By Paul Goble
Many observers have noticed that in the course of Putin’s war in Ukraine, ever more non-Russians, at least some of whom were counted by Moscow as assimilated and thus Russian, have chosen to proudly declare themselves “not Russian” (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2022/10/at-end-of-soviet-times-non-russians.html).
At the same time, many people whom the regime classifies as Russians Mo view themselves as Siberians, Cossacks, Ingermanlanders, Novgorodians, or others are now declaring that those are their identities whatever Moscow says at least in part to distance themselves from what they see as the Russian crime of invading Ukraine.
As a result, the actual share of non-Russians in the population of the Russian Federation is higher, perhaps by five to ten percent now, than Moscow thinks. And if one adds the migrant worker population, the non-Russian share of the population may be not the roughly one-fifth that Moscow says but almost one-third.
But according to Valery Pekar, an instructor at Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, this non-Russian component of the population may soon be joined by people who have identified as Russians but now very much don’t want to because of the war (gordonua.com/blogs/valeriy-pekar/lyudi-v-rossii-ne-mogut-raskayatsya-poetomu-desyatki-millionov-iz-nih-skazhut-ya-ne-russkiy-i-vdrug-okazhutsya-bashkirami-tatarami-kalmykami-1631874.html).
His argument is certain to be disputed by many scholars and certainly by Moscow officials, but it is a compelling one – and if he is right, then the non-Russian share of the population of the Russian Federation may be 44 or even more percent, dangerously close from Moscow’s perspective to what was the case just before the USSR came apart.
Pekar’s argument thus merits close attention.
According to the Kyiv professor, the reason for his conclusion is that “people in Russia cannot repent” and thus will try to escape responsibility for the situation they find themselves by declaring themselves anything but Russian. In that event, he says, “tens of millions of htem will say, ‘I’m not Russian.’”
He contrasts what he says Russians are likely to do with what the Germans did after 1945. The latter went through repentance and purification for 25 years, something that required occupation but that was possible because however much the Germans departed from historical moral principles, they could return to that base and did so.
Russia can’t be occupied – it is simply too large – Pekar continues. But the real problem is that Russians can’t repent. For that to happen, they would have to have basic ethics “and that is absent in Russia.” They lack a concept of sin both individually and collectively and instead are affected by shame.
That is a big problem, the Ukrainian scholar says. Systems which have a shared concept of sin know that God wants the sinner to repent and, having repented, to be taken back by the community. But systems which lack that shared concept and instead are based on shame do not allow for the possibility of such repentance and acceptance by the community afterwards.
“Let me emphasize,” Pekar says, “that repentance is not only an individual but a social act. After sin, the community rejects you; after repentance, the community accepts those who repent back. If there is not community that rejects you and then accepts you back, then repentance is impossible.”
But if repentance is impossible for Russians, so too it is impossible for them to remain where they are in a catastrophe such as their looming defeat in Ukraine. That might seem insoluble, but there is a way out. “Instead of the remorse they can’t achieve, tens of millions of them will say, ‘I’m not Russian; it doesn’t concern me; it’s not my system; it’s not my war.”
In this situation, “tens of millions” of Russians will suddenly reidentify as members of various non-Russian nations or as Siberians, Cossacks, people of the Urals, or Pomors. Some activists are already drawing up passports for the citizens of Karelia or the United States of Siberia.”
Pekar concludes: “You can’t live in a disaster forever. The choice is between revenge, repentance or escaping the definition you find yourself in. The first will exclude acceptance of defeat. The second is impossible” for the reasons just outlined. As a result, “Russians will take the third path.”
And as a result, if this analysis is right, Russians will not find themselves the overwhelming majority in their country they have been told they represent but a bare majority and one whose hold even on those who still identify as ethnic Russians is likely to decline as well.