Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the near Abroad

Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the near Abroad

Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the near Abroad

Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the near Abroad


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, nationality groups have claimed sovereignty in the new republics bearing their names. With the ascendance of these titular nationality groups, Russian speakers living in the post-Soviet republics face a radical crisis of identity. That crisis is at the heart of David D. Laitin's keenly awaited book.

Laitin portrays these Russian speakers as a "beached diaspora" since the populations did not cross international borders; the borders themselves receded. He asks what will become of these populations. Will they learn the languages of the republics in which they live and prepare their children for assimilation? Will they return to a homeland many have never seen? Or will they become loyal citizens of the new republics while maintaining a Russian identity? Through questions such as these and on the basis of ethnographic field research, discourse analysis, and mass surveys, Laitin analyzes trends in four post-Soviet republics: Estonia, Latvia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.

Laitin concludes that the "Russian-speaking population" is a new category of identity in the post-Soviet world. This conglomerate identity of those who share a language is analogous, Laitin suggests, to such designations as "Palestinian" in the Middle East and "Hispanic" in the United States. The development of this new identity has implications both for the success of the national projects in these states and for interethnic peace.


This book provides a description of the nationality question involving the Russian-speaking populations living in four of the republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, and Ukraine. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, effective sovereignty fell into the hands of the titular nationalities -- that is, the nationality groups after which the republics were named. As a consequence, Russian-speakers in all fourteen non-Russian Union republics experienced a cataclysm that has but few analogies; perhaps the Palestinians after the recognition of Israel's statehood; perhaps the pieds noirs after Algerian independence; perhaps the English settlers after the transformation of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe. Things fell apart for Russian-speakers in these republics because their center did not hold.

The Russian-speakers in the post-Soviet republics are facing a radical crisis of identity. Daily they face a set of questions about who they are and what they may become. Are they a people in diaspora, even if it was not they but their country that moved? Would they "return" to a homeland many of them had never seen? Would they join forces to fight politically for Russian rights in these republics, or even militarily for the right to reunite with the Russian Federation? Would they become loyal citizens of the new republics but maintain a Russian identity? If they remained as loyal citizens, would ethnic conflict between them and the titulars become a permanent feature of social life? Would a new identity form, not quite Russian, but not titular either? Would these Russians move along a path that leads, for their children if not for them, to assimilation with the titular nationality? This book outlines early trends toward resolution of these questions.

Exploring these questions helps me address two more general questions concerning all nation-building projects. First, what will be the relationship of nation to state in the republics of the former Soviet Union? Second, to the degree that national heterogeneity persists, what are the prospects for peace between the nationalities, and how might it break down?

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