Multiculturalism in Europe and Russia: Theory and Practice

Many former theoretical concepts about the inter-ethnic and inter-cultural interactions between different population groups in Europe are being revised. One such concept is multiculturalism. It possesses many contextual peculiarities, so we will focus upon only one aspect, namely immigrant communities and receiving countries, and theories about their interactions. We will compare the ideas with actual experiences. Such a comparison is very important for Russia, because the European concept of multiculturalism has been a part of the ideological storehouse of the liberal reprocessing of Russian society in the past two decades.

The term “multiculturalism” emerged first in the academic literature of North America and Australia at the end of the 1970s and became popularized in the 1990s. It was enthusiastically picked up in the post-Soviet republics. By 2010, however, the theory of multiculturalism was considered bankrupt and utopian.

Among social scientists, the attitude toward multiculturalism has always been ambiguous, ranging from absolute approval to complete rejection. From the very beginning, many authors assumed that the idea of a multicultural society would share the fate of all well-known utopian structures in history. All this is vanishing in face of the reality that tolerance works only to a certain point. The mellow abstract-theoretical image of a multi-cultural society integrated in an atmosphere of cultural diversity on a qualitatively new level, and the ability to coexist with different cultural groups, layers, and individuals – are vanishing in face of the reality that tolerance works only within certain limitations.

Multiculturalism is a response to intensive immigration by streams of people from different traditions and cultural norms. In modern societies, cultural diversity is unavoidable. In multiculturalism, the idea of one general culture was abandoned in favor of many cultures equal in rights. It was surmised that by the end of the 20th century, unified nation-states would become a thing of the past and in their place would appear tolerant societies of different cultures. But this theoretical postulate has never been observed in practice.

Because multiculturalism promotes the rejection of one general culture, its result is that the receiving country becomes divided into several segments that differ significantly from each other. The ideals of a common history and a unifying national awareness have been gradually disappearing.

In evaluating the current situation, scientists noticed that the principle of multiculturalism contradicts the principle of equal possibilities. Giving privileges to the weak, a policy of privileges, and a quota system lead to discrimination against the strong. In this connection, multiculturalism as a theoretical concept fosters discrimination against the basic cultures that form the foundation of advanced societies and thus eventually leads to their destruction.

Scientists in France, confronted by the negative consequences of this policy, have started writing that policies offering special rights to certain cultural groups could result in making the temporary isolated states of specific ethnic communities permanent, leading to the fragmentation of society and antagonism toward other communities. Any legal recognition of a group's uniqueness leads to them making numerous new demands. Thus, institutionalizing cultural pluralism leads to social and political pluralism. Such a society will break up into a mosaic of fragments.

Many European, and in particular Scandinavian, scientists witnessing the rapid deterioration of their national and cultural identity caused primarily by the immigration of the 1990s developed the concept of sociological and cultural security. They started evaluating the potential limits within which immigrant communities can be safely incorporated into a national culture and how that transforms the culture, the limits that its components can bear, and the limits beyond which destruction, loss of culture, deterioration of institutions, loss of language and identity will occur.

At first glance, multiculturalism looks like a beautiful and sound theory that corresponds with basic democratic principles of development in modern society, but it has generated a mass of contradictions that are sometimes antagonistic. Thus, social scientists and politicians have started to talk about the need for immigrants and their children to assimilate, postulating that a democracy can survive only under certain social conditions that transcend aspiration to preserve historic, clan, and religious isolation.

In the course of the debates in 2010, Germany's multicultural approach in the education system was sharply criticized. In particular, it was emphasized that the system of separate schools for people of different national origins limited the integration of immigrant children into the receiving community. Such schools did not emphasize mastering the German language, thus hindering their students' social advancement. For example, Turkish children go to a Turkish school, read Turkish books, live in Turkish enclaves, and watch Turkish TV channels while also enjoying life-long benefits of the German state.

In this connection, it is clear that German chancellor Angela Merkel's declaration in 2010 did not materialize out of nothing; it emerged from the intellectual, social, and political discussions in the country. “Recent years have clearly proved the complete inconsistency of multiculturalism as a concept in my country,” she stated. In practice, multiculturalism has resulted in the permanent estrangement of immigrants. They didn’t participate in the life of the receiving country because the concept of multiculturalism suggested preserving their national identity and they identified primarily with their country of origin. Ultimately, the receiving country can be vulnerable to instability and national insecurity primarily because of the immigrants from Muslim nations.

Angela Merkel’s opinion is supported by a large number of other politicians and social scientists who labeled multiculturalism a "national catastrophe.” The head of the UK Committee for Racial Equality stated that the integration model chosen for implementing multiculturalism is ineffective and even dangerous. In his opinion, the freedom granted to ethnic minorities to maintain their “historical identity” will lead to Great Britain becoming a segregated society, and the elements of such segregation are easily traced. The French political scientist A. Turen (A.Touraine) believes that France cannot take the route of multiculturalism without its system being destroyed. Other opinions sound even more emphatic, stating that no nations were originally multicultural; such a condition is unnatural because it leads to national degradation. Instead, there should be one dominant national culture that can create the conditions within which other cultures can be preserved and developed.

The advancement of minorities within a larger cultural sphere should not take place at the expense of violating the cultural rights of the majority, who have every reason to preserve their own cultural norms, traditions, and values. It is impossible to give priority to the individual rights of any person or group that disparages the rights of the majority - the collective rights of a society that protects its traditional cultural norms and values along with economic and social rights.

While in Europe, the concept of multiculturalism proved to be unrealistic and utopian in practice, it is still part of the current liberal reforms in Russia. What are the results in our country? During the years that followed the collapse of the USSR, Russia was unable to become a cohesive nation. In Russian society, some communities based on ethnic or religious principles have become more and more isolated and the use of the Russian language has been gradually declining. Thus, in the districts of Moscow where immigrants from the former Soviet republics live, 30 percent of the children of immigrants do not know a word of Russian when they enter school. During the 20 years after collapse of the USSR, ethnic identities have dominated Russian state identity.

Nevertheless, recent sociological research cautiously indicates the emergence of a new positive tendency. In 2011, for the first time, the importance of a civil all-Russia state identity was registered among the population. [1]

I emphasize that until very recently ethnic identity not only competed with but overpowered an all-Russia state identity. Ethnic factors played a role in the destruction of the Soviet Union. Russia may also split into “national sectors" if its people are not united by a sense of belonging to a single state, united by the state language, and aware of belonging to a common national history and culture. The issue of an all-Russia civic identity of Russia's population impacts the cohesion of its citizenry and the stability of the country, in view of its development strategy and the national interest.

In the course of the discussion, I was asked a provocative question: was I calling for a leveling of ethnic communities? On the contrary, Russia with its thousand-year experience of intercultural interaction has preserved as many peoples, languages, and cultures as were adopted. But Russia can be united only by dual or two-tieredidentity fixed in the minds of all the peoples of Russia. The first level is ethnic identity (such as Avars, Russians, Tatars), and at the same time the second level, an all-Russia state identity. A representative of a certain ethnic community is also a representative of the whole country. The most important factors uniting people of different ethno-cultural groups could be the official state language and common culture as the bases, along with local ethnic cultures.

Thus, the conclusions of European scientists and politicians about the need to choose other approaches to integrating ethnic minorities that are not based on the concept of multiculturalism in order to prevent the splitting of society could be applied to Russia. As for practical recommendations, we should focus on the fact that in both European states and Russia there is a basic culture that unites different segments of society and formulate the idea of a protected identity, a common language, preserving the majority that will consolidate the state.


[1] Двадцать лет реформ глазами россиян. Аналитический доклад. Институт социологии РАН совместно с представительством Фонда им. Ф. Эберта в РФ, М., 2011, page 203. (Respondents could mark up to three positions.)

Dr Irina Borisovna Orlova

Author: Dr Irina Borisovna Orlova

Professor, Institute of Social and Political Research, Russian Academy of Sciences

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