Turning Point? The Ethnicization of Social Issues and What Indigenous Communities Think About It
February 21, 2024
  • Vlada Baranova
    Independent researcher, Hamburg
Based on her research, Vlada Baranova claims that the war in Ukraine has led to the ethnicization of conflicts and confrontation between the federal authorities, perceived as “Russian,” and the indigenous population. Language and environmental activism is becoming more tinged with nationalism, as well.
This study was carried out within the framework of Nemtsov Fund program “Known Unknowns: Studying Russia after 2022”.
Baymak, Bashkortostan. January 15. Source: Yandex
On January 17, 2024, during the sentencing of Fail Alsynov, an activist from Bashkortostan, who received four years in prison, several thousand people (6,000 estimated) gathered in the small town of Baymak. The police used force to disperse the protesters and detained several people. The death of one detainee, serious injuries to another and multiple criminal and administrative cases were later reported.

The charges against Alsynov stemmed from a speech he delivered in the Bashkir language during an assembly in a village in April 2023, where he railed against gold mining in the region. Alsynov is known for his activity in environmental protests in Bashkortostan, notably his role in defending Kushtau Hill (2020), when local residents opposed soda mining. Back then, the activists successfully halted industrial mining and protected the nature reserve in the area.

Government concerned about specter of separatism

Alsynov chaired the Bashkort organization, founded in 2014. Environmental initiatives and care for the Bashkir/Bashkort land were at the heart of the movement, closely intertwined with supporting Bashkir language and culture, as well as local self-government.

In 2017-19, Alsynov participated in protests against amendments to the Federal Law on Education that made minority language classes optional instead of compulsory. In 2020, the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan recognized Bashkort as an extremist organization and banned it, claiming that it promoted “nationalism” and “separatism.” Bashkort's lawyers pointed out that the translation of speeches made by participants of the kurultai (meetings of Bashkir NGOs) was distorted, but that failed to persuade the judges.

Similar developments can be observed in other so-called “ethnic republics.” For several years, protests over social inequality, сareless use of natural resources and encroachment on the republics' autonomy (sometimes criticized as “defederalization”) were persecuted as manifestations of "nationalism" and "separatism." Even initiatives in support of a local language or culture were banned. For instance, in 2015-16 youth dance in flashmobs featuring Kalmyk dances in the center of Elista (Kalmykia) drew the attention of law enforcement as manifestations of nationalism. One of the organizers was forced to emigrate.
One of the consequences of the authorities’ high concern about nationalist sentiment is that social or political conflicts in the republics have been often interpreted as ethnic conflicts.”
Announcement of a rally in Elista during protests against the new mayor in Kalmyk and Russian. 2019. Image courtesy of Author.
An example is the protest against the appointment in 2019 of Dmitri Trapeznikov as the mayor of Elista (Trapeznikov had been transferred from a ministerial post in the “Donetsk People’s Republic”). My fieldwork shows that the mobilization in Kalmykia occurred around the idea that the mayor of the Kalmyk capital should be either an ethnic Kalmyk or a local (or both). The protesters first began using the Kalmyk language in political slogans, then as part of a broader political protest against the United Russia party and what they saw as the election rigging.

Encroachment on minority rights

Often a vicious circle forms. Anxious to prevent separatism and demonstrate the "unity" of the nation, federal authorities do not honor the autonomy to ethnic republics granted in the Russian Constitution, which not infrequently leads to radicalization of ethnic activism. Since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, language and ethnic policies have been hardened. Amendments to the country’s language law adopted in 2022 emphasize “the unifying role of the Russian language as the state language of the Russian Federation in a unified multi-ethnic state.”

In September 2023, the government proposed withdrawing from the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which Russia joined in 1996. Throughout 2022-23, officials have spoken out in support of minority languages while stressing that the Russian language incorporates the culture of small ethnic groups. For instance, addressing Russian children in February 2023 as part of the newly introduced classes called "Conversations about Important Things," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “it is important for the unity of Russia that the Russian language unites everyone... National cultural festivals take place in Yakutia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya. This is all part of Russian culture. It has never tried to ‘push aside’ the cultures of its peoples, who are one with the Russian state.”
Enough!” in Kalmyk with the old vertical script on the sides. Image courtesy of Author.
Though this does emphasize the multinational nature of the Russian people, such discourse implies a hierarchy in which “Russians” hold a superior position. Statements by loyalists have become increasingly nationalistic over time. For example, Pyotr Tolstoy, Duma deputy speaker, insisted that the ethnic term russkii (instead of the neutral rossiyanin) be applied to everyone, regardless of ethnicity: “our brothers Avars, Chechens, Tatars, Bashkirs are all Russian [russkie]. They are Russians… because they live in Russia! And they live in Russia for a reason, historically speaking. Ivan the Terrible… didn't take Kazan so that now we suddenly start using the word ‘rossiyane.’”

These statements come against the backdrop of rising ethnic and regional inequality during the war in Ukraine. It should be noted that the impact of the war has been disproportionate, with higher death tolls in the ethnic republics.

Interest in ethnic issues and history among émigrés

In 2022-23, posts in indigenous languages, such as Buryat, Kalmyk and Chuvash, both for and against the war, circulated on social media. Discussion of the issues in one’s mother tongue suggests an ethicized or localized view of the war.

Ethnic republic residents find themselves in a contradictory position, with varying discourses on autonomy, sovereignty and belonging. In 2023, I collected interviews with Kalmyks and Buryats who left Russia after the “partial mobilization” announced in September 2022. Many of them fled to Mongolia, a country with a closely related language and culture. While some eventually returned to Russia, others remained in Mongolia or moved to different countries: to the US, where there has been a large Kalmyk diaspora since the late 1940s, or South Korea, which is a frequent destination of labor migrants from Russia’s “Asian” regions and the countries of Central Asia.
In emigration, many respondents discuss the political and social issues that led to the current situation. The diaspora becomes a forum for discussing the history and future of the ethnic groups. The ideas about the post-war future reflect diverse attitudes toward potential independence of the ethnic republics and views on federalism in Russia.

Respondents talk about the development of regional identity, federalism, and the possibility of a referendum that would determine the fate of their republic of origin, including full independence. While opinions differ, all respondents were willing to discuss these issues.
Until not so long ago, residents of these ethnic republics did not entertain the idea of independence. Now, this possibility is being discussed, albeit more often as a discourse with which the respondents disagree.
Respondents sought answers through references to the current context of the war with Ukraine or through family history. The memory of Stalinist repressions is often associated with the deaths of local intellectuals and the cessation of teaching in native languages in 1938.

For the Kalmyks, an important memory is the deportation in 1943-44. When they talk about their decision to flee from Russia to avoid mobilization, respondents often mention their family’s experience of deportation. “Since my childhood, I was taught that war would never lead to anything good, and my ancestors, grandmothers, grandfathers, ava, eeji [grandparents in Kalmyk] were deported because of the war. And they were all exiled, born in exile,” said a young man who left Kalmykia for Mongolia after mobilization was announced.

An activist mentioned the trauma of deportation as a reason for his fear of participating in anti-war protests: “in our minds, any protest is associated with the post-genocidal trauma of December '43. That is, I heard [people say] that the Russians would come again, deport everyone, kill everyone, and so on.”

Changing language of discourse

Terms such as “decolonial,” “empire,” “oppression” and “indigenous” were not previously used by the people of Buryatia and Kalmykia. Now, however, they have become an element of the discourse describing community-state relations. My interviews reveal how terminology typically associated with ethnic activists' media is entering the language of “ordinary people” – notably terms like "colony" and "empire" are used to describe the relationship between Russia and its ethnic republics.

Language and ethnic activism has also changed throughout the course of the war. Previously, most activists were generally focused on cultural or language issues rather than political ones. According to my previous research, conducted in 2019-21, grassroots ethnic language initiatives mainly included popular music, video, blogging and art projects, as well as educational programs. By comparison, seldom did they deal with claiming the linguistic rights or other rights of indigenous groups. However, the current context has prompted a shift in the approach of ethnic and language activists and a reevaluation of their goals and values.

In 2022-23, online organizations with anti-war or decolonial goals emerged. The first was the Free Buryatia Foundation (see Russia.Post about it), which aimed to help young men avoid being sent to Ukraine, particularly during mobilization in September 2022. This was followed by the emergence of Free Kalmykia, Free Yakutia and others.
Beyond the anti-war agenda, a number of movements and media operating from abroad focus on indigenous histories and cultures, as well as discussions of racism and discrimination, both at the everyday and institutional level. For example, the podcast The Republic Speaks had a discussion about the neglect of culture in the ethnic republics by the federal authorities as a form of ethnic discrimination. Beda Media explores the history of various ethnic groups, detailing the Stalinist deportations. Others discuss political issues, such as claims for independence. A common idea, and even slogan, of opposition media is "this is not our war" – for example, this was the language of a December 2023 post on a Telegram channel called The Movement for Sakha Independence – Resistance.

Most of these initiatives operate from abroad, but some, such as that of the above-mentioned Bashkir activist Fail Alsynov, try to speak out about the war and ethnicity while remaining in Russia. After the mobilization of September 2022, Alsynov wrote a post highlighting the ethnic nature of the war in Ukraine, with a disproportionately high number of Bashkirs being mobilized: “this is a genocide against the Bashkir people!... This is not our war.”

Like my respondents among young Kalmyks and Buryats, Alsynov connected the current situation to memories of the past. He stated that the history of the Bashkirs in the Russian state has always included violence: “the sons of Bashkirs were always taken to war by this empire.” This post, written in the Bashkir language, has been blocked by the authorities.”

The current political landscape has prompted a reassessment of conventional perspectives on the relationship between ethnic minorities and the state. The Russian government increasingly denies ethnic groups their agency, emphasizing the superiority of Russians, while ethnic and decolonial activists underline agency and own history.

The debate within minority-language communities now revolves around understanding the relationship between the state and minority groups. These discussions include a reconsideration of the history of the state and memories of minority groups. A critical reevaluation of the history of the Russian Empire, the USSR and Russia is emerging as a crucial aspect of the conversation about the future of the ethnic republics.
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