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Regular version of the site

Complex Issues of Identity in the Former Soviet Union Countries

The HSE Institute for Social Policy held an event entitled ‘Demographic Challenges of the 21st Century’ on 13 June 2017. At the event, Lauren Woodard, PhD candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Massachusetts, presented her report ‘Politics of Return: Resettlement of Compatriots Programme in Primorsky Territory’. Here she talks to HSE News about the event, her research, and her interest in the complex issues of identity in Russia and the Former Soviet Union.

— How did you come to study migration and national identity in Russia and Central Asia?

— As a college student, I majored in Russian Studies and took classes in Russian history, literature, and language. Russian is a really hard language though, and I knew that to really learn it, I needed to study and live in Russia. As a result, I spent my senior year of college studying in Russia, in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I became fascinated with the Soviet Union's collapse and how ordinary people adapted to such a big change in their country's government and economy. I was especially interested in what it was like for those outside Russia who were ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers. After I graduated college, I received a Fulbright grant to study Kazakhstan's language policies and national identity building project. I lived in Kazakhstan for a year, conducting interviews with youth across the country on family history, language preferences, and how they identified themselves, as Kazakhstani, Kazakh, Russian, etc. In 2012, I began graduate school in Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where I study development, migration, and national identity from the perspectives of everyday, ordinary people.

— I was intrigued by your interest in studying nostalgia as well. Can you please share with us what the main purpose of it is and the methods that you use?

— When I lived in Kazakhstan I interviewed many young ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers whose families were from Russia originally, or whose parents or grandparents studied in Russia during the Soviet Union. Although they were often proud Kazakhstanis, sometimes it was hard for them as Russian-speakers who did not speak Kazakh. Before 2014, Kazakhstanis made up approximately 30% of compatriots who immigrated to Russia through the Resettlement of Compatriots Program (in 2014 and 2015, those from Ukraine made up the majority of the program). When I started conducting interviews with compatriots in 2015, I asked why they decided to move to Russia, and many people answered with their family history. I'm not sure that nostalgia is exactly the right word, but I'm interested in how non-economic factors, like family history, ties with Russian language and culture, or affiliation with Russia as one's historic homeland, influence people's decisions to immigrate. I use interviews and life histories with compatriots to examine how people construct ideas of Russia as their homeland. I also conduct discourse analysis of websites used by Russian agencies to promote the Resettlement of Compatriots Program, and review Russian scholarly publications and news items about the program. I analyze these sources, including TV shows, magazines, and news clips, for how people talk about the ‘homeland’. What is the homeland (rodina) that people feel affinity with? Since most people are moving from post-Soviet countries, often the homeland they imagine is different than Russia today, 25 years after the Soviet Union's collapse, and I'm interested in how people navigate those changes.

— The Compatriot Resettlement Programme in Primorsky Territory is a new programme and is not very well-known in Russia. What are your major findings? How do you collect your data? What prospects does the programme have?

— The Resettlement of Compatriots Programme began in 2007 in Primorsky Territory. Initially, the Programme wasn't very popular, and only 3,354 compatriots moved there between 2007 and 2013, much less than the administration had hoped for. However, in 2014, with the crisis in Ukraine, many refugees moved to the region and the Programme became more popular. As a result, between 2014 and 2016, approximately 8,730 compatriots moved to the region. Most are from Ukraine, Tajikistan, or Armenia, but some come from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Moldova. Primorsky Territory has a unique group of compatriots: Old Believers from South America.

I examine the Programme by conducting interviews with compatriots, government officials in the Department of Labor, and locals from Primorsky Territory. I also collect relevant media coverage and conduct participant observation, which is an anthropological approach involving observing how people interact with one another. I was pleasantly surprised by how successful the programme seemed in the Primorsky Territory. While of course there are problems, including long lines at the MVD/FMS, most of the people I interviewed successfully got citizenship within three to five months, as promised by the Programme. Most were also happy with their decision to move and seemed well adapted to their new homes.

— I assume you have been to Primorsky Territory. What are your personal impressions of the place?

— Yes, my husband and I lived in Vladivostok for six months this past year, and we loved it! Vladivostok is such a cool city, right on the water, and Russian Island where the Far East Federal University (DVFU) is located is beautiful. We also travelled around the Territory, so that I could conduct my interviews. It's a really unique part of Russia, and we enjoyed being so close to Asia.

— Do you have any favourite books on Russia, which you can recommend our international audience for better understanding national identity and history of the country?

— Yes, I do. In English, I recommend Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More by Alexei Yurchak and Crisis and the Everyday in Postsocialist Moscow by Olga Shevchenko. I also recommend Privatizing Poland: Baby Food, Big Business, and the Remaking of Labor by Elizabeth Dunn and Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life After Communism by Kristen Ghodsee. Although they're not about Russia, they offer insight into how people experienced the collapse of state socialism and adapted to a new system of government and economy. I also recommend Sergei Miroshnichenko's BBC documentary series, ‘Born In the USSR’. In 1990, he filmed and interviewed a group of children across the Soviet Union about their lives. Since then, he has returned every seven years to interview them again. Through the series, you can see how the children and their countries have changed.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

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