Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“A war for identity”

The Day’s experts on the Kremlin’s plans to pass a law on the Russian nation
2 November, 2016 - 17:09
Sketch by Viktor BOGORAD

On Monday, October 31, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who took part in a session of the Interethnic Relations Council in Astrakhan, endorsed the idea of drawing up a law on the Russian nation. The initiator of this draft law, “On the Russian Nation and Management of Interethnic Relations,” is Vyacheslav Mikhailov, a department chair at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. In Putin’s words, this law can “grow from the development strategy of ethnic relations in Russia.”

The Day requested a Russian and a Ukrainian expert to explain why Russia needs this law and what threat it may pose to Ukraine.


Lilia SHEVTSOVA, senior fellow, Brookings Institution, Moscow:

“The Russian president has just decided in Astrakhan to lay one more stone in the foundation of his model of state. After Putin had shaped the foreign policy doctrine of Russia as a state that must hold the pernicious and decaying West in check, the Kremlin suddenly decided to get down to forming (transforming?) the Russian nation. To do so, the president suggested passing a ‘law on the Russian nation,’ which is supposed to streamline interethnic relations and make it clear to Russians who they in fact are. The president set this goal at a session of the Interethnic Relations Council in Astrakhan.

“Why has the Russian leadership raised the question of Russian identity today? By all accounts, it seems to have nothing else to do. The government is unable – and it knows it very well – to address the problems of the dwindling living standards and the economic crisis. So, they decide to replace the acute problems they are unable to solve with a campaign to form a new ‘galaxy.’ In this case it is an effort to form the ‘Russian nation.’ It is an old Soviet practice – the worse the situation in the country is, the more actively the leadership responds to ‘cosmic’ challenges. A great Russian writer once said ironically: ‘The Russian man has a toilet tumbling down in the yard, but he is still trying to decide how to rectify the Tower of Pisa.’

“No, this does not mean that we know what the ‘Russian nation’ is. Russia will have to fiddle long and painfully with her own identity and, above all, its imperial component. But to address this problem at a moment when the country turns to neo-imperialism and the state suppresses society means that there is only one idea of a ‘Russian nation’ – as an amorphous community which does not single out the individual and must follow in the wake of the Imperative produced by the elite which has seized the state and pursues its own interests. Now the Kremlin is going to present this necessity of subjugation as a law on the Russian nation, which will interpret in its own way the Constitution that was scrapped long ago.

“At the abovementioned council session, everybody proposed establishing a new structure ‘to protect the Russian people’s identity.’ Tellingly, nobody proposed protecting society from the government’s arbitrary rule. And it is clear why: energy must be directed into a channel that is safe for the authorities. And there are a lot of enthusiasts who will deal with this redirection.

“If the leadership has got down to forming the ‘Russian nation,’ it means that it is falling short of the instruments of governance.”


Volodymyr OHRYZKO, director, Center for Russian Studies, ex-foreign minister of Ukraine, Kyiv:

“A country that comprises about a hundred of different nations and ethnicities cannot form one nation. Judging by the experience of the Soviet Union, it is waste of time and effort. This will produce no results and will be another pseudo-scientific creature without any real essence.

“I think Russians themselves are not aware of what it is all about and what it will finally lead to. We have heard that reflections on what the Russian nation is, the way it must look and be built, are at the initial stage. So, it seems to me that it is another ‘pseudo-spiritual staple,’ like all the other invented ‘spiritual staples,’ with which the government is trying to cement Russian statehood which is tearing apart due to economic problems, an absurd and absolutely inadequate foreign policy, and increased social tension inside the country. So, the Kremlin bosses have cooked up one more pseudo-theory which they think will whip up the empty domestic patriotism and they will say: we have a powerful Russian nation.

“It is one of same ideological cliches by which the Kremlin is trying to zombify its own populace and to influence the rest of the world. I don’t think this will have any serious consequences for Ukraine in the foreseeable future, for the object they are thinking about does not exist. Nor is there a response to the danger that this would represent in theory.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day