Reviews

The theme of Russian populations in the former Soviet republics in the past fifteen years since the collapse of the USSR remains in the perspective of the Russian society.  It is sometimes remembered in order to signify to some disloyal neighbour the existence of a ‘fifth column’ on its territory, the interests of which Russia threatens to defend.  Sometimes one begin to speak of those Russians of the ‘near abroad’ when current debates deal with demographic issues in Russia, and with the necessity to appeal to manpower from outside of Russia.  The Russians in the former Soviet republics are seen as a resource that, as many in Russia see it, is easy to mobilise at any moment, and to sue for such or such goal.  As to the opinion or interests of these Russians, they are rarely taken in consideration.  Their voice is not heard beyond the uproar of politicians and experts who have captured the right of speaking in the name of their “fellow countrymen”.  N. Kosmarskaia’s work “Children of Empire” is one of the very rare works in which, instead of the high-sounding phrases on the needs of “Russian diasporas,” is exposed an enormous factual material that illustrates the diversity of living strategies developed by Russian-speaking populations in the space of the former USSR.  The book provides the results of a research implemented by the author during a whole decade in Kyrgyzstan.  N. Kosmarskaia scrupulously analyses surveys conducted among the local population, abundantly quoting her conversations with her respondents, thoroughly classifies the opinions and conceptions expressed by other specialists of the field.  

The main idea developed in the book is that beyond Russia’s boundaries (viz., in Kyrgyzstan) does not exist any “Russian community” to which could be attributed unified models of behaviour, nor desires or ambitions identical for all its members.  These Russian-speaking populations, asserts N. Kosmarskaia, make up a community “differentiated by the wide range of their respective characteristics of ‘everyday life’, ‘consciousness’, behaviour . . . (35)”.  The conflicts and difficulties endured by these people in Kyrgyzstan—and in other places—do not come out any returning cultural or religious features, but rather by the context of the post-Soviet transformation, by the inevitable adaptation to the new economic, social and political realities of the time.  There lies the very explanation of processes that can be observed in parallel among varied Russian-speaking populations, like the orientation towards Russia as the “historical fatherland (istoricheskaia rodina)” with gradual emigration, as well as the integration of the space of the new post-Soviet states with a capacity as “natives”.  A merciless critic is made of the obstinate efforts by numerous politicians and scholars for describing the “Russian community” abroad through the prism of ethnic categories and denominations.  N. Kosmarskaia shows particularly rebuked by the diffusion among experts from Russia of the viewpoint that the Russian-speakers of the ‘near abroad’ represent a diaspora, i.e. a group detached from its “ethnic territory”, which tends to preserve an ethnic and cultural specificity in an alien milieu, and to unite with the “maternal ethnic group (materinskii etnos)”:  “There us no need to make-up ethnicity where it does not exist”—answers N. Kosmarskaia to her opponents.  Polls and interviews, asserts the author, all confirm that the main watersheds in society follow not ethnic lines, but rather political preferences and economic needs, for which reason it is not worth waiting from Russian-speakers neither a necessary solidarity on national signs, nor an automatic acceptation of everything proposed to them by Russia.

However, in her struggle against black-and-white schemes N. Kosmarskaia herself imperceptibly, unwillingly conforms to some simplifications.  Speaking of the object of her research—the Russian-speaking population of Kyrgyzstan—, she continues like her opponents to look at something else than a purely statistical entity, garbing it in immanent features.  Aren’t they described as “Europeans”, followed by “a large post-imperial train” of dress (562)?  Aren’t they qualified as “explorers, conquerors and transformers of Central Asia”?  Being an “aggregate of multiple ethnic groups” including, beside Eastern Slavic peoples: Germans, Tatars, Jews, Armenians, Koreans, etc. (22), don’t the Russian-speaking populations of Kyrgyzstan form one “ethno-social” group—typified by “the community of its historical destiny, of its basic culture, of its previous social roles and of the specificity of its present situation in the new independent states (23)”?  “Children of empire”: such a capacious characterisation of the Russian-speaking populations of Central Asia has been promoted as the exergue of the whole book.  Questions arise, to my eyes, at this very point.  Can’t the Kyrgyz or, let’s say, the Uighurs, be qualified as “children of empire” to the same extent as Tatars, Armenians, Jews or these same Russians?  What has allowed the author to distribute them, in her own words, “on both sides of barricades”?  Dissimilar historical destinies?  Yet hasn’t the past century and a half of coexistence in a same entity made our history a common one?  Distinct “basic cultures”?  However, don’t we continue to share a common language, and to preserve common—let’s say “Soviet”—behaviour norms?  Previous social roles?  I would not so hastily affirm that in a recent past the respective social roles of “native (korennye)” and “migrant (prishlye)” groups have been so mutually opposed.  Different legal statuses in present-day independent states?  They qualify the relations between people and power, not between the diverse layers of society otherwise one should make of “titular nation” a construction similar to that of “diaspora”, only with a reverse signification.

And I definitely cannot accept the cut-and-dried phrase “on both sides of barricades.”  It presupposes that the Russian-speaking community, whatever may be its inner cleavages and discrepancies, possesses impenetrable outer boundaries whence we have the possibility (with which instruments, this is not said) to determine who is a “Russian-speakers” and who is not.  Such a conclusion contradicts all that has been written in the book on the multiplicity, inconstancy and uncertainty of any identities, and on the political arrangements that preside over the iarlyks that ascribe people to such or such group.  It is impossible for me to consider the Kyrgyz, or any other “titular” nation of Central Asia as mere “sideshoots of the Empire”.  Among the local, so-called “native” population can be observed processes of quest for identities and assimilation of one’s history, cultural belonging and future perspective as complicated than among Russian-speakers.  Hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks nowadays follow Central Asian Russians towards Russia, many of whom hope they will find there not only a source of income, but also a new fatherland.  Aren’t they our folks?

Sergei Abashin, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Moscow
CER: I-7.4.D-640