Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Window on Eurasia: The Most Important Question in Russia Today – What’s Your Nationality?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 30 – A writer for the official newspaper of the Russian parliament says that today “the most important question” for residents of the Russian Federation is “what’s your nationality?” a question that is not easy for everyone to answer but one which is asked with such insistence that those of mixed nationality are regularly urged to carry their internal passports.

            Suggestions in the days since the Biryulevo clashes that Russia is entering a new age of nationalism ( are typically discussed at the level of high politics – is this development good or disastrous for the Russian Federation and President Vladimir Putin( and

            But the increasing “nationalization” of Russian life is having an impact on the residents of that country even if they are not personally caught up in violent conflicts, an impact that is discussed by Nadezhda Arabkina who is a commentator on social issues for the Parlamentskaya gazeta (

            In an article titled “The Most Important Question – What’s Your Nationality?”Arabkina notes that she has a particular problem in that regard: her father is an ethnic Korean and her mother is an ethnic Russian. Consequently, there are equal chances she could be “the victim” of nationalist skinheads or immigrants from Central Asia or the Caucasus.

            To be convinced of this, she says, she doesn’t even have to leave her multi-national apartment building. Some neighbors are convinced that she is not Russian, while others are certain that she is. Some respect national traditions and differences, but some unfortunately do not.

            But the explosion of media coverage of inter-ethnic clashes has exacerbated the situation, with ever more people being conscious of their own group, worried about threats from others and thus becoming hostile to them. Not surprisingly, some of the results would be funny if they weren’t so tragically sad, Arabkina suggests.

            One graduate of Moscow State University’s philosophy faculty, whose mother was a Lithuanian, not long ago told an immigrant to the Russian capital that he should “get out of my city.”  He clearly “does not  want to think about it now, but other people sometime cried these same words at his grandfather and grandmother.”

            In another case, she says, someone who is “half Tatar” but was baptized by his ethnic Russian mother in a Lipetsk village “suddenly became to demonstratively purchase halal” goods and go the mosque, but didn’t bother to “remove the cross” he had always worn.

            And in a third more serious case, an ethnic Armenian resident of Moscow who had never lived in Armenia wants to get married to an ethnic Russian woman but is getting threats from her former husband, a Daghestani. The issue is being resolved through the diaspora but for the time being, the young woman is carrying a pistol.”

                Thus, Arabkina continues, there is now “a trend” – to “survive” one must join one’s own national camp. Some of her Korean friends, she says, “who do not know any language except Russian” are nonetheless put off when they learn that her husband is of “a different nationality.”  It would be easier, she is told, if she would get involved “in Moscow’s Korean community.”

            “Every morning since the pogrom in Biryulevo, she writes, “I have heard one and the same thing: ‘Take your passport with you!’” Her family members are concerned that without it, she will be identified as an illegal immigrant, and indeed, policemen have challenged her, often asking indirect questions to get at the issue of nationality.

            One, for example, asked her whether she lived in Moscow. When she said yes, he asked where the Minin and Pozharsky monument is, something every native would know. When she responded that it was next to the execution place in Red Square, the policeman said that “everything is clear.”

            Arabkina says that a Tajik woman cleans her apartment, but she knows little or nothing about that woman’s life. “How is she paid? Where does she live? How many relatives does she feed with her earnings?  I’m not interested. For me, it is convenient and pleasing that she with gratitude takes my cash and smiles at me as if I had given her a million.”

            Near her apartment, the parliamentary newspaper commentator says, there is a school whose almost half of the students in the first class are not ethnic Russians.  The teacher told her that there are so many nationalities that the school even has an ethnic German.  But she said one student doesn’t know his nationality. “I think he is a Tajik or an Uzbek,” the teacher said.

            What a happy child, Arabkina concludes, “how simple his life is without these unending discussions about the nationality question and the national idea.”  But she leaves the impression that for her and those about her, those are “the most important questions” and that in the future, they will be for that child as well.

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