Tag Archives: max sher

Guest post 2: “Pray to Any Gods You Wish—As Long As Gods Support the State”


Political theorist Rustem Vakhitov suggests looking at ethnic processes in the Russian Federation through the lens of his primordialist concept of “ethnic soslovie,” (etnososlovie) or “ethnic estate”, in the sense similar to the old English or French “estates of the realm.”1 In the Russian Empire, all non-Russians were legally grouped into a single and separate category (“inorodtsy”), and with the fall of the monarchy, it did not disappear—the classification just transformed into an array of unspoken, accidentally assembled and theoretically unexamined practices which still exist today. It is this very “estate”-based approach, according to Vakhitov, that helped the Bolsheviks restore Russia’s old imperial borders (without Poland and Finland), and it is what keeps the country from large-scale inter-ethnic conflicts today. Vakhitov consistently speaks from conservative and imperialist positions, but his constructions are useful, as they conceptualize the real tacit practices in use to this day. Vakhitov believes that this etnososlovie type of inter-ethnic relations fits the Russian land empire better than the Western idea of civic nationalism, which the proponents of liberal national policies tried to apply to the Russian context during the first post-Soviet decade. Vakhitov suggests considering the constituent regions of the Russian Federation as a special form of the etnososlovie and not as nations in the Western understanding of the term, and especially not as states (though that is exactly how they are named in their constitutions).

An etnososlovie, according to Vakhitov, is a deeply imperial phenomenon, which provides the relative stability of multi-ethnic Russian society on the one hand, and guarantees the preservation of languages and cultures of minorities on the other. However, it’s important to note that the latter are preserved in a deliberately subordinate and vulnerable position relative to the ethnic majority. An etnososlovie can basically be called a form of vassal relationship. One of the guiding political and economic principles here consists in that the regional ethnic elites receive political and economic privileges from the ruling group in Moscow in exchange for certain responsibilities, but national self-determination or self-governance are completely excluded from both the political narrative and the law. The constitutions adopted in the newly formed ethnic autonomies soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union guaranteed their right to leave the Russian Federation—the same right the Soviet republics had. With Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power, these clauses were abolished, while activists and politicians who had taken positions now branded as nationalist and separatist were subject to repression.

Incidentally, Vakhitov’s concept of “ethnic estates” cannot be applied to all of Russia’s ethnic groups. It is rather only suitable for the largest and most consolidated ones that live fairly compactly on a particular territory, such as Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens, and Yakuts, among others. In internal affairs, an etnososlovie has a certain autonomy, though it is most often purely symbolic: they are guaranteed certain unspoken quotas for government positions (but only in their own regions, and under the condition that they will support the policies dictated by Moscow) and support of institutions that provide for the continuation of the loyal intelligentsia, languages, and identities—granted, in a conservative, traditionalist, and folkloric sense. Religious policies follow in the same framework—nations have the right to follow any faith, so long as there are as few connections with congregations abroad as possible combined with conservative values and demonstrated loyalty.2 Religious diversity is very welcome. In Sakha-Yakutia, for example, local ethnologists and activists created and recently officially registered two new religions based on traditional Yakut animist beliefs. Now their followers can create official congregations and build places of worship. The region’s government has made it a law to use the new religious symbols and attributes during national holidays, although religion in Russia is supposedly formally separated from the state. This ambiguity can be seen in the status of Archy-Diete (“The House of Purification”) in Yakutsk: it is advertised as the main church of a new Yakut faith, although formally it is a state institution that is subordinate to the department of culture and spiritual development. Yes, you heard right: the bureaucracy is in charge of the spiritual development.

Infrastructures is a research-based photo project and photobook about the Russian and post-Soviet political economy, created in 2016-2019 by Sergey Novikov and Max Sher. Using documentary and staged photography, as well as writing, they look at and reflect on the political and cultural significance of both the physical infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, pipelines, etc., and ‘infrastructure’ of thinking and discourse that historically underpin the functioning of the State and power.

1 Рустем Вахитов. Национальный вопрос в сословном обществе: этносословия современной России. Сборник статей. Москва, 2016.

2 The FSB occasionally and arbitrarily deports religious figures with foreign citizenship, and their specific confession or congregation is irrelevant. And incidentally, the consistent refusal by Jehovah’s Witnesses to demonstrate their loyalty as well as their American origin were likely the reasons for their legal ban in 2017 and subsequent repressions.