Local Media and Ethnic Politics in 21st-Century Russia

By
Maxwell Votey

“Is local media, produced for Russia’s ethnic minorities and often in local languages, stoking ethnic conflict and hastening destabilization of the federation?” asked Kathryn Graber, Title VIII-Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute at an 18 June 2012 Kennan Institute lecture. Graber studied the local, ethnic media of the people of the Republic of Buryatia, a semi-autonomous region of the Russian Federation that borders Lake Baikal. Rather than create ethnic strife between the Buryats and Russians, Graber found that local, ethnic media has produced a framework of titular nationalities that work together in the Russian Federation, and which supports positive and pacifist relationships that reaffirm the belief that as a national minority, ethnic peoples can belong both to an ethnic state and the larger Russian state.

Local media in the Republic of Buryatia is a prime example of how ethnic media operate throughout Russia. Russian mass media support local multi-ethnic media, providing communities with sustained attention to local needs. While Russian mass media outlets are known for their focus on centralized reporting, Graber explained that they also provide content for non-Russian populations in their local languages. These media outlets are protected by federal and regional language laws that allow or require media to be produced in local languages in addition to Russian. These laws have slowed language loss and raised public awareness of preserving the local ethnic languages and cultures in republics that have enacted them, including Buryatia. In republics that have not adopted such media legislation or have not granted the titular language official status, such as the Republic of Karelia, the prevalence of local language has more rapidly declined.

Buryat media experienced a rebirth in the 1990s as interest in traditional religious and cultural life was revitalized in Buryat communities. Federal and republic protection and funding of Buryat language media allowed for production of local language media that did not depend on ad revenue or subscriptions. Graber found that those initiatives had a positive effect on Buryat language usage, as it became less stigmatized as the language of poor and rural Buryats and more popular as a way of demonstrating pride in Buryat heritage. This has helped preserve the language as young people have increasingly used Russian as their primary or only language.

Graber connected the Buryat media of the 21st century to its roots in the Soviet period.  It was during the early Soviet period that the Buryat language was standardized, and literacy in Buryat was widely promoted by the Soviet authorities. These changes, the speaker explained, were done not only to strengthen Buryat identity, but also as a way to modernize the Buryat people. Literacy was the mark of a good Soviet citizen, and to be seen reading a local newspaper was a symbol of that citizenship.  The early development of local media demonstrates that rather than stoking ethnic conflict, local media made ethnic groups like the Buryats feel closer to the state.  The promotion of local media manifested the relationship between the republic and federation, reaffirming Buryat culture and connecting it to the larger Russian state.

While Graber found that local ethnic media has strengthened ties between Buryats and the Russian state, she warned that an increase in Russian ethnic nationalism is damaging the relations between the two.  The concept of “Russia for Russians,” rather than a Russia comprised of many different ethnicities, has alienated minorities. Graber noted that nationalist and racial violence where Buryats are mistaken for ethnic Chinese has prompted the return of Buryats back to the Republic of Buryatia. As Buryats and others flee from violence, it decreases the integration between the republics and the surrounding regions. While local ethnic media has brought Buryats and other minorities closer to the Russian Federation, Graber concluded, the growth of Russian nationalism is undermining those gains.

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute 

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