MOSCOW, September 11 (Howard Amos, RIA Novosti) – Besides drunks, who do Russians not want most as neighbors or work colleagues? The answer: homosexuals, according to new research examining national identity released by a state-run pollster, the Russia Public Opinion Research Center, on Tuesday.
According to the survey, 51 percent of Russians would not like “under any circumstances” to see a homosexual as a neighbor or a work colleague.
Such an apparent loathing of homosexuality was one of the divisions highlighted by the survey, which examined what ideas and values united Russians and what kept them apart. Representing 45 regions across the country, 1,600 Russians took part in the poll.
The search for a defining national idea has provoked much discussion within Russia’s political elite since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the topic has recently become more acute as President Vladimir Putin faces domestic opposition to his rule and as Russia’s profile on the world stage grows.
Next week Putin, senior officials, international experts on Russia and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, will meet to discuss Russia’s national identity at the annual Valdai Club.
“The experience of failure [of the Soviet Union] itself has left a mighty legacy over Russia today: the fear of really articulating a positive vision because of the way that positive visions in the past have been exclusive and imposed by violence,” Richard Sakwa, a professor of Russian and European politics at Britain’s Kent University and a member of the Valdai Club, said in written comments.
Homosexuality in Russia became a controversial issue for many Russians – and foreigners – after Russia passed a controversial new law earlier this year banning the promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships toward minors.
Opponents say the law is just the latest in a series of measures pushed by the Kremlin in an attempt to shore up its support base among conservative, Orthodox and largely rural voters, and portray liberal opposition groups that oppose the legislation as Western-orientated and out of touch with ordinary Russian voters.
While the Kremlin maintains that the law does not prevent adults from making their own sexual choices, critics describe it as nothing more than a state-supported crackdown on gay people that has led to a spike in homophobia, including homophobic attacks, across the country.
It is not just cultural and social decisions, however, that inform the divisions defining Russian identity, but also ethnic and national ones – divisions that experts say could be potentially devastating if mismanaged.
Standoff With the North Caucasus
One of the largest schisms within Russian society, according to the survey, appears to be rooted in a perception of Russian identity as defined against migrants living in central Russia, and the ethnic groups of the country’s North Caucasus region.
According to Russia Public Opinion Research Center’s survey, 44 percent of Russians said that while a Ukrainian could be called an ethnic Russian if he or she had lived in Russia for many years, only 7 percent thought the same could be said of a Chechen or Dagestani from Russia’s North Caucasus. Russia and Ukraine are different countries, but Chechnya and Dagestan are republics within the Russian Federation, and all Chechens and Dagestanis have Russian passports.
“The main dividing line [in Russian society] is between residents of large cities and central Russia as a whole, and the residents of Russia’s Northern Caucasus,” Valery Fedorov, head of the Russia Public Opinion Research Center pollster, told reporters Tuesday.
In part, Fedorov added, this split reflects the existence of two different linguistic concepts for understanding Russian identity: while the Russian word “russky” implies an ethnic Russian identity, the word “rossiisky” denotes Russian citizenship, and an allegiance to the Russian state.
According to the Russia Public Opinion Research Center, 57 percent of respondents think that Chechnya is not really Russian (rossiisky) territory, while 54 percent said the same for the neighboring Dagestan Republic.
The site of two major separatist wars following the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has helped to generate an Islamist insurgency that has spread across the region in recent years. Corruption, poverty and ethnic and political rivalries also fuel violence in the region, and have helped to generate a large diaspora of North Caucasus ethnic groups in major Russian cities.
Some experts have warned that Russia’s internal organization along national lines poses one of the most potent threats to Russia's ability to survive as a state in the long term.
“The division of Russia along the principle of nationality – the territorial division that exists today – is an enormous time bomb that is ticking, and ticking quickly. The Soviet Union disintegrated along national borders and there are no guarantees that the same won’t happen to Russia,” Nikolai Zlobin, founder of the Center for Global Interests and a member of the Valdai discussion club, said in written comments.
Wealth: The Biggest Divider?
When asked directly, however, instead of ethnic, political or religious difference, Russians identified wealth as the most significant difference within society.
Fifty-nine percent of respondents said income was the biggest difference between groups and social layers within Russia, while 50 percent identified generational difference and 48 percent cultural differences, according to the survey.
Fueled by the huge profits to be made through the exploitation of Russia’s mineral resources, extreme wealth in Russia is a common phenomenon. Forbes magazine said earlier this year that with 84 billionaires, Moscow was the world city home to the most billionaires, ahead of New York, London and Hong Kong.
How Russians Identify Themselves
Divisions are not the only way in which Russians define themselves, according to the survey, which also looked at the ideas and allegiances that unite Russian people.
When respondents were provided with a list of options, 57 percent identified themselves as Russian citizens, 35 percent as residents of a particular city or town, and 16 percent as belonging to an ethnic group, the pollster said. Sixty-three percent said they were proud to be Russian citizens, and 86 percent could name the colors featured on the Russian flag and put them in the correct order.
When asked specifically about religious faith, 77 percent of respondents said they were Orthodox Christians, 6 percent said they were Muslims, and 6 percent were atheists, according to the survey.
Perhaps more tellingly, however, was that when not prompted by proffered options about what group they felt themselves most close to, 32 percent of respondents said they were “their own person and didn’t identify themselves with any group.” The next most popular self-identification was middle-class, stated by 11 percent of respondents, while 6 percent identified themselves as pensioners and just 4 percent as ethnic Russians.
“We are self-sufficient, we are not part of any particular group … we are a fully individualistic people,” said the pollster’s head, Fedorov. “This is relevant to the question of whether the [Russian] people are collectivists, as [argued] by Russian philosophers at the start of the 20th century and communist ideologues at the end of the 20th century.”
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Extremism is a term with many different interpretations, including in Islamic law (Sharia). No clear definition of extremism exists today, although there is a consensus that proponents of antisocial ideologies should be considered extremists.