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Stanislav Byshok: "Affirmative Action Empire" No More

Based on a speech delivered on June 17, 2017, at the expert roundtable “Russia  — Serbia  — Western Balkans” organized by Forum For Ethnic Relations (Forum za Etničke Odnose ) in Belgrade, Serbia

Isn’t it funny that despite the fact that the participants of this round table are predominantly Slavic-speakers, we tend to use English as a lingua franca even when we speak among ourselves? Still, I believe the glass is half-full because we don't use Chinese after all (well, perhaps some of us do), and it’s unlikely we ever will. Not because China isn’t a great economic power, it is. But to be the hegemon, economic might is not enough. A country should also have cutting edge technologies, a formidable army, and – last but not least – it should produce a world culture that all others seek to emulate.

The English language managed to become lingua franca not merely because it is relatively simple and admittedly beautiful. The main prerequisite for its success had been the global domination of English-speaking peoples. Some prefer to call it Anglo-Saxon, Western, or even imperialist world. The exact name doesn’t matter. What really matters, though, is that even those who fiercely oppose “imperialism,” be it left anti-globalists or radical Islamic terrorists, employ Western-made guns and technologies and tend to use English to spread their agenda worldwide. How would they succeed in this race against time?

It's common wisdom that the end of history predicted by Francis Fukuyama[1] has been postponed if not canceled. Even the most lazy-minded observers realized it after the rise of Euroscepticism, the Brexit, and the Trump victory. I believe people in the Balkans had realized that there was something wrong with the brave new post-historic world a bit earlier  — more than twenty-five years before, when several bloody conflicts erupted in the former Yugoslavia. Everybody wore jeans, drank Coke and were desperate to know, who killed Laura Palmer, at that time, but still, there were “substantial" justifications for hating and killing each other.   

It’s not politically correct to imply the concept of the clash of civilizations when speaking about the conflicts of the last decades, especially when ethnic and religious factors are indeed involved. To assume that there are particular political or banal financial interests underneath the civil wars is more acceptable as if there were any contradictions between these factors and ethnic and religious ones. There is a bulk of evidence that all these currents have been intertwined for centuries, at times substituting one another. Of course, when we fight each other for living space, whatever it means, it implies that we also want to control the finances of the contested territory, not only its symbolic places – churches, mosques, historical monuments.  

Not unlike the people of the former Yugoslavia, we Russians have suffered the collapse of our own state  — twice. For the first time, in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, and then in 1991. During the Soviet era, we used to believe in the “friendship of the peoples” and in the unquestionably benign character of our “civilizing mission” in the “backward” republics of the Union, especially in Central Asia. We were confident that the Soviet nationalities politics, and "affirmative action" principles, in particular, were an adequate means to bind the diverse country together so as to keep it moving towards the victory of Communism. American historian Terry Martin even named the Soviet Union “the affirmative action empire.”[2] But in the late 1980s,  the ethnic Russians were implicitly or even explicitly informed they were an occupying power in “non-Russian” republics and regions of the Soviet Union. They were called the malevolent occupants who had forced, by cunning or by guns, the free peoples of the former Russian Empire to join the Russian Empire 2.0 in the disguise of the Soviet Union. The Russians, they insisted, had robbed them of their ancient history even if these peoples had no states whatsoever before becoming national republics  —  almost nation-states  — within the Soviet Union.   

But that was not the point, and it has never been the point. We’ve been told that the Soviet Union fell due to economic reasons: the oil prices dropped, the economy wasn’t able to keep up with the pace of the arms race, and hence – the country collapsed. It sounds a bit counterintuitive, doesn't it? Like the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary a hundred years before, and like Yugoslavia simultaneously with it, the Soviet Union broke along the ethnic, not economic, lines. These lines didn’t necessarily have a direct correspondence to ethnological or historical realities, but rather they were established through decades of the state’s nationalities policies bolstered by the enthusiasm of national  — and nationalist  — intelligentsia. On the one hand, the state wanted to maintain and strengthen the cohesion of its population (the Soviet people, the Yugoslav people), and that’s exactly what states do. But on the other, more due to ideology at times disguised as a practical tool, the states maintained separate ethnic identities and preserved them. In the end, the national identity turned out to be stronger than the loyalty to the country.     

As international studies professor Donald Puchala rightly stated, “empires don’t fall, they rather fall apart.”[3] And the parts they break into are nation-states or would-be-nation-states like the post-Soviet Ukraine of certain Balkan countries.

Until recently, there has been a consensus in the liberal West and indeed in Russia that diversity, be it ethnic or cultural, is bliss. Just that unequivocally: open your borders, support ethnic diversity, and open your hearts and minds for a less homogeneous, less old-school, and,  in the end, less European society. Why? Because diversity is bliss, that's why. It’s been a kind of obsession. If the climate is changing, we should do something about it so as to preserve the Earth as we know it, they said. But if the demographic landscape of Europe is changing, there’s nothing to worry about. Get used to it, they said, that's just normal. Moreover, don’t forget it's bliss.      

But let’s adopt a bit more critical approach. The empires of the early XX century were very diverse  — ethnically, religiously, culturally, geographically, and in any other respects you can think of. And they fell. Yugoslavia was diverse, and even though the vast majority of its population were Slavs, admittedly fraternal peoples "by default," it fell apart – and fell with a bang. The Soviet Union, an illegitimate heir to the Russian Empire, fell like the rest. According to president Vladimir Putin, its downfall was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.[4] He’s also said that the Bolshevik nationalities policy was a time bomb that eventually exploded and torn the country apart.[5]

The general assumption is that multiethnic states fall apart because the “oppression” by the dominant nationality, be it Russians or Serbs, becomes unbearable for the "oppressed" nationalities. But in fact, it usually happens when the political and cultural grip of that nationality gets weaker, which encourages, among other things, separatist sentiments. Prominent Russian scientist Valery Tishkov, one of the principal architects of the country’s nationalities policy of today, nevertheless says “diversity makes our country stronger.”[6] But even his subordinates acknowledge, off the record, that diversity makes our country more complicated and even vulnerable for internal conflicts. The problem is not a lack of attention to the needs of ethnic minorities, who constitute majorities in several regions, for example in the Caucasus. The problem is the absence of the sense of belonging to the bigger state, not just your ethnic region, and to the bigger Russian nation  — even understood in purely political, not ethnic, terms.

It is not merely a Russian or a Serbian problem. It’s a sign of the times. The falling loyalty to the state and the increasing estrangement of certain parts of society, including native minorities and migrants, pose an apparent threat to  European countries. Nationalism and ethnic loyalties are not going away anytime soon. Globalization is more appropriately called glocalization. It doesn’t exclude nationalism and other “ancient regime” ideologies. Moreover, it helps them spread, if in some bizarre postmodern ways like “I hate you, your people and your culture, but I'm okay with using what your  godless nation produces anyway.”

If this analysis is correct, then the governments and the expert communities of our countries should contemplate several fundamental questions:  If multiculturalism has failed, as admitted by the leaders of Germany[7] and the UK,[8] to say nothing about Hungary[9] and Poland,[10] what does this failure entail? Is preserving the majority, or dominating, culture less important than helping sustain cultural diversity? If a state is eager to fund the preservation and development of ethnic, cultural or religious identities separate from the dominating ones, then what's the primary objective in doing so, and isn’t this objective misguided or misguiding? And how does it help, if it does, strengthen the cohesion of the population of the given country?

Stanislav Byshok, CIS-EMO


[1] Fukuyama F. The end of history? // The National Interest, No. 16, 1989

[2] Martin T. The affirmative action empire: nations and nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2001

[3] Puchala D. The History of the Future of International Relations // Ethics and International Affairs, No 8, 1994, p. 183

[4] Владимир Путин: «Распад СССР - крупнейшая геополитическая катастрофа века» // Regnum (25.04.2005). URL: https://regnum.ru/news/polit/444083.html (

[5] Путин: При Ленине заложили атомную бомбу под здание, которое называется Россией // Взгляд (21.01.2016). URL: https://vz.ru/news/2016/1/21/789873.html

[6] Валерий Тишков: «Сила России – в ее многонациональности» // Azerros (25.10.2013). URL: http://azerros.ru/intervju/15929-valeriy-tishkov-sila-rossii-v-ee-mnogonacionalnosti.html

[7] Angela Merkel: German multiculturalism has 'utterly failed' // The Guardian (17.10.2010). URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/oct/17/angela-merkel-german-multiculturalism-failed

[8] State multiculturalism has failed, says David Cameron // BBC (5.02.2011). URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-12371994

[9] Multiculturalism doesn't work in Hungary, says Orban // Reuters (3.06.2015). URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-orban-idUSKBN0OJ0T920150603

[10] Polish Government Will Not Allow ‘Bloody Harvest’ of Multiculturalism // Breitbart (19.04.2017). URL: http://www.breitbart.com/london/2017/04/19/western-europe-bloody-harvest-multiculturalism-poland/

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