National minorities

   In Russian, the concept of an ethnic or national minority (natsional’ noie men’ shinstvo) is rendered through the use of the term natsional’ nost’, which is often confusingly translated into English as “nationality.” Rather, the term refers to an ethnic formation, or an ethnic minority with a distinctive cultural identity. The concept of nationhood and ethnic minorities is further complicated by Russia’s weak national identity and Russia’s complicated— both tsarist and Soviet—imperial past.
   The concept of national minority was fully developed under the Soviets but has its roots in the tsarist-era notion of inorodets and inoverets. The first term, meaning “foreigner,” was a loose denomination that included not only all foreigners living in the country but also non-Slavic peoples who in fact were indigenous to the Russian lands. The second term, meaning “person of other faith,” had to do with the notion of autochthonous non-Orthodox peoples, who were targeted for gradual assimilation, that is, embracing the Orthodox religion and cultural traditions. Tsarist Russia—and the Soviet Union after it—contained sizable indigenous populations of Finnic, Ugric, Baltic, Caucasian, Iranian, Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic peoples. The situation was further complicated by the need to distinguish between ethnic Russians and other Orthodox Slavs, such as Ukrainians and Belarusians, which was primarily a cultural distinction.
   Under Joseph Stalin, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was reorganized along ethnonational lines giving many (but not all) of the union’s ethnic minorities their own homelands. For instance, at the highest level, the union republics such as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic were established; however, in most cases these were multiethnic, multiconfessional formations that simultaneously recognized the cultural and political autonomy of the titular nation. These entities were reserved for the most linguistically and historically developed ethnic groups (despite well-established linguistic, political, and cultural traditions, the Tatars were denied this status for strategic reasons). Smaller ethnic groups gained Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs), and other groups received autonomous okrugs or oblasts.
   This process of Soviet nation building (natsiona’ noie stroitel’ stvo) enshrined ethnic identity in Soviet society, a fact that was underscored by the listing of a person’s ethnic origins (natsional’ nost’) on all Soviet citizens’ internal passports, the so-called fifth line. The term “Soviet” was used as an umbrella term to refer to all citizens of the USSR, irrespective of their ethnic origins. Ethnic Russians had an uncertain position in this order; on the one hand, the Russian language and culture were used as a template for the Sovietization of all ethnic minorities, and on the other hand, ethnic Russians did not have their own titular ethnic republic since the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was in itself a conglomerate of ethnic republics and ethnically determined autonomous administrative units.
   Under glasnost, national minorities, which have endured intermittent Russification and Sovietization and seen their political identities quashed, embarked on cultural revivals that took on an increasingly political patina by the end of the 1980s. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the titular majorities of the 15 union republics—including the Russian Federation—gained independent states. Certain national minorities within Russia, such as the Chechens and Tatars, declared their sovereignty and in some cases moved toward full-fledged independence. Other ethnic minorities such as the Mordvins and Chuvash sought to secure their newfound privileges of language use and republican autonomy. Those minorities in Russia that were granted their own ethnic republics (Komi, Ingush, Udmurts, etc.) tend to have the most developed national identities.
   Under Boris Yeltsin, a linguistic distinction was made to differ between various ethnic groups of the Russian Federation: while the term russkii refers to ethnic Russians, the term rossiiskii includes all citizens of the Russian Federation, irrespective of their ethnic origins. Both terms are translated into English as “Russian,” thus causing categorical confusion.
   See also Ethnic violence.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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