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Russian Nation-building from Yel'tsin to Medvedev: Ethnic, Civic or Purposefully Ambiguous?



This article surveys nation-building efforts in post-Soviet Russia. There have been five main nation-building projects reflecting the dominant ways of imagining the ‘true’ Russian nation but each has been fraught with contradictions and therefore have been unable to easily guide state policies. At the same time, a solution to the Russian nation-building dilemma may be emerging. This solution does not resolve the contradictions associated with each of the nation-building agendas but instead legalises the ambiguous definition of the nation's boundaries in the 1999 law on compatriots and the 2010 amendments to it. The fuzzy definition of compatriots in the law allows Russia to pursue a variety of objectives and to target a variety of groups without solving the contradictions of existing nation-building discourses.
Russian Nation-building from Yel’tsin to
Medvedev: Ethnic, Civic or Purposefully
This article surveys nation-building efforts in post-Soviet Russia. There have been five main nation-
building projects reflecting the dominant ways of imagining the ‘true’ Russian nation but each has been
fraught with contradictions and therefore have been unable to easily guide state policies. At the same
time, a solution to the Russian nation-building dilemma may be emerging. This solution does not
resolve the contradictions associated with each of the nation-building agendas but instead legalises the
ambiguous definition of the nation’s boundaries in the 1999 law on compatriots and the 2010
amendments to it. The fuzzy definition of compatriots in the law allows Russia to pursue a variety of
objectives and to target a variety of groups without solving the contradictions of existing nation-
building discourses.
‘other’ of the Russian state—has been, to quote Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an
‘age-old Russian pastime’ (Putin 2007), and has remained a priority for Russian
political and intellectual elites in the post-Soviet era (Tolz 2004, p. 177). This article
examines the politics of nation building in post-Soviet Russia, focusing in particular on
why all potential nation-building agendas, be they civic or ethnic, proved hard to
articulate and implement, both at the level of discursive constructs and as a matter of
state policies during the Yel’tsin, Putin and Medvedev presidencies. It then suggests
that the vexing nature of Russia’s nation-building dilemma may have found a
surprising legal solution in the designation of fuzzily defined ‘compatriots’
(sootechestvenniki) as the ‘us’ group of the Russian state. The designation of
compatriots as ‘us’ does not solve the contradictions associated with each of the
nation-building agendas, but instead legalises the ambiguity on the question of the
nation’s boundaries. This legal vagueness has served a functional purpose as it has
allowed the government to pursue a broad range of policies, to quickly re-direct these
policies when desired, and to target a broad range of groups in the former Soviet space
without committing to any one of the nation-building discourses, and without resolving
the contradictions associated with each one. The compatriots law thus reflects the new
contours of state policies on the national question developing in Russia.
Vol. 63, No. 2, March 2011, 179–202
ISSN 0966-8136 print; ISSN 1465-3427 online/11/020179-24 ª 2011 University of Glasgow
DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2011.547693
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Russian identity crisis: civic, ethnic, or . . . ?
Nation-building policies are commonly categorized and analyzed through the ethnic/
civic lens, given that the concepts of civic and ethnic nationalism provide the basis for
the two main approaches to defining ‘criteria of membership in the political
collectivity’ (Greenfeld 1992, p. 11). Civic nationalism conceives the nation as a
community of a state’s citizens united by the territory of the state and loyalty to the
state’s political institutions, while ethnic nationalism portrays the nation in terms of
some inherent ethno-cultural characteristics, such as ethnicity, language or religion.
Following Kohn (1944), civic ‘Western’ nationalism is commonly associated with
tolerance, liberalism and the overcoming of ethnic divisions, while ethnic ‘Eastern’
nationalism is seen as more bellicose, xenophobic and authoritarian.
However, applying the civic–ethnic dichotomy to the analysis of nation-building
policies entails several difficulties. Most generally, the concepts of civic and ethnic
nationalism are ideal categories, while in reality most countries’ policies combine
elements of both (Kuzio 2002; Shulman 2002). Some have argued that this problem
should not be overestimated since most categories are ideal types but can still give us
theoretical leverage (Barrington 2006, p. 12), but there are additional problems with
applying civic–ethnic typology to the Russian case. First, former imperial powers such
as Russia may pursue two very different types of civic policies: they can define the
nation by the territory of the current state, or by the territory of the former empire (or
a part of its territory). In both cases the principle is based on territory rather than
blood, and thus both definitions are formally civic, but they reflect very different
images of the nation with different consequences for domestic state-building and
nation-building, as well as for foreign relations. A particularly important difference
between them is that while civic nationalism that defines the nation by the territory of
the existing state is non-irredentist, civic nationalism that defines the nation by the
territory of the former empire is potentially irredentist.
The applicability of the ethnic label to the Russian case is also problematic because
its use obscures the existence of, and difference between, different types of ethnic
nationalism (Shulman 2002). In Russia, the ethnic options for defining the nation are
Russia as a community of ethnic Russians, as a community of Eastern Slavs, or as a
community of Russian speakers. All of these are ethnic rather than civic because they
rely on cultural rather than political or territorial criteria, but they differ substantially
in terms of their core beliefs, internal logic, implications for Russia’s relations with
neighbouring states, and for the territorial integrity of the Russian state itself. Table 1
Non-irredentist Potentially irredentist
Potentially threatens
territorial integrity of the
Russian Federation?
Civic Russian territory USSR territory No
Ethnic Ethnic Russians Yes
Eastern Slavs Yes
Russian-speakers No
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shows how five ‘images’ of the nation (two ‘civic’ and three ‘ethnic’) that have had
prominence in Russia in the post-Soviet period differ in terms of their potential
irredentism and consequences for Russia’s territorial integrity. The remainder of this
section will discuss why all five definitions of the Russian nation are problematic,
making their adoption in state policy difficult.
The nation defined by the territory of the existing state
A definition of the Russian nation by the territory of the existing Russian state, the
textbook ‘civic’ definition, has the advantage of making, to use Gellner’s terms, the
national unit ‘congruent’ with the existing political one (Gellner 1983). Another
advantage is that this definition also does not exclude Russia’s ethnic minorities from
the body of the civic rossiiskaya nation (although, as will be discussed below, non-
Russians do have some problems with this definition). At the same time, the civic
rossiiskaya nation idea is fraught with significant difficulties. First, it is a nation-
building project without historical precedence in Russia. For centuries Russia
developed as an empire extending over a much larger territory, and Russian identity
developed neither as an ethnic identity nor as a territorial identity tied to the territory
of the Russian republic within the USSR, but as a supra-national identity that ‘was
most closely identified with Soviet, proletarian [identity] and [with] progress’ (Suny
1993, p. 112), and which saw as its national home the USSR as a whole (Brudny 2001;
Lieven 1999; Suny 1993). Creating a civic territorial nation in the post-Soviet Russian
Federation was thus a monumental intellectual and practical project which required
Russia ‘to be its own successor, to create a new identity based on the denial of the
Soviet past, . . . to fall into emptiness [and] start its history from a blank slate’
(Morozov 2009, p. 429).
Secondly, the intellectual construction of the civic rossiiskaya nation, understood as
a community of citizens, conflicts with the ‘mental inertia’ of the Soviet era and its still
prevailing understanding of nation as an ethnic community (Tishkov 2009c, p. 40;
Tishkov 1996). The idea of the civic nation as a community of rossiiskii fellow citizens
integrated by the state who may have different cultural and linguistic characteristics is
different from the idea of Russia as a community of (over 150) ethnic nations, including
the ethnic Russian (russkii) nation, which together comprise multinational people
(mnogonatsional’nyi narod) (Malakhov 2004; Osipov 2004). The former is the ‘classic’
civic nation since it sees nation as a community of citizens, not of ethnic groups, but
the latter is the one reflected in the official documents such as the 1993 Russian
which talks about the multinational Russian people, and the 1996
Conception of State Nationality Policy which defined the mnogonatsional’nyi narod as
a collection of ethnic groups, with the Russian ethnic group (russkii narod) playing a
‘unifying role’ and serving as the ‘basis of statehood’ (Abdulatipov et al. 1997).
Thirdly, and somewhat paradoxically, the definition of civic nation as a community
of fellow citizens is viewed with suspicion by both the Russian ethnic nationalists who
see the rossiiski project as discriminating against the ethnic Russians in favour of
ethnic minorities, and by many non-Russian elites who fear that the rossiiski project is
1, accessed 12 November 2010.
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a disguise for the assimilation and Russification of non-Russian groups. Opposing the
rossiiski concept, during a recent parliamentary debate an MP from the Rodina party
argued as follows:
You want to create some sort of rossiiskaya nation. . . . And I am posing a question: do you
want to deprive us of ethnicity [natsional’nost]? You crossed out the term russkii from the
constitution, you crossed out the term russkii from the passports; not a single draft law
contains the term russkii! . . . The strategic task [is] to reduce the number of russkoe
population in the Russian Federation. If this is done consciously . . . this is bordering on state
Leaders of important ethnic groups, in particular Tatars and Bashkirs, give equally
scathing assessments of the idea of the rossiiskaya nation as a community of fellow
citizens. In August 2009, the World Kurultay (congress) of Bashkirs and the World
Congress of Tatars released a joint appeal attacking the draft Conception of a Federal
Law ‘On the Foundations of Government Nationality Policy in the Russian
Federation’ prepared by the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology.
The appeal asserted that the draft conception attempts ‘to replace the concept of
‘‘multinational people of the RF’’ . . . with the concept of ‘‘general-civic Russian
nation’’ [obshchegrazhdanskaya rossiiskaya natsiya] is aimed at the assimilation of the
peoples of the Russian Federation’. Equating ‘attempts to create the so-called all-civic
Russian nation’ with the Soviet-era attempts to create ‘a single Soviet people’, the
appeal asserted that ‘in practice this again comes down to the centuries-old policy of
the assimilation of the indigenous peoples of the country’.
Fourthly, the meaning of rossiiskaya nation as it is articulated by its proponents,
most notably by Valerii Tishkov, the head of the Institute of Ethnology and
Anthropology and the former Minister of Nationalities, is indeed ambiguous and not
free of ethnic undertones. Tishkov has defined the civic nation ‘as the historical and
sociocultural community of the country’s inhabitants’ (Tishkov 2009c, p. 55) but has
also talked about Russia as ‘a nation of nations’ (natsiya natsii) (Tishkov 2009a), a
‘multiethnic civic nation’ (mnogonatsional’naya grazhdanskaya natsiya) (Tishkov
2009b), where the ‘Russian [russkaya] ethno-nation and the Russian language . . . have
become dominant (to put it more correctly, referent culture[s]) . . . for the whole
country’ (Tishkov 2009a). It is thus not altogether clear if the rossiiskaya nation is
supposed to be a community of fellow citizens with various ethnic identities or a
MP Nikolai Pavlov during first reading of the draft law on the migration registration of foreigners
and stateless persons in the state Duma on 17 March 2006. Stenographic report available at: http://, accessed 20 October 2009. For a similar sentiment,
see also an article by Vitalii Averyanov, head of the Center for Dynamic Conservatism, tellingly titled
‘Russia without Russians (russkie),’ which criticised the draft conception of nationality policy prepared
by United Russia (Edinaya Rossiya) in 2007 (Averyanov 2007).
‘Tatary i Bashkiry vystupili protiv kontseptsii natsional’noi politiki RF’, MariUver, 4 August
2009, available at:, accessed 20 October
2009. The Mordvin activists also announced their support of this Tatar–Bashkir declaration. The
groups that issued the appeal have been denounced as radical in the past, but, as Paul Goble (2001)
noted, the fact that the Finno–Ugric Mordvins joined the Turkic Tatars and Bashkirs in denouncing
the draft ‘suggest that the issues the appeal raises reflect the views of many people in that region and
perhaps more generally as well’.
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community of ethnic groups, and if it is the latter, then how exactly is the rossiiskaya
nation concept different from the concept of mnogonatsional’nyi rossiiskii narod that
the concept of rossiiskaya nation is supposed to replace. It is also open to
interpretation how Russocentric is the rossiiskaya nation. As a result, Tishkov
personally, and the concept of rossiiskaya nation that he advocates often find
themselves in an unfortunate position of being simultaneously accused of ethnic
Russocentrism and of disregard for, if not downright betrayal of the interests of ethnic
Conceptual ambiguity and definitional dilemmas also plague a variant of civic
nation-building which envisages the Russian nation as a nation of ethnic Russians and
ethnic groups indigenous (korennye) to Russia. This nation-building agenda has
received less scholarly attention in Western studies than the rossiiskaya nation agenda,
but in recent years members of Russian political elites have frequently talked about it.
In some cases, these are the same people who earlier advocated different nation-
building agendas, suggesting that this conception may be gaining support. For
example, representatives of the Communist Party (Kommunisticheskaya Partiya
Rossiiskoi Federatsii, KPRF) and the nationalist Rodina party on various occasions
advocated conceptualisation of the ‘us’ as including ethnic Russians and indigenous
Since ethnic Russians are explicitly equated with other indigenous ethnic groups in
this conceptualisation of the nation, this conception is more difficult to accuse of
being Russocentric than the rossiiskaya nation project that often emphasised the
special place of ethnic Russians in the nation. The dilemma, however, lies in defining
just what groups are indigenous. Two possible definitions have been articulated. One
defines as indigenous all ethnic groups ‘who live on the territory of the Russian
Federation and who do not have state formations outside its borders’.
formulation incorporates ethnic Russians and members of Russia’s smaller ethnic
groups living outside Russia in the body of the nation, but it excludes, among
others, Ukrainians and Belarusians since they have state formations outside Russia.
As will be discussed below, the explicit exclusion of Ukrainians and Belarusians
from the body of the ‘true’ nation is highly problematic in Russia, which complicates
this nation-building agenda.
For example, in 2003 Communist MP Georgii Tikhonov, previously one of the most vocal
advocates of the idea that Russia should extend its citizenship to all former Soviet citizens, tabled an
amendment to the citizenship law which proposed extending Russian citizenship to ‘compatriots’
whom he defined as ‘members of ethnic groups indigenous to Russia who do not have territorial
homelands outside the Russian Federation’ (Tikhonov 2003). In 2006, a representative of Rodina
party, MP Andrei Saveliev, argued that Russia’s migration policy should be aimed at attracting ethnic
Russians and ‘representatives of indigenous peoples of Russia’ (stenographic report of the first reading
in the Duma of the draft law ‘On registration of migration of foreigners and stateless persons in the
Russian Federation’, 17 March 2006, available at:
03_v.htm, accessed 5 July 2006).
Vladimir Miloserdov, chairman of the Russian (russkaya) Party, defined the indigenous peoples in
this way during parliamentary hearings on the draft law ‘On Russian [russkii] people’ (Komitet po
delam natsional’nostei Gosudarstvennoi Dumy Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2001). The same definition is
contained in Tikhonov (2003).
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The second approach to defining indigenous peoples places emphasis not on whether
a given group has a homeland state elsewhere, but on how long representatives of this
group have lived on the territory of Russia. This approach allows the inclusion of many
more ethnicities in the indigenous category, including Ukrainians and Belarusians, but
as a practical matter it makes any kind of definitive list of such groups all but
impossible. As Leonid Gerbanovski of the Federal Migration Service (FMS,
Federal’naya Migratsionnaya Sluzhba) confessed in an interview (as reproduced in
Steshin et al. 2004) in 1994, the presidential administration tried to make a list of
indigenous groups, and determined that ‘we can count as ‘‘ours’’ all of the population of
Bulgaria, and half of Greece’s’ and he concluded that ‘for a multi-ethnic state such as
Russia such lists are impossible in principle since there would definitely be groups who
would feel themselves discriminated against’. Due to the difficulty of defining
‘indigenousness’, the conception of Russia as a state of ethnic Russians and indigenous
peoples is also problematic and does not solve Russia’s nation-building dilemma.
The fifth obstacle to civic nation-building in Russia is Russia’s ethno-federal
structure. Russia’s institutional design as a multi-ethnic federation with territorially
institutionalised ethnicity is a legacy of Soviet ethnic federalism. Russia’s ethno-federal
structure is more logically consistent with the idea of the Russian nation as a
multinational people comprising of many ethnic nations—some with territorial
homelands in ethnically defined units of the federation—than with the idea of the
nation as a community of fellow citizens. If the nation is a community of fellow
citizens with equal rights, why should citizens of some ethnicities have ‘their’ territorial
formations while others do not? Why should non-ethnically defined oblasti and krai
have lower institutional status than ethnically defined republics? Why should there be
institutional and power asymmetries among ethnically-defined-republics, okrugi and
autonomous unites (oblasti)?
Asymmetric ethnically based federalism may not square with the idea of the civic
nation, but abandoning it in the 1990s was not feasible not least because in his power
struggles at the federal centre President Yel’tsin sought support from the regional
elites. President Putin was better positioned to take on the regional elites, and took
some measures that, even though their primary aim was the centralisation of
presidential political power, were capable of becoming first steps in the possible future
dismantling of the ethnic institutional architecture of Russia. Among such steps were
the elimination of bilateral agreements between the federal centre and the subjects of
the federation, the creation of seven ‘super-regions’ headed by a representative
appointed by the president, the change from popular election to the presidential
appointment of the regional governors, and the changed electoral system for the
Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament (Petrov & Slider 2007).
Another step towards possible future abolition of ethno-federalism undertaken
during Putin’s presidency was the merger of some ethnic autonomous okrugi with
larger Russian oblasti.
Plans to reduce the number of Russia’s administrative units
These mergers eliminated four of the 10 autonomous okrugi by the end of Putin’s presidency. Two
other autonomous okrugi (Taymyrskii (Dolgano-Nenetskii) AO and Evenkiiskii AO) were merged with
Krasnoyarskii krai but retained their AO designations. For details of the okrug mergers undertaken
under Putin, see The Permanent Committee on Geographic Names (2008).
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from 83 to as low as 30 or 40 entities have been reported,
and the intention to do away
with the ethno-federal nature of Russian federalism was reflected in the draft
Conception of the law ‘On the Foundations of Government Nationality Policy in the
Russian Federation’.
One of the main objections of the World Kurultay of Bashkirs
and the World Congress of Tatars to this draft was that the conception ‘completely
ignore[d] the existence of national republics’ and its call for ‘so-called ‘‘new approaches
to the development of legislation in the sphere of government nationality policy’’ [wa]s
based on the levelling of all subjects of the Russian Federation which in practice would
mean the gradual liquidation of republics within the Russian Federation’.
of ethno-federalism may facilitate civic nation-building in the future, but as long as the
ethno-federal principle of Russia’s federalism remains it will continue to constitute a
logical and practical impediment to the civic nation-building project.
The sixth factor that complicates civic nation-building and the definition of the
Russian nation in terms of the borders of the current Russian state is the presence of
millions of Russians in the former Soviet republics. Lieven is right to argue that no
Russian state—even a liberal, capitalist and democratic one—will ever be able to
abandon all claims to a right of protection over ethnic Russians outside Russia’
(Lieven 1999, p. 69, emphasis in the original), but so are Breslauer and Dale (1997,
p. 330) when they emphasise that this creates a dilemma—how to create ‘a formula
that entailed de-ethicised nation-building within the territorial boundaries of Russia,
[and] ethnicised governmental responsibility for Russians in the Near Abroad’.
Finally, the lack of democracy in Russia is arguably another impediment to the civic
nation-building project, as scholars have argued that civic nation refers not only to the
way political community is defined (territorially or ethnically), but also to the role of
society vis-a
-vis the state (Greenfeld 1992, p. 10). In the absence of democracy in
Russia, according to this argument, ‘the idea of a civic nation is replaced by the
opposite, imperial concept of unity within a strong state’ (Pain 2009, p. 64; Tolz 2004).
The four remaining nation-building options in Table 1 (territorial definition of the
nation by the borders of the USSR, and the three ethnic definitions—Russia as a state
of ethnic Russians, of Eastern Slavs or of Russian-speakers) have the advantage of
being able to draw on a ‘usable past’ to a greater extent than the rossiiskaya nation
project, albeit to a different degree. At the same time, each of these four options is also
associated with profound dilemmas, making their adoption as state policy difficult.
The nation as ethnic Russians
The argument that the Russian state ought to officially recognise ethnic Russians
(russkie) as the most important group is well articulated. The argument holds that
ethnic Russians have been disadvantaged in both the Soviet Union and in the current
Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 12 April 2006.
Proekt Federal’nogo zakona No. 369190-3 ‘Ob osnovakh gosudarsvtennoi natsional’noi politiki
Rossiiskoi Federatsii’, available at
B432571BB005B7A6E?OpenDocument, accessed 6 November 2010.
‘Tatary i Bashkiry vystupili protiv kontseptsii natsional’noi politiki RF’, MariUver, 4 August
2009, available at:, accessed 20 October
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Russian Federation and this injustice must be corrected. Russians have been the main
victim of the totalitarian policies and catastrophes of the twentieth century, and in the
post-Soviet period are suffering the most from demographic decline. Throughout the
Soviet period Russians sponsored the development of other ethnic groups while
remaining institutionally underprivileged themselves, and remain underprivileged in
the structure of Russian federalism today. They do not have their ‘own’ national
statehood distinct from the Russian statehood, and their representation in the organs
of power is lower than their proportion in the population. As a result of the collapse of
the USSR which left some 25 million ethnic Russians outside Russia’s borders,
Russians have also become a ‘divided people’ (razdelennyi narod) and, it is argued,
their right to unification should be recognised. Because ethnic Russians constitute over
80% of the Russian population, it is inaccurate to describe Russia as a multi-ethnic
country since states with similar ethnic composition are commonly described as mono-
Russia should thus be defined as a mono-ethnic state in the constitution, and
ethnic Russians should be formally defined as a state-forming people (gosudarstvoo-
brazuyushchaya natsiya) in the law.
The obstacles to the incorporation of this ‘image’ of the nation in state policies are
several. First, the stunted development of a strong sense of Russian ethnic identity in
both the Russian empire and the USSR complicated the ethnic nation-building
project, and as a result, the narrowly ethnic understanding of the Russian nation is not
very popular. Opinion polls show that no more than a quarter of Russia’s citizens
define ‘Russianness’ by ‘passport’ ethnicity,
and less than half of the Russian
population supports the idea of a privileged status of ethnic Russians in Russia.
The second obstacle to the ethnic nation-building project is the danger it poses to
the territorial integrity and unity of the state. Russians are institutionally less endowed
than the non-Russian ethnic groups since they do not have a designated territorial
homeland within the current structure of the Russian federation but, as Vladislav
Surkov, the first deputy head of the Presidential Administration and the main
ideologue of the Kremlin, has warned, an institutional correction to this state of affairs
could lead to ‘the eviction of russkie from the multinational Russia. . . . to the
‘‘russkaya republic’’ in the borders of early muscovite kingdom’ (Surkov 2006).
Proponents of the idea of Russia for the Russians usually do not call for the creation
of a Russian republic within Russia but instead call for the official recognition that the
Russian people (russkie) are the only state-forming (gosudarstvoobrazhuyushchii)
Israel, Vietnam and Spain are often cited as examples of states that have the same or lower
percentages of the titular ethnicity and that are recognised as mono-ethnic.
All of these arguments were made, for example, during the parliamentary hearing on the ‘Russian
idea’ on 15 October 1996 (Gosudarstvennaya Duma Federal’nogo Sobraniya Rossiiskoi Federatsii
1997), and during the 25 May 2001 hearing in the Duma Committee on Nationalities of a draft law ‘On
the Russian people’ (o russkom narode) (Komitet po delam natsional’nostei Gosudarstvennoi Dumy
Rossiiskoi Federatsii).
In a 1995 poll by the Public Opinion Foundation 24% considered Russian passport ethnicity
necessary to be a Russian (Tolz 1998b, p. 1015). In a December 2006 VTSIOM poll, 15% of those
surveyed identified Russianness by ethnicity (VTSIOM 2006).
Levada Center polls conducted in 2000 and 2008 found that the percentage of those who supported
this idea partially or fully was consistent at 47%, while 43% (42% in 2000) opposed the idea, and
another 11% were undecided (Analiticheskii tsentr Yuriya Levady ‘Levada-tsentr’ 2008, p. 141).
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people that has exercised its right to self-determination on the whole territory of
Russia (Sevastyanov 2001), and advocate a unified state rather than a federal one
(Tolz 1998a, p. 277). This path would clearly be opposed by non-Russian ethnic elites,
and the Russian leadership realises the dangers inherent in pursuing this path. As
Umar Temirov, chief of staff of the Duma committee on nationalities warned,
the realisation of the idea of the Russian [russkaya] republic is only possible under two
conditions: first, by annulling the rights of the republics within the Russian Federation and
extending the sovereignty of one people [narod] on the whole territory of the Russian state;
and second, in so doing, pushing the republics within the Russian Federation towards ethnic
cleansing. Both ways will explode the situation in the sphere of ethnic relations in Russia.
The presence of non-Russian ethnic groups and the ethno-federal structure of Russia
thus complicate the ethnic nation-building project just as it does the civic territorial
The third obstacle to the ethnic Russian project is a lack of agreement on who
exactly is Russian. At first this may seem surprising, as everyone under the Soviet
regime was ascribed an ethnic identity which was recorded in their passport. This
meant there was a readily available option of defining Russianness by ethnicity
reflected in Soviet and Russian passports in the 1990s.
However, the prevailing
understanding of Russianness at both the elite and the public level is broader. Among
the public, as polls show, a linguistic and cultural definition of Russianness prevails.
Parliamentary hearings of the draft law ‘On the Russian [russkie] people’ show that
Russian elite members also disagree on who are russkie. A particularly poignant
disagreement is over whether Ukrainians and Belarusians are to be considered as
Russian. The government-prepared draft defined russkie people as a ‘social-ethnic
group united by origin, historical destiny, Russian national self-understanding,
Russian language, culture, and customs’ and stated that there exist ‘special
ethnographic groups of Russian people exhibiting specificities of speech and culture’.
This wording left unanswered the question of whether Ukrainians and Belarusians are
to be considered such ‘special ethnographic groups’ and thus belong to the Russian
nation, and this is exactly what the Russian nationalists and communists objected to.
For example, Communist leader Gennadii Zyuganov argued during the debate of the
U.E. Temirov, ‘ Ethnopolitichestkii factor v razvitii rossiiskogo federalizma’, undated publication
of the Moscow Law Center, available at:, accessed 7
October 2009.
In Russia, the registering of ethnicity in passports was abolished by a presidential decree in 1997.
When Russia began issuing its new national passports in December 1997, these passports did not
contain an entry on ethnicity.
To love Russia and view it as a homeland, to know and love the Russian culture, and to have
Russian as a native language were the top three characteristics necessary to be Russian according to
February 1995 poll conducted by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation cited in Tolz (1998b,
p. 1015). In a December 2006 VTSIOM poll, being ‘brought up in the traditions of Russian culture’
was the most popular option chosen by the respondents in answer to the question ‘who would you
consider Russian [russkii]’ (VTSIOM 2006).
The draft law was discussed in the Duma in April 2004. A text of the draft was published in
Izvestia, 11 February 2004.
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draft that the ‘unification of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus is the question of survival.
Russian people [russkii narod] have three joint foundations: velikorosy, malorosy,
An alternative draft prepared by Aleksandr Sevastyanov, co-chair of the
National-Statist Party of Russia (Natsional’no-Derzhavnaya partiya), defined Russian
people ‘as a single ethnicity [etnos] which is comprised of the following sub-ethnicities:
velikorosy, malorosy, belorusy’.
At the time of writing, the draft law on russkie people
remains pending, and the question of the boundaries of the ‘true’ Russian nation, and
the place of the Ukrainians and the Belarusians in it, remains open.
An Eastern Slavic nation
The idea of Russia as an Eastern Slavic nation sidesteps the dilemma just discussed as
it allows the ‘true’ Russian nation to be presented as a pan-ethnic nation encompassing
all three Eastern Slavic peoples without answering the question of whether the three
are separate ethnicities or all part of one ethnicity. The Eastern Slavic conception of
the nation also has a long ‘usable past’, as both the tsarist-era and the Soviet-era
official historiographies promoted the idea that the Russians, Ukrainians and
Belarusians were three ‘branches’ of the same people, and that the ‘brotherly peoples’
originated in the medieval state of Kievan Rus.
There remains strong popular
support for this idea.
At the same time however, the idea of Russia as an Eastern
Slavic nation is fraught with some of the same difficulties as the idea of Russia as a
nation of russkie in that it raises questions of the place of non-Slavic groups in the
nation and the ethno-federal structure of the Russian Federation.
A Russian-speaking nation
The idea of the nation as a community of Russian-speakers may not be so evidently in
conflict with ethnic federalism as the idea of the nation as a community of ethnic
Russians or Eastern Slavs, but even if the nation is defined by language, the place of
people with ‘unclear ethnic origin and physical appearance’ remains (Popov 2006). As
one newspaper (Novoie Vremya) summed up the dilemma, ‘if someone speaks Russian
but is black, can this person be our compatriot?’ (Popov 2006). There is no consensual
answer to this question in Russia, but most analysts conclude that the category of
Russian-speakers refers first and foremost to the Russian-speaking Slavs, and in
particular to those who self-identify with Russia and are politically loyal to Russia
25 May 2001 Duma hearing on the draft law ‘On Russian People’, stenographic report, available
at:, accessed 1 October 2006.
Text available at:, accessed 1 October 2006.
As Tolz notes, the nineteenth-century Russian historiography maintained that Russians,
Ukrainians and Belarusians were three ‘branches of the Russian people’ (narodnost), while the Soviet
formula of ‘three brotherly Slavic peoples’ acknowledged the greater separateness of Ukrainians and
Belarusians from Russians. In the 1990s, Tolz finds, the majority of nationalist intellectuals embraced
the pre-revolutionary rather than the Soviet-era terminology (Tolz 1998b, pp. 999–1000).
In a November 2005 poll, 81% of Russian respondents expressed the belief that Russian,
Ukrainians, and Belarusians are ‘three branches of one nation [narod]’, while only 17% believed that
they are different nations (Analiticheskii tsentr Yuriya Levady ‘Levada-tsentr’ 2005, Table 21.1).
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rather than to their state of residence (Morozov 2009, pp. 489, 493; Melvin 1995, p. 22;
Zevelev 2008).
A nation defined by the territory of the former USSR
The vision of the entire USSR as a true Russian state and all Soviet citizens as
members of the nation is another discursive construct that has popularity, but it is also
fraught with conceptual and practical contradictions. As Tolz (1998a, p. 273) notes,
two ideological traditions that share the vision of the entire USSR as a true Russian
state are the neo-Eurasianists and Soviet communists, and while ‘there was a rough
geographic congruence between the borders the Eurasianists envisaged for their
‘‘Russia-Eurasia’’ and those of the USSR’, the ideas of the Eurasianists and Soviet
ideologues were distinctively different. The neo-Eurasianists see ‘Russia–Eurasia’ as a
separate cultural and historical entity, to the point of seeing the people of the former
USSR belonging to a single anthropological entity (Tolz 1998a, p. 272). By contrast,
Soviet ideologists and Russian communists ‘were more ready to recognize that the
peoples of the USSR had different national identities’ (Tolz 1998a, pp. 272–73).
There are also obvious practical challenges to the neo-Soviet nation-building
project, and the same applies to all three ethnic projects (Russia as a state of ethnic
Russians, of Eastern Slavs or of Russian-speaking people). All these projects extend
the Russian nation past the borders of the current Russian state, and thus raise the
question of Russia’s territorial arrangements vis-a
-vis its neighbours. These images of
the nation may have a long historical pedigree, but they do not ‘help in solving one of
the crucial problems of contemporary Russia—that of the boundaries of the political
community’ (Morozov 2008, p. 174). The potential irredentism of these projects
complicates their adoption as state policy. Officially acknowledging and acquiescing to
the non-congruence between the national unit and the political units would require a
psychologically painful recognition that Russia is indeed a ‘stump’ of its ‘true’ self.
An alternative to acquiescence would be to try to make the political unit congruent
with the perceived national unit, which would require an irredentist project fraught
with many risks and uncertain prospects.
Homeland myths and government policies: from Ye’ltsin to Medvedev
Since none of the intellectual homeland constructs could be easily converted into state
policy, the Russian government was in a difficult position. In a thorough analysis of
the Russian state’s nation-building policies of the 1990s, Vera Tolz (1998a, p. 289)
notes that all of the ‘homeland myths’ had an impact on state policies, ‘with different
concepts dominating at different periods of time’, and further ‘competing with one
another, often in the minds of the same politicians, creating inconsistencies in their
views’. Scholars have characterised Yel’tsin-era policies as moving from an emphasis
on civic rossiiskii nation-building in 1992, when known liberals such as Yegor Gaidar
and Galina Starovoitova held positions in Yel’tsin’s inner circle, towards a more
Russian communists as well as nationalists frequently refer to the current Russian Federation as a
‘stump’ of the ‘true’ Russia. For example, Gennadii Zyuganov as quoted in Pain (2009, p. 82).
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ethnic and imperial conceptualisation of the new Russian state as a homeland for the
Russians and Russian-speakers throughout the former USSR. This shift took place as
the communist and nationalist opposition gained strength and the liberals lost their
influence in the government (Breslauer & Dale 1997; Brudny 2001; Tolz 1998a).
the same time, studies also draw attention to the contradictory and ambiguous nature
of Yel’tsin-era government policies, in particular to the confusion between ethnic and
civic discourses of nationhood (Brudny 2001; Morozov 2008, 2009; Tolz 1998a, 1998b;
Zevelev 2008). This contradiction was manifested in the tension between the stated
objective of building a civic rossiiskaya nation and the defence of the ethnic
constituency (Russians and Russian-speakers) in the Near Abroad (Breslauer &
Dale 1997), as well as in the federal elite’s use of the Russian Orthodox Church and
its focus on building a civic rossiiskaia nation to legitimise its power (Tolz 2004,
p. 165).
Contradictions and ambiguity between ethnic and civic nation-building agendas
persisted into the Putin and Medvedev periods as well. On the one hand, Putin and
Medvedev have rhetorically embraced the idea that the people of Russia constitute a
single rossiiskaya nation. Both Putin and Medvedev received praise from Valerii
Tishkov who contrasts their position with that of Yel’tsin who only ‘timidly spoke of
the rossiiskaya nation as a task for the future’, while Putin, in Tishkov’s assessment,
sees ‘every reason to speak of the Russian people [rossiiskii narod] as a single nation
[edinaya natsiya]’ (Tishkov 2009b).
President Medvedev has also talked about
rossiiskaya nation, for example in his 2008 state of the nation address, although he
used rossiiskaya nation’ interchangeably with mnogonatsional’nyi narod (Medvedev
2008). This illustrates the dilemma discussed above: it remains unclear how the
rossiiskaya nation concept is different from the constitutionally enshrined mnogo-
natsional’nyi narod concept, and, perhaps even more importantly, whether the political
actors see the two as distinct.
But even if Putin and Medvedev are more accepting of the rossiiskaya nation
discourse than Yel’tsin was, the ambiguity between ethnic and civic discourses of
nationhood at the official level remains. Two manifestations of this ambiguity are
particularly important. The first concerns the extent to which ‘ethnic nationalist
discourse . . . creeps back into official policy statements’ (Morozov 2008, p. 167). The
second concerns the possibility that a civic nation project of Putin and Medvedev is in
fact a neo-imperial project.
One illustration of ‘ethnic nationalist discourse . . . creep[ing] back into official
policy statements’ is the ‘Russian [russkii] project’ launched by United Russia in
February 2007.
The ethnic undertones are suggested by the very name of the
Brudny further emphasised that the executive elite’s embrace of any particular nation-building
agenda has been purely instrumental and dictated by the changes in the political balance of power
rather than by intellectual commitment to any one articulation of the nation.
The first manifestation of Putin’s commitment to the rossiiskaya nation project was his
programmatic article ‘Russia at the turn of the millennium’ (Sakwa 2004, pp. 251–62) which appeared
in December 1999 when he was still Prime Minister and acting President of Russia. In it, Putin put the
task of consolidating society around the common rossiiskaya idea at the top of his political agenda.
‘Edinaya Rossiya’ otkryvaet ‘russkii proekt’, available at:
7840, accessed 2 November 2009. Also see Azarov (2007).
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project—russkii rather than rossiiskii. The timing is also suggestive. The project was
launched following the autumn 2006 anti-Georgian campaign which targeted ethnic
Georgians, regardless of their citizenship, in the course of Moscow’s conflict with
Tbilisi over the expulsion of Russian diplomats.
By launching the project before the
2007 Duma elections, United Russia also aimed to take the initiative on speaking for
the russkie from the nationalists who had grown into a vocal and increasingly powerful
opposition to the Kremlin, especially after the liberal opposition was eliminated
(Morozov 2008, p. 166). Indeed, Andrei Isaev, member of the presidium of the United
Russia General Council, confirmed that in launching its ‘Russian project’ United
Russia wanted to ‘destroy the monopoly of extremists and scoundrels to speak on
behalf of the russkie people’. United Russia tried to distinguish itself from the
nationalists who, according to Isaev, ‘define Russianness [russkost’] by blood’, while
United Russia considered as russkie all those ‘who speak and think in Russian, who
consider themselves belonging to the Russian culture’ (Azarov 2007). United Russia’s
definition of russkii is indeed more inclusive than that of ethnic nationalists, but it still
leaves the question of whether ethnic Russians are first among equals in the Russian
civic nation—‘twice Russian’, as was discussed in an NTV talk show,
the ‘tireless
masters of the lofty fate’ of Russia as a whole, as Surkov (2006) put it—with other
ethnic groups figuring only as a ‘background mosaic to highlighting the greatness of
the main protagonist’ (Karpenko 2007).
The argument that the Russian authorities are ‘drifting towards ‘‘imperial
nationalism’’’ even as they talk about pursuing a civic nation project has been made
most forcefully by Emil’ Pain (2009, p. 80). In addition to emphasising that ‘authentic’
civic nation-building can take place only within a democratic polity, Pain also argues
that official discourse under Putin and Medvedev promotes imperial ‘civilisational’
rather than civic nationalism. Indeed, the idea of Russia as a unique civilisation has
been a common theme in the speeches of leading officials, and the civilisation that is
being referred to clearly extends beyond the borders of today’s Russia. Putin, for
example, has talked about the ‘multimillion Russian [russkii] world which is, of course,
much larger than Russia’ (Putin 2007). Medvedev also spoke of a ‘civilisational role’
that Russia has performed ‘for a millennium . . . over huge territory’ (Medvedev 2008).
Explaining the ‘Russian project’ of United Russia, Isaev spoke about Russianness
being ‘a question not of blood, but of imperial mindset [samosoznaniya]’ and ‘Russia
being created on the model of the Roman Empire’ (Azarov 2007). The head of the
Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill recently suggested that the concept ‘a
country of the Russian [russkii] world’ should be introduced, and that residents of
For details on this campaign, which the International Federation for Human Rights characterised
as a ‘campaign of discrimination on the basis of ethnic criteria conducted at the official level’, see
International Federation for Human Rights & Grazhdanskoe sodeistvie (2007, pp. 29–43, 29).
During a discussion of United Russia’s ‘Russian project’ on NTV between the project head Ivan
Demidov, Boris Nemtsov and Sergei Baburin, the talk-show host asked Demidov if, as an ethnic
Russian, he is ‘twice Russian’ (dvazhdy russkii)—because he is both an ethnic Russian and a member of
the Russian political nation, while non-ethnically Russian Nemtsov is not (‘Diskussiya o russkom
proekte, zapushchennom ‘‘Edinoi Rossiiei’’’, NTV, 11 February 2007, transcript available at: http://¼705059, accessed 15 November 2009).
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these countries ‘should realise their common civilisational belonging and consider the
Russian world as their common supra-national project’.
While one can debate whether this civilisational discourse that also portrays Russia
as a historically unique example of multinationalism and tolerance indeed ‘serves
merely as a fast-dissolving coating that makes it easier to swallow the pill of ethnic
nationalism’, as Pain argues,
it is clear that the conceptual and practical dilemmas
associated with each of the existing discourses of nationhood have not been resolved,
and ambiguity and contradictions between ethnic and civic nation-building agendas
and discourses at the official level continues. Since all available nation-building
agendas in Russia are associated with significant conceptual and practical dilemmas,
this is hardly a surprising outcome. What is surprising is that a legal solution to these
persisting contradictions may be emerging, manifested in the law on compatriots
Legal ambiguity as a solution to Russia’s nation-building dilemma?
Compatriots as ‘us’
The law ‘On State Policy of the Russian Federation towards Compatriots Abroad’,
referred to hereafter as the compatriots law, was adopted in May 1999, after several
years of Russian efforts to legally introduce dual citizenship with other former Soviet
republics had failed. It was originally designed as a supplement to the dual citizenship
strategy which had a potential to be converted into a stronger mechanism of Russia’s
influence in the region (Zevelev 2008). For some time the law lay largely dormant, but
in recent years the compatriots law has increasingly become the main legal instrument
by which Russia defines the target of its polices in the post-Soviet region. The 1999 law
defined compatriots as those ‘who were born in one state’ and who ‘share common
language, religion, cultural heritage, customs, and traditions’, as well as their direct
descendants, except for ‘decedents of persons who belong to titular nations of foreign
states’. In July 2010, the compatriots law was amended and the definition became even
more fuzzy. In addition to the above category and to Russian citizens permanently
living abroad, compatriots now also include ‘people living outside the border of the
Russian Federation who made a free choice in favour of spiritual and cultural
connection with Russia and who usually [kak pravilo] belong to peoples [narody] which
have historically lived on the territory of the Russian Federation’.
The elimination of
a provision on compatriot identification cards from the law has further blurred the
boundaries of the compatriots group as a legal category.
Both the 1999 and the
‘Patriarch Kirill preedlozhil vvesti v oborot ponyatie ‘‘strana russkogo mira’’’, Interfax,3
November 2009, available at:¼dujour&div¼370, accessed 4
November 2009.
Pain supports this conclusion by emphasising that ‘both nationalists and imperialists see the ethnic
majority as the only potential subject for a revived empire’ and that ‘the idea of political domination in
Russia by ethnic Russians . . . is upheld by representatives of both trends’ (Pain 2009, pp. 77–78).
Federal Law No. 179-FZ from 23 July 2010 (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, 27 July 2010).
The 1999 law contained such a provision although no compatriot identification cards were ever
issued (Chepurin 2009; Grafova 2009). The provision on a government-issued compatriots
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amended definition of compatriots as it stands in the law, as well as statements by
Russian officials on who the compatriots are, show how, without conflict with the
letter of the law, compatriots can be defined as anyone from ethnic Russians to all
former Soviet citizens. The compatriots law thus does not solve Russia’s nation-
building dilemma, but instead legally institutionalises the ambiguity of nation’s
An ethnic definition of compatriots can be easily justified within the law. Many
observers have argued that the law is primarily aimed at the Russian-speaking ethnic
Slavs and that belonging to the compatriots is a matter of ethnic identity and language
(Movozov 2008, p. 167; Zevelev 2008). The compatriots law was even called Russia’s
‘first federal legislative act limiting rights on the basis of ethno-cultural criteria’
(Osipov 2004). Indeed, since the law defined compatriots by language, religion and
culture, the narrowest interpretation of the letter of the law would be to define
only ethnic Russians who are Orthodox Christians as compatriots as they clearly
fulfil all of the criteria set forth in the 1999 law. Ethnic definition of
compatriots can also be found in official statements. For example, the press service
of the Russian FMS has been quoted as saying that compatriots are ‘ethnic
Russians who live in the CIS and Baltic states’ (Tartuta & Kozenko 2005). Preference
towards ethnic Russians is also suggested by a sample application form for the
compatriots resettlement programme launched in 2006. While ethnicity and religion
are optional categories, a sample form posted at the FMS website and filled in for a
Vladimir Kuznetsov, resident of Kyrgyzstan, specifies his ethnicity as Russian and
his religion as Orthodox (Federal Migration Service of the Russian Federation
At the same time, the law can easily support linguistic rather than ethnic definitions
of compatriots. The text of the compatriots resettlement programme notes that
compatriots are ‘brought up in the traditions of Russian [rossiiskaya] culture, knowing
Russian language’.
The FMS officials have emphasised that the compatriots
resettlement programme is aimed at former Soviet citizens competent in Russian and
possessing professional skills. Thus, according to the head of the FMS, Konstantin
Romodanovski, compatriots are those ‘who have desirable professions, who know
Russian language and who respect our traditions and culture’ (Sas 2008).
Aleksandr Chepurin, the head of the Directorate on the Work with Compatriots of the
identification card was removed in July 2010. Instead, according to the authors of the draft,
organisation of compatriots abroad may choose to issue membership cards to their members that could
serve as a proof of one’s self-identification as Russia’s compatriot according to Article 3 of the
amended law (Ministerstvo inostrannykh del Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2010a).
Further, according to a version of the same sample form contained in the FMS-issued memo to
compatriots wishing to resettle in Russia (Federal Migration Service of the Russian Federation 2007,
p. 15), there is no expectation that Vladimir Kuznetsov who was born in Kyrgyzstan in 1967 would
know Kyrgyz, as he answers ‘no’ to the question of whether he knows any foreign languages. The 2008
version of the form leaves the ‘other languages’ line blank.
State Programme ‘On measures to assist in the voluntary resettlement of compatriots living abroad
to the Russian Federation’, approved by Presidential decree No. 637 on 22 June 2006, available at:, accessed 2 November 2009.
Solodovnikov (2007) reports a similar definition of compatriots by the Chairman of the
Directorate on Compatriots of the FMS.
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Russian Foreign Ministry, defined the preservation of not just rossiiski but of russkii
ethnocultural space’ as one of the three ‘whales on which Russia’s compatriots policy
rests’ (Chepurin 2009).
An even broader definition of compatriots—as Russians and non-Russians who had
Soviet citizenship as well as their descendants (except for descendants of the former
Soviet citizens of the 14 ethnicities who belong to titular groups of the newly
independent states)—could also be supported by the letter of the 1999 law, especially if
these non-Russians know Russian or are of the Orthodox religion. The exclusion of
the post-Soviet generation of titular groups of the non-Russian former Soviet
republics could arguably be justified by the definition of compatriots in the 1999 law,
although this is debatable since this exclusion was contained in Article 1.2 of the 1999
compatriots law that defines ‘compatriots abroad’, while the definition of compatriots
in article 1.1 did not contain this exclusion. As a practical matter, such an exclusion
would have been complicated by the difficulty of determining ethnicity in case of
mixed marriages. Excluding the post-Soviet generation of Ukrainians and Belarusians
in particular, it would have also been problematic for ideational reasons, as discussed
above. This may be why one does not find Russian officials publicly advocating this
particular interpretation of the compatriots law.
Most broadly, one could argue that all former Soviet citizens and their
descendants are compatriots. Since what constitutes a common language, culture
or religion is not specified in either the 1999 law or in the 2010 amendments to it,
nor is there any formal list of ‘peoples which have historically lived on the territory
of the Russian Federation’, potentially any of the languages, religions, or customs
existing in the former Soviet Union could be interpreted as ‘common’, and any
ethnic group as having historically lived in Russia. The definition of compatriots as
all former Soviet citizens and their descendants is present in many official statements
and documents. Vladimir Putin, for example, has argued that compatriot is ‘not a
legal category . . . but a spiritual self-identification’ (Putin 2001)—a criterion that any
former Soviet citizen could claim to meet. This criterion became an element of the
legal definition following July 2010 amendments. In a similar vein, the Russian
Foreign Ministry states that compatriots are ‘those who remain loyal to Russian
language and culture, who feel a spiritual connection with Russia, its successes and
difficulties’ (Ministerstvo inostrannykh del Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2006). In its recent
explanatory letter on who may be considered as compatriots for the purposes of
higher education in Russia, the Ministry of Education stated unambiguously that
compatriots are former Soviet citizens and their direct descendants (Ministerstvo
obrazovaniya i nauki Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2009). Article 17 of the compatriots law,
as amended in July 2010, also lists Soviet citizenship (or descent from a Soviet
citizen) as a criterion on the basis of which one can take advantage of education
rights in Russia by virtue of being a compatriot.
Some observers have argued that the Russian authorities include in the category
of compatriots ‘all of the non-titular groups living in the CIS and titular groups
retaining their Soviet traits. The post-Soviet generations of titular groups have
become strangers for Russia’ (Zevelev 2008). However, neither the letter of the law
nor official statements on who the compatriots are explicitly exclude ‘the post-Soviet
generation of titular groups’ (Zevelev 2008), and at times include it explicitly.
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As debates preceding the adoption of July 2010 amendments to the compatriots law
make clear, Russian policymakers ultimately prefer to be able to define all former
Soviet citizens as compatriots, but not to be legally required to do so. One of the
officially articulated reasons for amending the 1999 compatriots law that made the
compatriots definition more subject to self-identification and less to ‘rigid linkage to
state-political [politiko-gosudarstvennoi] geography’ (Ministerstvo inostrannykh del
Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2010b) was to avoid the situation whereby ‘huge numbers of
people’ (some 150 million, according to the Foreign Ministry) could be considered
compatriots under the law, including ‘residents of Finland and Poland because these
countries at some point were within the territory of the Russian state, and Mikheil
Saakashvili and elites of the Baltic States because they are from the former USSR’
(Ministerstvo inostrannykh del Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2010b). At the same time, the
officials explicitly acknowledge that the amended definition ‘does not automatically
reduce the number of compatriots’ and that it was purposefully made ‘sufficiently
flexible’ (Ministerstvo inostrannykh del Rossiiskoi Federatsii 2010b). The qualifying
clause ‘as a rule’ in the definition was apparently inserted specifically so as not to
limit the ‘compatriots’ designation to ‘peoples which have traditionally lived on the
territory of the Russian Federation’, but to be able to extend it to ‘Russians and
Russian-speakers and representatives of other nationalities living in states of the far
and near abroad’.
The functionality of ambiguity
Because the compatriots law accommodates multiple definition of compatriots, it does
not solve Russia’s nation-building dilemma discussed in the previous section as it
neither resolves contradictions associated with each of the five possible definitions of
the ‘true’ nation listed in Table 1, nor does it commit the state to any one of these
controversial definitions. At the same time, the compatriots law effectively solves
Russia’s nation-building dilemma for the government by giving the government a way
out of this dilemma. By defining the group the state formally recognises as its ‘us’
ambiguously in the law, the government can avoid emotionally charged debates on the
question of the nation’s boundaries, while at the same time being in a position to
pursue a broad range of policies in the name of compatriots. Several examples of how
a wide range of policies can be easily construed as protecting compatriots can be given.
For example, there is much debate within Russia about whether Russia’s interests
are best served by Russians and Russian-speakers staying in the former Soviet
republics (because this can potentially give Russia leverage over these states), or by
them moving to Russia (to compensate for Russia’s demographic crisis and
population decline). As Viktor Alksnis put it during a debate on migration policy
objectives in the Duma in March 2006, ‘today we do not know what is Russia, and
whether we should be stimulating the growth of repatriation of Russians living in
Ukraine, or is it better if they stay there, because, by helping them leave Ukraine, we
Deputy Foreign Minister Grigorii Karasin’s comments while introducing amendments to the 1999
Compatriots Law in the Duma on 4 June 2010 available at:
2170564?QueryID¼3158778&HighlightQuery¼3158778, accessed 1 August 2010.
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are helping to separate [ottorgat’] Ukraine from Russia’.
In a similar vein,
Konstantin Zatulin, head of the CIS Institute, has argued that ‘if Russians leave
Kazakhstan, it will become an ordinary Asian country. If Russians leave Ukraine, it
will definitively [okonchatel’no] turn to the west’ (Tartuta & Kozenko 2005).
During most of the post-Soviet era, even though Russia received millions of
migrants from the CIS, the Russian leadership did not formally encourage such
migration and spoke of the need to have the interests of compatriots protected in their
states of residence. Since 2006, however, the thinking has been changing. In his May
2006 annual address to the Russian parliament President Putin declared ‘attracting
compatriots from abroad’ a ‘priority’ of migration policy (Putin 2006). In June 2006,
the government programme ‘On Voluntary Resettlement of Compatriots to Russia’
was approved by a presidential decree; in October 2008, amendments to the citizenship
law that gave participants in the compatriots resettlement programme simplified access
to Russian citizenship entered into force (Grafova & Gritsyuk 2008);
and in January
2010 the compatriots resettlement programme was extended to include not only
compatriots abroad, but also those former Soviet citizens who previously relocated to
Russia. Plans to further expand the programme by removing the 2012 expiration date
have been articulated (Smolyakova 2010).
Both a policy of encouraging compatriots to stay in their states of residence by, for
example, putting pressure on the government of neighbouring states to pursue policies
more hospitable to Russians and Russian-speakers, and a policy encouraging their
migration to Russia can be easily accommodated under the umbrella ‘assistance to the
compatriots’. Oscillation and ambiguity of policy goals could also be accommodated.
Indeed, despite the adoption of the compatriots resettlement programme, the Russian
elite retains a degree of ambiguity about compatriots’ return. This is evident, for
example, from the designation of 12 pilot regions for the compatriots resettlement
programme. These regions were for the most part in strategic border areas and
suffering most from depopulation, and thus were not very attractive for compatriots—
although, from the perspective of the Russian government, repopulating these regions
with compatriots would naturally be desirable.
Another indication of Russia’s
ambiguity about encouraging the large-scale return of compatriots is the lawmakers’
refusal to grant substantive rights to compatriots. Proposals to grant compatriots such
rights as free emergency medical care, no-fee visas, the right to be buried in Russia,
free visits to state museums, and archival documents on one’s family origins at no
charge were all rejected in 2010.
Reliance on the ‘compatriots’ category to define the
Stenographic report of the Duma discussion of the report by the acting head of the Ministry of
Interior Aleksandr Chekalin, ‘On main directions of migration policy’, 15 March 2006, available at:, accessed 12 November 2009.
The amendments exempted participants in the compatriots resettlement programme from the five-
year residency requirement, acquisition of permanent residency permit, and proof or a legal source of
income and knowledge of the Russian language.
When the compatriots resettlement programme was launched, the government estimated that some
300,000 people would relocate overall, 100,000 of them in the first year (Tyazhlov 2006). In 2007,
however, only 685 people moved. This number rose to 8,346 in 2008 and 9,219 in 2009. By July 2010,
some 22,000 compatriots resettled to Russia under the programme (Smolyakova 2010).
Konstantin Zatulin submitted these amendments between the first and the second reading of the
2010 amendments to the compatriots law. All of them were rejected, as is evident from a table of
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target group of state polices also gives Russian authorities greater flexibility when
deciding whom exactly to target than can be achieved by reliance on other categories,
such as ethnicity, language, former Soviet citizenship, citizenship of particular
post-Soviet states, or even Russian citizenship. For example, a more ethno-cultural
definition of ‘us’ would make it difficult for Russia to justify its involvement in the
regions outside its borders where ethnic Russians do not live in compact settlements,
such as Abkhazia, Ossetia and Transdniestria (Zevelev 2008). Since many people in
these three territories obtained Russian citizenship in the 1990s, in these particular
cases Russia could (and did) use the citizenship status of the population to justify its
‘special interests’ in these areas. With citizenship acquisition becoming more difficult
following the adoption of the new citizenship law in 2002 (Tolz 2004, p. 172), in the
future a possible target group of Russia’s interests may not have Russian citizenship,
but any post-Soviet group can still be easily presented as ‘compatriots’. Recent
changes to the citizenship law giving compatriots (rather than the former Soviet
citizens or ethnic Russians) simplified access to Russian citizenship speak to the
Russian state’s intentions to make compatriots the target group of state policies.
The history of amendments to the law on the legal status of foreigners illustrates
how using ‘compatriots’ terminology gives the government more leverage than using
other categories. Amendments to the foreigners law that were adopted in July 2006
were discussed in March 2006, before Putin’s May 2006 annual address and before
the adoption of the compatriots resettlement programme in June 2006. The July
2006 amendments eased residency registration requirements for citizens of states
which have visa-free agreements with Russia (which included all former Soviet
republics except the three Baltic states, Georgia and Turkmenistan). During the
debate of these amendments in the Duma many MPs cautioned against seeing post-
Soviet migration as a solution to Russia’s demographic problem. As one MP put it,
by counting on migrants ‘with a different mentality and different culture’ Russia at
the same time is ‘refusing the right to survive to russkii people, rossiiskii people’. If
Russia counts on migrants to keep the population at its current level, the MP
continued, ‘we will get a totally different country—culturally, ethnically, linguisti-
In July 2006 the amendments were passed despite these objections, but
following the anti-Georgian campaign in the autumn of 2006, in December 2006 the
foreigners law was amended again, this time limiting the right to work without a
work permit to those who not only came from visa-free states and had a temporary
residence permit but also who were participating in the compatriots resettlement
The fuzziness of the compatriots concept means that limiting migration, citizenship
and employment benefits to compatriots allows the government to control the
amendments available at:
ByID&BE35593D9BCB8068C325775700579C35, accessed 1 August 2010.
MP Aleksand Krutov of the Rodina party during the 17 March 2006 first reading of draft
amendments to the law on the legal status of foreigners, stenographic report available at: http://, accessed 7 October 2009. Similar ideas were voiced
also during the 15 March 2006 discussion of the main directions of state migration policy.
‘Svetlana Gannushkina: Migranty v Rossii absoliutno bespravny’, Deutsche Welle, 28 January
2008, available at:,,3093566,00.html, accessed 7 October 2009.
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composition of migrants, including the ethno-cultural composition if it wants to,
without formally committing (or admitting) to such a policy. If the target group is
defined by former Soviet citizenship or eligibility for visa-free travel to Russia, this gives
no legal basis for differential treatment on an ethno-cultural basis. But if compatriots
are defined as the target group, then such differential treatment becomes possible. As
discussed above, the definition of compatriots contained in the law allows treating ethnic
Russians or Russian-speaking ethnic Slavs as compatriots, and comments by some
officials as well as a sample application form for the resettlement programme prepared
by the FMS signal that ethnic Russians of Orthodox faith are indeed the preferred
group. At the same time, this preference is not stated openly anywhere in the
resettlement programme or the law. As Zevelev observed, even though ‘it is clear that
the notion of ‘‘compatriots’’ applies first and foremost to ethnic Russians, . . . the
Russian authorities refrain from mentioning this directly’ (Zevelev 2008). The ethnic
nation-building agenda is fraught with many contradictions and potential dangers, as
discussed above. Targeting state policies at compatriots allows giving preference
informally to ethnic Russians (or other cultural groups, such as Orthodox Slavs or some
other sub-group of the ‘Russian-speakers’), without becoming involved in emotionally
and politically charged debates on the ‘true boundaries of the nation, ethnic Russians
special place in the nation, or the boundaries of Russianness (russkost).
At the same time, while compatriots can be defined ethno-culturally, they do not
have to be so defined. The fuzziness of the definition of compatriots in the law allows
selection not by ethnicity but, for example, by skills. FMS officials have argued that
compatriots are those who ‘have desirable professional skills’ (Sas 2008), who ‘have
professions that are in demand in Russia—teachers, engineers, doctors’ (Tartuta &
Kozenko 2005). Official plans to extend the compatriots resettlement programme to
several skills-based categories, such as business entrepreneurs, highly-skilled workers,
students receiving higher education in Russia, and those willing to engage in
agricultural activity in the countryside have been articulated by the authorities
(Smolyakova 2010).
Discussions around the July 2010 amendments to the compatriots law reveal yet
another potential leverage the fuzziness of the compatriots concept can give the
Russian government. The amendment eliminated the provision on official documenta-
tion of compatriots, leaving instead the issuance of documents to the competency of
compatriot organisations abroad. Critics of this change argued during a debate in the
Duma that it was not clear from the law if all or some compatriot organisations would
be issuing such documents, and, more importantly, if the Russian authorities would
recognise documents issued by all compatriot organisations or only by those
‘approved by the Russian embassy’.
Potentially, therefore, legal ambiguity as to
who exactly is a compatriot also allows the Russian authorities to influence compatriot
community organisations abroad.
In sum, the fuzzy definition of compatriots in the law allows the law to be applied
according to President Medvedev’s instructions in his latest state of the nation address:
MP Kalashnikov’s comment during the 4 June 2010 debate in the Duma, stenographic record available
at:¼3158778&HighlightQuery¼3158778, accessed
1 August 2010.
Downloaded By: [HCL Harvard College] At: 19:05 24 March 2011
‘instead of muddled actions dictated by nostalgia and superstitions, . . . [to] conduct
smart foreign and domestic policy, dictated purely by pragmatic goals’ (Medvedev
This study has argued that the nation-building dilemma Russia faces does not lend
itself to any easy or short-term solution. All five main nation-building alternatives
present in today’s Russia are fraught with significant dilemmas and contradictions,
making the adoption of any one of them as state policy problematic. In this situation, I
further argued, institutionalisation and legalisation of an ambiguous definition of
Russia’s ‘us’ manifested in the compatriots law may be the only politically feasible,
and also the most pragmatic, solution that serves a functional purpose. Scholars have
noted how already in the 1990s Russia’s ruling ‘centrist’ elite ‘purposefully gave a
vague answer to the question of whether the Russian nation is ethnic or civic [and]
benefited from this ambiguity’.
A new trend that has been gaining momentum is the
legalisation of this vagueness. First established in the 1999 compatriots law, in the
following years the government has been increasingly relying on this law when defining
the ‘us’ of the Russian state.
The definition of compatriots in the law is vague enough to allow in practice the
definition of compatriots by a virtually infinite combination of ethnic, linguistic,
religious, cultural and professional characteristics. This flexibility serves a functional
purpose as it allows Russian policymakers much room to manoeuvre. They can target
a variety of sub-groups of former Soviet citizens as ‘compatriots’ and can pursue
policies that fall in a broad range from ethnic to civic to neo-imperial without
committing to any one of the associated discourses and without resolving the
ambiguities and contradictions associated with each of the existing nation-building
projects. Thus the search for the national idea in Russia is far from over, but the ruling
elites may have found a way to postpone, potentially indefinitely, a resolution of the
vexing contradictions associated with this process.
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Following the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the Kremlin constructed a legitimizing narrative to justify its inflammatory foreign policy decision. This narrative in turn builds an argument for the legality of the annexation, as well as one for its morality. These arguments were presented as the driving forces for its decision to occupy and annex the peninsula and then diffused by Russia’s political class in addition to their security-related justifications. But a closer examination of these arguments and how they relate to realities on the ground suggests they are closer to being pretexts for the annexation than being its driving forces. This narrative offers a glimpse into how the Kremlin uses notions of identity, historical links, and international norms championed by the west to legitimize its foreign policies on the international scene.
This chapter discusses how a renewed form of Hybrid Exceptionalism re-emerged in post-Cold War Russia. After engaging with the country’s decade-long identity crisis during the turbulent, but formative 1990s, it analyses the Putin regime’s current reformulation through its two main components: ‘feigned liberalism’—the distortive appropriation of liberal norms to hierarchical ends in a search for status; and a more openly civilisational component, based on the construction of a separate Russian-dominated civilisational sphere from shared ethno-linguistic and religious elements and common, Russocentrically defined, Soviet legacies. These quasi-liberal and civilisational elements are finally tied to Bhabha’s ideas regarding the subversive power of mimicry, as well as Zaraköl’s points on the role of imitation and doubling down in late entrants’ complex relationship with Western modernity.
Scholars tend to view nations as a modern phenomenon, the consequence of the social organization of industrial society. Such a society cannot function unless its members are bound by a common culture, created by its political and intellectual elites and transmitted through a universal system of education. In Western Europe, where modern nations were created in the course of the nineteenth century, strong states were already in existence. Their boundaries determined the membership of national communities. Nations were perceived as civic communities, whose members were all citizens of the state bound by loyalty to its political institutions. The elites in Eastern and Central Europe, where people lived in premodern empires, visualized nations as predominantly ethnic communities, bound by a common language, culture, and history. In Russia, both the civic and ethnic elements of nationhood were weakened by the peculiar form of Russian state-building. Because Russia was a multiethnic empire, the development of a Russian ethnic identity was stunted. The development of a unifying civic identity within the borders of the state was stultified by the fact that the governments of Russia and the USSR were authoritarian and, moreover, poorly institutionalized compared with governments in Western Europe. Despite the fact that in the Soviet period, Russian ethnic identity was, sometimes unwittingly, advanced through government policies, the process of identity formation was still far from complete in 1991. © Cambridge University Press 2004 and Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Nationalism was arguably the most powerful force in international politics in the twentieth century.1 Its ideas revolutionized international politics, affecting everything from trade to the number of states in the international system itself. It aided in the collapse of the central, eastern, and southeastern European empires; it contributed significantly to the events of World War II and its horror; it led to the end of colonialism; and it played a crucial role in the breakup of three federal Communist states: The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Many politicians in the successor countries to these three states quickly abandoned their Communist Party roots for nationalist movements. Even in the liberal democratic West, nationalists pushing for protection of the homeland and national culture against outsiders had electoral success in the latter part of the century. Scholars have linked nationalism to everything from the French and American revolutions to the worst atrocities committed against ethnic minorities. The large number of phenomena that have been attached to the label nationalism indicates that it is a complex, multifaceted concept. Yet it is possible to define nationalism to allow one to include different events under its heading, while at the same time not defining it in such a broad way as to be meaningless.2 The definition proposed in this chapter, based in part on a survey of definitions in the nationalism literature, indicates that no matter what variant of nationalism one is discussing, nationalism is about two things: The nation and control over territory-specifically, the perceived national "homeland." Because of its emphasis on territorial control, nationalism's power as a maker (and destroyer) of states is well recognized.3 And no one can deny the mobilizing power of nationalist ideas over the last two centuries. Although nationalism is elite driven, the masses have often enthusiastically followed nationalist leaders. But what happens to these nationalists and their ideas after they have achieved their ultimate goal of the creation of a new state? What happens to nationalism after independence? This is the central question of this book, a work that brings together analyses of a variety of postcolonial and postcommunist cases to help us understand how independence affects the ideas of nationalism and the fate of its movements and political parties. © 2006 Published by University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved.
This article explores concepts of the nation-state system amid a crisis of civic identity.
Nationalism and globalization are often considered processes leading to opposite poles in cultural, economic, and political history, but in fact the relationship between them has been far more complex, and in the past century and a half they may be said to have worked in tandem. Nationalism emerged in a sixteenth-century country in Western Europe – England – its emergence coinciding with the dawning of “the European Age in History”: the rise of Western Europe, in particular, and societies of Western European descent, to the position of economic, political, and to a certain extent cultural leadership of the entire world. It emerged in a region, culturally unified by Western Christianity, which, independently of nationalism, and for the first time on such a broad scale in history, already began to bring other continents under its sway, thereby initiating the process of cultural, economic, and political globalization. At the center of this globalizing world was Spain, which subordinated the European “Holy Roman” Empire and vast areas in South and Central America under the political authority of the Habsburg Crown, united Europe, Africa, and the Americas economically in the “triangular trade,” and dedicated itself to the mission of spreading Roman Catholicism. The world would never again be integrated into one system on so many levels, that is, so meaningfully, but, however profound, the success of this first attempt at globalization was short lived. The emergence of nationalism, reinforced by and reinforcing the disintegration of the Western European Church order which produced the Protestant Reformation, put an end to it: res publica christiana split into warring camps, religious differences adding on to and often masking secular political conflicts, and by the eighteenth century the competitive spirit which pitted nation against nation in every sphere of human endeavor replaced the universalistic, catholic indeed, religious consciousness which for so long united Western Christians.Keywords:community;globalization
This timely and pathbreaking work shows how and why the dramatic collapse of the soviet Union was caused in large part by nationalism, that is, by the increasingly urgent demands of the subject nationalities of the Soviet Union for independence and autonomy.
The second disintegration of the empire this century has reopened the debate over Russian state and nation building with direct implications both for Russia's reform process and for its relations with other newly independent states. In December 1991, the Russian Federation was transformed into an independent state as a historically formed regional entity, not as a nation state. Scholars argue that the Russian empire was built “at the cost of Russia's own sense of nationhood.” In the past, the efforts spent conquering and ruling vast territories and diverse populations diverted the Russian people and their leaders from the task of consolidation and nation building. This was true not only in the prerevolutionary but also in the Soviet period, during which the majority of Russians saw the entire USSR rather than the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) as their homeland. Now, after the disintegration of the USSR, the questions arise whether the majority of Russians can accept the borders of the Russian Federation as final, and, if not, what the alternative myths of Russia's national homeland are? The answers to these questions determine whether Russians will ever be able to define themselves other than as an imperial people.