Russia: A State Without Identity

Russian friends and acquaintances often tell me, “Nina, you have a Russian soul. That’s why you get along with us so well.” I’m not certain what components of my personality contribute to the Russian part of my soul, though. Does my love of the arts play a role? My interest in history or literature? What about my undying devotion to sour cream?

Russians balk at defining the elusive concept, simply branding me as “one of theirs (svoi chelovek).” Their hesitation is understandable; how can they define the Russian characteristics in me without first defining their own national identity?

The enigma of Russian identity dominated a discussion on Russian and American national identity in the modern world, sponsored by the Valdai Discussion Club and Georgetown University.

The comparison of two societies which viewed each other as the ultimate foe for the better part of a century may be unexpected, but some major similarities between the states exist.  They are both multi-ethnic (Russia boasts of over 100 different nationalities). To varying degrees, they are both multi-confessional. And they are both geographically large. Yet thanks to historical narratives, the paths to national identity in the United States and Russia have very different end points; while Russia faces a “crisis of identity,” belief in American exceptionalism persists even in the face of crisis.

Discussants described Russia as a state “without identity,” focused more on the effects of history on its identity than actively shaping its identity for the future. While the main components of Russian identity are understood as its state, territorial, ideological, and religious identities, none of these components are universally understood by the population. The lack of consistent historical narrative over the past 100 years has befuddled Russia’s place and purpose. Whether the Russian Federation a successor state to the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, whether the RF is Orthodox or multi-confessional in practice as well as in rhetoric, and whether the country has a system of governance similar to a western-style democracy or an energy superpower has caused Russians to throw up their hands and construct no coherent identity for the Russian state in the 21st century.

Instead, Russians profess that though they understand themselves poorly, they are certain that Russia is a unique state that must define its own future without advice or influence from abroad. Russian elites view the country an independent, influential, highly developed, multinational state (in which ethnic Russians play an important and irreplaceable role), with strong central rule, rule of law, and social justice. In light of its splintered national identity, whether the Russian Federation will ever achieve this image of itself remains to be seen.

Notably lacking from Russia’s conception of its identity are views on the importance of balance of power, representation in democratic bodies, the importance of an opposition, and human rights, all of which figure prominently into the United States’ perception of its identity. According to a variety of sources, Americans understand their country’s success primarily as a result of its institutions and the freedoms they protect.

The importance of a single historical narrative cannot be underestimated in the American case. Though the United States is a young nation, its identity was conceived in 1776 and maintained and bolstered in the years to come. As discussants pointed out, simply because we often question whether government continues to uphold the principles that contribute to our identity does not make our American identity any less true.

While the American narrative has shaped and solidified our identity, a century of institutional changes, each heralding the opposite of what came before it, has left Russia asking “What is the Russian identity?” Though as participants agreed, that question is as central to Russian identity as Russia itself.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Crossroads and Contrasts

After spending a week in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s wealthier, more tourist-oriented neighbor and crossing a border that didn’t exist 18 years ago, I couldn’t put my finger on what I expected to find in BiH. It was doing well enough to accept buses full of gawking tourists on a daily basis, but, unsurprisingly, not well enough to warrant EU membership.

As we neared Mostar, the largest city in the Herzegovina region, the ethnic and religious diversity of the country — and reminders of all it had wrought in the past twenty years — were evident even from the highway. A yellow and black road sign flew by with one of its lines spray painted to oblivion. I automatically assumed (perhaps in true New Jersey style?) that there was construction in that direction, or that perhaps the exit number had changed…until I saw another sign like that. And another. Finally we passed a sign with all its lines visible; those that had been blacked out were written in Serbian, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Though Serbian is one of BiH’s official languages and road signs reflect this fact, Serbs are viewed by Bosniaks and and Bosnian Croats alike as perpetrators of the Yugoslav conflict. Though citizens of BiH and Croatia can agree on little, their hatred of Serbia is one concept that unites them.

Blacked out Serbian text on a Bosnian road sign

As if on cue, our guide gave a superficial account of the Dayton Accords and the end of fighting in the region. “Though the leaders signed some documents, not everything is fixed in Bosnia.” She flippantly explained that Bosniaks, which is “the name Muslim Bosnians gave themselves,” and Croats still don’t get along. “Many refuse to even cross into the part of town where the other side lives… they’ll only do it if they really have to.” She warned us not to believe everything we heard from our local guide. “Sometimes they are biased and lie,” she added, as if she were free from such an affliction.

The cityscape of Mostar is dominated by several modest minarets and the tallest, ugliest Catholic bell tower I’ve ever seen. From the left bank of the aquamarine River Neretva, a massive concrete cross is visible on the top of Mount Hum, lording over the town below. Though the mosques are more numerous, the Catholic attractions in the city seem to be engaged in a game “Can You Top This — World Religions Edition.”

Mostar Cityscape
Mostar Cityscape
Clocktower of Saint Peter and Paul Monastery
Clocktower of Saint Peter and Paul Monastery
Mostar and Mount Hum, with its massive cross
Mostar and Mount Hum, with its massive cross

Despite the ethnic and religious tension still palpable as we entered the city, our local guide, a Mostar native, described the city as lacking a specific religious or ethnic identity, because it exists “for those who live there, no matter their background.” I wondered what our Croat guide would think of that.

Mostar seemed to embrace its diversity and history — even the recent, ugly stuff — in a way that Dubrovnik did not. It put uncomfortable topics at the forefront, perhaps because it can neither hide nor repair the war ruins that still dot the town. It needs to explain why pieces of the iconic Old Bridge, once a symbol of the town’s unity that was destroyed by Croat forces at the end of the war, are visible on the bed of the Neretva.

One of many bombed out buildings in Mostar
One of many bombed out buildings in Mostar

And so it styles itself as a land of contrasts and crossroads between East and West, Islam and Christianity, Communism and Capitalism, Good and Evil. And it does it through souvenir shops.

If you didn’t realize that war had touched Mostar before you arrived, you’d have no doubt once you saw the various trinkets made out of bonafide shell casings available for purchase.

Souvenirs made of bullets and casings
Souvenirs made of bullets and casings

You might not have known that Yugoslavia was a communist country — it cut ties with the Soviet Union, after all, so how communist could it actually be? Answer: as communist as jolly old Josip Tito, President of Yugoslavia.

Portrait of Tito hanging in Mostar souvenir shop
Portrait of Tito hanging in Mostar souvenir shop

And you’ll practically be an ethnographer after you peruse the offerings of a t-shirt shop in Mostar. Either that or you’ll think you’re in the Little Mostar section of some Jersey Shore boardwalk.

A selection of ethnic and boardwalk-style tshirts in Mostar.
A selection of ethnic and boardwalk-style tshirts in Mostar.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is undoubtedly still recovering from violent conflict nearly 20 years after the Dayton Accords, and relations between ethnic and religious groups remain strained. Even so, BiH, with its veritable melting pot of Balkan identities, seems to represent itself in a more truthful, self-aware way to those willing to hop on a minibus, cross three borders, and amble around the cobblestone streets of the crossroads of Mostar.

Crossing New Borders: Croatia to Bosnia and Back Again

When I look at a map of the Balkans, I am always struck by how small the area is, and how so many ethnicities, countries, and conflicts might be squeezed into it. Given my fascination, it would be silly not to hop the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for a day while we were honeymooning in Croatia.

We chose to visit Mostar, and to do so we had to cross three borders in each direction, due to Bosnia’s  historically-preserved sea-access surrounding the town of Neum.

Bosnia and Herzegovina sea access
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sea access

We were in Bosnia for just a few kilometers, and the border crossings in and out of the country were no more than glorified toll booths. We rolled through the crossing slowly enough to get a glimpse of the guards sitting in the police booth that straddled the border.  On one side sat a Croat, on the other a Bosnian. They looked like brothers. They also seemed to be equally bored.

A few hours later, we were at the “real” border crossing, though it looked like no more than a ramshackle barracks, a chain link fence, a cafe for waylaid travelers, and an obscenely long line of would-be border crossers.

A surreptitious picture of the crossing from the minibus.
A surreptitious picture of the crossing from the minibus. It just looks like a bunch of cars, because that’s what it is.

The border crossing was uneventful in that we sat in our stuffy minibus for nearly an hour while our guide, passports in hand, took care of business on the ground.  What it entailed, I’m not sure, as my passport carries no evidence of crossing the Croat-Bosnian border once, let alone six times in one day.

But there are some indications — cameras and other digital technologies provided with EU funds — that come July 1, this border will cease to be just a fence between two former Yugoslav brothers, and become a border separating the free and prosperous from the oppressed and desolate.

Generously provided by EU funds
Generously provided by EU funds

After Croatia’s EU accession, the lines at this border will grow longer, the fortifications stronger. The irony, of course, is that the border separates two peoples that lived together for centuries, speak essentially the same language, and share many of the same customs. It was manufactured by politicians, elites, and ethnic entrepreneurs. And the normal citizens are those affected.

The difference between BiH and its more prosperous Croatian comrade is evident just a few kilometers from the border. Subsistence agriculture seems to feed the countryside; small, family-owned farms with a cow or two line the roadway. Farmers sit at booths by the road peddling the best of their small crops. Desolate shells of one-room homes whiz by occasionally, and its hard to tell if they deteriorated over time or were casualties of war.

Whatever the reason, there is a palpable struggle across the border, not to catch up, but perhaps to finally recover and simply exist.

Finding Croatia on the Eve of EU Accession

When I told friends and family I was going to Croatia on my honeymoon, they mostly responded with blank stares. I tried to clue them in.  “It’s part of the former Yugoslavia,” I said. They reacted with panicked looks and questions about our safety or whether there were even beaches in this dangerous faraway land. I started to wonder whether I had made some terrible mistake, but as our tiny puddle jumper descended below the cloud cover, the sparkling sea and the walled city of Dubrovnik, “the pearl of the Adriatic,” were laid out below, just as the maps had depicted.

My experiences in Croatia were decidedly touristy – I was on my honeymoon, after all. But I was newly-armed with a Master’s degree that focused on post-communist Europe, and I was fairly determined to acquaint myself with the side of the country that might not be found in the average tourist’s guidebook. In one week, I was going to talk to everyone, try everything, and get to the bottom of Croatian identity as it related to Yugoslavia and the EU. Oh, and I was going to take my husband along for the ride, because what part of the violent breakup of one confederacy, twenty years of rebuilding, and the joining of another doesn’t scream everlasting love?

Finding Croatia – even in a wholly superficial, tourist-oriented way– proved more difficult than I imagined. The typical “easy” entrances to a foreign culture, food and history, are discolored by a somewhat forced pan-Europeanism complemented by the country’s confused set of conquerors and alliances throughout its existence. Based on its history (and the in-flight Croatia magazine provided by Croatia airlines), Croatia could easily be categorized as the most European country in Europe. Dubrovnik and its environs claim Greco-Roman heritage – Odysseus is said to have been shipwrecked on the island of Mlijet, and canals from the Roman era still flow in the Konavle region today. Later on, as the city became a maritime trade hub, the Republic of Ragusa (as Dubrovnik was then known) had close ties with Italy; Marco Polo was born on the island of Korcula. Napoleon took the city just before it became a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and all the European grandeur it signified.

On the ground, the situation is the same. When you sit down at a Croatian restaurant, you may as well be in Italy. Pasta, risotto, and stone-fired pizzas adorn the menu, complimented by simply-prepared local fish dishes, which, while mouth-wateringly fresh, do not offer insight into what is considered thoroughly Croatian cuisine or custom. You are waited on by an array of attractive but detached young people with perfect English. They are interested in giving you a pleasant European experience, not in discussing the efficacy of the Croatian government or the merits of EU membership. Croatian tourist attractions focus on the natural and historical beauty of your surroundings, without providing any detail of their origins. Guides acknowledge that this fort or that church was built by X, Y, or Z historical figure, but the way these landmarks figure into the recent history of Dubrovnik is glossed over in order to give preference to the popular pan-European myth of the Croatian Republic.

I spent the journey home contemplating what independence had brought for Croatia. The nation spent three bloody years defending itself and attempting to expand its territory, and yet Croatian national pride seemed to be nonexistent, replaced by shops with boardwalk-style souvenirs catering to cruise ship passengers and other uneducated, transient travelers searching for an item with “DUBROVNIK” emblazoned on it to prove that they set foot within the city. All visible remnants of communism had been erased, and an aspirational vision of Europe and Croatia’s place in it was all that remained. And yet, the one Croatian who would give me her views on her country’s impending EU membership was not so certain if these changes had been made for good. She asked, “Why should we subject ourselves to another Yugoslavia, another failing union?”

My Bulgarian Piano Teacher’s Eastern Identity

My mom thinks that my first piano teacher was picked for me because his name was Slavic. The administrative staff at my conservatory thought that we would have a natural rapport. Somehow, though we’d be speaking English, the fact that our families’ mother tongues were mutually intelligible would not only aid our own communication, but help me rise to the ranks of his favorite students. Obviously.

My memory of my first lesson is a little fuzzy, but I do remember the first exchange we had with my teacher. My mom and I walked into the dimly-lit, circuitous bowels of the conservatory where I studied and found my room. A scared-looking preteen scurried out as soon as the door opened, leaving my teacher, dressed entirely in black, with a scruffy head of similarly dark hair, framed by the door.

We all introduced ourselves and shook hands. Of course, after saying “nice to meet you,” the next sentence out of my mom’s mouth was “So, where are you from? We’re Polish.”

Dr. K (as his students called him, since his two-syllable name with an unfamiliar consonant cluster clearly required too much effort for the untrained American tongue) looked unimpressed, and told us he was from Bulgaria. Then my first lesson began.

Our inauspicious beginning wasn’t a fluke. Since I wasn’t the most committed student and Dr. K hadn’t lost his communist-style relationship to music and its performance, our efforts never really jived. After lessons, I would laugh with my mom about how he sometimes suddenly exclaimed “Heeere eet eez!” after my tenth repetition of a difficult passage. Or about how he needed to clip his nose hairs.

Given that I’ve ended up a total Slavophile, sometimes I wonder what went wrong with me and Dr. K. Less than 10 years after Bulgaria became an independent, seemingly-democratic country, was he offended to be continually lumped in with other post-Communist countries like Poland by uninformed but well-intentioned westerners like me and my mom? I would wager that he got asked by at least a few of our compatriots if he had seen Dracula, even though everyone’s favorite vampire is from Romania (and, needless to say, fictional). If I saw Dr. K today, what would he think about the interest I’ve developed in “his” region over the past 14 years? Would we speak Russian and Bulgarian and get along, or would I offend him by even suggesting such a thing?

Neither outcome is totally unlikely. Former bloc members still struggle to define their membership in their own continent, thanks to the labels the West constantly slaps on them. Hungarian author Peter Esterhazy aptly described the Eastern Europe’s 20th Century identity crisis:

“Once, I was an Eastern European; then I was promoted to the rank of Central European. Those were great times…there were European dreams, visions, and images of the future…Then a few months ago, I became a new European. But before I had a chance to get used to this status – before I could even refuse it – I became a non-core European.”*

Bulgaria is often referred to as one of the EU’s “problem children.” Experts say that it was admitted too early, that not enough reforms had been implemented before accession, that its economy drags the EU further into recession. By many accounts, it is because of Bulgaria and Romania that the EU is experiencing such strong enlargement fatigue. And it’s understandable, really. Any moderately wealthy, “old” European country must look at a chart of GDP per capita in the EU and cringe:

Bulgaria’s GDP as compared to other EU countries. Via Eurostat.

Sadly, Bulgaria’s problems are not contained to the economic sphere. In March, the country was engulfed in nationwide protests against monopolies of the energy sector.  In late April, the country was gripped by an illegal wiretap scandal that reeked of the work of communist-era security services. Today, the country faces widespread voter disillusionment as its parliamentary elections approach with no clear majority in sight. Though it may seem that a political plague has struck Bulgaria, it’s not alone; most post-communist countries have seen a major decline in voter turnout since independence. It’s one more thing we can use to label this part of Europe “Eastern.”

I think of Dr. K every time I pour myself a drink; our glasses are from IKEA and were made in Bulgaria. I wonder if Bulgaria’s 2007 EU accession has changed his defensiveness about his identity, or if, like his government and the rest post-communist Europe, he is struggling to define exactly what it means to be both European and Eastern.

*(Quoted in “Naming Europe with the East” by Pekka Korhonen, in The East and the Idea of Europe, eds. Katalin Miklossy and Korhonen (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), p. 20.)

What We Can Learn from Boston

It’s been over a week since the Boston Marathon Bombings and everyone- the Post-Soviet world especially- is up in arms and glued to the news. I had my own reasoning for refreshing Twitter obsessively; as a recreational runner, the tragedy shook me to my core. As a student of Russia and its many problematic relationships, the bombers’ connection to Chechnya certainly piqued my interest.

Like many others, I was ashamed at our nation’s collective ignorance of geography and world history, not to mention our complete lack of cultural sensitivity. “I can’t believe this is how Americans think,” I found myself repeating. But I quickly retreated from those feelings. After all, you can’t lambaste someone for stereotyping when you yourself engage in it.

It’s hard to stop myself, though, particularly since everyone’s doling out their fair share of stereotyping lately. Caucasus experts are parsing the media’s every work for hints of racism and an obvious (and forgivable) lack of in-depth knowledge. Human rights activists are searching for the one tiny proverbial needle of “typical cop behavior” in the haystack of bravery and service displayed by law enforcement agencies. Anti-government crazies of all types are uncovering conspiracy theories demonstrating — you guessed it — the American government’s stereotypical behavior. And the media machine feeds it all, spinning and speculating.

Rather than reeling from these fictitious hurts which distract from the very real damage inflicted during the attack- not to mention the other tragedies that have occurred in the interim, such as explosions in West, Texas, the use of chemical warfare in Syria, and daily IED explosions in the Middle East- I suggest that we use the tragedy to learn some fairly simple lessons. They’re not lessons on the governmental scale, but they are small changes we can each make to ensure our response to the next tragic event is more informed.

1. Make it our personal mission to be better informed about geography. I’m not expecting everyone to know the details of the Chechen conflict. But in the age of the internet, the least we can do is google “Chechnya” to find that it is not, in fact, the same as Czechoslovakia (which, by the way, has not existed since 1993). Pass this information on. Inform your fellow citizens. Don’t rely on the hastily-reported facts in the news.

2. Trust in the American justice system. The information age has made us so hungry for details as soon as they become uncovered that we have more information about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev now than we might have before a trial ten or even five years ago. Investigations such as this take time, even though the investigative methods available to us have advanced. There is no need to pressure law enforcement officials to release all relevant details to the press immediately. And there is certainly no need to listen to police scanners to the degree that the public was during the hunt for Tsarnaev; how easily might the information found on the scanner have been disseminated to Tsarnaev himself as he attempted to outrun police?

3. Don’t feed the media machine. While everyone is slamming the media for inaccurate and hasty reporting, all they are really doing is feeding a demand that we created. As I’ve already admitted, I am guilty of obsessively refreshing to feed my news needs as well, but this only encourages the very behavior we have loudly protested.

These small corrections to our own individual behavior might serve us in the long run; with a responsive, accountable, and careful news media and a smarter American public, perhaps in the future a time of national mourning won’t be forfeit for embarrassment on a global scale.