If Russia’s minorities are excluded from national political life, then why are they the most “loyal” on paper?

By rejecting popular support in Russia’s national republics, you can win more votes than you lose. RU

Badma Biurchiev
1 March 2018

Alexey Navalny's video address to Russia's national republics calls on people to act as election observers on 18 March.

On 20 February, Alexey Navalny, banned from standing as a candidate in Russia’s presidential election, turned to civic activists in the country’s national republics. The opposition politician called on them to prevent the authorities from fabricating voter turnout in the presidential election on 18 March (the Putin administration is planning to achieve record turnout). Navalny believes that unbiased election observing in these regions “is more important than the rest of Russia”, as these republics regularly report incredibly high turnouts and almost unanimous support for the government in power.

Turnout in the national republics, particularly in Russia’s North Caucasus, is definitely an important issue. But it goes much deeper than the crude sleight of hand practised by local leaders that Navalny discusses here.

In the national republics, the “attachment to large numbers” is ultimately the result of the social exclusion of ethnic minorities from Russia’s political life. Against the background of Russia’s new pariahs – some members of the “unofficial” opposition, “non-traditional Muslims” and so on – the exclusion of entire ethnic groups can be imperceptible, and take place without any extrajudicial executions, arrests or torture.

This process takes place at the level of mainstream debate, fostered by the powers that be. The signals are easy to read by Russian politicians and public, so even novices in the president’s election campaign have no scruples about reminding smaller ethnic groups that their real place is on the margins of the country’s political life.

A helping hand from the Communists

“Vote for Pavel Grudinin!” Arkady Goryayev tells me, referring to the Russian Communist Party’s presidential candidate. Goryayev is a well-known public figure in Kalmykia and the North Caucasus. In 2009, Goryayev became head of the Union of Repressed Peoples, whose inaugural congress gathered together activists from ethnic groups en masse deported by Stalin during the Second World War: Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Karachays, Balkars and Volga Germans.

In an interview with major Russian media outlets at the time, Goryayev announced that the new organisation would seek “real compensation” for Stalin’s victims, as well as demanding public repentance and “territorial rehabilitation” from the Russian government. This should, he continued, include the return of the Primorsky and Dolban districts to the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic, which lost them when it was reinstated in 1958 – they currently form part of Astrakhan region to the west.

Arkady Goryayev (second from right) at a protest in Elista. Source: Badma Biurchiev.Russia’s Ministry of Justice refused to register the organisation, and attempts to take the dispute to court were unsuccessful.

Arkady Goryayev is now the regional coordinator of the People’s Patriotic Forces of Russia, a political association that has joined forces with the Communist Party to support Grudinin, whom he believes will get through to the second round of voting. And in Kalmykia, Goryayev believes his candidate will have the support of 45% of voters. “The Stalin thing has been blown up by the media,” Goryayev says when I remind him of the notorious interview in which Grudinin called Joseph Stalin “the best leader of our country over the last century”.

“Some people in Kalmykia might well take this provocation seriously, but most will see through it,” Goryayev tells me. “Grudinin is an agricultural specialist, the head of a state farm, and he’s thinking in a different paradigm. For him, Stalin was the man who, as we say, ‘found his country with a wooden plough and left it with the atom bomb’. If he wins the election, the first thing I’ll ask him about is the full posthumous rehabilitation of Stalin’s victims. But first I need to concentrate on his election campaign.”

The conversation would not have needed detailed retelling if Goryayev was one of those people who bend with the wind and can switch camp at a moment’s notice if it suits him. But Elista, capital of Kalmykia, is a small place. You can’t hide here, and you can count the number of principled oppositionists on one hand. Further conversation reveals that Goryayev sees a change of leadership as the most important thing. He believes that the country now has a chance.

Elista, capital of Kalmykia, is a small place. You can’t hide here, and you can count the number of principled oppositionists on one hand

There is some basis for this hope. According to this site, Grudinin is far above the current president in text message polls (at the time of writing, 62.07% against 28.09%). But Goryayev’s prediction about his candidate’s success in Kalmykia is over-optimistic: if you look at social media, the picture is very different.

Basan Zakharov, head of the Tengrin Uydl (“Milky Way”) Development Centre for Contemporary Oirat Culture, believes that after Grudinin’s remark about Stalin on 6 February, “no Kalmyk, Chechen, Ingush, Karachayev, Balkar or Crimean Tatar – indeed no sensible person who thinks about the future – should vote for him”. Oirats are the westernmost group of Mongols, whose most prominent representatives are the Kalmyk people today.


"Pavel Grudinin is a man of his word" - pre-election agitation in Elista, Kalmykia. Source: Badma Biurchiev.Commenting on his own Facebook posts, Zakharov complains that Pavel Grudinin was the only person he could vote for, and now there is no one. Other participants of this pretty active (by Kalmyk social media standards) discussion are also disillusioned with Grudinin, who’s referred to by some as “people’s president”. “I have also totally changed my opinion of him,” writes one, while another adds: “Me too. He wasn’t bad at the start”.

This furious reaction of opponents to the “strong hand” all over Russia,and especially relatives of Stalin’s victims, was predictable. But Grudinin is lightly, even ostentatiously, sacrificing the votes of this part of Russian society. And it’s not even a risk that he’s taking, since a presidential candidate has nothing to lose. Grudinin is only too aware that these days open support for Stalin will win him more votes than stating the historical fact that the “best leader” was personally responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens.

It is those who are de facto excluded from political life who provide the exceptional election results

The evolution of Putin’s ideas about government towards “effective management” is demonstrative here: from Putin’s 2010 statement that “there can be no justification for Stalin’s crimes… and this assessment of him will not be revised” to 2017 sentiments about “the over-demonisation of Stalin” as a form of “attacking the USSR and Russia”. The cult of Stalin per se is a different matter. But if you place this irrational phenomenon in the wider context of Russia’s political reality – examine it within the framework of policies towards Russia’s diverse ethnic groups, for example – you can see that, to quote Foucault, “intermittent and obvious madness hides within itself well-ordered and secret madness”.

A celebration of disaster

Stalin’s deportation of entire peoples was recognised by the Russian government as an act of genocide in a law passed in 1991 on the rehabilitation of repressed peoples. Almost three decades have since passed, but Russia still celebrates Fatherland Defender Day every 23 February, the anniversary of the deportation of the Chechens and Ingush peoples. And two weeks later, Russian men congratulate their wives and mothers on International Women’s Day, and few people remember that the Balkars spend that day mourning their kinsmen and women who didn’t make it back home from exile.

Chechen_Deportation_in_1944 (1).jpg

NKVD troops loading Chechens and Ingush onto trains for deportation, likely taken in February 1944. Source: Wikipedia. Fair use.The NKVD (forerunner of the KGB and FSB) presumably had a reason for “combining a celebration with arrests”. It’s easier to organise a mass exile at the weekend, when most people are at home. And a generation that grew up in the USSR probably finds it hard to wipe the memory of their favourite public holidays from their minds (although 7 November, when the 1917 Revolution is commemorated, is an example of the opposite).

But how could anyone with any common sense take it into their heads, as the regional authorities of Krasnodar did two years ago, to hold a public street festival on 21 May, the Day of Mourning and Memory for those who died in the 101-year long Russo-Circassian War (1763-1864)?

It’s unlikely to have been simple oversight by public officials. The dates are well known in the western Caucasus and Black Sea coast, where the ethnic cleansing of Circassian territory took place. Not to mention the fact that the aborted event had a direct prequel, when the village of Krasnaya Polyana, a venue for Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics, decided to move its annual festival to that date.

In Russia, political activity by minorities is coupled with an almost inevitable marginalisation, even when they play by the rules of the system

Festivals on memorial days, like the revival of Stalin’s personality cult, are just examples of the Russian public’s “split personality”. The problem is that Russia’s entire political system is based on the logic of madness. You have to work out how to live in a simultaneously federal and unitary state. Or try to have a sensible discussion of the proposed “Russian Nation Law” when the principle of collective punishment in the North Caucasus has become the norm.

Life in this disintegrating reality is uncomfortable for any sensible person. But the situation for members of ethnic minorities is even harder. In Russia, political activity by minorities is coupled with an almost inevitable marginalisation, even when they play by the rules of the system.

Yesterday, Arkady Goryayev was, in the eyes of Russia’s Communists, a “separatist” and “successor to Hitler’s accomplices”. Now Goryayev is united with their party on the side of a candidate who defends Stalin’s crimes, and therefore alienates a majority of Kalmyks. Only my personal acquaintance with this opposition politician allows me to see this as a desperate attempt to break out of the madness of our political reality. But this life strategy is unacceptable for most people: hence the mass alienation from the political practices of the regional authorities.

It is those who are de facto excluded from political life who provide the exceptional election results. Everything comes full circle, and with each new cycle our absurd reality seems more and more ordered. The experts discuss the “lawlessness” of ethnic minority elites, and the Kremlin responds – in the case of Dagestan – by installing an externally-controlled government.


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