Russia-Ukraine conflict and fieldwork relations

I am going to make a couple of posts that touch on the Ukraine conflict. This is prompted by three things. First, I was invited to contribute to a panel some time ago at the 2015 ASA. I spoke there on ‘diplomatic relations’ as a metaphor for field relations with Russians after the Ukraine conflict. Second, I then developed that talk into a paper for Cambridge Journal of Anthropology which should come out this year – and some bits didn’t make into the final cut – so I’ll use them here. Finally, this month I was invited to an event at the University of Warsaw International Relations Institute to take part in a round table on the Ukraine conflict with other academics and the Ukraine Ambassador. This was my first foray into the territory of IR and I can’t say it was successful. My attempt to focus on the missing agency of Ukrainians and my perception of the lack of European solidarity for their situation didn’t get a very sympathetic hearing. I will write more about that in the next blog post.


Moscow scene I passed daily in 2014 – was always empty!

Researchers as Insider/Outsiders

Here I want to highlight some of the reflections on fieldwork relations that in part will appear in the CJA piece. Following up on a chapter in my book, I wanted to look at how the ethnographer and informants alike are unwilling ‘diplomatic’ representatives of their origin countries. I talk about political neutrality in field relations, indirect communication, and affective states that both facilitate and threaten ‘everyday diplomacy’.  In their examination of the researcher’s positionality in fieldwork in both Turkey and Azerbaijan, Ergun and Erdemir (2010) discuss how foreignness and cultural familiarity interact with research contexts. They summarize well some of the problems with insider status that are particularly relevant to the Russian context: an ‘insider, for example, may be perceived as being untrustworthy because of his or her knowledge of and connections to the community under study’.

Ironically, it was my outsider status – as non-Russian – which allowed a degree of greater access in my fieldwork (as well causing distrust and disbelief by others). Did the lime kiln technicians my monotown genuinely believe that our conversations might get back to the director? Russian reality suggests that their fears are reasonable. While cross-cultural issues constitute the ‘elephant in the room’ for foreign area studies researchers working on Russia, outsider status can help not only to mitigate, but also to reverse the researcher–researched relationship, particularly when it is understood in terms of cultural exchange (see Charlie Walker on this – 2011). This is no less true as Russia moves further away from its closed past (if anything since the Ukraine conflict, a sense of cultural difference has been emphasized by the state itself and people are more inquisitive than ever about ‘representatives of Europe’). By the same token, my foreignness, allowed me to witness both first hand and in stories, significant illegality – particularly in the informal economy, but also in terms of stealing from work, and so on. What possible risk would there be from a foreigner – the status of whom in Russia is always viewed as contingent, powerless and temporary? At the same time, what Ergun and Erdemir call ‘cultural proximity’, evidenced by linguistic competency and lived experience, can allow a researcher to cross over temporarily into partial ‘insider’ status which can build rapport, trustworthiness and openness.



My ‘lime kiln technicians’. Eventually they talked to me!


In the book I go on to talk about the challenge of justifying ethnography to a Polsci/Area Studies ‘audience’ in the academy – particularly departmental colleagues, grant agencies and REF committees. In fact, I just got back my own internal REF evaluation – done anonymously at College level. It draws attention to the small ‘data sample’ of my ethnography to justify not awarding a higher number of ‘stars’. For those unfamiliar with the REF there is some commentary here. In the ‘Diplomacy’ paper for ASA, I talk at length about two ‘groups’ of people in my research – ‘national patriots’ who drew attention to the Ukraine conflict in our talk, and others who more subtly reflected politicisation by referring to my ‘Europeanness’. Here’s a shortened version of some of the reflections in the original paper. (The Europe stuff got cut for the CJA version)

The national patriot informants

From some informants their response to the researcher after the Ukraine conflict was predictable based on their previous clearly expressed patriotic and anti-West views: Sasha is a long-standing key informant who has always enjoyed making combative and provocative statements about the decadent and treacherous West. For as long as I have been visiting Russia, informants like Sasha have readily made reference to geopolitical issues, British and US foreign policy, and in linking the researcher and origin country, history, and politics in the widest sense. Partly reflecting popular history broadcasting and publishing in Russia in the Soviet Union (think of the series Seventeen Moments of Spring), informants have commented, seriously and jokingly about issues such as WWII: ‘where was the second front when we needed it?’ The ambiguous role of Britain as an ally to the USSR – as reflected in popular Russian history –  is attached in conversation to the person of the researcher, albeit temporarily. More recently, in the late 1990s, British nationals in Russia were likely to encounter personal antagonism during the NATO bombing of Serbia. I recall not being able to avoid adopting a ‘public’ position in conversation with a group of informants then. In a discussion characterised by anger on the part of my interlocutors at NATO actions, I stated that ‘generally’ I was against the air campaign, without ruling out a view that military intervention of another form against Milosevic might be acceptable to me.

In current fieldwork, Sasha is representative of the politicised, national-patriot encountered.  A former factory forklift driver and now eking out a living in the informal economy, Sasha, in one conversation in 2014 he expressed himself thus: ‘wait until winter. Over there in your Europe you’ll be cold and hungry enough when we cut your gas off. You’ll be begging us for breadcrumbs’. Sasha and his circle reflect some of the most disenfranchised Russians who readily latch on to official narratives about Russia’s renewal of greatness and the enemy of the West. They are partly the target group for state-controlled televisual framings of the conflict as a proxy for geopolitical victimisation of Russia and her refusal to be ‘bullied’. Putin here is presented as a rational, calculating and honest, if cunning, resistor of Western neo-imperialism. At the same time, when discussing aspects of domestic politics, they are extremely critical of the Russian government and Putin too.

This ‘group’ of informants if I can generalise, are well known for their perpetual ‘political testing’ of foreigners. In the best traditions of official state diplomacy, one possible response from the researcher is polite silence or ambiguous deflections (Blackman 2001). But how realistic is long term ‘field neutrality’ in such circumstances – when the researcher is from a country with a long history of political enmity or mistrust? As during the 1990s NATO intervention in Serbia, the current Ukraine conflict means researchers in Russia are unwillingly interpellated as national representatives – everyday diplomats, if you will.


my 2014 visit as to a Russian org collecting supplied for refugees from Ukraine conflict. ‘Diplomacy’ needed here as they would only allow entry after quizzing me.

My response to Sasha’s initially aggressive ‘testing’ or posturing on the Ukraine-Russia-sanctions issue was deflective – to avoid a response – silent even. However, as with the Serbian context, this was untenable – a semi-public-facing response had to emerge. This involved politely insisting that things were going to be fine in the UK and that we had our own gas supplies, and so on. Sasha quickly became much more like his usual self and ‘normal’ conversation continued without reference – at least for a while – to the conflict. Nonetheless the conflict had led to a re-interpretation of the researcher and researched as national representatives. Willingly or unwillingly, we had come to embody public diplomacy. Public diplomacy (of which ‘soft power’ is a recent scholarly sub-category) are about building credibility abroad through the display and demonstration of particularistic values and policies (Melissen 2005: 3).  It is also about ‘openness and cooperation’. On the one hand, these diplomatic roles are similar to those normally adopted by the ethnographer: credibility is built with informants, rapport established with a means to an end, but tempered by ethical values that are supposed to be transparent and demonstrable to informants. The paradox of diplomacy therefore extends to ethnography – it is simultaneously means and ends directed activity. Hence the long-standing comparisons of ethnography with espionage and liminality. For ethnographers, like it or not, as for official representatives of a state who reside as aliens in another jurisdiction, ‘trust’ is a necessary by product of activity that has ‘transactional objectives’ (Rose and Wadham-Smith 2004: 34-35). Taking into account the intrusion of geopolitics into field relations, the diplomatic comparison appears equally apt.

Nevertheless, the metaphor breaks down, and in some respects necessarily so. Unlike the diplomat the informant and researcher alike can pursue various tactics not available to the official state representative. Firstly, and importantly, continual deflection through disavowal of the national representing role – ‘I am not a representative of my state’. But this, as indicated above, is not tenable over time as the usual response is: ‘yes, but what do you think about this conflict?’ More powerfully than disavowal is ‘silence’ and continuing ‘civility’ – two modes of indirect communication, both ‘diplomatic’, but equally available to researcher and researched as tools to resist interpellation by politics and open up avenues for alternative interpretation of cultural and national difference in the field. To a degree these responses by the researcher to Sasha’s kind of aggressive discourse are already suggested: what could one say in response? More or less my reaction was civility and silence over time when the topic came up in similar circumstances. For informants, this was also, increasingly, a micro-political response encountered. Silence and civility against the backdrop of international conflict involving people’s respective states is both self-censorship, but also pregnant with affective meaning: the beginning of the mutual acknowledgement of trauma of some kind. ‘Performing the script’ of national representative breaks down in the face of the inadequacy of politics to express the intimacy of field relations and vice versa. A quieter politics inevitably ensues (cf. Askins 2014 on the script performance of refugees, affect and friendship). Silence speaks to acknowledgement of the other in a way that open discussion and argument would not. While new meanings of globalised ‘intimacy’ are currently being calibrated in anthropology, which the accent put on the problem of differentiating ‘authentic’ from purely performative (Sehlikoglu and Zengin 2015: 23), the “‘deep’ knowledge of the field is also a realm of the intimate” (24). transnational intimacies are highly shaped by and embedded in specific social relations of inequality, based on perceived gender, ethnic, racial, national (23).  As Pain and Staeheli suggest, the ‘stretching of intimate spaces’ – of private conversation – to accommodate geopolitical meaning should not verify the political as primary, but acknowledge the geopolitical itself as always already intimate and the multi-scalar (Pain and Staeheli 2014: 345).


‘Let’s not talk about Ukraine’ – silence is better

‘European’ and ‘Boeing’ metonymy: ‘we are the victims’

Sasha’s use of the word ‘your Europe’ (alternatively given as your ‘West’, when in more combative mood) gives an indication of another group of interactions with informants. The Ukraine Maidan movement is of course associated with the desire for some Ukrainians to join the EU. A number of informants, while avoiding mention of the conflict itself, framed certain seemingly innocuous discussions in terms of the adjective ‘European’: Thus, a certain approach to child rearing, or choice of food, cooking or something else illustrated a ‘European mentality’. In the last couple of decades the adjective European has not been marked in this way in everyday discourse – if anything it is associated with ‘quality’ – the ‘Euro apartment’, ‘Euro food quality’. In this second subset of encounters it is possible to characterise this cultural distancing by informants as a proxy for discussing, or not discussing, the international conflict. Often these same informants had previously been some of the most reflexive about cultural difference and often more critical of their own culture and politics.

A corollary of the ‘European’ approach was when informants with ambiguous or critical viewpoints avoided expressing their disapproval of the Russian government – a very understandable approach – but instead talked about impending ‘punishment’ or catastrophe befalling their country as a result of the ‘Boeing’ (the type of airliner shot down over Ukraine) – note also the metonymic distancing in the use of this word. One woman, Marina, who had relatives in Moscow said: ‘I just hope it is quick. I wake up in the night thinking about a nuclear attack on Moscow. Hopefully they [the relatives] are close to the centre that they will all be killed outright.’ Another said, ‘I suppose we won’t see you again. We will be completely isolated now and they won’t let you come here.’ The ‘they’ were the all-powerful UK government, not the Russians. Externalising feelings of fear and stress to an outside punisher was a common reaction and in some ways inflects the ‘victimhood’ discourses adopted at a state level (Russia as the victim of NATO expansion and Atlanticist encirclement). In a politically highly charged environment, a focus on the reaction of the other, rather than the actions of one’s state was also understandable.

In a follow-up post I will write more about the Ukraine conflict and its effect on my field work, but more importantly, how I see its effects at work on ordinary Russian people.


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