Why is Russia at War With the Peoples Inhabiting It

The participants of the next Reforum discussion talks about what do the representatives of these peoples want, who protects their rights today and what national politics might look like after Putin. The full version of the conversation is here.

Gasan Gusejnov, philologist, Professor of the Free University/ Brīvā universitāte (Latvia)

Many are talking about some resurrection of the imperial spirit. There is no such spirit in the politics of the modern Russian Federation – it assuposes a supranational construction. Such a spirit existed in the former Soviet Union, it involved a fusion of a supranational principle and a certain nesting-doll type of national organization.

This circumstance was not given much thought, and many, who witnessed the collapse of the USSR inside of the Russian Federation, felt that this new understanding of the Russian Federation constrains them. And that’s how ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation felt that they got the short end of the stick, since they must identify as ethnic Russians and Russian citizens, whereas some Tatars and Yakuts can identify as both Tatar and Russian. They have two identities, and ethnic Russians only have one. On this breeding ground, a large circle of people emerged that told themselves “how so? There are more than 85% of us, so why must we share our identity? We want to create a national state with resident minorities. This new Russia also has claims for other territories, since they have large Russian minorities and back in the day, those territories belonged to us”.

The idea of the Russian world is not imperialistic – it’s a national one, stretched over a multinational society, and Yeltsin was the first to implement this policy – he offered everyone to swallow up as much sovereignty as they can, and the figure of the scorned Russian, stripped of everything he once had, emerged. This situation, wherein Russians in the Russian Federation felt themselves deprived on both sides and began to limit the rights of minorities (changing the status of ethnic minority languages from mandatory to elective, suppressing local cultures and continuously highlighting their own uniqueness). The term “state-composing nation” is created – with these words, the Russian world or the new Russian state declared a war on all its minorities. The Chechen example showed what exactly is the aim to seize as much sovereignty as one can, and instantly, the windpipe of this desire is crushed with the rocket with which Yeltsin murdered Dudaev – the central symbol of the new era. So all minorities freeze or resort to passive resistance, such as the infamous suicide of an Udmurtian historian Albert Razin triggered by the fact that Udmurtian language studies became an elective subject.

Right now, we are living through a very sharp-edged, very painful situation, and the international tension keeps growing. The consequence of the nationalism-driven state policy was the declaration of Ukrainians a non-existent race and Ukraine a non-existent state for a simple reason that the Russian Federation’s own resources are not enough to build a mighty world power. We absolutely must force 44 million Ukrainians to become Russians if we are to retrieve anything at all from the Empire on this basis. Now Russian people have to self-identify as Russians in the post-Soviet world.

Alexandra Garmazhapova, head of Free Buryatia Foundation

I agree with Gasan – Russia is the most racist country. I created the “denazify Russia” flashmob on Instagram and suggested that people share their stories. My account is not too popular, when I opened it, I expected a maximum of 50 submissions. I received around 1,500 stories over the course of one week. People reached out to me as if I was a therapist, shared what was weighing them down. I expected Kalmyks, Buryats, Ingushs – those who look different. But I also saw submissions from Ingushs, Chuvashians, Russian Germans – and they all wrote how since the Soviet times they felt ashamed to disclose that they were not ethnic Russians. They were convinced since their childhood that being a Chuvashian, an Udmurtian, a Mansi is shameful. Their parents concealed their nationality. We’re talking about protecting the Russian language in Ukraine – well, who is going to protect Udmurtian?

The self-incineration of Albert Razin illustrated that question. I explained to people that, if you speak Russian with an accent, you are bilingual, that’s something to be proud of. People recalled, how on public transport they were told “oh, another influx of darkies” – everybody said that this was quite traumatic. One girl tried to only date Russians and was proud of it, of how she tried to get closer to the “supreme race”.

This question highlighted that we are much closer to Ukrainians than to the imperial idea of the Russian world. In the same way, people made fun of the Ukrainian language, and during Soviet times, my Buryat grandpa was always told “stop mumbling in your Buryat” while standing in line. This is something that was not properly discussed, what was attempted to get swept under the rug, what supposedly never happened at all.

Sergey Erofeev, Senior Researcher in Polish Institute of Advanced Studies, Professor in Rutgers University (USA)

Alexandra sent me down the memory lane – I spent most of my life in Tatarstan, my childhood was spent in the Mari El republic. We must highlight that: USSR was a racist country with repressed complexes. It was a huge untreated wound, festering with lies. It’s not just about the jokes, but about a certain kind of treatment, that, even concerning such a significant people among the republics as Tatars, was racist. Racism doesn’t just lead to gas chambers. What is done in modern Russia, if we can call this country that – the racist geopolitics became part of the agenda. I don’t think that Tuvinians, Buryats, Dagestanians end up on the front lines and die first, but that is still the result of state politics.

Dmitri Berezhkov, “Indigenous Russia” Editor-in-Chef

We always push the terminology of “small peoples” – no, from our point of view, there are only peoples who are bigger and smaller in quantity. I represent the Itelmen peoples, I calculated the percent and ended up with around 2,000 people, the language is barely spoken, there is one group where the youth receive knowledge from their elders and attempt to learn.

I would like to mention the negative influence of the war on aboriginal Ukrainian people, mostly Crimean Tatars. It is quite sad to hear the stories of deportation, of how in 2014 some have left for the nearby Ukrainian regions and then were forced to leave. This is a huge tragedy for the people.

Racism doesn’t just lead to gas chambers. What is done in modern Russia, if we can call this country that – the racist geopolitics became part of the agenda

The aboriginal people of Russia also directly suffer from this situation. Directly – when their representatives die in the war, when funeral notices arrive to the national villages. It is a special tragedy when aboriginal people receive a funeral notice. Yes, they are guilty, but that is largely explained by the fact that regions populated by aboriginal people have a low quality of life, as well as problems in accessing natural resources – some choose to serve in the army.

The business on their lands – coal, oil, gas are all mined on aboriginal lands – destroy and pollute their territory. After the start of the war we see that the administration is taking certain measures to make life easier for businesses, to cancel additional environmental checks for access to aboriginal lands… We see that European and American businesses that understand the rights of aboriginal peoples in accordance with international standards are now being replaced with Russian companies, Chinese and Indian companies are emerging, and they don’t talk about aboriginal rights at all.

And a couple of other important moments. Lately, the activities of leaders and aboriginal people standing up for their rights in general have subsided. We ask – and turns out that people are simply afraid. We are observing a surge in state and law enforcement pressure on aboriginal activists, environmentalists, human rights advocates, etc. Unfortunately, the number of immigrants is growing – I’m applying for asylum in Norway myself, many of my colleagues are getting ready to leave.

Russia has sharply increased its support for and propaganda of military actions, and of the government on all levels. Since aboriginal peoples are an important part of the Russian society, from the state’s point of view (not in order to take their rights into account, but to show that Russia is a large multinational force), they are recruiting aboriginal people for propaganda. The boss comes, asks the staff to perform at a town square strewn with symbols in support of the Russian army. This is a problem. I was just in a session of an ongoing UN forum on aboriginal peoples, and there I heard speeches by aboriginal representatives who support Putin – with hatred, they were proving, how great their life in Russia is, how successfully they work with various companies, and those who are discontent and say their rights have been violated are nothing but Western puppets. This causes quite the uproar with other speeches given by other peoples from various countries. They come to the UN to describe the problems faced by their people. Russian aboriginal peoples, however, are not represented by their representatives, but by state officials – deputies and vice governors, and they report on success.

My last thought is that I don’t see Russia as a shard, it was and remains an empire, and right now we are going through stages, when they are gradually losing colonies. Colonialism, in our opinion, still prevails. A lot of things can confirm that – when aboriginal peoples are not asked as to what should be done with their territories, this is decided by the centralized government, or when fake representatives who support all of the authorities’ decisions are appointed for aboriginal peoples. A short example – the UN has proclaimed a decade of aboriginal people languages. Russia has conducted more events on national languages than any other country. Reporting on events, forcing people to sign and dance when it’s needed for the books – and when it’s not needed, deciding on the use of their rivers and lands without their involvement. When they need to represent a region, they get aboriginal people out of their dusty closet, and force them to dance for the public’s amusement.

Alexandra Garmazhapova

Resources from Yakutia, Khakassia and Buryatia are constantly being pumped to Moscow, people there live in poverty. They can either get shift work in the North, search for labor in Korea, or enlist as contract soldiers. Another option is to go to Moscow or Saint-Petersburg in search of a better life. And that’s where they hear “go back home”. What kind of emotions go through people’s brains when they understand that they’re not home? And it’s unclear where exactly home is? Many of the messages I’ve gotten ended with a statement that “I decided to leave Russia because I’ve been told to go way too often”. I left too, after some woman confronted me about how she’s sick of “the Chinese”. I spent my whole life listening to this in Saint-Petersburg, I almost beat that woman up.

Dmitri Berezhkov

We created an international committee of Russian aboriginal peoples, we are in negotiations with Buryat, Tatar and other associations, we are discussing the platforms where we can communicate. We are trying to find such opportunities for interaction, representatives of Russian authorities aren’t too thrilled about that, but such work is taking place and will continue to do so. When the war began, the aboriginal peoples completely lost the opportunities to voice their opinions, which contradict the opinion of the authority, and we are thinking of how to create these opportunities anew.

Sergey Erofeev

My academic interests include the research of the newest Russian diaspora, and I am often asked whether there is a way to unite it. Right now it seems to me, even with all the complexity of unification, we need to unite and act as the third front (war, sanctions and the Russian people), but there is one area, where it will be simpler to unite and exert pressure on Putinism.

We need to show that in the Russian Federation in a wartime situation there is an unheard-of, intolerable oppression of small and large (can Ukrainians chime in?) aboriginal peoples. This is something that could initially be done with good organization. For aboriginal peoples, creating such a niche in the diaspora is simpler – it would remind the rest of the diaspora that it is time to unite on the ethnocultural front for the sake of changes in the Russian Federation.

Alexandra Garmazhapova

We created the movement “Buryats against war” and made anti-war video clips, we had no long-term plans and the “Free Buryaria Foundation” emerged later. There, we push for real federalization. We discuss that factually, the Russian Federation does not exist, it is all history on paper. We push for the country as a whole to have a federative structure, and for mass media in the regions to determine their own agenda and function as independently as possible. The situation wherein we blackmail the rest of the world with our gas and Buryatia still lacks a proper gas infrastructure is an absurd one.

Most Buryats want a change, they support the notion that it is abnormal not to know your mother tongue. The Chechens know it. In the Soviet years, Buryats were proud not to know their language – that meant they weren’t some village rubes. Now, if you say that you don’t speak any Buryat at all, you’ll get some side eyes.

The consciousness is changing, and what astonished me the most was that Buryat officials began writing to me from fake accounts and offering to help out as inside moles, so and so, you’re doing the right thing. Famous Buryat businessmen began reaching out as well – I can’t support you personally, but I am for you and would like to help out somehow. Since the wartime censorship suppressed everything, now something will be happening via guerilla methods.

Vasily Gatov, media analyst and senior fellow in USC Annenberg Center

What are some famous instruments in the world used to change the racist situation in social relations?

A list of ready-to-use solutions from multinational and multiconfessional countries is quite large. It includes the so-called positive discrimination, wherein representatives of minorities or culturally autonomous peoples have significant advantages in education, social benefits, etc – that is normal. American racists, however, really dislike the positive discrimination discussion – they believe that that’s the way America will fall under the power of non-white people. In France, there are certain measures for the support of national languages – all languages are protected, including French, because, despite the prevalence of serious nationalism, the language is deteriorating due to immigration, pressures of English speaking, and prevalence of American cinema. However, in France both Bretonnian, Occitanian, and the languages of New Caledonia are a well-thought national policy that directly connects the budget to the need to develop a cult of uniqueness of various peoples and language groups. Russia’s problem doesn’t concern the instruments, but rather the fact that the authorities are consciously leading the country in the direction that excludes principles of a federation, the validity of opinions, interests and rights of anyone besides the authorities themselves. We all must hope that one day this vector will stop.