ZOiS Spotlight 31/2020

Russia’s compatriots abroad: a resource or lost potential?

by Alina Jašina-Schäfer 02/09/2020
March of the Immortal Regiment in Tallinn celebrating Victory Day on 9 May 2019 ©Sander/Ilvest/Imago

Russia’s fuzzy concept of Russian compatriots causes a lot of unease among the international community. Today, compatriots—or ethnic Russians and Russian speakers who live in countries of the former Soviet Union—are most often regarded as tools that the Russian government uses to extend its political and symbolic influence in the world. Indeed, Moscow’s attempts to turn the protection of Russian communities outside Russia into a fundamental principle of the state through constitutional amendments might seem particularly unsettling. Yet, Russia’s outreach among its so-called compatriots should not be overrated.

Forging a common Russian world

With the fall of the Soviet Union, some 25 million ethnic Russians and other Russian speakers were scattered across several states. Since Russia proclaimed itself the official successor of the Soviet Union, it seemed almost natural for Moscow to assume a moral duty towards those it regarded as part of its own nation, divided by borders. Through a set of evolving policies under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, compatriots became central to the country’s foreign and domestic policy rhetoric; Russia pledged to uphold the rights, interests, and cultural identities of its people abroad. Moscow has achieved this through a range of means: official criticism of other post-Soviet states’ exclusionary policies towards Russian speakers, the extension of Russian citizenship, a policy of repatriation, and cultural diplomacy.

Such practices, while similar to those of other European states, are viewed as possible attempts to estrange Russian compatriots from their countries of residence. For many political observers, messages of an ancestral connection within the so-called Russian world projected onto compatriots could reorient them politically and culturally towards Russia. A good case in point is the 2014 annexation of Crimea, which generated concerns about possible dissent across other post-Soviet countries inhabited by substantial numbers of Russian speakers.

Viewing Russia from Estonia . . .

In this light, the current interior minister and former leader of the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, Mart Helme, has reminded Estonians of the dramatic consequences that stem from the chronic inability of Russian speakers to perceive anywhere but Russia as their homeland. Images of Russian-speaking communities celebrating Victory Day in unison with Russia, wearing St George’s ribbons, consuming Russian media channels, or voicing their support for the preservation of Russian-language schools feed into Helme’s argument. But a closer look at the everyday lives of Russian speakers reveals a different, more complex picture across countries.

In the context of Estonia, the picture that emerges is of Russia’s slowly waning influence not only as a political or economic entity but also as a cultural one. Even in the border city of Narva, where Russian speakers constitute over 90 per cent of the population, Russia is often considered a foreign place. The differences, according to locals, start from a growing perception of stagnation and a lack of progress in Russia, grounded in pervasive state corruption, a sloppy political system, and the mundane practices of Russian citizens themselves, such as driving, clothing or even partying.

While many observers agree that the Russian language and certain traditions remain essential, these elements are simultaneously rooted in long-term experiences of life in Estonia. Indeed, many authors have reported how, even in the Soviet Union, Russian speakers in the Baltic states appealed to narratives of being better Russians, whose ‘Russianness’ had evolved through their adaptation to the region’s more civilised habits, customs, and modern ways of life. In post-Soviet times, these narratives translated into feelings of cultural superiority and a growing cleft between local Russophones and Russia.

 . . . and from Kazakhstan

In contrast, Russia’s lure in Kazakhstan remains strong on different levels. Although overall emigration levels in the country have dropped, the search for better life opportunities leads many people away from the deteriorating economic conditions in Kazakhstan. The prevailing opinion among Russians that they are more disadvantaged than ethnic Kazakhs in terms of employment significantly damages Kazakhstan’s image. In this context, Russia represents an important socio-economic resource that Russian speakers might enjoy through repatriation.

The desire to join Russia is often strengthened by a belief in a strong historical and cultural commonality with Russia: common memories, language, lifestyles. However, research has demonstrated how Kazakhstani Russian speakers visiting Russia not only encounter hostile attitudes from the local Russian population but also experience many of the problems inherent to the compatriot policy that make resettlement less attractive.

It is precisely through this confrontation that many Russian speakers in Kazakhstan feel increasingly estranged from Russia as a physical entity while continuing to cherish the Russian language, habits, and cultural expressions. What is more, Russian speakers’ long-term experiences of life in Kazakhstan lead to a growing identification with the ethnic Kazakh population, thereby diminishing attachment they are assumed to have with the Russian territory.

Alina Jašina-Schäfer is a socio-cultural anthropologist and a research fellow at the Giessen Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Justus-Liebig University in Giessen.