For your freedom and ours
Jul 24th 2008
Captive nations inside Russia
Is Cornwall a “captive nation”? As last week’s Europe.view noted, influential Russians are pushing for America to rewrite the resolution that marks its Captive Nations Week (the third week in July), to make it clear that communism, not Russia, is the target. An even trickier question is not what other former Soviet-ruled countries make of this, but of Russia’s own internal composition—which includes places that some might also count as “captive”.
Countries’ borders grow and shrink, partly by consent, but also by conquest. Nations—defined, loosely, as people sharing a common language or culture—may find themselves no longer masters in their own house. Some may despair. Others start plotting.
Practicality is not the main determinant. In Cornwall, which lost its independence around 875AD, a doughty band of campaigners has revived the language and hopes to win back more rights. But compared to Scotland, where the separatist tide is running strongly, theirs looks like a lost cause. So does secession in Vermont, say, or Hawaii. In Russia, at least for now, those reviving, say, the Siberian language, or commemorating the short-lived and abortive independence of the Siberian republic in 1918, look a lot closer to Cornish nationalism than Scottish. But for how long?
Since 1991 the state calling itself the Russian Federation has been a miniature, de-communised version of the Soviet Union, paying lip-service to multi-ethnicity, but withholding actual cultural or political freedom from non-Russians: when Tatarstan wanted to write the national language in the orthographically better-suited Latin alphabet, the Kremlin insisted that Cyrillic was the only script to be used officially in the Russian Federation, regardless of practicality.
Since 1989, Russia's Muslim population has increased by 40% to about 25m. By 2015, Muslims will by some estimates make up a majority of the army, and by 2020 a fifth of the population—by far the majority in some regions.
How many of those Muslims will look to the tolerant “Euroislam” pioneered in the Tatar capital, Kazan, in the early years of the last century, or to indigenous Sufi forms, and how many may look abroad for more radical forms of Islam?
Added to ethnic and religious discontent is a growing regional consciousness. The colossal bribe-collecting opportunities created by Putinism have heightened the divide between big cities (particularly Moscow) and the rest of the country.
Heightened resentment does not mean that Russia is going to fall apart as the Soviet Union did. For now, no part of the Russian Federation looks remotely like being a viable independent state. Even the most ardent supporter of Captive Nations Week would not argue that the “Idel-Ural” that it cites (present-day Tatarstan, Bashkiria and their Finno-Ugric neighbours, briefly independent after 1917) has any chance of a Baltic-style breakaway.
But if anything can upset the post-1991 apple cart it will be ethnic-Russian chauvinism and heavy-handedness. As Paul Goble chronicles in his “Window on Eurasia” bulletins (a must-read for anyone interested in the politics of post-Soviet ethnicity), the Sochi Olympics have fuelled the revival of national consciousness among the Circassians. For this far-flung ethnic group, scattered throughout Asia Minor and the Levant by near-genocidal Czarist brutality, seeing the Olympics being planned at the site of their greatest historical tragedy is hugely offensive: some compare it to how Jews would react to a big international sporting festival being held at Ravensbrück or Dachau.
Russian ethno-nationalism, coupled with bad government, may disillusion Russians of all stripes with the lingering imperial features of Russian statehood. If talk of “captive nations” jars Russian sensibilities, the best answer is the great slogan of freedom-lovers in the Czarist empire: “for your freedom and ours”.
Friday, July 25, 2008