Imagining Russia: ethnic identity and the nationalist mind


The "us-them" dichotomy is particularly important for Russians with a strong ethnocentric or ethnonationalist orientation. For these people Russians are customarily evaluated as being very good or special, so good in fact that it is difficult to imagine them being bad, as in this little joke on anti-Semites:
"Let's go beat up some Jews!"
"But what if they beat us?"
"Why would they do a thing like that?"
On the other hand, non-Russians (for example, Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Georgians, Americans, and Westerners generally) may be regarded with caution, fear, ambivalence, or outright hostility. This is in line with the observed tendency for individuals who place high value on their own ethnic group to be prejudiced against another group.
Even when ethnocentric Russians attribute certain bad qualities to themselves as an ethnic group, they are inclined to overlook these qualities and favor their own over the alien group. This phenomenon is part of what Vladimir Soloviev - writing toward the end of the nineteenth century - meant by "national egoism." As anti-Semite Vasilii Rozanov wrote in 1913: "Maybe our people is bad, but it is ours, our own, and that decides everything [Mozhet byt', narod nash i plokh, no on - nash, nash narod, i eto reshaet vse]." As I observed above, it is difficult to hate one's own teddy bear. But it is easy to hate someone else's.
And even when ethnocentric Russians deny that they hate others, we should be suspicious. Ivan Aksakov, in one of his many polemics on "the Polish question," declares: "We do not feel the slightest hatred toward Poles." But earlier in the same piece Aksakov writes: ". . . it is impossible . . . to deal with the Poles, this unhappy, conceited, arrogant, frivolous tribe which in addition is permeated with Catholic-Jesuitical morals." Such was the standard attitude, by the way, of the so-called Slavophiles toward their non-Orthodox fellow-Slavs.
Hostility toward non-Russians can take many forms. Consider, for example, some of the derogatory ethnonyms which are available to the native speaker of Russian:
armiashka, ashotik - Armenian.
chernozhopyi - generic for Transcaucasian, Central Asian (literally "black-assed").
khokhol - Ukrainian.
kosoglazyi, - generic Asian (cf. English "slant eye").
chuchmek - generic Asian.
zhid, zhidovskaia morda - Jew (cf. English "Yid" or "Kike," "Yid Face").
amerikashka - American.
kitaeza - Chinese.
These terms are all offensive, evoking an emotional - not merely cognitive - response in speakers of Russian who are acquainted with them. They constitute the central building blocks of what in an American context would be called "hate speech." It is difficult for the native speaker of Russian to utter one of these terms (as opposed to a neutral equivalent) without actually feeling some hostility. Correspondingly, it is difficult for one who is addressed with such a term not to feel offended (unless possibly the speaker is a member of one's own ethnic group). Some of the terms listed are known to all native speakers of Russian, others are less widespread. For example, Zhid is very common and has given rise to a host of related words and expressions, probably because there has been so much anti-Semitism in Russia over so long a period of time. Indeed the term is such a common expression of hatred that it has been generalized in some contexts to refer to any bad person. Recently Duma deputy Albert Makashov declared: "Zhid means blood sucker, bad person, and I want to repeat that all those who have run down the country and are robbing it are zhidy in the full sense of the word. Gorbachev is also a zhid to me." Makashov did not explain, however, why he utilized a specifically ethnic term rather than some other term (of which there are plenty in Russian) to designate a "bad person." In other words, either Makashov was pretending not to be an anti-Semite, or he was unconscious of his anti-Semitism.
There are many other possibilities for expressing ethnic hostility in the Russian context. Besides hurling ethnic epithets, one may: physically attack members of another ethnic group (this would include both isolated acts of violence as well as organized military actions); discriminate against members of another ethnic group in the workplace, in schools, and in the government.; limit their movements or circumscribe their place of residence; participate in public demonstrations against them; publish propaganda against them; make jokes about them; develop a philosophical world-view (such as Slavophilism in its mature, late nineteenth-century stage) which places a negative value on what is non-Russian. These are heterogeneous phenomena, of course. But an element of hatred of or hostility toward the outside element ("chuzhoe") is common to them all. In ethnic warfare the hostility is obvious, and death is often the result. In ethnic joking, on the other hand, the hostility is subtle and relatively mild. If in ethnic warfare the goal is to exterminate the enemy, in ethnic joking the task is safely to delineate the enemy from the self. Telling ethnic jokes, as Vamik Volkan observes, helps to maintain group identity.
To illustrate these somewhat abstract possibilities, let us consider the prime example of of anti-Semitism, which has been manifested in multifarious ways as long as Russia has existed, but which has been most prominent since the incorporation into the Russian Empire of western territories with a large Jewish population late in the eighteenth century. From about that time most of Russia's Jews were restricted to living in a circumscribed area termed the "Pale of Settlement" ("cherta osedlosti evreev"). Many Jews managed to leave the Pale and migrate to other parts of the empire, but they were subjected to periodic expulsions from forbidden areas, and it was not until the fall of the tsarist government in 1917 that this form of apartheid was fully eliminated. Meantime, Jews were subjected to quotas in admission to various public institutions, they were barred from the civil service and the officer corps, they were in danger of having their property vandalized or destroyed, and of being beaten and killed in what were called pogroms. In the press they were villified as economic exploiters of ethnic Russians and sometimes even as a threat to Russian racial purity. All of this was in addition to the ordinary, everyday anti-Semitism of Russian life - insults, ethnic slurs, occasional physical assaults.
Later, during the Soviet period, everyday anti-Semitism remained alive and well in Russia. Beyond that, the horrendous pogroms of 1918-1921 took a minimum of 50,000 lives (although most of the perpetrators in this case were probably Ukrainian, not Russian). Jews were also victimized by Stalin's anti-Semitic machinations, including the arrest of members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee as well as the arrest of alleged perpetrators of a "Doctors' Plot" against Soviet leaders. Soviet Jews would have been deported en masse to the east if Stalin had not died in 1953. The campaigns against "cosmopolitanism" and "Zionism" were essentially a government-sanctioned form of anti-Semitism. The reality of the Holocaust - including the fact that Russians, Ukrainians, and other Soviet citizens aided the German invaders in exterminating Jews - was played down or even falsified by Soviet historians.
In the post-Soviet period Jews continue to be endangered in Russia. Traces of anti-Semitism may be detected even in the relatively liberal government of Boris Eltsin, as well as in the Russian Orthodox Church and in the prestigious Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Russian Duma deputy Albert Makashov has made openly anti-Semitic public statements in violation of the law against inciting racial/national hatred, and the Communist dominated Duma has failed to censure him. Organizations with explicitly anti-Semitic agenda exist (or until recently existed), such as Pamyat ("Memory"), Patriot, Edinstvo ("Unity"), the Russian Party ("Russkaia Partiia"), Russian National Unity or the Barkashovites ("Russkoe Natsional'noe Edinstvo"), National Salvation Front, Russian National Union, Black Hundred, National Bolshevik Party, the neo-paganist Union of Venedians (Soiuz venedov), and others. Anti-Semitic publications have been reissued, such as V. N. Gladkii's 1921 book titled Yids (Zhidy), as well as the notorious Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, an early twentieth-century forgery alleging a conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons against Christian civilization (Adolf Hitler borrowed ideas from this work in writing his Mein Kampf; today the work is reverently and repeatedly cited in various Russian nationalist publications). Another forgery, the anonymous Catechism of the Jew in the USSR (Katekhizis evreeia v SSSR), which purports to expose the intentions of Soviet Jews to take over power in Russia, to control the media, and to weaken the Russian ethnos by fostering mixed marriages of Jews and Russians, has been widely distributed and has been the subject of a court case. About three hundred right-wing periodicals in the post-Soviet period have been spewing out hateful articles against the Jews, calling for deportation of Jews from Russia, denying the Holocaust, accusing nonexistent Jewish groups of planning military actions against Russian patriots, etc. Recent surveys indicate that about a tenth of the Russian population harbors feelings of fear and hostility toward Jews.
Unlike the late tsarist period, the post-Soviet period has not (yet) featured actual pogroms against the Jews. But synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized. Anti-Semitic graffiti are widespread (e.g., "Beat the Yids, Save Russia!"). Crude threats against Jews (or people suspected of being Jewish) are being made, such as the following handwritten sheet:
Yid-Masonic whore! It won't help you to hide under an ancient Russian name. Beat it off to your foreign sponsors, or you will only have yourself to blame. We are not joking. God is with us. Russian Patriots.
Such a document reveals various clinical aspects of anti-Semitism in Russia today, such as: paranoia (the addressee supposedly hides under a Russian name, and is supposedly supported financially by "foreign sponsors"); grandiosity ("God is with us" - an old tsarist slogan); and misogyny ("whore!" - which translates the much stronger Russian "bliad'!").
These vituperations are rather primitive by comparison with the anti-Semitism expressed by some members of the so-called intelligentsia in various periods of Russian history. For example, as early as the middle of the nineteenth century Slavophile journalist Ivan Aksakov was expressing an obsessive hostility toward Jews as a category, e.g., "A believing Jew continues in his consciousness to crucify Christ. . . . " Around the turn of the century Jews were being accused of promoting white slavery (international prostitution trade) and of killing Christian children to obtain blood for ritual purposes (e.g., the Beilis affair). Right-wing publications asserted that giving equal rights to Jews would lead to the enslavement of ethnic Russians within their own country (e.g., a 1907 anti-Semitic harrangue titled Jewish Equal Rights or Russian Enslavement?). Paranoid interpretations of catastrophic events tended to focus on the Jews. For example, A. Selianinov blamed the Jews for the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese war. Vasilii Shul'gin cited the Bolshevik coup to justify his admitted anti-Semitism.
A particularly complex case was writer and philosopher Vasilii Rozanov, whose attitude toward the Jews vacillated between admiration and hatred. Sometimes his anti-Semitism would be mixed in interesting ways with misogyny. For example, in a 1915 collection of aphorisms he recruited traditional Russian misogyny into the service of his anti-Semitism:
They beat Yids because they are just women [baby - an abusive term] - like the way Russian muzhiks beat their women. The Yids are not male but female [ne oni, a one]. Their robes are women's old dressing gowns. The clenched fist all by itself heads for such a person.
What Rozanov means, of course, is that his own clenched fist heads for such a person. He is describing his own hatred. This hatred is based on a paranoid fear that (among other things) he (or Russians generally) will be taken advantage of by the Jews:
The "services" rendered by Jews are like nails in my hands, and Jewish "tenderness" is like a flame scorching me.
For, in making use of these services, my people will perish, and, fanned with this tenderness, my people will suffocate and disappear.
The image of nails in the hands is of course an allusion to the Jews as "Christ-killers." Here Rozanov relies on traditional anti-Semitic paranoia. As Emanuel Glouberman observes, "the Jew . . . represents to Rozanov the classical paranoid 'they'."
Novelist Fedor Dostoevsky resorted to denial as one way to deal with his well-known anti-Semitism. In his 1877 essay on "The Jewish Question" in Diary of a Writer he declares that "in my heart this hatred has never existed." Yet then he asks:
Is it because I sometimes call a Jew a "Yid" [nazyvaiu inogda evreia "zhidom"] that I am accused of "hatred"? But, in the first place, I didn't think this was so offensive, and in the second place, as far as I can recall, I always used the word "Yid" in reference to a certain idea: "Yid," "Yidism," "the reign of the Yids," and so on. This was a reference to the well-known notion, orientation, or characteristic of the times. One can dispute this idea, or disagree with it, but one shouldn't be offended by a word.
As various scholars have shown, Dostoevsky knew perfectly well that "Yid" ("zhid") was offensive, and that he meant to offend in using the term. In his private correspondence, for example, he used the term in an openly contemptuous way. It is not as if Dostoevsky were operating in a semantic vacuum. He knew about the anti-Semitism around him ("well-known notion"). Even here he says that he doesn't think the term is so offensive ("tak obidno") - which is to say that he admits it is at least somewhat offensive.
A curious case of repeated denial is offered by the nationalist periodical Velikoross, which printed a statement by one V. Krivorotov six (6) times between the beginning of 1997 and May of 1998: "We are not anti-Semites, we are Russian people guarding our national and state interests" - this in a journal that features caricatures of people wearing the star of David, references to Jews as "Yids" ("zhidovnia," "zhidy"), attacks on "Zionofascists," and other odious references to Jews.
Perhaps the most gentle form of anti-Semitism is the joke ("anekdot") which features a Jew as the target. According to the anti-Semitic stereotype perpetrated by this genre, for example, Jews are supposed to be very clever, greedy, and concerned with money:
Once an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Chinese, and a Jew were dining at the same table in a restaurant. Soup was served, but there was a fly in each bowl. The Englishman, red with anger, got up from the table without a word and walked out. The Frenchman called the waiter, started yelling at him, and furiously threw his bowl of soup onto the floor. The Chinese was overjoyed: "Ah, a fly!" - and proceeded to eat it as if it were a delicacy. The Jew, seeing this, calmly removed the fly from his bowl and sold it to the Chinese.
Even Jews will sometimes laugh at such jokes - which is why anti-Semitic joking may be regarded as a relatively mild form of anti-Semitism. But whether it is a Jew or a Gentile who laughs, there is still some small amount of hostility being expressed toward Jews as an ethnic group. The Jew in these jokes may be "canny" (to use the term introduced by Christie Davies for jokes about excluded enterprisers). But there is something dangerous or bad about this canniness to the dominant ethnic group, in this case to ethnic Russians.
Ethnic jokes are a marvelously nuanced indicator of ethnic psychodynamics. Russians have been very resourceful in inventing jokes on various themes - sexual, political, ethnic, etc. - especially during the Soviet period. By means of jokes Russians have been able to express themselves on otherwise forbidden topics. In particular they have been given an opportunity to express aggressive or hostile feelings which ordinarily have had to remain repressed. As Freud argued in his 1905 essay Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, the laughter in a hostile witticism represents the quota of energy previously required to repress hostile affect. Laughter is, among other things, a form of aggression. The specifically ethnic joke is a ritualized metaphor of aggression against an ethnic group. It offers an opportunity for both teller and listener to vent hostility in the form of laughter at a stereotype of an ethnic group (whether laughter actually occurs is another matter, and whether the stereotype reflects reality is yet another issue).
For example, to an ethnocentric Russian, Ukrainians are not supposed to be very bright:
A Russian and a khokhol [derogatory for Ukrainian] go on a reconnaissance mission. As they crawl, they touch some barbed wire, and the enemy's sentry shouts:
"Halt! Who's there?"
The Russian says: "Meow!" and the sentry calms down.
In a few hours, the scouts crawl back and again touch the barbed wire.
"Halt, who's there?"
The khokhol responds: "It's just us, cats, we're crawling back!"
Another thing some Russians find hilarious about Ukrainians is their supposed preoccupation with salt pork ("salo"):
A khokhol's house is on fire. He rushes there and passes boxes of salt pork to his wife.
She: "What are you doing! Our children are in there!"
He: "If we have salt pork, we'll have more children."
From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, The Ukrainian man in this joke is so obsessed with a specific form of oral gratification that even the lives of his children are less important.
The Russian who laughs at these little tales is expressing hostility toward Ukrainians as an ethnic group. A Ukrainian hearing the tales from a Russian would be justifiably offended. Generally speaking, to tell a joke about an alien ethnic group is to express hostility toward that group. To hear such a joke about one's own ethnic group told by someone from another group is to be offended. The ethnic dichotomy of "own" versus "alien," or "us" versus "them" is crucial to the understanding of ethnic jokes.
Before exploring the psychology of Russians who are obsessed with this ethnic dichotomy, I want to remind the reader that there are other aspects of it - such as social, political, economic, religious, and historical - in addition to the psychological aspect. What I am offering here is an application of a certain kind of psychoanalytic theory to nationalism and ethnic hatred among ethnic Russians. This theory should in no way detract from other theories, e.g., the psychoanalytic idea that anti-Ukrainian jokes about salt pork might have something to do with the joker's own oral preoccupation does not exclude the socioeconomic notion that such jokes deal with the real danger of food shortages in Russian cities during the early 1990s, as well as with the traditional Russian image of Ukraine as the "granary of the [former] Soviet Union." Also, the targets of ethnic hostility cannot be specified within an exclusively psychoanalytic framework: in another sociocultural context, say, late twentieth-century California, Dostoevsky might have hated Blacks and Hispanics along with Jews.
However, non-psychological factors should not be exaggerated, either. For example, the idea that anti-Semitism is intrinsic to Christianity will not do. There are Christians - including Russian Orthodox Christians - who are not anti-Semitic. Merely being Christian is not enough to make one an anti-Semite. One has to be psychologically prepared to hate the ethnic other - not only historically, or culturally, or religiously - prepared. Indeed, hatred is itself an emotion, a psychological phenomenon. Also, one may observe anti-Semitism in others besides Christians, e.g., in many Muslims today in the Middle East, or among today's Russian neo-Pagans. There are instances of anti-Semitism in the Old Testament, e.g., the Egyptian experience. As for those many Russian atheists who hated Jews during the Soviet period, the Judaeo-Christian connection was irrelevant except as a historical accident offering a default target for ethnic hatred.
On the other hand, the close association of Russian nationalism with Orthodox Christianity has always made anti-Semitism the most likely or the most generic form of ethnic hatred among ethnic Russians when there has been ethnic hatred. In fact, most Orthodox Russians in most contexts give little thought to the Jews. But Russian nationalists give them much thought. For the Orthodox nationalist, Jews are not just any old candidate for hatred along with such others in the "alien" class as Georgians, Chechens, Poles, Germans, Armenians, Uzbeks, Americans, etc. Rather, the Jews - or Judaism - constitute the source from which Christianity - and eventually Orthodox Christianity - was born. Judaism came first, and Christianity was derivative. The Jews, moreover, had the audacity to reject that Christ whom Orthodox Russians believe in. The Russian who identifies with Christ and with Christian teaching, and who sees Christianity as the natural culmination and crowning achievement of Judaism - may take the Jews' rejection of Christ personally, e. g. Slavophile Ivan Aksakov: "The Jew is an anachronism, an anachronism who has not made peace with his lot and who claims contemporary significance." For Aksakov, there is only one solution for this "anachronism": "If the Jews recanted their religious beliefs and acknowledged in Christ the true Messiah, no Jewish problem would exist." Read: if Jews just became Christians, Aksakov's personal "Jewish problem" would not exist.
Russians have thus always been somewhat more prepared to hate Jews than to hate other nationalities. This is not to deny that they have hated other nationalities with great intensity too in certain situations, e.g., Chechens during the recent conflicts in Chechnya (see statistics above). But anti-Chechen prejudice is something different. While the cliché "traditional Russian anti-Semitism" is to some extent justified, an expression such as "traditional Russian anti-Chechenism" would sound bizarre and would not be justified on either historical or psychological grounds. Similarly, there is a strong tendency for nationalists to link the "Russian question" to the "Jewish question," but one would never find the "Russian question" linked to the "Chechen question."
In addition, ethnocentric Russians seem inclined to hate the Jews more intensely than other ethnic minorities in Russia. For example, Don Rawson observes that the early twentieth-century Russian Monarchist Party ". . . made its disdain of the Jews and its milder discrimination against other non-Russian minorities an integral part of the political struggle." Nationalist Russians have also found more reasons (mostly projective) for hating the Jews than for hating any other religious or ethnic group, as we will see. The nationalist press today - for example the newspaper Zavtra - devotes disproportionately large attention to the Jews. Nor should we forget that there are more derogatory terms and expressions in the Russian language relating to the Jews than there are such terms and expressions relating to other nationalities. Overall, then, the Jews have functioned as the primary enemy or default target for Russian nationalists, at least since the time of the incorporation of Jews within the expanding empire in the late eighteenth century.
It should also be noted that the tendency of some Russians obsessively to divide the world into Russians and non-Russians (for example, Jews) does fit in with a larger cultural phenomenon, i.e., the overall binary opposition between "us" and "them," "ours" and "theirs," or "own" and "alien" ("my" vs. "oni," "svoi" or "rodnoi" vs. "chuzhoi," "nash" vs. "ne-nash") in traditional East Slavic societies. For centuries this dichotomy has existed in many social spheres, not just the ethnic. It has been studied in some depth by folklorists, philologists, historians, and others.
For example, from the viewpoint of a nineteenth-century Russian peasant living in a narrowly circumscribed village world, the "we" included fellow-villagers, plus God, the saints, and the tsar, for these authority figures were imagined to be protectors of the peasants. Someone from the next village on the other hand, or from another region, or another country, was typically regarded with suspicion and treated as "alien" or "unclean." The dichotomy also applied in non-geographical contexts. In Russian bridal laments, for example, the groom and his relatives were often depicted as vicious, "alien" creatures who harmed or exploited the bride. Whereas the bride's "own" mother had coddled her all her life, the "alien" mother (i.e., the mother-in-law) in the home the bride moved into upon marrying would force her to do the heavy housework and otherwise mistreat her. Various demons of the household and environs also belonged to the "alien" or "non-human" realm, such as the bathhouse devil ("bannik"), water demon ("vodianoi"), and wood goblin ("leshii"). Indeed one tabooed term for the devil generally among the peasantry was "ne-nash" ("not ours"). A woman in labor, her newborn child, and the peasant midwife were all temporary occupants of the "alien" world. A person who died, especially one who died an unnatural death, entered the "alien" realm and was believed capable of harming living persons. Some living people who were merely peculiar - for example, very short of stature, abnormally hairy, hunchbacked, cross-eyed, unsociable, unkempt, or toothless - were believed to occupy the "alien" or demonic realm.
Among Slavophile philosophers of the nineteenth century the opposition between "us" (Russians, Slavs) and "them" (the West) was very important. The "own"/"alien" opposition was still alive and well in the ideological discourse of the Soviet period, with "bourgeois" and "capitalist" societies occupying the "alien" realm, while the countries of "developed socialism" were "our own." Individuals suspected of cooperating with foreign (Western) governments entered the "alien" category, becoming "spies," "wreckers," "enemies of the people," and so on. In the post-Soviet period the "own"/"alien" opposition persists, especially among those who participate in extremist political groups. There is even one right-wing group named "Our Own" ("Nashi"). Today many Russians who feel threatened by homosexuality and the associated AIDS phenomenon defensively label them "alien" (cf. the slang term "SPIDonosets," i.e., "AIDS-carrier" to refer to a Westerner). The "own"/"alien" opposition also persists to this day at various levels within the Russian language itself, e.g., certain bureaucratic expressions are not likely to be used when speaking with one's "own" people unless they are intended ironically.
Generally speaking, the "own"/"alien" opposition offered - and to some extent does still offer - a convenient, ready-made cultural-semantic receptacle into which the child growing up in Russia may externalize or deposit internal conflicts. The opposition is a cultural code which helps give the Russian's internal conflicts and anxieties a safe, external feel. And among those many facets of external reality which may be utilized to deal with internal conflict in this way are the ethnic and national differences.

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