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Ukraine War Has Split Russia Into Five Tribes (Bloomberg)

18 December 2022


Bloomberg title: Ukraine War Has Split Russia Into Five Tribes
Bloomberg subtitle: Vladimir Putin has shattered an already weak and contradictory post-Soviet identity.
Opinion by: Leonid Bershidsky
Date: 15 December 2022

“It’s a rare year that completely reshapes your national identity, and 2022 has been such a year for Russians. The war on Ukraine launched by Vladimir Putin will have irreversible, indelible consequences for the nation’s place in the world and for millions of people who, in one way or another, identify themselves with Russia, its language and its cultural heritage.

First, a disclaimer. Ukrainians are the protagonists of 2022. But I’m not going to talk about those heroes and sufferers here: Their current identity began to coalesce earlier, following their first attempt at a revolution in late 2004. The war has all but completed that transformation — a process of switching to a language of their own and choosing unequivocally to belong to the West, more narrowly to eastern Europe. It is up to them to express the powerful identity now forged in battles, in grief, in bomb shelters and forced displacement.

Instead, I’m going to talk about my people, Russians. To many of Russia’s most fervent patriots, of course, I’m not even Russian because of my Jewish roots; they’ve often let me know as much on social media. Still, as a Russian national who by choice has no other passport despite meeting all the requirements for Israeli or German citizenship, I feel justified in disregarding that view.

To outsiders, the Russian national identity formed in the post-Soviet era has long seemed weak and contradictory.

“Russia is trying to decide whether it is a nation-state or an aspiring empire, and until this fundamental question is resolved, conflicts like the one over Ukraine will continue in various forms,” former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt predicted two days before Russia invaded Ukraine. 

“At least one of the reasons that Putin went to war in Ukraine was to solidify his version of Russian national identity so that it could provide him with the kind of popular support he craves without constituting the threat that a genuine Russian nationalist movement independent of the state would represent,” Paul Goble, a former Russia expert at the US State Department, wrote back in 2016, two years after the Crimea annexation.

The current, and especially deadly, stage of the war, however, has done little to resolve the conflicts inherent in Russian self-identification. Instead, it appears to have split Russians — those of us who care about our self-identification — into at least five distinct groups.

Two of them are firmly in the pro-war camp and thereby free to speak to the domestic Russian audience almost without censorship.

The first one, to which Putin appears to belong, identifies with the Russian state and thus with its vestigial imperial realm rather than with the Russian ethnicity. In a speech in March, he acknowledged that he was ethnically Russian but went on to say that stories of military heroism made him feel part of any and all of Russia’s numerous ethnicities: “I am a Laki, a Dagestani, a Chechen, an Ingush, a Russian, a Tatar, a Jew, a Mordvin, and Ossetian — the list goes on.” The statist tradition, which has endured through czarist, Soviet and post-Soviet times, is not blood-based — it’s a tradition of greatness through service to a divine or near-divine throne, and many of Putin’s officials and propagandists, who are not ethnically Russian, adhere to it. Philosopher Alexander Dugin, who lost a daughter to a terror attack this year, has lent many of his once-marginalized ideological postulates to the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. Although they seem to be rooted in Russian nationalism, they are imperial and statist in nature, and therefore easily adapted to Putin’s needs.

The “genuine nationalist movement” Goble wrote about has gained new prominence, however. Represented by characters such as early Ukraine war instigator Igor Girkin (Strelkov) and a host of increasingly popular pro-war Telegram admins, this movement puts Russian ethnicity in focus and rejects much of the Russian state and pro-government elite as too cosmopolitan, too un-Russian. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, an ethnic Tuvan, is the most despised scapegoat. Backed by much of the volunteer community that helps supply the Russian invading force and by many of the soldiers on the front lines, the nationalists still have little political clout. They are also accustomed to being shunted aside. Yet, as the war goes on and the state is revealed as increasingly decadent and weak, their prospects and standing among the general population can only improve.

To both of these groups, the Ukraine war is natural, inevitable and ultimately winnable. Ukrainians may be ethnically and culturally close to Russians, but they are nevertheless the enemy: For the statists, as opponents of the imperial project; for the ethno-nationalists, as traitorous juniors (see Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba). The pro-war Russians are not tortured by inner contradictions and guilty consciences. That may only come if the war is decisively lost.

The other three Russian “tribes” are consciously or viscerally opposed to the invasion — and therefore suppressed in Russia or pushed out of the country. Only one group among them, the smallest, evinces moral clarity. It consists of antiwar activists who identify themselves strongly enough with a future, better Russia to stay, fight and, almost inevitably, go to jail. These are people such as Alexei Navalny, jailed for an ever-increasing term since January 2021 but vocal, inasmuch as he is able from behind bars, in his condemnation of the invasion, and Ilya Yashin, sent to a prison camp for eight-and-a-half years earlier this month for “spreading fakes about the Russian military.” 

”When the military action started,” Yashin told the court in his last word, “I didn’t doubt for a second what I should do. It hurts me physically that so many people have died in this war, so many destinies have been crippled. I swear I regret nothing. I could have run away, could have kept mum. But I did what I had to do. It’s better to spend 10 years behind bars than to burn up silently from shame at what’s being done in your name.” 

This kind of fortitude is, of course, rare. Many of Yashin’s and Navalny’s allies — and up to a million like-minded individuals — have joined the biggest Russian emigration wave since at least the 1990s. Millions of others stuck around in Russia, preferring a kind of “internal emigration,” an effort to minimize interaction with an increasingly aggressive and loyalty-seeking state. All of them are forced to reconcile their Russianness — their language, their culture, their self-image — with Russian policies that disgust them.

That makes them — us — a conflicted, tortured bunch, suffering from what Amsterdam University lecturer Anna Fenko calls a “diffuse identity.” According to Fenko, it “arises within a person who is unable to integrate contradictory aspects of one’s personality and literally does not understand who he or she is. This is a state in which a person’s actions, decisions and views are determined not by stable ideas about oneself, but by external random circumstances. A person ‘cuts loose,’ tumbles, unable to find oneself and one’s own group.”

As a sign of such displacement, some antiwar Russians have even adopted a new flag — a white one with a blue stripe across the middle, like the actual Russian flag but without the “blood-colored” red stripe; it’s a banner too insipid and tradition-free ever to be adopted, but one that has graced many a pro-Ukraine demo in Europe.

The large pool of physically or psychologically displaced people can be split into two distinct groups: Those who are waiting to be saved, and those who have decided to move on.

The first group includes most of those who stayed behind and a significant number of those who left. They exist, and help to form, a Russia-centric information bubble, whether they are in Moscow, Riga, Tbilisi or Berlin. From within this bubble — an anti-Putin, antiwar one but still based, in large part, on imperial conceit or a distinctly Muscovite sense of entitlement and superiority — the surrounding reality appears blurry and, above all, temporary. It is not supposed to interfere with the waiting; the world owes it to these Russian exiles to leave their pride intact.

Earlier this month, the Latvian authorities took away the broadcasting license of the Riga-based emigre Russian TV channel, TVRain, for refusing to subtitle its broadcasts in Latvia and for frequent “slips of the tongue” by its hosts that, to Latvians, showed a sympathetic attitude toward the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. Much of the emigre community was up in arms, accusing the Latvian government of “Russophobia,” as Putin’s propaganda mocked TVRain as traitors who are not welcome anywhere. The episode is typical: Those who wait don’t feel they need to “go local.” Instead, they are just biding their time (preferably in the company of a lot of fellow Russian speakers) until something — they have no clear idea what, perhaps Putin’s death, perhaps Russia’s military capitulation — makes it possible for them to return to their relatively comfortable pre-war lives in Russia’s big cities. Their self-identification is with those interrupted and abandoned lives, with a Russia that ceased to exist when the invasion began.

My family belongs to the last group, the one that has decided against living in limbo. It’s not that we don’t believe in a better future for Russia — we’re just too cowardly to follow in the footsteps of Navalny and Yashin, and we’re not sure how we can help bring that future closer. So we simply decided that life was too short for waiting, and compromised.

We moved to Germany when the Ukraine war began in 2014 with the intention of settling in Europe now that our country had chosen not to be European. We’ve invested in learning the language, in a new home, in a non-Russian education for the kids; we’ve adopted an intentionally humble stance, deciding not to criticize the local ways but instead to presume they made sense. In other words, we’ve mixed with the crowd and thrown in our lot with the locals — all while still identifying ourselves as Russians. To pretend to be someone else felt unseemly, so we kept speaking Russian at home, reading and listening in Russian at least as much as in German and English. What changed for us this year was the debilitating pressure of shared responsibility for the war, a burden we couldn’t shake off because of our retained self-identification. We could only cope with it — not too well, I have to admit — thanks to the humility we’ve had eight years to practice, an attitude that doesn’t come naturally to a Russian.

Back in June, asked what he thought of people who felt ashamed to be Russian, Putin said this:

You know, it is those who do not connect their destiny, their life, their children’s future with our country who feel ashamed. They aren’t just ashamed — they don’t want to have problems in those parts of the world where they want to live and where they want their children to be brought up.

I’m no longer surprised when Putin misses the point so spectacularly. Yet with that remark, he managed to mischaracterize all three of the antiwar groups. The heroes, the Navalnys and the Yashins, have refused to emigrate at great personal cost. Those who live in their quasi-Russian bubble as they wait for an act of God feel no affinity with the countries that have sheltered them. And people like us know we would not suffer any consequences even if we openly backed Putin’s war: Some of our neighbors do, so what?

The sense of shame is real, though, and, by the end of 2022, it’s part of our self-identification. A Russian victory cannot delete it and a Russian defeat cannot make it worse. We are not ashamed of who we are, but of what our country has become. Some of us are even aware of the role we personally played in making it so. If Russia is ever rebuilt — of necessity, by all five tribes that this year has sharply delineated — that shame will strengthen the mortar that will hold the new country together.”



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