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 maidanovtsy, povstantsy, banderovtsy. 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.