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Sociolingüística internacional

Language policy in the Russian Federation: language diversity and national identity, by Marc Leprętre


In short, Soviet language policy not only promoted the Russian language as the ‘lingua franca’ used for All-Union and inter-republican communications, but also improved and strengthened the position of the titular nations of the republics as well as that of their respective languages. At the same time, the gradual decline of the percentage of ethnic Russians in the USSR and a birth rate dramatically lower than that of the populations of Central Asia and Caucasus contributed to create a latent feeling of insecurity within the majority group which provoked the raising of a new type of Russian nationalism as a reaction towards the intensification of nationalists movements in the borders and the core itself of the Union. Finally, the outcomes of the Soviet language policy reflect the contradictions in the processes of centralization and decentralization and those of promotion and repression which constituted the main characteristics of Soviet nationalities policies splitted between the class strategy and the nationalist tacticism.

2. Interethnic tensions in the Russian Federation in the post-Soviet context

The break-up of the Soviet Union and the increase of interethnic tensions within the very same Russian Federation implied the intensification of the Russian identity crisis that had been taking place during the process of construction of the Soviet patriotism from the mid 30’s. The first signs of tension coincided with the declaration of sovereignty of the Autonomous Republics of Mari El, Komi and Tatarstan during the summer of 1990. These declarations of sovereignty meant an attempt to force the federal authorities into granting them a higher level of autonomy that would allow local authorities to control and manage their natural resources (diamonds, petroleum, gas, wood industry) in order to have direct access to foreign markets.

The initial negotiations aiming at the signature of the Union Treaty of 1991 accelerated this process in such a way that, not only the sixteen Autonomous Republics of the RSFSR declared their sovereignty, but also the Autonomous Regions of Birobidzhan, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Khakassia, Gorno-Altay and Adygea, which claimed their conversion into Autonomous Republics, also did the same. In addition, as was the case at the beginning of the 20’s, new territorial entities with no legal basis emerged, constituted from the unilateral decisions taken by local Soviets: the Greater Volga Association; the Greater Ural Association; the Far East Association; the Association of the Towns of Southern Russia; the aforementioned old Autonomous Regions reconverted into Autonomous Republics; the de facto independent Republic of Chechnya; and finally, the Tyumen District. Thus, Russia faced, throughout the entire Soviet State, a process of territorial, economic and social disintegration which had marked consequences on the configuration of a new national identity which, for the first time since the Middle Ages, had to dissociate the concepts of Empire and State.

Likewise the Russian nation nowadays faces an acute crisis of national identity and is looking for its own self-definition. In contrast with the classical paradigm according to which the national and identity issue is mainly the concern of 'incomplete nations' (10)  that are struggling to reaffirm themselves in the face of larger and more 'complete' nations, in today’s Russia it is the dominant ethnic group who is looking for its self-definition. Broadly speaking, the existence of a Russian State (Rossiiskoe Gosudartsvo) was previous to the Russian nation(ality) (Russkaya narodnost) and, at the same time, the Russian Empire preceded the Russian State. According to this, the emergency of Russia as a nation was infallibly linked to the continuous process of expansion of the Empire towards the territories inhabited by alien ethnic groups. Another feature of the Russian Empire, later on shared with the Soviet Union, was found in the relations that were established between the Russian Nation and alien peoples. During Tsarism, the dominant classes of the peripheral societies were progressively assimilated by the elites of the center, such as was the case of the Tatars, the Georgians, the Germans, the Balts or the Poles. During some specific periods of the Communist regime, this same type of relationship was established, insofar as class or ideological considerations prevailed over ethnic identifications. In addition, during the period of the korenizatsiia to be Russian or to belong to a Russified national elite implied a curb on individuals who aspired to holding important positions in the national Republics.

On the other hand, the very same Russians did not consider themselves as a particularly favoured nation by the previous regime: the economic indicators of the RSFSR were not substantially better than those of the other Republics, the purges of the 30’s had caused more victims there than anywhere else, the Russians had contributed more than any other people to the Second World War, the environmental situation was awful, ethnical minorities identified them with Soviet totalitarianism, their contribution to the maintenance of the Centro-Asiatic Republics was considerable, etc. Finally, from the political point of view, the RSFSR was in no way privileged since it shared same rank with a great number of smaller ethnical groups and it was even under-represented from the institutional point of view, insofar as many All-Union institutions took the place of Russian institutions. From this point of view, the access to independence has not implied an improvement in the situation.

While the loss of territories included in the Russian Empire and later on in the Soviet Union (especially Central Asia and Transcaucasia) was not a very traumatic experience, the secession of Belarus and Ukraine was interpreted as an historic, identity and cultural amputation. In addition, the new map of the borders has turned almost 25 million ethnic Russians into foreign citizens in the old Federated Republics that many had long since considered to be their homeland. Although the disappearance of the Soviet State has allowed the Russians to go from being a little bit more than 50 % of the USSR’s population to represent more than 80% of the Russian Federation, the reinforcement of the Russians as an ethnic majority in stark contrast with a multiplicity of ethnic minorities has even more highlighted the idea that Russia is not only the State of the Russians but that the Russian identity must also integrate alien elements. As a last resort, the present Russian Federation reproduces, on a smaller scale, the traditional contradiction between the ethnic and cultural groups and the political and territorial variables of the Russian national identity.

This situation becomes more complex because the Russian Federation is made up of 89 subjects (of which 32 are defined according to ethnic terms) between old Autonomous Republics, regions, districts and federal towns, all with equal rights and obligations according to the 1993 Constitution. But given the fact that the 1992 Federal Treaty appears to be more generous towards the Republics, there exists a duplicity of interpretations as regards the responsibilities that must be assumed by the federal institutions and those corresponding to the Republics.


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