from Muscovy. This is clearly President Vladimir Putin’s preference, as seen in the continued use of the Russian double-headed eagle and the music of the Soviet anthem.

By choosing to build a post-Soviet identity on the basis of Russia’s imperial/Soviet past, rather than Muscovy, the new Russian state will be unable to forge a modern Russian identity. This would require “the deconstruction of the symbiosis between Russian and Soviet imperial identity.” [1] Western policy towards Russia that continues to play up to Russian demands to be treated as a “great power” therefore serves only to harm the creation of a modern Russian nation-state.


For Russians the Soviet Union, not the Russian SFSR, was their homeland. It is not surprising that it has been difficult in the post-Soviet era to withdraw the Russian national consciousness to the boundaries of the Russian Federation, and especially problematic in relation to Ukraine and Belarus. Opinion polls in Russia since 1992 have consistently shown that a majority of Russians do not see Ukrainians and Belarusans as separate ethnic groups but as somehow “Russian.”

Equating “Russia” with only the Russian Federation will take place over many decades in the process of nation building. This process is not helped by a foreign policy ideology that repeatedly refers to Russia as a “great power” or by Russia providing continued sustenance to an eastern Slavic union with Belarus that Russia defines as the incorporation of Belarus within Russia, a policy that even Lukashenka rejects. [2] Russia continually makes overtures to Ukraine to join this union without understanding that in Ukraine only the extreme left support such a move. Not only national democrats, but all centrist, oligarch parties as well, are opposed to Ukraine’s membership in the Russia-Belarus union.

A movement to support the Union of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia (ZUBR) is active in all three countries and Moldova. It received 0.43 percent of the vote in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections in March. It has 130 deputies in Russia’s State Duma and had the same number in the outgoing Ukrainian parliament, mainly drawn from the communists. But since the Communist party of Ukraine’s faction nearly halved as a result of the March election, to sixty-six deputies, the number of ZUBR cross-faction members in the newly elected Ukrainian parliament are likewise reduced. The founding congress of the Moldovan branch of ZUBR took place in November 2001 in Chisinau and Valeriy Klimenko, leader of the Ravnopraviye (Equal Rights) movement, was elected its head.

In the Crimea, the Russian Bloc, which won only 0.73 percent of the national vote, was composed of regional branches of the Ukrainian Slavic Party and the Party of Slavic Unity. Its Russian nationalist program called for the transformation of the Crimea into a Russian autonomous republic, opposed quotas in the Crimean Supreme Soviet for Tatars, and demanded the recognition of Russians as a second titular (indigenous) ethnic group in Ukraine. Yet these ideas proved to be unpopular even in the Crimea. In the March Ukrainian parliamentary elections, the Russian Bloc came in third in the city of Sevastopol, with 8.86 percent, and fifth in the Crimea, with 4.76 percent, receiving nearly half of the 9.77 percent received by former Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine, which came in third place. Crimea, the only region of Ukraine with an ethnic Russian majority, prefers to vote for the supra-national communists. They came first in the Crimea and Sevastopol, with 33.91 and 32.73 percent, respectively.

The question “what is Russia?” has ramifications in other areas. Post-Soviet Ukrainian historiography and schoolbooks have gradually “nationalized” the history of Kyiv Rus’ as the first Ukrainian state. The city of Kyiv has numerous monuments to Kyiv Rus’ heroes. This past January President Putin instructed historians specializing in Rus’ to “gain insight into how to form a national ideology” and advise him in answering the question “What Russian city can be considered the historical and cultural center of Russian civilization?” [3] Which city will Russian historians come up with in answer to this question? In 1982 the city of Kyiv celebrated its 1,500th anniversary, making it 600 years older than Moscow. Who then is the real “elder brother”?


When the Soviet Union disintegrated, it was widely feared that the 24.8 million Russians living outside the Russian SFSR in the non-Russian republics would mobilize along the same lines as the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. In a Russian Public Opinion Monitor poll taken last year, 73 percent of Russians thought “often or very often” that Russians living abroad are subject to discrimination. Another 18 percent thought about this “sometimes or rarely” and only 1 percent never did.

The mobilization of Russians outside Russia, however, has not occurred. The question is why it has not. In Moldova the secession of the Transdniester republic had less to do with ethnic Russian nationalism than with a regional regime that had supported the August 1991 putsch and mobilized Russian speakers with a Soviet-eastern Slavic ideology. Lukashenka promotes a similar ideology, except that he has less use for the Russian imperial past than the Transdniester regime did.

One explanation for the weakness of Russian nationalism in the former Soviet Union, and therefore the inability of Russians outside Russia to mobilize, is the lack of an ethno-cultural base. Serbian ethnic nationalism developed within the independent nation-state that preceded Yugoslavia. And within Yugoslavia itself the Serbs had their own republican institutions.

This was very different to Russian experience in the Soviet Union. Prior to the formation of the USSR in 1922, Russian identity was shaped within an all-Russian imperial framework, not a nation-state. This supra-national identity continued after the fall of the tsar. Russian identity is therefore more imperial and statist than ethno-cultural. As we see in the case of Ukraine, only regions with strong ethno-cultural identities (those in the west and center) can mobilize the population. Where identity is confused, regional or civic-territorial, as in eastern and southern Ukraine, mobilization has proved difficult. In addition, groups that cut across ethnic lines (Russian-speakers, for example) tend to reduce mobilization and thus ethnic conflict. In contrast to the weak performance of pure ethnic Russian parties, those who champion supra-national ideologies (such as the Communists) are more successful in attracting voters.

Because the Soviet Union promoted Russian identity only within the framework of an all-Soviet supra-national identity, there is a lack of an identity grounded in ethno-cultural terms. The post-Soviet Russian identity is thus an amalgam of Soviet, pan-eastern Slavic and Russian imperial constructs rather than a purely ethnic Russian one. According to a poll taken in the summer of 2001 by the Public Opinion Foundation only 68 percent of Russians consider themselves Slavs. Twenty-eight percent believe “Slav” is equivalent to “Russian,” 16 percent believe “Slav” applies to all three eastern Slavs and 6 percent said “Slav” includes other ethnic groups as well.

Another reason that conflict has not erupted is that it is a misnomer to define the Russians outside the Russian Federation as a diaspora. Western observers of the former Soviet Union tend to apply the Western understanding of ethnicity as being primordially based to the results of the last Soviet census, which was taken in 1989. This census found 24.8 million Russians living outside the Russian SFSR, half of whom were in Ukraine. In reality, those who classified themselves as Russians in the 1989 census were not always ethnic Russians, because of the conflation of Russian and Soviet identity referred to earlier. It is more likely that “Russian” in the 1989 census had the supra-national territorial-civic meaning of “rossiyanin” rather than ethnic meaning of “russki.” Among these “rossiyanye” there were ethnic Russians, those who said they were Russians for career advancement and others who had mixed marriages where one partner was a Russian. In Ukraine, for example, 30 percent of marriages in the Soviet era were mixed, especially in eastern Ukraine. Some 18.9 million of the 24.8 million Russians outside the Russian Federation live in the non-Russian successor states of the former Soviet Union.

Thus there are indications that the December 2001 Ukrainian census may show a radical decline in the number of Russians living in Ukraine, because some of those who defined themselves as Russians in 1989 will now identify themselves as ethnic Ukrainians. In Eastern Europe “citizenship” and “nationality” are often used interchangeably. Although Ukrainian passports do not indicate ethnicity, as did their Soviet predecessors, birth certificates still do. The decline in Ukraine’s population by 4 million since 1989 will also affect the urban east more than the rural west and center, where birth rates have not gone down to the degree they have elsewhere in the country.

Russia’s confusion over its identity is seen in the debate over who should be protected by Russia outside the Russian Federation–ethnic Russians or compatriots. The Russian Orthodox Church, which is the state church in Belarus and the largest of the three Orthodox denominations in Ukraine, uses Russians and compatriots interchangeably. Patriarch Aleksy II told a group of Russians that “you are flesh and blood of our people” and “we see it as our duty to take part in all actions aimed at consolidating the unity of our compatriots living abroad.”

Putin told the Congress of Russian Compatriots last October that by “compatriots” he meant a spiritual community of different ethnic groups oriented towards Russian culture and language. Nevertheless, the congress was criticized for being more of “ornamental-propagandistic character” than substantive. [4] Indeed, Russia is unlikely to push too aggressively on this issue in order not to alienate such countries as Ukraine. Russia will, however, continue to applaud political parties within Ukraine, Moldova and elsewhere in the CIS that support upgrading the Russian language to an “official” or second state language, as in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

As with the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin’s policies are confused. In March 2001 a presidential decree ordering the Foreign Ministry to protect the rights of “compatriots” in the CIS followed the resuscitation of the government Commission on Compatriots Affairs. This will prove difficult because new legislation in areas such as citizenship does not give special preference to Russophone immigrants from the CIS. Russia withdrew from the Bishkek agreement on visa-free travel within the CIS. There is still no Russian legal term for compatriots (sootechestvenniki), though it is usually understood as referring to Russophones in the former Soviet Union.


Russian identity cannot confine itself only to the boundaries of the Russian Federation because of the legacy of the Soviet Union, in which Russian and Soviet were the same. Russia has consistently attempted to speak on behalf of the CIS in the international arena on questions like NATO enlargement or in protesting actions like NATO’s bombing of Kosovo and Serbia, much to the chagrin of states such as Ukraine.

Russia has also viewed the former USSR as an exclusively Russian sphere of influence. In Moldova and Belarus, Russia is interested only in geopolitics and ignores the lack of human rights and support for political-economic reform. In the recent Ukrainian elections, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, along with other high-ranking officials, openly interfered by calling on Ukrainian voters to vote for “pro-Russian” forces (that is, not Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine). During the campaign, Putin met only one Ukrainian party leader, Petro Symonenko, leader of the Ukrainian communists, during a meeting with Russian communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Russia has opposed the enlargement of NATO into the former USSR and reserved for itself the exclusive right to undertake peacekeeping missions in the region. In reality, Russian peacekeeping operations in Moldova and Georgia have served only to freeze conflicts on the ground in Moscow’s geopolitical favor. Thus Russia’s military establishment loudly protested the arrival of American military advisers in Georgia. The likely enlargement of NATO to the three Baltic states at the upcoming Prague summit, something Russia has long opposed, will force Russia to withdraw its no-go “red line” for NATO to the CIS.

Russian identity has also influenced Russia’s unwillingness to accept a “hard” definition of CIS borders. While not opposing the continued demarcation of CIS “external borders,” which these states inherited from the USSR, Russia has opposed the demarcation of “internal borders” in the CIS. It views the CIS as neither fully sovereign nor quite like the former USSR, but something in-between–a “Near Abroad.”


1. Mark Beissinger, “Elites and Ethnic Identity in Soviet and Post-Soviet Policies” in Alexander J. Motyl ed., The Post-Soviet Nations. Perspectives on the Demise of the USSR (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), p 150.