Russia Has Never Oppressed Other Peoples

It is an axiom that any ethnic or nationalist party is bad. But has anyone seriously examined whether this is so? No. The matter remains open for debate. The Russian people – the majority of Russia’s population – display the maximum possible tolerance toward other ethnic groups’ lifestyles, habits, customs, traditions, religions, and so on, but within certain limits.

Yevgeny Shestakov, moderator of the Rossiiskaya Gazeta, talks to Vitaly Tretyakov, Dean of the Higher School of Television at Moscow’s Lomonosov State University, about the state of interethnic relations in Russia and roadblocks to progress.

Do you agree that numerous nationalist incidents in Russia, especially recent ones, were provoked by specific incidents when security agencies were not up to the mark and disregarded many violations?

Certainly, this trend is rather alarming. Nationalist incidents are increasing, and the trends are becoming more pronounced. Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that the situation will be reversed in the near future. We don’t see any positive prospects at this stage.

How can this be explained? Although I don’t like the word “tolerance,” we will use it in this particular case. Certainly, the Russian people, which account for the majority of Russia’s population, displays the maximum possible tolerance toward other ethnic groups’ lifestyles, habits, customs, traditions, religions, and so on, but within certain limits. Such limits are now being exceeded. The overall situation is rather obvious and trite. First of all, we are witnessing all-out social and property stratification nationwide and in some regions. No one pays any special attention to local living standards when wealth and poverty levels are approximately the same. In the case of more substantial stratification, people become more interested in the wealthy and try to see how they are different. The ethnic principle, including a person’s last name, appearance and so on, becomes quite pronounced and may easily turn into a trend based on a subconscious distrust of all things alien. In this case, it does not matter whether this involves ideological, political, religious or ethnic differences. This is the first thing.

Second, the de facto, rather than de jure, maximum freedoms, including the freedom of movement, have caused workers to migrate from place to place where it is easier to earn a living. As a rule, new arrivals were of different ethnicities, because people from one and the same ethnic group are not viewed as aliens. If a Russian national moves from St. Petersburg to Moscow, he is not perceived as an alien. In my opinion, such migration flows are absolutely uncontrollable.

The third aspect is probably more important that the second one. It turns out that locals and aliens have different lifestyles, different perceptions of the law and its norms and the do’s and don’ts of everyday life. It is great when society is convinced that Russia must completely copy the example of the West and other “civilized nations” where everyone is supposed to observe human rights and assume equal responsibility. Owing to their unique status, aliens started taking up the most sensitive positions inside government and security agencies or jobs inside the trade sector. When persons with a certain ethnic background are concentrated inside such sectors, then the locals get the impression that they depend on “aliens” to some extent. It is common knowledge that Russians don’t want to go anywhere else. They probably want to move to Moscow and other major cities, but they don’t relocate to North Caucasus republics or other predominantly “ethnic” regions. They move about in one and the same ethnic environment. Although they may be mistaken, they think that they are unable to go to an “ethnic” region and enjoy the same opportunities there as people arriving here from those regions.

And finally, everyone is convinced that ethnic crime and ethnic crime rings are responsible for most of the criminality, that they commit most of the crimes, and that security agencies pander to such crime rings. This belief is largely true. What can one add here? This is enough to scare anyone. This is really going on, and people are noticing it at the national and day-to-day levels.

In Soviet times, powerful and systemic enforcement suppressed crime, including ethnic crime. Enforcement was prompt and effective. Second, a concerted effort was made to promote interethnic friendship. And, third, human resources were regularly rotated between Moscow and the capitals of the then Soviet republics. This resulted in a certain ratio between Russians and non-Russians in any urban or republican elite. This, too, is now history.

Many issues are now being hushed up, as if out of embarrassment. For instance, it is known that many Roma crime rings are involved in the illegal drug trade. But it would be indecent to say that such activity is typical of Roma crime rings because this would run counter to the concepts of political correctness and tolerance. It is mentioned only when the situation degenerates into absolute lawlessness. One gets the impression that the government does not pay enough attention to instances of ethnic crime. But what else can this cause except fear and its flip side – hatred, xenophobia and the rest? At the same time, instances of interethnic conflict are evident at the day-to-day and even political level. The ethnic issue, the problem of interethnic strife and anxiety, to say the least, is here for everyone to see, and this problem is becoming more and more pronounced.

But Soviet-era methods for promoting interethnic friendship will hardly prove effective in a modern democratic society.

The Soviet government implemented a purposeful policy to promote and maintain this so-called interethnic friendship. That policy was quite effective and included repressive, cultural and political measures. Soviet-era and current relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan allow us to assess the effectiveness of these measures.

Despite the mostly negative aspects of their common history, Armenian-Azerbaijani marriages were commonplace in Soviet times. Today, it is virtually impossible to imagine an Armenian woman marrying an Azerbaijani man, or an Armenian man marrying an Azerbaijani woman.

Will people with different ethnic backgrounds kill each other in an absolutely free country? Or will they live peacefully under an authoritarian regime and even create mixed families? This highlights a political choice and an option for society’s development.

It is quite possible that the relevant Soviet experience is no good, all the more so as the break-up of the Soviet Union was facilitated by a number of factors, including interethnic disputes. However, such disputes found expression among the elites of various Soviet republics and the federal government, rather than between Soviet nations. But the stance of national elites is always very important because ordinary people usually kill each other when they are incited to do so by elites. Supposing that the Soviet Union maintained some forms of interethnic peace but failed to completely implement and preserve this model. But the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago.

There are some other models, including the U.S. melting pot and European-style multiculturalism. Although the Soviet model of interethnic relations was bad, it produced far more positive results than current ones. We were unable to take advantage of the U.S. or European model. Moreover, we have failed to invent something of our own. The configuration of any new model and its general principles are lacking. Nor do we have any perception of how this will work in the near future.

Do you suggest we go back to old methods in our interethnic policy?

I have my own opinion of how this should work. But this requires fundamental changes in our life, the country’s political system and the Constitution. The Russian issue is the main ethnic problem now facing this country. The Russian people believe that their rights are being violated more than other ethnicities. This is becoming a common refrain among some Russians. I think that constitutional changes are essential. The Russian people are the pillar of the state. In my opinion, the Constitution should stipulate this in a clause. And the entire subsequent policy should be based on this clause.

But this is ethnic nationalism in the interests of a single ethnicity.

The Russian people have never oppressed other peoples but rather always helped them. Consequently, historical trends do not confirm what you have just said. There is absolutely no Russian nationalism here, except in the most normal forms. All nations need nationalism to separate themselves from other nations in terms of mentality, psychology, language, and so on. It is important that Russia choose the most well thought-out, effective and promising ethnic policy. The Bolsheviks had an ethnic policy concept that proved effective over a long period of time. Russia currently lacks an ethnic policy concept, and nobody is doing anything to develop such a concept. If you are unable to do this in public, then you should set up secret, closed groups to tackle the issue. But something has to be done.

Moderately nationalist parties, which were quite active in Russia about five years ago, have now virtually disappeared from the political stage. Does society need parties advocating moderate nationalism?

It is a serious question whether we need to establish parties in line with religious or ethnic principles and whether this is essential, effective, useful or harmful. I believe that such parties will be moderately nationalist. For instance, there will a party defending the interests of ethnic Russians and a party defending the interests of the Tatars. Or will this aggravate all ethnic problems? Nobody is seriously addressing this issue. It is an axiom that any ethnic or nationalist party is bad. But has anyone seriously examined whether this is so? No. The matter remains open for debate.

In the past, it was possible to establish regional parties in Russia. But this was later banned. Today, it is only possible to establish national and federal parties. The government feared that regional political parties would form a political foundation for regional separatism. The activity of such parties would not seem very constructive initially. However, such parties might eventually prove to be even more constructive than federal parties, which have vague ideologies and which largely resemble each other. This issue is of vital importance for the political system and Russia’s ethnic policy, but it is being addressed in a crude and primitive manner. It turns out that regional parties are no good because they amount to regional separatism. Ethnic parties are also no good because this implies ethnic separatism. And religious parties are also undesirable because they exacerbate religious separatism. Consequently, we have something amorphous and unclear, and everyone is dissatisfied with this.

Many ethnic republics, primarily those in the North Caucasus, now receive tremendous financial assistance from the federal government. How justified and effective is this assistance?

North Caucasus republics want maximum independence from the federal government in Moscow, but they want to receive the maximum possible financial assistance. This issue is now being actively discussed. But a refusal to finance the North Caucasus would result in Russia losing it. This could become a major strategic loss with unpredictable consequences. In reality, such consequences are quite predictable. The loss of the Caucasus could lead to Russia’s disintegration. Moreover, Russia could be dismembered by other major powers. For me, this would be a step in that direction.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.