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Window on Eurasia — New Series: Pomor ‘Nation Building’ in 1990s Shows What a Concerted Government Effort Can Achieve, Russian Critic Says

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Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 5 – In an article devoted to the parade of sovereignties and its consequences at the end of Soviet times and the beginning of post-Soviet times in both non-Russian and Russian regions, Igor Dmitrov points to the success some regions had in creating or building up a national identity where one had been weak or non-existent in the past.

            Such regions were generally headed by ambitious governors but lacked the strong economy or unified ethnic group that could support their aspirations economic and political, the Lenta commentator says; and in those cases, regional elites engaged in the creation of a new nation as the Soviets had in the 1920s (

            Among the examples he gives was what he describes as the construction of “’a Pomor identity’” in Arkhangelsk Oblast, an identity that did not give the republic leadership the boost they hoped for in the 1990s but that having been created has taken off and is now playing a role both in the Shiyes trash dump protests and the possible amalgamation of two federal subjects.

            The Pomors are a real sub-ethnos of the Russian nation, culturally, economically, and linguistically distinct from the ethnic Russian majority, but they have not been recognized as a self-standing nation, something necessary if they are to have the status and institutions they aspire to.

            (On the Pomors and their aspirations, see, and on their current travails in dealing with Moscow, see

            Like many Russians, Dmitrov does not accept the idea that the Pomors are a separate people or could want to be identified as such. Instead, he argues that they are a nation created by political entrepreneurs who see such a status as helping them advance their own political and economic demands.

            To that end, the Lenta commentator quote in extension a post by a blogger with the screen name, “Historian-Alcoholic,” about what has happened with the Pomors over the last 30 years as far as he and other Russian nationalists are concerned ( Despite his negative attitude toward them, his words are instructive.

            Saying that he was “at the center of the nation building” of the Pomors in Arkhangelsk in the 1990s, Historain-Alcoholic argues that “it is disputable that the Pomors are even a sub-ethnos.” The name is one given to them by outsiders: until the 1990s, they called themselves “Orthodox Christians” and were part of “a common Rusisan identity.”

            Before 1917, there were “no ore than 20,000” of them; and during Soviet and post-Soviet times, their numbers contracted as more Russians moved into the region and  intermarried with them.

            “Nevertheless, from the 1990s until about 2005, residents of the oblast had the notion of Pomorness actively imposed on them.” Finns and Norwegians came, promoted the idea and gave it a superficially scholarly basis.  They also developed special courses for children in the oblast’s schools to promote the identity.

            There were six key ideas that these activists sought to promote: first, that the Pomors were a metis people who were the product of Russian-Finnish intermarriage, that their religion had elements of Protestantism, that Pomor women had equal status with men, that there were no noblemen and peasants, that they provided much of the wealth to the tsars in the 16th and 17th centuries, and that because the Mongols didn’t reach their area, they remained the most pure of the Slavic groups.

            For 15 years, Historian-Alcoholic continues, this was taught in schools and universities in Arkhangelsk. The local pedagogical institute was even renamed the Pomor State University, a Pomor dictionary was compiled, a Pomor encylopedia launched and a Pomor symphony orchestra was organized.

            In 2005, at Moscow’s insistence, all this was stopped. But the earlier work of the Arkhangelsk authorities did not go for naught. People continued to identify as Pomors and to invoke that identity both in the protests against the Shiyes trash dump and in opposition to unifying Arkhangelsk and the Nenets Autonomous District.

            This is a reminder if one is needed of how powerful such propaganda can be even if it is conducted only for ten to 15 years, something Moscow needs to recall, he says, when it is dealing with former union republics like Belarus and Ukraine which have been affected by something similar for twice as long. 


Window on Eurasia — New Series