Blame it on a simple twist of fate

This is part one in a (probably) four-part series on language and research. Read the introduction here, and come back soon for the next instalment!

After I was offered a place at university, I ticked a box next to the word ‘Russian’ on a form. This was back in 2005, and it was one of the lightest and most far-reaching decisions I ever made. The other choices were Italian and Polish. Both seemed interesting, but I thought learning the Cyrillic alphabet would be fun, and besides, my best friend encouraged me on the grounds that one day we could have a holiday in Russia. If you think I am exaggerating how clueless I was: the first time I heard of Red Square was when I opened our language textbook. I was extremely hazy on the ‘end’ of communism. I was firmly set on the idea of majoring in French, doing an Erasmus in Paris, and studying history and philosophy at the Sorbonne. It took about 18 months for me to change my mind, decide to move to Moscow, and set in train a ten year love affair with Russian and post-Soviet culture.

When I explain this to Russian-speakers, I usually laugh and call it fate (sud’ba). It’s not that I believe in destiny, though I am generally more superstitious in Russian (I don’t mind walking under ladders, but I get twitchy whenever there’s an empty wine bottle on the table). It feels more respectful, more reassuring, towards whomever I’m talking to, hundreds of miles from home, if I attach a deeper meaning to my presence there than ‘I ticked a random box on a form’. Among English-speakers, I tend to shrug and call it a coincidence, suggesting that I am as bewildered as they are by my life choices, but really just a normal person deep down. In both cases, I downplay the difficulties of learning the language, and point out some of the extraordinary privileges I had in terms of educational opportunities.

What I really want to convey to people, but find difficult to articulate, is how learning Russian opened a whole new world to me. It wasn’t entirely enchanting. The TVs in the language lab were tuned to a channel where Russian citizens came on air to try and make contact with relatives who had been missing since the 1990s. I would look at dog-eared photos of young men in military uniforms, and then switch over to Mexican soap operas. A month long intensive course in Petrozavodsk – at the time of certain events in Kondopoga – was hardly a ringing endorsement for Russian society. I only really went along because I’d developed a slavish dedication to grammar, and was worried I’d fall behind others in my class (who were far more enthusiastic than me about visiting the former USSR).

novii arbat before parade.jpg

Novii Arbat, Moscow, March 2008

I don’t remember the point at which I felt confident enough to have a real conversation in Russian. What I remember is the feeling I had when I rounded a corner in Petersburg and saw the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. And I remember my first time at the Bolshoi – there were six of us, and we couldn’t get seats together, but we’d all caught cold on the night train and could hear each other coughing from opposite sides of the theatre. We were ripped off by the touts, had only a partial view, and none of us knew the story of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but it was wonderful. I went back there many times when I was living in Moscow, and queued up for student tickets, which were practically free – as was entry to various museums and galleries. Like many before me, I was seduced by the culture and spectacle of Moscow, and by the dizzying contrasts between days spent in languor at the obzh (as we called it), staring at snow falling in front of the streetlamps, and the nightclubs where we became momentary glitterati.

Hyperrealism was what made the spell untenable. I felt like I had stepped out of time, but real lives were going on all around me. I remember a 17 year old Chechen girl telling a teenage Muscovite about the seven years that she and her family had spent living in a tent. “That’s impossible,” he said to her. “In this life, nothing is impossible,” she replied. I remember a language teacher who became visibly distressed when questioned about Russian policy in the North Caucasus. “I know,” she said, “and yet every day on my way to work I pass a monument to those who died in the Tverskaya metro explosion.” I remember students at the dormitory causing, if not a riot, then certainly a ruckus, when corralled for a pre-election canvassing by Edinaya Rossiya. Somewhere among my many Russian souvenirs is a pamphlet I snatched off the ground at a street protest. It informed me that I had been observing/participating in the ‘Marsh Nesoglasnykh Prostitutok’ (March of the Dissenting Prostitutes).


Visit to the monastery at Suzdal, also in 2008



I developed a curiosity about the South Caucasus (more on that in my next post), hopped on a plane to Baku and headed for the hills near Shamakhi. When I returned to Russia, it was as a long-term volunteer in Perm. Both experiences brought me far closer to certain forms of poverty, violence and exclusion in the former Soviet Union. They were more formative than my time in Moscow, but they are much harder to talk about. They involve sensitive stories told to me by children and vulnerable adults, and neither they nor I (at the time) had any inclination that I would one day have the urge to write about them. However, volunteering foreshadowed my later research in important ways: it formed the basis for my confidence in simply going out into the field and listening, and created a lens through which I was able to filter many of my research findings.

The point I’m trying to make, in going into such depth about all of this, is that conducting research in a foreign language is not just about the nuts and bolts of interviewing, the joy of decoding memes, or the ability to listen in on conversations in public places. It’s about a state of mind, a process of cognitive development, and an emotional layering which revolves around the categories of passive and active resistance. It’s about my sense of self, and the urge to witness events and translate them back into English versus the desire to stay rooted in a single, monolingual reality. It’s about navigating language, culture and politics in places that start to feel like home, but never remain home for long. And it’s about the tension between the status of privileged outsider and the subjective position of language-learner, and, consequently, a matter of transnational feminist ethics. Those are the themes I plan to explore in my upcoming blog posts.


Electric Yerevan (Seven Days That Shook Armenia)

Tonight, people are gathering once more on Baghramyan Avenue, a major street in downtown Yerevan, to continue a nonviolent demonstration against a proposed raise in electricity costs. The protest began on June 19th, but it is what has happened in the last seven days that has made this movement so significant for Armenians.

On the night of June 22-23, police attempted to disperse a crowd of several thousand people by force, using a water cannon on nonviolent protesters and making over 200 arrests. The following day, the numbers of people gathered in protest grew even stronger, as organisations such as Amnesty International, the OSCE and the Human Rights House Foundation condemned the police violence. This video from a local news source shows the first nine minutes of the police operation.

On June 27, Armenian president Serzh Sargysyan announced that there would be an audit into the (Russian-owned) energy company responsible for the price increase, and in the meantime the state would absorb the cost of the tariff hike. Protesters viewed this offer as a delaying tactic, refusing to clear the area under they received a guarantee that citizens would not pay for the mismanagement which drove the company towards bankruptcy.

Last night, police threatened to use force to “restore order” to the city if the protesters did not disperse by a certain time. However, the crowd remained in place, and the deadlines issued by the police passed without violence (see drone footage of the stand-off). The number of protesters dwindled, as some crossed the barricades and set up camp in an alternative location near Freedom Square. At daybreak, there were still several hundred people left on Baghramyan, many of them sleeping on the ground, and their numbers began to increase again towards evening.

It’s not exactly easy to decode everything that’s happening at a distance of 3000 miles, but tonight seems like a good time to set down a few observations about the nature of the protest up to now. The first two points reiterate some of the main arguments being made in the media, while the third and fourth are more related to my own research topics. I owe a huge debt to my friends on social media, and to the creators of the Electric Yerevan website, for sharing/collating so much of the information I’m relying on for this post.

  1. This is not about party politics

The protests taking place in Yerevan and other Armenian cities have not been coordinated by an opposition political party and are not aimed at achieving outright regime change. Until today, the main spokespeople for the protest were a group of young people in their 20s, calling themselves “No To Plunder,” who had previously organised protests against government plans to increase the cost of public transport. Last night, some of these young people were among those who moved to continue the protest on Freedom Square, while the majority of other protesters remained on Baghramyan. This makes clear that the “No To Plunder” activists have been catalysts for change, but not full leaders of the movement.

A number of opposition MPs have been seen at the protests, but they have appeared alongside actors and other celebrities, suggesting that they are using their public profile to try to defuse tensions between protesters and police, rather than attempting to exploit a political opportunity. Meanwhile, it appears that no major political figure has emerged to take on the role of mediator between the protesters and the government – unlike the protests in Kiev, when a number of political heavyweights, including former presidents, attempted to negotiate a way out of the impasse in 2014. This points to how deeply discredited both government and opposition are in the eyes of the public. However, it is less the absence of an effective opposition and more the memory of lethal violence after the 2008 elections that may shape the “apolitical” strategy of the protesters.

  1. This and Maidan are not the same

As the reference in the last paragraph shows, it’s very hard to analyse events in Yerevan without reference to the Ukrainian Maidan, which looms large in the collective consciousness across the former Soviet Union. However, we owe it to Armenia to accept the framing of the movement as being against corruption and mismanagement. Armenia’s decision to forego an EU association agreement and join instead with the Eurasian Customs Union is an established fact, which entered into force in January this year. Armenia’s potential Maidan moment came and went in 2013, and the general consensus in society – reluctant or otherwise – was that the country couldn’t afford to pay the price, economically or militarily, of turning away from Russia.

However…geopolitical overtones are written all over this, and it wasn’t long before the term “EnergoMaidan” was being spread through Russian and some western media. Protesters were quick to counter this with their own name for the movement, “Electric Yerevan”, and an image was widely circulated online of a light bulb containing a fist with an extended middle finger. Needless to say, there were no EU stars surrounding that image, and generally no pro-European symbolism that I’m aware of being displayed during the protest. A website was also set up to archive verified Armenian, Russian and English language accounts of the protests, and to help popularise the hashtag #ElectricYerevan. A large part of the media analysis seems to be about (correctly) dispelling the myth that this is an Armenian version of Maidan supported by western governments.


However…again…things are not always simple. The heavy-handed way police attempted to deal with the protesters on June 22-3 mobilised people in greater numbers and led to the stand-off that took place yesterday evening. The language of the protest now encompassed not only the electricity prices, but general corruption, brutality and injustice. Had the police once again resorted to force last night, the world might have woken up to a situation far more reminiscent of the Ukrainian scenario. Yet even in that case, it is unlikely that protesters would jump towards a radically anti-Russian position. (The fact that international headlines are currently dominated by the prospect of “Grexit” just serves to shore up the idea that the EU is unable to cope with problems within its borders, let alone support countries on the outside.)

  1. Armenian identity is central to the protests

The symbolism of the protests appears mostly national/patriotic. There are Armenian flags being waved, Armenian songs being sung and dances being danced, and chants of “Hayastan, Hayastan” (the Armenian name for the country). Last night, when the crowd was split between Baghramyan Avenue and Freedom Square, they chanted “Miatsum, Miatsum” – the word for Unification, which was a popular slogan during the mass demonstrations which preceded the fall of the Soviet Union and the outbreak of the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The context for the chant was different, but it can’t help having reminded Russia that Armenia – despite historically viewing the former Empire as an ally – once helped to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the same token, it must have reminded Armenians of how they once stood up, as a nation, to Soviet domination.

Notably, Russia has been acting in the past week to remedy perceived slights against Armenia. First of all, it was announced that the case against Valery Permyakov – a Russian soldier who was stationed at the Russian military base in Gyumri – would be handed over to Armenian investigators. On January 12 this year, Permyakov left his post and massacred a local family (six members died on the scene and the seventh, an infant, died in hospital). When it was first announced that he would face trial in Russia and not Armenia, there were demonstrations in Gyumri lasting days. This was followed by a rumour that Armenia and Russia were close to reaching a deal on the extradition of Hrachya Harutunyan, an Armenian citizen serving jail time in Russia after a truck he was driving hit a bus outside Moscow in 2013, killing 18 people (Harutunyan was brought to his court hearings in Russia wearing a flowery dressing gown, which caused outrage in Armenia). However, the Ministry of Justice of Armenia has denied that talks are moving closer to a resolution on extradition.

Although neither Permyakov nor Harutunyan featured in the demands of the Electric Yerevan protesters, the fact that their names are now being bandied about shows that the Armenia-Russia relationship is clearly under strain. Even if the movement is not about determining whether Armenia is at heart a “European” or a “Eurasian” nation (leaving aside the socially constructed nature of both those categories), it is on some level about negotiating Armenia’s national identity in relation to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. It is about claiming freedom and independence for Armenia, establishing a zone – albeit within Russia’s sphere of influence – where corruption is not allowed to go unchecked and citizens are part of the decision-making process. Russia’s response to all this is still far from clear, but if the cynics are right, there would have been blood on the streets by now if Moscow wanted it. However, if the Armenian government cannot bring the situation under control, it remains to be seen how far Moscow’s patience will be tried.

  1. The protests demonstrate a shift in gender relations

From afar, I’ve noticed that there are plenty of women in the protests, as well there should be. Women played a big part in popular movements at the end of the Soviet period, and they’ve been playing a role in civil society ever since. Although the video footage of protesters squaring off with police seems to show a somewhat masculine face, there is also an obvious female presence on the frontlines. Women have been among those who chose to sleep on the street overnight, sometimes in all female groups, sometimes curled up next to boyfriends or husbands (there have been a few wedding couples photographed at the protest). This simple act of resistance should not be under-estimated – young women in Armenia often live with their parents and have an unofficial curfew of 10pm. The stigma attached to anything approaching promiscuous behaviour is very real for many women. Presumably the majority of those at the protest are well-accustomed to defying gender expectations by this stage, but that doesn’t mean the act of claiming public space is less significant.

Last night the police, operating under this more conservative gender code, called for women (and children) to leave the area before the supposed “deadline” passed. The idea that women should evacuate the protest site was met with ridicule by many commentators on social media. It will be interesting to see the gender breakdown in the new steering committee for the protests, which is being formed tonight – and more interesting to see what, if anything, that tells us about gender politics at the grassroots level. Presumably, it will do better than the Armenian parliament, where just 11% of MPs are women. However, I wonder whether this will be an unconscious reflection of the makeup of the protests, or an active decision to ensure that women have greater representation in decision-making. One thing I do know is that activists from a number of established women’s organisations in Armenia have been present at the protest throughout. While some are present as individuals, at least one NGO created a “mobile office”, moving its staff and some light equipment out onto the street to express their solidarity with the demonstration and create a visible feminist presence in the protest.

While all this points towards the acceptability of young women as active citizens (emphasis on the word “young” because marriage and motherhood are not viewed as necessary tokens of respectability), Electric Yerevan also reminds us that the idea of men as citizens who use nonviolent protest to resist the absolute rule of the state has retained its value. This is an important point to bear in mind about Armenian society, where young men usually undergo 24 months of military service and conscription is a major part of the formation of masculine identity. While it is unsurprising to see that the protest is rooted in strong expressions of patriotism, it does raise questions about how malleable national identity is with respect to gender, and what are the markers of significant changes in the gender code over time. Do protests merely reflect what we already know about a shift in gender relations, or do they accelerate the pace of change? Are social justice and gender equality co-constitutive, and how does this play out in the successes and failures of a movement like Electric Yerevan? These thoughts are fuelling the argument I’m working on at the moment around the relationship between women’s activism and social change.

Post-Eurovision intrigues in the Caucasus: what happened in the public vote?

When I was a kid, Ireland won the Eurovision four times in five years (between 1992 and 1996). In retrospect, those were the golden years, leading us into the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger and the political windfall of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. I remember ditches filled with primroses; I remember waking up to find cows wandering around the garden and staring in our front window. But it was also a time of uncertainty and change. I remember hearing the heady debates on the car radio, as Ireland squeaked towards a referendum on divorce – our second attempt, and one which only passed by a margin of less than 10,000 votes. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a novel about a battered woman (as they were then called), was at that time controversial enough to be discussed by ten-year-olds in the school playground.

To try to sum the rest of it up briefly: I remember the assassination of Veronica Guerin, an investigative journalist, and the shooting of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe; I remember, though I didn’t understand them at the time, the Moriarty, Mahon and McCracken Tribunals[1]; I remember hearing about ‘illegitimate’ babies, born in secret and then abandoned by their mothers (the fathers having abandoned them long before); I remember the ground-breaking TV series that was Father Ted, and the remarkably rapid decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland; I remember when an IRA bomb exploded in a shopping centre in Omagh, killing 29 people; I remember a moment of national crisis when pop star Steven Gately made the sensational announcement that he was gay; in short, I remember a lot of things, and either all of them are connected, or none are.

What brings all this to mind this evening is the fallout from Eurovision 2014. Now, there are those of you who will say that Eurovision is a giant waste of time – a series of mediocre but costly performances designed to give us a false sense of shared identity and to distract us from the less pleasant things that are going on in our communities. There are also those of you who will say that the question of sexuality has been exploited for too long now by European political elites, who merely want to whip up domestic support for their foreign economic and military policies. There is a measure of truth in both these arguments. Yet at the same time, from where I’ve been watching, Eurovision has provided a rare, focused glimpse into the controversies sweeping Europe, from the Atlantic coastline to the farther reaches of the Eurasian steppe. And here, in the small nations of the South Caucasus, which are facing every bit and more of a hard time as Ireland did in the ’80s and ’90s, it has certainly been much more than an evening of questionable musical entertainment with a superficial veneer of politics.

It was almost inevitable that this Eurovision would be billed in advance as a showdown between East and West, or rather, the West and Putin. While the media focus, as during the Sochi Olympics, was predominantly on gay rights, the voting patterns were also somehow expected to reflect public outcry against the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. And so, one by one, each country took its turn to pronounce judgement on a 25 year old Austrian drag queen (with a beard), conscious that this was an opportunity to send a strong message to the Russian president about the enduring nature of Europe’s liberal and egalitarian values, as well as our lack of respect for Russia’s so-called fraternal relations (bratskie otnoshenie) with the unhappy family of post-Soviet nations. In one way, that is exactly what happened. Conchita won, and thousands of people felt, at least for an instant, that they had secured an important victory over the Kremlin’s draconian anti-gay laws (as they are known in the West), or the Duma’s[2] law against the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors (as it’s known in Russia). Everybody went to bed happy; only a handful of Eurovision nerds felt the need to carry out a detailed post-mortem the next day.

At least, that was what happened in one part of the Europe. Here, it’s different. Here, people haven’t yet learned to take Eurovision lightly – or rather, they don’t have that luxury. In addition, the Eurovision spats between Georgia and Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have become notorious over recent years. I woke up with the certain knowledge that my Facebook feed would be flooded with commentary, and I felt that it would be too much of a perfect storm – a rare illustration of the interdependent nature of constructions of ethnicity and gender – to ignore. In the end, my feelings of anxiety gave way to pleasant surprise. I admit that a couple of people had chosen to express distaste, dissatisfaction and aversion over the results. But the rest – the overwhelming majority – were warmly supportive, not just of Conchita’s victory, but of her whole personality. They were also roundly critical of how their own countries appeared to have voted.

Given that a lot of my friends here are active in the sphere of human rights, especially women’s rights, it’s not that surprising that they should be celebrating. But human rights in the Caucasus is not necessarily seen as synonymous with LGBT rights – and many women’s right activists who I’ve met have told me that they feel unable to openly defend LGBT rights, though they support those who do. In any case, some of these who commented late last night and early this morning were people who I had never seen make any kind of online statement about freedom of sexuality – not last week, when LGBT activists in Yerevan marked the two year anniversary of the DIY-bar arson attack, not last January, when a 20 year old gay rights activist in Baku committed suicide, not last year, when a peaceful rally on the International Day Against Homophobia was violently attacked by thousands of nationalists in Tbilisi.

But what was even more surprising was the news that emerged later in the day: that the public vote for Conchita in all three countries had far exceeded that of the juries (the final scores are a combination of the ‘televotes’ texted in by viewers, and a five-person panel consisting of music industry professionals). The disparity between the public votes and the votes by jury is striking: in Armenia, the judges placed Conchita second-last, while the public voted her into the second position overall. In Azerbaijan, judges likewise ranked Austria second-last, but the public voted her into third place, enough to earn her a single point in the final tally. The Georgian vote was different. Last night, I almost fell off my chair when I saw that Georgia had given Conchita ten points (or second place); today that was explained by this message which appeared on the official Eurovision website: “The voting of Georgia in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest was based on 100% televoting. In case of technical issues with jury voting, or in case of a breach of rules and/or procedures, the Rules of the Eurovision Song Contest state that 100% televoting shall apply.” In Russia, just so you know, televoters gave Conchita third place, while the jury ranked her eleventh out of twenty-five.

So, what does it all mean? There are many layers of explanation, and perhaps many different explanations, for what happened. Maybe Eurovision was boycotted by all but a liberal few – I haven’t seen the numbers for what percentage of the population either tuned in or voted for their favourite. Maybe people voted for Conchita as a general sign of protest and rebellion, against Russia, against the Customs Union, against conformity, against injustice, against dictatorship, against oppression. Maybe they enjoyed the act of subversion without necessarily appreciating the radical integrity of the performance. Maybe they see no contradiction between supporting Conchita Wurst in Eurovision, and continuing to marginalise LGBT issues in their everyday lives. Maybe they see the contradiction, but feel powerless to overcome it. Maybe they feel safe casting an anonymous Eurovision vote for a distant, bearded, drag queen, and unsafe taking a public stance against homophobia in their own neighbourhood, school or workplace. As Oscar Wilde once said, “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Whatever it means, it’s a sure sign that the rhetoric of Euro-Sodom, homo-fascism, liberasty[3] and gaypolitik (yes, those terms are all enjoying great currency in the Russian language press and social media at the moment) does not hold complete sway over the population here. But why, really, should any of us be surprised by that? The average citizen of the Caucasus or Russia, at least in my experience, is just as politically savvy as their western European counterpart, if not more so. The trouble is, they’re also far more cynical, and far more scared of vocalising protest – with good reason. Everyone is so used to internalising their personal and political opinions all of the bloody time here that it’s hardly surprising they should acquiesce when the state or society puts extra pressure on gay people to internalise their sexual orientation.

It’s also a timely reminder that this story we’re being spoon-fed, the new Cold War saga (“now with gay people!”), is far from the simple tale it’s made out to be – that of civilised, tolerant Europe versus the savage Russian bear-people. Yes, there is a insidious attempt going on, as exposed here and here by Ukrainian NGO Gay Alliance, to manipulate sexual politics for the sake of nationalist agendas. Homophobic attacks, physical and verbal, do go virtually unchecked in this part of the world. Many people grow up feeling ashamed of their sexuality, eventually facing the choice between emigration or living in a kind of internal exile. Thankfully, there are also many people who see this situation for what it is, and refuse to play into the hands of the hetero-political entrepreneurs over something as silly as a song contest. Perhaps they are fighting a losing battle – but perhaps we can help by beginning to realise, and act on, the interconnectedness of all things, and the correlation between sexual freedom and freedom from injustice and corruption.

By evoking my nostalgia for 1990s Ireland in the opening paragraph of this text, I don’t mean to draw facile parallels between my country as it was then, and the South Caucasus as it is now. There are as many differences as there are similarities. But all the same, twenty years ago, who could have predicted the transformation Ireland would undergo over the course of a single decade? Who could have looked at what was happening and realised the almost imperceptible links between one thing and another, or how deep an impression all of it would leave on those of us who were children at the time?

One last thing. I don’t believe that the people in these countries voted for Conchita because all their prejudices were suddenly stripped away by the power of her song. I believe they voted for her because they relished the opportunity to show the rest of Europe that there are people here who value freedom and tolerance. Just as the changes in Ireland didn’t happen overnight, but followed decades of painstaking struggle, with the vocal minority often outweighing the silent majority, the changes here (and there will be changes, that’s for sure) are going to be the result of complex, locally-driven processes – with, just occasionally, an unexpected flashpoint occurring around a bearded lady.


[1] A series of public inquiries into political corruption, usually named after the judges who presided over them. At the time it seemed that they would never end.

[2] The Russian legislature, as opposed to the personal office of the president.

[3] A combination of liberal and pederasty, the latter being widely used as a derogatory term for homosexuals in Russia. In Armenia, women’s rights advocates have recently earned the moniker ‘genderasty’ for their troubles.

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.