Kimberly Marten writes: There are two ways to talk about a Russian person or thing in the Russian language. One way, “Rossisskii,” refers to Russian citizens and the Russian state. Someone who is ethnically Chechen, Tatar, or Ukrainian can be “Rossisskii” if they carry a Russian passport and live on Russian territory.
Up until now that is how Russian President Vladimir Putin has always referred to the Russian people. Even the rather aggressive pro-Putin Russian youth movement of a few years back, Nashi (or “ours”) — with its summer camps, mass calisthenics rallies, and ugly jeering at opposition politicians — was always careful to use the word “Rossisskii.” While some critics like Valeria Novodvorskaya portrayed Nashi as if it were some kind of updated version of the Hitler youth, the group in fact never took on an ethnic slant.
That all changed on Tuesday. In his Kremlin speech to the two houses of the Russian parliament, Putin made a fateful choice. Instead of sticking to the word “Rossisskii,” he slipped into using “Russkii,” the way to refer in the Russian language to someone who is ethnically Russian. Putin said, “Crimea is primordial “Russkaya” land, and Sevastapol is a “Russkii” city.” He went on to say, “Kiev is the mother of “Russkie” cities,” in a reference to the ancient city of Kievan Rus’. (This reference must have grated on the ears of Ukrainian nationalists; as scholar Andrew Wilson points out, the historiography of Rus’ is fraught with the question of contested national origins.)
When speaking of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin added, “Millions of ‘Russkii’ went to sleep in one country and woke up in another, instantly finding themselves ethnic minorities in former Soviet republics, and the ‘Russkii’ people became one of the largest, if not the largest, divided nation in the world.”
Putin thereby signaled a crucial turning point in his regime. He is no longer simply a Russian statist, an old KGB man who wants to recapture Soviet glory, as Brookings analysts Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy argued in their fascinating 2013 biography. Instead Putin has become a Russian ethnic nationalist. [Continue reading…]