How Russia Suppresses its Internal National Diversity. The Case of Bashkortostan

February 21, 2023
The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the position of indigenous people in the Russian Federation and led to discussions about decolonizing Russia.

Russia is home to more than 190 ethnic groups.

According to Russia's 2021 census, ethnic Russians made up 71,7% of the total population and around 80% of those who reported their ethnic background. The 83 federal subjects (provinces of various types) include 21 national republics, 4 autonomous okrugs and 1 autonomous oblast. Some of them are national homelands only in a nominal sense, while others have managed to maintain their distinctiveness as homelands of their titular nationalities.

Map of Russia without autonomous okrugs, oblasts and republics. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Until recently, Russia was rarely regarded as a colonial power. As it was not separated from its colonies by the sea like other European empires, historian Alexander Etkind introduced the term "internal colonization" to describe Russia's imperial experience. However, this issue is anything but confined to history. Modern Russia pursues a policy of assimilation for its  indigenous peoples and persecutes leaders of national movements.

In 2019,the Udmurt public figure Albert Razin even carried out self-immolation in protest against the decline of Udmurt language.

  • This is not even mentioning the two bloody wars Russia waged against secessionist Chechnya (Republic of Ichkeria), which saw countless war crimes similar to those we are now witnessing in Ukraine.

Decline in the number of people identifying as members of selected national groups of Russia between the 2010 and 2021 Russian censuses. Source: Idel.Realii

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, there was a revival of indigenous cultures in some of Russia's national republics. However, as Putin's regime consolidated power, authorities intensified their crackdown on national movements and cultures. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has brought to light the subordinate position these peoples occupy in Russia's nominal federation where both individual and national freedoms are routinely trampled upon. Even though Russian society is highly atomized and depoliticized, the ethnic factor still carries weight in popular sentiments.

UkraineWorld spoke to Ruslan Gabbasov, a leader of the Bashkir national movement who was granted political asylum in Lithuania. He was the activist with the NGO Bashkort, which was designated as an "extremist organization" by Russian authorities in 2020.

For context, Bashkirs are Russia's fourth largest ethnic group, with 1.5 million people. They are Muslims and speak the Bashkir language, which belongs to Turkic language family. Their republic is called Bashkortostan, and it has its own parliament, constitution and anthem. Ethnic Bashkirs constitute about 30% of the republic's population (35% are Russians and around 25% are Tatars).

Ruslan Gabbasov holding Bashkir flag in front of the European Parliament. Courtesy: Ruslan Gabbasov

The experience of the NGO Bashkort is a good example with which to understand Russia's ethnic policies. It was founded in 2014 to preserve and develop Bashkir identity amid growing russification. Gabbasov described a whole chain of events that show ever-growing pressure from Moscow.

Back in 2007, the so-called "regional component" in education policy was abrogated, meaning that federal subjects could no longer print their own textbooks without Moscow's approval. In Bashkortostan, this prevented the commemoration of  national heroes and free discussion of topics like the Bashkir uprisings and repressions against the community's leaders.

In 2015, the title of the republic's President was changed to the more neutral term "Head". In 2018, the Russian Parliament amended education laws to make Bashkir and other minority languages no longer mandatory courses in the schools of national republics. This move sparked protests and outrage in the national republics, including Bashkortostan. Meanwhile, authorities worked to reign in national organizations, which were once strong and independent, but which were then forced to start obediently implementing the Kremlin's directives.

Thanks to the national revival of the 1990s, Bashkir children could study all subjects from kindergarten to the final 11th grade in their national language. Now, instruction after the 7th grade is exclusively in Russian, and graduation exams can only be taken in Russian.

"You know, there are nations that have already stepped into the abyss, and I doubt that they will come out of it. For example, the Karelians, Khakasses, and Altaians. They have their own republics, but they are minuscule there. We have not yet stepped into the abyss, but we are on the edge. Another 1-2 generations will pass, and then it is quite possible that we will also cross this line, after which there is no salvation. Therefore, the only way for us to survive is, of course, independence," Gabbasov says.

Environmental issues have been another stumbling stone in Bashkortostan. It is famous in Russia for its shihans, which are isolated hills of chalk formed over millions of years from ancient coral reefs that tower over nearby rivers. In the 2010s, lye producers and their Kremlin supporters wanted to mine one of the shihans, which would harm not only the environment but also destroy a very special place for the local culture. The four shihans used to serve as gathering points of the Bashkir elite in the past and play an important role in national mythology. The NGO Bashkort was one of the most vocal critics of this initiative. Gabbasov believes that this activity was the last straw that lead to the organization's shutdown in 2020.

Kushtau, one of the three remaining shihans which was intended for mining. It was fortunately spared in the end. Source: Terra Bashkiria

Indeed, local authorities were scared of this organization beyond their control with 18 branches all over the Republic and 60 thousand followers on social networks. Bashkort could mobilize a protest of a couple thousand people within hours. It carried out political protests and numerous cultural activities such as Bashkir Youth Days and sports competitions. When authorities failed to bring the organization under their control as they had done with others, they simply declared it "extremist," even though, Gabbasov explains , Bashkort never called for secession or incited hatred.

"Bashkort" rally. Source: Radio Liberty

In Vilnius, Gabbasov founded the Bashkir National Political Center, which openly raises the question of decolonizing Russia and advocates for the independence of Bashkortostan. Gabbasov laments the fact that his fellow Bashkirs are being sent to someone else's war, distancing his people from Moscow's  imperial ambitions. However, he admits that the invasion of Ukraine has split Bashkir society. For example the Kremlin-controlled World Kurultai (Congress) of Bashkirs endorsed the invasion.

Gabbasov also complains that the Russian opposition in exile speaks on behalf of all the  peoples of Russia, appropriating the voices of Russia's indigenous peoples. To counter this, he coordinates his efforts with other national movements in the Free Nations League and recently took part in the 5th Forum of Free Nations of Post-Russia, which was held in the European Parliament in Brussels. "They want to save Russia, and we don't want to save Russia. Therefore, we believe we should have our own representation," he argues.

Monument to Salavat Yulaev, a Bashkir national hero, in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan. Source: Wikipedia

The case of Bashkortostan shows that Russia is far from being a federation, but is rather not only an empire, but an empire suppressing its indigenous peoples. Local languages are disappearing and indigenous people are losing their rights to their own national identities. Instead, people are being left solely with the identity of "Russian," which often means having no identity at all beyond the imperial expansionism through wars and violence.

Andriy Avramenko
Analyst and Journalist at UkraineWorld