Russia is a multinational country. More than 190 nationalities live on its territory. The national question in Russia is a complex problem. On the one hand, the Constitution is written on behalf of “the multinational union of equal nations”. On the other hand, the President of the country often appeals to the concept of the “Russian world”, emphasizing the importance and primacy of the Russian nation and its influence on the post-soviet countries.
A particularly acute issue is language. As it is stated in the Constitution of the Russian Federation, Russian is the official language of the country. In 2017 Vladimir Putin stated that the Russian language is “the natural spiritual framework of the country” and “everyone must know it”. However, according to the Article 68 of the Constitution, “the Republics have the right to establish their official languages”, which are used along with the main one. The adoption of the law on education in 2018 led to contradictions between the government and activists advocating for the preservation of indigenous languages. According to the law, the study of these languages has "a voluntary basis" at schools and children can study in Russian. In practice, it weakened the status of the minority languages and schools started to remove them from the schedule under the pressure of the prosecutor’s office and budget cuts. The issue encountered resistance in many Republics. In Tatarstan, some schools openly resisted the instructions of the prosecutor's office to reduce the number of Tatar lessons. In 2019 in Udmurtia Albert Razin, an honored scientist of the Republic set himself on fire as a sign of protest. Next to him, there was a poster “if my language disappears tomorrow, then I am ready to die today”. Oppression of languages from the government influenced the attitude of indigenous people in Russia and as a result had a reverse effect as more people started to feel their historical roots. The political and cultural struggle for the preservation of regional identities was growing, but all manifestations were suppressed by the police.
Since the President of Russia declared a military invasion of Ukraine, the national sentiment among ethnic minorities strengthened. To justify the war, Kremlin’s propaganda used the concept of the “Russian world” (Russkiy Mir), referring to the discrimination of the Russian-speaking citizens on the territory of Ukraine. The idea of “compatriots abroad”, which was firstly introduced by Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Kozyrev, laid the foundation of the concept. It referred to the individuals who live outside of Russia but have a strong cultural and historic connection with Russian. Therefore, according to the Russian government, soldiers, who are sent from all over the country including Republics, are fighting for their compatriots and the status of the Russian language in Ukraine.
Would the Republics participate in the war if they were independent states? Todar Baktemir, journalist and researcher of regionalism, considers that “national minorities have no claims to Ukraine and no motives for their soldiers to fight”. Many activists try to protect their native population. They conduct legal consultations, draw up instructions for military personnel who want to quit in order not to be sent to war and advocate sanctions against regional officials supporting the war. The “Free Buryatia” Foundation is aimed at protecting its citizens as well as changing the image of its people, who became known as “Putin's fighting Buryats” due to the Kremlin’s propaganda. Since the war started, the Foundation is constantly conducting analytical work, making lists of ethnic Buryats from Russia who died in Ukraine. The Republic ranks second in the number of officially recognized dead soldiers (85 people). Maria Vyushkova, who is in charge of the analytical work in the Foundation, states that “losses get the scale of a national catastrophe” as Buryats make up only 0.3% of the population of Russia, and among the officially dead there is 2.8%. The numbers constantly increase and it provokes changes in the attitude of the population, who do not realize the reason for the war and the deaths of Buryat people. Relatives of the soldiers are not eager to sacrifice the lives of their children, belonging to various ethnic groups, for the concept of the “Russian world”. After the war started, billboards in support of Russian troops with the inscription “I am a Kalmyk, but today we are all Russians” appeared in the Republic of Kalmykia. One of the designers from Elista, Aldar Erendzhenov, sharply reacted to the propaganda and came up with the idea to create clothes with “Non-Russian” print as a sign of protest against war and imperialistic ideas.
Activists also mention that national minorities become the victims of the Kremlin’s concept due to the xenophobia. After the collapse of the USSR, the central part of Russia became a popular destination for study or work purposes for people from post-soviet Republics. Many groups emerged that committed crimes against ethnic minorities and migrants and motto “Russia is for Russians” was gaining popularity. According to the center of information and analysis “Sova”, hate crime peaked in 2008. The level of radical violence dropped significantly after the authorities established special “E” centers, which helped to suppress nationalist movements. Nevertheless, people of non-slavic appearance still face discrimination in everyday life. According to “Sova”, at least 63 people suffered from xenophobic crimes in 2021 and three of them died.
Thus, anti-war attitudes are growing among ethnic minorities. They do not want to be associated with the aggression of the “Russian world” against Ukraine, but to express views of their ethnic groups. In addition, representatives of minorities emphasize that xenophobia and suppression of ethnic languages and culture make them reconsider their identity and roots. Discrimination, which affects everyone who does not meet the “standard of Russianness” on ethnic, religious, or racial grounds, is another reason to protest against the idea of the “Russian world” and the destruction it brings to other nations.
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