One interesting singularity of Russian history is the apparition of ethnicity during periods of political liberalism.  At the end of the nineteenth century, the attempt to reach the European ‘model’ of democracy was marked by claims for self-determination among the peoples of the Tsarist Empire.  Then, ethnicity became an asset between opposed political forces, and the Bolsheviks were prompt to furnish each people its own ‘national room’ inside the young USSR.  The institutionalisation of ethnicity went through radicalisation of state control and promotion of peculiar cultures and languages.  After the 1980s democratisation and concomitant ethno-national ‘rebirth’, local authorities of federated and autonomous republics built up their legitimacy on ethnic differentiation, insisting on the primacy of democratic principles for the solution of national questions.

In post-Soviet Russia, Tatarstan stays in the vanguard of the ethno-cultural ‘renaissance’.  The weight of ethnicity in the political and diplomatic life of the region has drawn the attention of many observers.  However, the actors concerned with this question have never been questioned.  Thanks to G. Makarova and E. Khodzhaeva, two sociologists from Tatarstan with a good knowledge of the local context, we are provided with this view from within that we were missing.  Their starting point is a questioning on how people in charge with cultural affairs interpret such a Western idea as multiculturalism.  More precisely, in a context of massive social transformations, does the change of ideological paradigm have an influence upon the bureaucratic habitus of the administrators of culture in Tatarstan?  The two authors of this substantial article have been interviewing twenty-five representatives of four groups involved in Tatar ethno-cultural politics: (1) employees of the Ministries of Education and Culture; (2) leaders of national movements; (3) members of artistic organisations; and (4) journalists in charge with culture.  They have used a qualitative method of investigation with unstructured interviews in order to better understand each group’s discursive orientations.  Presenting the survey outcomes, the article mixes long citations of the interviewees with comments by the authors.

One logical purpose of the interviews is to make a diagnosis on the professionalism of each expert, his/her level of knowledge of subjects like existing models (in foreign countries and other regions of the Federation of Russia), and finally to estimate the part of personal convictions in their action.  In their comments the two authors draw the reader to the conclusion that experts did not pass their examination in modern knowledge on identities and that they share an essentialist understanding of ethnicity as promoted by the Soviet ideology.  Moreover, the experts’ interpretation of cultural differences and their professional values suggest how far they remain from international mainstream on cultural politics.  According to the authors, an explanation of such a situation is to be found in the personal biographies of civil servants, art workers and journalists, who generally have been educated during the Soviet times, and acquired a naturalistic representation of ethnos and national cultures.  In fact, the published material reveals the strength of Soviet views on ethnicity and the superficial impact of Western conceptions on the post-Soviet way of thinking and bureaucratic practice.  Confronted with the idea that Soviet patterns of cultural management are just reproduced under new conditions, both authors show their disappointment:  “Widespread in academic field, talks about multiculturalism are totally unknown among the population polled (181).”

Apart from this statement, the situation does not appear as unambiguous as the authors want to present it.  Many scholars take part in the elaboration of regional cultural policy and for instance, the Academy of Sciences of Tatarstan has been involved in the organisation of the Third Congress of Tatarstan Peoples in November 2007.  Considering such facts, one can regret that the authors did not pay attention to the scholars and to their concrete implication in ethno-cultural affairs.  The main problem of their analysis is the simplification of a reality that must be characterised by its heterogeneity and defined as a form of hybridisation.  In professional environments, several discursive models are actually competing.  Uniformity is only effective inside such corporative cultures as that of administration or journalism, where strong regulation norms have to be respected by individuals in order to obtain social recognition.  Less regulated fields like science and arts authorise dissimilar discourses.  Therefore, the conclusion established by the authors that “their main paradigm (of the specialists polled) was and remains the crisis of Soviet society and not a global change in the cultural models of integration (17)” is erroneous.  The preservation of such a discursive inertia is not due to any faith in the Soviet ideals, but to the specificities of the social structures of modern-day Russia, which can obviously not be defined as homogenous.  For instance, new fields like communication technologies, management business or services are directly related with western models and value system.  Other spheres of activity still remain under deep transformation as the education, which has to integrate the Bologna arrangements.  If, as shown in the survey, bureaucratic institutions manage to keep Soviet patterns of some sorts, explanations for this phenomenon can be found in the concentration of resources in the hand of state employees, in the social anomy due to the loss of confidence in public institutions, and therefore in the civic passivity of the population.  On the other hand, intellectuals play a central role in the transfer of ethnicity as a bureaucratic habitus and a state ideology.  The success of the leaders of the national movement, for instance, is mostly due to their ability to be in accordance with bureaucratic discourses, values, and behavioural standards.

After such reflections, it appears that both the enunciation of the question by the two authors and the presentation of their answer are part of this hybridisation process.  Old and new elements appear discordant in an ideological opposition.  However the question is on the nature of this contradiction.  Is it the sign of the transitional character of the present or just an imitation of new discourses?  As far as imitation can only be temporary, two solutions remain:  If imitation is provoked by a sentiment of inadequacy with more global changes, the old will inevitably leave the place to something new.  Imitation can also be a sort of temporary concession, a break before a reactive onset: the eradication of the new.  Only time will show which hypostasis of imitation we are dealing with.  Finally, the significance of the present article lays on the wealth of the material collected, which allows us to observe unknown fragments of Tatarstan’s public life, but more fundamentally the opening of new research perspectives.

Lilia Sagitova, Institute of Ethnology, Kazan
CER: I-7.2-616