(Photo by Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
"I am not Russian!" This is the message on a new T-shirt that it is reportedly selling like hot cakes in Kazan, capital of the autonomous Republic of Tatarstan. A different version, bearing the slogan "I am not Russian, Love me!" is doing well in Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan, another autonomous republic within the Russian Federation.
The message the makers and wearers of the T-shirts wish to pass is that Vladimir Putin's war may have the support of the Russian majority but should not lead to universal dislike of "other nations" within the sprawling federation.
The same message is relayed through social media and by a growing number of ethnic Russian citizens of the federation now seeking shelter, at least temporarily, in Turkey, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
No one knows how the Ukraine adventure might end for Putin. But, no matter how it ends, it could affect the delicate, not to say fragile, modus vivendi forged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire among the "nations" of the federation.
A clear victory could rekindle the smoldering ashes of Russian nationalism, or "the Great Russian Chauvinism" as Lenin described it. Putin himself has warned against the return of that "monster" on a number of occasions, depicting nationalism as "a disease."
According to Putin, the fall of the USSR pushed the country "to the edge of civil war," something that President Boris Yeltsin managed to deal with through a series of compromises with the "nations" that remained in the newly minted federation.
A defeat or even a draw in Ukraine could also reignite the flames of Russian revanchism, again affecting harmony of the multi-national federation.
But what do we mean when we talk of "nations" in the Russian federation?
Official Russian literature offers a confusing picture. On the one hand it talks of 120 "ethnic groups" and 100 different languages. On the other it states that Russians account for 77 percent of the total population.
However, the figure of 120 ethnic groups is a relic of the time when Josef Stalin was People's Commissar for Nationalities, searching for "nations" and "ethnicities" in every corner of the empire and at times inventing some. The aim was to sustain the claim that in a country with such national and ethnic diversity, only class solidarity and the dictatorship of proletariat could bind citizens together.
Figures that show ethnic Russians as a 77 percent majority may be misleading because it is based on surveys in which people are asked to name their "first language". Thus millions of non-ethnic Russians who have adopted Russian as their primary language are included in that figure.
The Russification of non-Russian subjects started under the Tsars and intensified during the Soviet era. No one questioned the Russian-ness of Gogol, Anna Akhmatova or Mandelstam, let alone Nikita Khrushchev or Anastas Mikoyan.
With the disappearance of the dictatorship of proletariat as an ideological binding, Yeltsin and then Putin looked to Russian language and culture to counter the Great Russian chauvinism peddled by people like Zhirinovsky and serve as the glue to keep the post-Soviet empire together.
Towards the end of the Soviet era, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a great writer but also a great Russian chauvinist, advised the future authorities in Moscow to let go of minority nations and ethnicities so that a new pure Russia could resume its divine mission free of its Asiatic burden.
He wrote: If we have not succeeded in Russifying them after 200 years, we never shall.
Putin's best-known opponent, Alexei Navalny, plays a similar tune by emphasizing Russia's European identity.
Yeltsin succeeded in calming ethnic tensions by concluding a number of treaties with the largest "autonomous" republics. These were of three types.
The most significant was the 1994 treaty with Tatarstan that gave the landlocked republic a status close to independence. Under it, the government in Kazan has the right to forge its own foreign relations, establish its own national bank and set its own rules for citizenship. That last item was used by then President Mintimir Shaimiev to deprive a large number of non-ethnic Tatars from citizenship of his republic.
Similar treaties, albeit with a more limited transfer of power from Moscow, were signed with Bashkortostan, the federation's second-largest Muslim-majority republic after Tatarstan, and Sakha-Yaqutia in the Far East. A similar treaty signed with Chechnya under Yeltsin was annulled by Putin, igniting a war that lasted over a decade.
The second type of treaty, avoiding political issues and concentrating on "economic cooperation," was offered to a number of Oblasts (provinces), notably Kaliningrad, an enclave on the Baltic Sea, Orenburg, Sverdlovsk and Krasner Krai.
The third type of treaty, signed with North-Ossetia-Alania and Kabardino-Balkar, focused almost exclusively on military-security issues.
All those treaties have been under pressure for some time.
In Tatarstan under President Rustam Minikhanov, demands for a better sharing of the wealth of the federation and greater fiscal independence is featuring in political discourse. The huge cost of the war in Ukraine is bound to amplify such demands.
Elsewhere, such as in Dagestan and Ingushetia, demands for greater roles for local cultures, religions and languages can no longer be silenced.
Putin's recipe for Russian language and culture as the guarantor of unity in the federation is also challenged in the newly annexed Crimea, at least by the Tatars, and in South Ossetia by Iranic ethnicities.
Although non-Russians represent a disproportionate percentage of the fighting force in Donbas, it is doubtful that, if the Ukraine war is lost, that minority nations in the federation would wish to stick with the loser.
Wouldn't the annexation of Donbas create a new source of ethnic and linguistic tension in the federation?
Russia faces another potential source of ethnic tension in the presence of between three and four million Chinese and a million North Korean "contract workers" especially in Siberia and the Far East, whose presence is economically crucial but politically unpopular among native ethnic groups.
Russia's falling demography, expected to speed up with a post-war recession and the lasting effect of sanctions, is a strategic challenge that Putin, his boasts notwithstanding, cannot ignore.
If the Nazis launched their wars to seize "living space" (lebensraum) for a rising population, Putin has invaded Georgia and now Ukraine in search of real or imaginary kith-and-kin to boost Russia's position as majority nation in the federation.
And that could fan the flames of ethnic and national chauvinism among the 23 percent who account for the minorities in the federation.
Putin would have been wiser to focus on his strategy of using Russian culture and the post-Soviet economic boom as means of strengthening the cohesion of the federation. By embarking on an adventure that offers no obvious gain, he may have awakened the very nationalism, and mini-nationalisms, that he labeled "a disease."
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.