Illustration Karin Sunvisson

Conference reports The Russian context. Broken dreams and political engineering

Trying to understand where post-Soviet Russia is going seems to be a matter of understanding how the society is redefining itself: contradictory pictures are circulating of what precisely Russia and “Russianness” are. The official picture of a united and multicultural Russia is being challenged from several directions.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3 2011, p 19-20
Published on on October 3, 2011

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Talking about stability in Russia with any credibility is only going to get harder for Prime Minister Putin and his cohort, President Medvedev. A picture emerged at the “Russia After the Soviet Empire conference” at Lund University of a society where various factions are moving in parallel towards a breakdown in consensus with the Russian government. The government is struggling to regain the confidence of both the middle class and right-wing nationalists. Minority groups, such as Russians of “non-Slavic appearance”, as the euphemism goes in Russia, are risking their lives in the process.

“Putin is seen as a traitor by the ultra-nationalist movement; he is no longer seen as a role model”, says Elizaveta Gaufman, one of whose research interests is the influence of growing ethnonationalism on Russian migration policy. The political repercussions of nationalist riots in Manezh Square, Moscow, in December 2010, played straight into the hands of nationalist elements. About 5,000 nationalists and soccer fans participated in the riot, and two guest workers died in the disturbances. One of Putin’s first measures was to tighten migration regulations.

“Unfortunately, the government is pretty much doing whatever it can to either conceal this ethnically motivated violence or try to profit from this nationalistic popularity”, Gaufman says. In her research, she has seen a pattern in which the government imposes restrictions on migrants in situations when nationalism poses a threat.

Trying to understand where post-Soviet Russia is going seems to be a matter of understanding how the society is redefining itself: contradictory pictures are circulating of what precisely Russia and “Russianness” are. The official picture of a united and multicultural Russia is being challenged from several directions.

“In Russia, 15,000 people and some CNN cameras on Red Square would be enough to start political changes”, says Russian BBC reporter and analyst Konstantin von Eggert, the introductory speaker at the conference, which was arranged by the Center for European Studies.

He describes Russian society as cynical and easily manipulated due to the lack of a clear sense of self. “The media image can change very quickly, depending on the interests of the political class”, he says.

Several researchers are focusing precisely on how the Russian identity has changed in the last twenty years and the role of the state in this process. Bo Petersson discussed two myths that political powers are using to legitimize themselves and their image of Russia: the myth that Russia is by its very nature a great power, and the myth that the country is repeatedly thrown into difficult times and hence cannot always realize its inherent potential as a great power.

Putin has used these myths to explain the developments of the last twenty years to the Russian people. The years under President Yeltsin are painted as one of these recurring periods of predestined decline. During his time in power, Putin has bounded onto the stage as the one who will rescue the nation from chaos. This figure of the savior who materializes just when things seem the darkest, to once again lead the country into a new period of greatness, is part and parcel of the myth of recurring difficulties.

“In my interpretation, one key to the understanding of Putin’s popularity figures is that he has been very capable of latching onto this popular myth-making about the rightful great power status and cyclical, recurrent periods of difficult times”, says Petersson, who has studied Putin’s speeches to the nation. For example, Putin has said: “Russia is not claiming the status of a great power; it is a great power, by virtue of its huge potential, its history, and its function.”

Is the need for a stable, long-term, and cohesive national identity the chord Putin has managed to strike that can explain his popularity? These are the questions asked by Flemming Splidsboel Hansen, whose research interest is Russia and its sense of ontological security. He portrays Putin as the successful psychotherapist to the Russians, and calls the phenomenon of insecurity that has benefited Putin the “search for ontological security”. The term is taken from psychology. Ontological security is developed in the first years of life, and without it, individuals lack a sense of continuity in their lives; there is no pattern and no meaning.
Security theorists have elevated ontological security from the individual level to the collective level, which is considered controversial.

Through his “psychotherapy”, Putin has shifted the collective sense of what Russianness is. The Russian identity has moved away from the anti-Soviet and Western-oriented tack of the early 1990s to increasingly viewing the West as its putative opposite. Splidsboel Hansen describes how the process started when the collective ontological security was shaken during the Yeltsin era immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, when neither foreign responses nor domestic developments turned out as expected. When ontological security has been lost, the need to reestablish it becomes a psychological imperative — which opens the doors to searching for — and being receptive to — other new identities.

“If I should answer the question ‘What is Russia?’ in one sentence, I would say: Russians today perceive themselves as the ones Westerners don’t like”, says Splidsboel Hansen. He sees the move over two decades as a mix of broken dreams and political engineering.

The change in identity is of relevance for marginalized groups who are struggling for their human rights. It is easy to talk about what Putin is homogenizing, perhaps harder to show the consequences for minorities in Russia. Minorities are paying the price of the new ontological security and catchwords like liberalism, individualism, and cooperation with the West are being replaced by order, collectivism, and rivalry with the West.

“That is why there can’t be gay parades in Moscow”, says Splidsboel Hansen. Given that Russia is promoting human rights, a banned and attacked gay pride parade seems a failure, but if one applies the search for ontological security as an explanatory model, it may appear as a creation of meaning. Liberalism and the West may connote something negative, while order and the rejection of Western influences may instill a new sense of ontological security.

The security that a ruling power tries to infuse into a population is unevenly distributed among different social groups. The multicultural Russian society may now be caught up in a process in which the search for ontological security divides rather than unites. Putin’s “therapeutic method” of providing a homogeneous sense of self seems to be meeting with increasing antagonism from the actually heterogeneous “patients”.

There was a recurring focus on ethnicity at the conference in relation to understanding contemporary conflicts in Russia. The ethnicity filter of the conference could be a reflection of current Russian domestic policy. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, class issues are being put aside and attention is aimed at the issues of ethnicity that many of the papers addressed. This perhaps leaves scope for narratives that naturalize ethnicity as a problem.

The absence of discussion about the material and economic prerequisites for different lives, in Russia, must be put in relation to the alternative interest in identity-creating processes. With no clear picture of what Russian identity is, the prerequisites for discussing the role of distribution policy in social development seem to end up in the shadows.

Discussing identity-creating processes without discussing the structure of the material world might seem paradoxical, and can appear to give a severely limited picture of the world where these identities are created and, ultimately, of the identities analyzed by scholars. But dismissing the focus on identity seems an oversimplification. Part of Splidsboel Hansen’s point is that everyone, both individually and on the collective level, needs and seeks ontological security, that is, a clear sense of who they are and their role in life. It follows, as Splidsboel Hansen says, that “people may value ontological security over material security”.

Groups with a “non-Slavic appearance” are beleaguered. And nationalist forces no longer support the official picture of who is Russian and what Russia is. There are European ideas like ethnopluralism found among the right-wing extremists. In the Russian version, this means that what Russia needs to become the “true great Russia” again is to become ethnically pure, rather than be restored as a vast geographical territory. In his paper, focused on ethnopluralist trends, Niklas Bernsand described how this worldview fits together.

An ethnopluralist perspective may emphasize the non-hierarchical nature of differences between cultures, and seem to refrain from judging cultures as better or worse: it is assimilation itself that is thought to be a bad thing. The nationalist version creates an idea of rights as follows: “You will have your independence in exchange for deportation.” This is an ethnopluralist message aimed, for example, at Russians from the Caucasian republics.

One conference participant who reacted strongly against studying phenomena in Russia from a general human perspective, in terms of the “search for ontological security” for example, was Professor Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations:

“This is my private opinion; maybe I am mistaken, but never compare Europe and Russia. Look at the map, look at the history; I cannot imagine parallels for instance between Poland and Russia or somebody else and Russia. In my opinion Russia is a very, very special case.”

However, the restraint he sought on comparisons with regard to what Russia is, has been, and can become did not apply when he outlined the evolution of Islam in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union: “When I am in Dagestan or another Caucasian republic, I feel that practically it is not a big difference from maybe Egypt. More and more they are becoming Islamized.”

Malashenko described how the struggle for independence in the Caucasian republics has been changed by gradual Islamization. And that this can be understood as a reaction to the war in Chechnya, corruption, and injustice from the Russian state. He also emphasized that the Russian majority’s negative images of their Muslim countrymen are a major problem that should be taken seriously.

But more than anything else, he painted a picture in which Muslims in Russia constitute a growing threat, and he expressed no hope for a solution in the Caucasus, nor for sympathetic dialogue among the population groups:

“I think this problem has no solution, the point when one could have been found was missed about five years ago.

“But, indeed Islam is becoming, despite all the blah blah blah [sic!] about dialogue between civilizations, an obstacle in the path of mutual understanding.”

In the discourse of this model of thought, a person’s Muslim identity ends up on an immediate collision course with the “Russian” identity, and rhetoric reminiscent of that used by nationalist political leaders in Europe is generated.

“It spreads among all Muslim communities”, says Malashenko, who in his talk vacillated between knowing how “they” and “all” Muslims are, choose, think, and orient themselves, and on the other hand giving personal examples of people whom he has met.

As a listener, you are left wondering about a great deal: can you, for example, be Muslim and at the same time a human rights activist in Russia, in the world he describes? Is it possible to be Muslim, not want Sharia law, but still want an independent Chechnya? The main thing you as a listener want to ask is what perspectives are excluded by the narrative. What repressed understandings about the situation in the Caucasus are implied by the understanding presented by Aleksei Malashenko?

With such an exclusive narrative, it becomes difficult for us as listeners to look critically at ourselves and acknowledge our personal roles in xenophobic societies. How does our examination of Russian nationalist movements work, for example? It is perhaps easy to point the finger at Russian right-wing extremism as “the constitutional Other” in order to avoid dealing with our own culpability in the evolution of such thought structures.

Russian political forces that are finding it increasingly difficult to uphold their image of Russia as stable and united was a recurring picture at the conference. As more and more information becomes available on the Internet, the image of Russia is also being decentralized as a more open media climate is forced into existence. Even on state-owned TV stations, there is a growing tendency to address perspectives other than the government’s — as the stations must do to maintain any credibility.

“When the state channels are covering stories that are delicate subjects for the Kremlin, they are also forced into more objective reporting, where both sides of the issue are allowed to speak”, says Konstantin von Eggert.

Many groups are making progress in expressing their views on issues. Controversial subjects like the Khodorkovsky trial, the Khimki Forest, and Putin’s palace, as well as populist expressions like “ethnic crime”, are covered in the news nowadays. von Eggert refuses to make any predictions about which groups will be most successful, saying: “Russia is an unfinished project.” ≈