Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Who You Are and Where You Live

By Kelly Raftery

My post today is a follow up to Saturday's post in which I provide an overview of the independent countries of the former Soviet Union, to help readers make sense of the recent media reports regarding the bombings at the Boston Marathon. Specifically, the two suspects in that crime are ethnic Chechens who were partly raised in Kyrgyzstan, with one of them being born there. The media's reporting on their cultural heritage has been a mixed bag, and in many cases, erroneous.

One of the comments I received in response to that post was from one of my fellow bloggers:

“... even after reading your post, I’m still puzzled as far as why these kids would/did not identify more with Kyrgyz culture, even despite the complicated geo-political history in that region. They were born and raised there (at least one of them), presumably went to school there, learned the language, mingled with the locals, etc. And it wasn’t the brutality of the Kyrgyz that forced Chechens to relocate there but that of the Soviets, right? Seems like there are plenty of governments that wronged various countries (the British in India, for example) but now there is cross-immigration between the people of both cultures and the past is the past, the subsequent generations are less bothered by what came before. Why is it so different in Kyrgyzstan, do you think?”

I will preface this by saying I am not an expert nor would I claim to be about the Caucasus. That area is complex and full of nuances of which I am completely ignorant. I have traveled in the area, but never been anything more than a tourist. 

A Dagestani Man from Historic Photos
So instead I will respond to you about ethnicity and identity in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union, because I think that is really the essence of your questions above. You ask, “Why is it so different in Kyrgyzstan?”  It is not a situation limited to Kyrgyzstan; these dynamics play out throughout the former Soviet Union and are not exclusive to any one country or area.

One’s ethnic identity in the Soviet Union was (and is) a very concrete, non-malleable thing. Here in America, at some point, the immigrant children or grandchildren identify more closely with being “American” than to their heritage of origin. I am three generations removed from my immigrant roots and the degree to which I identify with the Irish-American community (for example) is my choice. Until my son took up dancing, my involvement with that community was limited to green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. 

Russian Girls
When I lived in Russia, people would identify me as American, and then when they heard my Russian language skills they would begin to probe where my family was from, because of course I had to have some sort of roots in the Russian speaking world, with such a facility for the language, such understanding of the culture and people. I told them that my father’s family was from Ireland and my mother’s family left Pinsk, Belorus, but both families had immigrated to America over 100 years previously. Most Russians would then say, “Ah ha! We knew you had roots here!” and be satisfied.

What I did not say was that my mother’s grandparents were fleeing the Pogroms (and other anti-Semitic policies) against Jews. Why did I not say that?  Because I knew that self-identifying as Jewish in Russia would then create a local identity for me that came with its own baggage, one that I did not want to carry, apply a stereotype I resisted and would transform me from being “an American” to being “a Jew.” I have it very easy; after all, I am an American who can conveniently hide behind a very Irish name.
Kyrgyz Family

But the people who were born and raised in the Soviet Union cannot pick and choose how to self-identify. Their ethnicity (and, by the way, there Jewish is an ethnicity, not a religious choice) is stamped in their passports, can be heard in their names and seen on their faces. The moment I heard the names of the bombers, saw their faces, I understood that they were from the Caucasus region, as did every single person from the former Soviet Union. And, every single person from this area has a set of ideas and stereotypes about Chechens and Dagestanis (the accused bombers' mother is Dagestani ethnically, and the parents are currently living in Dagestan, a small area of Russia that borders Chechnya) that were then applied to these two young men, based on their ethnicity.

A friend of mine once told me that despite the fact that she is half Russian on her mother’s side and her passport reads “Russian” as ethnicity, her name reflected her non-Russian heritage and identified her as a minority ethnicity, because Russian names are formed thusly; first name, patronymic (derived from one’s father’s first name), last name. So, as an example, a typical Russian name would be Oleg Vasilievich Ivanov. This person’s sister’s name might be Anna Vasilievna Ivanova. Those middle names mean that their father’s name is/was Vasili. A formal name in the Soviet Union included these three names; this was and is one’s legal name. If one is introduced for the first time in a formal setting, one's full name would be used, including the patryonimic.
Central Asian Jews

Say that one’s mother is Russian, and one’s father is not–-not only would your last name remain identifiably not Russian, but your middle name would also show that your father was not Russian as well. And, being of a non-Russian ethnicity in Russia, you would be subject to teasing, harassment and pressure to assimilate (particularly for those who are half Russian), leaving behind all vestiges of your “non-Russianness” behind. In short, other ethnicities had to be more Russian than the ethnic Russians themselves. And, that assumes that you could pull off “looking Russian” in the first place.

The ethnicities of the former Soviet Union are extremely diverse–-the Russians, Belorusians, Ukrainians, and others are caucasians with European features. Others, primarily from the Caucasus region are typically dark haired, dark eyed and more similar to Italians or Greeks. Central Asians look Asian with their dark hair, darker skin, and eye folds, though perhaps not as Asian as what we Americans typically think of as Chinese or Japanese. I included some photos of the various ethnicities in this post. More historic photos of various ethnic groups of the Russian Empire taken before the turn of the last century can be found in the Prokudin-Gorski Collection at the Library of Congress. In the former Soviet space, you are immediately identifiable when someone looks at you or your passport, or even by the sounds of your name or your accent. Stereotypes and ideas about each of these ethnicities are part of the collective consciousness and how people order the world they live in.  These are not just Russian stereotypes but more or less universal stereotypes about the peoples of the former Soviet Union.  Kyrgyz or Uzbeks or Georgians have set ideas about Tajiks, Turkmens or Armenians as well as Russians, Ukrainians, et al. 
Russian Settlers to the Caucasus

For these reasons, asking a Kyrgyz why the Chechens in Kyrgyzstan did not and do not identify with Kyrgyz culture is an absurd notion. My husband’s response is, “Of course Chechens (or Russians or Volga Germans) in Kyrgyzstan don’t identify with Kyrgyz culture--they are not Kyrgyz.”  Nor would a Kyrgyz in Russia identify with Russian culture, despite the fact that he might be a citizen of the Russian Federation. As I noted in my last post, I used to ask all non-Kyrgyz I met in Bishkek a question:  “Who sent you here, the Tsars or the Soviets?”  I knew who to ask because I could tell who was ethnically Kyrgyz and who was not. I had a friend in Bishkek named Oleg whose family had been exiled to Kyrgyzstan under the Tsars more than a hundred years ago. Were I to ask him if he was Kyrgyz, or identified with Kyrgyz culture, he would laugh, look at me and say something along the lines of, “Look at me, can't you see? I am Russian, not Kyrgyz.”  I never knew a non-ethnic Kyrgyz person who actually spoke the Kyrgyz language, or identified with the Kyrgyz culture no matter how long his family had been there. Kyrgyz have expressed appreciation to me for my very elementary Kyrgyz language skills because “Russians never bothered.”   

The Emir of Bukhara - identified as Uzbek
Keep in mind, too, that the dominant culture of the Soviet Union was "Soviet culture," not local or ethnic culture, with a heavy influence of Russia thrown in. So, the culture that the parents of these young men in Boston were born into and brought up under (at least until 1991) was Soviet culture, their grandparents were Soviets, but also Chechens. Then, all of a sudden, there was no Soviet Union, Soviet culture and history was rejected as false. Their family looked (as did all the peoples of the Soviet Union) to their ethnic roots, their heritage. So, they went back to their ancestral homeland of Chechnya, and war brought violence and bloodshed. To escape those horrors, they returned to safer and more stable Kyrgyzstan for a while, where a new and equally foreign Kyrgyz culture was starting to reassert itself, before finally going to Dagestan for a short while then on to America.

I don’t know whether these young men identified themselves as American, Chechen, Dagestani, or “from Kyrgyzstan.” (Though I am sure that they would not identify themselves as Kyrgyz, as has been reported by the media.) I am not sure these boys themselves knew with whom to identify or whether they felt like they belonged anywhere.

And maybe that is the root of the issue–-that entirely human desire to want to belong to something, to someone, to a group, to a people, to a place and how elusive that sense of belonging seemed to these young men.


  1. I want to add a comment, one of the peculiarities in USSR was that "mother" tongues was defined not as the language one spoke at home but solely based on the ethnicity in birth certificate. It was presumed that anyone born Russian, Kyrgyz, Chechen knows their respective ethnic languages by default.

    Obviously that is quite different from Western definition where mother tongue is not really connected to ethnicity and is simply defined as primary language the family speaks at home.

    This is just to show how ethnicity was a dominating concept in USSR, internal documents (such as passports, birth certs, etc) always had a line where ethnicity was defined, it was mandatory.

    Furthermore unlike US where absolute majority of newcomers are willing immigrants in USSR movement of people was forced under the gun. It certainly would explain very different attitude toward adopting local culture.

    1. I agree completely with your comments. I also drew the mental distinction between the US and USSR - ancestors (for the most part) had to make a conscious and positive choice to come, whereas so many in the USSR were forcibly relocated, I opted for a less nuanced version of things for the purposes of this post. I think that many African-Americans would point out that their ancestors did not make a choice to come here...

    2. Ethnicity and Identity in this area of the world is such a multi-layered complex topic and every people has their own story to tell. It was not just the Chechens who suffered under Stalin, but all the peoples of the former Soviet Union - including Russians.

      The paradigm my father-in-law (being Kyrgyz) identifies with is that of the Native Americans during Westward Expansion - to him, their story very much resembles the story of the Kyrgyz.

      What is above was a very short and necessarily incomplete and not terribly detailed attempt at trying to explain to Americans with limited understanding of this area of the world how things work differently there.

      Thanks for dropping by!


    3. Probably one of the reasons why African-American subculture defines somewhat pejorative term like "acting white" provides indication that on some level they do not want to assimilate or accept the culture where they were forcibly planted to even after dozen or so generations in US. I think Jesse Jackson accused President Obama of "acting white".

      As far as Kyrgyz identifying with Native Americans, probably due to fact that Russian assimilation was quite coercive at times though there is significant difference: at least today (not sure how it was in 18th century) American identity is not ethnically defined, it's an idea based identity, just count how much is emphasis on freedom/liberty/etc used in speeches/texts as the recipe to fix this world.

      USSR's identity revolved around another universal idea: equality (private property was banned due to inequality it promoted for example), again attempting to fix this world by forcibly banishing "inequality".

      Islam these days seems to have wide appeal on idea of "justice", again just reading the texts/rants/forums shows that there is a lot of focus on fixing the wrongs by reversing "injustices". For what it's worth if I have to guess why Tsarnaev's did what they did probably because they believed they are restoring "justice".

    4. Thanks you for your thoughtful feedback. You raise some excellent points regarding all the issues associated with identity, how politics, circumstances, etc. have both tied together as well as splintered all these regional ethnicities in the former Soviet Union. I'm sure we could both write a thesis on this topic!

      As to the identity issues you mention regarding other cultures and the motives and means of individuals in pursuing justice, I really can't speak to those topics. I don't have enough knowledge to expound on them, but my general feeling is that these are equally complex topics that aren't as obvious as they may seem on the surface. We really have to look below the surface to understand the complexities of how people think and act as they do.

  2. Simply fascinating! Thanks for answering all my questions. When do I get to send you the next dozen (or two)?

    1. Anytime, Supriya, anytime. Thanks for making me think about how best to frame the question for Americans, thanks for making me take a step back out of my own frame of reference so that I can more effectively communicate to others.

    2. Forgot to mention, your photos really underscore what you're describing. What incredible diversity!

    3. I love all those photos from that exhibit - they show the Russian Empire towards the end of its existence and it is fascinating to see the towns, cities and activities of every day...they make the past touchable!


  3. Really, really interesting Kelly. Thanks for posting this. I'll be sure to share it.

  4. Beth,

    Thanks! Hopefully it helps to understand this area of the world a bit better!


  5. One more thought: for two young men the macho Chechen mystique might have a powerful appeal. These people have been fighting Russian suppression at least since the early 19C. They are the underdog but proud, beaten but not bowed...with a noble Georgian quality, but more fearsome. To some degree the Chechen alliance with the jihadi movement stems from the *brutal* Soviet/Russian occupation of the 1990s.

  6. Diana,

    Thanks for reading the post and leaving a comment. You are absolutely right that the Chechens have been fighting with the Russians since the early 19th Century when the area was annexed as part of the Russian Empire.

    However, I believe there is some debate concerning the connection between the Chechen insurgency and any international terror organizations - the U.S. and Russia actually firmly disagree on this point and have for many years now. Likewise, I believe that the Russians would disagree with your use of the term "occupation" in this context, as Chechnya was and remains part of the Russian Federation. I believe that they see this as keeping their country in one piece. There are many sides and perspectives to every conflict and Russia and Chechnya is not any different.

    In my extremely humble opinion, each culture has its good points and bad ones and every single ethnicity (including Russians) suffered indignities, violence, coercion and horrors under both Tsars and Soviets. No one people or culture in this area of the world has a monopoly on having been wronged. Each ethnicity had people who committed atrocities and those who did not. It is the individual stories that I find most compelling, the strand of a single life lived in dramatic times, under difficult circumstances.

    Thanks again for commenting!


  7. Next set of questions for you, Kelly (so great to have an in-house expert to pump for info): 1) are the two new suspects, identified as Kazakhs, ethnic Chechens? 2) if not, do you think those lines of Russian ethnicities (or at least the enmities) blur once Russians leave Russia?

  8. OK, Supriya, here are your answers.

    First off, they are not "Russian ethnicities" that is like saying that Italians are "Greek Ethnicities." The Chechens, Kazakhs and over a hundred different ethnicities all were part of the Soviet Union at one point and are all, therefore, Russian speaking, but not Russian or "Russians."

    The two young men who were arrested this week on charges of visa violation and obstruction of justice and lying to federal authorities are, in fact, ethnic Kazakhs. They are not suspected of having known anything about the bombing, but having covered it up when they thought their friend was in trouble.

    No, the lines do not particularly "blur" once leaving Russia, but I think that there is more cross-pollination once in the U.S., at least in some cases. For instance, the folks in Denver who run our local "Russian" store are Jews from Bukhara...as a general rule, were they in Uzbekistan, they would not consider my husband one of "theirs." That said, when my son runs around the store displaying his rather distinctive Central Asian vocabulary, they were shocked...and have considered us one of "theirs" ever since.

    I think perhaps more interesting question to pose here is a generational one - these kids all grew up in the time after the Soviet Union collapsed and these young men only ever knew an independent Kazakhstan, which happens to share a language with these young men who were Chechens...and whose homeland is part of Russia today. I think it is interesting to see how these young mens' concepts of nationality and ethnicity differ from that of their parents.