Thursday, April 20, 2017

Is Moscow Trying to Define Non-Russian Nations Out of Existence?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 20 – Scholars at the Russian Academy of Sciences have prepared a new glossary of ethnic terms which defines the Russian nation “as a political but not an ethnic community” and the Russian Federation as “a nation state” with various ethnic and religious minorities, changes that are certain to spark controversy among Russians and non-Russians alike.

            This dictionary, journalist Roman Kretsul reports in today’s Izvestiya, will be presented next week to the Academy’s Scientific Council on Complex Problems of Ethnicity and Inter-Ethnic Relations by Academician Valery Tishkov, former nationalities minister and head of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology (

            According to Tishkov, the leading advocate of the controversial notion of the Russian nation as a political rather than ethnic category, this dictionary will provide the basis for answering the most fundamental questions before Russian society: “what is a nation? what is an ethnic community? [and] what are interethnic relations?”

            This might seem an abstract academic discussion, but it is anything but.  How one defines nation determines who is one and who is not.  How one defines Russia as a multi-national state or as a nation state with minorities determines who merits what status any nation or ethnic group has.

            That is why calls to define the Russian nation politically rather than ethnically are so controversial, especially but not only among ethnic Russians, and calls to redefine the Russian Federation as a nation state with minorities rather than a multi-national state have been and remain so controversial, especially but again not only among non-Russians.

            By proposing this glossary, Tishkov and his colleagues are seeking to put in place a terminological system that will produce the outcomes they want, including making the category “Russian” (rossiisky) a political term and Russia a nation state (natsiya-gosudarstvo) with minorities rather than a multi-national federation made up of nations.

            Izvestiya quotes the definitions the Academy of Science group has provided for eight key terms. These include “state nationality policy,” “civic identity,” “the multi-national people of the Russian Federation,” “inter-ethnic relations,” “the [civic] Russian nation,” “ethnic community (group),” “national ethnic identification,” and “people.”

            What both ethnic Russians and non-Russians will note immediately is that apparently there is no discussion in this glossary of ethnic nationhood or the status of either as a self-standing nation, and what both are certain to protest, the former as a downgrading of their ethnic status and the latter as a threat to their status as nations with statehood.

            In short, what today Izvestiya presented as an abstract theoretical and academic discussion isn’t going to remain that way for long. This new set of definitions touches on the most sensitive issues of public life in Russia, and those who have opposed notions about a civic Russian nation and Russia as a nation state can be counted on to protest vigorously once again.

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