There are many ways to define who is Russian.  This video outlines three and a few of their implications.  These images are:

  • Russian as ethnically Russian
  • Russian as Russian speaking
  • Russian as Slavic – this is a category that would include people who are Belarusian or Ukrainian as Russian

Ethnically Russian is one of the simpler definitions – these are people with ethnic origins in the original Russian tsardom centered on Moscow in the 1500s.  The Russian Empire (formally founded in the early 1700s) expanded to include other ethnic groups early on, however, so there has long been a tension between the idea of Russian as an ethnic group and Russian as a designator of subject status (later citizenship) in the Russian empire.  This is reflected today in the fact that there are two words in Russian for the word “Russian.” Russki (русский) refers to Russian ethnicity (and the language), while rossiski (российский) refers to citizenship within Russia (Rossiya in Russian).

Russian identity also has a strong link to the Russian language, to the extent that when we talk about Russian minorities in the Baltics or Central Asia, we usually refer to the “Russian speaking minorities.” There are two reasons for this – first, Russians do this to avoid tension between ethnic and civic definitions of Russianness within Russia itself.  The other is that speaking Russian remains a strong marker of identity regardless of ethnicity.  For example, there are many urban, educated Kyrgyz citizens – of both Kyrgyz and Uzbek ethnicity – who grew up only speaking Russian, not Kyrgyz or Uzbek.

Finally, I want to mention Russian as Eastern Slav.  This identity has its roots in the medieval state of Kievan Rus, which was a precursor state to the Russian Empire.  This was a principality centered on Kyiv that included much of the same territory as the later Muscovite state.  In this conception of identity, Russia is “Big Russia” (mnogorossiya), Ukraine is “Little Russia” (malorossiya), and Belarus is “White Russia” (belorossiya).  This image is obviously favored only by those who seek reunification of these three states.