Window on Eurasia: Putin's "Heim ins Reich" Policy Seen Backfiring in Russia and Abroad

Posted in Russia | 16-Feb-06 | Author: Paul Goble

Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Moscow.

Tallinn, February 15 - President Vladimir Putin's decision to push for the "return" of ethnic Russians and other Russian speakers to the Russian Federation will not solve that country's mounting demographic problems or ease Moscow's relationships with the former Soviet republics and Baltic states.

Instead, as an increasing number of commentators have noted, this program seems certain to backfire, not only by highlighting the weakness of Russian national identity - relatively few additional ethnic Russians are likely to return - but also by re-ethnicizing the situation in other countries with its implicit suggestion that ethnic Russians there may depart.

The impulse for this policy and for legislation to implement it now being drafted in the Duma at Putin's behest has been perhaps best described by Moscow commentator Yaroslav Butakov in his widely quoted, much reprinted, and apparently increasingly influential essay "Suitcase-Railroad Station-Russia":

"The creation of a compact ethnic nucleus of the state-forming people on the territory of the Russian Federation, the pulling back of the Russian people to Russia in the style of [Germany's] 'heim in Reich,' the maintenance of existing borders as a counterweight to the fruitless, harmful and disorienting dreams about a rapid imperial revanche is the single realistic direction of Russian policy over the newt several decades at least until it is able to make the heart of the country more demographically healthy" (

Despite its obvious echo to Hitler's decision in the late 1930s to call on the Volksdeutsche living outside Germany to return to that country - even Butakov uses the term that the Nazi leader did - many people in the Russian Federation and abroad view Putin's decision to pursue this course as having only positive aspects.

Many of them accept Putin's stated belief that it will help to resolve the Russian Federation's demographic problems without the need for that country to bring in culturally dissimilar immigrants whom it may not be able to assimilate and guarantee ethnic Russian dominance of that country far into the future.

And others are certain that the return of ethnic Russians from abroad would eliminate the hopes of Russian nationalists for restoring some larger Russian-dominated state across what was all or most of the Soviet Union, thus bringing a new stability to Moscow's relationships with these countries.

But such self-confident assumptions about President Putin's latest proposal are now being challenged both by academic specialists and by political figures within the Russian Federation and abroad.

In a comment published by "The Times" of London last Friday, Valeriy Tishkov, the director of the Institute of Ethnology at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a former nationalities minister under Boris Yeltsin, argued that calling ethnic Russians back to the Russian Federation was a mistake.

Those who believe that it will, he said, "are thinking of a sort of Utopia where the more Russians there are, the better the country will be.

This is wrong." Moreover, he continued, such a measure will not "solve the demographic crisis or create ethnic cohesion." Rather it will do just the reverse.

On the one hand, efforts to create a Russian nation state are inherently problematic: There are simply too many members of other nationalities on the territory of the Russian Federation and they are increasing in number so rapidly for the return of ethnic Russians to make much difference.

And on the other, the number of ethnic Russians likely to respond to Putin's call is likely to be far smaller than many imagine.

Several million ethnic Russians did "return" to the Russian Federation in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, but most who are living abroad now are unlikely to return. Moreover, many ethnic Russians who live in other countries are increasingly distinct from those in the Russian Federation itself.

In the same article in which Tishkov is quoted, "The Times" cites the comments of Sergei Sergeyev, the head of the ethnic Russian community in Estonia. He said he was pleased by Putin's call but cautioned that the number of ethnic Russians there who would be likely to respond to it was in "the hundreds rather than thousands."

At the same time, both Russians who aspire to the restoration of the empire and leaders of non-Russian countries concerned about their relationships with Moscow have also expressed doubts about the implications of this plan for the future.

In an essay posted on the Russian nationalist site,, Aleksandr Eliseyev says Putin's plan is a terrible mistake, something that not only betrays the ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet republics but also the possibility that Russia itself will recover as a great power (

"Russians," he argues, "have always had a highly developed feeling of loyalty to the state, and under certain conditions, this can be used by non-Russian governments." Having suggested that they move to Russia, Moscow may find that many will prove to be more loyal to the governments of the countries in which they find themselves than in one that has shown it no longer plans to "recover" these lands for Russia.

That is all the more likely to be the case because so many of them have lived in these areas which were once part of the empire for generations and have little interest in taking the risks economic and otherwise that leaving their current homes for the Russian Federation would inevitably obtain.

At the same time, the leaders of some of the former Soviet republics and Baltic states, however much some of them might welcome a reduction in the number of ethnic Russians in their own populations are concerned about the implications of this plan for the stability of their own countries and for their relationship with Moscow.

This was highlighted last fall when Kaliningrad Governor Georgiy Boos called on ethnic Russians living iin the Baltic states and elsewhere in the former Soviet space to come to his oblast in order to improve the demographic, economic and political situation of that non-contiguous part of the Russian Federation.

At that time, various commentators noted that Boos' appeal could have the effect of leading many in the Baltic countries at least to view the ethnic Russians who have been living alongside them as potentially disloyal candidates for departure. Such a re-ethnicization of politics could by destabilizing the situation make such calls a self-fulfilling prophecy (For a survey of opinion on this point, see

Were large numbers of Russians to begin to leave, that would threaten the economic development of these countries. And were many non-Russians to greet the reality or even the possiblity of their departure, that would inevitably undermine the possibility of developing relations with Moscow.

Indeed, there is a clear risk that this proposal for the "return" of ethnic Russians to the Russian Federation represents a trap into which some Russian politicians hope the non-Russian leaderships will fall. Should that happen, many in Moscow would feel justified in pursuing an even harsher line against them.

For all these reasons and especially because Moscow does not seem likely to be willing to spend the money that would be necessary to make it work, this latest policy is likely to be stillborn, with its only impact being the exacerbation of feelings within the Russian nationalist community and in non-Russian governments.