20 years under Putin: a timeline

June 25 marked the first day of the constitutional plebiscite in Russia, which will last until July 1. Apart from the keenly discussed amendments to the Russian constitution that will allow Vladimir Putin to stay in power until at least 2036, a less noticed, but still crucial change has been introduced—codifying the status of Russian as the language of a state-forming nation.


The amended Constitution establishes the status of Russian as the language of a state-forming nation and thus emphasizes the role of ethnic Russians in one of the largest multinational states in the world. Photo: pxfuel.com.


For most Western and Russian observers, the reason for the constitutional reform currently under way in Russia is clear: the new Constitution will “zero out” Vladimir Putin’s presidential terms and essentially legitimize his rule for life. Still, the proposed amendments bear another crucial implication—establishing the status of Russian as the language of a state-forming nation and thus emphasizing the role of ethnic Russians.

“Russian” in this amendment is defined not in racial, but rather in cultural and linguistic terms. Anyone who considers Russian as his or her mother tongue and was raised in the broader context of Russian culture can be regarded as Russian. This understanding of Russianness and Russians as the dominant group in the state is an important threshold in the historical evolution of the Russian identity, which emerged from the generation-long development of the post-Soviet identity.


Eurasian “symbiosis”

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a devastating event for both ethnic Russians and non-Russians residing within the Soviet borders. Many longed for the Soviet transethnic imperial identity, which now seemed lost. Despite its dissolution, for some time the Soviet Union continued to live on in the minds of many Russians. Some believed that its disintegration was temporary and the USSR would be reassembled in the future. Why? Because they viewed the Soviet Union not as a traditional empire with sharp distinctions between rulers and ruled. To them, it was an organic whole—a legitimate successor of the great Eurasian empires of the past.

These ideas were well developed by the proponents of Eurasianism—a political movement that emerged in the 1920s in the Russian émigré milieu. While one of them, Nikolay Trubetskoy, ironicized that there were “as many Eurasianisms as Eurasianists,” despite all their differences, the latter had plenty in common. First and foremost, they believed that the tsarist empire and the Soviet Union were not artificial constructs, destined for disintegration, like the empires of the West. Russia (or the Soviet Union) was different, as it constituted the “symbiosis” of numerous ethnicities, which, in their view, was especially true in the case of Russians, who historically were mostly Orthodox Christians and Muslims of Turkic origin. They also believed that the 13th-century Tatar-Mongol conquest of what is modern Russia today had fostered this unique political culture, which was inherited by the Russian state. In this interpretation, Eurasianists diverge from most Russian historians, who view these invasions as the “Tatar-Mongol yoke”—an unmitigated evil. According to Eurasianists, Tatar-Mongols instilled in Russians not only the idea of living “symbiotically” with all ethnicities, but also the need for a strong power. Eurasianists credited the Tatar-Mongols for Russia’s rise to prominence and their own ideology for informing the country’s greatness. They surmised that their vision could render a blueprint for Russia’s comeback and unification of the former Soviet republics. Meanwhile, the West, they insisted, should be punished for mistreating Russia.

Various forms of Eurasianism gained momentum in the 1990s and early 2000s, suffusing philosophy (Alexander Dugin plays an important role in this respect), art, and cinema. A good example is the 2007 movie Mongol by well-known Russian director Sergei Bodrov. The movie tells a cautionary tale about Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, who was not born the bloody monster remembered by history, but rather became it through constant abuse and brutalization. The movie’s message is clear: if the West continues to mistreat Russia, a new Genghis Khan might emerge on its territory. Other Eurasian motives highlighted in Mongol continued to be popular until the end of Putin’s second presidential term, when the notion of Eurasian “symbiosis” began to disintegrate in the public discourse.


Russo-centric identity

The emergence of a new trend is already seen in the 2008 movie The Fall of an Empire—the Lesson of Byzantium, created by then Archimandrite, now Metropolitan Tikhon with clear allusions to present-day Russia. The movie underscores that the West has been a major threat to the Byzantines, both in the past and the present. It was the West that had undermined the Byzantine spiritual and socio-economic core, weakened the empire, and set the conditions for the Muslim East to deliver the final blow. No “symbiosis” is seen in the movie between Orthodox Byzantium and Europe, whose values and actions are presented as deathly poison to Orthodox civilization. At the same time, Eurasian “symbiosis” between Orthodox Russians and Muslim Russians of Turkic origin is deemed as wishful thinking. Tikhon emphasizes the European hostility toward Russians and shows Russia as being unjustly squeezed by the hostile West and East. But his was not the only view present in the public discourse at the time.

Disintegration of Eurasian “symbiosis,” complications with the West, collapse of the Slavophile paradigm resulted in the emergence of a new Russian identity, which was eventually accepted by the Putin regime.

The 2012 movie The Horde by another Russian director, Andrei Proshkin, portrays Muslims as savages and Europeans in a positive light. Why the change? Many factors were at play. Most importantly, by that time the Soviet trans-ethnic imperial identity had largely receded into the past as a historical memory. The Central Asian republics with their Muslim populations were perceived by Russians as foreign countries, not as “prodigal sons” of the former Soviet family. Another factor was Russia’s domestic tensions with the Muslim population of the Northern Caucasus republics that would occasionally erupt into violence. Some of these cases, such as the 2006 ethnic outburst in Kondopoga and the 2007 ethnic riots in Stavropol, drew national attention. The relationship with the more peaceful, predominantly Muslim Tatarstan was also less than harmonious. Finally, Russia’s relationship with the West had become more complicated. On the one hand, its fascination with the West, especially the United States, so evident in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet time, had gone, replaced by visibly growing anti-Western sentiment. Yet on the other, the lifestyle and mentality of many Russians, especially those residing in big cities, had become increasingly European.


No return to Slavophilism

Falling out with the West, alongside the expanding Westernization of the Russian population, did not bring back Slavophilism, which had dominated Russian intellectual discourse for centuries and was still prominent during the early post-Soviet era. At the center of this doctrine was the idea of an intrinsic union of Slavs, especially Orthodox Slavs. But the reality of international relations made it clear to Russia that such a union remains unattainable, as Poland, which had already been seen as “treacherous” by 19th-century Slavophiles, was joined by former “brotherly” Ukraine in the list of the Russian state’s enemies.

The combination of these factors—disintegration of Eurasian “symbiosis,” complications with the West, collapse of the Slavophile paradigm—as well many other aspects of the social and cultural evolution of post-Soviet society resulted in the emergence of a new Russian identity, which was eventually accepted by the Putin regime. Enshrining this new identity in the Constitution was, in a way, his response to the needs of the majority.


New Russian identity

This new Russian identity implied that Russians (“Russkiye”) are the dominant group of the Russian Federation—not “Eurasians” or “Rossiyane” (the Yeltsin-era term for a “citizen of the Russian state”). It also implied that “Russianness” was not an ethnically or genetically rigid concept: anyone whose native language is Russia and who has been raised in Russian culture could be “Russian.” The new stress on Russianness as a cultural construct and on the Russian language as the dominant linguistic construct (and implicitly on the dominance of ethnic Russians) triggered a pushback against the Kremlin. Some minorities were clearly not happy with the new development. Tatar leaders, for example, insisted that residents of Tatarstan should be schooled in the Tatar language. On the other side of the spectrum, hardcore Russian nationalists were also disappointed with the Kremlin’s downplaying of the racial aspects of Russianness. 

Still, the new Russian identity clearly benefits the Kremlin. It addresses the growing nationalism of ethnic Russians who, to an extent, subscribe to the notion of “Russia for Russians” (meaning that Russia is the place where the Russian language and culture dominate). The “Russianness” aspect also opens the door to minorities who can try and assimilate, thus potentially reducing ethnic tensions. The idea that Russianness is defined by culture or language also has important geopolitical implications, as it is integral to Putin’s doctrine of the “Russian world.” According to his view, Moscow has a right and responsibility to influence the post-Soviet space and beyond, where Russian-speaking communities exist. In other words, the introduction of this new interpretation of Russianness into the Constitution meets both the Kremlin’s domestic and international interest.