It is likely that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will eventually force Russians to reconsider, redefine, and reimagine their national identity. This conversation will need to begin with the question of responsibility for the crimes committed in Ukraine, but that will hardly be the end of it. One way or another, Russians will have to reckon with their history and collective understanding of themselves. 

This is far from an easy issue and provokes a slew of questions, including the relationship between ethnic Russianness, imperial Russianness, and civil Russianness, relations between Russians in Russia and those abroad, relations between Russianness and Europeanness, relations between Russianness and identities of those living in national republics of the Russian Federation, or other areas with distinct ethnicities (like Cossacks, Pomors, or Siberians). 

For as long as Putin’s regime – or something like it – persists, the platforms for this conversation will have to be developed outside the country. It will fall to Russian emigrants opposing Putin to build an infrastructure needed for interpretations of Russian national identity distinct from that produced by the Kremlin. In some respects, this situation resembles that when Russian émigré intellectuals left the country after the October Revolution in 1917 and sought to reproduce alternative Russianness, waiting for an opportunity to transplant it back to Russian soil. 

The emergent contest about Russian identity is already visible, for example, in the way some Russians opposing the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine use the white-blue-white flag as an alternative to the official white-blue-red flag of the Russian Federation. Furthermore, some Russian intellectuals, political activists, and performers (many of them are already in exile) seek to reflect on the difficult questions of Russian identity in their work.  

There is also a number of organizations that already contribute to developing alternative images, narratives, and understandings concerning Russia and Russians. In particular, Russian media in exile — outlets like Dozhd, Mediazona, Meduza, Important Stories, or The Project — contribute to this process. Moreover, alternative Russian intellectual and historical discourse are emerging on such platforms as the Ark Project, the Boris Nemtsov Russian Studies program, the Free University, Memorial, and Re:Russia. Organizations representing ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation, like the Free Buryatia Foundation, also play an increasingly important role. 

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All these initiatives need homes; the recent Dozhd affair in Latvia is indicative of possible challenges. In particular,  showing that those in active discourse with Russians at home and with Russian national identity may alienate some of the host countries. This does not mean that Latvia or other EU countries cannot provide a base for such projects (they already do), but clearly, both host governments and diaspora institutions have to be mindful and smart about the content, context, and purpose of their communications.  

As long as Russian émigré institutions maintain a Russian identity, they have a chance to fruitfully resist the Kremlin’s efforts to fully control how Russians speak on Russianness. Furthermore, for Russian media in exile, their self-identification is a valuable asset that makes them more effective in reaching sources and audiences in Russia. In this respect, they just cannot be fully replaced, for example, by foreign Russian-language outlets like BBC News Russian or Deutsche Welle in Russian.  

Putin’s regime tries to undermine this asset of Russianness with its repressive law on “foreign agents”. This is used to delegitimize experts and mass media by labeling them as entities that are alien to the country and its citizens. Furthermore, the Kremlin seeks to be the main authority that defines Russianness and produces the only “true” narratives on the country’s past. For this, it codifies a set of “traditional values” that would define the Russian nation and criminalizes some interpretations of Russian history.       

In reality, Putin does not have a monopoly on Russianness. Even though it is extremely dangerous for those residents in Russia to oppose the Kremlin’s authority, Russian political emigrant institutions can be influential contenders in the struggle for the reconstruction of Russian identity. They can play this role as long as they themselves manage to preserve their Russian self-identification. 

Ivan Fomin is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Previously, he was an associate professor at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow. He participated in projects at the Jagiellonian University, George Washington University, and Ruhr University Bochum. He holds a Candidate of Sciences degree in political science. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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