TURBULENT DEVELOPMENTS in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century have demonstrated a phenomenon that is very significant for Russia and that one would have been somewhat embarrassed to write or talk about in the past but can and should today because the times have changed. Namely, these developments make it clear that Russia has practically no loyal, staunch allies that would firmly take our side in the event of a serious international crisis or – God forbid – a great war. Respectful as we are of our partners in various international organizations, we have to admit that, while they have major economic interests, they would hardly ever want to come up with more serious solidarity. We have it in our blood to help those who have been wronged, but it’s different in other places, where one chiefly pursues one’s own interest. No offense intended – it’s just the way the world runs.
But it highlights the importance of unity for the Russian diaspora, the Russian world outside Russia, the millions of people who remember that Russia is their national home.
It is estimated that there are worldwide between 25 million and 35 million people with Russian roots who live outside Russia – people who left the country in the 20th century and their descendants. There were all kinds of reasons for emigration from Russia: Some people left after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, some stayed abroad after being displaced during World War II, some tried to escape poverty caused by the so-called reforms of the 1990s, and some hoped to find better life abroad during the well-to-do 2000s. A special part of this multimillion community are people who found themselves abroad instantly after the collapse of the Soviet Union – ethnic Russian communities in what used to be Soviet republics and today are independent states and members of the United Nations. Admittedly, a key question remains: Who is to be considered a “compatriot living abroad”? One document defines them as “persons who are permanently resident outside the Russian Federation but maintain historical, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and psychological ties to Russia, who seek to preserve their Russian identity, and who experience the need in permanent contacts and cooperation with Russia.”1
It doesn’t seem anyone can be satisfied with this formula today. So the notion needs a clear formulation that precludes “broad interpretations.” Such precision is crucial in view of the huge amount of work that is being done in Russia to unify our closest and most loyal allies and to build up Russia’s soft power in various parts of the globe. A definition of the Russian World that is gradually crystallizing in the course of this work may eventually provide an answer to the question who is a Russian compatriot.
Recent turbulent developments make it clear that Russia has practically no loyal, staunch allies that would firmly take our side in the event of a serious international crisis or – God forbid – a great war.
The Fifth World Congress of Compatriots Living Abroad, held in Moscow on November 5-6, 2015, highlighted new aspects of this hard work among the millions of people throughout the world who consider themselves part of the family of Russian compatriots, part of the Russian World. The title of this article, “The Russian World Means a State of Heart and Mind,” is a quote from what one of the speakers said from the congress platform.
The delegates – if that is a proper term for the hundreds of people with close emotional ties to Russia who gathered at the International Trade Center in Moscow – came from nearly 100 countries. Everyone spoke Russian, and everyone was welcomed by Russia’s top state figures.
President Vladimir Putin, Federation Council Chairman Valentina Matviyenko, and His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia came to the congress to greet those present. The opening ceremony for the congress was led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a fact that showed the significance and level of the event better than any words could have done.
It became clear from conversations with many of the participants that they hadn’t expected such high-level presence, which reflected respect for the audience and earnest desire on the part of the Russian leadership for dialogue with the Russian World abroad and for its unity.
Such an impressive start, with top state leaders and the patriarch taking the floor, needed an interval after that. Indeed, the organizers did declare an intermission, apparently for a pragmatic reason – diaspora activists who spoke thereafter received less attention from the audience.
The foyers were noisy during the interval – dozens of delegates hadn’t seen one another since the previous congress and were chatting on and on. It was obvious that many of them had known one another for a long time, and that meant there was a form of nucleus in the diaspora movement that would be a catalyst for its activities.
Interview-hungry reporters were hunting for participants, and I was quick enough to dive into that whirlpool as well. I was fortunate to be able to talk to some interesting delegates, which gave me better understanding of what was happening. Here’s what I was able to hear from some of them.
“Looking at it from Vilnius, we must say that the situation has been difficult for Russian compatriots all the time but that today, of course, it has aggravated further due to the Ukrainian events, due to Crimea. In Lithuania, it has caused a powerful outburst of Russophobia, which affects us,” said Rafael Muksinov, doctor of social science and a member of the Vilnius City Municipality. “Here’s an example: The Lithuanian State Security Department says in an annual report that the Russian compatriots in Lithuania are the ‘fifth column’ and ‘agents of the Kremlin.’ The report for this year says for the first time that national minority schools pose a ‘danger’ to the national security of Lithuania. This is posted on the website of the Lithuanian State Security Department. And what the local press says gives rise to an atmosphere of anxiety.”
“The latest news concerning the Russian community is a reform of national minority schools. The 1st of September comes and the school year starts. We congratulate our children and tell them that they have their rights protected by a court ruling and will be able to finish 11 and 12 grades at their school. In the evening of that same day, the 1st of September, the principal of this Russian school calls us and says that a higher court has quashed that permission and that on the 2nd of September the 11th-and 12th-graders will have to start looking for other schools because this Russian school has been turned into a 10-grade school. Moreover, under the new regulations, if a group of schoolchildren goes on a tour to Russia – to St. Petersburg or Moscow, they must notify certain authorities where they are going, what they are going for, and for how long,” Muksinov said.
“Due to this and many other developments of this kind, people who have come to the World Congress of Compatriots in Moscow had strong hopes of receiving answers to questions that made them anxious. When I came here I calmed down somewhat – I realized that we were remembered and respected, and that measures were being taken to preserve the Russian World,” the Vilnius delegate said.
“It is important for us that Russia seeks the rule of law in international relations and is against the rule of force. We can see that Russia seeks a multipolar, more just world. We can see that Russia unequivocally stands for the sovereignty of states. I think that this does not only calm down participants in our congress. There is hope that the governments of our respective countries of residence will hear it and sooner or later will begin to understand it. There is also hope that the attitude to Russian compatriots abroad will change.”
Sergey Tokarev, a member of the presidium of the Russian Business Council in the United Arab Emirates, was more optimistic. “We can see that foreigners take growing interest in Russia due to Russia’s return into the international arena,” he said. “We set up the Russian Business Council in Dubai, UAE, six years ago. A couple of years later, our organization acquired regional status – we now have a regional council for the Middle East and Africa. We organize business missions from the UAE and neighboring countries to Russia. Recently, we visited Novosibirsk, where we brought businessmen who included a representative of a large UAE bank. The trip had an effect that couldn’t even be compared to anything. The people from the UAE had never gone further than Moscow, and what they could see in Novosibirsk was another Russia for them. There have been business missions to Tatarstan as well.”
“We would like to stick to this line together with the Foreign Ministry and with Russian embassies and consulates so that we have their support,” Tokarev said. “We mean not financial but emotional, business and organizational support. We would like to be seen as serious friends, partners and assistants because, being based in various countries, we pursue our business and raise our children there, and have direct contact with people who represent the elites of those countries. We want Russia to be looked at from the perspective of its attractiveness to investors, its cultural legacy, and tourism.”
Surely businesspeople have their own point of view, but there are quite different concerns in the middle of Africa, something that the honorary consul of Russia in Congo-Brazzaville, Duc Michel Nguebana, spoke about. “This is the first time I’m attending a world congress of compatriots. As far as I have been able to see, such meetings demonstrate to compatriots that they are not alone, that there is a country that is named Russia and that has not forgotten about them,” Nguebana said.
“About 500 of our compatriots live in Congo. If one parent is Russian, the children may receive Russian citizenship. Mixed couples keep coming over all the time because every year many Congolese students go to Russia to study. Our compatriots feel at ease there because the Republic of Congo is a friendly country,” the honorary consul said.
“My purpose of coming here was to have some specific questions answered, primarily questions about education, about Russian schools abroad. This is a very important matter because in Congo the children, and especially the grandchildren, of our compatriots are losing the Russian language. So it would be a good idea to revive Russian schools, at least primary school education.”
Vladimir Sokolov, who represents the Union of Citizens and Non-Citizens of Latvia, spoke about organizational issues in the diaspora movement. Yes, a large proportion of our compatriots in Latvia are non-citizens – so much for the European Union’s Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité. “Euro-happiness” wasn’t designed for everybody, this policy suggests.
“The compatriot movement is quite diverse and multi-vector,” Sokolov said. “It has a diversity of aspects. It’s practically impossible to fit it into one framework or make it rigidly structured. That’s what civil society does. But any structure for the compatriot movement that one would be happy with needs two kinds of resources to be put into practice. One of them is finance, namely you should be able to control the flows of such funds in your respective country. But that’s practically unachievable. The other is personnel policy. There are a lot of compatriot organizations around [dozens in some countries – S.F.], and you can’t dictate to them who they should have at the head. One needs to realize that a public movement of this kind is bound to be a huge, volatile and unstructured system. On the other hand, this is one of the things that make it wonderful!”
“It is true that movements of this kind are extremely difficult to manage because nobody would carry out any commands, people wouldn’t listen to one another. Furthermore, I don’t know a country where there is any specific individual as influential as to be the recognized leader of the entire movement within that country,” Sokolov said.
“That is what makes the compatriot movement different from state structures, and it sometimes causes lack of understanding between compatriot organizations, on the one hand, and their supervisors in Russia, on the other. That is why we should learn from each other; ambitions must be curbed at times but one shouldn’t brush off all local proposals because it may be clear on the ground what needs to be done there, but they have no resources to do it without help from Russia. That’s too much of a job for enthusiasts but a bureaucratic machine would be able to pull it off.”
Russia’s increasing global influence impacts different parts of the world in different ways depending on how far they are located from Russia. In more remote countries, it stirs interest in Russia, and consequently greater respect for local ethnic Russian communities. In neighboring countries, it gives problems to local elites, who have increasing fears of Russia, and these fears result in pressures on our movement, which is seen as Russia’s fifth column.
There was surely a great diversity of opinions at the congress, which produced a highly multifaceted image of the diaspora movement. Mind you – I was only able to talk to a few delegates. I just wonder how many opinions I left unexplored.
Yet this diversity didn’t prevent the congress from giving wholehearted approval to its resolution.2
In conclusion, let me say a few words about the speech at the congress of the newly elected chairman of the World Coordination Council of Russian Compatriots Living Abroad, Mikhail Drozdov. Drozdov urged the diaspora movement to try to define “the place of compatriots in the changed world” and to think how “to make the Russian diaspora a factor of power.”
Drozdov’s point makes it absolutely clear that the diaspora movement is entering a new phase. Nobody brought up this idea several years ago. At that time, a “getting-together” process was still underway.
Today, however, one talks about a “factor of power,” “soft power,” etc. That is an obvious dynamic.
1 Kontseptsiya podderzhki Rossiyskoy Federatsiyey sootechestvennikov za rubezhom na sovremennom etape, 2001.