05 June 2003, 14:56

Caucasian Factor in Contemporary Russia

Our present situation challenges us to overcome the traditional paradigm of thinking and to look for new approaches to developing a new model for Russia`s future. Consolidation of the Russian state`s integrity presents itself as possibly the key aspect of national politics. This raises the very important theoretical and practical problem of combining law and force in the country` s political life.

The answer proposed by the prominent Russian philosopher V.S. Solovyov still retains its actuality: "We may be sure of only one thing, unless Russia performs its moral duty, unless she rejects national egoism, unless she abandons the right of the strong, unless she believes in the strength of the right, unless she wants sincerely and firmly spiritual freedom and truth, she will not truly succeed in either foreign or domestic affairs" (1).

There is another essential aspect. Russia`s integrity and future are connected with its polyethnicity. Ethnic victories should not be hoped for, they would be disastrous for the country. Attempts at the unification of all ethnic cultures have proved abortive. This means that a policy is required which would provide for the well-being of all ethnic communities, whether big or small.

Switzerland is often given as a model of the equal cooperation between ethnic groups within a polyethnic society, based on the recognition of the preeminent value of cultural diversity. In the course of its entire history, the Confederation of Helvetia has been trying to preserve its ethnocultural richness. These efforts are especially important because the multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural milieu encourages tolerance and understanding.

To strengthen the polyethnic Russia, the axiological dominant of ethnicism and its impact on the everyday life should be examined. This may promote the interethnic piece in our country.

The growing interest in the Caucasus is prompted by the complicated and contradictory processes which are taking place in the region. Russian sociology does not have at its disposal conceptual tools which might give an objective analysis of the problem or forecast its future. The available studies merely describe traditions, norms of behavior and customs of everyday life rather than give an integral picture or determine the basic components of the ethnocultural phenomenon whose insufficient understanding seriously weakens Russia`s ethnic policy in the North Caucasian area. Though proclaimed and propagated, it fails to yield the expected results. Coercive methods of preserving the Federation`s territorial integrity make the complicated situation still more difficult. "It is time to rethink our policy in the Northern Caucasus. Leaders of the Caucasus should take part in this discussion. Also a new concept of the country`s integrity should be proposed"(2). This is what makes the cooperation between science and politics so urgent.

No ready-made projects of solving ethnic conflicts exist. Proposals of Western conflict managers are not always suitable for Russia and the Caucasus. That is why understanding of the Caucasus by us, its inhabitants, is so important. Examination and modeling of the cultural and civilizational processes, forecasts of their nature and direction and determination of ways for a stable social development are required. Efforts of scholars and politicians should be joined for this purpose.

Ontological, gnosiological and axiological aspects of the Caucasian factor may be addressed. Such an analysis is possible in a cultural and civilizational context which would include the Caucasus, Russia as a whole and the entire world. However, the attempts made in Russian science to examine the specific nature of this region are often superficial and confined to the discussion of traditionalism which allegedly stands in the way of modernization. We think that this opinion may be seen behind the negative attitude to the Caucasian factor and the prevailing pessimism in connection with the ethnic affairs. Some scholars believe that ethnicity should be discarded and uniform criteria should be applied to various cultures. May this opinion be justified if any particular culture is a variety of the world`s universal culture? When we discuss the Caucasian factor, we consider the Caucasian culture as part of the culture of Russia and the world and this specific region as part of the global community.

It would seem that the contemporary situation may not be understood from the standpoint of any one specific culture. It is evident that no local cultural tradition may without violent upheavals impose its values or hegemony on the entire world. It makes equal participation and mutual exchange between peoples so important. This should be remembered when Russia`s policy in the Caucasus is designed.

By way of digression it should be noted that a new term became current in post-Soviet Russia, "people of Caucasian nationality" used in mass media, scholarly publications and official documents. It is quite evident that it implies the ignorance of the Caucasus and Caucasians and may generate misunderstanding and conflicts. According to a poll conducted in 1997 by the Independent Russian Institute of Social and National Problems, 14% of young and 13.4% of older people had a negative attitude to the Caucasians, 12.4% and 17.8% respectively, to the Chechens, 7.4% and 6.2% to the Jews, 5.1% and 4.4% to the Azerbaijanis, 4% and 2.3% to the Armenians. It seems that the anti-Chechen attitude, provoked by the hostilities in Chechnya, has turned into a negative opinion of all the Caucasians (supplanting even the deep-rooted anti-Semitism).

But there has existed a different image of the Caucasians. The highlanders`  courage, heroism and nobility glorified by Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Leo Tolstoy may not have been totally forgotten, along with the impressions of the European authors who visited the Caucasus in the 13th-19th centuries and exalted in their memoirs the Caucasians` magnanimity.

Considering the Caucasus in the Russian and international context, the prominent Russian Caucasian scholar Yu.A. Zhdanov puts forth the constructive content of the Caucasian ethnicity which helps see behind the "people of Caucasian nationality" a unique geographic, geopolitical and cultural phenomenon. Commenting with bitterness on the past and present conflicts and confrontations, he says that "the Caucasus preserves rich historical traditions. There is no comparable regions on our planet where hundreds of peoples would coexist for centuries... This astounding amalgam is the entire mankind`s precious heritage... For this reason artists and scientists of the Caucasus are so dedicated to the relations and cooperation between various ethnic groups. In this sense, the traditions of the Caucasus are inexhaustible"(3). Unfortunately, many analysts underestimate the axiological component which lies at the foundation of the Caucasian identity.

Once again, analysis of the Caucasian factor is possible solely in the context of the general cultural and civilizational transformation which the humanity is undergoing. Its content is revealed by the Caucasian culture, less dynamic than the European culture. To some extent this explains why ethnicity acts here as the basic cultural value instead of losing its importance.

Principles of Caucasianness date back to the historical beginnings of the Caucasian tribes and ethnic groups. Borne of the close interaction between them and the environment, Caucasianness, quite naturally, experienced some effects of geography, though it does not mean that it is predetermined exclusively by the natural conditions or religious or linguistic kinship.

So what made people Caucasians?

To understand it, the following methods may be used which in our opinion are sufficiently substantiated. They are connected with the idea of "ethnic structures of everyday life", phenomena which are specific for each ethnic group, customary and recurrent in people`s immediate experience. This level of everyday life forms the profound foundations of national conscience and national originality of the individual and serves as the basis for the general sociological category of way of life, giving it its ethnic dimension(4). It is by the Caucasian way of life that the Caucasian mentality, spiritual values and all other aspects of the Caucasian`s existence are determined.

The Caucasian factor has many aspects and makes itself felt at various levels, regional, ethnic and individual. In includes a number of components implying a synergetic understanding of the world. One of them is the idea of dialogue. The art of dialogue has always been held in esteem in the Caucasus where young people were taught to pay heed to elders` advice and find compromise. The popular saying "If you have nobody to ask, put your hat in front of you and take its advice" is eloquent enough. The Committee of North Caucasian Elders existed even during the WWII, discussing current affairs and resolving disputes by means of dialogue. Caucasian customs and norms of behavior are inspired by the ideas of tolerance, humanism and benevolence. These are constituents of the Caucasian ethnicity.

It is known that religious and ethnic identities constitute an organic whole in the Caucasian culture. Nevertheless, ethnicity is understood by the Caucasians as the top rather than one of the rungs in the hierarchy of being. Caucasianness is a category expressed by social rather than religious identity. It is unthinkable without honor, justice and courage, and implies the individual`s special attitude to dignity, truth and freedom. It acts as an immanent regulator of the individual` s whole life, constituting the historical rather than biological substance of being in the Caucasian sociocultural milieu.

Our ideas might seem to some ?outdated? attempts to create a cult of the Caucasian factor. Tribal and ethnic qualities and morals in their primeval form must not be idealized. On the other hand, Caucasionness should not be presented as a mythologized phenomenon necessarily leading to ethnonationalism. The ontologization of the Caucasian factor and its positioning as a particular substance neither precludes its interaction with the Russian factor nor denies the common Russian identity. For the Caucasian to feel Russian does not mean the loss of the sense of ethnic belonging, as the self-identification with his ethnic culture does not exclude him from the Russian society or culture. This is a natural condition for a citizen of the Russian Federation who identifies himself with his nation. In fact, we are all Russians. Anyone of us, whatever ethnic origin, realizes and recognizes the fact that a real historical, social and cultural community exists in Russia, which suggests rather than denies ethnic diversity including the Caucasian component.

Coexistence of other ethnic identifications alongside Russian is certainly a serious social and political challenge. What it shows is our country`s historical uniqueness rather than its weakness. Cultural identity makes a state internally coherent, because its unity may solely find its expression in the diversity of ethnic groups and identifications which interact and enrich each other. The dialogue of cultures paves the wave to a new modus of identification and raises in the individual the question "Who am I?"  in relation to other ethnic groups, humanity and the entire world and instills in him a sense of belonging, enriching the individual`s conscience. Profound understanding of ethnic cultures helps understand that the social well-being of everyone depends on the combined efforts of all the peoples of Russia.


1. Solovyov V. National Problem in Russia // Collected Works in 2 Volumes. Vol. 1. M., 1989. P. 263.

2. Moiseyev N.N. Time to Determine the Nation`s Aims // Sotsialno-gumanitarnyye znaniya. 1999. No. 6. P. 149.

3. Zhdanov Yu.A. The Solar Plexus of Eurasia. Maykop. 1999. P. 23.

4. See Boronoyev A.O., Skvortsov N.G. Ethnos and Individuality // Man in Science. St. Petersburg, 1993. P. 57.

Author: R.D. Khunagov, A.Yu. Shadzhe; Source: Studies in Sociology: Political Monthly of the Russian Academy of Sciences. - Moscow: Nauka, 2001. No. 3.

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