Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Essential Enemy

I recently came across an interesting and discursive study of anti-Chechen feeling in Russia by the political scientist Emil Souleimanov, who is based in Prague. Souleimanov's essay considers the role played by Chechens and other Caucasian peoples in Russian national life, a role that he sees as being compounded of two intertwined elements: on the one hand, the government's need for an "enemy" to divert attention from the harshness of everyday existence and the possible reasons for it - after all, some 60 per cent of Russia's citizens live below the poverty line - and on the other, a fear of the unknown, of the culturally different:
Stirring up anti-Chechen feelings in Russia has been evident - by several respites and various levels of intensity - already since the early 1990s and it was conditioned mostly by domestic motives.

Obviously the picture of an enemy cannot be created from nothing. It has to be somehow rooted and linked to negative associations within the society. In this respect the already formed anti-Chechen (and, in a broader sense, anti-Caucasian) feelings arise from the controversial relationships between Russians and the Caucasian people in their daily life.

While bias against the Caucasus and its people during the Soviet era was rather of a positive character, since the end of the 1970s and especially from the 1980s, a vigilant and distrustful attitude has become dominant. The romanticized picture of a dangerous yet freedom-loving mountain dweller untouched by civilization, which 19th century Russian literature created, was replaced in the 1950´s and 60´s by a picture of the “younger brother,” a sometimes naughty yet charming and vivacious Southerner; “a hero-lover” at Caucasian summer resorts who was both indulged and patronized.

The economically motivated migration of Caucasians to Russian cities intensified in the 1980´s. The fact that they came to a foreign (Russian) and unknown environment (city) where they were usually not warmly welcomed, made the newcomers realize that inevitably they had to rely on themselves, especially in achieving and maintaining their “place in the sun” when competing with local groups.

Thus their clannish and ethnic solidarity became even stronger and soon criminal networks based on ethnic or combined ethnic-clan principles sprang up among some of the youth Caucasian people. Crime and business activities, however, were obviously not the basic conditions for building and strengthening the antipathy of the Russian citizens. Sometimes these were determined by cultural differences as well.

It’s been proven that under specific circumstances the same identifying traits that were once seen as positive, can be viewed as negative. Thus pride sometimes turns into conceit, traditionalism into backwardness, initiative suddenly becomes arrogance, courage is seen to be aggression, an entrepreneurial spirit as greed, etc.

Differentiation based on ethnicity is strengthened by emphasizing real or alleged “differences” such as a diverse language, (visually noticeable) culture, the physical appearance of “strangers” or what is considered their temperament. Even such things as very distinctive gestures, conspicuous intonations during conversation and the natural effort of strangers to band together in a strange environment are considered as a sort of defiance and disrespect toward local citizens.

It’s sad that despite many years of co-existing with Caucasian peoples within one country, the former USSR, their traditions and culture have not been better understood. Russians have superficial and fragmented knowledge of them (as well as about the majority of other nations of the former USSR), which in the best scenario is determined by ardently perceiving the exotic Caucasian “symbolism” so typical of the Soviet period (mountains, daggers, blood feuds, jiggit, adat, shashlik, wine, etc.). And in the worse scenario by subjective stories about “bloodthirstiness,” “treachery,” and the brutality of the mountain dwellers and their advanced business skills.
Read the whole thing, for it tells us much about the psychology of modern Russia.
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