In this episode of the New Lines Institute’s Contours podcast series, host Nicholas Heras is joined by three outstanding experts, Leyla Latypova, Misha Yakovlev, and Jeff Hawn, to discuss the state of Russian civil society and the civil resistance movement against the Putin-led Russian government. The discussion focuses on the current, contentious, and potentially regime-destabilizing dynamic between the Putin’s regime and Russia’s ethnic and religious minority populations. They also explore how the Russian state targets civil rights – including LGBTQ rights – and how the Putin-led government might remodel its security apparatus in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nicholas Heras: Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us for today’s segment, the Contours Podcast Series. I’m Nick Heras, and I’m joined today by three absolutely top notch experts to discuss the interactions between the Putin-led Russian state and civil society in Russia. Leyla Latypova, Misha Yakovlev, and Jeff Hawn. We’ll also have a deep dive discussion on Russia beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg with a detailed and nuanced look at how Russia’s ethnic and religious minority populations engage with the Putin-led Russian state. And we’ll have a frank discussion on the state of civil rights in modern Russia and how the Russian government has weaponized the Orthodox church to oppress people of all backgrounds. But first, let me introduce our outstanding panel of experts.
Layla Latypova is a news reporter for the Moscow Times. Prior to joining the publication, she worked as a geopolitical risk analyst covering Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. She’s also pursuing a postgraduate degree at the University College London, School of Slavonic and Eastern European studies, where her primary research focus is on regional politics and mobilization in Russia. Leyla is an ethnic Tatar hailing from the Republic of Bashkortostan in Russia’s Volga Ural region.
Misha Yakovlev is a noted Russian civil rights leader who’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. In film and television studies at the university of Warwick in United Kingdom. Misha’s research investigates shifting configurations of agenda, sexuality and race on the Russian screen during the period often imagined in terms of transition to democracy from 1986 to 2006. And Jeff Hawn is a nonresident fellow here at the New Lions Institute who’s leading our project on Russia and the post-Soviet states. Jeff is also a doctoral candidate at London School of Economics, Department of International History where his research focuses on the aftermath of the cold war and the emergence of modern Russia. Welcome Layla, Misha and Jeff.
Okay. So I want to start this discussion off with a look at where Russia stood in terms of the state and the Putin regime’s respect for civil and human rights on the eve of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine that began on February 24th. Leyla, I want to start with you, what was the situation for civil and human rights in Russia before the invasion?
Layla Latypova: Yeah, we certainly have seen things deteriorating, to be frank, for the past 20 years of the Putin regime. It has been quite gradual and I think things have really sped up in the past several years. Let’s take a five year window, per se. And of course, the coronavirus pandemic just gave the Kremlin even more pretext and leeway to crack down on human rights. Certainly, one big thing we can point out is the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, and his subsequent arrest on return to Russia. Now, Navalny is a problematic figure in Russian opposition movement as it stands right now and in civil society in general. But the blatant way in which Navalny’s poisoning was orchestrated, that was a big red light that unfortunately, a lot of people within Russia and the West in general ignored. And what I mean by ignored, we have seen some protests of course, in Russia, and that was an incredible momentum, but at the same time we haven’t really — by we, I mean Russian public in general — comprehended what might follow next. And with the West, it wasn’t bad enough to start applying harsher sanctions on Russia and harsher pressure.
And another aspect I do want to highlight, given my positionality as an ethnic minority, is of course, what we’ve seen with ethnic minority rights. That has been ignored for years, unfortunately by the Russia watcher community, if we may say so. But it just has been, a very systematic repression starting from, not allowing per se in Tatarstan for people to commemorate a very tragic capture of Kazan by the Russian Imperial State, to people not being able to study their native languages anymore. And I can expand on it further down the line, but the situation, to conclude, human rights and civil society has just been worsening. And as I said, ever since the coronavirus pandemic, things just started escalating at a speed we haven’t seen before. And that’s how we arrived to tragic point that we’re seeing right now.
NH: Thank you, Layla. Misha, I wanted to turn to you because one of the dynamics that seemed to not be widely remarked upon here in the United States in the discourse or the beginning of the war, was that Vladimir Putin actually made a speech on February 24th that was in many senses, xenophobic as well as bigoted against non-Russians and Russians. And in particular, he emphasized the fact that he believed that the West and Russia’s enemies trying to destroy as he put it “traditional values enforce on us, their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes that they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration because they’re contrary to human nature. This is not going to happen. No one has ever succeeded in doing this, nor will they succeed now.” And there’s this raw visceral anger that you see in Putin. I want to ask you, what were the dynamics inside Russia that led to this?
Misha Yakovlev: One of the really interesting things about the ideology of Putinism is that it’s often reactive or that it perhaps may be seen to cater to the lowest common denominator when it comes to certain of its propaganda takes. There is a bit of a long history that allowed Putin to build on this narrative of disastrous Western values. And it’s of course that a lot of Russians, especially a lot of white, ethnic majority Russians, rather than ethnic minorities, like me or Leyla have experienced the breakdown of the USSR as a moment of real trauma. Not only because it was the tentative end of empire in many parts of the former country, but also because economic liberalization was not done properly, people really suffered in their daily lives. And the Putin regime over the last 20 years was very successful at turning those traumatic memories of the ’90s that were accompanied by this real poverty, lack of jobs and as seeming never ending sort of flow of Western information, goods, ads, and NGOs into Russia into this really deep narrative.
Look, the ’90s were really terrible and that’s because of the West. That’s one part of it. The other part is that the Putin regime, over the last 20 years, has really tried to create a new generation of Russians and change the minds of those Russians who grew up before Putinism to reestablish this Soviet era binary between the West and Russia. Of course, this is… After 20 years of Putinism, it’s very difficult to say what Russian values are. I would say there are no values. And if we’re speaking about degradation, the Putin regime and its propaganda are probably the best example of degradation because… Well, in that very speech you mentioned, he blamed Lenin for creating Ukraine at the same time as Russia and [inaudible] are actively restoring statues of Lenin in occupied Ukraine. This ideology is full of contradictions.
But this narrative that the West is to blame for bringing in values that are not natural, or that are harmful for Russians and Russian society, it has made life difficult for lots of people. For LGBT people, for feminists, for atheists, and of course for racial and ethnic minorities, because they’re also, or we are also often positioned as Western-funded agents who are trying to destabilize Russia and who are trying to secede or have a color revolution. But of course, it is the other way around. The Putin regime is actively engaged with razing indigenous and native cultures in Russia. It’s really engaged in stifling, any sort of critical debate, even within academic circles about things like gender and sexuality. It has made life difficult. And after the 24th of February, it has become so difficult that most high profile people engaged in any sort of activism where people who are just queer or feminists have fled Russia.
Thank you, Misha. This is a very important dynamic that you raise when you talk about the ways in which the regime tries craft this narrative, both for its external policies, but as well internally. Now, Jeff, I want to turn to you because you’ve spent a lot of time and energy thinking about, researching, and analyzing the role of the Russian Constitution and law in relation to human rights and how this all conflicts with the reality of life in Russia. Leyla and Misha gave us a very nuanced and detailed explanation on how Russians of various different backgrounds engage with the reality of their situation. So I wanted to ask you to take it for us from the perspective of Russian law and the constitution.
Jeff Hawn: Thanks, Nick. This is always a very interesting point that is sometimes overlooked. Russia is not a legally nihilistic state as it’s sometimes portrayed. In fact, Putin, I believe trained at one point as a lawyer. And often the regime goes to great lengths to find some basis for their behavior in law, in international law, in constitutional law or domestic law. And even though the invasion is a very twisted and distorted interpretation of the precedent of the responsibility to protect. So I think that the Russian Constitution as written, if you just look at it in a vacuum of what is put down on paper, is even more expansive and comprehensive on the subject of human rights than any other constitution I’ve read. Certainly more than the U.S. Constitution. It has 47 articles dedicated to human rights and is very explicit in enumerating those rights. However, in reality, as we often see, that’s completely ignored.
I think there was a video a couple of months ago of a protestor in Russia. You couldn’t see it, but you could hear her being beaten by a police officer. And she was screaming she wanted her Article 45 rights, which was the right to due process. And the officer told her to shut up and kept hitting her. And that’s pretty much how it plays out. And a lot of that has to do, not just with the fact the regime is a police state. Most of the human rights articles are actually leftovers from the amendments to the previous Russian Constitution draft in the 1990s. When Boris Yeltsin got rid of that constitution, he changed how the state worked. He increased the power of the presidency, and that’s what Putin’s used to consolidate power. But he kept all of those enumerated rights for one reason or another to assure various interest groups, both domestically and internationally.
And a lot of the dynamic though, of why those can be so widely ignored is how the regime sees itself in relationship to law. And I think this will speak something to how Leyla and Misha been talking about in that, one American diplomat one time told me that the Russian regime is the heir to the French Revolution or the French Enlightenment, the traditions of the French Enlightenment. So the highly centralized state, which is built around mechanisms of repression of the outer lying areas. And that’s how the regime tends to think of things. So a good example of how that works in practice is in a Russian courtroom, it’s a race between the defense attorney and the judge to see who is the most useless, weakest person in there, because the prosecutor essentially has all the power. And of course the prosecutor in Russia represents the interest of the state.
So the reality is very different from the theory. But the reason why these theories were put to paper in the first place was, there was a brief time in the ’90s when people were hoping Russia would follow a path of democratic reform. And a lot of that came from folks, who previously, under the Soviet system had been repressed, vocalizing their want for their God-given rights. But of course, we know that by the creation of these phantoms of external threats and domestic threats and all the rest of that, the regime has consolidated its power again and feels it can ignore its own human rights law, constitutional legislation more or less it will. And we’ve seen the gradual erosion of the civil society that had pushed against that. The shuttering of Memorial, which was originally set up to give voice to the victims of Stalinism and their founders. Several statues were erected to him across Russia, and they’ve gradually been coming down kind of quietly, but he, himself is now being somewhat erased from history. So reality and the laws written are very different.
NH: Thank you, Jeff. And I want to give Leyla the opportunity to react to what you’ve said, and Misha as well. Leyla.
LL: Thank you. I do want to add a point regarding the constitution. I think it’s crucially important to take note of the 2020 constitutional amendments that were added to the constitution. And one particular point that has been largely overlooked, but does make so much sense in retrospect of why we have seen it happening, is that the 2020 constitution have allocated a special status to Russian language and the ethnic Russians living in the country, because it particularly states that Russia language is the language of state-forming peoples. And in that sense, gives it an upper hand and a special privileged status compared to other minority languages that do exist in Russia. And there are hundreds of them. What we do see with this narrative that preceded Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, and what we see in the occupied territories right now is that, that was very deliberate.
And I believe too, a lot of minorities at the time when this amendments were adapted, people were very unhappy. There has been an appeal to a constitutional court from Tatarstan’s representatives who disagreed with this special status being given to the Russian language. Of course, that appeal was declined. I think it’s very important to see how much rhetoric Russian Constitution has. It is packed with this slight hints at what the Kremlin’s next step might be. And I also think it’s particularly interesting how the voices of minorities, both within a broader Russian civil rights community and activist community, as well as in the West, have been ignored for years, even though people kept voicing these concerns. And it’s very interesting how we see that, for lack of a better phrase, minorities had a point all along. And we see that the invasion of Ukraine just stands parallel to what has been happening to peoples who live on the territory of modern Russia for many, many years.
That just something I want to draw your attention to. And another point we might discuss later is also the federal structure of Russia, which is also outlined in the constitution, and how that has been disregarded and became a huge problem amid the centralization of the state.
MY: I know the Russian Constitution very well. I don’t know the constitution of the U.S. That well, but it might well be true that the Russian Constitution, in its principle, it’s in principle part, which I think part one and two, guarantees lots of individual freedoms to people. But it still follows this, in my opinion, unhelpful and neoliberal framework, which doesn’t recognize people’s rights as groups, but in the constitution, certain autonomy is granted to ethnic republics. But for example, indigenous people, there is no constitutional law for them. And even if we compare Russia and the U.S. Directly, Yupik and Aleut people in Alaska enjoy some sovereignty with their traditional land, through the Native Alaskan and U.S. Government Treaty, which was signed, I think in the sixties. And gave all the indigenous people of Alaska access to corporations that own land in Alaska, and are free to exploit it in that host of other rights. And the same Aleut and Yupik groups on the Russian side enjoy nothing of the sort.
That is the same of Nenets people or Enets, as we should really pronounce them, and Yamal who have campaigned for years to end the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 projects that are really harmful to their traditional lifestyle. But also obviously, the proceeds from these projects were never intended to go to these groups, but to the Russian state, which would then use them to invade Ukraine, et cetera. And why I think it’s really important, this omission of collective and indigenous rights, is because at this points to the broader invisibility of native and indigenous people in the West. And I think one of the reasons why Putin has been allowed to consolidate his power — and there is no doubt that he was allowed to do that by Western states who pursued a very, in my opinion, disgusting foreign policy of appeasement and enablement towards Russia, not least Germany and France but also the U.S. In various periods — is because the governments of these states never took the rights of these people, and I mean indigenous native people, seriously.
Because there is this narrative that, the constitution was written under Yeltsin, so it’s necessarily liberal. But of course the invasion of Ukraine is not the first international war that post-Soviet Russia engaged in. There were the conflicts in Abkhazia and Transnistria. So Abkhazia is an autonomous republic in Georgia, and Transnistria is an autonomous republic in Moldova, which happened under Yeltsin. And when he was the commander in chief of the Russian forces, both of these sort of enclaves have Russian forces to this day. It was a more complicated situation in Karabakh. And of course there is Chechnya where there were two wars in the early ’90s and late ’90s into the early 2000s. There was the war in Georgia. There was Syria. And yes, on the one side, there is a real…
A lot of ethnic Russians buy into the Imperial myth. This is how they self-identify. So Putin is preaching to somebody within Russia. But most importantly, I think there is something wrong with the world. And there is something wrong with Anglo-American and West European hegemony in the world and which kinds of lives and which kind of issues they care about and which kind of issues they don’t care about. Because, while of course, the Russian government and lots of citizens are complicit in this violence in Ukraine, it was certainly enabled by this blindness to the concerns of indigenous people, to the concerns of environmental activists, to the concerns of LGBT and Muslim people and especially Muslim people from Chechnya.
JH: Well, I think they’re both raising a very important point. And this is something I do think is very overlooked in the Western study and narratives of Russia. Sometimes I feel like Russian studies in the West should be relabeled Moscow studies or Putin studies because it’s very obsessively focused on a particular circle of the Russian state. Granted, that circle wields a lot of outsized power. But we have to remember that Russia as a nation is huge. I believe, and Leyla and Misha feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that there are over 190 different ethnic groups and over 135 different languages spoken in Russia. And the war in Ukraine, I think, has brought this to the forefront for a lot of people who previously didn’t really think about it. Although I agree with Misha, I don’t think it gets enough attention. I don’t think that people think about Russia beyond Moscow.
I certainly know from my studies in the ’90s, there was a obsession with the need to preserve stability in Moscow, and by and large Russia, at all costs because of the fear of a much larger version of Yugoslavia. And one thing we’re seeing as a result of the war, though, is the admitted Russian casualties per capita are much larger from minority regions. I believe that Dagestan and Buryatia are the two leaders on the number of casualties that Russians have admitted. And we know the Russian state is concealing the overall size of casualties. So for me, it was a very powerful image. This was actually posted in Russian media, watching a funeral for Russian servicemen being buried in their home city in Eastern Russia. And it was a Buddhist funeral. And so how that contrast with…
Obviously we know Putin, as part of his rhetoric, because he changes based on who he’s speaking to. But he claims to be a president for all Russians, but this ideology he’s leaned into, the very imperialistic chauvinism, very ethnic Russian superiority, how that contrasts with the people who are actually dying in what frankly could be considered an imperialist war.
MY: Thank you so much for that point. I just wanted to reflect on that. I think it’s really important to raise this, that at least the reported casualties are disproportionately native minorities. And if we see they come from Buryatia and Dagestan, which are native minority regions that have been quite literally ravaged by Russian colonialism in ways that, for example, Chuvashia has not. In Dagestan, through securitization and in both Dagestan and Buryatia through very deliberate economic policies that make native people there extremely poor. In Buryatia, as in all other Russian republics with the slight exception of the Caucasus, because there aren’t that many ethnic Russians living in the Caucasus. But in Buryatia, native Buryat people having been systematically pushed out of good geographical locations. Which means they don’t have access to the same opportunities in agricultural work. And at the same time, the cities in Buryatia have a disproportionate number of Russians compared to the overall proportion, ethno-racial breakdown of the population of the Republic.
And this means that a lot of the time, these people, both in Buryatia and Dagestan, live in extremely poor regions in Russia. And if you look at Russian regions by GDP capita, the poorest, probably in the 10 poorest regions, the outright majority are native republics. So yeah, these men in these republics, they have no alternative, but to enroll in the army. And of course, when they were enrolling, they perhaps didn’t know. And I think a lot of them didn’t know that they will be sent to Ukraine because I doubt that many people enrolled or many people who have died and whose deaths have been reported, they clearly enrolled before the war started.
But I think there is another side to this. Well, first of all, the decisions about staffing in the Russian army and then the Soviet army and the Imperial army before then have always been racist. And there is some research about this, but basically in Russia today, ethnic minorities, especially non-white ethnic minorities, because of course there are white ethnic minorities, but non-white ethnic minorities tend to be put in the lowest ranking, meat fodder type units and battalions. And you’d see that white Russians from Moscow are serving as pilots and people who launch the rockets from somewhere in Belgorod region. And people who are literally marching in the mud to Ukraine tend to be ethnic minorities.
Also, I think the Russian media quite deliberately, over blows the proportion of ethnic minorities who participate in the war. And I’ve already seen in Russian media and especially in Russian liberal media, there are narratives saying that, well, people who are raping kids in Ukraine, they are not Russians, or they’re not Russians from Moscow. They are these people from the Buryat villages. Or there are these white Russians from some town with no jobs where they drink alcohol all the time. And this is why I think people like Navalny are really problematic.
And the third part I think is that perhaps it is more difficult not to report on deaths in small republics because there are still kinship networks. Perhaps there are clan structures in certain republics so you can’t really… If a hundred soldiers died and they all came from Moscow, you can report two and nobody will connect the dots. If a hundred soldiers die from Buryatia then people will end up connecting the dots anyway.
NH: So I want to pick up on this really rich discussion because I think it’s very important when we talk about the state of human rights and civil rights inside Russia and how that applies now to the geopolitics of the conflict in Ukraine. Alexander Etkind wrote about internal colonization, about Russia’s Imperial experience and about how ethnic and religious minorities didn’t choose to become part of the Russian empire. They were colonized. And that a lot of the perception that we have here in the West or United States about Russia is, as Jeff pointed out, dominated by this perspective of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
And both Leyla and Misha have really pointed out just the diversity of Russia and how you have so many different peoples that make up the Russian nation. So Leyla, I wanted to pose this question to you, but also open it for Misha and Jeff as well. When you think about how the current Russian regime actualizes this concept of internal colonization, what does it look like? How does it apply that concept to its perception of Ukraine and Ukrainians? And then you recently wrote an excellence article for the Moscow Times where you talked about Russia’s exiled ethnic activists and how they think that this current conflict in Ukraine might provide them with an ironic window of opportunity. So I want to give you also the chance to pull on that thread a bit more for us.
LL: Thank you, Nicholas. I will start with speaking about this narrative of colonization. Even though funny, because I believe for every minority, every conscious minority within Russia and for many Ukrainians themselves, the colonial nature of this invasion is quite obvious. It’s a war of an empire that wants to expand, that wants to push its culture further outward, or rather reclaim what they think they once had, because that’s how Russia views Ukraine and all other territories that it once colonized. But at the same time, our view, by our I mean minorities, but also many Ukrainians if I or may include them in this, has been completely disregarded not only by the Kremlin, but also by, unfortunately, a lot of the liberal opposition within Russia. There has been much discussion about how blaming the invasion of Ukraine on Russian colonialism on this, the tumor that has never been removed, that it is just problematic. It feels xenophobia, et cetera.
There is unfortunately a lot of that narrative. That is very problematic because I believe even if Russia will in the future exist somewhere within the borders, the legal borders that are internationally recognized, if I may say, that exists right now, there will be no peace within that country until… No peace or reconciliation until the white Russians, if I may say, the Slavic population, the majority, recognizes the deeply rooted, colonial mentality that many of them possess. So that’s one part of this. From personal experience, I’m an ethnic Tatar so one episode we keep referring to is the very bloody conquest of Kazan. It happened back in 1552. It’s still this trauma and memory that the Tatars carry on through generations. And in fact, one fascinating detail about it is that commemoration of the Battle of Kazan, when Kazan was captured by the Russian forces, Kremlin has been repeatedly prohibiting it. Tatar activists try to gather, we call that [inaudible].
They try to gather every year to commemorate it, to remember the dead because the true history, it was a very bloody massacre. But it has been prohibited by the authorities while at the same time, on the same day, Orthodox Russians have been allowed to commemorate their dead. The Russian occupants, for lack of a better word, who died during this siege of Kazan. So it’s fascinating that yes, this Imperial narrative is growing stronger and stronger on this local level. Unfortunately again, it has been ignored. Transitioning to my Moscow Times article. There is a lot that is packed in there. Also, given the research that I do as a scholar, which focuses on regional protest movements, it is fascinating because certainly when the invasion of Ukraine began, within several weeks we have seen these online communities sprung up. It’s usually very young people, high school kids or university students who started taking interest in the Tatar language.
They immediately connected the dots and they felt this resemblance of what once happened to their people. So there is growing interest in the language. There is growing interest in the true history. And when I say true history, I mean that history books in the regions have been rewritten. In Bashkortostan, for example, where I’m from, ever since the Soviet times, there has been this new narrative that Bashkirs just voluntarily joined Russia, which has not been the case, but it’s still taught. As I said in my article, window of opportunities is there, and we can speak more about it later, but it’s also fascinating to see that there has been this new generation of leadership in this republic that has been developing, growing and particularly, I think the contrast is very interesting between Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, because Tatarstan is quite known to Western scholars, for example, because it had a strong secessionist movement in the ’90s and retained a lot of powers and a lot of independence from Kremlin until just this year, when it has been deprived of presidency.
Bashkortostan for example, which neighbors the region, way less attention has been paid to it. But what we’re seeing now is that Bashkortostan, for lack of a better word, “ethnic” opposition, has come up with absolutely fascinating model for the future state that they want to see. And it’s a political state because Bashkortostan is multi-ethnic and they recognize that. And Bashkortostan has developed a very, very strong movement. So yeah, there is a lot to unpack in there and it’s a shame that it’s very rarely talked about and that unfortunately, by the scholarship in the watcher community, it has been ignored for many, many years.
MY: Thanks, Leyla. I just wanted to add very quickly that I think when the USSR broke apart in 1991, the decisions of which states became independent and which stayed as part of Russia was generally arbitrary. And it all goes down to the way, under Stalin actually, who was the commissar for nationalities in the early Bolshevik regime, so in the twenties. It basically goes down to the way that basically, Stalin and some people in the Soviet regime a little bit later, who made some changes, did administrative borders and what they classified as autonomous regions, what they classified as Soviet level republics, et cetera, and how they treat the borders. And I think this is why people in Ukraine understand the predicament faced by people in Georgia after the war. They understand the predicament faced by people in Chechnya.
And Ukraine historically has been one of the most important places of safety or relative safety where Chechens who participated in the two anticolonial wars and lost, unfortunately, went to. And this is also why lots of Russian ethnic or national, however you want to call it, minorities sympathize with Ukraine because our predicament is dissimilar only from a legal perspective. If you look at the structures of colonialism and the way that colonialism has oppressed us historically, it’s very similar. And also it’s very clear that in the mind of the Kremlin, there is no difference between the Republic of Tatarstan, which stayed as part of Russia and a republic like Ukraine and Kazakhstan that became independent. Because for them, this is all part of the big empire. And I’m not sure about now, but definitely in the lead up to the 24th of February, the thinking the Kremlin was is that they want all of the republics to rejoin Russia as this one big empire.
And that’s why the first things that the Russians have done in a lot of the occupied parts of the Ukraine and the Kherson region, and in other parts of the southeast was just immediately start rewriting the school program, rewriting the media narrative and rewriting history. There are billboards in Kherson right now that say Kherson is a city with Russian history because the colonial project is, as Leyla was saying, to erase minorities from the history books and then to erase them completely. Ukraine as a white country has an added disadvantage that it’s very easy for Russians to assimilate Ukrainian people, which they have been doing by literally taking children from Ukraine and sending them to Russia, to be adopted by Russia family.
NH: Jeff, would you like to weigh in?
JH: Some really interesting points. And Leyla, wasn’t sure if you were aware, but actually Arizona State University is going to be having intensive Tartar languages this coming summer. And I think some other American academic institutions are are starting on Russian minority language training. So I think that’s a good start because I think one of the biggest problems the US State Department had at the end of the Cold War was they had exactly zero people trained on any languages within the USSR, other than Russian. Some people spoke Ukrainian if they came from Ukrainian families, but still. Languages are very critical and people being able to use their language as part of their identity is a very crucial thing. One thing I did want to speak to is the historical problem the Russian state has had with its own identity.
And one of the reasons why I think we keep winding back up with these very militarist, imperialist policies, is that it’s just the way they’ve always been. And anytime there’s been an effort to shift to a new identity, it’s fallen flat. The original revolution of 1917, there was some very high-minded rhetoric about Russia finally becoming a modern state. But then of course, we saw the Bolshevik coup, the subsequent civil war. And the Soviet Union, although it had a lot of rhetoric around the rights of minorities, we saw that that was mostly all propaganda. And it continued. Of course there was the brutal repressions under Stalin, the deportations and the executions. Essentially the genocide of the Holodomor. And then we saw this continue through into the 1990s, the area I look at, it’s very interesting in that Russian politics remained very personalized and institutions, as they were, remained very shallow.
They were vehicles for personal ambition. And it was interesting that the person whose personal ambition essentially brought down the USSR, Boris Yeltsin, one of his key points or one of the key reasons why he was such a viable leader was he was not from the Moscow elite circles. He was a provincial boss, but he was also an ethnic Russian. And we see that in the clashes he had with the chairman of the Russian parliament at the time who was in the ethnic Chechen. And that gentleman, Ruslan Khasbulatov, of course politically, has been all over the map and has become quite reactionary. But at the time, one thing I’ve continuously picked up in my research is, a good number of the elites, or should I say, the liberal intelligentsia who made up one of the core circles of the opposition to the Soviet Union, were very dismissive and derisive of people from outside the Moscow circle. And especially if they were from outside the Moscow circle, but they were not ethnically Russian.
So it’s just this failure to find some sort of new identity. We saw in the 1990s, they fell back onto that same Great Russian Imperial project identity. And yes, I think that’s led as there’s been no safeguard against the erosion of some of those democratic rights that were seized in the ’90s. Gradually, it’s opted more and more back towards repression and a gradual tightening, like Leyla pointed out and Misha as well. But then I think it’s just rapidly accelerated. The question is though, is how much longer the Russian state will be able to sustain itself because it is vast. And as we’ve noted, it’s a federalist entity where local regions have a variety of economic, ethnic, and political interest. And in some ways are reliant on that client/patron relationship up and down the chain of Russian politics. But as the Russian economy continues to suffer under sanctions, as the war continues to grind up more and more men and more and more resources, how much more will the regime in Moscow be able to exercise control over the Russian heartland?
MY: I just want to make a quick point about the Russian state’s ability to sustain itself. And that is an interesting question because even when it comes to the tools and strategies of oppression, we see that ironically, Moscow, which was always seemed to be the liberal or the bastion of freedom in Russia and one of the richest and most desirable places to live in Russia; it is probably one of the very few places in Russia where the Russian state can afford to survey and really brutally police everyone through face recognition software and technologies like that, which have not been rolled out anywhere else.
And there isn’t the same presence of police in per capita terms in other regions. There are some exceptions like Chechnya. So a lot of the regions in Russia are part of Russia because the authorities have a vested interest in maintaining the power structures because they profit directly from those. How long can this be sustained? It’s an interesting question. And of course, related to this question is the question of whether the current political leaders in the regions, which never represent the interest of the people in those regions, whether they see for themselves a viable financial future without or outside of Putinism.
NH: So very quickly, I want to build on the points that all three of you have made. When we look at these narratives of internal colonization that have happened in Russia. We have these other analogy of the icon and the axe, that famous image of how the Russian state, the Russian Empire was forged. You have the icon and you have the ax. And implicit in that is this idea of pioneering and colonizing, but also something else, this manifest destiny or a God-given mission. And so I wanted to weave into this discussion, and I’m going to go to Misha first, how has the current regime under Putin and his partners, how have they tried to weaponize the Russian Orthodox church and utilize it to advance their own goals? And how has that weaponization of religion, this key faith to the Russian people, had an impact on human rights and civil rights inside Russia? And how might it continue to affect the human rights and human dignity of Russians moving forward in a post-February 24th, 2022, environment?
MY: In terms of the Orthodox church, I think we should… I don’t want to give a history lesson, but in the 1920s, the communists purged the Russian Orthodox church. They replaced the patriarch. And although the church remained from the ’20s until the end of the USSR, officially, outside of the acceptable state socialist norm, the Russian Orthodox church has, from the initial purge that allowed the Bolshevik party to replace the top levels of the clergy with their own people, remain a KGB institution or an informal arm of the KGB. And if you look at Soviet history, people who went to church were usually liberals, and usually people repressed by the states. But the church people themselves, the clergy, they enjoyed quite a nice and privileged life. With the exception of those members of the clergy who tried to stand up to the Soviet state.
And the structure was never dismantled and this is why, in countries like Ukraine and in countries like Estonia, there’s a real suspicion of the Moscow patriarchate as an institution. Because everybody, or maybe not everybody, but people who make the decisions and people who are engaged in the political lives of these countries, but also people who are engaged as political actors in Russia, we know that the church is arm of the state. And it is a very clever arm because it has enabled, even those Russians who have opposed the Soviet regime based on the religion issue. It has enabled the Putin regime to access. And the way it accesses them is by making the church conform to its propaganda. And a lot of the time, the church even foreshadows the next repressive laws that will be passed by the Putin regime. The church might be a little bit ahead of the current legal situation. But it’s pretty clear that they have the same agenda and that the narratives that they’re building are being built together with the Kremlin.
This is a narrative of Western threat. This is the narrative of Russia as a holy place and a direct successor to the Roman Empire. There is this narrative that Moscow is the third Rome. That Moscow and not Brussels is the true center of Christian European civilization. And as the true center, it has this divine right to defend itself against debilitating or immoral threats, which are coming from the West. A lot of Russians buy into it. And I read some really interesting research that says that even some Russians who answer that they’re Russian Orthodox in the census, are not actually religious. They just understand Russian Orthodoxy and Russian to be the same thing. And being a Russian Orthodox Christian has become almost a racial and national designator.
JH: I essentially agree with what Misha was saying about the Russian Orthodox church as an arm of the state. And he’s absolutely right. I remember reading Alexei the Second, the patriarch who was installed in 1990, who was really the first patriarch of a post-Soviet Russia. When asked what his number one concern for the church was, he said it was the spread of quote witchcraft in Russia. Apparently referring to the growing prominence of Wiccanism or the moral panic in the West around some perceived worship of older nature deities or something. Anyway, it’s just interesting that in a time of such huge social change, when the church really could have been focused on reclaiming its property and reinvigorating itself spiritually, he was more concerned about a somewhat imagined external threat. So Misha’s absolutely right. And I think the Russian regime uses the Orthodox church as a facade for its hollow ideology.
Because if you actually look at the ideology of the current regime, it’s very cynical, self-serving and flexible. In a lot of ways I think that makes it very weak. But it’s able to always glom onto this kind of chauvinistic idea of great Russian nationalism. And people being affiliated with the church who speak in favor of the regime or who endorse the regime, it gives it a certain weight to a large segment of the population. But I think it’s worth noting that although orthodoxy is the most prominent religion among ethnic Russians, taking this back to minority groups, there’s actually a wide array of religions practiced in Russia. Ranging from other Christian denominations to a variety of Asiatic religions, including Buddhism as we mentioned. Then also Islam, I believe, is the second largest religion. And I think Leyla can probably speak more to that than I can.
But my understanding is, in some ways the Putin regime has held up the prominence of Islam within Russia, as a reason why the West should not push it too hard. Because it’s like, oh, well, you see, we have all these Muslims. And if you push out our regime in Moscow, then it’s going to be the Taliban all over the place. Which is a very crude way to say it but that is kind of how the narrative plays in. It’s worth noting though, that there’s a very wide array of interpretations of Islam within Russia. And I believe one of the most fundamentalist sects or fundamentalist interpretations is in Chechnya currently. And that’s actually being used by a very pro-Putin micro-totalitarian regime within Chechnya itself. Essentially the regime within Chechnya is using religion to justify a lot of its atrocities. So faith and politics in Russia is like anywhere else, very complex and convoluted.
I think Misha made an excellent point bringing up the third Rome. But we should also consider the different contours and dynamics. And we shouldn’t dismiss the Orthodox church as a monolithic entity. I have noticed that there have been a fair number of priests from the Orthodox church who have been excommunicated and defrocked for protesting against the war or for speaking out against the war. So that tends to be the general trend, while the senior leadership is quite in cahoots with whoever’s in power at the time, sometimes on a more grassroots level, you’ll see some genuine efforts to be a focal point of social mobilization. But again, also like Misha said, there’s also a lot of informing that goes on and there’s a lot of active support for the regime. Very complex and multilayered topic, but it is interesting to see how the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches have been excommunicating each other since 2014. So someone’s going to have some very complicated paperwork at some point.
NH: So Leyla, I want to follow up on what Jeff and Misha have discussed quite elegantly. And one of the dynamics that I’ve noticed in talking to folks here in Washington, D.C., Who look at Russia and stare at the country seriously is, there is a sense that there is more space, if you will, on the margins of Russian territory, in more remote regions for a bit more of a combative, potentially not anti-regime per se, but questioning the regime in these more remote areas of Russia that happen to also have a significant population of ethnic and national minorities.
And that their assessment, at fairly high levels here in the United States, is that one of the dynamics that they’re looking closely at is in this post-February 24th, 2022 environment, is that the nightmare for Putin and his compatriots is that you begin to see mini color revolutions on the margins of Russia that begin to become networks and become woven into a broader civil resistance movement inside the country, but importantly, outside of the country. And so I wanted to get your take on how likely that could be. And in the current environment that exists in Russia, do you see the regime trying to remodel itself into something that is more aggressive in these outlying areas of the country to prevent that potential reality from occurring?
LL: Thank you, Nick, for this question. I guess I will begin by saying that in my experience of studying social movements and my knowledge of Russian regions, this “ethnic discontent” will not alone be the factor that would destabilize the country and bring about large-scale protests. As I noted before, I think it’s very important to remember that even the so-called ethnic republics are very, very diverse regions of Russia. Taking again, Bashkortostan, for example. The three main ethnic groups within that republic are Russians, Tatars and Bashkirs who are the titular nationality. But at the same time, there are Chuvash, there are Maris,, there are Ukrainians, there are Polish communities there. It’s an incredibly diverse region. That brings me to another point is that people, no matter their ethnicity, have been living in regions such as Bashkortostan for years. And what we often notice is that, regardless of the ethnicity, people develop an allegiance to the region.
It’s completely normal. When you travel within Russia and people ask you where you’re from and you name that region. It’s your micro state that defines you and that functions in its own way, in some sense. And what we see in many of those regions is that, particularly in regions with a lot of natural resources, with a lot of natural wealth, including Bashkortostan and Tatarstan and the ethnic republic in Siberia in the north of Russia, that people, no matter their ethnicity, they get incredibly frustrated with Moscow. And that has been growing for a while because they have this incredible wealth, incredible resources. But then at the same time, they have salaries sometimes, three times, even more, they earn way less than people who live in Moscow are. And whenever I get asked about the dynamics within the Russian state, I love saying that, well, the oil or the natural gas doesn’t come from Moscow or the Red Square, that’s not the place. It’s all produced by the regions and people are very aware of that.
I think right now we have been seeing that Russia has been hit quite hard by the Western sanctions. The yearly inflation right now is projected to be at around 18%. That’s the highest it’s been in 20 years. We have seen some stabilization in prices over the past month, but people predict that if there will be another package of Western sanctions, but also when the current stocks of goods deplete, prices will start growing and will start fostering discontent. People, particularly in richer areas, richer republics like Bashkortostan became used to very comfortable lifestyle. And once you start losing that, a lot of questions come up. And particularly this whole question of why are we feeding someone out there? It’s this frustration and it’s very natural and it has been growing. So I think this frustration with the way of living, the dissatisfaction, falling income will become the main catalyst of any discontent that we might see.
And of course, as you said, the ethnicity might become the underlying factor. And particularly yes, in the areas that have been destroyed by Russian colonialism, but also in many of these ethnic republics, which in fact do have history of independent statehood and do have even democratic traditions. Again, with Bashkortostan, before it was colonized by Russia, was basically functioning as a democracy because it was a function in the way that tribes elect their elders. And then elders come together and discuss problems of the land at this, if you want to call it, federal level. There are a lot of traditions. Some traditions of statehood were also developed in the wake of Russian revolution. So there is a lot of historical narrative to go back to. I think it will take some time for discontent to develop, but we do have a lot of prerequisites there.
The bigger question is what the republics will be pushing for. And what we see right now developing in activist circles is that the project of this, whatever the future Russia might look like, they’re very actively discussed. There are talks of a confederate state. There are talks of this renewed federation. But there are also talks of secessionism and particularly for the republics. So Idel-Ural, that’s where Misha and I come from, it has long been the project for this independence of this region between the Volga and Ural mountains, where a number of so-called ethnic republics located. But for that, I believe it’s a bit too early to discuss.
MY: Thank you so much, Leyla. And I think Leyla is right to kind of emphasize this dramatic fall in living standards. Because if we go back to the very beginning of our discussion, the the narrative about the West being a harmful influence in Russia, is partially rooted in the economic collapse in the 1990s, which was positioned as this Western countries, literally taking the wealth of the USSR away and causing its collapse. And the Putin regime has long billed itself as this provider of stability. And that does not only mean political stability, but also economic stability. Of course, Russian economy has been doing particularly badly all the way since the invasion of Kyrim, or Crimea, in 2014. But now, the economic effect on the Russian economy is disastrous, especially since these new sanctions are coming at the end of the pandemic-related disruption which destroyed not only the Russian economies, but a lot of economies in the world.
But if we want to be hopeful, I think we can look back to the First World War and then Russia and the Russian Empire. There was also this wave of patriotism and at the start of the First World War. But then as the conditions worsened, there was the growing disillusionment with the political regime, which was the Romanov regime. And this kind of discontent eventually led to the February Revolution. However, things don’t necessarily proceed along the same tracks all the time. History does not always repeat itself. And if we don’t want to be as hopeful as Leyla and I want to be perhaps, we can also look at the wars in Chechnya and talking about democracy. Independent Chechnya had a tradition of formal democracy. They had OSCE and other international observers at their elections that basically judged them to be true and fair. Whereas already the second presidential election, independent Russia, it’s the second election that gave Yeltsin a second term was already not a free and fair election. But despite the fact that the church and state did not pose a particular terrorist threat to Russia until the start of the second Chechnyan war, which led to the spiral of violence caused by Russia, of course, the Russian government using tools of propaganda, which were not available to the Tsarist regime, or were not available to it to such an extent were able to justify its war. And to this day, there’s a lot of preconceptions and racism towards Chechnyans amongst Russians. And not only amongst Russians, but amongst other national minorities in Russia.
And I think there is a real danger that any region-based movement, even if it is not treated [inaudible] ethnicity, but if it’s a broader regional movement, for example, something like, we need Siberian money to stay in Siberia and not send this money to Moscow, always opens itself up for counter propaganda from the Russian state, which will basically paint these people as extremists intent on destroying Orthodox Christian values and lead to more repression. Hopefully that won’t happen, but I think it is a real danger.
JH: So just one point I wanted to bring up here that we talked about in regards to the economy. It’s important to note that before the war began in 2014, yes, Russia was experiencing a lot of economic growth, but that was already starting to slow. And the start of the war in 2014 and the imposition of sanctions helped to further slow it. Then of course, the COVID pandemic did as well. And now, sanctions are really hurting it. But a lot of that stems not from external pressure, but rather the intrinsic unbalance of how Russian state and society has been constructed since the 1990s. Essentially, the problem is, corruption is so prevalent and predatory business practices are just so widespread, that really, there’s been no incentive by people to become entrepreneurs or to try to invest in their own country. That’s why we saw so much money leaving Russia before sanctions were imposed. As people who had access to that wealth went and parked it in other countries where they thought it would be more secure. Even before the war began in 2014, Russia’s oil and gas outputs were already starting to level off and it’s essentially in a really tricky situation moving forward.
And as Leyla rightly noted, a lot of those resources are concentrated in minority, autonomous regions, and they’re not in Moscow and they’re not in Red Square. So I think the Russian economy will continue to get worse very quickly because the structural dynamics are just not there for it to support itself. And then I think Misha also brought up a very valid point, and while he’s right, we shouldn’t look too closely at history of repeating itself. If we do look at the historical precedent, conflict, especially poorly thought out, imperial conflict has been the catalyst for regime change in Russia for the last century. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905 launched the 1905 revolution. The 1917 revolution was a direct result of Russia’s entry into World War I. You can go back even further than that as a political historian. I always go back to the Decemberists who in a lot of ways were direct result of the Napoleonic Wars and the first attempt to actually create a constitution for Russia. That was in the 1850s. Conflict has been a catalyst for regime change.
NH: So I want to pick up on this thread, Jeff, with my last question for the three of you and start with you, Jeff. One of the interesting dynamics that we have discussed in today’s chat is that there is potential for a lot of torque to occur inside of Russia as a result of the February 24th, 2022 invasion of Ukraine. And the Russian regime that Vladimir Putin and his compatriots have erected is potentially quite fragile. So I wanted to ask the three of you, what indicators are you looking for over the next year that would tell you that we’re beginning to see a stirring or a significant stirring of dissent against the Russian regime and what that could mean for the future?
JH: What I’m paying close attention to is both what’s happening on the street outside of Moscow. If people are able to come out and protest, or people are motivated to come out and protest, that’s going to be an indication. But what’s going to be a further indication is how the local authorities respond to that. Do they let it happen? Do they try their best to crack down or do they just stand to one side? And then I’m also watching how local authorities behave. We’ve already started to see some signs of some issues within certain regions. Just a couple of days ago, some members of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which is one of the systemic opposition parties. It’s one of the parties we say, it’s really part of the regime. It’s just there so they can say, look, we have an opposition. The Far Eastern Assembly actually came out and read a petition aloud against the war.
Of course, they were smacked down for that. But then also we’ve seen members of municipal assemblies. I think there was one in particular on Victory Day who was a member of a municipal assembly, who was part of the Yabloko Party who actually engaged in active protests. So if we start to see people in local and regional politics start to feel like they can push back or they can make common cause with people who are upset at the regime’s policies, that, for me, is a big indication that the gang in Moscow is starting to lose its grip on the wider Russia.
But earlier I talked about how conflict has been a catalyst for political change within Russia, but no two of those changes happened exactly the same way. Both the 1825 Decemberists and the 1905 revolutions were heavily focused in Moscow and 1917 was heavily focused on St. Petersburg. But the 1917 revolution really began as more of a grassroots because what you had was, you had soldiers at the front lines essentially saying we’re just not going to fight anymore. And you had a parallel structure of authority, the local councils or the soldiers’ councils or the workers’ councils setting up their own parallel state even while the Imperial State was still in existence. So no two changes have happened exactly the same way, but we’ll just have to wait and see how the house of cards starts to fall apart.
LL: Similarly to Jeff, I, of course will be watching the regions very closely. For me, as I mentioned before, it’s all about the economy. Especially how life of an average person changes in response to growing inflation and in general, these growing levels of economic hardship. In addition to that, I personally do not expect any large-scale street protests to come out of that. And in fact, as the studies of civil resistance tell us, we do not necessarily need to see it. In fact, I am looking on how sophisticated will Russia’s anti-Kremlin resistance movement become. And by sophistication, I mean that the histories of successful non-violent revolutions tell us that before you can mobilize a large enough number of people to participate in protests, you have to master other forms of resistance. It’s usually something that makes fun of the dictator. And we do see a lot of that in Russia in groups such as the feminist anti-war resistance. They do lead those initiatives. For example, posting stickers on the streets, et cetera.
So this is something that is very low threat to the activists, but at the same time gets a lot of traction. Gets a lot of social media coverage. And by that, makes a lot of impact, makes a lot of people aware that the resistance exists. So certainly I’m watching you how far that spreads, how sophisticated that movement becomes. And I believe that together with the worsening in economy and more and more people getting frustrated that can actually produce the result. And another indicator, as Jeff pointed out, is of course, any fracturing that we might see within the federal and the local governments. Though, again, and that’s just my background in studying social movements, I am far more interesting with what will be happening with the people.
MY: Largely agree with Jeff and Leyla. In terms of a systemic opposition, there is no real political opposition that’s allowed to stand in election in Russia anymore. But the systemic opposition parties are a bit like Jeff’s description of the Russian Orthodox church in the sense that institutionally, the parties are part of Putin’s regime. But on the margins, and sometimes even in local and municipalities, as you know, in the local elections in Moscow, you have Communist party candidates that are quite vocal in their opposition to Putin and to the general line of the Communist Party. In Khabarovsk as well, we saw a regional governor, if I’m not incorrect, from the LDPR, the Liberal Democratic Party, which is a far-right nationalist party in Russia. That was also very atypical in its policies compared to the rest of the party.
But I have to decide with Leyla that I’m not sure. At least personally, I’m not sure to what extent these elements within the systemic opposition parties would be able to seize the momentum and to change something; either within the regions or on the federal level. In terms of social resistance. Again, I believe protests matter and protests have the capacity to work, but they also have the capacity not to work. We saw massive protest movement in Hong Kong for almost a decade. Doesn’t exist anymore, but in Hong Kong, there were hundreds of thousands of people who went to the street and it was generally a racial movement that touched on almost all parts of that city state or special regions. Society. But what was very interesting for me to see is that from the very first days of the war in Ukraine, there were acts of anti-military sabotaging Belarus and in Russia, the weren’t. And more and more, we are seeing individual acts of sabotage, such as sabotage of the railway infrastructure.
We have seen some performative sabotage of military recruitment offices being set on fire in various cities. And we’ve seen other more docile form of protests such as stickers. And this is something that I want to see more of — some sort of peaceful or semi-peaceful resistance that is always akin to a partisan opposition to the state. And the final thing I’m very interested to see is, of course, what the military does. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was a disaster. The Putin regime presents itself as a superpower. Ukraine is by no means a superpower. The GDP capita is something around the level of Thailand or Vietnam, or actually between Thailand and Vietnam. The Russian military is doing badly. And what is even more importantly, the Russian military is doing badly in lots of places. Ukraine is the most visible place where they’re doing badly, but the Russian military is in Karabakh/Artsakh, sorry for my mispronunciation, in South Ossetia, they are in Abkhazia, they’re in Moldova. They are in Mali.
They’re in lots of places and I think the Putin regime has spread itself too thin. The level of corruption and the inability to organize themselves within the military is bound to have some sort of a really bad negative effect on the state. We’ve already seen certain changes in the borders in the Karabakh since the start of the war in Ukraine. The conflict in the Karabakh usually happens by agreement between the Russian side and Azerbaijan. I’m not sure whether this was the case this time round. But yes, I believe just similar to 1917, there is a lot of probability that something will go so wrong in the military that it will end up destabilizing the regime. Even if it doesn’t get rid of Putin, it might make him more weak and it might remove the military elite in Moscow. And a lot of the military elite has been removed by the Ukrainians.
JH: I’d be remiss if I didn’t include, just mention this. Alexei Yurchak wrote a very excellent book on the collapse of the USSR, which only happened 30 years ago, in which he wrote that the collapse of the Soviet system was both completely unexpected and completely unsurprising. It’s called “Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More.” And I think we just all need to be mentally prepared in the West and in Russia and around the world for something to change. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.
NH: Thank you, Leyla, Misha, and Jeff for an outstanding, nuanced, and detailed discussion on civil rights, human rights, and the rights of ethnic national minority groups in Russia, and the geopolitical effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what to expect moving forward, the post-February 24th, 2022 reality. Thank you to everyone for listening to us. We here at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy will continue to build out a project of work, looking at Russia’s remodel and regime, Russian policy and post-Soviet states, and the broader geopolitics in Russia. All the best.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.