Everyone who lived through the end of the Gorbachev era will remember that the Soviet president sought to raise the status of the autonomous republics of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to weaken it and thus make it more difficult for the Russian Federation and indeed the other non-Russian union republics to defend their interests and pursue their goals.
But few seem to recognize that the current Kremlin leadership in its typical “hybrid” fashion is doing much the same thing, trumpeting how much Moscow is doing for the numerically smallest nations even as it moves to strip the non-Russian republics within the current borders of the Russian Federation of their last remaining powers.
This is a very clever strategy because it not only serves to hide Moscow’s broader agenda of undermining the non-Russian republics by suggesting that the Russian center is solicitous of small nations but limits criticism of what it is doing because those who want to defend the non-Russian republics also want to see the smaller nationalities succeed as well.
Sometimes, the Russian approach in this regard is an exact mirror of the Gorbachevian tactic. Thus, Moscow is once again playing up the Kryashen issue in Tatarstan, hoping to use that Tatar-speaking but Orthodox Christian group against the Tatars, something it has often done in the past (e.g., ruskline.ru).
But more often and less frequently identified in terms of its broader political goals, the central authorities have promoted the languages and cultures not of the republic-level nations but rather of those numerically small groups who appear to constitute no political threat to central control (e.g., nazaccent.ru).
And this tactic has one additional and perhaps even more insidious consequences: it encourages Russians to view non-Russians as people who dress up for special national days and perhaps have their own cuisines but who are not to be thought of as self-standing nations who may have a broader agenda for themselves and their children.
Tragically, that view of non-Russians has long existed not just in Russia but in the West as well. At the end of Soviet times, for example, the National Geographic Society in the United States put out a map of “The Peoples of the Soviet Union.” In addition to showing where they lived within the USSR, it showed them in national dress.
The Uzbek was shown wearing a long robe, the Ukrainian a distinctive embroidered dress, the Latvian a pre-1940 military uniform, and the Georgian a cherkeska, for example. The Russian, in contrast, was shown in a space suit. Not surprisingly, this map became infamous among specialists on the nationality question, but the attitudes it captures have not gone away.
Moscow recognizes this and is exploiting it to the hilt. Those who read about and welcome the developments among the numerically smallest peoples of the Russian Federation need to remember that fact and the fact that even as Moscow promotes these smaller groups it is doing exactly the reverse with larger ones.