PRAGUE, March 9, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The idea of defining a concept of Russian national identity is almost as old as Russia itself -- and just as elusive.
Yet Russian leaders cannot, it seems, resist the temptation to try. In post-Soviet times, Boris Yeltsin made his contribution through the new constitution of the Russian Federation and the start of a debate on the Russian national idea.
Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the opposition Yabloko party, has appealed for a break from the imperial past. The Russian national idea, he says, should be based on respect.
But such modest ambitions are not in keeping with President Putin's vision of a muscular new Russia pumped up by petrol and gas.
"This is a very insidious law. ... It appears to compliment the Russian people but actually it sets the Russian people up against all the other peoples. Then there is that terrible article where it states that citizens of the Russian Federation are obliged to know the Russian language. What does it mean: "obliged"? If they have to imprison me, what will they do?"
The problem is easily enough defined: how to create a sense of shared identity in a country divided by race, language, religion and, increasingly, class and wealth? How to give a sense of purpose to a new state that is still only just emerging from the ashes of the Soviet Union?
Putin's answer is taking the shape of a bill on the fundamentals of state national policy, which sees its main aim as strengthening the formation of a united multicultural society. Few, it seems, have any problem with that.
Where some do have a problem, though, is with the "consolidating role" assigned by the bill to the Russian people ("Russkii narod") in "providing the unity of the country and strengthening the vertical of power." Perhaps they sense an echo of the guiding role assigned the Russian people in the Soviet Union?
Provocative And Unconstitutional?
The proposed legislation has stirred up a hornets' nest of protest in the predominantly-Muslim republic of Tatarstan, which has grown used to a considerable measure of autonomy in the years since the Soviet collapse. On March 3, its State Council Committee on Culture, Science, Education, and National Affairs flatly rejected the bill. Foat Galimullin, a deputy in the republican parliament, discussed this issue with RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.
"We have already survived that unrealistic experiment to create a Soviet nation during the era of the USSR," Galimullin said. "And now, once more, we have plans to create the Russian nation. I consider this law provocative in principle and I think that it should be for sure rejected."
Ultra-nationalist groups shout anti-immigrant slogans at Moscow rally, Nov. 2005 (AFP)
Indus Tahirov, another deputy in Tatarstan's parliament, said the bill was at odds with the federal constitution, which emphasizes the multiethnic nature of the Russian people (Rossiskii narod).
"The bill cannot be accepted in its present form, first of all because it is not in accordance with the norms of international law, secondly because it contradicts the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and thirdly because it does not strengthen mutual understanding among the peoples of the country because of the articles, which especially stand out concerning the Russian language and the Russian people."
Tahirov and other deputies have taken particular issue with the provisions of the bill on the Russian language. Tufan Minnullin points out that a demand contained in the bill that every citizen should know the Russian language is at odds with the federal constitution. What does "know" mean, he asks, and what is the punishment to be for not knowing?
"This is a very insidious law. It gives the impression of defending the Russian people, but in essence it is directed against the Russian people. It appears to compliment the Russian people but actually it sets the Russian people up against all the other peoples. Then there is that terrible article where it states that citizens of the Russian Federation are obliged to know the Russian language. What does it mean: "obliged"? If they have to imprison me, what will they do?"
Kremlin Fears Of New Demographics
It is not just Russia's religious and ethnic minorities who are alarmed. Russia's Public Chamber -- set up last year as a sort of collective ombudsman to monitor the work of parliament, as well as federal and regional bodies -- was dismissive, with one member suggesting the bill looked liked scraps torn at random from someone's dissertation.
The chamber has set up its own committee to examine the bill, which will report back in three months. Valery Tishkov is the head of its Commission on Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience and a leading expert on ethnicity and nationalism. He told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he sees no place for a "consolidating role" for the Russian people in the modern Russian state.
"We should be talking not just about the multicultural, complex composition of the Russian people, but also about its unity. It is impossible to create one people out of 100 peoples. We should not be talking about how to make one nation out of 100, but about the recognition -- recognition not formation -- of our genuinely existing unity, while at the same time preserving all our traditions."
The fact that this legislation is already running into trouble suggests how much Russia may be changing. At the heart of the debate over the new legislation lies the Kremlin's fear over Russia's demographic future. Russia is a multiethnic country, whose large Muslim population is growing as fast as the ethnic Russian population is shrinking. The country's national and religious minorities are becoming increasingly aware of their growing weight and importance in society. The Russian national idea may never be quite the same again.