On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with regional ombudsmen — intermediaries between the government and the people over social welfare, human rights, ethnic identity and overall relations. At the meeting, Putin said the ombudsmen should think of ways to help consolidate Russian society. Interestingly, Putin compared his proposal to Russian identity during previous eras, saying, "In the Soviet period a lot was done that was not very good, but a lot of good things were invented. For example, there was the concept of the Soviet people, a new historical community."
What Putin is touching on is something that has plagued Russia for most of its history: the fact that Russia is an incredibly large, diverse and socially unstable country. Currently, Russia has more than 185 different ethnic groups, 21 national republics and 85 regional subjects that span nine time zones. Every Russian leader — be they Czarist, Soviet or post-Soviet — has struggled to consolidate this disparate population. The Czars divided the peoples of the Russian Empire into various subjects to try to keep them segregated, but this led to constant uprisings among specific regional subjects against the czars.
The Soviet strategy was to unite all citizens by referring to them as "Soviets," creating an identity that would supersede divisions created by ethnicity, religion and political ideology. The Soviet strategy was so successful that it not only united the peoples of Russia, but also those in the surrounding 14 republics that made up the Soviet Union. The "Soviet" classification tied together peoples throughout the union — from Tajik villages to Baltic cities to the Caucasus Mountains and at every point in between. The Soviet identity was united in language, literature, institutions, culture and ideology. It was not that every person of the Soviet Union agreed with or felt a comradeship with their fellow Soviets; the Soviet identity was forced on much of the population. But overall, it was a tool the Kremlin used effectively to control a large and unwieldy land, and it remained in place for nearly 70 years.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia plunged into a deep identity crisis. Yes, the peoples of Russia knew they were technically citizens of the new Russian Federation (even if they were not ethnically Russian), but there was no coherent idea of what that actually meant. Russia was undergoing economic, political, financial and social chaos. There was nothing uniting the peoples; they were forced to fight just to survive.
This changed when Putin was elected president in 2000; he started to consolidate the Russian peoples under his leadership. Putin was heavy-handed in his tactics. He united the majority of the peoples under one political party, he clamped down on dissidence — political or ethnic — and he purged foreign economic and social influence. Under Putin's leadership the country began to not only stabilize but to thrive. Through this consolidation process, a mythos began to take root around Putin and his leadership. Many critics compared the myth of Putin to that of a Russian cult leader. But for most Russians the important part was that under Putin, Russia was a strong, globally important country once again.
Twelve years have passed since Putin first came into power and the inherent fractures that plague Russian unity are starting to surface once again. Issues of ethnic identity — particularly ethnic Russian versus Muslim — are becoming more polarized and political ideology is becoming much more plural. A generational shift is taking place. On one hand you have a generation that fought to survive throughout the fall of the Soviet Union and its following period of chaos, and on the other you have a population that has lived for more than a decade under Putin's strong and stable Russia. The younger generation may hear stories about the devastation of the 1980s and 1990s, but its members did not experience it in their formative years.
Putin in the 2000s united the peoples of Russia in order to build a stronger country, but he never created a new identity for those peoples like the Soviets did. So the inherent divisions were bound to resurface. Such divisions have already led to mass protests, escalating conflict between Russians and Muslims, and the rise of new social and political groups hostile to Kremlin control.
Now Russia is in a socially uncertain period. It took the Soviets decades — as well as mass purges and a world war — to cultivate the Soviet identity. How does the Kremlin consolidate the Russian people now, before the divisions threaten the overall control and power of the government? As Putin said today, "If someone proposes something similar [to the Soviet identity] in the new conditions, that would be great."