Searching for the Meaning of “Russian”

Simon Rabinovitch on national questions, nostalgia, and the Orthodox Church in Putin’s Russia

In St. Petersburg the Russian Museum stands next to the Russian Museum of Ethnography. The word for Russian in each means something different, as the Russian language distinguishes between people and things that are Russian, in an ethnic or national sense, and the peoples and places of Russia. The term used for proper names such as Russian Empire and Russian Federation is different from the word that describes the Russian language, Russian food, or Russian Orthodoxy. The Russian – Russkii – Museum showcases Russian art masterpieces. The Russian – Rossiskii – Museum of Ethnography is devoted to educating people about the cultural diversity of … well, that’s the problem. The Russian Museum of Ethnography was conceived and built near the end of the Russian Empire, opened and had its heyday in the Soviet Union, and in today’s Russian Federation is still trying to determine what being Russian is all about.

Figuring out who and what Russians are matters because Russia once again has a “national question.” Not that the “national question” ever went away. The Soviet Union’s dissolution allowed some nationalities tethered to Moscow to float off in their own directions, but it also created space for a new kind of Russian nationalism resentful of non-Russians, whether citizens or immigrants. And it’s this nationalism’s perceived threat to the Kremlin that has caused Russia’s leaders to rediscover the importance of the “national question.”

Credit: Simon Rabinovitch.
Credit: Simon Rabinovitch.

Vladimir Putin was always more inclined to emphasize the “leading role” of Russians than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. In the lead-up to the 2012 elections Putin published a manifesto addressing the “Self-Determination of the Russian People” in which he tried to claim a middle ground between Russian nationalism and something resembling toleration. To Putin, serious multiculturalism is bad – everyone should speak Russian – but so is any kind of ethnic nationalism, Russian or otherwise, that threatens peaceful coexistence in Russia, its territorial integrity, or his efforts to centralize the state. He has since signed into law a new national strategy policy that aims for greater Eurasian integration among the post-Soviet republics (under Russian leadership of course).

What it means to be Russian is both flexible and evolving, and always has been. Some of the individuals we most closely associate with the course of Russian history self-consciously transformed themselves from rossiianin – a person of Russia but not necessarily Russian – into russkii. In one well known anecdote, Josef Stalin’s son Vassili reputedly remarked to his sister Svetlana Allilueva, “You know, our father used to be a Georgian.” Even the transformation of Russia’s leaders into Russians came rather late in the country’s history. Quite a few members of the Russian Empire’s nobility and ruling family came from different parts of Europe and until the late nineteenth century were notably resistant to Russian nationalism.

The imperial government concerned itself primarily with expanding the Russian Empire and keeping it together, and employed Russian cultural nationalism when it seemed to serve those goals (usually counter-productively). From a legal standpoint, because it was never clear who counted as Russian, for the purpose of determining legal privileges and disabilities the government generally hewed to a religious definition – members of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the Russian Empire’s history, only Alexander III and his son Nicholas II explicitly linked Russian nationality and Russian Orthodoxy, with the figure of the tsar serving as the fulcrum between the two.

The Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg, Russia. Credit: Alex Florstein.
The Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg, Russia. Credit: Alex Florstein.

The Russian Museum of Ethnography is a fitting place to look for answers to the question of who is and who isn’t Russian these days. This museum is St. Petersburg’s second ethnographic museum. The first, known as the Kunstkamera (officially the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography), was founded by Peter the Great to serve science and empire, was Russia’s first free public museum, and remains a part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Kunstkamera holds archaeological and anthropological collections from around the world, and in seeking to educate the general Russian public about the diversity of global culture shares some similarities with the Smithsonian Institute in the United States (perhaps with the exception of its most well-trodden rooms that display Peter the Great’s collection of “curiosities” – anatomical specimens of “unnatural freaks” such as one-eyed babies and two-headed goats).

The Russian Museum of Ethnography, on the other hand, opened in 1923 to display how all of the “Peoples of Russia” became Soviet citizens. The museum – originally named after Alexander III – was planned, its collections assembled, and the building constructed during the last twenty years of the Russian Empire, but the revolutions of 1917 intervened to prevent its official opening. By the late 1930s the museum had the dual purpose of constructing a multinational Soviet identity and illustrating the historical path of all peoples from their respective “traditional cultures” to socialism. The museum’s ethnographers told this story of Soviet progress through the museum’s displays, its architecture, and its artwork. The museum’s visitors, often bussed into the city by the authorities for visits, were meant to take away the message that the path to the modern world is through socialism, and the path to Soviet citizenship, whether a person is a nomadic arctic hunter or southern Ukrainian farmer, is through joining the working class.


The Marble Hall in the center of the Russian Museum of Ethnography, with the sculptural band “Peoples of the Russian Empire” running along its three walls. The Hall’s centerpiece was originally a bronze sculpture of Alexander III. Credit: Simon Rabinovitch.
The Marble Hall in the center of the Russian Museum of Ethnography, with the sculptural band “Peoples of the Russian Empire” running along its three walls. The Hall’s centerpiece was originally a bronze sculpture of Alexander III. Credit: Simon Rabinovitch.

Ethnographers had an important practical role to play in the early Soviet state, as they did in the Russian Empire, because of the country’s sheer size and diversity. The Bolsheviks faced an imposing challenge consolidating communism in the vast territory from the Baltic to the Black Sea, through the arctic and the Central Asian steppes, and as far east as the Pacific Ocean. Further complicating matters, to take power and consolidate their rule the Bolsheviks promised “national self-determination” for all. Yet the new Soviet Union was so large and so diverse it wasn’t clear who should even be considered a nationality (especially when one extricated religion from the equation), let alone how they should govern themselves.

Ethnographers assisted with censuses, helped determine which groups of people did and did not qualify as official Soviet nationalities, and studied how nomadic herdsman or arctic fisherman might eventually join the ranks of the proletariat. Soviet ethnographers applied Marxist and other western concepts of nationality and ethnicity to all groups, and they helped separate “nationalities” territorially. Ethnographer could also be a dangerous job in the Soviet Union, as many were arrested and a number of them executed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, for a variety of sins: from finding the wrong data, to not treating it with the proper ideological bent, to being accused of spying for a foreign country because they happened to conduct fieldwork too close to an international border. The work of Soviet ethnographers conducted decades ago still determines the course of events in the region today. That Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan are currently different countries, let alone their inter-ethnic grievances, stems from the Soviet determination that the Kirgiz and Uzbek people are not one and the same, each requiring territorial autonomy.

The historian Yuri Slezkine has suggested that if the Soviet Union was like a large communal apartment with each nationality occupying its own room, then Russia, and Russians, occupied the large common area in the middle. With the break-up of the Soviet Union – or to quote Slezkine, when “the tenants barricaded the doors and started using the windows” – Russia needed to determine if its area of the communal apartment was in fact a room, what made it Russian, and what if anything all of the inhabitants of that space shared in common.

Few Russian citizens today can explain the logic or rationale behind the multileveled federation of republics, oblasts, territories and autonomous districts they inherited, and just as few can give clear criteria for who is Russian – in both senses – in the post-Soviet era.  Long before I began to think about these questions, when I first visited the Russian Museum of Ethnography more than ten years ago, I noticed the clarity of the propaganda on display more than the exhibits of mannequins from various nationalities in traditional costume. For example, at the end of each of the museum’s two wings, murals in the Soviet realist style told a story of ethnic harmony and multinational achievement (one has since been painted over). When I began visiting the museum again a few years later, in the months following the ethnic strife and terrorism in Beslan when Putin centralized the government and eliminated regional elected governors, a video exhibit about President Putin had been installed on a large screen flanked by imposing Russian flags. Evidently the Kremlin had not quite abandoned the political uses of this museum.


Mural. Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russia. Credit: Simon Rabinovitch.
Mural inside the Russian Museum of Ethnography. Credit: Simon Rabinovitch.

The Kremlin’s close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church (at the heart of the Pussy Riot protest) and Putin’s rhetoric about the special role of Russians may indicate that the imperial view of Russianness is back: Russia is a state for all of its peoples, but to be Russian is to be Russian Orthodox. One adherent of this view is Dmitry Dubrovsky, who was briefly the director of the Center for Current Ethnography and Inter-Ethnic Relations at the Russian Museum of Ethnography. The Center was open for two years and then closed due to what Dubrovsky describes as his “civic activism.”

Dubrovsky and I were both fellows at the University of Helsinki in the fall of 2011. He returned to St. Petersburg in the spring and I went to meet with him and talk over coffee and tea in the museum. Over twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, Dubrovsky is clearly frustrated by the continuities in the museum’s purpose, and even more by its change in the wrong direction. He asserted to me that the museum’s expertise still comes from the older generation of scholars with a Soviet understanding of nationality, a fact confirmed in my conversations with museum officials, one who spoke positively of scientific freedom under Stalin, and another who claimed Stalin’s definition of “ethnos” to be the most accurate. But at the same time the Ministry of Education uses the museum to promote its “official tolerance program,” which, rather than fostering a civic identity (its stated purpose), presses a revitalized Russian nationalist narrative. The result has been a disturbing mix of Russian national chauvinism and imperial nostalgia. This, Dubrovsky suggested, started with the first special exhibition ordered by the Ministry of Culture and supported by the Museum in the 1990s, about special gifts given to the tsars by their people from all corners of the Empire.

The Russian Museum of Ethnography was always used to express the government’s position on nationality issues, as it still is today. Because the Museum has to make practical decisions about what to exhibit, it is also a good barometer of the official view on who is of Russia, or Russian in the broader imperial sense. Since the territories from which much of the collections were drawn are now foreign, the question of what to do with the exhibits about the places and people no longer in Russia is an ideological one. Valerii Dymshits, a specialist in Jewish ethnography, explained to me during a conversation in his office at the European University at St. Petersburg that the museum’s current ethos expresses the prevailing government desire for a reunited Soviet Union, within the limits of what’s possible. The Baltic exhibits were removed because those countries are irretrievably lost to another political union, the EU. In contrast, the exhibitions related to most of the other former Soviet republics remain open or have even been renovated, like those for the Central Asian peoples and Caucasian republics.


A few months after the Presidential elections in March last year, Dubrovsky arranged for me to meet with the Museum Director, Vladimir Grusman, to discuss how the museum, and by implication the government, interprets Russianness. When I mentioned to Dubrovsky that I had heard Grusman was Jewish, he corrected me. Grusman used to be Jewish; he is now a baptized Russian Orthodox Christian. When I met with Grusman, in his office filled with Orthodox icons, I asked him what he thinks has changed in terms of the government’s conception of what it means to be Russian, and the museum’s role in explaining that understanding.

Grusman noted a significant change in 1991, when they stopped trying to construct the Soviet people. Quoting the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, he said that they started to make goulash rather than soup. In this, he sees a similarity to the pre-Soviet period, and he emphasized Putin’s fundamentally antinationalist understanding of the Russian Federation. I pressed him to explain how the state understands the boundaries of the Russian nationality when so much of the territory and peoples of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union now lie beyond the borders of the Russian Federation. Are the Belarussians, Moldavians, Ukrainians, and Uzbeks, who all have exhibits in the museum, still rossiskii? To my surprise, he answered strongly in the negative. If they are Russian – russkii – then they are Russian, as that doesn’t change. But the term rossiskii (or rossiianin for a person) applies only to the citizens of Russia today, whatever language they may speak. According to this logic that neatly divides national identity into ethnic and civic categories, the logic of the museum made little sense – wouldn’t the museum have to remove many if not most of the exhibits covering the now independent republics in order not to be an anachronism? As if reading my mind, Grusman, borrowing approximately from Marx’s anthropological materialism, said it doesn’t matter anyway: “spiritual borders are all in the mind.”

The conversation turned more informal, to my background and his, tea was brought in, and I felt sorry to have to remove myself to catch my train back to Helsinki. On the train I pondered the reasons why Grusman insisted on such a neat division between the two meanings of Russian. It occurred to me that as a Jew now baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church he had a vested interest in the most flexible and non-ethnic understanding of what it means to be Russian/russkii and the most civic political definition of what it means to be Russian/rossiianin. As a border-crosser himself, it was helpful to have set boundaries.


One cannot help but conclude that the Kremlin and most Russians have turned away from a civic understanding of Russianness – to be rossianin – and what it means to be Russian is today tied more to religious definitions than at any point since 1917. Last summer a Moscow court sentenced three women to prison sentences for protesting the cozy relationship between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church. The now famous members of Pussy Riot had staged an impromptu protest and performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and later circulated their video of the event set to a song entitled “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away.”

Coming to her hooliganism conviction the judge pointed to a range of behaviors “inappropriate in a church,” and indeed polls suggested almost no support for the women and their stunt (many considered the sentence too harsh, but the vast majority of Russians believed the women deserved some punishment, and only a very small minority believed the charges against Pussy Riot were political, despite how they defended their actions). Pussy Riot picked an ideal spot to protest the revitalized connection between state and Orthodoxy in Russia. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is a mere thirteen years old, rebuilt on the site of the original Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was picked of its gold domes and demolished in 1931 on the instructions of Moscow Party Secretary Lazar Kaganovich. The Church was a focal point of the Bolshevik destruction of the bind between Orthodoxy and empire. Sergei Eisenstein’s film October famously depicted a mob of peasants and soldiers tearing down the statue of Alexander III in front of the Cathedral.

The Palace of Soviets meant to replace the Cathedral never materialized, but under Khrushchev the site was transformed into an enormous outdoor swimming pool. Using donations made through a public fund, a new Cathedral was constructed on the same spot. Soon after its consecration in 2000 the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas II – last tsar of the Russian Empire – and his family in the new Cathedral as saints, and in 2007 Boris Yeltsin – first president of the Russian Federation – lay in state there before his funeral.

While not so long ago the state gleefully insulted the Russian Orthodox Church, so connected are Russian identity and Orthodoxy today that Pussy Riot clearly touched a nerve with their protest-performance at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. Two out of the three originally convicted now sit, or rather work, in prison camps with the support of much of the public. Today’s Russia is a place of contradictions, where the president can bemoan the break-up of the Soviet Union as a great catastrophe and yet intentionally meld the state’s identity to the Orthodox Church.

Things need not have turned out this way. The novelist Mikhail Shishkin recently pointed out in The New Republic that when three young men died protesting the August Putsch of 1991, all who attended their funerals deeply felt the symbolism in the fact that one was Orthodox, one Jewish, and one Muslim: “it was said that these three youths had given their lives for our common freedom, for a new and free Russia.” The Russia that has developed since is not only a stark contrast to this promise of freedom, but also to this ecumenical understanding of Russianness.