Social Status and Ethnicity in Russian Republics

April 03, 2000 // 12:00am

By Jodi Koehn

"What divides people in Russia at the moment is not so much ethnic or cultural differences but deeper issues lying in the sphere of politics, remarked Leokadia Drobizheva, Chair, Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow. Drobizheva was joined by Viktoria Koroteyeva, Senior Researcher, Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 3 April 2000.

Drobizheva and Koroteyeva conducted surveys in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Sakha (Yakutia) to analyze the participation of various ethnic groups in the transformation process; how new social divisions resulting from the transition period influence inter-ethnic relations; and how new solidarities appear.

According to Drobizheva, ethnic diversity impacts social diversity and social differentiation. After the August 1998 financial crisis, Russia's overall social structure changed. There is now a small upper class, a decline in the proportion of the middle class, and a dramatic increase in the number of people placing themselves in the lower class. In the national republics, however, there is a different situation, Drobizheva commented. In Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Sakha, a large proportion of people still identify themselves as part of the middle class. Furthermore, the proportion of those placing themselves in the lower class is higher among Russians than among native groups. Drobizheva cited statistics showing that the real position of ethnic groups did not change as much as their perceptions.

There are differences among regions over what it means to be middle class. This is where, Drobizheva stipulated, ethno-cultural features come into play and influence the self-perceptions of people. When asked what it meant to be rich, respondents in Tatarstan answered that it meant to have your own business. For Russians, to be rich meant to have money and to be free to spend it as you wish. For the Yakut, in addition to money, it was important to have a good job.

According to Drobizheva, since the notions of what it means to be successful vary, people of different ethnic origins cannot always understand what are the cultural expectations of others. Often, the basis of ethnic tensions are due more to the subjective perception of one's position in society than real objective status, Drobizheva stated.

Viktoria Koroteyeva then described the ethnic and social structures in the surveyed republics. There is territorial and occupational segregation among communities in Sakha, unlike in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The Sakha people live mainly in rural areas and work predominantly in agriculture and certain intellectual occupations like teaching. Conversely, Russians in Sakha are urban dwellers and are employed in industry. In all the republics surveyed, however, the titular nationalities held a disproportionate number of positions in both the government and the economic sphere. This marks a new cultural division of labor, Koroteyeva argued.

Following from these ideas, Koroteyeva continued, access to power and the status of culture and language are further indicators of the status of ethnic groups. In the case of Tatarstan during the Soviet period, the inferior status of Tatar culture and language among urban Tatars contributed to the push for political changes and the reversal of the status of Tatar and Russian cultures. According to Koroteyeva, now, in the post-Soviet era, political status is a crucial dimension to overall social status. For many Russian respondents, there was a belief that titular groups had a better chance for promotion in the government and better access to jobs--so their political status declined in their eyes. This decline has influenced their perception of overall social status and led many Russians in the republics to place themselves at the bottom of the social ladder, Koroteyeva remarked.

Drobizheva discussed how new identities and solidarities are formed. According to Drobizheva, the major identities of survey respondents in the republics and other regions are social and professional. Two other identities--ethnic and state--are seen by some as competing. Drobizheva argued, however, that these identities are complementary. People can identify themselves as belonging to a particular ethnic group as well as being a citizen of the Russian Federation. Often, loyalty to the republic is higher than loyalty to the Russian state, which may cause some conflict.

Drobizheva offered two conclusions. First, in reality, ethnicity does not have much influence on the transformation process and the proportion of the middle class among native ethnic groups in the republics is rather strong. Second, Russians are resentful of this fact and have responded with increased ethnic awareness. This sentiment contributed to massive support of the pro-government party "Unity" and Vladimir Putin in the most recent elections.

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