What do you mean, “EURASIAN?!” Nationality and political correctness.

In January of this year, Russia’s (arguably) most popular rap artist Timati publicly declared his position that the victims of the Paris terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo deserved it. “It’s good news coming from France, who announced [imposing] sanctions on our Great Russia.” the rapper exclaims. “These vile and loathsome beasts are hiding behind [so-called] ‘freedom of speech’ to insult all Muslims.” Timati continues his tirade not so much to defend Islam or Muslims so much as to establish himself as the poster boy for the extreme wave of pro-Putin Russian patriotism since the Crimea annexation of last year… and the unfortunately not uncommon style of rhetoric among this demographic. “Gay Hollande and his accomplices, that bitch Merkel, gay Obama and other people of non-standard orientation are imposing an economic war against Russia and are killing thousands of children and women and elderly in Muslim countries and are bombing peaceful cities…”

Now, the idea of which country is more responsible for killing innocents would be an interesting debate, and would depend on how far we go back in history. Unfortunately, it’s the rhetoric of public figures such as Timati that, while ultimately considered low-class by intellectuals or anyone with an iota of common diplomatic sense, appears to gain a great deal of support among Russia’s Millennial counterparts. I wish I could say otherwise, but after perusing through endless Russian social media on political and non-political topics, I witness how this level of jingoistic patriotism without nuance and portrayal of Russia as simultaneously infallible and victimized – and not to mention the level of unabashed homophobia – abounds across the forums. Sure, quite a few ridicule Timati just as Americans ridiculed Britney Spears and Sarah Palin. But most describe the rapper as крутой – a Russian word that literally means “steep,” but actually means “cool” and more accurately in context means “alpha-(usually) male, macho, with lots of bling and a superior attitude, who others try to emulate.”

Timati (Timur Ildarovitch Yusupov), whose origins are Tatar and Jewish, leads the growing pack of Russian patriots who are technically not of Russian ethnicity. A map of the 2012 presidential election results shows that Putin’s highest support came out of Russia’s ethnic republics, especially the North Caucasus. Of course, the legitimacy of these results and the level of honest, non-intimidated support, is cause for speculation. As I addressed this idea in my previous blog, we may never actually know the answer. What I have noticed on social media as well as when I reflect on my past experiences with locals in the Caucasus, is a particularly remarkable trend that non-Russians – although they may look different, practice a different religion and have a different-sounding surname – are choosing to identify with Russia, the Russian language, and Russian culture.

As recently as fifteen years ago, anti-Russian sentiment was still high enough among minorities that separatism was as good an option to be left on the table for many. Today, even those who identify enough with their ethnic republic and nationality that they speak their native language in public (which some regard as passé, or indicative of a rural upbringing) as a whole do not hesitate to identify with Russia as a country in a broader international context. This mentality goes beyond merely accepting that “I am from Russia” or even “I am Russian” is the most acceptable English-language response when introducing oneself while abroad. In English, it is not as easy to distinguish between “ethnic Russian” (russkiy) and “Russian national” (rossiyanin), but there is a trend among rossiyane to simplify things by just using the word russkiy. To a broader audience, Timati is “russkiy.” A Russian national of any other ethnicity may find it more convenient to identify his or her nationality, culture, and language as russky. 

Here, we criticize Rachel Dolezal for identifying as black when her ethnic background is clearly white. I also believe that what she did warrants harsh judgment; she lied for personal gain and then proceeded to spin the lie around when it suited her and would gather more sympathy. But Dolezal – who pretty much spent her life assimilating into African American culture – identifying as black is no more justifiable and no less absurd than a Chechen, Tatar, or Buryat assimilating and identifying as an ethnic russkiy. It could be convenience, pressure, or personal gain, and it’s technically neither politically correct nor socially acceptable to ask. The question for debate is: Why is this a problem?

Just over a year ago, a colleague of mine (who will remain anonymous) traveled to the North Caucasus on a crowdsourced project, for which she recorded young musicians from Adygeya and the surrounding ethnic republics. She made a brief blog entry about how the music brought together residents of a region that has experienced decades of political turmoil, and she mentioned the musicians’ ethnic backgrounds in each video feature as it was relevant to their musical upbringing. Apparently, this was a taboo. She received a scathing email from her regional supervisor for “over-politicizing” her project by mentioning that the region has indeed experienced political turmoil. Furthermore, in her vignettes on each of the musicians, she was instructed to omit any mention of nationality and simply write that they were “from Russia.”

On one hand, I understand the cautious leaning towards political correctness. She was a guest in their country, after all. In the US it might not be acceptable to attach “Black” or “White” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” to any person’s photo as the sole identifying trait. However, when ethnic background is relevant to the subject matter – in this case, music – why is this identification so objectionable? Would it be a problem in the United States if one were to identify a Mexican-American artist and describe how his/her Mexican roots inspired the artist’s style and career? Or an Italian-American or German-American for that matter? The key difference is, one may argue, that this incident took place in Russia, not the United States. A friend of mine (who also will remain anonymous) who was born in technically-the-USSR defends the supervisor’s objection to mentioning nationality. “You really should just say they are “from Russia” and leave it at that,” he says. I argue that theme of the project was “Music of the Caucasus,” not “Music of Russia” – that it was not about musical roots from Moscow or Siberia or the Urals, for example. It was about music from one particular region. Nevertheless, he affirms that nationality, as it did during the Soviet times, still retains a sort of hierarchical underpinning. To distinguish one’s nationality suggests, albeit even subconsciously, that one is less (or in some cases, more – depending on the perspective) of an “equal” than someone of a different nationality. If everyone is just “Russian,” no one has to feel this inequality.

The political correctness convention around the “nationality question” in Russia is twofold. There is one line of thinking that assumes that prioritizing or distinguishing one’s nationality or ethnic republic over the identity as a “Russian citizen” equates with disloyalty to the State, separatist leanings, or treason at worst; or just being an irritating and arrogant nationalist at best. The second line of thinking suggests that acknowledging nationality reverts to the Soviet-era mindset that each nationality had a political role, and those who identify with a particular ethnicity should accordingly “know their place.” It is likely both lines of thought that simultaneously drive Russian citizens to affirm that, first and foremost, and especially to any foreign audience, they are all just Russians.

To add to the controversy of my friend’s “overly politicized” music project is the fact that she is an American. In the context of the all-too-prevalent “blame America first” conspiracy theories circulating around Russia, it is not surprising that an American who focuses on acknowledging non-Russian nationalities would be accused of having ulterior motives. From a Russian patriot’s perspective, regardless of ethnic background, this thought process makes perfect sense. We fought with internal separatists for over a decade after the Soviet collapse. Now that Russia has pulled itself out of the catastrophic 1990s –  we have reigned in and (officially) stabilized the separatist republics, we have locked down our status as the main energy provider for most of Eastern Europe, and we gathered strength under Vladimir Putin to become a world power that does not submit to NATO interests – of course America wants to cut us down again. American NGOs deemed “foreign agents” have been heavily monitored if not kicked out entirely. Now, it looks like someone as innocent as a violin player who wants to give performance opportunities to young musicians from impoverished republics is secretly trying to pull Russian society apart again by pitting one nationality against another. Russia is more united than ever, and Americans don’t like this. They want to incite another wave of ethnic unrest by mentioning that non-Russian nationalities exist!

“Eurasianism” is the name given to Alexander Dugin’s world view, that the East (Russia/Eurasia/the former Soviet Union) should be culturally united and politically defined by its differences from the West (namely America). The liberal West represents decadence and societal degradation and is a foil to the conservative East, a moral stronghold and bastion of traditional values. A simplified interpretation of Dugin’s ideas poses Russia as the assumed leader of the East.

A recent Georgetown graduate from the Eurasian Studies program defended his masters thesis with evidence of “creeping Eurasianism” among Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy. One example of this supporting evidence was Putin’s effort to reach out to far-right parties in Western Europe on the common grounds of anti-liberalism and anti-Americanism. However, this blog does not intend to determine whether or not Putin’s policies are influenced by Eurasianism. Instead, I am investigating Russia’s national re-branding the the twenty-first century – how Russia has risen from the collapsed empire of the 1990s to the presumed cultural, linguistic, and strategic center of this vague and amorphous geopolitical region best described as “Eurasia,” and the relative lack of resistance to this concept.

To the average Westerner, much to the dismay of many regional experts, the other fourteen ex-USSR republics are overshadowed by – or even barely distinguishable from – “just Russia.” I recall having returned from a summer internship stint in Tbilisi to several people asking whether I was working in “Georgia the state, or Georgia – Russia?” What has been even more perplexing to me is the idea that ordinary people from the region – with the obvious exceptions of residents of the Baltic states and young Georgian progressives – seem hardly bothered by this association, even 25 years removed from the Soviet experience. A prime case in point is Chechnya, which I have discussed at length in my previous blog. Twenty years ago, Chechnya was synonymous with anti-Russian resistance. Today, we have the loved/feared strongman President Kadyrov describing himself as “a Russian person of Chechen nationality.” Other highly respected Chechens repeat the phrase “Чечня с Россией – по пути!” (roughly – Chechnya and Russia belong together), including the popular television host Asiyet Vatsuyeva, who declares that she presents herself as a Russian while abroad. “When I’m in Moscow, I tell that I am Chechen by nationality,” says Vatsuyeva. “But when I’m abroad, I identify with Russia and Russian culture and simply tell foreigners that I am Russian.”

Why would identifying as “Russian” be so important for non-Russians? There are two possible thought processes to explain this question to other regional experts looking from the outside-in. One, is that at the end of the day, it is easier to keep things simple. When people ask where someone is from, they usually just want to know what country. If one were to answer a specific ethnic republic, more often than not, he or she would have to explain that the republic is inside Russia, and the asker would likely come away with the fact that the person in question is “from Russia” or “some kind of Russian.” In that case, we might as well cut out the middle thirty seconds of discussion. The second thought process is perhaps more difficult for a Western intellectual to internalize: the idea of wanting to identify as a part of a greater whole, or to play for the winning team.

My roommate and I have had a few philosophical discussions on this issue. Americans like rags-to-riches stories. A lot of us like to root for the underdog – especially if we have never actually been the underdog. Every generation has its faction that wears the proverbial Che Guevara t-shirt. However ironic it may be, it is a tendency among left-leaning academic types and Hollywood entertainment producers alike to support a struggling minority over an imposing majority – especially when coming from a background affluent enough not to fully understand the sacrifices necessary to joining the minority cause.

This isn’t to say that there was an influx of American intellectuals during the 1990s supporting the Chechen insurgencies, or what have you. It’s more the concept of assuming that any historically oppressed non-Russian minority should automatically want to identify exclusively with their particular nationality and distance themselves as far as possible from anything “Russian.” Of course, this inclination is not among all Americans, nor is it exclusively American. But as a member of the presumed “Western academic” demographic, I understand why we would make these assumptions about various Eurasian nationalities. For seventy years under the Soviet Union – and varying periods of time during the Russian imperial era – the smaller nationalities were all-out eradicated, forced to assimilate, or gradually dominated politically, culturally, and linguistically by Russian influence. Surely, the new ex-USSR states would want to solidify and internationally promote their own identity as distinct as possible from that of Russia? And the minority nationalities within Russia would surely want to gain as much autonomy as possible and distinguish themselves as non-Russians as much as possible, if anything, to prove their own national competitiveness and effectively rise to some form of underdog greatness?

This isn’t to say that those ideas never cross the mind of anyone in the post-Soviet generation. What is worth noting, however, is that these assumptions, when coming from an American, are likely inspired by “American dream” philosophy or the “rags-to-riches” ideal, without the reality base of the actual consequences of pledging one’s allegiance to the underdog team. [To make a purely American analogy: It’s like being a Boston Red Sox fan since 1919, just watching your team every year in hopes that 2004 will eventually come… versus being a baseball fan that is forced to make a bet on every World Series. Eventually, you have to side with who looks like the more established winner.]

Whether or not Russia can be perceived as a “winner” is a controversial statement to make either way when you live in the region, but for the sake of propaganda and what your average person in Eurasia hears on a daily basis, Russia is the regional power with established international clout. Is it more productive to keep using all your financial and intellectual resources to make a name for yourself and your own nationality at the expense of being taught another “lesson” in “knowing your place” (see: Georgia, August 2008), or is it better to just join in alliance with the one who (according to its own media sources) is regaining strength as a world power? Is it better to play the game of geopolitics as a solo competitor or as a member of a formidable team? If you have a family of children to feed – are you going to work for a small startup or for a corporate juggernaut? America might have more stories of the startup that miraculously becomes a Fortune-500 company. Americans are also taught to embrace individuality and to not be afraid to stand out from the crowd. In Russia – and, whether we like to admit it or not, all around the former Soviet Union – there are more social pressures to blend in with the greater community. Students of Russian are taught this before we can even say “Menya zovut.”

Twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian is still the most widely spoken language of the region. Knowledge of Russian varies, of course. Sure, there are people in villages who primarily speak their native minority language, but those who learned to read and write, most likely learned in Russian before any other language. Sure, primary-school students in the EU-integrated Baltic States will learn English as their first foreign language as opposed to Russian – but you’re not going to walk the streets of Vilnius for more than ten minutes without coming across a handful of fluent Russian-speakers. And Georgians may resist Russian-language education and push for English as their primary foreign language, but as of 2013, Russian is still much more widely spoken than English.With the exception of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Georgians, it is not uncommon for non-Russians in the former Soviet Union, both inside and outside of Russia, to use Russian as the primary language of communication, even amongst each other.

Why would two Kazakhs or two Azerbaijanis speak to each other in Russian, as opposed to in Kazakh or Azeri, respectively? Perhaps one was educated in Moscow, or in any other city abroad, for that matter. Perhaps all the books they had growing up were in Russian. Or maybe they were a fan of foreign movies that were dubbed in Russian before any other language. Even if the native language is used 100% of the time in the household, Russian is still the primary language for business, science and mathematics, and any other form of intercultural communication where English is not used. From a Western intellectual perspective, it may appear that language is a primary indicator of how much a country or nation has expelled Russian influences. But when government corruption, organized crime, lack of infrastructure, and even ethnic conflict or all-out war are hindering economic progress, re-translating all forms of media into the local language will have to remain on the back-burner for a while.

While I understand all of these factors and why any given person of any given Eurasian nationality might not be focusing so much on trying not to be associated with Russia, I still hold the opinion that this tendency is detrimental to the “Eurasian” cause today. “Eurasia,” in my opinion, should be a politically neutral and purely geographical term to describe the region that spans the easternmost part of Europe through the Caucasus and Central Asia. Calling this region “Eurasia” should not imply acceptance of Dugin’s philosophy, that this region is to be united in its distinction from the West. In fact, it should be indicative that the countries of this region need not choose between “Europe” and “Asia,” at least not as a whole. Overlap with Europe and Asia is certainly allowed. No one debates whether Estonia is in Europe or whether Uzbekistan is in Asia. But maybe Georgia wants to focus on its (albeit pie-in-the-sky) European Union prospects, or Armenia wants to focus on its friendly relationship with Iran, or Turkmenistan wants to develop its energy/economic ties with China. And they should be allowed to do so. Each country has its own agenda and essentially its own geopolitical goals, and they should not be studied exclusively from the lens of what Russia’s relation is with the other country in question. In the 1990s, when Russia was “down,” in both the economic and geopolitical sense, the US had a comparatively descent relationship with Russia. At this time, they also designated Central Asian and South Caucasus affairs to “Russia” as well. According to former ambassador Kenneth Yalowitz, there was no South Caucasus or Central Asia bureau in the State Department – it was all just “Russia.”

As far as today is concerned, I see two problems with this dynamic. The first is the idea that in order to have more constructive diplomatic relations with Russia, the US must allow Russia to assume exclusive influence over as much former Soviet territory as it wants. The second is that even though most Americans are aware that the former Soviet Union has broken into independent countries – fourteen of which are not Russia – these countries are still not distinguished enough in the public eye from “just Russia.”

The European Union member states are regarded as both properly independent and European. There is not really a concept of German or British or French spheres of influence or respective vassal states. Sure, some European countries have more cultural and linguistic ties to others, but it is not nearly as unipolar  as Russia is to the rest of Eurasia. This may just be a political and historical fact, but the problem is that when we fail to make enough distinctions between “Russia” and “not-Russia” in our rhetoric or policy, we are just feeding into Putin’s desired narrative. Ambassador Yalowitz, along with other regional scholars, argue that Putin’s foreign policy in combination with his consolidation of conservative and authoritarian domestic policy is part of his resistance to the conformity of the European “cookie-cutter” nation-state model. If a country just behaves as a “normal country” and sticks within its own boundaries and does not try to exert its political and cultural influence on others, it would resemble any other Western country and become yet another political vassal of the United States.

Of course, this world view looks ridiculous and immensely flawed to Western academics. Who decided that every country in Europe, Asia or Eurasia has to be either a vassal of Russia or a vassal of the United States? And what would be so horrible about resembling “any other Western country?” Are EU citizens so much worse off than citizens of countries with greater Russian influence? We recognize the flawed logic of Putin’s justifications, but we still contribute to his narrative in a broader extent. Outside of the Eurasian affairs academic community, any name that ends in -ov/-ev is too often “just Russian.”

Even fewer Americans recognize the fact that Russia itself is multinational. This is understandable – why would, say, a surgeon or an engineer need to be responsible for knowing the demographic breakdown of every other sovereign country? This goes back to the issue of answering the question “Where are you from?” or in my case, “Where did you work?” when referring to one of Russia’s ethnic republics. I have been criticized a few times for being overzealous in my travel tales by starting one-too-many stories with “This one time in Karachaievo-Cherkessia…” and have been told that, when the time is appropriate to tell tales from abroad, to just say what country I was in and leave it at that. But why should I, when the whole point of my story was that I was in a village in the Muslim North Caucasus? Or why should my roommate tell about something that happened “in Russia” when it happened at a Buddhist datsan in Buryatia? Is it being too much of a political correctness stickler to want to make these distinctions? I guess I would not argue for everyone to memorize all 85 or 90 (I can never be sure) administrative divisions of the Russian Federation for any and all discursive purposes, but I do think that distinctions should always be made and emphasized when relevant. In these cases, it is necessary to spend the extra thirty seconds explaining, and not just cede the battle to simplicity – or Russia’s internal socially acceptable constraints.

The multinational Russian Federation is not analogous to the American melting pot. Today, many Americans even prefer not to use this term, given that it suggests mandatory assimilation into an assumed (white; Anglo-) American culture. But for the sake of argument, cultural and linguistic assimilation among Americans is different than that in Russia, because, generally speaking – it is a choice. This does not hold true for Native Americans, of course, who were forcefully assimilated. After all, it is English that assimilated Americans learn, not the Native American languages. But as for post-colonial America, all new Americans are essentially immigrants that left their home country for one reason or another. Americans may choose to retain the traditions of their ancestors to varying degrees, or they may choose to become more “mainstream.” If American “mainstream” society makes the former absolutely impossible, an American theoretically could return to the country of his or her ancestors. This is not the case for Russia. The homeland of the non-Russian nationalities within Russia is Russia. They did not choose to immigrate to a new country and assimilate. They were – and still are – forced to assimilate into a foreign culture that has made its way onto their own territory.

I realize the possible hypocrisy of an American saying this about Russian assimilation. Yes, white Americans did this to the Native Americans. For the most part, white Americans are not proud of this. I personally support any effort for Native American communities to preserve their own languages and other traditions as much as they see practical. That said, I see the non-Russians of the Russian Federation and elsewhere in the Soviet Union as having more of a chance to distinguish themselves from Mainstream Russia. Where this is not always a top priority among people in the region, I see no reason why I can’t make this distinction myself. When I talk about “this one time in Karachaievo-Cherkessia,” I am going to say that the event took place in the North Caucasus, not “Russia.” When I think or speak or write about some of the regions I have been to, I emphasize the aspects that make the place unique. Not every country or republic in Eurasia is to be lumped into that monolithic region that speaks Russian, celebrates May 9th, where people think you will get sick from drinking a cold beverage and where young women live in high heels and never eat after six. I don’t care how socially acceptable or politically sensitive it is – I will always call a country or republic by its name. And I will most certainly distinguish the cultural background of any individual when relevant in context – regardless of how politically correct it is for me to do so.

We are not getting past racial prejudices by claiming not to see color at all. We are only feeding into these stigmas by acting as if recognizing “color” is inherently negative. Why can’t it be a positive thing?

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Chechnya, Kadyrov, bridenapping, and Game of Thrones

It isn’t just me this time.

Among the online community, it has become increasingly in vogue to draw parallels between characters from HBO’s Game of Thrones and real-life players in international politics. For some novice bloggers, it is seen as a “clever” way to seem knowledgeable and up-to-date on both popular culture and “serious” current events. Perhaps it’s a trend geared more towards the novice and/or impatient internet audience – it’s a way to boil down complex material into a more approachable, Buzzfeed-style clickbait format. For some, maybe it’s a way to simply mock what we don’t fully understand. Or maybe it’s just fun.

Browse around the blogs and Reddit posts of casually political millennials and it would appear that some world leaders have made it too easy for the vast Internet community to designate their Westerosi equivalents. One of the most agreed upon parallels includes Vladimir Putin as Tywin Lannister (before the end of Season 4) – wealthy, politically astute, Machiavellian, entirely devoted to the consolidation of his own power, defends his actions as “what’s best for his country,” but in a ruthless, authoritarian and pompous way that makes him the villain we love to hate. Then of course there are the Sparrows/the Faith Militant, the so-called “disenfranchised” religious fundamentalists apparently worse than the tyrants they replaced, which the internet community compared with the Inquisition, or even ISIS. And let’s not forget the Internet’s favorite Westeros/real world crossover of all: Kim Jong Joffrey.

We ignore the fact that George RR Martin has repeatedly told his fans that, while characters and scenarios from the books were, to a certain extent, inspired by historical events, A Song of Ice and Fire is not in any way an allegory of world politics. Playing the game of international politics/Game of Thrones character matches is all good and fun, and perhaps says less about the Westerosi “allegory” and more about the reverse effect – that realpolitik and human nature in general inherently follow the same patterns regardless of time period or presence of supernatural elements.

Given these internet trends – half-baked or not –  a recent coincidence might have caused this game to take a morbid turn. Last month, in what may have become the most unpopular episode of the series (S5E6), viewers were subjected to Sansa Stark’s wedding night rape by new (and maybe even worse) villain Ramsay Bolton. More accurately, viewers were not directly subjected to Sansa’s rape, but to Theon/Reek’s stomach-churning reaction to it, which might have only contributed to the outrage of feminist bloggers who criticize the show’s use of sexual violence as the clichéd vehicle for a damsel in distress to gain some agency. In the following episode, we learn that Sansa endures this rape repeatedly, and is essentially locked away in her room, only occasionally released in order to look upon the latest torture victims. Around the same time, a real-life Black Wedding took place. Though the bride was around the same age as Sansa, this time, the groom was not Ramsay Snow, but 47?-year-old Chief of Police under Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

As with any news story, it all depends on who you believe. While internal sources cry disinformation concerning the age of the groom and alleged free will of the bride, the general consensus is that 17-year old Kheda Goylabiyeva was forced to become the second wife of 57- or 47-year old Nazhud Guchigov, against her will and that of her parents. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov not only sanctioned it, but called it the “Wedding of the Millennium.”  Unsurprisingly for a news story out of Chechnya, most of the details are unclear. At first, the groom was 57 and the bride’s name was Kheda. Then, it was claimed that no such wedding took place; that the groom was “only” 47 and the bride’s name was Luiza. It is unclear whether her name is Kheda or Luiza or officially changed to Luiza as a last attempt to conceal the story. As for her consent, it was reported that Kheda/Luiza went on live television to declare that she agreed to the marriage, that Guchigov was “manly and dependable.” Of course, this alleged public statement, allegedly not made with off-camera threats pointed at her if she resisted, doesn’t match very well with the threats Guchigov made himself towards Goylabiyeva’s family if they did not give her away to him for marriage.

Kadyrov has long been under criticism within Russia for his pro-polygamy stance, given that it contradicts Russian Federation law. Since these violations haven’t stopped the cash flow raining down from Allah, Kadyrov doesn’t seem to care in the slightest. Many readers who have followed the region might recall a story from a few years ago in which Kadyrov was looking for a second wife, but “couldn’t find anyone beautiful enough.” He married his first wife, Medni Musayeva, under the condition that she would not oppose his taking a second. Should any first- or second- wife in Chechnya resist Kadyrov’s policies, or any decision made by their husband – Kadyrov recommends that they should be “locked up and kept away from social media.”

Now we come to the Game of Thrones parallels. Kheda Goylabiyeva is clearly Sansa Stark – miserable and defeated as she is forced into an abusive marriage. In the role of Ramsay Bolton, we have not necessarily the groom but Ramzan Kadyrov himself – a legitimized political puppet who is abusive, sadistic,fond of torture, even with a similar name, who gets to do whatever he wants. In this case, Putin assumes the role of Roose Bolton instead of Tywin Lannister. Kadyrov, as a former Chechen rebel now installed as a staunchly pro-Kremlin figure compares with Ramsay’s status as a newly legitimized Bolton to secure the house’s control over the demolished Grozny – or Winterfell.

We certainly can have a bit of fun making these parallels. With a similar effect as that of any clickbait or BuzzFeed listicles, a Western Millennial can feel politically aware and justifiably outraged at the latest injustices in world affairs. We spread “awareness” as to how the President of Chechnya is a medieval psychopath, and add the Chechen government to the laundry list of grievances against Vladimir Putin (maybe titled “75 Reasons Why Putin is the Embodiment of All that is Evil in the World” accompanied with a few clever gif’s and youtube videos). Unfortunately, this logic plays right into the hands of Chechens and Russians alike who claim that Americans “just don’t get it” or insist on measuring every corner of the earth against our standards of Western liberal democracy. The problem is not so much that Western Millennials are unable to perceive the complexities of international affairs; it’s more that from the alternative perspective – in this case, the Chechen perspective – their oversimplification generates an equal-and-opposite reaction across social media, a similarly oversimplified portrayal of Western society as degenerate, and a tendency to consolidate nationalistic pride over the aspects that make them definitively not Western. It makes it so much easier for non-Russians and Russians alike to unite in their anti-Americanism.

Of course, I do not argue that oversimplified political memes are the sole cause of growing anti-Western polarization. I even partake in some of these memes myself. Rather, I fear that relying on these simple comparisons and synopses prevents us from considering these affairs on a more complex level, which certainly fuels the fire and does not allow for much constructive dialogue. The more we oversimplify an unsavory political agenda, the more this agenda gets pushed and garners popular support.

In a previous blog, which I wrote while living in the North Caucasus, I tried to somewhat explain the tradition of bride-stealing. Instead of asking everyone to go back and find that specific blog post, I’ll briefly reiterate: Bride-stealing, by tradition, was an undesirable or even low-class version of marriage practice in the Caucasus. It was essentially a last resort for a desperate groom who could not afford to pay the kalym, or bride-price. If the bride was kidnapped against her will and her family was against it, well… that is how clan violence broke out. Non-consensual bridenapping was not traditionally mainstream.

Today, it’s more or less practiced as a nod to tradition. In most cases, it is staged and agreed to beforehand. It is understandable at first glance why a progressive-thinking Westerner would oppose this practice even if it is just a formality. One could potentially find sexist roots in Western marriage practices. A father “gives away” her daughter, veiled and dressed in white, to her new husband, symbolizing a bride’s necessary purity and status as transferred property. Stealing a bride takes this concept to an even higher level – right? To some women – yes; to others – it’s an element of adrenaline and excitement and an expression of tradition that is specifically theirs, and doesn’t need to be overanalyzed by those who don’t follow it. I personally view it in the same way as the white dress with a veil – it’s a wedding tradition. It doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens afterwards. Furthermore, if we get bogged down in the symbolism of marriage practices across the board, we end up inadvisably lumping staged bride-stealing to actual, non-consensual bride kidnapping and hostage taking.

The issue that many bloggers have raised in relation to Goylabiyeva’s lack of consent is her facial expression on her wedding day. While the original blogger who compared Goylabiyeva to Sansa Stark acknowledged that Chechen tradition calls for a “demure bride,” the posters on feminist forum Jezebel repeatedly refer to Golyabiyeva as “sad” and “defeated.” This diagnosis is a tricky one, and part of the problem which I refer to as “mentality politics.” It is true that in Chechen and other North Caucasian wedding ceremonies, it is considered improper for the bride to smile and laugh on her wedding day. The groom isn’t even supposed to show himself at all. Wedding guests – male and female, relatives and friends, married and unmarried – engage in as much merrymaking as any other wedding-goers (or perhaps even go overboard). I have been to three North Caucasian weddings. At one of them, a man in a zombie mask insisted on dancing Lezginka with me four times. In any case, the bride’s poker face represents a core value of restraint, and (in my opinion) a respectable value of keeping personal matters private. It is also supposed to represent “sadness” of leaving one’s family to move in with the husband.

When American and Western bloggers try to generate outrage at the fact that Goylabiyeva looks about as happy as Sansa, pro-Kadyrov Chechens automatically respond that she is looking this way according to tradition. Inside, she is delighted to marry such a “manly and dependable” man as Guchigov. Her “defeated” appearance means nothing; Americans just don’t understand. The problem is that it makes it too easy to hide behind the mask of tradition and claim an automatic victory based entirely on the “You Just Don’t Get It” fallback line fallacy.

We may never know how much agency Goylabiyeva had in her marriage prospects. Maybe it was just as much agency as Sansa. Proponents of Kadyrov-style justice like to argue that women indeed show strength and power in their ability to remain dutiful and level-headed against the background of male antics. I see this argument as a double-edged sword – and both edges are dangerous. On one hand, it assumes that men are inherently abusive, lazy, and dishonest. On the other hand, it assumes that the only acceptable way for women to display strength and virtue is to tolerate abusive, lazy, and dishonest men under any and all circumstances. A woman is not womanly if she ever openly disagrees with her husband and wants to have a say in things. A man is not manly if he isn’t aggressive and authoritarian. There is only one acceptable lifestyle for each gender – Americans just don’t understand traditional values. At least, that’s the argument that feminist bloggers who feel sorry for Kheda/Sansa are up against.

On a political level, whether or not Goylabiyeva consented means next to nothing. The greater question is why. Why him? Why her? The story goes beyond a middle-aged rich man who is bored with his aging first wife and wants a younger woman. Concerning Kadyrov and his mentality politics, it goes beyond his desire to showcase an extreme example of marriage inequality as a representative of what makes his culture incompatible with the West. It’s a question of loyalty and reward. Guchigov is a high-ranking police chief. To climb to this level of status, you have to prove your loyalty. Would it be the Wedding of the Millennium if Guchigov were some random shoe merchant, or worse – a political dissident? This isn’t to say Kadyrov would oppose a common person’s second marriage to a much younger woman. The combination of it being a high ranking official and a highly unequal marriage is what receives this much attention.

Loyalty and fealty are the rule in Chechnya these days. Open Russia’s short documentary The Family shows through a series of interviews and post-war footage just how this concept works. Chechnya became thoroughly and unequivocally integrated territorially into the Russian Federation and the son of the late Akhmad Kadyrov was installed as its leader. Ramzan Kadyrov receives a steady flow of money from Moscow and the permission to govern as he pleases in return for political loyalty. Within a few years, those who were once separatist fighters effectively made no career change. They only switched to work for the more lucrative employer. As the documentary explains, “All the Chechen fighters are officially officers of the Russian security and enforcement agencies.” For the Chechen people, the appeal of the Kadyrov/Putin loyalty is clear: Separatism and resistance brought war and destruction. Loyalty to Russia brings a new and glamorous Grozny that aspires to be the next Dubai.

For part of my graduate work, I wrote a seminar term paper on Kadyrov’s cult of personality. In this paper, I argue that this personality cult had a nation branding agenda – that Chechnya was to be 200% Russian and 200% Muslim. Secular nationalism is a thing of the distant past. Dzhokhar Dudayev, the separatist president in the 1990s, was hardly Muslim, as represented in his famous quote “Of course, I pray three times a day!” Today, if you browse around Chechen social media groups, you come across for the most part posts (in Russian, with a splattering of Chechen phrases) praising Kadyrov for his manliness and wealth, praising Putin for the same reasons plus his aggressive foreign policy, extolling the values of modesty for women and strength for men, texts from the Quran, and overall defending of the Kadyrov Islamization policies. You might come across some Russian-Chechen tensions over religion or the role of tradition or the idea of intermarriage, but you see next to nothing that contradicts Russian Federation loyalty. There have even been several reports of Chechen fighters on the pro-Russian side in Donbass who are apparently there on their own free will. When it comes to the West, Chechen social media overtakes the Russian mainstream in terms of anti-Western sentiment.

To express an opinion critical of the Kadyrov regime, Russia, or conservative Islam would unfortunately generate accusations of favoring war and destruction over the aspiring Russian Dubai. Kadyrov, of course, represents law and order; Putin represents financial capability and reconstruction. To oppose either suggests that one doesn’t care about these things. Yet the idea of ignoring the negative aspects of the present-day Chechen republic reminds me of a passage from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being that has stuck in my head for years. Through the point of view of one of the protagonists, Sabina, Kundera suggests that placated submission to a glossed-over authoritarian world is indeed worse than openly expressing your disapproval. Kundera writes: “Sabina’s initial inner revolt against Communism was aesthetic rather than ethical in character. What repelled her was not nearly so much the ugliness of the Communist world (ruined castles transformed into cow sheds) as the mask of beauty it tried to wear — in other words, Communist kitsch.” Putin and Kadyrov have essentially created a world of Chechen kitsch. A generation of war followed by an authoritarian society that features intimidation, honor killings, and torture wears a mask of a peaceful and thriving republic which is governed with the highest standards of Islamic morals. If you’re tired of war, just keep smiling and be grateful.

Kadyrov has made himself the face of Grozny’s submission to Moscow. The main street is named Putin avenue, giant pictures of Putin hang on public buildings, and Kadyrov declares his loyalty in pretty much every single public interview. Chechnya is part of Russia and Russia includes Chechnya. But doth Kadyrov protest too much? With his concentration of power, a growing young and experienced army, an immense support base and religious agenda, Moscow is losing patience with Kadyrov’s repeated rejection of Russian Federation laws in favor of Islamic laws.

But separation from Russia seems to be the last thing on the mind of ordinary Chechens. I recall an online conversation I had with a Chechen man about my age, back in 2012. He had posted lyrics from a Timur Mucuraev song, and I responded that I also knew his music. Then, I dared to mention that Mucuraev was a separatist. The Chechen man then got angry, and argued that, no, he never was, and that he was always popular in Russia. That may be so – that many within Russia still listen to his music – but Mucuraev’s most famous songs featured lyrics that said “Our President is Dudayev” and “Brace yourself, Russia, we’re leaving!” Once Russia regained control of Chechnya, Mucuraev’s music was banned, and it was believed that he moved to Azerbaijan.  In 2008, Kadyrov invited Mucuraev to return to Chechnya, and he began to sing only about innocent young love and religious piety.

There is no love for separatism in Chechnya. The rebels of the 1990s each went in one of three directions: Most switched allegiances and now have joined Kadyrov’s pro-Moscow side, others descended into full-blown Islamic radicalism, and the few that remained – for example, Akhmad Zakayev – are in exile in Europe. Given that harboring separatist ideals gets one labeled a terrorist or a Western implant, it wouldn’t make sense that this would be Kadyrov’s end goal. What else would it be, though, if he demands further exemptions from Russian law and continues to concentrate his power?

Then again, this is assuming that Kadyrov actually has an end goal. After all, we compare him with Ramsay or Joffrey, not Littlefinger. It could very well be that he just enjoys being king of his castle with all of Chechnya his to torment. In which case, Putin would be wise to just go and install someone who would be less of a hassle – but he doesn’t. What’s more is, as I have said, Kadyrov has a lot of inside support – and, just as we can’t tell exactly how much Kheda Goylabiyeva is distraught over her marriage or simply behaving according to tradition – it is impossible to know how much of Kadyrov’s support is genuine and how much is out of intimidation. If the support is genuine, Putin certainly wouldn’t make the gamble of trying to replace Kadyrov if things got out of hand – especially considering Putin himself is entirely responsible.

But the more Western Millennial bloggers  oversimplify the situation – Putin is evil, Kadyrov is medieval – the more our Chechen counterparts will revert to the “they just don’t get it” fallback line. Kadyrov’s anti-American sentiment would be enough to solidify support among the youth, and it won’t even matter whether it’s genuine or intimidation.

All I can say is, I really wish there was a way to know exactly what Chechens think of their current situation. Why are things so much better than in the 1990s, and are they really, in the long term? What do they really think about Kadyrov and his version of Islamic Sharia laws? The opinions we hear are heavily filtered – either through extreme suppression of freedom of speech within Chechnya, or through obligation of political asylees to their sponsors. Even refugees are generally separated by enough distance and time that their version of the story might not be up-to-date. Perhaps we will never know.

For what it’s worth, Sansa Stark thought she might have had a remaining ally in Winterfell – the old woman who told her that “the North remembers.” The one who Ramsay Bolton proceeded to flay in front of her.

But Game of Thrones is just fantasy. I would hope so, anyway.