Dersu Uzala, Akira Kurosawa’s Oscar-winning 1975 film (shot entirely in Russian on location in the Soviet Far East), tells the story of an extended encounter between a Russian explorer and a native trapper in the Russian taiga. The trapper Dersu (an actual historical figure) was a member of the Nanai people, a small Tungusic tribe whose homeland along the Amur and Ussuri rivers passed under Russian control in the mid-19th century. The land remained terra incognita to its new masters until they dispatched a series of scientific expeditions beginning in 1902 under Vladimir Arsenyev, whose memoir provides the basis for Kurosawa’s film.1Dersu Uzala explores the complex interactions between indigenous peoples and an alien, modern state, and between individuals of vastly different backgrounds. Dersu impresses Arsenyev with his knowledge of local conditions, which saves Arsenyev’s life when the two get lost one night, and with his capacity for human empathy. Arsenyev gradually comes to see Dersu as an intelligent, sophisticated man with an understanding of his environment that Russians will never match. Despite the vast cultural gulf between them, the two men become close friends. When a later expedition finds an aged, infirm Dersu whose failing eyesight prevents him from hunting, Arsenyev invites the old man to live at his home in Khabarovsk. Almost at once it becomes clear that the Russian metropolis is no place for a forest-dwelling Nanai trapper. Dersu begs Arsenyev to let him return to the forest. The film ends with Arsenyev learning that Dersu has been murdered, probably for the expensive rifle he received from Arsenyev as a parting gift.Kurosawa’s film is a profound meditation on the nature of wisdom and friendship, as well as on the encounter between modernity and tradition. It is also a cautionary tale about the catastrophic mistakes that well-intentioned individuals often make when they attempt to reach across cultural divides. Dersu Uzala is also one of the best artistic renditions of Russia’s multiethnic reality, stitched together over centuries through a process of expansion and conquest not entirely dissimilar to the settling of the American West or the Australian outback. Apart from Dersu himself, the Russian expedition encounters an aged Chinese hermit, members of a Chinese militia sent to hunt bandits, and a family of Udege (another Tungusic tribe) that provides them food when they wander out of a blizzard.As with the Native Americans’ place in America’s national narrative, Russia’s elite has long downplayed the importance of non-ethnic Russians (and especially non-Europeans) to the state and its history. Though the collapse of the USSR stripped Moscow of many of its far-flung dominions and much of its minority population, about a fifth of the population in today’s Russian Federation is made up of non-Russian ethnic groups. In contrast to many European countries, these minorities are mostly indigenous. They have been variously Sovietized, Russified and ignored by the state but retain a distinct identity and, often enough, a determination to resist assimilation that poses problems for a society increasingly in the thrall of ethnic Russian nationalism. Beyond indigenous groups such as the Nanais, Tatars and Buryats, a second, increasingly important minority is comprised of immigrants from other parts of the former Soviet Union (like Tajiks), often driven to Russia by an economic desperation that forces them to overlook the dangers and difficulties that await in the former metropole.The Russian language has two distinct words for what is rendered in English as “Russian.” Rossiiskii denotes the state (Rossiiskaya Federatsiya) and all its attributes—rossiiskoe grazhdanstvo (Russian citizenship), rossiiskoe pravitel’stvo (Russian government), etc.2 The demonym, however, is russkii, a word that often has xenophobic overtones in Russian political discourse. A favorite slogan of nationalist gangs, like the ones that rioted just outside the Kremlin in December 2010 following the murder of an ethnic Russian soccer fan by a Chechen, is “Rossiya dlya russkikh” or “Russia for (ethnic) Russians”, a statement that recent polling suggests appeals to at least 55–60 percent of the ethnic Russian population.3Chechens and other minorities may be Russian citizens (rossiyane), but they are not ethnic Russians (russkie). This distinction is critical, for it gets to the heart of questions about Russia’s identity as a state and its international role. While the Kremlin has made efforts, especially in recent years, to emphasize the rossiiskaya in the Russian Federation, influential social movements and political figures have called for the state to pay greater attention to the needs of the russkii majority. Lurking behind these calls is often an insinuation that the political system has been hijacked by non-Russian groups to the detriment of the majority population. Tellingly, the spur for the December 2010 riots was not merely the killing of an ethnic Russian by a Chechen, but a rumor that the Chechen diaspora in Moscow had bribed the police to free the perpetrator without charge.Like most European states, Russia and its predecessors (including the Grand Duchy of Kiev and the Grand Duchy of Muscovy) were never ethnically homogeneous, despite national mythologizing to the contrary. Between 1552 and 1556, Czar Ivan IV of Muscovy, better known as Ivan the Terrible, conquered the Muslim khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan, laying the foundation for Muscovy’s transformation into the vast Russian Empire, and bringing large numbers of Turkic-speaking Muslim subjects into his domain. During the 1580s, Russian Cossacks led by Yermak Timofeevich began the exploration and conquest of the vast Siberian lands that gradually passed under Russian control over the next half century (a Cossack force under Yerofey Khabarov—Khabarovsk’s namesake—first subjugated the Nanais in the 1650s). Russian forces started moving south into the Caucasus in the 18th century during the course of repeated conflicts with the Ottoman Empire, while the conquest of Central Asia began only in the 19th century and was still incomplete when the Russian Empire collapsed at the end of World War I.4Unlike the United States during its Manifest Destiny phase (but like the Habsburg and Ottoman empires), the Russian Empire allowed elites from newly conquered territories to play a prominent role in the empire’s central administration; ethnicity played little role in determining who got ahead.5 At various points in its history, the Russian Empire counted among its top officials Lithuanians, Tatars, Greeks, Georgians, Germans and at least one African.6 Local communities, meanwhile, were given a high degree of political and cultural autonomy as long as they paid their taxes, provided soldiers for the army and did not rebel. Though the state was closely identified with the Orthodox Church and anti-Semitism was widespread, the government’s attitude toward religion was relatively flexible. During the reign of Catherine the Great (1762–96)—herself an ethnic German, and a Lutheran until her engagement to the future Czar Peter III—the court even sponsored efforts by mullahs and Sufi brotherhoods to spread Islam among the pagan tribes on the steppes of what is now Kazakhstan.It was only during the 19th century, under the influence of German Romanticism and Social Darwinism, that the concept of Russian ethnicity—along with adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church—became important as a marker of loyalty. By the end of the 19th century, older traditions of dynastic patriotism were in open conflict with newer ideas of ethnic exclusivity. Although the Czarist government is popularly blamed for the nationalist excesses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—most notoriously the wave of anti-Jewish pogroms that broke out periodically from the 1880s onward—more often than not the authorities in St. Petersburg tried to contain what were in reality waves of more or less spontaneous mob violence. During World War I, the court itself became the target of nationalist rage. The last Czarina, the German-born Aleksandra Fyodorovna, was a particular object of hatred to the nationalist Right, which loudly denounced Germans, Poles, Jews and other subjects they suspected of disloyalty. The narrow-minded, viciously anti-Semitic Czar Nicholas II and his wife were hardly paragons of tolerance, but they stood for an older, pre-national conception of the state that appeared out of touch long before it was swept away by war and revolution.The Soviets had their own way of dealing with what Commissar for Nationality Affairs Iosef Dzugashvili—a Georgian who adopted the nom de guerre Stalin—called the “national question”, or the problem of ensuring the loyalty of the Soviet Union’s multinational population to the avowedly anti-nationalist doctrine of Marxism-Leninism.7 Stalin’s solution was ethno-territorial federalism with a Soviet twist: the more numerous non-Russian groups were given their own ethnic homelands, complete with their own official languages, newspapers, theaters, schools, parliaments and other trappings of self-determination. These Soviet homelands were to be “national in form, socialist in content”—if newspapers and art were local products, their subjects had to be approved by Moscow, which meant that national aspirations had to be strictly curtailed. Many nationalist activists from across the Soviet Union were shot during the 1930s purges for taking this talk of national self-determination a bit too literally. Stalin’s campaign of repression also singled out certain national groups for collective punishment. The entire Chechen nation was deported to Kazakhstan in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the Nazis (survivors were allowed to return to Chechnya only in 1954).The Soviet Union was ultimately comprised of 15 so-called union republics which enjoyed the theoretical right to secede from the USSR (all of them in fact became independent states when the Soviet Union collapsed).8 The union republics were themselves comprised of a multitude of autonomous republics, oblasts and okrugs, each with its own titular nationality and enjoying varying degrees of actual autonomy. The Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic—the largest of the 15 union republics—itself contained 31 separate ethnic homelands for more numerous peoples such as Tatars, Buryats, Udmurts and Chechens, alongside a larger number of non-ethnic territories (oblasts and krays) where Russian language and culture openly predominated. Dersu Uzala’s Nanais, for instance, were not numerous enough to merit their own national homeland, but were recognized as a distinct nationality within the non-ethnic territory of Khabarovsk Kray.Harvard historian Terry Martin has aptly termed the early Soviet Union an “affirmative action empire.”9 The ethnic homelands gave their titular nationalities an opportunity for upward mobility at the local level, even as ethnic Russians almost completely dominated the organs of central power in Moscow. More importantly, their educational systems—aided by the Soviet commitment to universal schooling and literacy—created a sense of national identity among populations where loyalty to village, tribe, clan or faith had previously predominated. If Stalin had designed the ethnic homelands as a kind of administrative fiction to weld the Soviet Union’s minority populations to the state, by the 1980s they had increasingly taken on a life of their own. It was national activists raised and schooled in the Soviet system who led the movements for national independence that culminated in the creation of 14 new states alongside Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The institutions Stalin created had turned out to be socialist in form, but nationalist in content.In many ways, today’s Russian Federation looks like a truncated version of the Soviet ethnic quilt. Even though ethnic Russians account for close to 80 percent of the population, minority populations are territorially concentrated in the 26 remaining homelands, each of which maintains its own official language alongside Russian, and is usually headed by a member of the titular nationality. Under Boris Yeltsin, these regions were encouraged to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” Many did. Under longtime President Mintimer Shaimiyev, Tatarstan—whose population is just over half Tatar—declared its sovereignty, established a foreign ministry, and adopted a constitution stating that federal statutes were valid only insofar as they did not contradict local laws. Until 2000, heads of the regions were also members of the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, which also allowed them to directly influence national politics as well (a privilege going beyond what most republican leaders enjoyed in the Soviet period). The Putin government sought to rein in many of these excesses. Tatarstan was thus compelled to bring its constitution in line with federal law and Shaimiyev was forced into retirement in early 2010, part of a move toward making regional executive posts fully appointive.Live by the Sword…The Putin government has meanwhile played a dangerous game in using ethnic Russian nationalism as a tool for political mobilization, even while seeking to curtail its excesses. The Kremlin has co-opted nationalist frustration against both non-ethnic Russian citizens of the Russian Federation and the numerous foreign migrants from Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors. In response to complaints that Caucasian and Central Asian immigrant groups were dominating sales in local markets (complaints that led to rioting in the northern city of Kondopoga in 2006), the Kremlin adopted a decree banning foreign citizens from the retail trade. During the run-up to the August 2008 war with Georgia, it cracked down on the Georgian diaspora inside Russia, blocking remittances and deporting some 700 ethnic Georgians, many of them Russian citizens, ostensibly as an anti-crime measure. Though it has begun taking hate crime more seriously recently (particularly following the December 2010 Moscow riots), the Kremlin long downplayed incidents of skinhead or neo-Nazi violence. Some local leaders went even further. Former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov was notorious for his attempts to keep non-ethnic Russian migrants out of the capital city. In 1999, he deported more than 10,000 unregistered migrants, mainly natives of the Caucasus and Central Asia, following the outbreak of hostilities in Chechnya.10The Kremlin has also facilitated the rise of organized nationalist groups, including the notorious rabble rousing youth group Nashi (“Ours”), as well as the Rodina (“Motherland”) Party, which received 9 percent of the votes in the 2003 parliamentary elections.11 In part, official patronage for groups like Nashi and Rodina is designed to draw support away from more radical nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, but this patronage has helped legitimate extreme nationalism as a political ideology. Of course, the Kremlin is able to play on these sentiments only because of existing prejudices within much of the country’s ethnic Russian majority.In Moscow especially, the influx of migrants following the disintegration of Soviet-era controls has dramatically changed the ethnic landscape. Moscow’s Muslim population is now the largest in Europe, mostly comprising natives of Russia’s own ethnic homelands like Tatarstan and, even more, of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The breakdown of law and order and the upsurge in violence across the North Caucasus has fueled outward migration, which creates resentment when “outsiders” move into economic niches such as the retail trade previously dominated by locals. Migrants are frequently blamed for the upsurge in crime that accompanied the Soviet collapse and continues to plague Russian cities. A poll taken in August 2011 by the respected Levada Center found that 46 percent of ethnic Russians are hostile toward ethnic minorities, while 44 percent believe the main source of ethnic Russian nationalism was the “actions [and] behavior of national minorities.”12Partly due to the legacy of Stalinist ethno-territorial federalism, migrants can remain foreigners in their own country when they leave their specially designated homelands. An ethnic Avar from Dagestan may be a Russian (rossiiskii) citizen, but in Moscow he is for all intents and purposes a foreigner. Of course, an ethnic Russian Muscovite would have an equally bad time in Dagestan (though few are now foolhardy enough to make the journey given the region’s simmering Islamist insurgency). Notwithstanding Putin’s attempts to recentralize power during his first stint as President, the Kremlin’s writ still does not fully extend to the ethnic enclaves. Chechnya—where the warlord Ramzan Kadyrov has established a mini-potentate with a Sharia-based legal system with the Kremlin’s blessing—is only the most extreme example; much of the rest of the North Caucasus is now beyond the control of the authorities in Moscow, too. In response, a surprisingly strong current of opinion has called for Moscow to “stop feeding the Caucasus (Khvatit kormit’ Kavkaz).” Such talk—which has resonated among nationalists angry at subsidies for non-Russians, as well as liberals upset at the Kremlin’s support for corrupt, unaccountable strongmen—is a reflection of the degree to which Russia has failed to integrate its ethnic enclaves into the broader body politic.A related problem is the state’s failure to effectively regulate foreign migration. Despite a well-deserved reputation as a dangerous destination for migrants, until the financial crisis Russia received the second-largest number of immigrants each year of any country in the world (after the United States), most of them from the South Caucasus and Central Asia.13 Millions of citizens of these countries live in Russia, often illegally as migrant laborers working in construction, agriculture, mining and other dangerous or low-paying jobs. They are drawn to Russia by the dearth of opportunities in their own countries and their familiarity with the Russian language and culture dating back to the Soviet period. Living in a legal grey zone, they are vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation by employers, police and criminal groups, and are frequently targeted by skinhead gangs. Fights between Caucasian/Central Asian youths and skinheads are such a frequent occurrence in Moscow and other cities as to be hardly newsworthy anymore.Indeed, racially motivated violence of all types is depressingly common, and until recently the authorities often took a fairly indulgent attitude toward ethnic Russian perpetrators. According to data from the Sova Center, which monitors extremism in Russia, ethnically motivated murders peaked in 2008 at 110, and though they have declined significantly since, they are still shockingly high; 37 were recorded in 2010.14 (By comparison, Germany has seen a total of about 100 ethnically motivated murders in the two decades since reunification.) In one notorious incident, a group of skinheads assaulted a family of Tajik migrant workers in St. Petersburg in 2004, killing a 9-year old girl and severely beating her father. The perpetrators were convicted of “hooliganism” and given short prison sentences.The Russian government has belatedly woken up to the danger the failure to integrate the non-ethnic Russian population into the social fabric poses to the cohesion of the state. Leading politicians have increasingly gone on record condemning racially motivated violence and explicitly rejecting the concept of “Russia for ethnic Russians.” Putin has termed Russia’s attractiveness to immigrants a competitive advantage, while Medvedev has called for schools to teach ethnic tolerance and denounced those urging Moscow to stop feeding the Caucasus as either “not very intelligent . . . or provocateurs.”15Yet they continue to face a quandary. With Russia’s power structure becoming increasingly brittle and dysfunctional, the authorities have few levers at their disposal to mobilize support and confer legitimacy on a status quo that seems designed more to provide material benefits to a select elite than to represent the interests of the citizenry as a whole. National chauvinism has proven a potent force in the past, and officials have become well versed in using it as a tool for political mobilization. Especially following the mass protests against the rigged December 2011 parliamentary elections, officials from the top down are increasingly worried about maintaining legitimacy in the face of declining public support, a stagnating economy and a growing belief that Russia’s “managed democracy” has failed to protect the interests of ordinary citizens. Repeating a common historical theme, the country’s “political technologists” are looking for a new Russian Idea, a new mission or a new set of beliefs to inspire the people and encourage them to fall in line behind their rulers.Unfortunately, about the only ideology with a chance to rally significant portions of the population is narrow ethnic nationalism. The sad fact is that since the Soviet collapse, the only independent political parties ever to gain traction with the Russian electorate, outside the gradually declining Communists, are hardcore nationalists: Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats in the 1990s and Rodina in the early 2000s.16 Recognizing the danger such groups pose, the Kremlin under Putin and Medvedev has subjected them to serious pressure—while selectively appropriating much of their message (indeed, former Rodina head Dmitry Rogozin joined Putin’s Russian Popular Front to boost the Front’s appeal in nationalist circles). Whatever its defects, the most likely short-term alternatives to Russia’s status quo is not Western-style liberalism, but a regime with a much harder nationalist edge—a conundrum that Putin and Medvedev well understand.Nevertheless, they are conducting a dangerous balancing act, one they may not be able to sustain over the long term. Ambitious politicians will continue to be tempted by the nationalist card, while the Putin-Medvedev duopoly remains too concerned about its own tenuous legitimacy to mount a whole-hearted campaign against them. In the short-run, the strategy of persecuting nationalist parties while selectively appropriating their message has the dual effect of keeping nationalist discourse alive while giving its most extreme spokesmen the aura of martyrs. In the longer term, opening up the political system—as even Putin recognizes has to happen for the state to endure, let alone progress—would give the nationalists a greater opportunity to shape the public debate and, ultimately, shape policy.Today’s Russian Federation still carries the legacy of its imperial and Soviet past. It remains a patchwork of nations and ethnicities, even if its public face is more Russian than ever before. The approximately 20 percent of the population that is non-russkii is too small—even if the 120-something ethnic groups could put aside their own differences and unite behind a common platform—to decisively affect the constitutional order, but it is far too large for the russkii majority to either swallow up or simply ignore. The Soviet legacy of ethno-territorial federalism meanwhile confronts Russia with the same problem the Soviet Union faced, albeit in miniature. The prospect of Chechnya or other parts of the North Caucasus eventually breaking away is very real. Too often, Russia’s politicians appear trapped both by Russia’s own history of keeping its minority groups out of sight and out of mind and by their own fear of directly confronting widespread xenophobia within the ethnic Russian population. Though the post-election unrest in Moscow was notable for the dearth of nationalist slogans, two words of caution are in order. First, the protesters were mostly middle-class urbanites, and not reflective of Russian society as a whole; and second, in seeking to outflank the protesters, the Kremlin may well tack back to support for nationalist groups.One of Dersu Uzala’s central messages is the importance of context for all human experience—that traditional ways of doing things can be disastrous in a new setting. It is a lesson the Kremlin would do well to assimilate before Russia’s crisis of interethnic relations becomes still more intractable, and even more dangerous.
1In the film, Dersu refers to his people by the archaic Russian term “Goldi.”2The different endings reflect the Russian language’s three grammatical genders—masculine, feminine and neuter—and six cases (Russian, like Latin or German, is an inflected language where nouns and adjectives take on different endings depending on their role in the sentence).3Charles Clover, “Medvedev appeals for ethnic tolerance”, Financial Times, September 8, 2011.4The Emirate of Bukhara and Khanate of Khiva (which today comprise the bulk of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) were only abolished by the Soviet government in the 1920s.5See Dominic Lieven, Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals (Yale University Press, 2003), p. 250.6The poet Aleksandr Pushkin’s great-grandfather was Avraam Gannibal, a native of East Africa (possibly modern-day Eritrea) taken to Istanbul as a hostage during childhood. He was later ransomed by the Russian ambassador and sent to St. Petersburg, where Czar Peter the Great adopted him. Gannibal eventually rose to the rank of major general in the Russian army and served as Commandant of Reval (modern-day Tallinn). See Hugh Barnes, Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg (Profile, 2006).7See Josef Stalin, “Marxism and the National Question” (1913).8Stalin argued that the non-Russian proletariat would never exercise this theoretical right, since national identity and self-determination were “bourgeois” conceits.9Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Cornell University Press, 2001).10See Donald N. Jensen, “The Boss: How Yuri Luzhkov Runs Moscow”, Demokratizatsiya (Winter 2000).11Rodina was headed until 2006 by Dmitry Rogozin, who was later Russian Ambassador to NATO and President Medvedev’s special envoy for missile defense cooperation. In December 2011, he was appointed Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for the defense industry.12Levada Center poll, “Natsionalizm v Rossii”, September 6, 2011; “Vskrytaya vrazhdebnost’” Novye Izvestiya, September 8, 2011.13See Owen Matthews, “The Kremlin Vigilantes”, The Daily Beast, February 13, 2009.14Sova Center, “Dekabr’ 2010: Predvaritel’nye itogi goda”, December 30, 2010.15RIA-Novosti, April 23, 2010; Dmitry Medvedev’s address at the plenary session of the Global Policy Forum, The Kremlin, September 8, 2011. “Medvedev blasts anti-Caucasus sentiment”, RIA-Novosti, October 20, 2011.16The grossly misnamed Liberal Democrats took nearly 23 percent of the vote in the 1993 Duma elections, a figure that subsequently declined as they became a “loyal opposition” enjoying Kremlin patronage and support in exchange for moderating their assault on the status quo. Rodina took more than 9 percent of the vote in 2003 and opinion polls showed its support growing before it came under sustained assault by the Kremlin, which feared it was becoming too powerful. Rodina merged with several other parties in 2006 to form the Just Russia coalition.