Sunday, February 25, 2018

Like Germans in 20th Century, Russians Now View Their Country’s Sonderweg Alternatively as Positive and Negative, Scholars Say

 Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 25 – As with the Germans in the 20th century, Russian views on their country’s “special path” oscillate between the notion they are particularly good and should promote their approach and a sign that they are especially bad and must repent before God and the world, according to a new book by two Higher School of Economics scholars.

            This sets Germany and Russia apart from the many countries which view themselves as having “a special path,” Timur Atnashev and Mikhail Velizhev say in Special Path: From Ideology to Method (in Russian, Moscow, 2018) (

            It contributes to a certain apocalypticism and uncertainty about the future, they argue in the course of an interview with Taisiya Bekbulatova of the Meduza news agency in which they focus in particular on the ways in which ideas about a special path for Russia both shape and are exploited by the country’s political elite.

            The book, which consists of six papers presented at a Moscow conference seven years ago and six at another in Oxford six years ago, they argue, is extremely topical because “it helps us understand ceretain important processes which are taking place with us today,” including the new notions about “the state and national elect status of Russia” the Kremlin is pushing.

            Russians have been talking about a special path, either positive or negative, since Napoleonic times, they say, viewing Russia’s distinctiveness as given by God or history and therefore to be celebrated or as a curse self-inflicted or otherwise that has left Russia behind and that must be overcome.

            During perestroika, they argue, such “historiosophic language” became “one of the main means for understanding and discussing things in the public space that was coming into existence. This language forms political philosophy as a special instrument of public reflection and polemic.”

            It was all about comparing Russia with others and concluding that it was either better or worse than they, Atnashev and Velizhev say. And “crudely speaking,” the two suggest, such a metaphor enjoys enormous popularity when politics passes from a closed circle of people to a broader one, especially if the country has as Russia does a tradition of defining itself this way.

            For Orthodox Christians, “Russia is the only remaining Orthodox empire, and therefore it has a special fate, a special path and a special historical mission.” For others, “the Soviet empire” played the same role, albeit sometimes in a positive sense and sometimes otherwise, because “there never was and never will be anything like it in the world.”

              In both cases, a certain religious habit of mind plays a role; and that is why today, some support a special path for Russia based on the restoration of traditional values “because if suddenly and it will always come suddenly, there is the Final Judgment and history ends, we” but not others “will be saved.”

            This can serve as “a compensation mechanism” that explains and even celebrates Russia’s backwardness compared to other states in economic terms.  Indeed, for some Russians, “the worse things are in a certain sense for us, the better.” And it feeds into another widely held metaphor about the nation.

            The idea of a special course implies that Russia is a young nation rather than an older one and that its time of flourishing is ahead rather than behind as is the case with the West, the two scholars say.  And it can be used to justify focusing on morality rather than on economic modernization and development. Those are secondary issues.

            Moreover, the idea of a special path for Russia feeds off popular “resentment” about the end of the Soviet empire. “We have returned to a pre-revolutionary situation,” they argue, one in which there is no other clear way to “justify and calm” ourselves except for insisting that we are different.

            For many Russians, the metaphor of a special path is above all “a means for preserving a positive image of the self,” even when it flips and suggests that the special path is a negative one, as happened in Germany after 1945 and for some Russians after the death of Stalin and the end of the Soviet system.

            Over time, they suggest, considering these commonalities can help Russians escape from the constant oscilation between a harsh negative and a strictly positive special course and “come to an understanding of themselves in the world as having a choice of many paths, not one of which is completely unique in either a good or bad way.

            And such research may lead to an even deeper understanding that using the term “path” as a metaphor invariably excludes using other metaphors medical, biological or otherwise that may prove to be more useful for Russia or any other country as it passes through various historical stages.

Another ‘Punished People’ Documented – the Kola Norwegians Destroyed by Stalin

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 25 – As the Putin regime takes more steps to hide the crimes of Stalin – it has gotten Interpol to go after the editor of the Russia as the Prison House of Nations portal (, it is ever more important to call attention to those crimes.

            One of the greatest is the acts of genocide Stalin carried out against the so-called “punished peoples” by forcibly deporting them from their homelands and leaving them to die in the wilds of Central Asia or elsewhere. His actions in the North Caucasus and Crimea are well-documented; those elsewhere much less so.

            One of the nations Stalin deported that has received only sporadic attention are the Kola Norwegians, a small group who settled in the northern reaches of Russia in the 19th century, prospered but then were deported in the lead up to World War II and were never allowed to return.

            They have been given some attention by Norwegian investigators – their story is even summarized on a Wikipedia page – but the Kola Norwegians have seldom attracted Russian investigators.  Now that has changed with a remarkable article this week on their history and fate (

            Although the article is entitled “How the Kola Norwegians Became Russian,” it concedes that “to come to Rus does not mean to become part of it.” And it makes clear that this community stood apart and viewed itself as separate until its dispersion by deportation led to its disappearance.

            The Kola Norwegians came for Finnmark, settling n the Murmansk shore where they played a major role in the development of fishing and trade with the Pomors. In Murman itself, the article says, “no one lived until the end of the 19th century.” As the Russian authorities “did not control this territory,” the Norwegians arrived and settled initially without reference to them.

            But by 1859, they had become sufficiently numerous and tsarist power in the region had grown enough to appeal to Aleksandr II and receive permission to settle along the entire coastline, in large part because unlike Russians who didn’t want to settle there, the Kola Norwegians asked for no state assistance.

            The only condition the tsar placed on them was that the Kola Norwegians had to become Russian subjects.  After doing so, their economic situation improved still further both from fishing and from the production and sale of alcohol to the Pomors and the local Russian communities that had begun to form.

            By the end of the 19th century, the Kola Norwegians numbered more than 2100.  After the revolution, they organized a fishing collective farm; and despite the Soviet state’s confiscatory approach to it, “their standard of living was much higher than that of Russians and Finns” in the region.

            They kept apart and had a cautious attitude toward Russians and all things Soviet, and not surprisingly few Russians settled among them and the authorities viewed them with suspicion. The NKVD began lodging charges against them and by 1938, a quarter of the Kola Norwegians had been repressed.

            Then, in 1940, on Stalin’s order to “cleanse” all border areas of “alien elements” in the name of national security, the Soviet organs deported the rest to various parts of the Soviet Union.  “In this way,” the article says, “the history of the existence of the Kola Norwegians in Murman came to an end.”

            Because they were sent in small groups to regions and republics far from their homeland, the Kola Norwegians either died out or were assimilated. They “surfaced” again only after 1991 when Norwegians from Norway visited the Murmansk area looking for records of their ancestors and set up a monument to them.
            But by that time, there were no Kola Norwegians left; and in 2007, the Russian authorities took the final step in their disappearance by declaring vacant Port Vladimir which a century earlier had been their largest settlement.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

As Estonia Passes 100, Tallinn has Successfully Integrated Nearly 90 Percent of Its Ethnic Russians, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 24 – Many in the West, especially in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have expressed concern that Moscow might use the 27 percent of the Estonian population that consists of ethnic Russians as a fifth column against that NATO country and even create a northern “Donbass” at some point in the future.

            But today, as Estonia marks its centenary as an independent state, Tallinn has successfully integrated either as citizens or loyal permanent residents seven out of eight of these ethnic Russians, dramatically reducing the possibility that they could ever serve as the basis for any Russian advance.

            The 340,000 ethnic Russians in Estonia are an extremely diverse group. Many have learned Estonian and become Estonian citizens, tying their future to that country. Approximately 90,000 have the so-called “gray passports” of non-citizens who have permanent residence and who are overwhelmingly interested in being part of Estonia and Europe.

            Indeed, according to Dmitry Tseperik, head of the International Center for Defense and Security, only 90,000 have acquired passports of the Russian Federation, and most of these want to remain in Estonia and within the EU. Estonia thus faces a far smaller “ethnic Russian” problem than many assume (

            According to research his center has conducted Tseperik says, only “about 12 percent” of all Russians – approximately 40,000 people – might constitute a potential threat in the event of a Russian hybrid war.  That is about 3 percent of Estonia’s population and while not unimportant is far smaller than the 27 percent often cited.
            In reporting these findings for Belsat, journalist Yakub Bernat says that ethnic Russians in Estonia who do not yet identify with Estonia even now are undergoing “an identity crisis” as the last generation which remembers the Soviet Union dies off and thus they lose “that basis which at one time united Russians.” 
            According to Estonian sociologist Ito Kiiseli, it is “utopian” to imagine that a homogenous Estonian society will ever be created. It will always consist of Estonians and Russians, but “language is not the key criterion of loyalty to Estonia. Much more important is one’s position on the social ladder.”
            “Many Russians who are loyal to the [Estonian] state do not speak Estonian,” Kiiselli says. “Language, citizenship, and loyalty are not necessarily interconnected. Many residents of Estonia want to have gray passports in order to travel to Russia. They don’t need citizenship because the only thing they lose by not having it is voting in national elections.”       
            Under Estonian law, they can vote in local ones, and “this for them,” the sociologist says, “is more important.”
            “I think,” she says, “that our community always will be separate but not from fear or hostility but on the basis of whom you go drinking with or whom you understand better. We organize joint measures, but sometimes we prefer to be among our own.” That is true for both groups, but for most this doesn’t undercut loyalty to the country.