By Paul Goble
One of the major complaints Russian nationalists have is that some non-Russians have national republics within the Russian Federation but that the ethnic Russians do not. Instead, they live primarily in predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts and krays that Moscow defines as “non-ethnic.”
The center’s reasons for doing so were suggested by the late Russian émigré historian Ivan Kurganov in his 1961 book, The Nations of the USSR and the Russian Question. Were such regions declared ethnic Russian places, he argued, that could tear the country apart (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/08/a-small-but-significant-sign-russian.html).
As a result, the government of the Russian Federation for all its deference to the ethnic Russian majority in practice has been unwilling to take that step. But now the Russian nationalists have found a powerful new ally and that could trip the balance, complicating Moscow’s problems and triggering more nationalism among Russia’s non-Russians.
The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church announced its change of position on this issue in a most unusual way. Abbess Kseniya, the head of the patriarchate’s legal affairs office, made it in the course of commenting on Chechnya’s decision to permit pupils to wear the hijab in schools (rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=77707).
The Russian Orthodox Church, she said, is “against anyone violating the secular character of Russian education but considers completely permissible taking into account the traditions and customs of each specific region of the Russian Federation,” Chechen in Chechnya and Russian in predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts and krays.
From a legal point of view, the abbess continued, “federal legislation does not give students and teachers in Russian schools the right to wear religious dress, and in this sense, the decision of the Chechen parliament goes beyond the limits” of the law. But that is not the end of the question, she said.
The law allows federal subjects to take into consideration “popular traditions and beliefs” in arranging their educational programs. Thus, while “in ethnic Russian regions, the wearing of the hijab in school would be a clear violation of the secular principle of general education, in Chechnya, this is completely permissible as a popular tradition.”
The implications of this for Russia as a whole are enormous: it opens the door not only for non-Russians to insist on their national traditions being taken into account, but it lays the foundation for a claim by predominantly ethnic Russian regions to act as ethnic Russian entities in this regard, twin developments that will feed off each other.
And it means that the country’s common legal space, in which Vladimir Putin put so much effort to restore a decade or more ago, is now at risk once again, first and foremost not by non-Russians but by ethnic Russians who under the terms of Abbess Kseniya’s argument are likely to demand that their values inform what oblast and kray governments do.
That has the potential to create problems not only between ethnic Russian and non-Russian federal subjects and between each of these groups as a whole and Moscow but also within them because many of the predominantly ethnic Russian regions, like many of the non-Russian areas, are ethnically mixed in complex ways (rufabula.com/author/cyprian_d/1561).
The Kremlin is certain to oppose Kseniya’s position, but the fact that she has articulated it is equally certain to energize a new kind of Russian nationalist discourse – and a new level of non-Russian nationalist discourse as well, something the central authorities will find it increasingly difficult to suppress.