Sunday , July 14 2024

We need to integrate or else build fences

Out of all Eastern Bloc countries the most multi-cultural was the Soviet Union. In Russia today, there are also many different linguistic, ethnic and religious groups. This has been the case for centuries. The Russian Empire, after all, expanded from its historical heartland of Kievan Rus’ and expanded gradually northward, southward, westward, but above all eastward. Eventually this empire stretched across a continent, embracing many peoples who certainly had not been Russian a thousand years ago. It can be described as a form of colonisation without having to travel overseas.

When the Soviet Union collapsed the former Russian Empire lost many of its peoples, but it kept many more. Thankfully Russia itself has been able to remain intact. If Russia were to fall apart, there would certainly be conflict. The various peoples who live in Russia are very mixed and there are frequently no clear boundaries between them. Thankfully also there is little desire for secession. The conflict in Chechnya was the exception. Who knows, perhaps there is desire for secession and independence elsewhere, but we’d all better hope it doesn’t amount to anything. If Russia became one hundred and eight-five countries, corresponding to the ethnic groups who live there, the whole region, perhaps the world would descend into chaos.

For the most part however, people in Russia get on with each other well enough, no matter whether they can also speak a language different from Russian, whether they have a religion different to Russian Orthodox Christianity and whether they are from a different ethnic group.  The Russian Empire was a melting pot. But it must be remembered it took centuries for this melting pot to melt the differences and to a great extent they are still there. Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan’ in 1552, but the Tatars are still there. They are citizens of Russia, but they are still Tatars.  They are not usually even called Russians, nor do they think of themselves anything other than Tatars.

Multi-cultural countries are certainly possible. Russia is one, so is China, so is India. There are many more. But there is always the danger of conflict. There is always the possibility that one group or another might decide to seek separation. No-one thought the Soviet Union would break up, but it did. Who is to say that there is no possibility of another multinational-nation breaking up?

While the Soviet Union was a multi-national, multi-cultural country, the rest of the Eastern bloc for the most part was mono-cultural and has since the breakup of the Soviet Union become, if anything, still more so. Most Eastern European countries are dominated by one linguistic, religious and ethnic group. The south Slavs decided that they could not bear to live together any longer even though they all spoke more or less the same language. They fought a vicious war and split up into Serbia, Croatia et al. Likewise, Czechs and Slovaks decided that they could not endure living together. Their divorce happened almost by accident, but it happened none the less even though to an outsider the Czechs and Slovaks seem more or less the same.

The point is that in recent historical memory most people in Eastern Europe have experience of multi-culturalism and this is therefore something that they now reject. The Austro-Hungarian Empire after all was a multi-national, multi-cultural country, but eventually it could not hold together due to the fact that it contained too many nations. Likewise Czechs and Poles remember the consequence of living in a country which has German minorities. After the war they made sure there were no longer any Germans living in their country. It was vicious the way the Germans were driven out at the point of a bayonet, but the issues that caused such tension in the years before 1939 have gone with them.

This is our problem. Just as the Tatars of Kazan’ remain Tatars 500 years later, so the Germans who had lived in Poland remained Germans and the tendency was for them to wish to turn Poland into Germany. The Eastern European countries that are most diverse now are places like Latvia and Estonia, with large Russian minorities. But it is an uneasy truce. The Latvians and Estonians would prefer that there were no Russians there. The Russians, no doubt, would prefer that Latvia became part of Russia again.

It is the experience of the difficulties of multi-culturalism that makes the present day Eastern Europeans so reluctant to accept immigration. Hungary has a population that is more than 95% Hungarian. They want it to stay that way. The reason for this is two-fold. Their own history tells them of the difficulties of multi-culturalism. But furthermore they look at the experiment with multi-culturalism in Western Europe and they don’t like what they see. Who can blame them?

The only way to make mass immigration work is to have a melting pot. But the melting pot takes centuries and even then it does not always work. Ukraine and Belarus’ split from Russia though they all had the same origin and had been part of one country for centuries. We have not completely melted the difference between Scotland and England, Catalonia and Spain or else there would not be the demand among some people for independence. But if Scots and English people cannot bear to live in one country, though there is little to distinguish us, how can we all live in harmony with people who are very different indeed? If we cannot fully integrate Scots and English people so that they think of themselves as one people, how can we expect to integrate those who are in every respect different except sharing a common humanity? The reality is that it is a part of human nature to wish to live together with those who have similar beliefs and speak the same language. If that were not the case we would not have countries at all.

Hungarians want to live with Hungarians. They too once were immigrants. They migrated to the land that is now called Hungary some time over one thousand years ago. No-doubt they fought their way there and drove out those who were there before them. It may be unfair that they who are quite literally a nation of immigrants want to keep out others who are also immigrants. They probably would be willing to accept some. But above all they recognise that there is a limit. The character of Hungarian society would radically change if twenty or thirty percent of the population was not Hungarian. Who knows what problems that would store up? It is for this reason that they build fences. It is human nature that they should do so. Who am I today to tell them that they can’t?

It’s time to tell the truth. No more platitudes. The Hungarians were right. I bet today they are all very grateful for their fences.

This post was originally published on 14 November 2015 on the author’s blog site:

About Effie Deans

Effie Deans is a pro UK blogger. She spent many years living in Russia and the Soviet Union, but came home to Scotland so as to enjoy living in a multi-party democracy! When not occupied with Scottish politics she writes fiction and thinks about theology, philosophy and Russian literature.

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