The present article follows a PhD dissertation presented in 1999 (Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003) on the surge of nationalism in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia since the late 1980s. Limiting his study to the concrete conditions of “ethnic mobilisation,” the author had concluded this important monograph on the idea that nationalist movements resulted from institutional structures, not from cultural differences. Since the 1920s Soviet political institutions have ‘maintained’ ethnicity as the main form of collective identification among non-Russian populations. The validity of this theory had been tested in the present article through statistical material from a sociological poll conducted in 1993 among fifteen ethnic groups in thirteen republics of the Federation of Russia. The author postulates that education in native language has considerably reinforced ethnic identification and ability to engage in recent nationalist movements. (This starting point unfortunately lacks historical assessment on language teaching in the USSR. Nothing is said, for instance, of the 1958 education law, nor of the decisive role played in the 1960s by Russian language in non-Russian schools. Besides, the choice of Russian language was made predominantly by rural elites, the same who represent, according to the institutional theory, the avant-garde of cultural nationalism.)
The data obtained in the 1993 survey on ethnic politics and on the status of titular languages are analysed through direct comparisons with the initial hypotheses. It appears that support for cultural nationalism was more pronounced among intellectuals, the rural population and migrants from rural to urban areas, and that it increased with the respondent’s age and level of religious identification. As far as regional separatism is concerned, it was strongly supported by intellectuals, rural/urban migrants and members of the political elite. D. Gorenburg’s conclusion is that the institutional explanation is largely confirmed by these results. However difficulties remain as to the interpretation of this material: can’t the opposition of agricultural workers to separatism be explained by economic considerations as well as by relationship with ethnic identities? More generally speaking, the idea that sensitivity to nationalism depends on exposure to education in native language severely reduces the complexity of social reality. An important point to be considered here is the autonomy of society and the historical move from collective membership to more subjective definitions of identities. If the author successfully shows that nationalist movements of the 1980s-90s have been formed by intellectuals and students, not by local political elites first opposed to them, it would have shown relevant to distinguish between state taxonomy and its social activation: Formulated and spread by Soviet scholars, teachers, and administrators, modern ethnic categories have been used in the 1970 by urbanised and educated non-Russian populations claiming ethnic identity in order to obtain political advantages. These remarks notwithstanding, the value of the analysis provided is considerable for the understanding of contemporary Russia, the present article proving an interesting contribution to nationalism studies and federalism.