The North Star Project, Summer Report Number Sixteen, St. Petersburg, Russia, Nationalism and Internationalism in Russia
Week 4: Nationalism and Internationalism in Russia
The term “Russian” most likely conjures such images as burly Cossacks, plump babushkas with head coverings, and matryoshka nesting dolls. While these depictions represent a partially complete picture of Russia, the country also includes (or once included) a variety of ethnic groups, due to its enormous geographic expanse. Russia today is experiencing a massive identity crisis; on one hand, it is trying to carve out a national identity, while on the other hand, the nation descends from a rich multiethnic history, which complicates attempts to define what “Russia” truly is. Therefore, I would like to dedicate this report as a way to make sense of these contradictory sentiments.
While attending a seminar titled Politics and Economics in Russia, the issue that stuck out the most to me was the nationality question. Poverty-stricken Central Asians, especially Uzbeks and Tajikistanis, are migrating north to Russia, often working in low-paying, physically demanding jobs in order to better support for themselves and their families. While this situation parallels the relationship between the U.S.A. and Mexico, I think there are other key factors to consider. Most notably, Russia faced a serious demographic crisis during the worst years of the 1990s. While the situation is stabilizing (I can’t tell you how many massively pregnant yet perfectly coiffed pregnant women we’ve run into), many Russians fear the religious and ethnic shifts posed by Central Asian migration, which has contributed to a developing sense of nationalism. These attitudes are perhaps most noticeable in the political sphere: two of the four main political parties in Russia, Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party, operate on a platform of ultra-nationalism, based on such factors as ethnicity (Slavic roots) and religion (Russian Orthodox Christianity). So far, these groups have laid low under the two main parties, United Russia (the non-ideological, pro-Putin’s plan) and the Communist party. However, it will be interesting to see what route these burgeoning ideals will take in the near future.
My next set of musings stands in stark contrast to the paragraph above, as it details my trip to the Museum of Russian Ethnography, a museum dedicated to the rich cultural diversity of the historical Russian Empire. The museum features wings dedicated to broad categorizations of geographical ethnic groups: European Russia (i.e. Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Moldavians, Baltic peoples, Scandinavians, Jews, Bashkirs, Tatars, etc.), the Caucasus and Crimea (Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Armenians, etc.), Central Asia (Kazakhs, Kirghizs, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajikistanis, etc.) and Siberia/ the Far East (i.e. Buryats, Yakuts, etc.). While Russia’s geographic vastness and multiculturalism is a key reason for my interest in the country, I did not realize the sheer impact of that diversity until visiting the museum. The thousands of artifacts on display range from buckskin teepees, small Buddhist shrines, meticulously woven carpets, dreidels, pechi (stoves), straw ornaments- the list goes on and on, and covers an enormous spectrum of material culture. With all these factors in mind, I now realize how terrifically complicated it is to define “Russia”, as all of these influences have contributed towards shaping Russia into what it is today.
In short, this week has offered a fascinating view into the nationality question in Russia. Only time will tell how it continues to evolve in the coming years: will Russia try to enforce a strict national identity, or will it accept a growing sense of dynamic nationhood? For me personally, my visit to the museum emphasized how interaction of ethnic groups has made the “Russian” identity much more fluid and fascinating than I had originally perceived it to be, and I hope that Russia embraces its diverse heritage.
For all of the North Star Project Summer Reports, see HERE
The North Star Project: Collaboration between The Middle Ground Journal Student Interns, The College of St. Scholastica, and North Star Academy 8th Grade Global Studies Classes, 2013-2014 School Year Summer Reports.
Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
This summer we will re-tool and re-design the collaborative program, drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This summer The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their brief dispatches here throughout the summer, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.
Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, June, 2013
(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal's not-for-profit educational open-access policy.