As a rule, I’m not much one for statistics, but every so often one stops me cold. In the December issue of Russia in Global Affairs, political scientist Igor Zevelev pointed out in his article “Russia’s Future: Nation or Civilization” that “Russians … now make up almost 80 percent of the country’s population (compared with 43 percent in the Russian Empire in the late 19th century and 50 percent in the Soviet Union).”
The statistics that are usually bandied about concern Russia’s horrific death rate and shrinking population, though that’s showing signs of leveling off. But what Zevelev is telling us speaks of an emergence, not a diminution. For the first time in centuries, the Russians are a majority in their own country.
It is not as if the Russians weren’t running the show during the end of the empire and the Soviet Union as well (Joseph Stalin aside). But in Soviet times, it was commonplace among Russians that everyone—Poles, Czechs, Hungarians with their goulash communism—lived better than they did. And no one suffered more from Soviet oppression than the Russians themselves.
But now there’s been an essential demographic change, one in which quantity becomes quality. Russia has been shorn of all the nations—the Baltic states, Ukraine, the “stans”—that made it an empire. The United States may have had tens of thousands of Armenians, but the Soviet Union had Armenia itself. Now, Russia has been delivered of what many like Alexander Solzhenitsyn thought was “the Slav man’s burden,” and all that’s left is the 20 percent non-Russians composed mostly of small Islamic nations, some of whose citizens identify themselves as Russians anyway.
What has to happen for the Russians to realize the full significance of their becoming a majority in their own land? In “Warsaw Diary,” the Polish writer Kazimierz Brandys describes one of the unexpected and unintended consequences of Pope John Paul II’s first visit to his native Poland in 1979. The Pope drew vast crowds, and for the first time the Poles were able to see just how many of them there were. And from that they drew the strength and courage that led to the Solidarity movement in 1980 and the eventual overthrow of communism.
Throughout its history, Russia’s development has typically been thwarted by tyranny, invasion and war. The country’s nascent capitalism was, for example, booming at the beginning of the 20th century—Russia was the world’s leading oil producer in 1898–1902—but that promising trend was cut short by two wars (the Russo–Japanese War and World War II) and two revolutions (1905 and 1917). Many thinkers concluded that what Russia needed was a stretch of peace combined with a not overly oppressive government.
Well, that’s what it has had for the nearly 20 years since the Soviet Union imploded. The Chechen Wars and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s crackdowns are relatively mild by Russian standards. There is no real enemy like Nazi Germany during World War II or the United States during the Cold War.
So the question is: Now that the Russians are a majority and have had a break from the exigencies of history, why haven’t they created a better country for themselves, one with a clear and definite Russian identity? And to paraphrase a perennial question, what can still be done? This is a question that only the Russians themselves can answer, with their choices and their actions. –
Richard Lourie is author of “The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin” and “Sakharov: A Biography.”
First published in The Moscow Times
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