Vladimir Putin has been working hard on his own image for a long time. He feels that it is not enough to be the president of the world’s largest country by area. He wants to pose as the leader of the entire post-Soviet space, as well as a “gatherer of the lands” of the major “divided people”, that is, the Russians. Putin likes to talk about the neighbors as “failed states”, count other countries’ money and GDP, and deal with the problems of the national identity of peoples outside of Russia. A foreign president is giving us unsolicited advice on how we should live.
On July 12, an article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” appeared on the official website of the President of the Russian Federation signed by V. Putin. Without going into deep detail, this text can be described as a set of platitudes mixed with the tired talking points of anti-Ukrainian propaganda. However, until now these talking points have been voiced by people with lower levels of social and political responsibility.
It is not clear for what purpose Putin’s article was also published in Ukrainian. While it becomes clear from the Russian source text that Putin’s advisers did not know much about the facts of the history of Ukraine, the Ukrainian version also shows the absence of competent translators. The first and only text in Ukrainian on the official website of the President of the Russian Federation showed only one thing – Ukrainophobia stands in the way of being a good specialist in Ukrainian studies.
Since the Russian president is so interested in the national question, I thought it would be good to support the topic and offer a take on the situation of indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation itself. Moreover, spokesmen from our neighboring state often compare “prosperous” Tatarstan, being a part of the Russian Federation, with the “dispossessed” independent Ukraine.
We sincerely respect the Tatar people and wish them a better fortune. But I will not imitate Putin, arguing about the “historical unity of Ukrainians and Tatars.” However, there really is a lot in common between Ukraine and Tatarstan. Both Tatars and Ukrainians have an ancient and glorious history, where we find outstanding rulers, warriors and cultural figures. For a long time, both Ukrainians and Tatars lived together under one empire that suppressed the drive of these peoples for independence. Like any empire, Russia resorted to the carrot and stick method. Some Ukrainians and Tatars were slaughtered, imprisoned, exiled to foreign lands. Others were seduced by high ranks, fame and wealth. Naturally, imperial benefits were bestowed in exchange for loyalty and rejection of their own national identity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, both Ukrainians and Tatars founded their republics almost simultaneously. It was not an accident, not someone’s whim, but the realization of the people’s desire to live freely in their country. Ukraine was more fortunate than Tatarstan. Our historical paths were divided by geography. Like Ukraine, Tatarstan in terms of the territory, population and the level of its social and political development had every reason to become one of founding union republics, not an autonomous republic within the USSR. However, the Stalinist national policy had another fundamental requirement for a union republic – to share a border with the outside world. Ukraine had such a border, Tatarstan did not. Consequently, after the collapse of the USSR, Kyiv managed to become the capital of an independent state, whereas Kazan (despite a great desire!) did not.
In his article, Putin referred to the wall that has grown between Ukraine and Russia in recent years. But he erected this wall with his own hands when he unleashed an armed aggression against Ukraine. Unfortunately, Putin’s wall also divided Ukraine from the Tatars and other indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation. In 2014, various Russian citizens set foot on Ukrainian soil, including Tatars, Buryats, Chechens, Ossetians. They came to us not as guests, but as invaders.
We remember, when everything was just starting, there was a “mission” of Mr. Minnikhanov, the President of Tatarstan, to Crimea. We also remember the recent voyages to the occupied territories in the east of Ukraine by Mr. Khabirov, the head of Bashkortostan. We saw infantrymen from Khankala near our Dzhankoy, and tankmen from Ulan-Ude near our Debaltseve. We are closely following the processes taking place in the occupied Crimea, therefore we know that people from Tatarstan illegally took possession of the shipyard in Kerch. This is the plant where the flagship of the Ukrainian navy, the frigate Hetman Sahaidachny, was built in 1992.
Despite all this, the Ukrainians do not hold any grudge against the peoples of Russia. We are conscious that Tatars and others are hostages and instruments of Moscow’s imperial policies. Just as once the Ukrainians were hostages and an instrument during the Soviet interventions in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Afghanistan (1979-1989).
In the end, Putin’s aggression against Ukraine hits the peoples of the Russian Federation back like a boomerang. The support of the occupied territories has become a heavy burden on the republican budgets. Last year, one of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) terrorist group was appointed head of the administration of Elista, the capital of Kalmykia. He has no idea about this republic, about the Kalmyk people and their problems. The appointment caused a major uproar. We all remember the words of the Kalmyk activist Sanal Molotkov during the protest, pronounced by him in Ukrainian: “You despised the Ukrainian language, you destroyed the Ukrainian language in the Donbas. Have you come to Elista in Kalmykia to destroy the Kalmyk language? Do you respect the Kalmyk language?”
Speaking of the problems of the Republic of Kalmykia. In 2021, its citizens held a national congress in Elista, where they accused the Kremlin of a hidden ethnocide. Among other things, they complained that Kalmykia remains the region with the lowest water availability in all of Russia. Of course, Putin pretended not to hear the Kalmyks, because he himself uses the topic of the drinking water shortage in the occupied Crimea to put international pressure on Ukraine. Talking about the water collapse in Kalmykia is extremely inconvenient for the occupier and therefore unacceptable.
Ukrainians are no longer an instrument of a foreign empire, now they are responsible for their own actions and determine their own destiny. Fortunately, Ukraine has left behind the crimes of the totalitarian regime, which Putin is trying to justify, calling them “common tragedies for all of us.” However, the present of the peoples of the Russian Federation is tragic, just as it was half a century before.
The President of the Russian Federation argues that as a result of the artificial divide between Russians and Ukrainians, the numbers of Russian people in aggregate may decrease by hundreds of thousands, or even millions. But what is happening in Putin’s country itself? The Russian censuses show an inexorable decline in the share of Ukrainians in the population of the federation. De-Ukrainization is being carried out even more severely in the occupied Crimea.
Once, during a live call-in show, the Russian president drew an analogy between Ukrainians and Russians on the one hand, and Erzya and Moksha, the indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation, on the other. He noted that, although the Erzya language differs from Moksha more than Ukrainian from Russian, the Erzya and Moksha people “value their unity” and consider themselves a single people – the Mordovians. Unfortunately, Putin forgot to add that, according to the official Russian statistics, the number of Erzya and Moksha has dropped from one million to half a million over the past 30 years. The position of the Moksha and Erzya languages, which are state languages in the Republic of Mordovia, is nothing short of catastrophic, even in comparison with Soviet times.
The situation with the Tatar language in Russia is also worrisome. In the period between the censuses of 2002 and 2010 alone, the number of Tatar-speaking people decreased by one million. The decline of the national languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation is neither a natural process, nor “a common tragedy for all of us.” This is the result of russification, a deliberate policy of Moscow aimed at destroying ethnic diversity and gradual dismantling of federalism in Russia.
In 2018, the State Duma amended the federal law On Education whereby the state languages of the national republics of the Russian Federation ceased to be compulsory for study in high schools. In order to study the Erzya language at school, which Putin mentioned, parents of a student must write an application addressed to the headmaster. However, instead of getting their right to education in their native language fulfilled, students and parents are often subjected to administrative pressure, public humiliation and violence. For years, citizens have been unsuccessfully trying to get the authorities to open an Erzyan gymnasium in the capital of Mordovia, Saransk.
The Tatar people, counting several millions, do not have a single Tatar university. In his address to the parliament of Tatarstan in 2018, President Rustam Minnikhanov assured that the Tatars would finally get their own university. But Moscow is adamant in its quest to discourage the rise of Tatars as a nation. Kazan was not allowed to build a Tatar university for its own money. The use of Tatar in school education is artificially limited. Realities force Tatar language teachers to quit their jobs or start teaching other disciplines. Minister of Education of Tatarstan Rafis Burganov admitted in March 2019 that 1200 teachers of the Tatar language were undergoing professional retraining in other disciplines.
The federal government even interferes in the deeply internal affairs of the indigenous peoples’ cultures. Contrary to the position of the linguists of Tatarstan and Karelia, the Latin alphabet was directly banned by Moscow as the writing system for the state languages of the republics of the Russian Federation.
Not only Vladimir Putin, but also representatives of the indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation are well aware that the demise of a language is a direct path to the extinction of a people. That is why the ousting of national languages from school curricula and other public spheres is met with desperate resistance in the republics. Despite the police terror, people go to mass rallies, organize processions and single pickets, collect signatures. On September 10, 2019, honored Udmurt scientist Albert Razin committed an act of self-immolation in front of the parliament of the Udmurt Republic. Before setting himself on fire, he held a poster with a quote from the Avar poet Rasul Gamzatov: “And if my language is to pass away tomorrow, then I am ready to die today.”
Recently, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a law On the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine. While the occupying power in Crimea prohibits the activities of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, Ukraine secures the right for the indigenous peoples to form their own representative bodies. Kyiv does not appoint their representatives for the Crimean Tatars, does not dictate whom to choose, what religious beliefs to hold, or which alphabet to use. I am proud of this law and sad at the same time. I am proud that we did it. I’m sad that we did it only now.
The Russian president has repeatedly commented on our law, lectured us, and was being indignant. He is not satisfied that the Russians were not recognized as the indigenous people of Ukraine. It is hard to believe that such claims arise from ignorance. Indeed, the law clearly states which peoples can be considered indigenous – these are stateless people. So decided the legislature. Neither Russians, nor Ukrainians are indigenous peoples, according to the prescribed norms, because they have implemented the right to self-determination by creating their own states. By the way, according to the Russian law, Russians are also not an indigenous people. Moreover, even the Tatars are not. In the legislation of the Russian Federation, there is only the concept of “indigenous small-numbered peoples” assigned to ethnic communities that preserve their traditional way of life, housekeeping and crafts. Therefore, Putin’s comments are mere hypocrisy, not sincere indignation.
Unlike Russia, Ukraine is a unitary state. But this in no way means that its citizens of different ethnic origins are deprived of their rights. For example, about 150 thousand citizens of Hungarian origin live in Ukraine. What rights do they enjoy? Hungarians have their own political parties and their own representatives in local government, Hungarian is taught in educational institutions, there are independent media in Hungarian, national cultural associations and religious organizations function legally. In the areas where Hungarians live compactly, there are monuments not only to Hungarian writers and composers, but also to the rulers of Hungary.
Do the Finno-Ugric peoples of the Russian Federation have anything like it? Are political parties allowed to the Tatars whose population in Russia is dozens of times larger than that of Hungarians in Ukraine? If somewhere, as Putin puts it, there is “a forced change of identity”, then it is in Russia, not in Ukraine.
On paper, Russian legislation is progressive and democratic. Russia is a federation. Most of the national republics of the Russian Federation have the status of states with their own constitutions, governments, parliaments and broad powers. In practice, they are rightless provinces. This has not always been the case. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the peoples of Russia experienced a real renaissance: they openly asserted their own political and cultural rights. Through their struggle, they laid the foundations of that progressive constitutional order, which is now being emasculated and dismantled by the Putin regime.
At that time, the Tatar people almost managed to realize their cherished dream. On August 30, 1990, Tatarstan adopted a declaration on the republic’s state sovereignty, and on October 24, 1991 appeared a decree On the Act of State Independence of the Republic of Tatarstan, the provisions of which were confirmed by a referendum.
Tatarstan denounced the federal treaty with Russia. At that time, Tatarstan already had its own Constitution, adopted on the basis of the Declaration on State Sovereignty of the Republic of Tatarstan. The Declaration and Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan received the support of the majority of the population (61.4%) at the national referendum on March 21, 1992. However, the absence of external borders and economic pressure from Moscow still forced Kazan to make concessions and sign a bilateral agreement on special conditions. Tatarstan became “a state united with Russia”. The first president of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiev, was very proud of this agreement, which made it possible to “preserve both the state and good relations with Moscow.” However, every year the sovereignty of Tatarstan has been further encroached on, and Moscow’s demands on the Tatarstan people growing.
The situation in other federal regions are even worse than in Tatarstan. All heads of other republics have been stripped of the presidential status that they enjoyed in the 1990s. The Kremlin has been systematically implementing the policy of administrative consolidation by uniting the federal regions. As a result, six national autonomous regions have disappeared in Russia in five years. It looks like this is not going to stop there. The redrawing of the administrative border of Ingushetia and Chechnya at the end of 2018, despite numerous protests from the Ingush, became a striking example the republics’ lack of rights within Russia.
Putin also sees both the internal and external borders of the Russian Federation as bad legacy of the Bolsheviks. Therefore, he starts aggressive wars against neighbors and destroys Russian federalism. However, the boundaries of national entities in the USSR were not a whim. It was necessary to give the peoples at least a semblance of sovereignty in order to save Russia from collapse. Apparently, Bolsheviks were more forward-thinking Russian statesmen than Putin. By fighting federalism, he leads his state to the new 1991.
A striking example of the attitude towards the peoples of Russia was the legislative ban on the activities of national parties in 2001. This was done to prevent the development of political institutions in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Buryatia, Yakutia and other republics. Then the parties that represented the interests of the citizens of Tatarstan were forcibly liquidated, for example, Ittifak (Accord), Umet (Hope), Vatan (Motherland). Later, the Kremlin went even further – it banned public associations. Almost all influential public organizations, which Moscow could not bring under its control, fell victim to that decision.
Even those organizations that never entertained the idea of separating their republics from the Russian Federation are also being liquidated by the decision of the Russian courts. There is a practice when certain human rights defenders, journalists, and social activists are convicted “for extremist crimes,” and then this becomes the basis for the closure of organizations in which the convicts participated. These “extremist crimes” is not seizing of administrative buildings, setting up illegal armed groups or proclamation of so-called “people’s republics”, those convictions are made against the protection of the native language and basic human rights. For example, last year in Bashkortostan, a court recognized the largest national public organization, Bashkort, as extremist. Holding of a rally in defense of the Bashkir language in September 2017 was at the heart of the charges. The prosecutor’s office described the event as “provocative” and stated that the participants’ speeches “contained statements bearing linguistic and psychological signs of incitement to hatred and enmity.” Also, Bashkort was accused of a “negative assessment of the representatives of the legislative and executive authorities.”
Public activists championing the preservation of the language and culture of their native people are subjected to constant pressure from law enforcement agencies. Age, gender, political stand do not matter. Both Tatar youth from the Azatlyk public organization and pensioners from the Tatar Public Center were brought to trial. Everyone who dares to speak up not only about the preservation of ethnic diversity, but also about the need to change the government in the Russian Federation, is experiencing even more brutal pressure. For example, the Yakut shaman Alexander Gabyshev and the Bashkir social activist Ramilya Saitova became victims of punitive psychiatric examination and “treatment”.
The Russian authorities, who are so concerned about the religious rights in Ukraine, have launched a real terror campaign against the “wrong” kind of Islam and Christianity in the Russian Federation itself and in the territories it occupied. Religious Muslims are persecuted as extremists. A sufficient reason for a long prison term is finding during a search of not even weapons, but literature. The Russian administration denies the right to hold religious rites to some Protestants, as well as to the members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Followers of the Mari traditional religion became victims of the authorities’ intolerance. The destruction by officials and the Orthodox clergy of Mari shrines and places of worship, various prohibitions and restrictions on the conduct of Mari religious rites are part of the everyday life of the Mari people.
In terms of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, Russia has many more problems than Ukraine. These social ills are to one degree or another inherent in many countries of the world. But in Russia, these problems are being concealed behind a screen of specific rhetoric: their own phenomena are called “patriotism”, while those of others – “nationalism”, “fascism” and “Nazism”. Separately, I’d like to emphasize that it’s not voting for the Russian text of the UN General Assembly resolution that determines who is Nazi and who is not. More telling are the hate speech of Russian broadcasts and the ethnic violence of the Russian street.
The true attitude of the Russian authorities to federalism is also demonstrated by the model of economic relations between the center and the regions. The Kremlin’s strategy is to gradually increase regions’ contributions to the federal budget and saddle the local governments with ever heavier financial burden through the implementation of socio-economic programs. Gradually, even self-sufficient republics thus turn into subsidized provinces. The strengthening of the economic dependence of the regions pursues quite understandable political goals. The very idea of national republics is being discredited by demonstrating the “inefficiency and mismanagement” of local elites.
A striking example of the colonial situation in Russia is Tatarstan – one of the richest and most developed federal regions. The republic, generously endowed with oil, serves as the cash cow for the federal budget, but has no right to independently determine the extent to which Tatar schoolchildren should learn their native language. The economic exploitation of the developed republics is one of the topics that even politicians and the public loyal to Moscow regularly raise.
While siphoning money and natural resources from the regions, Moscow leaves in return social devastation, ruin and environmental disaster.
In 2019, the environmental problems of the Volga region hit the headlines in European media. Several European countries at once announced the suspension of transit of the Russian crude oil. The reason was the contamination of oil with organochlorine compounds, which got into the pipes due to the predatory depletion of oilfields, moreover with outdated and hazardous technologies. According to experts, this can lead to a premature decline of the entire oil industry in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.
Another tragic example of outdated mining methods practiced by the Russian authorities is the city of Sibay in Bashkortostan. Since November 2018, an environmental crisis has developed here in connection with the constant emissions of ore combustion products from the abandoned quarries of the mining and processing plant. A quarry in Sibay is still smoldering, for the third year in a row, turning Sibay into one of the most dangerous places to live in all of Eurasia.
There is also an adverse ecological situation in Udmurtia, where a chemical weapons disposal site is located in the town of Kambarka, at the border with Bashkortostan. The federal government decided to build a complex for processing, detoxification and disposal of wastes of 1 and 2 hazard classes with a capacity of up to 50 thousand tons per year, with Rosatom Corporation designated as the project owner.
The decision of the authorities was met with stiff resistance from the public, trying to hold a local referendum in order to block the federal initiative. The construction of the plant was simultaneously opposed by environmental activists, representatives of the Udmurt, Bashkir and Tatar national movements. However, the Russian authorities know only one solution to the problem – to silence and persecute all forms of dissent. Meanwhile, according to the Russian National Medical Research Center for Radiology, the incidence rates of cancer in the Volga Federal District of the Russian Federation have increased by 30% over the past 10 years. Careless handling of radioactive materials in Russia poses a threat to neighboring countries.
Even in the occupied Crimea, which Putin’s authorities are trying to make into a showcase of success, an environmental disaster was quick in coming after the arrival of the Russian administration – a catastrophic toxic discharge at the Crimea TITAN plant in August 2018.
The realities of Tatarstan and other republics clearly demonstrate to Ukraine that any close relations with Russia in the long term lead to the loss of independence, russification, violation of civil rights, economic exploitation, social and environmental disasters. And it will be a small consolation for us if all of it is again declared “our common problems.” It is wise to just stay away from the authorities that constantly generate these problems.
I am very sorry that Tatarstan should now serve as an example for Ukraine of what to avoid by all means. But once the day will come when the citizens of Tatarstan will decide their own destiny.
Anton DROBOVYCH, Head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory
P.S. I would like to express my gratitude to Prometheus Security Environment Research Center for valuable advice during the preparation of the material.
Source: Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.
Cover photo: InformNapalm.org.
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