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Nov 30, 2012 | 11:35 GMT

Reassessing the Russian Identity, Part 5: Faith, Age and the New Russian

Editor's Note: This is the fifth installment of a five-part series on Russian society and identity. Part 5 discusses the current religious and generational divisions in Russia and the creation of a new Russian identity. Read part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

Moscow's secular stance regarding religion and the state has grown less definite again for quite a few reasons. During Boris Yeltsin's leadership of the Russian Federation, the state did not enact many policies regarding religion. Yeltsin did want religion limited, out of concern that foreign influence would seep into the country via diverse religious groups. He barred many foreign religious groups from entering the country unless they were Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist or Jewish, but after that, religion was not a high priority for Yeltsin.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin intensified a revival of the Orthodox faith in the country, using it (much as the czars did) as a unifying force among the ethnic Russian people. But in recent years, this support for Orthodoxy has escalated beyond Kremlin control. During Putin's era, xenophobia — particularly against Muslims of any ethnicity — skyrocketed as well and overlapped with newfound loyalty to the Orthodox Church. Moreover, although many Muslim populations could band together during times of war with the state — as seen in the Northern Caucasus in the mid-2000s — currently there are divisions among Russia's Islamic populations as well. Overall, the country is experiencing a social instability based on religious affiliation not seen for some time in Russia.

The Rise of Ultra-Orthodoxy

Although the issue is nearly impossible to quantify, there seems to be anecdotal evidence of a notable escalation in extremism within the Orthodox faith in Russia. Between 70 and 80 percent of Russians claim to be Russian Orthodox, although most are non-practicing (a remnant from the Soviet period). Both Putin and former President Dmitri Medvedev heavily promoted Orthodoxy, and the church became one of the most important tools the Kremlin has used to unite society, at least among the ethnic Russians. But now that the Kremlin has pushed for the Church to have a greater presence in the country, some Russians' pro-Orthodoxy sentiments are escalating to extremism as the population reacts to generational and demographic changes in the country.

The more fervent Russian Orthodox sentiment seems to be rising in tandem with general xenophobia. The historical movement of "Russia for Russians" continually springs up in times of crisis in Russia, such as it did when ethnic Russians united during the wars in Chechnya. However, the current movement is not coming during a real crisis; it has resurfaced during the past two years. In November 2011, hundreds of thousands of Russians marched to protest increased immigration and the government's commitment to economically subsidizing Russia's Muslim republics in the Northern Caucasus. Orthodox fundamentalism spiked again in the summer of 2012 when the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot and its supporters held a series of demonstrations and defilements of Orthodox churches and symbols.

In response to the demonstrations against the Church and rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, volunteers have formed so-called Orthodox Brigades to actively patrol the streets to defend the Church. These brigades — mostly comprising youth clad in black shirts that read, "Orthodoxy or Death" — have been seen in dozens of cities across Russia over the past year and have sparked concern for minority populations. The governor of Krasnodar, Alexander Tkachev, has already formed a 1,000-strong brigade, saying that he will help finance it and that its members will work with local police to secure the streets. The Chechen parliament voiced opposition to Tkachev's move.

The Russian Interior Ministry has dismissed the brigades, saying that the Russian government will not work with them. Instead, the Kremlin is trying to harness the brigades' enthusiasm but shifting their focus away from purely Orthodox issues by creating "International Brigades" which will patrol the streets to help maintain order. The goal is to co-opt the Orthodox Brigades and expand them to include other ethnic groups — something that the Union of Chechen Youth has said it will take part in. This, in theory, will help dissipate the brigades' Orthodox extremism.

Fissures Within Islamic Communities

Shifts inside Russia's indigenous Islamic communities have also occurred. As noted above, growth is taking place among key Muslim ethnic populations, such as Chechens, Ingush and Dagestanis — the Muslim populations ethnic Russians tend to be most xenophobic about. There is a history of violence among these populations, which are located in the same region of the Northern Caucasus. It was the Chechen invasion of Dagestan in 1999 that sparked the Second Chechen War with the Russian state — a war that did not end officially until 2010. Russia still carries out major military operations in the Caucasus, mainly focusing on Dagestan now that Chechnya is largely stable.

But rifts between these groups are in the forefront of the Kremlin's mind as issues regarding power in the region resurface. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has stated that he is the protector of the peoples of the Caucasus and wants to leverage that into gaining more land for Chechnya, with hopes that Chechnya will swallow up Ingushetia first and possibly other Northern Caucasus republics later.

Another issue is an increase in tensions between various clans within the Sufi and Salafist Muslim populations. The majority of Russia's Muslims are of the liberal Islamic sect of Sufism. During the Russian wars in the Northern Caucasus over the past two decades, a radical element called either Wahhabism or Salafism became more prominent. During the Second Chechen War, the Russians pitted the Muslims fighting for nationalist reasons against those who were more oriented toward the Islamist ideology — a tactic that was largely successful and created a nationalist Islamic population in the Caucasus willing to work with Moscow.

But with the wars over and with regular extremist activity still occurring in the Northern Caucasus, problems are arising among the different ethnicities and between the Sufis and Salafists. Such problems are also moving outside of the Caucasus. Four major plots targeting high-level Sufi imams in Dagestan by Salafists have occurred since October 2011, and three of the four imams targeted were killed. The latest Sufi leader targeted (in August), Sheikh Said Afandi, was working on a peace negotiation between the two groups. A similar incident took place in Tatarstan in July when a coordinated attack targeted the chief mufti of Tatarstan and his deputy. The current theory is that the attack was motivated by the Salafist-Sufi divide in Tatarstan. These sorts of incidents are not just religious in nature; they also have political motivations.

There is also a question of how susceptible the new generation of Muslims in Russia is to outside or radical sentiments. With 20 percent of Russians (ethnically Russian or not) born after the fall of the Soviet Union, a large portion of those Muslims in that age cohort have known only conflict, since a series of wars has occurred in their region for nearly 20 years. This could make them more vulnerable to outside or radical sentiment. On the other hand, that generation could want to move past such conflicts and adopt the more Russified attitude found in places like Chechnya under pro-Kremlin leader Kadyrov. 

One attempt to combat extremism among Muslims in the Caucasus is the Chechen government's implementation (in tandem with the Kremlin) of its own brand of Islamic teaching in schools for very young and teenage students. This plan is just beginning and is using materials prepared by local religious leaders. Nearly all Chechen students are now taking courses on Islam and on how to behave as a Muslim.

The goal for the Kremlin and Kadyrov's government is to instill a version of Islam that can isolate those extremist views against the government and Kremlin-sanctioned society. Many in Chechnya have said that this plan strengthens Kadyrov's position in the Russian Northern Caucasus, since he is overseeing religious affairs and that Kadyrov is attempting to make Grozny the center of Russian-Islamic affairs.

It is too early to see what effects such educational programs will have. Islam has not been taught in schools in the Caucasus until now, so either it could unify the new generation of Muslims in one view of Islam or it could aggravate more radical movements who want to teach their own versions of the religion.

Political and Generational Changes

While ethnic and religious sentiments have shifted, so has the basic political mood — though much of it is tied to the previous two issues, since they are all interwoven. Russia's typically steady political landscape was shaken in December 2011 when a series of mass protests across Russia started. The demonstrations initially were against parliamentary election results, but they continued through March and the presidential election. Now, numerous protests occur regularly and new political parties and coalitions are forming — and it is all taking place very publicly.

After a decade of chaos in Russia, Putin consolidated much of the country with a series of sweeping political, economic and social reforms centering on his leadership. But as the series of crises — such as the 1990s economic crisis and the wars in the Northern Caucasus — that helped lead to Putin's rise and strengthened his ability to rally the country started to level off, the country began to prosper and the need for such a heavy-handed leader diminished.

Moreover, a generational change is taking place in Russia. Of the current population in Russia, more than 20 percent was born after the fall of the Soviet Union. This population was never Sovietized or united under one identity. Most of this population also lived its formative years in a stable and strengthening Russia under Putin. It is part of this population that is leading the push against government control of the country. The Kremlin has already begun countering this so-called rebellion by co-opting parts of the anti-Kremlin political movements, crushing others and dividing many of them.

Russian Population Born After 1992

Russian Population Born After 1992

The Kremlin also is not trying to use one political party to rule over the country and unite the people politically, as the Communist Party did during the Soviet period. Instead, Putin has put forth the idea of a coalition of parties, groups and unions spanning the political spectrum — though all under Putin's guidance. The All Russia Popular Front theoretically is meant to include any person or entity in the country supporting the betterment of Russia. Also known as the Popular Front, the movement has been slow in garnering support, though Putin has shown new enthusiasm in the past month in promoting the Popular Front.

Political dissent has always ebbed and flowed inside Russia, and although most Russians rallied behind Putin as the country's "savior" a decade ago, that sentiment has diminished. Putin is using many different tactics, from crackdowns to the creation of new political movements, to counter this. Moreover, Putin and his government are looking for a new way to unite the people — particularly a way that will transcend personality and become part of the country's psyche. Putin wants to create a new Russian identity.

Formulating a New Identity for Russians

With so many serious divisions among the Russian people — demographic, ethnic, religious, political and generational — the need for a unified Russian identity to supersede all those differences has come back up for debate once again. In August, Putin said, "In the Soviet period a lot was done that was not very good, but a lot of good things were invented. For example, there was the concept of the Soviet people, a new historical community." Since then, there has been a debate on how to form a new identity for the current set of diverse people in the country. Putin has issued a presidential decree ordering his Cabinet to come up with a National Social and Ethnic Policy Strategy by Dec. 1.

The two Kremlin figures put in charge of this effort are Russian State Duma Chair Sergei Naryshkin and Deputy Premier Vladislav Surkov. Naryshkin is one of Putin's most trusted political allies. He reportedly served in the KGB then moved with Putin into the St. Petersburg circle of current Kremlin power players. Naryshkin is typically moved to positions where Putin needs a serious strategist; he has served as Gazprom adviser, military naval adviser, media chief and head of Russia's economic relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States, European Union and Far East. Surkov is a more controversial Kremliner. Not only is he half-Chechen and half-Jewish, he also formerly led the Kremlin clan of the civiliki. Surkov has experience in shaping some important initiatives, such as the Nashi youth program and the Kremlin's relationship with Chechnya.

The new social policy is meant to replace the vague 1996 strategy implemented by Boris Yeltsin. The initial drafts of the new strategy say that Russia is a "unique socio-cultural civilization entity formed of the multi-people Russian nation." Notably, the drafts of their new policy have removed the concept of the importance of ethnic Russians in the country.

Instead the focus will be on a multi-ethnic nation, with a proposed ethnic policy strategy that involves a covenant between all nationalities in Russia. The document is already getting quite a bit of attention, with support from Muslims — ranging from imams to social and cultural groups — in Chechnya and Tatarstan and the Armenian diaspora. More nationalist ethnic Russian and Orthodox groups have slammed the strategy, as they do not want a policy of inclusion for foreign or non-ethnic Russian groups.

Duma Deputy and member of the Presidential Council for Ethnic Relations Alexei Zhuravlev has proposed that the strategy as a whole should be sent to the Russian people for referendum in 2013. Putting the issue up for a public vote is risky because of the social, political and ethnic divisions among Russia's many peoples.

These divisions are exactly what this new strategy is trying to address, though no long-term answers to such dilemmas have been found in Russian history, except the brutal forced Sovietization of the people under Stalin. But with rifts in the population deepening like never before, the Kremlin has no choice but to try unifying the country, even if the plan is only marginally successful.

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