Identity politics works differently in Eastern Europe than it does in United States, but it is definitely present, and is tightly woven into the political discourse.
While racism is present, it is mainly represented by anti-Semitism: there's very little immigration from the rest of the world, and that keeps the anti-black and anti-Muslim sentiment at the background level of abstract xenophobia, not the visceral murderous hate you find in US. And even anti-Semitism in the last few decades has become much less of a problem: my older Jewish friends in Russia assure me that they'd feel safer walking through the streets of Moscow wearing a kipa today than at any time before in their lives.
Instead of race, identity politics in Eastern Europe is centered on language and culture. Cultural dominance has been used as an instrument of oppression and subversion throughout Europe for centuries: from choice of language for church service feeding the bloody conflicts between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant branches of Christianity, to Nazis leveraging German cultural identity to annex Austria and Czechoslovakia.
The Question of Language
In XIX century, Russian Empire didn't recognize the right of local cultures to even exist, particularly when the people it conquered held stronger claim to its core cultural myth than the empire's original capital (core principalities of Kievan Rus' on the territory of modern Belarus and Western Ukraine predate foundation of Moscow by 300 years, longer than the entire history of United States of America). Unlike Poland, the Belarusian-speaking half of the Polish-Lithanian Commonwealth wasn't even allowed to keep its name, and was referred to as “North-Western Area”. Likewise, Ukraine was referred to as “Russia Minor” or “Outer Russia”. It took half a century and two uprisings for the same measures to be taken against Polish cultural identity: Polish language was abolished first from education, then from official business, and eventually the land itself was renamed to “Vistula Area”.
“Union [with Catholicism] is not to be. Latinism is not to be. Jews are not to be.” —Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich “The Most Quiet One”, declaration of war on Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1654
After two centuries of genocidal war and a century of colonization, Russian language has advanced from parity with the languages of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to clear plurality. The census of 1897 showed that of 125M inhabitants of the Russian Empire, 55M spoke Russian, 22M spoke Ukrainan, 8M Polish, and 6M Belarusian.
In its first decade, while public support was still needed to consolidate the power and pacify the country after the Civil War, Soviet Union allowed a resurgence of Ukrainian and Belarusian languages. But, just as its original promises of land and peace and later the decriminalization of private entreprise under the New Economic Policy, recognition of national cultures lasted only as long as there remained a threat of viable political opposition. By 1930, being a cultural elite became a death sentence just as surely as being an independent farmer or an enterpreneur.
Since then and until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Communist Party made an effort to assimilate peoples of the Soviet republics and Russian Federation's autonomous areas into the Russian culture. After World War II, Russian youth was encouraged to relocate out of Russia and colonize other Soviet Republics, while entire nations of Chechens and Crimean Tartars were resettled away from their ancestral lands. Russian was the language of education, government, mass media, and entertainment. Local languages were barely taught in school as a second language, local history was either omitted entirely or distorted.
Until I re-learned my country's history in college in the 1990-s, I didn't even know the name of Grand Duchy of Lithuania, not to mention the essential facts about it, for example that its official language was Belarusian, that it's Statutes—a universal codex that predated Napoleonic laws by more than 200 years—were written in Belarusian, that it's first printed book—in the same language—arrived half a century before Moscow got its first printing press. The history books that celebrated Ivan Fyodorov, the first Russian printer, wouldn't mention that he's got his education in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and did not include contemporary political maps: it would've been hard to hide the fact that at its height Lithuania was the largest country in Europe, spanning from Baltic to the Black Sea. The books that took care to highlight every popular uprising from Spartacus to the French Revolution didn't bother to mention that the reason Prussian, Austrian, and Russian empires united to tear the Commonwealth apart was its adoption of the first constitution in Europe in 1791.
Instead, I was taught that my ancestors' language belonged to the village people, not to the educated city culture I wanted to identify with.
“Never again did Manetheren rise. Its soaring spires and splashing fountains became as a dream that slowly faded from the minds of its people. But they, and their children, and their children's children, held the land that was theirs. They held it when the long centuries had washed the why of it from their memories. They held it until today, there is you. Weep for Manetheren. Weep for what is lost forever.” —Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time
While Russian language expanded over the XX century from 55 to 150 million native speakers, only 5 million people, barely half of the current population of Belarus, use Belarusian as their first language. Ukrainian fared only slightly better, spoken by 32 million people out of 48 million living in Ukraine according to the 2001 census.
Perestroika—a desperate attempt by the Communist Party to recover the Soviet economy after the oil price crash of 1986 by recreating the New Economic Policy—kicked off another resurgence of local cultures in late 1980-s. While Russians channelled their resentment of Communism into romanticizing monarchy and Orthodox Christianity, other ethnicities once again tried to revive their cultural identities.
In Belarus, erosion of cultural identity went hand in hand with loss of political independence. With Belarusian culture not recognized as their own by half of the country, including most of its urban population, popular support for independence was lukewarm. Belarusian nation state lasted from 1992 to 1993, and in the Spring of 1994 in its first and only fair presidential election Belarusians voted for a populist who promised to magically return the country to the halcyon days of the Soviet empire by reintegrating with Russia, which included reinstating Russian as co-equal (and de-facto only) language of government and education, and making Belarus an economic, political, and military satellite of Russia. Belarusian became the language of a shrinking subculture of anti-authoritarian freedom fighters, and resumed its slide towards oblivion.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, having been only briefly occupied by Soviet Union from 1940 to 1941 and not fully integrated into USSR until after World War II, were able to keep their cultural identity mostly intact. They were the first to demand independence in 1987, the first to win it in 1991, and the only ones so far to secure it by joining NATO in 2004.
Moldova is an example of a country that has tried and failed to follow the same path, held back by a frozen conflict started over language. The contradictions in that story highlight the use of language as leverage in Russia's foreign and colonial policy.
In 1918, Moldova voted to unite with Romania. To pull Moldova away from Romania, USSR upheld Moldovan as a separate language from Romanian, and invented a Cyrillic script for it—all while working to erase local cultures elsewhere within the empire.
Yet, when in 1989 Moldovans voted to switch their language back to Latin script and declared its identity with Romanian, the revolt which created the unrecognized separatist republic of Transnistria, and ultimately blocked integration of Moldova into Romania, EU, and NATO, wasn't started out of concern for preservation of distinct Moldovan language. On the contrary, the declared grievance was that the rise of Moldovan nationalism threatened the rights of Russian speakers.
In the same year USSR sent tanks against peaceful protesters demanding independence for Lithuania, it couldn't spare any to stop armed separatists demanding reintegration of Moldova back into Soviet Union. Instead, when the revolt escalated into a war, Russia supported the separatists with TV propaganda, arms and supplies, and, eventually, direct engagement of its military.
If this sounds familiar, that's because 25 years later the entire scheme would be replayed at a greater scale in Eastern Ukraine:
- Former colony seeks to protect itself from Russia by integrating with a Western neighbor.
- The prospect of having to learn the local language is represented as “persecution of Russian speakers” (i.e. Russian colonists and assimilated locals).
- Access to Russian military equipment enables pro-Russian separatists to escalate from protests and riots to an armed revolt.
- Engagement by Russian military personnel gradually escalates from denial of involvement to volunteers to para-militaries (Cossacks) to regular army.
- A cease-fire freezes the conflict in a state that renders the colony ineligible for further integration with its Western allies.
I am not reciting this litany of grievances to condemn Russia for conquering its neighbours and suppressing their cultures, nor the Russian language for its role in justifying war and oppression. The same could be written about many empires of the past, and Russian Empire is not the worst of them by any measure. It just happens to be the one that still exists and still projects the most influence over the region where I grew up. I am writing all this to explain the importance of cultural identity and the unique position of the Russian language in that region.
Slurs and Dogwhistles
Just as the concept of race has shaped the political discourse in United States and over the centuries has populated the language with slurs and dogwhistles that refer to these slurs while pretending to refer to something else, the question of language gave alternate meanings to many political terms in Eastern Europe.
When a racist in United States of America hears “welfare queens”, they recognize it as code for black people. When they hear “tough on crime”, they know it is about killing and jailing black people. When a homophobe hears “family values”, they know this is a code for inflicting conversion therapy and other horrors on the LGBTQ people. When an islamophobe hears “war on terror”, they know it does not apply to white supremacist mass shooters, but it will make the life of the Muslim pediatrician living next door miserable.
Political language of Eastern Europe can't be fully understood by Americans without a similar dictionary. As I already mentioned, “Russian speakers” refers to Russian colonists and assimilated local people who identify with Russian culture and, importantly, do not object to integrating their country back into Russia. If you do object, it doesn't much matter which language you speak, the word for you is “nationalist”, “fascist”, and “Russophobe”.
When a Russian chauvinist dreams of restoring the Russian Empire to its former glory, they rarely mention the word “empire”, and avoid words like “conquest” and “war”. The words “occupation” and “colony” are a complete taboo, having them in your vocabulary is enough to be labeled a “Russophobe”, too. The term they use instead is “Russian world” (“russkiy mir”, with “mir” used in its ecumenical meaning of “community” rather than the geographical meaning of “the globe”).
Any ethnicity that speaks a language that Russians can understand (which includes the writing system they can read, i.e. Cyrillics) is “brothers”. Any country with significant presense (not necessarily plurality) of “Russian speakers” and “fraternal ethnicities” is part of the “Russian world”. That is, a target for occupation, colonization, and assimilation.
The Eastern European version of “woke” is “nationally self-aware”, or simply “aware” (e.g. “sviadomy” in Belarusian). When a chaivinist recognizes our awareness by calling us Russophobes, we take pride in that, and sometimes ironically call each other Russophobes, too, as both a recognition of one’s awareness and an effort to re-appropriate the slur. This has made “Russophobe” the Eastern European version of the “N” word: it is ok for nationally self-aware Belarusians and Ukrainians to call each other that, but, when used by a Russian or someone from outside Eastern Europe, it is still a chauvinist slur.