chapter  4
24 Pages

The homogeneity of Russia, or the remains of an empire (federalism and regionalism)

ByHANS OVERSLOOT

Introduction The breakup of the Soviet Union into at least 15 successor states has left Russia, in size and numbers by far the largest successor state, a more homogeneous country, culturally, religiously, ethnically, than it was ever before. In the 1970s and 1980s worries had been rising about demographic trends in the Soviet Union. In the longer run the Russians, the Slavic peoples in general, were expected to be crowded out by the Union’s non-Slavic peoples. The Slavic peoples showed a relative and somewhat later also an absolute downturn in numbers, whereas many non-Slavic peoples, especially those adhering to the Muslim faith, were increasing in number, in Central Asia, in the North Caucasian region, and in the area to the north of the Caspian Sea. The Belo-Russians, Russians and Ukrainians taken together soon would find themselves outnumbered by ‘the others’. Birth rates among the Russians were low, death rates were high, because of, among others, serious tobacco and alcohol dependency, especially among men. Birth rates among Islamic peoples of the Caucasian region and in Central Asia were high. Not merely the ‘colour’, but also the ‘cultural orientation’ of ‘the Soviet People’ was at issue. The 1991-1992 split-up of the Soviet Union has solved this problem for Russia in one go, one could argue. In the Russian Federation the Russians are now by far the largest ‘nationality’ (natsional’nost), as about 80 per cent of Russian citizens are ‘Russian’. Migration by Russians from the other successor states to the Soviet Union has increased the number of Russians in Russia, but not all that much, since Russians have emigrated from Russia to Europe, NorthAmerica, South-Africa and Australia as well; and death rates among Russian males have been even higher since 1992 than they had been in Soviet times. At the same time (it seems that) there has been less of a downward trend of the population sizes of some non-Russian peoples. In the Caucasian region and elsewhere, albeit there were terrible losses suffered by notably the Chechens in the first and second Chechen wars, demographic trends have been for the main part ‘up’. As far as religion, ethnicity, and language is concerned, Russia is presently more homogeneous than the USA, more homogeneous than Canada and hardly

more diverse or even less diverse than (what used to be) West European ‘nationstates’ such as France, and The Netherlands, let alone European states such as Belgium or Switzerland. The Soviet Union prided itself on its ‘multi-ethnicity’, and on its capacity to bring all these ethnic differences together, even to ‘fuse’ them (sliyanie). In The Netherlands 80 per cent of the population is ‘ethnic Dutch’. It is, in this respect, as far as percentages are concerned, no less ethnically diverse than present-day Russia is. France’s state principle of laicité does not allow for (state-) registration of race and ethnicity, but current estimates of over six million North Africans and 2.5 million black Africans (out of a total population of about 65 million) among many other recent foreign settlers make for the credible overall estimate that well over 20 per cent of France’s citizens presently are of recent foreign descent. Multi-ethnicity in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Great Britain is in part the consequence of these countries’ past as (centres of) empires, as ‘motherlands’ of (former) colonies. Germany, however, without this consequence of a colonial past, also houses a sizable population of, among others, Turkish citizens (2.5 million), people of Polish descent (0.6 million), of Italian descent (0.7 million), as well as hundreds of thousands of recent Jewish and German émigrés from the former Soviet Union.1 All in all, almost 20 per cent of Germans too are of ‘foreign’ or of ‘mixed-foreign’ descent. Recent labour migration, the influx of asylum-seekers and economic migration under cover of asylum rules, plus illegal labour migration legalized via (a series of) ‘one-time’ general pardons, also in part explains the ethnic and religious and in part also the linguistic heterogeneity of these European countries. To which numbers of ‘foreign settlers’ can be added, perhaps, the recent influx (illegal at first, but legal later) of citizens of what are now EC member-states such as Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. Some of these recent immigrants intend to stay for an extended period of time; most of them, it seems, have come for seasonal work, in many instances seasonal work for years on end. Most Western European countries (as well as the USA, of course) also have sizable numbers of short-stay, but also of long-stay illegal immigrants. Russia is no different in that the RF now too has its legal and illegal seasonal workers, especially in the building trade (mainly in Moscow, smaller numbers in other major cities) and in agriculture, often as sharecroppers, in the Far East and in other regions bordering China. As far as the percentage of minorities as part of the total population is concerned, Russia is no longer exceptional as compared to quite a number of other European states. Percentages apart, however, some minority issues still do set Russia apart from most others European countries. The Russian Federation is the successor to a continental multinational empire, and to some extent Russia still is a multinational empire, in the form of a state. A large number of the nonRussian people in Russia are descendents of nations, of peoples, once conquered by armies of the Czar. As far as the native peoples of Siberia, the North (sever) and the Far East is concerned, the position of these peoples in some respects was (is) comparable to the position of many of the native peoples in what is now the USA and Canada. These peoples were not numerous when Russia claimed

suzerainty over their lands, they were non-sedentary hunter-gatherers and herdsmen for the most part, and militarily speaking they were no match even for the very few ‘colonisers’ who, on behalf of Moscow, staked the Russian claim. Many of these people found it hard to cope with the civilization they came into contact with, quite apart from the specifics of Russian or, for that matter, Soviet (political) rule; and their fate has been tragic, like the fate of native peoples in North America has been tragic.2 Most non-Russian peoples in the North Caucasian region and West and North of the Caspian Sea have another history, and (therefore) another relationship with Moscow. Many of these ‘southern’ peoples already were or had been part of, or had earlier been subdued by, nations and civilizations which were sedentary, which had written records, and which had a more or less formal political structure. These peoples as a rule had a longer history of contacts with ‘the outer cultural world’ – either Christian or Islamic – of coping with it, of being influenced (transformed) by it, before they were conquered and subdued by Czarist Russia, against which dominance some peoples repeatedly rebelled. They were forced to live peacefully, if not per se amicably, with each other by Moscow. Moscow guarded the outer borders and policed the region. In the process, when Moscow was enforcing or reinforcing its supremacy in the region, thousands, tens of thousands of people fled from their Russian overlords, were exiled or deported, especially during and in the aftermath of the Russian-Circassian war, which lasted, intermittently, for about a hundred years, until 1864. (The Russian peace, later the Pax Sovietica, came and continued to come at a price.) It could be said that Russia populated Siberia, or at least founded and/or populated the major cities in this vast, almost empty space. In ‘the South’,3 the situation was different in that Russians settled – were settled – among the indigenous peoples, in some parts ousting and driving away previous occupants. At different stages Russians and other ‘ethnicities’, among which there were large numbers of Ukrainians, came in on behalf of Moscow and settled as farmers (or Cossacks), as soldiers, as administrators, as engineers, and as managers and workers in industry (including the oil industry). In major cities in the region West and North of the Caucasian mountains Russians in fact sometimes outnumbered nonRussian natives. However, in the 1980s, but especially in the 1990s, the demographics in this region have changed considerably. Ethnic Russians have withdrawn from the onetime Autonomous Republic of Dagestan (within the RSFSR), which later became the Republic of Dagestan, one of the “subjects” of the Russian Federation. In this ethnically most complex “constituent part” of the Russian Federation very few Russians – and Ukrainians for that matter – have remained. Presently Dagestan is among the ethnically most complex and at the same time one of the least Russian republics of the RF. In the 1950s and 1960s over 20 per cent of the population of Dagestan were Russian, and presently fewer than 5 per cent are. Several factors have contributed to the decline in relative and absolute numbers of Russians in Dagestan, one of which is that the birth rate of the (remaining) Russians is low, whereas the birth rate of most non-Slavic peoples is substantially higher.4 The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet

Socialist Republic, according to the 1970 census, had some 35 per cent Russians, still some 30 per cent Russians according to the 1979 census, down to some 23 per cent according to the 1989 census. In 2002 fewer than 3 per cent of the population on the combined territories of the Republic of Ingushetia and the Republic of Chechnya were Russians. The Chechen capital of Grozny, with some 200,000 inhabitants in 2002 and 400,000 ten years earlier (and 230,000 in 2008), had been a predominantly Russian city, ‘ethnically speaking’. Few Russians lived in the countryside in Chechnya; almost all lived in its capital. Quite a number of Chechen inhabitants of Grozny had relatives in the countryside and after the city had been bombed to ruins many of the Chechen survivors still had some place to go to in Chechnya. The bombing of Grozny by Russian troops in fact has been very much the bombing of a Russian city; Grozny at present is no longer Russian. Most Russians surviving the 1994-1996 Chechen War left the republic never to come back.