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.


Women in Politics in Azerbaijan

A short article I wrote on women in politics in Azerbaijan has been published in the March edition of the Caucasus Analytical Digest. When I say “short,” I mean 2,500 words…all of which can be downloaded on this page of the Centre for Security Studies/ETH Zurich website. Or, if you want the 1,000 word version, read on!

The title of the article is: “Representation, Reform and Resistance: Broadening Our Understanding of Women in Politics in Azerbaijan.” What that’s meant to convey is that no matter what country we’re talking about, women’s political empowerment cannot be measured by looking solely at formal political structures. Only by looking at what women are doing both inside and outside of the system do you get a full sense of the various roles women are playing in society and how this is (re)shaping gender ideology.

Azerbaijan makes an interesting case study, because of all the smoke and mirrors that go on around gender. The prominent role of the First Lady and her daughters suggests that women can certainly be recognised as political actors – and they really do give quite a performance. Large, showy conferences have been held on women’s rights issues, and Azerbaijan knows how to talk the talk when it comes to international gender discourse (as far as I know, the word gender is still relatively fashionable in Azerbaijan, as opposed to Armenia, where it’s become increasingly taboo). Yet at the same time, not a single cabinet minister is a woman. Out of 42 persons of ministerial rank (these include ministers and heads of various state committees), only one, Hijran Huseynova, is a woman. She’s – you guessed it – head of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children’s Affairs.

First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva: President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, UNESCO and ISESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Member of Parliament, and Deputy Chair of the New Azerbaijan Party.

First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva: President of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, UNESCO and ISESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Member of Parliament, and a Deputy Chair of the New Azerbaijan Party.

In parliament, women are a small but notable force (16%). In other countries, that might lead to the formation of a women’s inter-party caucus, but since the Milli Meclis is dominated by the New Azerbaijan Party, it’s hard to know who would join it. Women also performed extremely well in the most recent municipal elections, and now hold 35% of municipal posts. This appears to follow on from a directive from the New Azerbaijan Party, though women’s organisations arguably laid the groundwork by advocating for women’s increased participation at the municipal level for several years.

One of the more interesting things I came across when researching this article was the presentation by Hijran Huseynova to the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The review took place the same week in February I was writing the article, and it was the only mention I could find of a possible 40% quota for female candidates in the parliamentary elections next November. This would be an interesting development, but it raises some big questions: would a quota for female candidates help to narrow the gap in terms of the outcome of elections? Moreover, is it really an achievement for women/feminists if a party that has consolidated total rule over the state simply enforces a gender quota? Or is it more of a throwback to the not-so-far-distant communist past, when women also enjoyed the benefits of a quota system – only to find themselves stripped of representation overnight when the quotas were dropped as part of so-called democratic reforms?

The question that most occupies my mind right now is: what does it mean for women’s civil society organisations if a government whose democratic credentials are under severe suspicion appears to be championing women’s rights? That’s what I’m getting at in the second part of the article, where I talk about reform and resistance. While a lot of women are putting their energies into advocacy and lobbying – around gender quotas and a whole range of other legislative issues, with moderate success – others have become more involved in raising issues around human rights, democracy and political prisoners. In fact, two women, Leyla Yunus and Khadija Ismayil, are perhaps the best-known political prisoners in the country right now (at least, if you take into account the view from outside Azerbaijan). This isn’t simply because as women, they stir more sympathy. It’s because of the work that they have done and the contacts they have built up in international civil society – and the diplomatic community – for decades.

The politics of civil society in Azerbaijan is a murky, messy area, with no angels (though possibly a few devils), and in a way I’m not sorry that I only got to touch on it slightly. There were two other areas I would have loved to write about, but I would have had to write a whole other thesis just to access the information. One is the role of women in the Presidential Administration (which, I learned, does contain women, though I have no idea what they actually do), and the other is the role of women in the economic elites. I did read a number of newspaper articles that referred tantalisingly to the wives and daughters of male oligarchs, but refused to print their names (in some cases there are even photographs, which are lazily captioned “so-and-so with his wife,” no name given). How much power do these women have? How much agency? And there is a third area that I would love someone else to research, which is women’s religious agency.

That’s really everything in a nutshell – you can read the full article (here’s that link again) if you want some more detail on the political system or women in civil society. There are also some not-to-be-missed articles on Georgia by Karolina O’Beacháin Stefanczak (who edited the entire volume) and on Armenia by Gohar Shahnazaryan (who under another hat is a co-founder of the Women’s Resource Centre of Armenia). One thing that this edition definitely made clear to me – there’s enough intellectual puzzlement around women in the Caucasus to warrant a whole separate journal. The Caucasus Women’s Analytical Digest, anyone?