FROM FEDERALISM TO A UNITARY STATE
How the Russian Federation’s ethnic republics gained and then lost their sovereignty
In the nineteen-nineties, most of the ethnic republics remained part of the Russian Federation, having secured promises from the Kremlin that they would enjoy sovereignty, independent economies, and the opportunity to grow without looking over their shoulder at the federal government. All these promises were set down in declarations, constitutions, and treaties. Thirty years later, it transpired that these agreements had been short-lived: the republics were successfully integrated into the so-called power vertical and stripped of real powers, rendering them only symbolically different from the Russian Federation’s other regions. As part of 30 Years Before, a special project by the Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre, Verstka has traced how Russia, which had set out to become a democratic federation, turned into an authoritarian unitary state.

For this article, the author spoke with local activists, journalists, linguists, historians, and political scientists from Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, and Buryatia. Using these republics as examples, we shall consider how federalism, as proclaimed in the nineteen-nineties, was gradually brought to heel in Russia.
In the late summer of 1990, Boris Yeltsin, chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, stood on a square in downtown Ufa. He was speaking to a crowd of hundreds of people who had gathered to listen to the high-ranking visitor from Moscow. Murtaza Rakhimov, the future first president of the Republic of Bashkortostan, stood next to Yeltsin at the microphone. Yeltsin looked confident. In a loud voice, he declared that the Soviet government had long ignored the demand for ethnonational self-determination, provoking tension in the republics. Yeltsin claimed that he would not repeat this mistake.

“We tell the Bashkir people, the peoples of Bashkiria, we tell the Supreme Soviet, the government of Bashkiria: you take as much power as you can swallow,” Yeltsin exclaimed emotionally.

This remark, which later became famous, meant one thing at the time—a new era was coming. Yeltsin spoke a lot during his visit to Bashkortostan and made several other important, albeit less well-known, statements. For example, during a press conference, he explained how relations between Moscow and Bashkortostan would now be structured. “If the republic declares sovereignty, we will respect that sovereignty,” he said. “I guess the republic will have to transfer some part of its power to Russia. But it won’t just be that you cede certain functions to Russia. We must definitely conclude an agreement, an agreement between equals. It won’t be an agreement in which one party tells the other party what to do and the other party carries out their orders. No, this period is over.”
Yeltsin essentially promised the republics that had agreed to remain part of Russia that they would no longer be Moscow’s “little brothers.” He guaranteed them new political and economic relations. For several years it seemed that this was indeed how things would be. But as early as 1994, three years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Yeltsin would try to fudge the terms of the agreement between Moscow and the republics, endowing the federal government with the rights of a “big brother.”
Boris Yeltsin, chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, speaking in Ufa in 1990. Source: A screenshot of Azamatov Saitov’s video report, as posted on his YouTube channel
Chapter 1. The nineties: limited sovereignty
The republics gain independence
In October 1990, two months after Yeltsin’s visit to Ufa, the Supreme Soviet of the Bashkir SSR adopted a “Declaration of the Bashkir Soviet Socialist Republic’s State Sovereignty.” The session of the Bashkir Supreme Soviet at which the document was adopted was chaired by Murtaza Rakhimov, the man who had stood next to Yeltsin during his historic speech earlier in the year.

The declaration changed the republic’s name, removing the word “autonomous” from it. This seemingly minor change effectively turned the new Bashkir Soviet Socialist Republic into a sovereign state which could now decide for itself what kind of relations it would have with Moscow and the other republics.

The other republics changed their names along with Bashkortostan. Within two years, all of them had rid themselves of the prefix “autonomous” and adopted their own declarations on state sovereignty. They explained their decision to proclaim sovereignty by declaring that nations had an “inalienable right to self-determination.”

The declarations increased the status and prestige of the republics’ local languages: now they became official languages on a par with the Russian language. The peoples living in the republics were declared the owners of natural resources. Buryat and Chuvash MPs went further than their Bashkir colleagues by trying to delimit the powers of Moscow and the republics. The declarations of the Buryat and Chuvash republics enabled local residents themselves to shape regional staffing and socioeconomic policies without taking into account the opinion of the federal authorities. The Buryat declaration stipulated that anyone who encroached on the republic’s “sovereign statehood” would face punishment.

A little more than ten years later, in 2002, Buryatia’s “Declaration of State Sovereignty” was abolished. The members of the republic’s parliament, the People’s Khural, decided by a majority vote that the document no longer complied with the federal laws adopted under Vladimir Putin. The rich mineral resources of the republics gradually became a source of prosperity not for local residents but for federal companies. Consequently, the authorities began punishing not those people who encroached on “sovereign statehood” but those people who were not afraid to declare that Buryatia had no sovereignty.

Chuvashia’s “Declaration of State Sovereignty” ceased to be valid in 2001 for the same reason: it no longer complied with federal legislation.

The less substantive and more conciliatory declaration adopted by the Bashkir MPs was not abolished and is still formally in force.
Boris Yeltsin, chair of the Russian Supreme Soviet, speaking in Neftekamsk in 1990: “It won’t be an agreement in which one party tells the other party what to do and the other party carries out their orders. No, this period is over.” Murtaza Rakhimov, the future first president of the Republic of Bashkortostan, is seated next to Yeltsin. Source: a screenshot of Azamatov Saitov’s video report, as posted on his YouTube channel
Declarations of state sovereignty
November 30, 2023
Author: Darya Kucharenko
By Vyorstka media
DISCLAIMER:
This article has been published as part of 30 Years Before as part of 30 Years Before, a project by Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre. The views of its authors and editors do not necessarily reflect the views of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre, and vice versa.
In the spring of 1992, a year and a half after they had adopted their declarations of independence, the republics once again renamed themselves. The Soviet Union had collapsed by that time, and the RSFSR had turned into the Russian Federation. Names that included the phrase “Soviet socialist republic” were now outmoded. to be relevant.

Local MPs voted for the Bashkir SSR to become the Republic of Bashkortostan. The Chuvash SSR became the Chuvash Republic, or the Chavash Republic (in Chuvash), while the Buryat SSR became the Republic of Buryatia, or the Buryaad Republic (or Buryat).


The names were in effect for almost ten years, but in 2001, during his first presidential term, Vladimir Putin signed a decree replacing the Chuvash name “Chavash Republic” with “Chuvashia.” Over time, the Republic of Bashkortostan came to be called Bashkiria, while the Republic of Buryatia became just plain Buryatia.
No longer socialist republics
A year and a half after the declarations of sovereignty had been adopted, the time had come to sign an agreement divvying up powers between Moscow and the republics. Several months had already passed since the Soviet Union’s collapse, and it was necessary to put down on paper how the Russian federal government would now interact with the ethnic republics that had remained in the Federation. Two years earlier, Yeltsin had promised those who remained part of Russia sovereignty and a treaty on equal terms, but not everyone liked what he ultimately offered.

The Treaty of Federation gave the republics a small range of powers—on their own, in fact, they were allowed to declare a state of emergency only on their own territory. Foreign policy and international trade could be handled only in concert with the leadership in Moscow. Natural resources were made the property of the peoples living in the republics, but Moscow reserved the right to dispose of them through federal laws.

A heated discussion of the treaty ensued in the republics. Bashkir MPs, led by Murtaza Rakhimov, adopted a resolution stating that the agreement “grossly infringes on the rights of the republics within Russia, especially in matters of property.” Bashkortostan refused to sign the treaty, and the Kremlin entered into negotiations with the republic. The Bashkir leadership demanded complete independence in foreign economic policy, the ability to pass its own laws without regard to Moscow, and a guarantee that all the natural resources in the republic belonged to it alone.

The situation was fuelled by public protests by the Bashkir national movement. In the early nineties, two large grassroots organizations were founded in Bashkortostan: the Union of Bashkir Youth (UBM) and the Ural Bashkir People’s Centre (BNTs). Both of them opposed a federal agreement in which most of the power remained in Moscow’s hands.

The newspaper Kommersant wrote in 1992 that Yeltsin had called Bashkir officials and MPs “hooligans,” but in the end he made concessions to them. The republic signed the Treaty of Federation, but a special section was appended to it in which Moscow acknowledged all the particular demands made by Bashkortostan.

Buryatia and Chuvashia, like the sixteen other ethnic republics, agreed to sign the agreement without special conditions. They did receive one bonus, however. A protocol to the Treaty of Federation was drawn up in which the Kremlin promised to give the highest officials in all of Russia’s regions half the seats in the Supreme Soviet’s upper house (a body that would later become known as the Federation Council).

Two ethnic republics, Tatarstan and Chechnya, did not sign the Treaty of Federation in 1992. Moscow’s negotiations with Tatarstan, which disliked the document, went on longer than with Bashkortostan, lasting for two years. In 1994, Tatarstan would nevertheless sign a special agreement on the condition that the republic would receive the exclusive right to dispose of its land and resources and the possibility of granting its own citizenship to residents. Yeltsin would decide to convince Chechnya, which at that time demanded complete independence from Russia, by force: Moscow went to war with the republic in 1994. In 1996, Moscow and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the self-proclaimed republic that arose in 1991) signed the Khasavyurt Accord on the cessation of hostilities, and in 1997, they signed a peace treaty. In 1999, however, Vladimir Putin would start a new war with Chechnya and subjugate the republic to Russia.

Chechnya would be the only republic that Moscow would force to remain part of Russia through military action. In the early nineties, many thought that other regions would follow Chechnya’s example. Kommersant, for example, wrote in 1992 that the Kremlin would not be able to keep Bashkortostan within Russia, but this proved not to be the case. Discussing why this happened, activist Ruslan Gabbasov, co-founder of the ethnonational organization Bashqort, says that “sovereignty, albeit limited, turned everyone’s heads.”

“In the nineties, we Bashkirs realized that we were in charge, that we were the titular nation. We had our own republic and laws that protected our republic. We had a constitution that we ourselves had chosen, and the Bashkir language had become an official language,” says Gabbasov. “That was a lot compared to what the Bashkirs had in Soviet times. So, the ethnonational movement of the nineties did not set itself the task of achieving complete independence from Russia. Now, after they eventually took away everything which they gave us in the nineties, we understand this was a mistake. We should have united with the Chechens and fought for independence together.”
A march on November 29, 2014, in Ufa, organized by Kuk Bure (“Gray Wolf,” a youth movement that emerged in the 2000s), marking the anniversary of Bashkortostan’s declaration of independence in 1917. Source: Kuk Bure’s community page on VKontakte
The Treaty of Federation
A year after the Treaty of Federation was signed, in 1993, the ethnic republics adopted new constitutions and amended their old, existing constitutions, which had been adopted in the 1970s under the Soviet regime. For example, the phrase “citizen of the Bashkir ASSR” was amended to “citizen of Bashkortostan.”

To emphasize that the ethnic republics had more rights in the Russian Federation than they had had in the USSR, the new constitutions began as follows: “The republic […] is a sovereign democratic state.” It was further stipulated that the republics had the right to grant citizenship and local residents were thus considered citizens of the republic and citizens of the Russian Federation at the same time. It was quite easy to become a citizen of a republic: one had to be born or permanently reside there. The constitutions did not specify what privileges the citizenship of the republic conferred.

Some republics retained sections and articles from their old Soviet constitutions in their new or revised constitutions. For example, the 1993 constitution of Bashkortostan and the revised Soviet constitution of Chuvashia included an article on gender equality. All female citizens of the Republic of Bashkortostan and the Republic of Chuvashia were guaranteed work promotions and wages equal to those enjoyed by men, as well as benefits for working mothers, paid holidays, and reduced working hours. The gender clause was in effect for seven years. It was abolished in 2000 when Bashkortostan revised its constitution and Chuvashia adopted a new one.

Since 2000, the constitutions of Russia’s ethnic republics have been constantly amended and unified, with individual phrases and entire articles removed from. By 2023, all references to sovereignty and citizenship had disappeared from them. Since 2000, these constitutions have emphasized that republics are constituent entities of the Russian Federation and are governed by Russian law.
Their own constitutions
The nineteen-nineties, as the ethnonational activists, local journalists, political scientists, and historians interviewed by Verstka say, was a time when republican authorities were not afraid to confront Moscow.

Journalist Semyon Kochkin, the founder of the Telegram channel Angry Chuvashia, argues that a greater sense of freedom was felt in Chuvashia at the time: “We had a much freer regime than, for example, in Tatarstan or Bashkortostan, and in Russia generally.” In Chuvashia, the journalist recalls, Boris Yeltsin lost his first and second presidential elections, while Vladimir Putin, during his first presidential election in 2000, failed to win fifty percent of the votes in the republic and finished only one and a half percent ahead of his main rival, Gennady Zyuganov.

At the height of First Chechen War, in 1995, the President of Chuvashia, Nikolai Fyodorov, issued a decree that is impossible to imagine in present-day Russia. Fyodorov opposed the war with Chechnya and did not want soldiers from Chuvashia deployed in the hostilities. The decree he signed, “On the Protection of Military Personnel,” prohibited Moscow from deploying Chuvash military personnel to resolve interethnic conflicts on Russian territory. Boris Yeltsin responded by accusing Fyodorov of meddling in issues under the Kremlin’s jurisdiction, but Fyodorov did not back down from his position.

And yet, it cannot be said that the leaders of all the ethnic republics adhered to the principles proclaimed in their declarations of state sovereignty and constitutions. Verstka’s sources note that although the republics had declared themselves sovereign democratic states, they still had a long road to democracy ahead of them—a road they ultimately failed to travel to the end. The policies pursued by the president of Bashkortostan, Murtaza Rakhimov, in the nineties, illustrate this point perfectly. Although he was not afraid to confront the Kremlin and defend his republic’s rights, Rakhimov built a regime in Bashkortostan which the German political scientist Jörn Grävingholt described as “outwardly democratic, but essentially authoritarian” in his book Regional autonomy and post-Soviet authoritarianism: the Republic of Bashkortostan. That is, Rakhimov had total control of the economy, ideology, media, and law enforcement agencies in Bashkortostan.

“It’s difficult to say what Russia was before the ‘mean noughties,’ what it was in the nineties. It probably wasn’t genuinely federalist. Rather, it was a relatively stable structure in which the republics simply had more room for manoeuvre than in Soviet times,” argues Alexander Cherkasov, a board member of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre. “It’s obvious that the First Chechen War sent a patently clear signal to the other ethnic republics. Everyone saw that Moscow was not afraid of turning a large city into ruins and killing tens of thousands of people. All the other republics read this message as the Kremlin meant them to read it. Later, in the noughties, under the pretext of ‘combating terrorism,’ which was almost Putin’s primary method of governing the country, Moscow carried out a reintegration. The Second Chechen War, dubbed a ‘counter-terrorist operation,’ was the backdrop to this centralization. Consequently, Russia gradually turned into a belligerent unitary state without any real tokens of federalism. It’s unlikely that Kadyrov’s Chechnya—which has become, like a bad joke, the region most independent from Moscow—can be regarded as such a token.”
The upshot of the 1990s
Chapter 2. The noughties: the power vertical
In the nineties, the ethnic republics that remained part of Russia were granted political and economic rights—not as many as Yeltsin had promised before the Soviet Union’s collapse, but still more than they had had in Soviet times. After Putin came to power, the federal authorities gradually took back everything that the republics had managed to “wrestle away,” according to all the experts interviewed by Verstka.

The first blow was the reform of the legislative branch. Under the terms of the Treaty of Federation, the republics and regions each received two seats in the Federation Council: one seat was held by the region’s head (its governor or president), the second by the head of the regional parliament. This provision allowed regional elites to feel that they were federal players. The governors and presidents who sat in the Federation Council felt free to act, and Putin didn’t like this, says a political scientist, a native of Bashkortostan, who spoke with us on condition of anonymity.

“If you turned on the TV in the late nineties, you would have seen Rakhimov, [president of Tatarstan Mintimer] Shaimiev, and [Moscow mayor Yuri] Luzhkov. They constantly spoke to journalists and established the Fatherland – All Russia bloc. In the 1999 State Duma elections, Putin competed against these people. It was clear that this regional front had power,” says one of Verstka’s sources.

One of the first laws that Putin signed after winning the 2000 presidential election was the law “On the Procedure for Forming the Federation Council.” Regional heads lost the right to hold seats in the upper house of parliament. The regions were now represented in the federal parliament by lesser figures: one member of the Federation Council was appointed by the region’s head, while the second was chosen by the chair of the regional legislative body.
Reforming the Federation Council
Four years later, the federal authorities demolished another pillar of federalism by abolishing the direct elections of regional heads. According to the new model, introduced in 2004, the regional head was appointed by the Russian president, and then approved by the local parliament. Putin explained that his decision had been triggered by the Beslan tragedy: after the terrorist attack on the school there, according to the president, the country had to strengthen its “power vertical.”

The heads of the ethnic republics did not protest the abolition of direct elections, deciding that on the whole it was beneficial to them, argues the political scientist with whom we spoke. Competitive elections required large resources, and there was no way to guarantee victory. Three of our sources from Bashkortostan point out that, in the 2003 elections, the then-president of the republic, Murtaza Rakhimov, almost lost to two strong rivals—businessmen Sergei Veremeyenko and Ralif Safin. According to our sources, Rakhimov’s electoral mishap played into the Kremlin’s hands, because they made him amenable to negotiations.

According to the new rules, the presidential envoys in Russia’s newly established federal districts could nominate a candidate for the position of regional head. A year later, political parties that held seats in regional parliaments were allowed to do this. Four years later, in 2009, the law was changed again—now only parties that had a majority in parliament could propose candidates. In 2009, United Russia, a party that was already closely associated with Putin, had a majority in parliament.

From that moment on, according to our sources, the regional heads and the people who aspired to these posts came to understand that if you want to be elected, you had to join the United Russia party.

Nowadays, the heads of the republics are elected both directly and indirectly. For example, the regional head is appointed by the regional parliament in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and occupied Crimea. Technically, there are still direct elections in Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, and Buryatia, but due to administrative resources, vote rigging, and the exclusion of genuinely competitive candidates from the ballot, the people the Kremlin needs to win always win.

This has led to the instances in which people who had no relation to particular regions were appointed to lead them, as happened in Buryatia. In 2017, Putin appointed Alexei Tsydenov, a native of the Trans-Baikal Territory, head of the republic. At first, recalls Alexandra Garmazhapova, a journalist and co-founder of the Free Buryatia Foundation, the republic’s resident regarded Tsydenov’s appointment positively. “We were told that a young technocrat with connections in Moscow would be able to lobby for the republic’s interests. Plus, it was quite important to Buryats that for the first time an ethnic Buryat would be the head of Buryatia,” says the journalist.

It soon became clear that the ethnic Buryat Tsydenov did not speak the Buryat language, and this disappointed local residents. Over time, their hopes that Tsydenov would lobby for the interests of Buryatia also collapsed. On the contrary, Moscow’s protege proved his loyalty to the Kremlin: in 2022, the republic under his leadership, Garmazhapova notes, became “one of the leaders in supplying human resources to the war against Ukraine.” Garmazhapova cites as a counterexample the first president of Buryatia, Leonid Potapov, who was born and raised in the republic. The fact that Potapov was ethnically Russian, according to the journalist, did not prevent him from speaking Buryat fluently.
However, even officials who have connections to regions often come to be regarded as “Varangians” due to the absence of free and fair elections. According to three of our sources, this happened with Rustem Khamitov, who headed Bashkortostan after Rakhimov’s departure. A native of the Kemerovo Region who had gone to university and worked in Ufa, but had made a career in Moscow, was regarded as an outsider by both the Bashkir elite and the ethnonational movement, which influences the mood of the republic’s residents.
Abolishing direct elections of governors
At the same time as the Kremlin abolished the direct elections of governors, it took another big step away from federalism towards a unitary state. In the early two-thousands, it implemented a nationwide economic reform which cemented the unequal relationship between Moscow and the regions.

The Kremlin robbed the regions of several large sources of tax revenue. Moscow redistributed the tax burden on raw material producers such that almost all of the taxes that they had paid flowed into the federal budget. In addition, the regions lost income from taxes on the use of natural resources. In effect, resource-extractions companies began paying compensation not to the regions where they operated, but to Moscow. The republics also lost the right to claim revenue from VAT (value added tax). The taxes included in the cost of goods and services purchased by local populations were eventually redirected to the federal budget.

According to economists, this inter-budgetary scheme meant that Moscow came to consolidate most of the country’s money, due to which the federal budget grew every year. At the same time, regional budgets did not increase, and in the wake of the 2008–2009 crisis, their revenues fell, while public debt and the cost of servicing it increased. The regions were forced to ask for subsidies from Moscow to cover their budget deficits.

The 2008–2009 crisis, coupled with the regions’ dependence on Moscow, ultimately played into the Kremlin’s hands and strengthened the country’s power vertical, the experts say. The political scientist with whom we spoke explains what happened by invoking the concept of “tragic brilliance.”

“If an economic crisis occurs in a democratic country, the elite, the country’s leadership, will be blamed for what happened,” says the political scientist. “The elite will be weakened, and the opposition’s popularity will grow. Consequently, in fair democratic elections, the elite will be rotated, the country’s leadership will change. But everything is different in authoritarian regimes. In a crisis, the federal centre does not weaken, but strengthens. Regions compete with each other for help from the federal government. If prior to 2008 there was little point in competing with each other, because there was enough money to go around, then in the wake of the crisis the incentive to show loyalty to the Kremlin increased from one year to the next.”

The economic reforms of the two-thousands ultimately shaped a relationship between Moscow and the regions which can be described as “economic violence,” says Garmazhapova.

“All the money goes off to Moscow, and Moscow decides how much everyone gets. And often gubernatorial election campaigns are based on the fact that the candidate has good relations with Moscow, which means it will be easier for him to obtain preferential advantages for his own region. But this is not a normal approach. Why should personal relationships determine how much money a region receives?” she argues.
Dependent economic relations
In 2007, the Russian government decided to standardize the country’s educational curriculum. A bill entitled “On Changing the Concept and Structure of State Educational Standards” was submitted to the State Duma.

The so-called regional component had operated in Russia’s educational system since 1992. It gave regional ministries of education the freedom to introduce their own disciplines, decide which textbooks would be used to teach history, and determine how many classroom hours would be devoted to the study of local history and local languages. The regional component had been introduced by Yeltsin through the Law on Education. The law repeatedly stated that new educational programs in the Russian Federation must take into account the “regional, national, and ethnocultural characteristics” of schoolchildren.

Many State Duma deputies, ethnonational activists, and even the Russian Orthodox Church spoke out against the abolition of the regional component in 2007. (The Church was worried that classes on Orthodox culture would disappear in a number of regions.) Despite the protests, the bill was passed by a majority vote. The ethnic republics suffered the most as a result of the educational reform, losing the ability to teach local languages and the history of indigenous peoples in a full-fledged manner.

“In Soviet times, we were not told anything about the Bashkirs at school, except that the Bashkirs had supposedly joined the Russian Empire voluntarily,” says Bashkir activist Ruslan Gabbasov. “When the regional component appeared in the nineties, teachers in Bashkortostan began teaching history using local textbooks. There was no need to vet the curriculum with Moscow. So, schools told the real story about the Bashkirs, talking about the Bashkir uprisings in tsarist times and the causes of these uprisings. After the regional component was abolished, all this stopped: all textbooks had to be screened in Moscow.”
Cancelling the regional component
Protesters armed with placards picketing for the restoration of the regional component to Russia’s educational system, Ufa, Bashkortostan, December 2008. Photo: VKontakte page of the Kuk Bure youth movement
In parallel with the Russian state’s vigorous institutional attacks on the rights of the ethnic republics, an equally important process was taking place in Russian society. Xenophobia and far-right violence flourished in Russia in the noughties.
The ethnonational activists interviewed by Verstka recall that they constantly encountered Russian jingoism, and some even fell victim to assaults by neo-Nazis. All this exacerbated the relationship between the residents of the ethnic republics and Moscow, generating the idea that there were right and wrong ethnic groups in Russia. Resentment and dissatisfaction with the federal government grew amongst indigenous peoples.

“It was quite scary to go to study in Moscow and Petersburg. Although I was afraid of racism, I understood that the best universities were there,” recalls 34-year-old activist Victoria Maladayeva, the co-founder of Indigenous of Russia Foundation, a group which tackles the problems faced by Russia’s indigenous people. “I chose Petersburg because I thought that there would be less racism there since it was the cultural capital. But most of my school classmates went to university in Asia because their parents were afraid to send them to the west of Russia.”

Maladayeva, who had graduated with a degree in marketing, stayed in Petersburg to live and work, and given birth to a daughter, faced an online hate campaign when she won the 2014 Mrs. St. Petersburg pageant. Many social media users did not like the fact that she had won the pageant and harassed Maladayeva because of her ethnicity, demanding that she compete in a beauty pageant for her “own kind.”

Another Buryat activist, Purbo Dambiyev, talks about similar experiences amongst residents of the republics in the noughties. According to him, many Buryat families sent their children to university in Mongolia, fearing that they might be victimized in the Russian capital.

“There were a lot of ultra-rightists in Moscow at the time, and people were murdered there over their ethnicity,” says Dambiyev. “Imagine you have a beloved only son. Are you going to send him to the skinheads in Moscow? Of course not. So, they sent us to Ulan-Ude with the rationale that there were Asians there too and nothing bad would happen to us.”
Xenophobia
Chapter 3. The teens: more blows to regional independence
In 2010, relations between Chechnya and the Kremlin were completely different from what they had been in the nineties. The leadership of Chechnya was not fighting for independence from Moscow, but, on the contrary, underscoring its loyalty to the federal authorities. That year, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said something that caused Russia to move one more step away from the concept of federalism.

“There should be only one president in a unified state, and the first persons of its constituent territories can be called heads of republics, heads of administrations, or governors,” Kadyrov said in an interview with Chechen journalists. He asked the republic’s MPs to strip him of the title of president. Chechnya was the first republic to shed the presidency as an institution. Federal authorities pushed other republics to follow Chechnya’s example.

Buryatia’s president, Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, caved in. Like Kadyrov, he asked the local parliament to abolish the position of president. MPs submitted the bill for consideration, but did not pass it, failing to get two-thirds of the vote. Only six months after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law prohibiting the heads of republics from calling themselves presidents, in 2011, Buryat MPs reconsidered the matter and adopted the relevant amendments to the constitution.

It took Chuvashia a year to abolish the post of president: in 2011, its parliament introduced an amendment to the constitution to change the title from “president” to “head.” Opposition MPs put up a fight, but thanks to the ruling party United Russia’s majority there, the bill was adopted into law.

Bashkortostan held out until 2014, but eventually agreed to amend its constitution. Since 2015, the leader of the republic has been called the glava (“head”), in Russian, or the bashlygy, in Bashkir.

Tatarstan resisted the longest—more than ten years. In 2023, the republic’s authorities nevertheless yielded to the Kremlin, but they refused to adopt the Russian title glava (“head”), replacing it with the Tatar rais.
Abolishing all the “presidents”
The abolition of the presidency caused great offense to the republics, but the change was more symbolic than practical. Formally, the heads of the republics retained the same powers as they had enjoyed earlier. The events of 2017–2018 dealt a much harder blow to the ethnic republics.

In 2017, speaking at a meeting of the Council on Interethnic Relations in Yoshkar-Ola, Vladimir Putin contrasted the Russian language with the languages of Russia’s indigenous peoples. “Forcing a person to learn a language that is not his native language is just as unacceptable as reducing the level of Russian language instruction and the time allotted for it. I’m paying attention to this,” Putin said. This was a signal for prosecutors to carry out inspections in the schools of the republics: if they discovered that the local language was a mandatory subject, the school’s headmaster was obliged to change the curriculum. In 2018, the State Duma cemented Putin’s position on the language issue by amending the law “On Education”: henceforth, local languages would be taught as electives.

The languages of indigenous peoples were already in a deplorable state: their popularity was declining in almost all of the ethnic republics. During Soviet times, urban dwellers sought to speak Russian, hoping that it would help them climb the career ladder. In the nineties, when the republics gained sovereignty, interest in native languages revived, and they were taught in schools as mandatory subject to all pupils whatever their background.

In the noughties and twenty-teens, amidst curtailed federalism and growing xenophobia, the local languages again lost ground. Native speakers were embarrassed to speak their native language in public places, while the number of schools in which the curriculum was taught in the local languages rapidly declined. The Unified State Exam was adopted, and it had to be taken in Russian, thus reducing the motivation of teenagers to learn their native language.

Semyon Kochkin recalls an episode that he witnessed in the noughties. “I was traveling on a bus from my home village to Cheboksary. There were two guys on the bus who were speaking Chuvash to each other the whole way. At some point, one of them said, ‘That’s it, we’ve passed Kalinino [a village near Cheboksary], now we’ll speak Russian.’”
“When I was at school, the Russian language was superior to the native language—both in terms of hours taught and quality of instruction,” says Victoria Maladayeva. “There was this prejudice that the Buryat language was a rural language, and that learning it was neither fashionable nor cool. It was considered prestigious to speak Russian without an accent, so that later, when you went to university in Moscow or Petersburg, you would feel like you belonged there.”

Purbo Dambiyev recalls that five years before Putin’s statement, a group of concerned parents of ethnic Russian schoolchildren had formed in Buryatia. They demanded an end to the compulsory study of the Buryat language, which was the republic’s second official language. The parents managed to attract the attention of the prosecutor’s office, which convinced local schools to make the Buryat language an elective. In Buryatia, the federal law abolishing the compulsory study of local languages, adopted in 2018, cemented what had been going on there for several years.

Putin’s statements caused a stir in other republics, where until 2017 the local languages were still compulsory for everyone to learn, albeit poorly. The new rules had little effect on republics like Chechnya, where few ethnic Russians live, but they did cause major changes in republics with mixed populations. In Bashkortostan and Chuvashia, parents of ethnic Russian schoolchildren filed formal requests to have them freed from the requirement to study the local languages. This led to a decreased workload for specialized language teachers, and they were laid off.

Bashkir ethnonational activists held protest rallies and pickets, while their Chuvash counterparts penned an open letter to Putin, but it did no good. Bashkir, Chuvash, and Buryat officials adopted a neutral stance: none of them publicly asked the federal authorities to keep the local languages as mandatory subjects in the school curriculum.

A teacher and populariser of the Chuvash language, who spoke to us on condition of anonymity, recalls that educators in Chuvashia had the following attitude: “We were told that we were a subsidized republic, and we could not make a fuss; if we made a fuss, all our funding would be cut. If we sat still and kept quiet, on the contrary, maybe our funding would be increased.”
Abolition of compulsory language instruction
A picket in defence of the G.S. Lebedev National Boarding School, Cheboksary, 2013. The protesters hold a banner that reads: “Liquidating the national boarding school = liquidating the Chuvash nation.” Photo: the Ireklekh movement’s community page on VKontakte
The declarations of national sovereignty and constitutions adopted in the nineteen-nineties clearly stipulated that all natural resources, forests, lands, and rivers belonged to local residents and should be used to meet their needs and improve their material well-being. In practice, it has not been the residents of the republics who have benefited from natural resources, but the federal treasury, which levies taxes on the use of natural resources, and the owners of large companies, who do not reside in the republics.

In the twenty-first century, environmental protests related to mining have flared up in Bashkortostan every now and then. For example, in 2020, residents in the Bashkir town of Sibay opposed the construction of new industrial enterprises. A year earlier, an environmental disaster had occurred in the town. A mothballed quarry, in which the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, owned by two Russian oligarchs (Iskander Makhmudov and Andrei Kozitsyn), was extracting ore, had begun to smoulder.

In Buryatia, one of the most notorious scandals surrounding the extraction of natural resources was the shakeup of the jade market. Jade mining in the republic was traditionally carried out by the Evenks, indigenous inhabitants of Siberia. In the 2010s, one of the ancestral Evenk artisanal cooperatives, Dylacha, attracted the notice of the security forces. “Dylacha sold jade to China quite profitably. For many years, no one was particularly interested in jade, but at some point, the authorities paid attention and launched a criminal case against them for illegal mining,” says Purbo Dambiyev. The criminal case led to Dylacha’s liquidation. The site that it had rented for jade mining, various media outlets reported, was transferred to the Trans-Baikal Mining Enterprise, co-owned at the time by the Russian state corporation Rostec.

In 2017, Pavel Sulyandziga, a human rights activist from the Maritime Territory (Primorsky Krai) who had spoken out in support of the Dylacha community, was forced to leave Russia for the United States. In interviews, he has said that after the episode with the Evenki community, he experienced intense pressure from the security forces, and a few years later a criminal case was launched against him.
Federal players in local markets
A grassroot meeting in Sibay, Bashkortostan, on the ongoing environmental disaster in the area, September 2020. Source: screenshot from a video posted on the YouTube channel RusNews.
Chapter 4. The twenties:
the “Russian world”
Sulyandziga is not the only ethnonational activist who has had problems with the Russian security forces. Activists from the republics have always faced the threat of persecution. The plight of the Bashkir ethnonational activist Airat Dilmukhametov, recognized by the Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre as a political prisoner, is telling in this regard. Dilmukhametov was one of the creators of the concept of the Bashkir political nation (according to which, everyone who lives in the republic, not just ethnic Bashkirs, can consider themselves Bashkirs) and a supporter of independence for Bashkortostan. During Putin’s reign, Dilmukhametov has been convicted four times on extremist charges, receiving a fifth prison term in 2020.

The crackdown against ethnonational activists has intensified since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In Bashkortostan, three other activists—Ramila Saitova, Ruslan Gabbasov, and Fail Alsynov—have been prosecuted on extremist charges independently of each other. Saitova is now in custody in a pretrial detention centre. Alsynov has been released on his own recognizance whilst awaiting the verdict in his case, while Gabbasov now lives in Lithuania, where he was granted political asylum in 2022.

Alexandra Garmazhapova was sentenced in absentia in November 2023 to seven years in prison on charges of disseminating “fake news” about the Russian army. The criminal case was triggered by an interview in which the activist and journalist said that there were Buryat, Tuvan, and Russian soldiers who were unsuccessfully trying to terminate their employment contracts with the Russian Defence Ministry. Vasily Matenov and Liliya Mongush, the founders of the independent social media outlet Asians of Russia, which deals with the problems faced by Russia’s indigenous Asian populations, were pressured into leaving Russia in 2022. Alsu Kurmasheva, a journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, is in pretrial detention on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent. Under her editorship, the service devoted a great deal of coverage to the oppression of indigenous peoples in the Volga region.

Fearing prosecution, some activists—for example, in Chuvashia—have abandoned public activism altogether, says a member of the ethnonational movement Ireklekh. Our sources in Chuvashia concur that the situation of ethnonational activists is radically different from what it was in the nineties. Nowadays, the republic’s authorities strive to demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin and support the war, even going so far as to organize their own volunteer battalion. It is hard to imagine that less than thirty years ago, the republic’s leadership was not afraid to openly oppose another war—with Chechnya.
Persecution of ethnonational activists
Asians of Russia cofounder Vasily Matenov holding a placard that reads: “Asians of Russia against the war.” Photo courtesy of Vasily Matenov
The war against Ukraine not only triggered vigorous crackdowns against ethnonational activists. Both federal and republican authorities have begun fiercely promoting the concept of the “friendship of peoples.”

While the current head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, underscores in his speeches that his republic is a pillar of Russian patriotism and statehood, the federal authorities are issuing grants in Khakassia to strengthen “the sense of belonging to the united Russian world.” At large-scale concerts in the ethnic republics, local indigenous artists sing the Russian musician Shaman’s song “I Am Russian,” but a scandal erupted in Kazan after teachers tried to force Tatar schoolchildren to sing it.

“There has always been jingoism in Russia, but now it has become even more widespread. We see how ethnic Russian nationalism is fostered: all of Putin’s ideologues are ethnic Russian nationalists, and the war with Ukraine is prosecuted under the slogan of the ‘Russian world.’ We can say that we see the imperial flag rising over the country,” says Ruslan Gabbasov.

The country’s ethnonational movements have reacted to these events with indignation. If previously they held moderate views and advocated federalism, many now openly advocate secession from Russia. In 2023, activists held several forums abroad, at which they announced that the indigenous peoples of Russia could only be politically and economically successful if the country broke up into several dozen independent states.

Victoria Maladayeva lists the principal problems that have built up in Buryatia over the last thirty years: poverty, unemployment, economic dependence on Moscow, poor environmental conditions, lack of good universities and prospects for career growth, and high mortality, which has only been exacerbated by the involvement of Buryats in combat in Ukraine. The Buryats have been subjected to assimilation for several centuries, and Russification has not stopped over the last twenty years, she notes.

Another Buryat activist, Purbo Dambiyev, argues that if Buryatia had not remained part of Russia, but had become independent, like neighbouring Mongolia, it would have turned into a successful country over the past thirty years.

“After the [military] mobilization was announced [in Russia], many fled to Mongolia, including me. I experienced a colossal psychological blow. I saw that over these thirty years the Mongols, unlike us, had a full-fledged life. Nobody bothered them, and they moved forward,” says Dambiyev.

Russia’s ethnonational activists are supported by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In July, the OSCE issued a resolution calling Russia a colonial imperial state that violates the rights of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities.

“The nations have awakened,” says Ruslan Gabbasov. “They see a chance to try to get rid of the empire. Today, all liberals are saying that the regions need to be given more powers. So, I am sure that when Putin’s regime collapses, even if we remain part of the Russian Federation, we will get no less authority than we did in the nineties. But we no longer want it. Over the last thirty years, we have seen that what they can give us can very easily be taken away.”
Strengthening Russian identity and the struggle for independence