Speaking Russian (as a researcher) in the South Caucasus

This is part two in a series of posts on language and research. It can be read on its own, but you are welcome to visit the introduction and part one for further context.

One of the reasons I began writing this series was to get beyond the idea that language is a neutral research tool. I could hardly find a better example for this argument than the Caucasus. This area was famous for its linguistic diversity even in antiquity, with Russian becoming widely spoken as a result of imperial expansion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The region inspired a number of Russia’s greatest literary figures (as Alexander Nazaryan writes: “For Russian writers of the nineteenth century, being banished to the Caucasus was usually a sign that one was on the path to glory”). It was also the subject of numerous travelogues by western Europeans, including the Italian writer and diplomat Luigi Villari. Fire and Sword in the Caucasus, published in London in 1906, gives a sense of the orientalising gaze commonly turned on the region:

“…on the borders there are provinces as different from Russia proper and from each other as any in the dominions of England. Of all these border-lands, none exceeds in interest that region known as the Caucasus. Its giant mountains, its magnificent scenery, its rich and varied vegetation, its extraordinary collection of different races, speaking countless languages, and representing almost every branch of the human family, its strange history and the beautiful monuments of its art, make of it a wonderland of romance, exercising a fascination on all who visit it.”

In the early 20th century, a series of bloody battles ensured that the Caucasus would remain a part of the Soviet Union. Borders were drawn and redrawn, and a hierarchy of nationalities was established. The Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic (1922-1936) was replaced by the Socialist Soviet Republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, precursors to the independent states where I carried out my fieldwork. Although not as heterogeneous as the North Caucasus, the South Caucasus is still home to several minority languages. (A comprehensive overview would require a much lengthier blog post – I recommend this one on Languages of the World.) Russian was used as a lingua franca by many mixed communities, from rural border areas to cosmopolitan urban environments. Although Russian was never officially dominant, Russian speakers enjoyed significant cultural and political capital up until the emergence of nationalist movements in the 1980s.


Ethnolinguistic groups in the Caucasus region. By I, Pmx, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2430263

For a researcher, there are obvious advantages to using Russian in the South Caucasus. Russian enables conversations with a cross-section of the population, gives access to more events, opens up alternative media platforms, and widens the pool of potential interviewees while cutting out the need for a translator. The main challenge is having to navigate language politics. The status of Russian is rises and falls with national independence movements and regional (dis)integration projects (consider the outcry that ensued when a Russian TV host suggested Armenia needed to do more to protect the Russian language). Russian is the language of imperialism, but it is also the main post-Soviet lingua franca; the common language of diplomacy and dissent. Of course, it has a competitor. English, the language of transition and development, seeks to create an NGO sector out of the sphere of civil society. Some younger activists seek to distance themselves from Russian, choosing to speak English even if they are less fluent in it. Either way, I find myself quoting Adrienne Rich: “this is the oppressor’s language/yet I need it to talk to you.”

Given that the preferred option, becoming fluent in multiple local languages, cannot be made a reality overnight, the benefits of speaking Russian clearly outweigh the costs. Nevertheless, it is worth thinking about who gets excluded from research that relies on Russian-speaking subjects. Based on superficial contact with people (asking for directions, ordering in cafés, etc.) it is possible to be fooled into thinking that more or less everyone around you speaks Russian. This is not actually the case. According to data from the 2013 Caucasus Barometer, 85% of Armenians, 70% of Georgians, and just 35% of Azerbaijanis claim to have intermediate or advanced knowledge of the Russian language. On a number of occasions in Azerbaijan I did meet people with whom I could not communicate in depth directly, resulting in improvised translation. This occurred mainly in rural areas, among the very young or elderly population, and affected more women than men (owing to labour migration patterns and the Soviet system of military conscription).

roads to gudauri.png

Roads of Mjlet to Gudauri, 1868. Ivan Aivazovsky. See https://northcaucasusland.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/caucasus-xix-century-paintings/#jp-carousel-9538

Despite not knowing local languages, many people who first tasted khachapuri in Moscow and glimpsed the snow-capped mountains in Russian art feel at home in the Caucasus. I suspect this is a psychological reflex among former Area Studies students, for whom it is very hard not to seek out things which we can attribute to Soviet mentality (bad) or Soviet culture (good) or a generalised post-socialist condition (neither bad nor good). Using Russian to communicate gives you a sense of belonging and of distancing yourself from western imperialism (I cherish the occasions when I am mistaken for a Latvian). The famous regional hospitality means that you are rarely, if ever, made aware that you are doubly privileged to speak both English and Russian. When something doesn’t fit this mental framework, it’s tempting to ascribe it to Ottoman or Persian antecedents, romanticising the “local” and simplifying the complex.

Having grown up with the Irish language and representations of Ireland in English literature, the ironies of this situation are not lost on me. When your own language is more or less dead, you tend to take a lot more care around other people’s. Indeed, I don’t think any outsider would be keen to see the linguistic variation in the Caucasus lessened – after all, that’s what makes it unique (this is, of course, a dangerous word to use in a postcolonial context, though at least I didn’t say ‘charm’). It’s the first and last thing making it not Russia. But this is precisely why it takes a lot of careful reflection to sift through the biases arising from a post-Soviet nostalgia expressed in Russian syntax, and avoid letting Orientalism in the backdoor. In my next post, I’ll try to tease out what all this means in the context of fieldwork, and I’ll give some examples of multilingual encounters and communication mishaps.


Languages and social research: a four-part reflection

I’m often asked about the role that language plays in my research. I’ve fielded these questions a lot over the years, but I still feel hesitant about offering a definitive response. It is very hard to get to the heart of what language is and what it does for us in any given context. The political and psychological aspects of language use are hard to explain, especially to people who may not have to navigate linguistic boundaries in their everyday lives. There is no easy answer, even to questions such as “why Russian?” and “was it difficult?”

On the other hand, refusing to delve into the messy reality of multilingual fieldwork reinforces the sense of mystery around it. I often look askance at people attempting to do fieldwork abroad without a relevant language, but I’m also weary and wary of the linguistic hierarchies that pertain in research communities. The mere fact of speaking a certain language does not confer blanket expertise across a region, it does not give an all-access pass, and it certainly doesn’t mean that a researcher is beyond ethical reproach.

For me, languages are rooted in our auto-biographies, and they branch out into the different stories we choose to tell about ourselves. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, those who speak a second (or third) language often feel like they develop a second personality to go along with it. When I talk about Russian, I am inevitably conjuring up a narrative about who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m trying to go. When I’m talking in Russian, it changes the parameters of the story.


Journeys: Tbilisi to Baku, June 2013

Having tried and failed to squish all of that into a thousand words, I’ve decided I need to write a series of posts on the subject, with the following tentative structure:

  • Part 1: initial travels in Russian language/culture,
  • Part 2: the politics of language in the South Caucasus,
  • Part 3: practical and affective dimensions of multilingual fieldwork,
  • Part 4: research and language from a decolonial feminist perspective.

It might take a while to get around to all four of these, but I’ll link to each of the posts on this page once they go online.

In other news, I’m now making a home for myself at the University of Limerick, and I’ve finally activated the Twitter account I set up in 2014. Please follow @SineadBhreatnac (yep, I maxed out on characters before I reached the final h) to receive research updates, and maybe the occasional humorous insight into faking it as a post-doc.