Reassessing the Russian Identity, Part 3: The Federation's Struggles

6 MINS READNov 28, 2012 | 11:00 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the third installment of a five-part series on Russian society and identity. Part 3 examines the challenges faced by the Russian Federation in uniting its population. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the concept of being Soviet was obliterated. Consequently, Russia went through a decadelong identity crisis, just as many of its former republics did. When the Soviet states declared independence, Russia lost control of 52 percent of the Soviet population and 24 percent of Soviet territory. Through this loss, the country shed many territories that were not ethnically Russian, though many diverse groups and peoples remained inside the Russian Federation. This created a question for the new regime: Without the foundation of a unifying Soviet identity, how would Moscow continue to oversee (let alone unite) such a motley population?

The Yeltsin Era

Under the Russian Federation's first president, Boris Yeltsin, Moscow made its first post-Soviet attempt to address the concept of being Russian. The Russian Constitution of 1993 began with the words, "We, the multinational people of the Russian Federation," and gave rights to Russia's various peoples to use their own languages, form their own political identities and more. Yeltsin pushed for a civic national consciousness that was meant to make all the ethnic and political groups equal in the new Russia.

No strategy for implementing this comprehensive inclusion was defined, however. Moreover, freedom from Soviet control sparked an explosion in groups trying to carve out their places in the new country. Under Yeltsin, economic and political centralization — two of the main pillars of Russian power and consolidation during the Soviet period — were broken down. The country's economic system fell apart, leading to rampant organized crime, the rise of the oligarch system, financial schemes that defrauded millions, and foreign groups purchasing strategic Russian assets. All of these factors contributed to the financial collapse of the 1990s.

At the same time, a number of new political parties sprouted up and Yeltsin partially banned the Communist Party in 1991. In the 1993 elections, more than 12 parties from across the political spectrum secured representation in the Russian legislature. Yeltsin kept the country's various political groups dispersed among conflicting parties in order to ensure that no single party rose up against his rule. This tactic was also used in the military and security services, which were purposefully bloated and mismanaged in order to keep them weak compared to Yeltsin's cadre. No uniting political or economic bond existed among the people — a direct contrast to Soviet practices.

Yeltsin's initial response to ethnic diversity in Russia was to allow autonomy within the republics and non-Russian populations; as Yeltsin said in a 1990 speech in Tatarstan, "Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow." Such vague ethnic policies gave Yeltsin popular support among non-Russians; however, it also awakened fervor among those populations for actual independence rather than simply sovereignty. Moreover, the collapse of the Soviet policy of keeping ethnic populations unconsolidated threatened to tear Russia apart as different populations fought each other for territory and fought against the state for independence.

Map - Russian Federation

In some ways, diversity within the Russian population grew during Yeltsin's rule. The number of languages taught in Russian schools increased from 40 to 80, and the number of people speaking native (non-Russian) languages went up by 2.7 percent. However, Yeltsin's vague policies also contributed to conflicts that had been brewing since the fall of the Soviet Union: Tatarstan refused to accept Russian rule, the Orthodox republic of North Ossetia and the Muslim republic of Ingushetia went to war, and the first Chechen War with the Russian state began.

Yeltsin attempted to define what it meant to be Russian. There were even national essay contests in 1998 on the issue. But ultimately, Yeltsin's multi-ethnic and open policies on politics and economics left the country chaotic and unconsolidated, in many ways prolonging Russia's weakness after the end of the Soviet era.

Putin's Early Era

When Russia's current president, Vladimir Putin, first came to power in 1999, his goal was to reconsolidate nearly every facet of the country's economic and political systems. He believed a consolidated country could eventually turn into a powerful country, both internally and on the international stage. He began asserting his power through a slew of sweeping — and at times, harsh — reforms. The ideology Putin sowed among the Russian people was that he would be Russia's savior, and if the people believed in him and his policies, then the chaos resulting from the Yeltsin era could be corrected. Thus, the unifying idea in Russia in the early 2000s was essentially a cult of personality centered on Putin.

Economically, Putin centralized control over strategic sectors of the country, crushing most of the oligarch class and integrating the remaining oligarchs into his plans. Putin ended foreign ownership of strategic enterprises by nationalizing them. The government attempted to stabilize Russia's financial sector by restructuring banks and propping up the ruble. High global energy prices enabled the Kremlin to fill its coffers and afford such large reforms.

Politically, Putin began to consolidate the country under one political party, United Russia. The party held 38 percent of the legislature in 2003 but grew to hold more than 64 percent by 2007. The number of political parties able to establish a presence in the Russian legislature dwindled over the years, until only four parties achieved the required threshold in the 2007 and 2011 elections. United Russia began to resemble the previous Communist Party and branched out into various areas of society, business and foreign policy.

Putin also recognized that new policies for Russian youth were needed. More than a decade had passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the new generation lacked a uniting factor. A number of youth movements were organized under Kremlin supervision, the most popular of which was Nashi, a movement providing support for the Russian government and specifically for Putin.

With all of his policies, Putin promoted a new idea of what it meant to be Russian: pro-government, Russian Orthodox, culturally Slavic and against oligarchs and foreign influence. This garnered popular support for Putin for most of the decade. The question of ethnic and national diversity was never addressed; minorities and immigrants were mostly vilified or sidelined. A major cause of this was the uniting of ethnic Russians during the Second Chechen War. A string of high-profile attacks across Russia — including coordinated apartment block bombings, the Moscow theater hostage crisis, simultaneous airliner bombings and the Beslan school siege — led the majority of ethnic Russians to support a crackdown on Muslim populations across the country.

Putin consolidated much of Russia behind the idea that he promoted stability and power in the country. However, the divisions among the population were never addressed — a factor that is beginning to come to the foreground in Russian society.

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