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How Vladimir Putin has changed the meaning of ‘Russian’

The protector of “Russians” (wherever they are)., CC BY-SA

The crisis between Russia and Ukraine reveals how dramatically Vladimir Putin’s nationalism has changed over the past 14 years. After he came to power in 2000, Putin preferred to refer to people in Russia as “citizens” and people who live abroad in the former Soviet Union countries as “compatriots”. But as tensions have risen in Ukraine, we read and hear about defending the rights of ethnic “Russians” in the post-Soviet space. This reflects changes to the political discourse within Russia, which have implications for the “near abroad” - or, in this instance - Ukraine.

Awareness of ethnicity never fully disappeared in the Soviet era – Joseph Stalin, for example, surrounded himself with Georgians, including his security boss Lavrenty Beria. But ethnic nationalism tended to be relatively weak because, under the official Communist ideology, the party was the centralised organ of state and everything flowed outwards from that.

There was no single official mother tongue, but Russian was defined as the de facto state language in the Union – and ethnic Russians tended to occupy many of the most privileged positions in the centralised government in Moscow and in the former Soviet Union countries.

With the end of the Cold War, territorial and national boundaries were reconfigured. During the 1990s, Yeltsin and his foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev promoted liberal ideas which prioritised relations with the West and with free-market capitalism.

A question of identities

The “identity question” was mostly discussed among the Russian elites, intellectuals and journalists (such as Sergei Karaganov and Sergei Stankevich). This responded to the need to re-establish a form of social cohesion with the end of Soviet centralising ideology. But on the whole the priority for the Russian state at this time was the integration with Europe through liberalisation.

When Vladimir Putin became president in 1999 the economy was still recovering from Russia’s 1998 financial crisis and the question of “national identity” was increasingly put at the forefront of discussion. In his millennium speech delivered in December 1999, shortly before he assumed the presidency of Russia, Putin suggested a “new Russian idea” based on patriotism, belief in the greatness of Russia, statism and social solidarity. It blended statism with a mythologising of Russian history.

And in another, more recent article for the Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Putin wrote:

Civilisational identity is based on preserving the dominance of Russian culture, although this culture is represented not only by ethnic Russians, but by all the holders of this identity, regardless of their ethnicity.

The meaning of Russian

In the Russian language, there are two words which refer to Russians. One is “Rossisskii” (российские) which refers to Russian citizens; the other is “Russkie” (РУССКИЕ) which refers to “ethnic Russians”. From coming to power in 2000 until the Ukrainian crisis of the past couple of months, Putin’s reference point has been people who live in territorial Russia. By Russian culture, he refers to a common culture and values which are shared by all Russians.

As well as sharing territory and language, Russian citizenship has another thing in common: “patriotism”. Everybody within the Russian territory, regardless of their ethnicity, should be proud to be Russian citizens. While this more civic definition gave legitimacy to various ethnicities in the country, under one single state and regime of rights, it also held the potential to exclude certain groups. It also had implications for Russian foreign policy.

Defending “ethnic Russians”

Arguably, during Putin’s spell in office the discourse of the Russian civilisation and the myth of greatness have been embodied in various foreign policy decisions. Specifically – as Putin himself described it in a 2005 speech: “that Russia should continue its civilising mission on the Eurasian continent”, or “defends” the rights of the Russian citizens.

However, the recent Crimean crisis was the first time that Russia claimed to defend the rights of “Russkie” (ethnic Russians) abroad. For instance, in the South Ossetia war in 2008, Russia claimed that the rights of Russian citizens (“Rossisskii”) were at risk.

Crimea precisely reveals the implications of Putin’s shift from “Rossisskii” to “Russkie”. When he addressed the Federal Assembly on March 18, he referred to the population of Crimea as being 1.5m “Russkie”. This was the justification for “reunification” – not through the rights of citizens of Russia but ethnic Russians. When discussing the deportation of Crimean Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia, he pointed out not only Tatars but “various ethnicities” particularly “Russkie”.

True, there was a time when Crimean Tatars were treated unfairly, just as a number of other peoples in the USSR. There is only one thing I can say here: millions of people of various ethnicities suffered during those repressions, and primarily Russians.

Although Putin’s discourse has changed from using Rossisskii to Russkie, it is possible to trace the development of this in past events. Accusations have been levelled at Ukraine for its anti-Russian sentiments on various occasions. In 2009 Medvedev warned the Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko of being anti-Russian. By anti-Russian he meant not that Ukraine as not merely acting politically against the Russian state but also attacking Russian language and culture: “Further efforts are being made to remove the Russian language from public life, science, education, culture, mass media and courts,” he wrote.

In the letter Medvedev stresses the “fraternal ties” between the two nations before getting down to the other major stumbling block in relations between the two countries: Ukraine’s growing relationship with NATO. So the two are linked: Ukraine’s antagonism towards Russian language and culture and its foreign policy stance of offering support to Georgia and moving closer to NATO. Being anti-Russian takes on more urgency in geopolitical terms.

Thus, the key point is the way Putin has changed his rhetoric and definition of his ideas of “Russian-ness” from Russian citizens to include ethnic Russians. While there were criticisms of Ukraine over the years for being anti-Russian there was never any direct reference to ethnic Russianness. The Crimean crisis is the first occasion on which Putin has chosen to use ethnic Russians to represent the Russian people.

This has clear possible implications for other former Soviet republics with ethnic Russian minorities. To what extent will Russia set itself up as the defender of the rights of Russkie in other countries? On that question hangs the possible fate of many millions of people.

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