Legitimating Nationalism:

Political Identity in Russia’s Ethnic Republics

Katie L. Stewart

July 9, 2024
Cover of Yuri Dmitriev's book "Sandarmokh: A Place of Memory" (Petrozavodsk, 2019)
The Republic of Karelia’s Sandarmokh forest, located a little over 100 miles north of its capital Petrozavodsk, is officially recognized by the Karelian government as a mass burial site of over 7,000 victims of political repression from the 1930s (Republic Center). A memorial cemetery with monuments and an Orthodox chapel were developed there after its discovery in 1997 by Yuri Dmitriev, a local historian and member of Memorial, the now-banned organization dedicated to uncovering evidence of political repression and remembering its victims. In 2018, this site became part of Russia’s larger memory war over how to remember the events of World War II. The Russian Military Historical Society, created by presidential decree in 2012, excavated bodies from the forest and identified them as Soviet soldiers killed by Finnish occupiers, a contested conclusion (Meduza 2018). In December 2023, the Karelian government erected a new monument at the site, reframing it to also memorialize “victims of the Finnish occupation during the Great Patriotic War,” an act that а Yabloko deputy of Karelia’s legislative assembly, Emilia Slabunova, identified as being against the law (Meduza 2023). At Sandarmokh, local civil society and government actors are contesting how the site fits into the Russian and Karelian national and regional narratives and how that story should be physically marked on the spot.

This example from Karelia demonstrates how national identity construction and contestation often play out – at the local level. Nation-building’s architects present it, however, as a monolithic process, uniformly spanning and uniting the entire country and its people. That is not always how it is enacted or received. Though the evaluation of Stalin’s terror in Russian history and Finnish-Russian relations can be subjects of country-wide, or international, discussion and policy, people experience those debates and their impact closer to home, creating the potential for variation in how Russians relate to and evaluate national narratives across Russia’s regions.

Even in authoritarian Russia, parts of nation-building are delegated to regional actors and organizations, such as local government, cultural institutions, and civil society organizations, who are typically the ones to decide which monuments to erect, what message to spread on holidays, what to display in museums, and how regional history should be taught in schools. Russia’s ethnofederal structure, an institutional legacy from the Soviet Union, adds another dimension to nation building since ethnic republics are considered homelands for their titular ethnic group. This institutional design results in varying degrees of regional identity building projects that may complement or compete with the Putin regime’s nation-building project. From the center’s perspective, permitting a limited degree of complementary variation in nation building across the regions can actually increase the effectiveness of legitimating nationalism by better relating symbols and narratives to local contexts. Therefore, a substate approach to examining how nation building is working in Russia can enhance our understanding of the process and its effects on regime durability.
Cover of Katie L. Stewart's book "Legitimating Nationalism: Political Identity in Russia’s Ethnic Republics" (University of Wisconsin Press, 2024)
Legitimating nationalism – effectiveness and variation among Russia’s regions

In Legitimating Nationalism: Political Identity in Russia’s Ethnic Republics, released this month with the University of Wisconsin Press, I take such a substate approach. I compare how Russian nation building works in three of Russia’s ethnic republics, Karelia, Tatarstan, and Buryatia, and evaluate its effectiveness in solidifying Russian national sentiment linked to support for the Putin regime.

For nation building to work, its symbols and narratives need to resonate with and be accepted by at least enough of the population to avoid challenges to the legitimacy of the state itself. Reception matters. For legitimating nationalism to work, that resonance needs to not just bond people together in a national community, but to link that community’s security and prosperity to a particular leader who comes to represent the father of the nation, or to a particular party. In Russia, this means situating Vladimir Putin as the father of the Russian nation, the authentic teller of its story, and the only plausible protector of its interests. If nation-building tactics, such as National Unity Day, are working, then participation or exposure to them will lead to enhanced Russian belonging and pride, and in turn, increased likelihood of positively evaluating governance and voting for United Russia. At the regional level, there’s the possibility for similar identity work, such as Tatarstan’s Republic Day, to build regional belonging and pride, which may or may not impact the effectiveness of Russian nation building.

In the book, I test the effectiveness of Putin’s legitimating nationalism with survey data collected in the summer of 2016 from six regions, three ethnic republics (Karelia, Tatarstan, and Buryatia) and three neighboring non-ethnic regions (Murmansk, Samara, and Irkutsk). I first analyze the extent to which exposure to national and regional identity work generates feelings of belonging to and pride in the Russian nation and one’s region. I then examine the relationship between these sentiments, evaluations of governance, and voting intent. Overall, I find that legitimating nationalism is working for Putin, though unevenly across regions, ethnic groups, and tactics. These weak points and existing regional identities indicate that legitimating nationalism requires a careful balancing act to avoid backlash from those not connected to the Russian national idea promoted by the center, along with reliance on other pillars of regime durability, such as repression and performance legitimacy.
A monument to Musa Dzhalil, a Soviet–Tatar poet and resistance fighter, in Kazan
In the next section of the book, I compare nation-building tactics and strategies across Petrozavodsk, Kazan, and Ulan-Ude, the capital cities of Karelia, Tatarstan, and Buryatia, respectively. I focus on the particular tactics of monuments, holidays, museums, and regional history textbooks. These objects, events, and institutions represent some of the primary ways national identities are transmitted and differ in their degree of active versus passive engagement and periodic versus consistent exposure. Using ethnographic, interview, and text data gathered during fieldwork in the summer of 2014, and the 2015-2016 academic year, I analyze the extent to which each tactic furthers inclusionary, accommodative, assimilationist, or exclusionary nation-building strategies in each region. These strategies range from including minority identities, symbols, and narratives into the center’s idea of what it means to be Russian, to eliminating them through violence, forced migration, or segregation. I also determine the extent to which the national and regional identities promoted through the tactics diverge from one another across the regions and whether they complement or compete with the center’s nation building. While none of these regions exhibits exclusionary strategies, they do cover the range from assimilation to inclusion, with some intra-region variation among tactics as well. These differences challenge the idea that nation building is a national-level process and point to both how it can be tailored to fit different contexts, and how regional actors have some, though shrinking, power to shape the narrative.

Legitimating nationalism in war-time Russia

I conducted research for this book just after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and during Putin’s third term as president. Since then, political opportunities in Russia have become more closed. There has been a greater utilization of repression and further personalization of the Putin regime. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was accompanied by tighter control over national narratives and symbols. Shortly after the invasion, the Russian government criminalized discrediting the armed forces and spreading false information about Russian government agencies’ actions abroad. With increased penalties for spreading counter-narratives about the boundaries of the Russian nation and for challenging the links between Russia’s current war, the Great Patriotic War, and Russian national interests established by Putin, the space for spreading competing visions of the nation in the regions is more limited.
The Victory Museum in Moscow
At the level of regional political elites, there has been very little deviation from Putin’s war-time narrative, and congruent nation-building tactics are being deployed. Memorials to Russian soldiers who died in Ukraine have popped up across Russia in the thousands (Latypova 2023). Ranging from plaques, to steles, to statues, these memorials all have the same intent of connecting people across Russia to the war as a fight for national survival and pride, a fight for which their local community sacrificed. In my book, I find a similar complementary regionalization of remembrance at work prior to the war, and sometimes going back to the Soviet era, particularly in commemorating local heroes of the Great Patriotic War. Elites have also utilized museum exhibits to generate support for the war and spark outrage against NATO and the Ukrainian government. The Victory Museum in Moscow opened the exhibit “Ordinary Nazism” in 2022 to portray a narrative of the evolution of Nazism in Ukraine and provide what they identify as evidence of its continued spread and influence in contemporary Ukraine. While the Victory Museum reports having 2 million viewers come to the exhibit, its message was also uniformly spread across Russia, with 30 Russian museums hosting versions of the exhibit, including Buryatia’s National Museum (Kozlova 2024).

As Putin’s regime becomes increasingly personalist and Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, legitimating nationalism that presents Putin as the one and only protector of the nation and the war as a fight for the nation’s continued survival remains an important component of regime durability. Recent evidence from online experiments indicates that identifying strongly with Russia increases support for the war (Snegovaya 2024). When legitimating nationalism is working, it seems that it not only leads to increased pro-regime behavior through voting and positive evaluations of governance but also buying into the militaristic narrative that Russia must protect itself from the existential threat of Ukrainian and NATO fascists. However, as attachment to and definitions of the Russian nation vary across Russia’s regions and ethnic groups, as I find that they do in Legitimating Nationalism, support for the war will be uneven.
Kozlova, Natalia. 2024. “Dva milliona chelovek prishli na vystavku “Obyknovennyi natsizm” v Muzeye Pobedy” [“Two million people came to the exhibition “Ordinary Nazism” in the Victory Museum”]. Rossiiskaya Gazeta, April 19, 2024. https://rg.ru/2024/04/19/dva-milliona-chelovek-prishli-na-vystavku-obyknovennyj-nacizm-v-muzee-pobedy.html.

Latypova, Leyla. 2023. “Amid Ukraine War, a Quiet Battle of Memorials Unfolds in Russia.” The Moscow Times, December 4, 2023. https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2023/12/04/six-nepalis-killed-fighting-for-russia-one-captured-in-ukraine-a83309.

Meduza. 2018. “A mass grave from the Soviet era resurfaces as a modern-day Russian political scandal.” Meduza, August 31, 2018. https://meduza.io/en/feature/2018/08/31/a-mass-grave-from-the-soviet-era-resurfaces-as-a-modern-day-russian-political-scandal

Meduza. 2023. “V urochishche Sandarmokh, gde pri Staline byli massovyye rasstrely, ustanovili znak v pamyat’ o zhertvakh finskoy okkupatsii” [“In the Sandarmokh tract, where there were mass executions under Stalin, a sign was erected in memory of the victims of the Finnish occupation”]. Meduza, December 25, 2023. https://meduza.io/news/2023/12/25/v-urochische-sandarmoh-gde-pri-staline-byli-massovye-rasstrely-ustanovili-znak-v-pamyat-o-zhertvah-finskoy-okkupatsii

Republic Center for State Protection of Cultural Heritage Objects. “Burial place of victims of political repression (1937-1939)” https://monuments.karelia.ru/ob-ekty-kul-turnogo-nasledija/katalog-golubaja-doroga-ot-petrozavodska-do-pudozha/medvezh-egorskij-rajon/mesto-zahoronenija-zhertv-politicheskih-repressij-1937-1939-gody/

Snegovaya, Maria. 2024. “Russian Identity and War Support” PONARS Eurasia, June 14, 2024. https://www.ponarseurasia.org/russian-identity-and-war-support/.

Stewart, Katie L. 2024. Legitimating Nationalism: Political Identity in Russia’s Ethnic Republics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Katie L. Stewart

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