Tag Archives: Ukraine

On Not Talking to Russians about Downed Airliners and Murdered Dutch Children

From a Russian cafe: ‘We are Russians. We are not Ashamed

Because we’re talking endlessly about the inability of many Russians to admit they live in an aggressor, neoimperial state, or even register the reality of what’s happening, I thought I’d go back to this piece I wrote about doing fieldwork in 2014 and after.

I went back to the field after Maidan and Crimea, but just before the 2014 Malaysian airliner MH17 downing during the war in Donbas. I wanted to write about the sensitivities of doing fieldwork in such times where I was already seen as a representative of an enemy country. The shoot-down event is on my mind because of 2022 Ukrainian allegations that Russia is planning a false flag operation to shoot down an airliner over its own territory using Western weapons transferred to Ukraine.

Unfortunately, as with a lot of academic projects that are spun out of material for different purposes, the article is a bit of a mess. Too many themes and ideas. Boiling it down in this post, here are some of the ideas which still have relevance.

Political’ events are not experienced the same way and post-truth media makes things worse

I opened my news feed the day the airliner was shot down and experienced shock, disbelief and nausea. Pretty soon it became clear that Russian forces in Donbas were responsible. However, what was for me the defining ‘event’ was no such thing for 90% of Russian people. Firstly, there’s a tendency to delay and obfuscate big news like this – remember the flat denial and then spinning of the Moscow Cruiser sinking just recently. This seems ridiculous to people paying attention in the West, but it ignores that it buys time for the second stage: the post-truth coverage by Russian mainstream media. There are seemingly smart people who believe the corpses of the victims from the airliner were transported to Ukraine. This is not so different from 9/11 truthers. But this is in a society where media allows such post-truth versions space to breathe and spread. Having said that, at the time there were people who saw this event as THE dividing line. A crime so terrible that there would be no coming back for Russia. This was also communicated to me in the field. After this event some people already made plans to leave Russia, or even prepare for nuclear war.

People internalize propaganda as a structure of feeling even while avoiding ‘news’

That day I went to a birthday party held by some friends of mine who are well-to do in the cultural scene. They’re average, upstanding Russian middle-class – politically loyal people. Stupidly, I expected the ‘event’ to overshadow our party; most people were not aware of what had happened. Later I observed ‘avoidance’ as the most common response to what was going on in Donbas. While the television blares continuously in the background and clearly shapes how many people respond to the war on Ukraine, this effect is much more indirect and insidious than people generally think – it’s a vaguely felt itch at the back of peoples lives through their interaction with television as a form of verbal and visual wallpaper. While I don’t think direct comparisons to Nazi Germany really work in general, the ‘Ukraine question’ is a little like the ‘Jewish question’. Over a pretty long period of time, constant and building anti-Semitism in public life created a strong social desirability bias of hatred and blame towards Jews. Once war came, this in turn allowed enough fear, resignation and – mainly – indifference to be produced so that the Final Solution was possible by that small group of willing executioners and a much larger group of loyal bureaucrats – Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. Many ordinary Germans were also guilty of latent anti-Semitism which the regime successfully leveraged. The point is the mass of people for whom even after 2014, Donbas was a low-salience issue and so they easily fall in to the ‘structure of feeling’ that the regime helps foster: “Ukraine = bad, West manipulates and betrays, We are the victims, We won the war. We are righteous.” Just a few weeks ago, I mentioned the Malaysian airliner to a Russian who is deeply ashamed of the invasion and politically aware. They’d completely ‘forgotten’ it!

Silences and pauses can draw attention to the discomfort with political events

So my article is really about trying to interpret pauses and silences where people don’t acknowledge or mention the elephants in the room. I argue that forms of silence and acknowledgement of the other person through silences – uncomfortable pauses – are themselves forms of communication about ‘political events’. This is heightened when one of the people is a Russian and the other is a foreign person from a Western bloc state. I conclude the first section: “Interlocutors and researcher are forced to negotiate the event within their everyday encounters in a way that maintains civility and the possibility of an ongoing commitment to relations. This is the ‘intimate’ reconstruction of (geo)political subjectivities.”

Victim narratives go far back and scaffold the current shared ‘feelings’ in Russia

Some of the rest of the article is about how clearly, even in 2014, Russians articulated a victim narrative and how effectively Putin has manipulated this. (I came across this excellent post by Anna Razumnaya on victimhood stemming from feelings of inferiority and humiliation). This framing goes back to the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 where I first experienced the deep-seated sense of geopolitically ‘structured feeling’: outrage and resentment that was sincerely expressed, but mainly communicated through emotional reactions – like my colleagues demanding of me a ‘political statement’, and then walking out of our shared office in Moscow, or the ‘dirty’ protests where people smeared the US embassy with faeces. The conclusion here is that ‘willingly or unwillingly, we come to embody public diplomacy’ in some way in fieldwork under such circumstances. Is it possible to overcome the way we are unwillingly inserted into this position?

To confront or to maintain tactical silence?

Sometimes we have time and space to talk about geopolitics in a considered, intimate way with people who have different worldviews, but mostly not. We could argue that it is important to signal strong disapproval of the invasion and support for Ukraine. I think that’s true and essential for Russians talking to Russians. But for ‘non-native’ researchers, confronting people politically is completely at odds with anthropological practice in fieldwork.  But it is sometimes interlocutors who confront the researcher. What is she to do? Confront back? Unfortunately, this is part of the geopolitical script the Russian media have anticipated. More often people laugh at you: ‘You’ve been brainwashed by Western media.’ Adopt the ‘silent’ approach of many Russians themselves? Can ‘tactical silence’ express more? Can just the persistent presence of the representative of the other have jarring political effects? Scholar Yael Navaro talks about silent, phantom presences ‘irritating’ people even as they try to carry on as if nothing is happening.

Silence can invoke opposition and resistance, but it can also signal indifference and consent to barbarism. That’s why it’s important for Russians who oppose the war to carry on making small symbolic acts of resistance. As one activist said to me recently: ‘all I’ve got now are these anti-war stickers, but they mean so much to me.’

The visible resistance to war might allow a change of tactic: from being silent ourselves to forcing the silences and pauses on to those who say they support the war. Make them think, and make them confront the idiocy of the argument Razumnaya highlights: ‘We’re bombing Kharkov so that the West would fear us’

Russian academic boycotts, bans, and the global production of knowledge

circa 1955: American broadcast journalist Edward R Murrow (1908 – 1965) sits behind a console in a CBS television control room, holding a pen in the air, 1950s. There is a microphone in the foreground. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Guest post: Letter from a concerned scholar

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has already provoked a serious humanitarian crisis, with an unprecedented number of refugees and displaced persons next to civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure. The Western academic community is correctly focusing its resources on supporting the victims of the invasion – Ukrainian and Ukraine-resident scholars and students among them. These are the people that deserve unconditional solidarity now and maximum support, both material and moral.

On the other hand, however, short-term initiatives and reactions – however decisive and crucial they are – have to an extent overshadowed the understanding of long-term issues. The war is likely to increase dramatically the share of people living in poverty in Ukraine, an already poor country – this would require more significant initiatives to strategically ramp up humanitarian aid and write off the country’s foreign debt, that have been raised by Ukrainian activists themselves.

The other aspect is that the disruptive effects of the war are likely to have a significant impact on other vulnerable populations. For example, the poorest African countries will probably be drastically affected by the drastic reduction of wheat imports from both Ukraine and Russia. Another issue close to many – in terms of the contradictions it implies, and the way in which they are handled – relates to the attitude towards Russian people and the Russian academic community in particular.

The invasion has already provoked an increase of repression within the country, accelerating a decade-long trend. At the very least, any kind of dissent about the war is now criminalized / punished in some form – but explicit large-scale repression is likely to be the reality on the ground of the Russian state even after the conclusion of hostilities. The ‘economic war’ with the EU, NATO and allied countries is likely to lead to an economic depression that may equal the one that took place in the 1990s. Overall, ordinary Russian people are likely to suffer for a long time from the consequences of the war. Many Russian academics living abroad are vocally opposing their government’s war of aggression; some have at least temporarily left the country in the last weeks, with an uncertain future ahead; many others have remained – either due to personal choice, or for lack of resources and connections.

The Western academic world is not fully unaware of the situation. However, the (more or less) open letters that I read in these days look dramatically inadequate. Some basically consist of calls for an overall ban on Russian scholars just because of their citizenship, sometimes in favor of (token) Ukrainian representatives. They also ignore the understandable desire for many Ukrainians to stay in Ukraine. This zero-sum game logic is sometimes reflected in actual academic policies, with explicitly anti-war scholars and cultural activists being de-platformed, or, with the same logic of collective punishment, students being barred from enrolling in universities. However, no states have expelled current students.  

Other documents acknowledge the plight of many Russian colleagues and formally declare solidarity with them but look somehow disingenuous in their stance and extremely ambiguous in terms of their actual implications. An example of the former: in an open letter addressed to Russian scholars, the (real) issue of de-platforming and collective punishment is sidestepped by the author who wonders whether such extreme positions aren’t’ just part of Russian ‘regime propaganda’. The implications of political hygiene tests for scholars are chilling, but they are regularly discussed with no reflexivity. With a few laudable exceptions, solidarity is almost always conditional to ‘actively’ stating opposition to the invasion. This hold many scholars – those who have remained in Russia in particular – to impossible standards: one thing is to voice opposition from abroad and being affiliated with a foreign institution, another is to do it while living and being employed in Russia; it is laudable that associations like European Association of Social Anthropologists and BASEES/ASEEES have been clear that they will not discriminate on nationality grounds.

These attitudes, in my view, raise serious issues about the approach and mindset of many Western academics. Here are a few points for debate.

1. Most Russian universities remain peripheral in the global production of knowledge even in the context of area studies – how is this power asymmetry acknowledged by such calls coming from richer Western institutions? Do they have the right to set moral standards for precarious researchers with little to no resources, at risk of being fired, fined, arrested? Does the often-imperialist attitude of Russian cultural institutions (and among many academics, to be sure) towards Ukrainian culture make this issue irrelevant?

2. To what extent are open letters writers and signatories aware of the characteristics of the political system, consensus dynamics, societal attitudes, opinion polls in Russia? Did the ‘national’ focus of much post-socialist studies research – often justified by de-orientalizing reasons – actually compartmentalize/provincialize the understanding of the post-socialist condition and its various outcomes? This can be seen from the surprised reaction of scholars from all kinds of states at the lack of an uprising or greater protest in Russia.

3. Are some terms – that to a large extent describe real issues – being abused to the point of being distorted to the opposite? Talking about Ukraine by silencing Ukrainian voices is indeed a very bad case of ‘westsplaining’, but isn’t it conceptually the same to discuss about Russian state ideology, politics, society without the contribution of informed and critical Russian scholars? Is it ‘whataboutism’ to ask about the position of ‘cancellers’ regarding BDS – or what their position would have been about scholars from the ‘coalition of the willing’ countries (including Euro states) being not sufficiently vocal against the unprovoked war on Iraq in 2003? Should they have been de-platformed?

Any comparison with BDS is usually dismissed as ‘not relevant’ by those defending banning Russian scholars or ignored completely. The academic boycott of Israel is in reality not a unified position. For example, some support boycott initiatives in occupied territories but not BDS. However, many voices are advocating a more extreme position than most BDS organizations in relation to Russian academia. This deserves discussion and debate.

My thoughts return to Ukraine and Ukrainians at this time of their struggle. What scholars can do is maximize informed, analytical and critical voices from within Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

Russians react to the beginning of the offensive against Kyiv: The looking glass world but with some cracks in it

Alice through the looking glass (Kievnauchfilm 1982). Source: https://www.kursivom.ru

This is a slightly edited version of a thread I made on Twitter 27 Feb 2022. I have obscured identities.

“Don’t want to do a long thread but I said I’d update with the ‘everyman’ view from the ‘averagely informed’ Russian [some people didn’t like this wording, but I leave it here]. So far, it can be summarised as everything we see in Western media about conflict in Ukraine is transformed into a kind of Alice thru the Looking Glass world for some of these people.

That means, for example, the difficulty in even starting a conversation with my acquaintance who I text a couple of times a month. I gingerly tested the waters with her. She’s c.35 years old, and her sister has a kid who’s 18. I text: ‘everything ok? I hope you’re keeping Dima away from the enlistment office’. Her answer ‘What?’

I paused and thought long and hard before continuing and choosing my words carefully: ‘There are a lot of conscripts in Ukraine, it seems.’ She: ‘Yes, I heard that. Poor Ukrainian mothers.’ I.e. she interpreted it ‘through the looking glass’ – subsequently it was obvious she thought I was talking about ‘poor Ukrainian conscripts’ being forced to fight. Later she talked about avoiding television news and only vaguely knew there was a ‘special operation’ in Donbas.

Older bloke: ‘mood is good. A quick jaunt to Kiev and back in time for tea. Without too many casualties. Symmetrical sanctions – you’ve got more to lose. Jobs a good-un’. President looking firm, saying the right thing.’

I have always held complex views about rally-round the flag effects (it’s decay was faster than people think after 2014, it’s ‘drowned out’ by material concerns), but this man is a ‘putin-sceptic’, so his positive comments about Putin alarm me.

Woman in 50s: ‘Russia has never invaded anyone; we don’t have taking territory in our military doctrine. Did you see ‘wag the dog’? You could learn a lot about what’s happening in the US with Biden’s unpopularity’. Again, you can see a kind of ‘trickle down’ of media talking points here in a garbled way.

Texts in the night: He: ‘Why are you awake?’ Me: ‘I can’t sleep – watching the war.’

He: ‘Completely f’up. I’m watching the tele – explosions, wounded, tanks.’

I respond: ‘Kyiv being hit by rockets’. No answer for last 2 days to that message.

My ‘conscious’ friend, as he calls himself, in his 30s: “we’ll this is f**ed up. What does the overseas say? Putinists don’t care -they’ll burn the world to get their way… everyone thinks we are driving the Nazis out of Ukraine! Even a friend here showed his colours! He seemed ok before.’

My friend continues [who incidentally is unemployed mechanic without higher ed]: ‘It’s not TV, it’s inertial thinking and low capacity for critical reasoning. And absence of alt sources of info. If the economy wasn’t so bad people would have a chance to ‘look up”

And then he ends: ‘What is the opinion of people outside of Russia? On what is happening now? Surely there is no one who thinks that Russia is doing a good deed? See you in ten years, if God wills it. It’s tragicomic [И смех и грех]’

One reader objected to my categorization of some of these people as ‘averagely informed’, or ‘unemployed without higher education’. The point is that while Russian media messaging and broader discourses do shape opinion, they don’t dictate it. Similarly, an abiding theme of my writing is that especially when it comes to xenophobia and bigotry, we should avoid facile assumptions about correlations with class.

Patriotism and nationalism among ordinary Russians today

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I am giving a paper at Malmo University for the second RUCARR conference and this is a great excuse to revisit a topic I wrote about some time ago – Russian everyday nationalism and patriotism since the Ukraine conflict. So this blog post is in lieu of a paper for the conference – I hope I finish it in time!

In my article on ‘everyday diplomacy’ in the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, I was encouraged by Diana Ibanez Tiraldo to write about my experience of how geopolitical ‘events’ impacted my fieldwork relationships in Russia when I returned there in 2014.

In that article I talk about my sense of myself as unwilling representative of my origin country during fieldwork, and how, despite the unrelenting media campaign in Russia, most of my encounters that involved political talk were characterised by ‘civility’ and ‘silence’, or the agency of ordinary people in negotiating their way between the strident tones of state propaganda on the one side, and their genuine feelings of patriotism on the other. So the article is something of a contribution to what has been called ‘everyday geopolitics’ or popular geopolitics, but specifically thinking in terms of subjectivities. Therefore I make some use of the term ‘intimacy-geopolitics’, that comes from geographers Pain and Staeheli 2014. Consequently, I think about how ethnographers resemble or don’t resemble diplomats, or are inevitably hailed as representatives of their origin countries’ international policies. The article ends, not by focusing on how media propaganda around the Ukraine conflict activates nationalism in everyday contexts, but on the contrary – TV and internet endless, in-your-face, over-the-top rehearsal of tropes like ‘Kiev’s fascist junta’ and ‘crucified Russophone children’ seems to traumatise my Russian informants. The Russian state does such a ‘good’ job of speaking to the most unpleasant nationalistic perspectives that most people are left mute, bereft of any position of their own. As a consequence, if anything, nationalist discourse is externalised from the subjectivities of my informants – the state performs it for them, thereby replacing them as nationalist subjects.

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However, one thing I really wanted to return to was an issue touched on only tangentially in the article – the distinction between patriotism and nationalism and the ‘classed’ nature of discourses around nationalism. Orwell’s 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism was an important reference point here. Orwell sees nationalism as a ‘moral’ failing in modern societies and as present in all individuals. At the same time he makes the case for a kind of positive identity politics of place that does not require an ‘other’ to justify and sustain itself. For him this is patriotism. What starts out looking like a leftist apology for patriotism actually comes closer to a sense of unstructured, yet embedded communitas. I am particularly influenced by Stephen Lutman’s article on Orwell and Patriotism, published in the Journal of Contemporary History in 1967. Not only Lutman has highlighted how Orwell describes patriotism as defensive, originating in a communitarian political posture where one’s origin culture is cherished, but not to the detriment of others. Lutman traces how Orwell’s essay is the culmination of a long process of his thinking about the left’s need to acknowledge the power of patriotism and thus begin to consider how to utilise it in the cause of social change (in 1945 when the essay was written, much of Orwell’s earlier optimism on this count had dissipated – by this point patriotism has been reduced to at best a kind of defence against totalitarianism).

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Orwell contrasts patriotism to nationalism, which is often an ideological commitment that is intellectualised, yet not standing up to rational analysis – it is always negative because it is founded upon a commitment to competitive prestige. The most famous quote of the essay, actually relating to a leftist illusion runs as follows: ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. ’  Orwell’s vision of patriotism can be compared to the idea of cultural intimacy proposed by Michael Herzfeld.  And this may provide us with a way of thinking through Russian nationalism and patriotism today. That both the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ aspects of group loyalty can be simultaneously present and ‘performed’ by people. This resonates with many of my encounters with my Russian research participants, both before and after the Ukraine conflict, and before and after the Russian state-controlled media ratcheted up nationalist rhetoric against the perceived enemies in the West. Ukraine and Ukrainians as an ‘object’ of xenophobia and chauvinism, mainly (although not exclusively) take on a minor aspect of the ‘everyday discourse’ of nationalism, despite the media propaganda’s attempts to the contrary.

I offer three examples (all of which are included in the article) of thinking about nationalism-patriotism in a more nuanced way. Firstly, a long-term low level badgering by a few (the minority) of working-class research participants which I term ‘political testing’. This include provocative statements about Russia’s ‘victimhood’ status in recent history: from accusations about Western delays in opening the second front in WWII, allegations of separate negotiations for peace with the Nazis, to more recent events like the bombing of Belgrade in 1999.

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What did I really think about these things? I was prodded repeatedly, although usually in a relatively good-natured way. In the article I mainly focussed on this political talk, not as expressing nationalist views, but as a kind of invitation for acknowledging the traumatic Russian past, the often double-standards of the West in more recent history, and even, ethnographically speaking, asking me to acknowledge a kind of privileged positionality (I talk more about this in the article). Certainly, it does not relate to the now widely discussed ‘whataboutery’ of Russian discourse when presented with criticism (although I encounter a lot of that from some Russians). I’ve largely given up trying to engage with whataboutery – there’s a revealing anecdote about that in the article regarding Obama, Libya and Ukraine.

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The second example is related – a kind of generalised resentment about the ‘post-communist compact’ in Russia that has mutated into what certainly looks like negative nationalism as Orwell’s terms it (anxiety about the loss of Russian/Soviet prestige). One informant – Sasha, a factory worker – in particular is frequently fervent in his ‘bury the west’ rhetoric and likes to fantasise about cutting off Russia’s gas supply to the whole of Europe (‘to see how you like it, when you’re begging us for a crust of bread’). Certainly, this fits a  classic frame of analysis about nationalism as a response to decline. However, this is the same informant who despises the Russian government and insists on muting the television when any representative, including the president appears – ‘they don’t care about people like us’.

I call this response the ‘national patriot’ reaction to events. But how deeply does it go? One thing I’m interested in is how quickly a lot of analysis of current events seems to readily fall back into an adoption of a kind of uncritical acceptance of the old hypodermic needle effect of nationalistic rhetoric from the media. Sasha wasn’t particularly nationalistic before, so he seems to fit that model. However, he is the tiny minority. Overall, I’d say he, like many of my informants, is a patriot more than he is a nationalist (we’ll come back to Orwell in a moment). His problematic positioning does illustrate Paul Goode’s contention that every patriotism and nationalism are not easily distinguished and that one may easily transform into the other.

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Third and final ethnographic example. This is a recent acquaintance and not really an informant. A Professor of Physics from Moscow with whom I had a number of arguments in the summer of 2014. His basic position was that Ukrainians were inferior to Russians and that Ukraine historically had never been a coherent nation, and was in the present undeserving of statehood. This intellectualising, (flawed and false) rationalising of national superiority and inferiority is at the heart of Orwell’s argument.  My example nicely illustrates also how class difference may play a role; for Orwell, patriotism is largely unconscious, operating at the level of affect, whereas nationalism is a rationalising force – making it all the more dangerous and unpleasant.

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Two further reflections are in order. The first is on the the role of the state as an agent in forming public opinion. The second is on the artefact of polling data. While naturally sceptical of the very concept of public opinion, we can note one thing – states can be effective in amplifying sentiments, but the roots of those sentiments may be diverse – resentment at decline, loss of prestige geopolitically, are perhaps the least problematic ‘nationalist’ levers brought to bear here. However, I’d like to pause for a moment to consider whether it’s really the case that Russians, even after all these amplifying and mobilising efforts, are more ‘nationalist-minded’ than other Europeans, or even Americans. Here I follow the lead taken by Edwin Bacon in his latest book ‘Inside Russian Politics’. There he points to how survey polling reveals very little difference in xenophobic sentiment between different countries. In fact his headline finding is that Russians are far more optimistic about the chances to avoid conflict than those in the West. On the topic of patriotism he also notes that polling reveals people in the US and UK as more strongly patriotic than Russians.

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‘There must be a border!’ Danish People’s Party

A further look at some recent polling is even more revealing: Levada finds that in 2017 attitudes towards ‘foreigners living in Russia’ are the most positive since polling on this topic began (albeit only 13 years ago). As a proxy for ‘xenophobia’ this doesn’t sit well with a view on a sustained upsurge in nationalism. 54% think there should be limits on foreigners’ rights to live in Russia (in 2013 it was 81%). In the UK and US these figures are significantly higher. In my own country of residence, Denmark, the second biggest political party believes in a kind of immutable ethnic purity for the Danes, and around 50% of people don’t believe immigrants should enjoy equal rights. Back to Russia, but this time on ‘external enemies’. If in 2014 84% thought Russia had external enemies, now that figure is falling somewhat (in 2016 it was 68%). More encouragingly, 30% of respondents think that ‘talk of enemies is pursued by the authorities in order to frighten people’.

I hesitate to say that polling really tells us much about actually-existing, let alone ‘everyday’ nationalism. Certainly the amplifying effect can be measured, as I’ve said earlier. But what exactly is being amplified? Here I would return, tentatively to the idea that it is as much about a generalised resentment, disillusionment about the whole processes of social and political change in the last three decades in Russia, as it is about nationalism. Yes, some of this can be redirected towards external enemies, and yes, a lot of this resentment can be easily amplified thanks to the real hypocrisy of the ‘West’ in matters geopolitical.

Another way of saying this is to think of ‘nationalism’ as a ‘social fact’ in the same way Durkheim examined suicide. But Durkheim was wrong. His social fact of suicide turned out to be an artefact of different ways of recording deaths, rather than the ‘real’ meaning and causes of suicide itself. It is the same with nationalism – we should be careful of not mistaking state-discourses for ‘everyday’ nationalism and patriotism, which may turn out to be something quite different.  (Of course banal nationalism is another story, but something I’ve written about elsewhere).

What I’m not trying to do here is downplay the significance of the increase in nationalist propaganda at all levels propagated by the Russian state – from schools, to television, to the highest level of government itself. Indeed it was that elite-directed signalling that prompted my interest. What I hope to draw attention to is how it is problematic to impute a clear transmission belt effect to so-called ‘ordinary’ Russians, who are usually more than sophisticated enough to see they are being hailed in a particular way. Again, Paul Goode’s focus-group and interview research on this topic back that up. Secondly, I draw attention to a fact that I’m sure my political science colleagues wish to stress themselves – that this is a clearly conscious elite strategy of chauvinism and xenophobia.

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Surkov in suitable company

Indeed, there appears to be evidence that a lot of the Ukraine ‘adventure’ and its attendant rhetoric is associated with a particular individual – Vladislav Surkov. A better example of the arrogant intellectual one would struggle to find in Russia today. Recall the Orwellian reference point again: ‘one would have to be an intellectual to believe that…’. Surkov also strikes me as being a good example of the salience of the other point I wish to make – patriotism versus nationalism. Surkov wears his sophistication, dare I say it given the associations of the word, ‘cosmopolitanism’ as a badge of honour. Now, as the chief ‘theatre-maker’ of Russian politics, it’s not difficult to imagine that while having a vivid understanding of the meaning and potential for nationalist rhetoric, he would struggle to understand everyday Russian patriotism, as expressed by the kind of people in my research, and as distinct from nationalism. I can’t help but imagine he would react cynically to my position here. Any maybe that would just prove my point.

 

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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).

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‘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.