Vladimir Kolossov’s analysis of ethnic tension and geopolitical, territorial struggle in the post-Soviet space is outstanding on some fronts, but lacking in others. As a scholar of Russian politics, history, and culture, I enjoyed reading about his insights, specifically on Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. However, some of his analysis, specifically regarding the Russian Federation is clearly a product of him writing in the Yeltsin years and does not apply to Putin’s Russia today.
Uniquely, Kolossov defines ethnicity in the former USSR as a matter of choice, a “self -identification” for people who want to belong to a certain ethnic group. Because ethnicity isn’t primordial, it can be easily exploited by political entrepreneurs for territorial and economic gains. Ethnicity in the former USSR has been used as a state building mechanism, and to solidify control over arbitrarily drawn borders. He points out that most former Soviets have a hierarchy of identity, common in a place with so many conflicting territories and histories. In a personal example, though I was born in the Russian Federation and was baptized into Orthodox Christianity, my ethnicity is listed on my Russian passport as “Jewish.” This to me was totally normal, until I came to college and people started looking at me weird after I told them that. It is because hierarchical identity allows me to identify as many, sometimes contradictory, things. This is the case with many Russians and with many other former Soviets.
“Soviet” itself is still a popular identity among the post-Soviet republics. Though this word has Marxist connotations in the West, Kolossov states that those identifying themselves as Soviet do not have to be communists or even pine for the days of the USSR. They simply are remarking on a shared experience that connects them with people tens of thousands of miles away. Kolossov uses “Soviet” as an example of a trans-border identity.
Language policies are also touched on heavily in Kolossov’s analysis. He mentions how in Ukraine, those who speak Russian can be considered traitors because Ukraine is using language policy in order to consolidate their power over their borders and distinguishing themselves from the Russian “other.” In a moment of unwitting prediction, Kolossov mentions the Donetsk republic in Ukraine as an example of a place where an enforced Ukrainian language policy would not make sense due to the high concentration of Russian speakers. Donetsk is currently engaged in a separatist civil war in Ukraine, with one of their grievances being Kiev’s disrespect for their Russian ethnic heritage.
Kolossov makes another fascinating point when he says that in the former Soviet republics: “Who we are depends on who we were.” This manifests itself in Ukraine’s vision as the “breadbasket of Europe” and attachment to the Kievan Rus, the founding of all Slavic civilization. In South Ossetia, (Georgia?/Russia?/Independent State?, they are a part of a frozen separatist movement), people of different languages and religions see themselves as the heirs of Alania, a powerful state that resisted the Mongol horde.
However, Kolossov’s article shows signs of age. He seems to dismiss claims of “Russian imperialism” through Russian language instruction, when today, the proliferation of the Russian language is a vector of Russia’s foreign policy and the creation of a Russkiy Mir or Russian World. Soft power projection, such as the spread Russian language instruction, is as important to the Kremlin as military policy. Furthermore, Kolossov gives too much power to regional governors in the Russian Federation. While it is true that during the Yeltsin years, regional governors exploited both the Kremlin and the people they represented, Putin severely curbed the power of regional governors during his first term, centralizing the country further and making it less prone to secessionist movements.