Multiculturalism à la Russe?

Here’s an interview I just did with RIA-Novosti’s Valdai Club. It originally appeared here:


In your opinion, is there any tension between ethnic Russians and so-called Muslim communities in large cites like Moscow and Saint Petersburg?

Sure, of course there is tension. I think there are different kinds of tension, depending on the communities. One of the more visible forms is tension between migrants from the Caucasus and Russians in the major cities. But not just in the major cities. A few years ago, we saw the riots in Kondopoga. So you mentioned Moscow and St. Petersburg, but it goes beyond them, there are a lot of smaller communities too, and in places where there’s a sizable presence of different groups, there can be tension.

The tension comes from both sides. On the one hand, there are migrants coming in, who are trying to preserve a somewhat different culture from what they’re finding in the new place. And so that leads to resistance from the people who have lived there longer – from the dominant culture, let’s say. But on the other hand, the migrants are responding to discrimination from the majority group, so there are sources of tension on both sides.

Does Russia have a thoughtful ethnic policy? Or do Russian authorities try to solve problems ad hoc?

There is a policy, but it’s somewhat rudimentary. It’s more of an inertial policy, in that rather than actively trying to shape the situation, it’s continuing policies that are partially left over from the Soviet Union, and partially left over from the Yeltsin period. So Russia still has the big overarching set of institutions with ethnic regions, for example, left over from the Soviet Union, and it really hasn’t been modified very much in terms of how these republics operate.  On the regional level, there’s less freedom to implement policies on ethnic culture and language than there was in the Yeltsin period. But it’s more a matter of degree, rather than a categorical difference.

On the other hand, there were changes from the Soviet to the Yeltsin period. For example, eliminating the requirement to list one’s nationality in forms and in the internal passport made it easier for people to change their ethnic identity, if they chose to do so. But that was something that was implemented already in 1997 or ’98. And so, what’s been going on since then is the political leadership trying not to rock the boat too much.

Apart from politics and political rights in the USSR what is worthy in the idea of Soviet supranational identity?

I think it’s a necessary idea that any country that wants to maintain itself as a united country needs to have some identity that includes everyone who lives there. So the Soviet identity, then this Rossiskaya identity that came in after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were very much needed. The innovation is not this supra-ethnic identity, because there are lots of countries in the world that do this. Let’s say South Africa has a lot of different ethnic groups, each of which has an ethnic identity, but there’s also an idea that everyone is also a citizen of South Africa, so there’s this distinction between ethnic identity and what we might call national identity. That’s common around the world.

The Soviet innovation was to try to make a different kind of category, this idea of the Soviet people – Sovetsky narod – where it was being promoted concurrently with ethnic identities and for a period of time almost as an alternative to those identities. It didn’t last long enough to really change identities. And it was countered, because there wasn’t any real way for people to shift to just the Soviet identity. So in that sense, it didn’t really turn into an overarching identity that everyone could accept. But if it were not for the need for people to state their nationality in their passports, etc, in a few more decades it could have led to the creation of a real supra-ethnic identity. I don’t know if this would have been a good thing or not, but it would certainly have led to a very different political environment.

Can you see any voids in Russian legislation pertinent to ethnic policy? Which norms and acts need to be adjusted in order to regulate relations between ethnic communities in Russia?

I don’t think that necessarily legislation is what is needed. I see it more in the realm of policy rather than law, so what is needed, to my mind, is more effective measures to integrate newcomers to a city or a town with people who have lived there for a while, in terms of education and mechanisms for adjustment. I’m not sure that a legal change, a big law, would be necessary.

What would be very much counterproductive is if the government followed through on the occasional proposals to get rid of ethnic republics and replace them with non-ethnic regions, such as having Kazanskaya oblast instead of Tatarstan. If the government started from a completely blank slate, then that might be an option, although it would lead very quickly to assimilation of minorities, so that would certainly not be a good thing for the minority groups. But in the current situation where ethnic republics already exist, it’s a recipe for instability, not just negatively affecting just the minority groups, but also leading to tension and conflict.

So I don’t think that a grand new law to change relations between ethnic groups is the way to go. What Russia needs instead is more grass-roots measures to help minority groups adjust to their new environment, together with efforts to train the police not to discriminate against minority groups, because like I said, it works both ways; the police’s biased attitude towards minority groups and migrants certainly aggravates their grievances.

Is Tatarstan Facing a Surge of Religious Extremism?

I am now blogging occasionally at the Atlantic Sentinel on broader Russia-related issues. I’ll cross-post here for ease of access. Here’s a post on religious extremism in Tatarstan.


I recently came across an article that argues that Tatarstan is facing an Islamization scenario akin to what has already occurred in Ingushetia and Dagestan. It reports on a talk given at a conference on ethnic and religious tolerance recently held in Kazan. Rais Suleimanov, the deputy director of the Center for Eurasian and International Studies at the Kazan Financial University, points out that youth comprise 40 percent of people who regularly attend mosque in the region. Yana Amelina, the head of the Caucasus department at the Center and another conference participant, notes that radical Islam has over the last few years replaced ethnic separatism as the dominant anti-state ideology in the Caucasus and is now spreading into the Volga region.

When I was last in Kazan two years ago,  I was struck by the sheer number of young women wearing “Islamic” clothing and young men with those beards that act as markers of Islamic identity in the FSU. This was in stark contrast to previous visits, when everyone (and especially young people) wore European style clothing and hair styles. The number of people with such Islamic markers was also much higher in Kazan two years ago than in my visit to Baku last week.

Of course, wearing traditional clothing or a beard is not a sign that one is a wahhabi extremist (though it might be interpreted as such a sign by the local authorities). But I think there is no doubt that young people are more religious now than they were 5-10 years ago and that the religion they are following is not the “traditional (Hanafi) Islam” of the area but less moderate imports from the Middle East.

But this does not mean that they are all ready to take up arms against the government or support some kind of Islamic Caliphate. The authorities would take that interpretation at their own peril — if they start repressing religious Tatars, they may end up promoting more violence than if the people were left alone to worship as they please.

The proposal in the article that the government should reject any attempts at dialog with the “wahhabi lobby” in Russia and instead ban all “wahhabi activity” seems to be particularly counterproductive in this regard. This is the kind of thing that was tried in places like Kabardino-Balkaria 5-6 years ago and only led to more people taking up arms against the authorities, because of a desire for revenge against authorities who humiliated them or repressed their relatives. Those who follow this topic may well remember the story about Russian interior ministry operatives going into mosques and forcibly shaving people or carving crosses into their hair. The net result of these actions was a rapid increase in anti-government attitudes, followed by Islamic radicalism, and then a spike in violence in the region.

The regional authorities could shoot themselves in the foot by taking excessively harsh measures against non-violent but pious Muslims who reject the traditional Islamic leadership in the region in favor of strands of Islam imported from the Middle East. In that case, one could see the formation of violent bands whose goal is revenge against those who humiliated or hurt them.

If, on the other hand, followers of Salafi Islam in Tatarstan are monitored but not persecuted, the chances for a significant surge of religiously-based violence in the region is pretty remote.

Violence in the Caucasus is due to a combination of religious extremism, a hopeless economic situation, and a perception that the local authorities are all crooks. Tatarstan may have more religious extremists than it used to, but its economic situation is pretty good by Russian standards and its authorities are less blatantly corrupt than those in the North Caucasus. Unless we start seeing massive unemployment among young Muslim men in the Volga region, I don’t think we should worry about the kind of violence and instability that we see in Dagestan or Ingushetia spreading to Tatarstan.

There will be occasional disenchanted Tatar extremists who want to fight, but they will continue to do what they have been doing for the last decade — they’ll go off to the Caucasus, or to Afghanistan, and fight there. Tatarstan itself, as well as the entire Volga region, will become more religious, to be sure, but will nonetheless remain fairly stable and non-violent for the foreseeable future.