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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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National Self-Images and Regional Identities in Russia
Bo Petersson

Aldershot:Ashgate, 2001
230pp. Hb.: 39.95; ISBN 0-7546-1683-5.



'National Self-Images' is the product of a three-year study sponsored by the Swedish Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It is in many ways a stimulating source on how Russians in the second and third ranks of political leadership in the last years of the Yeltsin presidency viewed their country's past, present, perceived friends and foes, and probable future. Although the books was completed in 2000 and published in 2001, it is based on interviews that were carried out by the author and his associates with 110 Russian men and women between 1997 and 1999. Its findings, based on what was prevalent in a time of pessimism and turbulence, are thought-provoking but may well by now be dated and not altogether applicable to Russian leaders of the Putin era. Still, the study has its strengths. The interviews produced both cognitive and affective elements and afford the reader some delightful quotations and some solid, careful analysis. The premise of the author is that national self-images such as those that emanate from his respondents are partial representations of national identity. Bo Petersson feels strongly that a civic national identity, centered around a sense of belonging to a state (and not just to an ethnic community) is what Russia needs to prevent its disintegration and to bring about internal stability and cohesion.

The interviews were undertaken with parliamentarians in Moscow as well as with regional politicians in. Petersburg, Volgograd, Khabarovsk, and Perm. The results, when organized and studied, reveal patterns of similarities and differences between the center and the regional levels as well as among the regions themselves.

One area on which the author elicited comments from the respondents was the identification of elements in the Russian past in which they felt pride . Peter the Great and World War II ? "the Great Patriotic War" -- were the most frequently cited objects of pride. The distribution of answers varied with the region, political party affiliation, and age group of the respondents. With respect to shameful aspects of the past, the interviewees most often cited the Stalin period and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Some of those interviewed, however, mentioned the Chechen War of 1994 ? 6. Another area chosen for comment in the interviews was that of perceived threats to security from outside and inside the country. The paramount threats were seen as coming from within Russia itself ? its parlous political, economic and social state; external threats that were identified included the United States, NATO, China, non-CIS Islamic states and Japan. The possible threats were seen not only as stemming from military action but from economic challenge.. Regional differences ? understandable when one considers the geographical location of the respondent -- created strikingly contrasting lists. Perceived as desirable international partners were China, Germany, Japan, the United States, Western Europe as a whole, India and the CIS. Again, the distribution varied most of all by region.

The interviewees often showed concern for Russians in the Near Abroad and varying degrees of belief that Russia, as a great power, had a mission to perform in its own former sphere and in the world arena generally. When asked whether Russia had the right to influence countries outside of its borders, almost all of the people interviewed agreed. Most of them also approved of greater integration between Russia and the countries of the CIS, but here there were significant differences reflecting region and political party affiliation.

In assessing prevalent domestic threats, the respondents cited separatism and nationalism, the socio-economic crisis of the time, Chechnya and the North Caucasus area, the possible spread of Islamic fundamentalism, corruption and organized crime, President Yeltsin's policies, and "fascism". The majority saw the possibility of the future disintegration of Russia. As possible secessionist areas, a fair number mentioned the Caucasus and more specifically Chechnya; a smaller number cited Tatarstan. All responded with emotion to the idea of disintegration of the Russian state.

In the conclusion to the book, Dr. Petersson presents inter alia his perspective on Putin's Russia. He makes the point that in the second war launched in September 1999, Moscow turned Chechnya into the perfect scapegoat for domestic shortcomings and an archetypal internal Other. . Petersson is concerned over this tendency to depict large or distinct groups within the Federation as threats to its stability, especially when religious and ethnic factors are combined to produce an outgroup. The process, he correctly asserts, promotes reinforcement of ethnically based identification and impedes the creation of a civic identity that Russia as a multi-ethnic state must have to succeed..


Thomas J. Hegarty, University of Tampa



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