The Binary of Nationhood

In his masterful narrative of Imperial Russian history, Russian: People and Empire, Geoffrey Hosking stated that Russian nationhood is caught in an irreconcilable binary between russkii and rossiiskii. The former signifies the ethnic category for Russian, which has its roots in the Slavs who established Kievan Rus’ in the 9th century, while the latter suggests a category for subjects or citizens of the Russian Empire despite their ethnic identity. Russian state and national development, agues Hosking, is in many ways characterized by the effort to reconcile these two concepts. “The great question for Russian leaders during the 19th and 20th centuries,” he wrote, “might be formulated as whether they could inculcate an analogous compound national identity in their empire’s more diverse elements.” (xxi)

Efforts to solve this question abound. Peter the Great attempted to create civic categories with his Table of Ranks, eschewing ethnic difference as something that could be overcome through service and loyalty to the State. Nicholas I addressed the civic and ethnic binary via his Digest of Laws (1832) by codifying Russian estates or soslovie coupled with an aggressive policy of Russification. The Bolsheviks attempted to reconcile russkii and rossisskii by Bolshevizing the problem. They suppressed Russian and ethnic nationalism while celebrating sovietization, preached the vague “national in form, socialist in content,” and attempted to create an overarching national-civic category of Soviet. However, as the collapse of the Soviet Union shows us, both the Tsarist and Soviet systems failed in uniting these seemingly contradictory categories. In fact the recent resurgence of russkii in the form of extreme nationalism and racial violence suggests that like during the late Imperial period, rossiiskii is taking a back seat. It appears that the problematic that plagued Russia’s state building continues to nag its post-Soviet development.

Nothing suggests this more that the current law before the Duma called “On the foundation of State national politics of the Russian Federation.” The bill is full of the problem the binary russkii and rossiisskii poses. Ethnic minorities within the Russian Federation see the bill as yet another attempt to codify Russian ethnic and cultural dominance. The State Council Committee on Culture, Science, Education, and National Affairs of Tatarstan, for example, has denounced the bill as chauvinistic and harking back to the “unrealistic experiment” to create a Soviet nation because it singles out a privileged position for the Russian people (Article 16) and declares that Russian (rossiiskii) citizens are “duty bound”(Article 20) to know the state language of the Russian (Rossiiskii) Federation—Russian (Russkii). Further, Article 21 states that “the violation of the legislation of the Russian Federation on the state national politics is a criminal penalty.” Once again, russkii trumps rossiisskii. In the view of Indus Tahirov, a deputy of Tatarstan’s Parliament, such Articles, especially with its provisions guaranteeing non-Russian’s right to use and preserve their native culture and language, makes the bill

a very insidious law. It gives the impression of defending the Russian people, but in essence it is directed against the Russian people. It appears to compliment the Russian people but actually it sets the Russian people up against all the other peoples. Then there is that terrible article where it states that citizens of the Russian Federation are obliged to know the Russian language. What does it mean: “obliged”? If they have to imprison me, what will they do?

Empire leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And any effort by the Russian majority to create an overarching civic category based on Russia (rossisskii) recalls a well known bitter taste.

The Radio Free Europe article on the matter states that the impetus behind this bill is fears of demographic change in Russia. Russian society is becoming more diverse and the growth of the Muslim population, the Kremlin fears, will one day whittle down Russian ethnic and religious dominance.

However, I feel the problem is more at the heart of Russian concept of nationality than the materialism of demography. It seems, (and by the way Russian concepts of nationality and ethnicity are shamefully understudied and under theorized), that nationality (natsional’nost’) and the people comprise it (narod) are becoming more and more synonymous with the concept of race. Here in the United States, for example, we tend to think of race as biological, and nationality and its members as more civic (though certainly not completely lacking biological markers). Both are more or less distinct categories. However, in Russia, race, nationality and its members (narod) seem to be intersecting more and more because the latter two have always been understood as a biological-cultural category, that is, it is blood and culture. This means that one’s nationality or nation is determined by biological lineage, language, culture and to some extent geographical origin. This conflation of nationality (natsional’nost’) and people (narod) with race seems to be recognized in the Duma bill because two distinct terms are used when speaking of, say, the “Russian nation” in the text. When it talks about the Russian nation as a civic entity it uses “Russian nation” (Rossiisskaia natsia), whereas when denoting an ethno-national entity it uses “Russian people” (Rossisskaia narod).

The Russian concept of nationality, therefore, forecloses the creation of a purely civic identity because the civic category rossiisskii cannot be separated from its ethno-biological roots. Rossiisskii is inherently based on an ethnic concept: Russia is a geographical territory where Russians (russkii) are its foundation. Nothing says this more than the first line of Article 16: “The Russian people (russkii narod) are recognized as the “state-forming” (rosudarstvoobrazuiushchii) people who have constituted itself in all territories of the Russian Federation.” No other ethnic group is given such a primary and privileged position in the law. In fact, no other ethnic group is specifically named. They are silenced as they are subsumed into the general category of narod. The Russian people’s (Russkii narod) primacy is only furthered by the following statement:

Organs of state power of the Russian (Rossiiskii) Federation, organs of state power subject to the Russian Federation and organs of local government under working and implementation of federal, regional and local programs of social-economic and national-cultural development of the peoples (narod) of the Russian Federation are duty bound to take into consideration the needs and interests of the Russian people (russkii narod). (Article 16)

How can an overarching civic category based on rossiisskii be created if it must make particular consideration of the “needs and interests” of the ethnic category of russkii? The above statement seems to negate that possibility thus making the bill “On the foundation of State national politics of the Russian Federation” to end up being yet another failed attempt.