Thursday, October 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Has Moscow Become a Nation of Its Own?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 17 – Attitudes toward Moscow outside the ring road continue to deteriorate with some commentators now arguing that the residents of the capital have become a nation onto themselves, one that has little in common with the values and identities of the rest of the Russian Federation.

            Such views have become so widespread that this week the mayor of the Russian capital, although he did not address the notion that Muscovites are a separate nation directly, felt compelled to argue in a long interview that Russia’s regions and republics “need” Moscow and in fact share a common fate with it.

            In a commentary on the Biryulevo pogrom, Valery Morozov argues that “the powers that be in Moscow” are frightened by any mass protest because they see it as a threat to their regime, one that rests on fear of outsiders and cannot imagine any other arrangements (

            “It is important to understand,” he writes, “that inter-ethnic conflict is characteristic not only for ethnic Russian territories. In any part of Russia, the population feels the oppression and shameless thievery of business structures,” which give birth to “a criminal milieu” and which “use the state to guarantee their opportunities for theft and exploitation.”

                In the Caucasus, “the people are not simply protesting; there already for many years, a civil war has in fact been going on. There inter-ethnic conflicts take the form of conflicts between taips, clans, and nationalities. That clan which seizes power thus becomes the object of national and taip hatred.”

            “In other regions,” Morozov says, “including among ethnic Russians, the objects of national hatred are becoming those who come from outside, who take control of production, sometimes of entire branches.

            But—and this is his key point – “in recent years we are seeing a new phenomenon: the appearance of a new term ‘Moscow’ and a new ‘nation,’ which has enslaved” everyone else. This is the result of the policies of Yeltsin and Putin who have set up a regime that “not only the Russian tsars, khans of the Golden Horde but any colonizers of world history would envy.”

            And it is the appearance of this new “Muscovite nation,” Morozov says, that is “the greatest threat to Russia, its territorial integrity and its future.”

            Aleksey Shiropayev, a leading Russian regionalist, argues in an essay posted on his blog this week entitled “Moscovia Against the Russian Republic” that the emergence of a distinctive “Muscovite” nationality is nothing new but rather represents an intensification of trends more than half a millennium old (

            Pointing out Muscovy’s origins as an ally and tax collector for the Golden Horde, Shiropayev cites with approval Lev Gumilev’s observation that Novgord, before Muscovy destroyed it by conquest and then genocide as an independent state in the 15th century, “firmly preserved its Western sympathies.”

            Indeed, he argues, what Muscovy did to Novgorod’s population “recalls the de-kulakization and de-Cossackization” of Soviet times.   

            Moscow-sponsored history to the contrary, Shiropayev insists, “Moscow and Novgorod were different countries who happened to have a common language like present-day France and Belgium.  Moscow did not have in Novgorod any legal or moral rights.” Consequently, the Muscovite attack was a “typical war of conquest.”

            But what is worse, the regionalist writer says, is that “a genuinely Russian (that is, European) state died together with Novgorod’s freedom.  After the fall of Novgorod began the era of the unlimited rule of Moscovia-Russia-Soviets, which have not had a Russian but rather a Eurasian nature.”

            “The so-called Russian state (‘Muscovite,’ ‘Soviet’) which exists to this day is (to a greater or lesser degree),” Shiropayev concludes, “a system of alienation and genocide of [ethnic] Russian people.”

            In an interview entitled “’Moscow is not a state within a state,” Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin responds indirectly to such suggestions and argues that the regions and indeed the Russian Federation as a whole need the concentration of power and resources that exists in his city (

            Sobyanin says that everyone “must understand the role of Moscow as a megalopolis.”  According to the mayor, “developing countries in which there are major metropolises are dynamically growing … those which have not been able to establish such megalopolises are falling behind.”

            Asked for his reaction to the hostility toward Moscow that many outside the ring road feel, the Moscow head said that he is not oppressed by this but that it does “concern” him. Sobyanin said he understands it because he lived “for a long time in the provinces,” but if it increases, “then this will be a problem for Moscow, Muscovites, and in the final analysis the entire country.”

            Differences in self-identification of those most people group together as “ethnic Russians” as reflected in these comments are a major problem for the Russian Federation, one that is seldom discussed because it is fervently denied by many Russian nationalists even when they manifest aspects of it in their own activities.
            In a comment for yesterday on Biryulevo, Konstantin von Eggert, who prepares a weekly column for that news agency, says that the violence was the product of three things, two of which he suggests are relatively easy to correct and one of which will be extremely difficult (

            He points out that “Russia’s few liberals are proclaiming that ‘fascism is at the gates;’ the rather disorganized and fragmented nationalists are claiming for the umpteenth time that ‘our people are finally together as one;’ [and] Russia’s government is trying not to say much about it at all.”

            On the one hand, he says, Alfred Koch, a Yeltsin-era official, is right when he says that what happened was “an uprising of the 20-something underclass” which unlike the older generation lacks an “instinctive fear of the system instilled by the Soviet state” and is thus “not afraid to express its anger.”
            And on the other, von Eggert continues, “it is easy to understand why Putin is silent. He cannot support the non-Russians given his claims of having brought stability, and he cannot condemn the Russian nationalists because he has based his political career on many of their views.

 “’Putin’s Russians’” have no time for political correctness and hate the ‘blacks,’ be they poor migrants from Kyrgyzstan or businessmen from Chechnya and Dagestan. The latter, despite being full-fledged Russian citizens, are treated not even as foreigners but,” von Eggert says, “as aliens by the vast majority of Russians.”

Lying behind the Biryulevo riots, he continues are two problems that “in theory” could be “fixed by a willing government” and one that is far more intractable. First, the riots happened because “there is little trust among the population in a corrupt and weak Russian state.” If it could perform its functions, that could change. And second, there are the absurdly high subsidies to the North Caucasus. They could be cut and migration would decline.

But the third problem is far more serious and “more complicated.” It involves “the weak identity of modern Russians.  Russia was the nation that glued the empire together. Now, there is no empire to hold together, and a modern state to build.”  Non-Russian groups have “more pronounced identities,” but “the people who constitute 70 percent of the Russian population feel defensive and weak.”

Such feelings “will only pas with generations who will, hopefully,” von Eggert ays, “get used to free choice and responsibility as the two mainstays of existence.” He adds that “it would help … if the nation’s elite started thinking not in terms of self-enrichment but in terms of public good.”

Until that happens – and there is little evidence that is taking place yet -- there will be increasing divisions within the group many conveniently label “the Russian nation. One of the most serious of these, as many are beginning to acknowledge, will be between Muscovites and everyone else beyond the ring road.

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