On hope and fatalism in the former Soviet republics

We are sitting at the kitchen table, going through the motions of having a conversation about politics.

He is from Crimea; he is hitch-hiking and couch-surfing his way around the Caucasus and Turkey, putting off the inevitable moment of returning home. Except that when he left, it was only the beginning of March, and Crimea had not yet been formally annexed by Russia. As of March 21st, home is another country. Among other things, going home means swapping his Ukrainian citizenship for Russian, something that even as an ethnic Russian, he is reluctant to do.

It’s early afternoon, but I smell of cigarettes and beer and sweat from the night before, which my housemate and I spent dancing in one of Yerevan’s tiny, crowded nightclubs. At least there’s a fresh breeze coming in through the window. I bring up the obligatory talking points: what about the new government? What about the Crimean Tatars? What about civil society? What about East Ukraine? What about the old elites? What about Russia? It always seems to come back to Russia in the end. I drink cheap, instant coffee, I listen intently to what is being said, I do not really take it in.

Some people are leaving, some are staying, some are happy about what has happened, some are emphatically not. We are talking about this in order to try and give meaning to a series of pointless events, we are talking about it as if there is a grain of sense to be found, but it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. I want to back-track, to find a more positive topic of conversation, but I don’t know how to do that either. I don’t know what else there is to talk about. He makes an effort to answer thoughtfully, but it feels like we’re reading from pre-rehearsed scripts.

The language barrier. I’ve become too used to thinking about the world as it is composed in online magazines and round-the-clock news channels. I’m like a robot that has been programmed to talk about maidanovtsypovstantsybanderovtsy. My imagination is as limited as my vocabulary. There is a guest from Crimea in my kitchen and all I can offer is a sympathetic shrug, an inquiring silence, another cup of coffee. The atmosphere of fatalism settles over both of us, mixes with the scent of stale cigarette smoke, stifles the conversation.

**

This is the echo of so many conversations I have had here in the Caucasus. I no longer bridle when people joke with me, “hey, have you solved our conflict yet?” or “better not put off finding a husband until it’s all figured out, it could take quite a while.” I don’t disregard these comments, because they seem eminently sensible and almost funny to me (apart from the bit about getting a husband). Nor do I feel, when I find myself lost in a conversational cul-de-sac, that I have necessarily done something wrong as a researcher. Sometimes, you exhaust someone’s willingness to talk about a subject quite quickly, and the only thing to do is to seek a change of topic or a graceful exit.

The reality about conflict resolution and post-conflict transition is that most people – the ones who are left – simply go on surviving one way or another. They find ways to cope, to adapt, to adjust to the changes. All the more so when conflicts are considered ‘frozen’. Last summer, when I visited the homes of displaced Azerbaijanis who have settled by the border, separated from their former land by a stretch of just a few impenetrable miles, they took great pride in showing me their gardens, bursting with fresh fruit and vegetables, filled with flowers and butterflies. They enumerated their children, born during the war, who managed to grow up and go away to university and get married and find good jobs in the city. They reminisced about the few good outsiders who came and helped during the awful years after the war, but most showed little or no interest in talking about politics or civil society, because it seems that everything they’ve accomplished, they’ve done in spite of the would-be state-builders or civic activists, regardless of whose side they were on.

**

In the forward to her book How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1992), Croatian author Slavenka Drakulic writes (emphasis mine):

“I remember clearly when it all began. Just before he retired, a journalist colleague returned from the Austria-Hungary border in mid-September 1989, crying with excitement. ‘East Germans are crossing the border by the thousand. I didn’t think I would ever live to see this!’ Neither did I. That is how you are trained in this part of the world, not to believe that change is possible. You are trained to fear change, so that when change eventually begins to take place, you are suspicious, afraid, because every change you ever experienced was always for the worst.”

And indeed, within a short space of time, the former Yugoslavia was plunged into one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts. “The title of my book feels wrong,” Drakulic wrote. “We have not yet survived communism, and there is nothing to laugh about.”

Twenty years later, is it any wonder that people are still afraid of losing themselves in the great and terrible changes that have the potential to sweep this part of the world? To paraphrase something I once heard in Azerbaijan: “it’s like there is a great big fire, and you don’t know which way the wind is going to blow it.” I sit in silence with this traveller from Crimea, who can barely have been born before the collapse of the Soviet Union threw the whole region into chaos, and I don’t blame them.

**

I’m struggling to write a suitable conclusion to this post, because there isn’t one. If there is something I would like to say, then it is lost in the pregnant pause that marked the end of our kitchen table conversation. I meet many people here and elsewhere who still hope for change, but the hopes they have are either too fragile to be put into words, or are dressed up in the stilted tones of a faded belief in democracy and citizenship, or are made light of through jokes and humour, or in the saddest cases, preserved in alcohol.

What makes me feel more than a little out of my depth here sometimes, is the way in which hope and fatalism so often seem to coincide in the same person. It is as if those who profess hope accept that it is their role in life to be eternally disappointed, if not oppressed. This cultural pattern appears to repeat itself across the generations. Hope is divorced from any sense of expectation or entitlement about the future, hope is simply what is used to sustain the belief that the present is worth living.

An illustration of this: there are two questions I often use to finish up interviews. The first is: “how do you see the situation in 5 years time?” Sometimes people don’t even bother to answer this question, they just look at me incredulously. They say “it’s impossible to tell what will happen.” Or they launch into a nostalgic description of the past instead. If they talk about hope, it’s usually a negative one: “I hope that our country will still exist.” “I hope that we will not have a war here.” “I hope things will not get worse.”

The second, and final, question I ask is: “would you like to add anything else?” And here, to my eternal amazement, people often turn around and say: “yes. I would like to end on a positive note…” Or “I would like to add that in spite of this, I am an optimist…” Here, in the footnotes of the interview, at the very bottom of the page, people construct an identity for themselves which is completely at odds with the experiences and the worldview that they have recounted for the better part of an hour.

They tell me that peace and democracy will somehow prevail, and I think – although how can you ever be sure? – that this is not done to set me at ease or to offer me a false assurance of their faith in the liberal western model or the institutions that continue to promote it. In my humble opinion, it’s done because this small illocutionary act of defiance gives meaning to everything else we do. It enable us to go on having our hopeless conversations.

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A descriptive interlude

Today I went to Bangladesh.

Not the Bangladesh you’re thinking of.

Bangladesh is how locals refer to the district of Malatia-Sebastia in western Yerevan. I’ve found a few different explanations for this, but this Russian-language blog post offers my favourite version, whether it’s true or not. It says that the district “was built in the early 1970s, at the height of the conflict between Pakistan and the breakaway state of Bangladesh. The Soviet Union for some reason supported Bangladesh, so news programmes at that time were full of urgent messages and reporting from the war zone. The ruins of Bangladesh bore such a similarity to the building sites in the south-western neighbourhood that people gave it this nickname, which has stuck with it to this very day.” At the very least, it’s true that the Soviet Union was a firmly in favour of independence for Bangladesh – which has been cited as one reason why Bangladesh was among the 58 states that abstained from the recent UN vote affirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Nowadays, the name Bangladesh is still likely to resonate with tourists, if they stray far enough off the beaten path to get there. The nickname itself seems calculated to evoke the stereotypes of eastern urban development. It’s certainly not a slum district, if you’re wondering, nor does it have anything like the population density of Dhaka. However, most people do live in tightly packed apartment blocks – ten to fifteen stories high – between which you can sometimes catch a distant glimpse of snow-capped mountains, including Mount Ararat. Bangladesh is also home to Yerevan’s largest market, which seems to cover a few square miles. We begin at the clothes section – a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from faux fur coats and bejewelled evening dresses to denim jeans, Barcelona football shirts and Adidas soccer boots. Clothes lead into hardware, hardware into electronics. The roof is made from overlapping sheets of corrugated iron, and at the exits are fast food stands with a difference: here, the kebabs are turned over coal fires in stone ovens.

By way of contrast, the grocery section is made up of one large open space with a single roof overhead. For the most part, the produce consists of potatoes, onions and cabbages by the vanload, but the most eye-catching stalls are those with a vivid array of spices, nuts, fresh and dried fruit, herbs, pulses, cheese, and of course fish, some of which are still flopping their tails in the packing crates. The majority of those driving the vans and pushing the trolleys around are men, but the sellers are mostly women, many of them with greying hair and gold teeth that sparkle when they smile. We are a novelty for them – four obviously western females, only one of whom can speak any Armenian (that’s not me, by the way). Our Armenian-speaking companion comes here quite often, and one of the sellers greets her enthusiastically and offers us all generous samples of something that tastes like Georgian churchkhela, but comes in wafer thin sheets.

At the edges of the market, the air is filled with dust and exhaust fumes. The most popular car here seems to be the Soviet-era Lada (white being the colour of preference), but several shiny new vehicles are also on parade. There’s a small funfair where children have the opportunity to play on brightly-coloured rides, from miniature fighter jets to giant ladybirds. A little boy sits in the driver’s cab of a train that goes round and round in a steady loop – the carriages behind him are all empty. Occasionally, a stray dog shambles meekly past. The streets are crowded with people – young couples with one or two children, middle-aged women shopping alone, teenage boys moving in gangs, old men gathered around chess or backgammon boards. According to the Armenian Orthodox calendar, today is Palm Sunday, and now and again I see someone, usually a child or adolescent girl, with a willow wreath on her head.

I haven’t spotted a single other non-Armenian person in the entire place. Compared with the scores of old monasteries and churches around the country, Bangladesh doesn’t rate very highly on the “must-see” lists for visitors. And I have a hard time deciding: in spite of their well-earned reputation for hospitality, do the traders here look on us as transgressors, or merely aliens? My companions switch to speaking Swedish among themselves, and I wonder if the decision was subconscious. This is definitely one of those situations where Irish speakers would dredge up their native vocabulary so as to avoid being mistaken for British or American tourists. In the end of the day, I doubt it makes much of a difference. After all, the marketplace is founded on economics, not foreign policy. And when it comes to economics, the gulf between us, the traders and their regular customers is still painfully obvious.

What is less obvious, perhaps, is that things here weren’t always like this. Many of those who work at the market day in and day out would never have imagined this in the days before Armenian independence, when they were factory workers, production managers, teachers and housewives – with a stable income, one way or another. In 2010, Bangladesh was the subject of a short film by Austrian artist Oliver Ressler, in which his Armenian collaborator interviewed people working there about their lives before, and after, the collapse of the Soviet Union. All twenty minutes of it are available for free on Ressler’s website –for a sobering perspective on post-Soviet transition, I highly recommend it. It remains to be seen how the Armenian economy will change when it becomes a fully-fledged member of the Eurasian Customs Union (something which is due to happen in the near future), but as far as changes in the political culture are concerned, the outlook is certainly doubtful.

Why my field notes are shrinking (or “Таксист, прощай!”)

I’ve only just arrived in Armenia, but I’ve already been busy creating problems for myself. The major dilemma I’ve wrestled with so far was whether or not to include in my field diary the conversation I had with my taxi driver as we drove from Zvartnots airport to Yerevan city centre three days ago. This taxi driver was a friendly man of middle age, with distinguished grey hair and a broad smile, who imparted absolutely nothing new to my understanding of gender and conflict, but did exchange a string of pleasantries with me about the spring weather, the ripening of apricots, his daughter’s education at the American University of Armenia and her subsequent whirlwind marriage, and how much his grandsons (aged five and seven) enjoyed the freak snow storm that took place one day last week.

Objectively speaking, I know that if I put that conversation in my field diary, I will only take it out again when I return to do the analysis. So why do I still feel the urge to describe it in detail? It’s partly because I am itching to do something tangible. I forgot how frustrating fieldwork can be, just hanging around the house and waiting for people to reply to your calls/texts/emails, or at least for it to stop raining outside. By now I know how this works – I spend a few days on tenterhooks, squirming with the fear that everyone has forgotten me, or worse, is wondering how they can politely ignore my superfluous research queries – and then suddenly, my inbox is over-flowing with kind responses, and I’m scheduling back-to-back meetings for a couple of days…before it all returns to zero point, and the agonising wait begins again.

During the early stages of fieldwork, I devised a strategy for coping with this anxiety, which basically consisted of writing really detailed notes about absolutely everything – chats with taxi drivers, tea with friends, conversations I overheard on the bus, people and things I saw in the street. Since then, I’ve done some more reading about ethnographic methods, and I have learned that this is fairly common practice for novice researchers, especially anthropologists. Often, the reason we do it is not to be methodologically rigorous (no one needs to know about four boys playing with a cat), but to escape the fear that we are failing as researchers by not producing a large quantity of data on a daily basis. My urge to write about the taxi driver is natural, because I know it will take the edge off as I wait for something more interesting to happen.

For the first few months of fieldwork, I loved taking notes like this, and found solace in my humdrum observations when research was otherwise going slowly. Last July though, I began to approach my nightly note-taking sessions with an uncharacteristically loathsome feeling. Initially, I thought that this was down to research fatigue after months of intensive data collection – as well as the mounting heat in Baku. Then I started to think that perhaps it was due to the sensitive, if not disturbing, nature of some of the things I was writing about. When I switched research contexts at the end of the summer (from Azerbaijan to Armenia), I experienced a brief respite, but after a few weeks found that my antipathy towards field notes was stronger than ever. I still relished absorbing the details of everyday life, but I had become almost allergic to writing about them.

It’s only recently that I came across an alternative explanation for what I was feeling, which is data saturation (one of the downsides of not having majored in sociology or anthropology is that I usually only learn about these things in retrospect). This is a stage in qualitative research projects where interviews and/or observations begin to repeat themselves, instead of yielding new information. At this point, you’re supposed to stop and write up your analysis. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached saturation point in terms of my core research questions, but I would say that I have probably come to my threshold for understanding  the research context, i.e. the Caucasus. I’ve established a broad framework of analysis which allows me to relate almost everything I experience back to something else that has already happened and been described in detail in previous field diary entries. I’m not culturally assimilated (and never will be), but at least my obsessive note-taking has come full circle.

On top of this comes the realisation that when it comes to analysing the data, a huge percentage of my earlier field notes will have to be cut altogether, leaving me with only that which is relevant to my research questions. The rest won’t have gone to waste: close, consistent observation was needed to contextualise the case study and to understand the society I’m living in (as much as possible). It also helped me to gain access to the people I needed. And it provided a good opportunity for reflecting on my own position. Strictly speaking though, these minor observations, which probably make up the bulk of my field notes, are just a kind of memory bank I use for storing the rest of the information – the really valuable stuff – that I’ve received through interviews and participant observation.

The logical conclusion to this is: be more judicious about note-taking. So why the lingering unease about the taxi-driver? Perhaps it’s sentimental: I’ve developed a spot soft for men like this in the Caucasus, who have lived through so many changes and shouldered the burden of post-Soviet masculinity and still remain good-humoured and open in their interactions. Yes, I know I am romanticising them, but they also serve a practical function: since my research focuses on women’s rights activists, taxi drivers – an almost exclusively male profession – are one of the few sources of contrasting perspectives, helping to bring me back down to earth (and safely home) on a regular basis. My favourite was one called Namiq, who used to greet me in the street whenever he saw me and invite me to join him and the other Baku taxi drivers for tea on the Boulevard when they finished the night shift.

Tomorrow I have a busy day lined up, and I’ll stop feeling so concerned about taxi drivers. And over the next few days, I’ll divert my attention into other necessary tasks. It’s a relief to know that I don’t have to take notes on everything that happens to me from dawn until dusk, and can work on developing the actual thesis instead. But it makes me a little bit sad, too. Sad to think of all the people who have been so kind and honest with me, and who are no longer going to make the cut. Sad that there is, after all, a hierarchy of research subjects, and I have to focus on the ‘experts’ from now on. And sad, too, that I must start to wean myself off all the little things, the tiny but glorious details that give me a deeper awareness of my surroundings and contribute to the perpetual ‘high’ of fieldwork.