By Paul Goble
Few in Russia appear happy with the use of the non-ethnic term “rossiisky” to refer to all residents of Russia, but even fewer are comfortable with the idea now being floated that all of the people of that country should be referred to as “russkiye,” a word that has since Soviet times has referred only to the members of the ethnic Russian nation.
That non-Russians should be opposed to such a shift, one many say they saw coming when Vladimir Putin gave his blessing for the term “rossiiskaya natsiya,” an oxymoronic combination of a political term and an ethnic one, is no surprise: it would at least in principle point to a new drive to downgrade their status and ultimately assimilate them.
But that ethnic Russians should be opposed may seem counter-intuitive. However, there are good reasons for their fears. If the state reduces what they see as their unique ethnicity merely to citizenship, then many of them believe that the content of their ethnic group will be gutted in much the same way the Soviet system did with its talk of a “Soviet people.”
The anger of non-Russians about Putin’s proposal and about the ways it almost certainly would slide in the direction of assimilationist pressures on them to become ethnic Russians has attracted a great deal of attention, but both the anger of Russians about that term and the ways they will be pushing Putin in that dangerous direction have not.
Now that may soon change as a result of arguments against “rossiisky” and for “russky” instead that have been advanced by film director Stanislav Govorukhin and the support they are getting from commentators like Aleksey Vladimirov of the Russian nationalist Rex news agency. And their views are more likely to kill Putin’s idea than the opposition of non-Russians.
In interviews for both the electronic and print media this week, Govorukhin says that his position is rooted in the fact that “the entire world knows us, including Bashkirs, Yakuts, and Ukrainians as Russians [‘russkiye’]; and now we must explain to everyone that we aren’t ‘russkiye’ but ‘rossiyane’?” (kp.ru/daily/26608/3624960/).
According to him, “the expression ‘russky people’ refers to its multi-national nature, and russkiye for a long time has designated not a specific nation but rather the community of people living in Russia.” Some “fools” may be offended, but they shouldn’t be, given that this was the practice in tsarist times.
Govorukhin added that the word “rossiyanin,” the noun for someone who is part of the civic nation is “offensive.” Even more offensive are its derivatives, “’rossiyanka’ and ‘rossiyane.’ These should have no place in the Russian language or in Russian reality (nazaccent.ru/content/22399-govoruhin-nazval-otvratitelnym-slovo-rossiyanin.html).
In Soviet times, people called themselves “Soviet people,” but “now, there is no Soviet power and therefore I do not understand who we are.”
Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov was asked about Govorukhin’s words, but he declined to comment. Someone who did not was Aleksey Vladimirov of the Rex news agency. He declared bluntly: “Govorukhin is Right” because those who want to introduce the term “rossiyanin” are the same who allowed privatization (iarex.ru/articles/53272.html).
The historian said that Govorukhin has raised the question in the proper way, “but the problem is not in the offensiveness of the word itself, although [rossiisky] is undoubtedly that.” The real problem is “why and how” people shifted from “russkiye” to “rossiyane” and understanding just who is to blame.
According to Vladimirov, the people who wanted to get rid of the self-designator “russki” were the same ones who wanted to break with the Soviet past and “with the historical self-consciousness of russkiye people and russkaya civilization.” Indeed, they were the ones who did this even as they privatized the economy and destroyed the common values of Soviet times.
Consequently, to restore unity, it is necessary not to accept the term “rossiisky” but to do away with it and go back to “russky.” Vladimirov and Govorukhin clearly believe that is necessary but many ethnic Russians are certain to dissent from their view, especially since they have benefitted from privatization.
In short, Putin has opened a Pandora’s box; and it is not clear now whether even hope will remain in the near future.