By Paul Goble
A recent Levada Center survey found that 39 percent of Russians say they identify with the place where they were born and grew up, a figure exceeded only by the history of their country and more than twice the 17 percent who identify with the Russian state (newsru.com/russia/21dec2017/opros.html).
In an interview with the After Empire portal, Roman Bagdasarov, a specialist on religion and culture, points out that the word motherland is “literally the place of birth” and therefore is fixed for all time, while the idea of “’a big motherland’” is inevitably a construction that changes as identities change (afterempire.info/2017/12/22/malaya_rodina/).
“The larger in size the ‘big’ motherland is, the more imagination is needed to embrace it,” the scholar continues. But while no Russian citizen has ever seen the entire country – it is too big for that — those who identify with it as a motherland do not have any doubts about their connection with it in its full extent.
At the same time, Bagdasarov says, people can change their “big” motherlands many times in the course of their lives either by moving or because of political changes; but no matter how much that happens, their “small” motherlands remain constant and unique. No one can change where he or she was born.
They may change their attitudes toward that place, but for Russians, there is a fifth line of the passport which continues to matter to them throughout their lives, “’the place of birth.’”
“In Soviet times,” After Empire points out, “regions of the empire such as oblasts and republics were often understood as ‘small motherlands.’” Estonia before 1991 was for its residents “’a small motherland.’” But after 1991, it became a “big” one – and now Bagdasarov adds, it may become once again a “small” one but this time within the European Union.
Sometimes when people change their big motherland for another, they compensate by becoming more conscious of other identities such as ethnicity, the cultural specialist says, as when ethnic Ukrainians left Tajikistan after the latter place became independent. But at the same time, they retain a link to the place where they were born even if it is less close.
But even without changes in political borders, individuals may change the way they link themselves to their small motherlands, viewing them as more important than they were, something that appears to be happening in many places in Russia, or less, depending on the social and political winds.