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?