Development, Distinction, Destruction: Narratives of Russia’s resource dependence and their potential for fostering civic national identity (Elizabeth Sutterlin)

Despite efforts to reform and diversify the Russian economy, the state remains highly reliant on income from the oil and gas sector. This dependency is implicated as a root cause in many of Russia’s problems. Natural resource revenues allow for the buying off of crucial segments of the population in elections, the continued enriching of oligarchs who benefit from the profits of extractive industry, and the underdevelopment of human capital and infrastructure across Russia’s expansive territory. Resource dependency is also a factor in Russia’s complicated relationship with the West: energy sanctions are devastating to the Russian economy because energy commodities comprise such a large portion of exports. But even as the state’s economic configuration warps its development, it faces little popular resistance. One cannot attribute all of Russia’s silence to the state’s repressive capabilities; natural resource rents support social services, pensions, and welfare programs in Russia. My research asks what relationship exists between resource dependence and a civic national identity in Russia, and how that identity impacts citizens’ support for a resource-based economy. Over the course of my time in Russia, I approached this question by examining the historical narratives about the relationship between the Russian people and the state’s resources. Understanding the narratives which shape public opinion and complicity in Russia’s resource dependence is significant for both scholars and policymakers who are looking to the future. Russia’s natural resources continue to be an effective geopolitical tool for achieving foreign policy goals, and as the country struggles to build civic “Russian” identity in a multiethnic state, the way resource rents promote or demote a common sense of belonging to the state may play a key role in defining the nature of post-Soviet Russia. In this paper, I first examine relevant literature on Russia’s extractive industries and national identity. After identifying the place of my research, I explain my initial expectations and describe my methodology for collecting information at sites of memory in St. Petersburg and Moscow. After analyzing materials gathered in Russia, I argue for three major coexistent narratives regarding resources and Russian identity: of the state for public consumption, of the state for private consumption, and of the private citizen for private consumption.

Relevant Literature

This research question aims to bring Russian cultural history into conversation with theory from the field of international relations that discusses the “curse” of natural resource dependence. By approaching my research question with an interdisciplinary lens, I aim to more fully understand the connections between a uniquely Russian sense of identity and a well-known political and economic problem.

Oil and gas revenues comprise 70% of Russia’s exports.[1]Through both the profits of state-owned companies and taxes on private oil and gas exports, Russia’s resources allow it to redistribute rents and to maintain a large state apparatus and generous social programs. However, in 2012, 54% of Russian survey respondents disagreed that natural resources were being used more efficiently in the market economy.[2]Another 54% of respondents agreed that natural resources are being plundered in the current economy.[3]Ivanovich’s analysis of survey data and statistics on food consumption over time reveals that despite improved welfare based on oil and gas prices, Russia’s economic indicators have generally worsened since 1990.[4]The conclusions he draws demonstrate the warping power of resource rents, as the state pacifies citizens without developing industrial or human capital. Alekseev and Chernyavskiy demonstrate further that the assumed benefits of resource extraction are not spread uniformly, and that while the country overall may benefit, regional development is negatively correlated with extraction of hydrocarbon resources.[5]Eldarov et al. find similar results in their study of public reaction to government proposals to drill in the Caspian Sea in Dagestan, on the periphery of Russian territory. As Russia further explores the limits of its resource endowment, residents of peripheral regions are skeptical of the benefits of further oil and gas extraction projects, and distrust corporations that give only temporary, unsecure jobs to the local populace.[6]The growth of economic displeasure in Russia seen above suggests that the state has motive to craft a narrative that highlights the social and economic benefits of these industries.

Figure 1: An interactive screen exhibit from Hall 23 of the Central State Museum for the Contemporary History of Russia (Moscow), showing a video clip of a worker guiding two connecting pieces of a Lukoil pipeline. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Figure 1: An interactive screen exhibit from Hall 23 of the Central State Museum for the Contemporary History of Russia (Moscow), showing a video clip of a worker guiding two connecting pieces of a Lukoil pipeline. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Political and historical analyses of national identity formation are crucial for understanding the interplay between identity and Russia’s resource reliance. Russia has been a multiethnic and multireligious empire for almost as long as it has been a country, so questions of what it means to be ‘Russian’ have always been contested. In his book Russians Beyond Russia, Neil Melvin argues that Russian national identity throughout its history was not tied to ethnicity, but rather to the structures of power present in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.[7]Ilya Prizel corroborates this in his own research, remarking that throughout Russian history, the state grew at the expense of the people through “an almost perpetual state of war from Ivan the Terrible to Nicholas II.”[8]As for national identity in the post-Soviet period, the creation of the word “rossiyskiy” to denote citizenship in the Russian Federation represented an attempt to build a civic sense of national identity that encompassed more than just the ethnic “russkiy.” In her studies of Russian popular opinion on nationalism and ethnic conflict, Yulia Mikhailova describes the shift from extreme to “banal” nationalism among Russians in the past decade. She notes that popular discourse among Russian citizens is less violent and hateful towards other ethnic groups, but more concerned with degradation of historical and aesthetic traditions.[9]This research links closely back to traditional questions of memory and identity: who does popular opinion consider ‘Russian’ enough to be part of the country’s tradition? The body of national identity literature, too, points to the Russian state’s need to craft and promote narratives of unity and belonging in a geographically distant and ethnically diverse nation.

At the time of writing, little research has been done into the connections between resource dependence and national identity, though some scholars have hinted at such questions. Timothy Mitchell discusses how the institutional structures that have sprung up around the extraction and transport of oil and gas have impacted both political and social development in Russia and elsewhere.[10]One can contextualize this institutional analysis in Russian history through Alexander Etkind’s work, which describes the Russian Empire’s reliance on the trapping and fur industry before oil and natural gas. Pursuit of these natural resource rents devastated the indigenous and nomadic peoples of the Russian Far East and shaped the identity of the Russian state as a colonizer pushing East, just as Russia pushed to its southwest when drilling for oil as far away as Baku, in what is now Azerbaijan.[11]Joseph Bradley describes the role of scientific study in shaping civil society movements in tsarist Russia even as universities and museums became an expression of state power. He provides a historical lens to view the connection between the science of resource extraction and the formation of a civic national identity in today’s Russia. The place of my research in this larger body is to bridge the gap between the perspectives of international relations and cultural history on the matter of Russia’s resources and the development of its civic identity. Pensions and other social programs link citizens to the state’s institutions and to each other, and exist almost entirely because of the ability of the state to redistribute resource rents.[12]As such, my research serves to analyze how narratives in Russia’s museums present the country’s history of natural resource exploitation. These narratives are vital in shaping the population’s collective memory of extractive industry and post-Soviet economic and social development.

Theory and Hypothesis

Many factors influence Russia’s reliance on resources, but existing research on the resource curse, a phenomenon in which countries endowed with abundant natural resources tend to have less economic growth and democracy than countries without, ignores the roles of culture and national identity as driving forces behind this dependence. Based on my preliminary research, I theorized that a narrative of reciprocity would connect the formation of Russian civic identity and Russia’s economic dependence on natural resources. First, the processes of extracting and transporting highly mobile resources like oil and natural gas eroded away the political power of oil workers both globally and in Russia.[13]In the context of a historically repressive Russian state, this dependence on resources furthered the creation of institutions that benefited the few through the cooptation of many. Resource dependence in the tsarist period both necessitated and strengthened the bureaucratic class that was responsible for distributing the profits of resource rents.[14]These rent distribution chains have bound the Russian people together and fostered a sense of national identity through the people’s perceived collective benefit from resource extraction. As Russian citizens depend on social programs financed by oil rents, each citizen feels linked to their country’s wealth and conceives of him or herself as a part of a collective national group whose members are all beneficiaries of the nation’s resources. Resources shape what it means to be a citizen of the Russian Federation.

National identity then feeds back into the economy’s dependence on natural resources. As citizens develop a stronger sense of civic identity, they become more emotionally linked to their fellow citizens and leaders.[15]The creation of Russian identity provides a breeding ground for patriotism and nationalist sentiment. This sentiment is a convenient tool for the state, providing a diversionary channel for civic discontent that would otherwise be directed internally. Leaders use this nationalism to blame domestic problems on the West, or on ‘enemies’ who represent an ideological threat to Russia. This diverts the attention of citizens away from failures at home, who feel tied to the state because of their stake in its prosperity. This diversion allows for the state to continue the profitable business of resource extraction. Not only has Russian identity historically been shaped by the economic prominence of natural resources in the tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods, but national identity has itself amplified the ability of the state to rely on oil and gas rents in the present day.

Figures 2 and 3. An exhibit from Hall 23 of Central State Museum for the Contemporary History of Russia, displaying a scale model of a oil shelf refinery and a full-size employee uniform. Photographed by the author in 2018

Figures 2 and 3. An exhibit from Hall 23 of Central State Museum for the Contemporary History of Russia, displaying a scale model of a oil shelf refinery and a full-size employee uniform. Photographed by the author in 2018.                                                                           Sutterlin figure 2                 

Based on this theory, I expected to see many connections made to social programs and increased welfare in public exhibits on natural resources in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Exhibits that emphasize the role of natural resources in providing for people would be an effective way to educate citizens and create a sense of collective benefit, and by extension, a sense of civic identity, from the continuation of Russian resource dependence.

Methodology

My research began at the museum of the St. Petersburg Mining Institute, which I consider as a site of memory for Russia’s extractive industries. Over the course of my time in Russia, as it became clear that the narrative presented by the Mining Institute was not the only prominent one, I expanded my analysis to encompass sites that advanced the two other major narratives I identified. In studying how these narratives shape Russian memory of resource extraction, my research primarily considers the production and consumption of collective memory as it is presented in the museums I visited. For each site, I studied the collections and exhibits on display, and noted when and how often extractive industries were linked to Russian history and culture, to understand how national identity plays a role in the narrative created by each site. To understand which segments of the population remember these different narratives, I noted visitor demographics and the focus of the audio resources or guided tours, if there were any. Barring the Mining Institute, which allows visitors on Saturday mornings only, I visited all sites at the same time of day and week, to ensure my observations were not influenced by outside factors. Whenever possible, I have supplemented my research with primary written sources and accounts written online about my sites of memory.

Figures 4, 5, and 6. Selected photos from an interactive archive related to the fuel and energy industry of Russia with English descriptions at the Central State Museum for the Contemporary History of Russia. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Figures 4, 5, and 6. Selected photos from an interactive archive related to the fuel and energy industry of Russia with English descriptions at the Central State Museum for the Contemporary History of Russia. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Sutterlin figure 5 Sutterlin figure 4

Findings

“Years of stable development”: State narrative for public consumption

The first of the three narratives I identified at work in the consciousness of the Russian public is crafted by the state and shared with the public at large. The connections between people and resource dependence made by sites promoting this historical narrative most closely resemble what I expected to see in my hypothesis. This was most prominent at the Central State Museum of Contemporary History of Russia in Moscow. As a state museum, it adheres to the Kremlin’s official position on the importance of the oil and gas industry for Russia: a highly positive one, given that the government owns more than half of Gazprom, one of Russia’s largest oil and gas corporations. The museum’s visitors were mainly younger adults, and the prevalence of English translations for the Russian descriptions implied the museum also hopes to reach an international audience. Hall 23 of the museum focused on “Development priorities of Russia in the XXI century,” and clearly linked the use of natural resources with the welfare and identity of its people. The text introducing the reader to the room discussed efforts to increase life expectancy through housing and health policy, as well as new industrial infrastructure projects, but the items exhibited and the interactive content in the hall almost all related back to natural resource extraction (see Figures 1 through 6.) In the narrative put forth by this museum, representing the views of the government, the extraction of resources is overall positive for the Russian people, providing the state with the funds to run social programs that increase public welfare.

Figure 7. Part of the interactive “Russia Is My Homeland” exhibit in Hall 24 of the State Central Museum for the Contemporary History of Russia, marking the locations of important natural resource reserves. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Figure 7. Part of the interactive “Russia Is My Homeland” exhibit in Hall 24 of the State Central Museum for the Contemporary History of Russia, marking the locations of important natural resource reserves. Photographed by the author in 2018.

The room immediately following the oil and gas exhibit focused on Russia’s “Unity in Diversity,” and included a huge interactive map titled “Russia my Homeland,” depicting the ethnic groups, religions, and regions of Russia. One could scroll through informational descriptions and photos of ethnic groups as well as Russia’s prominent oil, gas, and mineral deposits (see Figure 7.) This exhibit was an attempt by the state museum to create a shared sense of belonging for diverse groups in the Russian Federation. Coupled with the hall devoted to extractive industries that preceded it, it was clear that the museum was promoting the narrative of shared civic identity and collective benefit from resource rents.

“The most colorful map of Russia”: A state narrative for private consumption

Not all state institutions promote the same narrative regarding resources to citizens. Distinct from the state-sponsored message at the Contemporary History Museum is a second narrative, focused not on the average museum-goer, but to a more narrow, academic audience. This was most prominent at the Mining Institute and the St. Petersburg Geological Museum. Both are primarily academic buildings for state higher education institutions, and while the exhibits at the geological museum are free and accessible, it is tucked away on the top floor of a library exclusive to researchers–when I visited, I was escorted to the museum section by an employee via elevator and not allowed to see the rest of the building. Both the institute and the museum boasted massive collections of minerals and fossil specimens taken from across Russia, but the text and graphs that were part of the exhibits were overwhelmingly technical, clearly intended for avid geologists and earth science researchers. When I visited, the geological museum was completely empty, save for a single family: presumably a grandfather, two parents, and a child. This exhibit and its narrative are not as far reaching among the population as the first state-for-public narrative, based on observed museum attendance. The Mining Institute, on the other hand, was bustling with people when we took a tour–individuals can only secure a spot on a tour group once a week. In addition to the young people, families with young children, and older people who were on our tour, the institute was still bustling as current students in their uniforms spoke to high schoolers and their parents.

Figures 8 and 9. Photo of the immense map of the Soviet union made from gemstones and precious metals and a close-up of the map key and scale. The map is exhibited at the Geological Museum in St. Petersburg. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Figures 8 and 9. Photo of the immense map of the Soviet union made from gemstones and precious metals and a close-up of the map key and scale. The map is exhibited at the Geological Museum in St. Petersburg. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Sutterlin figure 8

There were two particular exhibits that showcased how these institutions were connecting resources to national identity. The first was a huge, Soviet-era map made entirely of Russian precious gemstones, highlighting Russian industrial and mineral centers as well as its physical and political geography (see Figures 8 and 9.) A descriptive plaque in English (the only English translation in the entire building) said that the intimidating, glittering map had been transported out of the Soviet Union to World’s Fairs in Paris and New York. This incredible piece was thus not accessible nor intended for Soviet citizens, but for showing foreigners the country’s wealth and power–and given the English signage, that purpose remains. The mining institute, too, focused not on building a sense of shared civic identity as the state’s more public narrative did, but on linking Russia’s resources to its standing as a global power. The institute’s architecture rivaled the imperial palaces outside St. Petersburg (see Figures 10 and 11,) and when the tour guide at the Mining Institute connected the rocks and meteorites to Russian history, she scarcely made mention of the Soviet Union. The Institute tour also included an ornate Orthodox chapel that is attached to the university, which was presented as an important part of the life of its students. The inclusion of this chapel on a tour that focused mainly on a collection of Russian gems and fossils raised interesting implications about the connections between extractive industry and a sense of Russian identity rooted in the Orthodox faith.

Although each of these museums is open to the public, they are mainly accessed by the elite: students and researchers in higher education and in Russia’s lucrative mining industry. As such, these sites focus much less on the collective benefit of resource dependence for the Russian people. Instead, the narrative put forward at these state institutions is that of a wealthy, powerful Russian state that has survived the tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet eras. While certainly meant to inspire pride in the unique geological features and technical achievements of the nation, these sites do less to convince the Russian public of the value of relying on natural resources, as the professionals and academics in extractive industries likely do not need convincing.

“Earthy works and ruined landscapes”: Private narrative for private consumption

The final narrative at play in Russia regarding the relationship between natural resources and the Russian public greatly differs from the two addressed earlier in this paper. It is the only major narrative that questions the benefits resource dependence brings to the Russian people and opens a dialogue about the price of those benefits. Whereas the two narratives I addressed previously are both promoted by the state, this account is created and sponsored by private individuals. I found the best examples of this narrative at Erarta, a museum of contemporary art in St. Petersburg. As Erarta is a private museum, its entry costs are slightly higher than publicly funded museums, which no doubt influences its visitor base. Russians and foreigners of all ages walked through the halls of its permanent and temporary collections when I visited.

Figures 10 and 11. Photos of the grandiose interior of the Mining Institute in St. Petersburg. Photographed by the author in 2018.]

Figures 10 and 11. Photos of the grandiose interior of the Mining Institute in St. Petersburg. Photographed by the author in 2018.]

Sutterlin figure 10

Two thought-provoking art pieces merit analysis here, as they represent segments of Russian society which are apprehensive about Russia’s reliance on oil and gas. The first is Vladimir Migachev’s “Oil,” a landscape depicting a train carrying oil tanks (see Figure 12.) The painting bears dark gashes of shiny black paint over the ground, and combined with the tired grey and brown tones of the entire painting, it shows the viewer a landscape that is barren and spent. In a description of the work, Michael Ovchinnikov writes that Migachev “forces the viewer to feel the non-picturesque reality of the land, which is not merely a supply-stream of resources that subsequently become abstract categories like ‘wealth’ or ‘living standard’, but also the fundamental fabric from which the life forms spring and to which they inevitably return.”[16]With this in mind, Migachev’s work represents a mourning of the landscape that shapes the identity of the people who live on it, and a warning of the potential price of resource dependence as land is eroded and destroyed. The second piece is a polymer sculpture by Denis Prasolov, also titled “Oil” (see Figure 13.) In Erarta, the black drop with its all-seeing eye is placed in front of a graph titled “Watch the trend,” tracking crude oil prices by the barrel from 1970 until 2016. Pavel Markaitis writes of the piece:

“The world economy used to rest on squirrel skins, on gold, and finally on oil. Economies of certain countries are so dependent on oil resources that the price of a barrel gets followed by every citizen just like the weather. The sculptor’s work is a kind of golden calf at the turn of the XXth century, the modern idol worshipped by millions of religious workers living in sacred cycles of pricing and stock exchange messages.”[17]

Figure 12. Photo of Vladimir Migachev’s painting “Oil” in Erarta, a contemporary art museum in St. Petersburg. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Figure 12. Photo of Vladimir Migachev’s painting “Oil” in Erarta, a contemporary art museum in St. Petersburg. Photographed by the author in 2018.

This description contextualizes Russia’s resource dependence in terms of larger global threads of interdependence and trade, but has a similar tone to that of Migachev’s piece. This dark substance has the power to destroy the lives of those whose incomes depend on it, just as it destroys the landscape. Prasolov’s unsettling all-seeing eye is a warning of what might happen when people’s livelihoods rest on globally set, seemingly arbitrary prices. While these art pieces do not directly speak to questions of national identity in Russia, the narrative put forth by private artists and collectors represents the only major response to the state-sponsored narrative of the benefits of natural resource dependence for the people. The private voices instead depict a ravaged homeland and a population at the mercy of the global market for oil and gas. Due to the limitations of private support for even indirect criticism of leaders’ choices in Russia, this narrative does not permeate nearly as far as the first two state narratives do. Still, in order to have a full picture of Russian discourse on the country’s economic trajectory, it is critical to understand the extent to which private citizens distrust and resist the country’s resource reliance.

Figure 13. A photo of Denis Prasolov’s sculpture “Oil” in Erarta in St. Petersburg. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Figure 13. A photo of Denis Prasolov’s sculpture “Oil” in Erarta in St. Petersburg. Photographed by the author in 2018.

Conclusion

Three historical narratives currently coexist in Russian society regarding the role of natural resources in determining the national identity of its people. In the most public, visible sphere, the state promotes a narrative of straightforward development and progress, funded by extractive industry. In this state-for-public narrative, everyone has a place in the future of a rich and vibrant Russia. However, state institutions geared more towards expert researchers and bright students in the field are less romantic. In this second, state-for-private narrative, the country’s resources are a source of wealth and power but serve mainly to benefit and impress the already rich and powerful. Finally, a private-for-private narrative calls into question the veracity of the state-for-public narrative and asks important questions the first two ignore about who really possesses power and control over the wealth of Russia’s land and underground. The existence of these three historical narratives has major significance for present and future collective memory of extractive industry. As the Kremlin negotiates pension reforms and reform-minded politicians make efforts to create real economic development in Russia, the resource and identity narrative that gains the most backing from the public will shape public discourse about how resources ought to be used for the good of the Russian people–whoever future generations consider and remember them to be.

Citations:
[1]Roman Ivanovich, “Economic transformation in Russia in 1990–2012 and its reflection in the consciousness of the Russians,” Economic and social changes: facts, trends, forecast5:35(2014) 65.
[2]Ibid., 58.
[3]Ibid., 59.
[4]Ibid., 60.
[5]Michael Alexeev and Andrey Chernyavskiy, “Taxation of natural resources and economic growth in Russia’s regions,” Economic Systems 39(2015) 317.
[6]Eldarov et al., “Oil and Gas Production in the Russian Sector of the Caspian Sea,” The Professional Geographer67:3(2015) 348.
[7]Neil Melvin, Russians Beyond Russia: The politics of national identity, London: The Royal Institute of
International Affairs, 1995.
[8]Ilya Prizel, National Identity and Foreign Policy : Nationalism and Leadership in Poland, Russia and Ukraine, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
[9]Yulia Mikhailova, “Electronic media and popular discourse on Russian nationalism,” Nationalities Papers 39:4(2011) 535-537.
[10]Timothy Mitchell, “Carbon Democracy,” Economy and Society 38:3(2009) 399-432.
[11]Alexander Etkind, “Barrels of fur: Natural resources and the state in the long history of Russia,” Journal of Eurasian Studies 2(2011) 164-171.
[12]Steven Fish, “The Structural Problem: Grease and Glitter,” in Democracy Derailed in Russia, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
[13]Mitchell, “Carbon Democracy.”
[14]Etkind, “Barrels of fur.”
[15]Graeme Robertson and Samuel Greene, “How Putin Wins Support,” Journal of Democracy20:4 (2017) 85-99.
[16]Mikhail Ovchinnikov, “Oil and Earth,” in Erarta Art-Literature(Erarta, St. Petersburg.)
[17]Pavel Markaitis, “Denis Prasolov’s ‘Oil’,” in Erarta Art-Literature, (Erarta, St. Petersburg.)