Pyl spoke with Asians of Russia cofounder Vasily Matenov about how the campaign has been helping people despite hounding from the Russian Interior Ministry, and why the residents of Russia’s ethnic republics are the most vulnerable to the Russian state.
How a social media page about ethnic cultures grew into a mutual aid project
Asians of Russia came into being five years ago. I am Buryat myself, and my wife is Tuvan. We lived in Novosibirsk for a while. It’s a city where there are many migrants from Central Asia, and yet the locals often have a negative attitude to this. When you say that you come from Irkutsk, they don’t understand how that could be. Five years ago, we decided to create a social media page that would promote the culture of different nations, so that people could see which nations live in Russia and what their lives are like.
At some point, our social media followers started contacting us for help. We began raising money to treat children with serious illnesses, or to pay for tours by ethnic children’s ensembles. The posts that hit home with the public were reposted thousands of times. We recruited volunteers and raised money to fight the forest fires in Yakutia. People began to trust us more and more.
We somehow got the idea to help manufacturers of local products: furniture, clothing, and jewelry. We began traveling to the regions, filmed stories about their enterprises, talked about what products they produce, and how production is organized. This went on for several months. They paid us small amounts of money, and so we earned a little. But we didn’t have any funding or grants at all.
How Asians of Russia helped its followers after the war’s outbreak
On February 24, I immediately started posting photos from the war, images of soldiers and prisoners, on our Instagram page. At first, users wrote that none of it was true. Then people from the regions began to recognize their relatives among the soldiers. A panic arose.
Lawmakers and officials wrote to us and threatened us. Then the law on “fake news” about the military was passed. One follower telephoned us and said that an acquaintance of his at the Interior Ministry’s Department K (which deals with information technology) had told him that they were very interested in us.
After some time, unknown people started knocking on our door. We didn’t open it: we pretended that no one was home. This went on for three days. On the third day, we exited the apartment late at night and left the country. The Zimin Foundation offered us help in getting out of Russia and a little financial support. My wife and I now live in Poland.
We do crowdfunding campaigns as needed. We raised money to pay the fines people had to pay for making anti-war statements and going to anti-war rallies. These fundraisers raised the amounts of money needed in a matter of minutes.
When the mobilization began, we raised money for buses so that people could leave for Kazakhstan or Mongolia. We were able to evacuate a lot of people in concert with other organizations: we joined forces with with both ethnic movements and the Feminist Anti-War Resistance. Together, we looked for taxi drivers or private carriers who would take people to the border.
We also hired lawyers to help contract soldiers legally refuse to do military service, and we helped conscientious objectors and those whose requests to be dismissed from military service were not approved. Over the past year, we have raised fourteen thousand dollars to pay lawyers and get people out of Russia.
From a follower:
Hello dear ones! You can publish my letter, because a lot of people look at your page and the problem I want to write about is very dire for all of us right now!
We live in a small village, and my husband and I have two underage children. My husband and I were orphans, so we live in a private house that we received from the state. I will not describe what terrible quality these houses are: I hope everyone knows and understands this.
During the mobilization, they tried to take my husband to fight. They were not stopped even by the fact that he has a group-three disability.
After consulting with friends, we decided that it would be better for him to go to Kazakhstan than to go to kill and most likely get killed. Our children love Dad very much, they just wouldn’t survive it. We’d rather he be alive far away than dead in the neighborhood cemetery.
He and a friend quickly packed and left for Kazakhstan. Our little ones call him every evening by video link. Everything has gone well for them in Kazakhstan. They found a job that provides them with a room in a hostel, for which I am very grateful to the Kazakhs!
Our small household has now fallen entirely on my shoulders. We have chickens and a cow, which is about to bear offspring. The house is heated by a stove. We burn coal, which costs about three thousand rubles per ton with delivery. There is no water in the house: we have to go to the nearest water pump for water.
I take the children to school myself, because I’m afraid of dogs. We have had several cases of dogs attacking children, it is very scary. The temperature here is now minus thirty degrees. It was minus forty the previous two weeks.
Don’t get me wrong. We are not in the habit of complaining. We were taught that one must endure no matter how hard life is. But if you think about it, do we deserve such a life?
The children and I like to watch travel shows on YouTube and see how people in other countries live. Watching such programs, you begin to realize that we too could have better lives.
I look at the children and imagine what awaits them, what the future will be like, and I cry at night. 😭 I want to give up everything and leave, but where can I go with two small children and with no money? It’s very scary.
I want to appeal to all those who have not yet lost their minds: may you have strength and patience. Take care of yourselves.
How the authorities have been trying to divide the ethnic community
We have always tried to produce high-quality content, to shoot high-quality videos. So, we initially attracted a very high-quality audience: there were almost no supporters of the war among them. The average age of our audience is between twenty-five and forty-five, and it has been growing even since Instagram was blocked in Russia.
There were bot attacks on our public page. At the same time, there was an influx of followers who would disappear after a couple of hours. They could write racist comments, about which they themselves might file complaints so that our public page would be blocked, or so that it would be subject to a shadow ban and would not show up in the feed.
I know people who are mixed up in such things. First, they organize bot attacks, and then they become aides to lawmakers.
The purpose of these bots is not just to block our profile, but to divide society so that there is no consensus on any issue. You can write any old nonsense. One of our followers admitted that he had worked in such a troll factory. They were told that they could even write that they opposed the authorities. What mattered was that they avoided coming to a unified stance in the comments.
Why Russia’s ethnic regions are the most vulnerable
The authorities understand that if there were a unity of opinion and a common cause in the ethnic regions, everything could flare up like a match. Therefore, propaganda is stronger here: there is not a single independent media outlet. We were in Georgia, and the Georgians said that god forbid the authorities would do something that the people did not like: everyone would immediately go to the parliament to protest. This happens because there is a national cause in Georgia.
There are very close family and friendship ties in the ethnic republics. It is customary in our part of the world to be in touch with fourth cousins and go visit them . It is vital for us to stand up for each other. The authorities have been doing everything possible to destroy this unity in the regions.
That is why all discontent and all protest in Russia is nipped in the bud. For example, when Dmitry Trapeznikov, who had been among the leaders of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” was appointed acting mayor of Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, the whole region rose up to oppose him. The residents of Elista packed the city’s main square every day for a month. Consequently, Russian National Guardsmen from Moscow were brought to Kalmykia to break up the protest, and then all the protest leaders were put on trial. Since then, people in other regions have simply been afraid to take to the streets in protest.
The residents of the Russia’s ethnic republics are the most vulnerable part of the country’s population. They don’t know their rights well. There is no internet in the villages, and people speak Russian poorly. If the authorities go to the villages to mobilize young men for the war, how can they protect themselves? So, we must develop democracy in Russia, starting with the regions.
I’m not a politician or a political scientist. I don’t know exactly how to restructure Russia after Ukraine’s victory, or whether the ethnic republics will secede and how to do that. But I do know that, without independence, nations perish. For example, there are fewer than ten thousand Shors left in Russia, although they are an ethnic group that has existed for two thousand years, since before there were ethnic Russians.
If Russia wins the war, it will only get worse. We must not just turn out for rallies for a free Russia. We must make sure that Ukraine wins. Only then can we take up the vital task of preserving the independence of the nations living now as part of Russia.
Regarding the Convocation of a Congress of People’s Deputies of the Russian Federation in Poland
From open sources, we have learned about an undertaking to convene a Congress of People’s Deputies in the town of Jabłonna, Poland (November 4–7, 2022). The delegates to the Congress are parliamentary deputies of different years and different levels who were elected in internationally recognized elections. Rejection of the war between Russia and Ukraine that began in 2014 and a willingness to change the socio-political system established in the Russian Federation are their common platform. The event’s organizers have announced that they will adopt a “Declaration on the Constitutional Principles of a Free Russia after the Putin regime’s overthrow,” a “list of priority decisions by the post-Putin Russian government,” etc.
In the light of this news:
We cannot but note the fact that [free and fair] elections in the Russian Federation disappeared long before 2014. Ethno-national political parties were banned thirteen years before Ukrainian region of Crimea was annexed. Thus, despite the fact that the Russian Federation, according to its own constitution, is a federation, and most of the ethno-national republics within the Russian Federation are nation-states with their own constitutions, parliaments, and governments, we have been deprived of the opportunity to represent and defend our interests in representative bodies for decades.
We acknowledge that the Russian Federation as a state has gone too far both in its ethno-national policy (extolling the Russian nation as chosen and endowing it with a special status in the Russian Federal Constitution) and in its foreign policy, thus completely destroying the legal space of the federation. The Russian Federation currently has no clear and legitimate borders, nor does it have legitimate representative bodies, since there are “deputies” and “senators” seated in the Federal Assembly who were, allegedly, delegated by illegally annexed foreign territories.
In light of the above considerations, we, representatives of the ethno-national and regionalist movements united in the Free Nations League, declare the following:
1. We do not recognize any political forces and hubs that would justify maintaining the Russian Federation in its current form. We have no need of arbitrators from Moscow, neither from the authorities nor from the opposition. We are open to dialogue and contact only with those who publicly support the right of enslaved peoples to establish independent States.
2. The Russian Federation cannot be re-established by cutting off what was seized by force and holding new elections. It is not elections that are at issue, but the very nature of Russian statehood: it is imperialist and exudes aggression towards its neighbors. This means that we, representatives of ethno-national republics and regions, have the right to shape our own destiny. If there is a discussion of independence for certain lands, let the people themselves hold this discussion, let them decide which confederations or unions to join, free from the intervention of federal forces, be they the government or the opposition. Any attempts at “peacekeeping,” attempts to teach us how to exercise our right to self-determination, will be rejected by us, and if they are intrusive, they will be met with a forceful response.
3. The process of forming a new Russian state should be voluntary and undertaken exclusively by those federal subjects whose legislative bodies vote to join a new federation. All federal parties currently represented among the federal authorities should be banned since they profess a misanthropic ideology that has produced thousands of victims and millions of refugees. The legislative bodies of the former federal subjects must be re-elected democratically, by open and secret ballot, with the involvement of ethno-national and regional political parties. There can be no automatic entry into the “renewed” Russia, no joining it “by inheritance.”
This appeal has been signed by representatives of the following national movements:
Source: Free Nations League, Facebook, 31 October 2022. Thanks to Sergey Ogurtsov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader
The FNL’s Principles
The Russian Federation is an empire that keeps its colonies in servitude by force. It is impossible to liberate them by holding a referendum, just as a referendum on the observance of human rights is impossible under conditions of state terror.
The peoples of the Russian Federation should be able to exercise their right to self-determination. Further federations or confederations can be established only a voluntary basis, not by diktat of the former federal center.
We declare the principle of the presumption of identity and agency [sub’ektnost’]. Accordingly, with the collapse of the current political regime in the Russian Federation, the regions have no need to appeal to anything to endow themselves with sovereignty. By definition, all regions acquire complete sovereignty and full independence from Moscow, and only then, as free territories, do they decide their future: whether they want to maintain independence, unite with other regions and republics, or create a confederation of states.
All subjects of the Russian Federation have the right to independently determine their future.
Source: “About Us,” Free Nations League. Translated by the Russian Reader
The Russian government and pro-Kremlin media say that the aim of Russia’s current war against its neighboring country is the “denazification” of Ukraine. But Farida Kurbangaleyeva argues that Russia’s government has in fact performed “denazification” earlier as well—on the “non-Russian” peoples living in the Russian Federation.
Chukcha tatarskaia—“you Tatar Chukchi”—an unknown woman wrote to me via Facebook. To put it mildly, she had not liked my post about the aftermath of the Russian occupation in Bucha and decided to deliver me the knockout punch with an irrefutable argument. For her, this argument was my ethnicity, and this is understandable: there is nothing more shameful for a member of the “state-forming people” than being a Chukchi, or a Tatar, or a Ukrainian yokel. That is, there is nothing more shameful than not being Russian.
This incident made me think of the “denazification” that Putin has used to justify his military invasion of Ukraine. In spite of his plan, from the start of the full-scale war many people started talking about how about Russia itself needed to be denazified—and I completely agree with this. But this is not the end of the story.
What Putin is calling “denazification” is not a struggle against Nazism, but the desire to destroy national identity, to eliminate the Ukrainians as a people. This is why in the occupied territories, as the Ukrainian authorities report, Ukrainian-language books have been removed from libraries and burned, and the study of Ukrainian has been canceled in schools. Where there is no language, there is no culture, no identity, no people. Meanwhile, in Russia, other peoples have been similarly “denazified” already. With more or less bloodshed, but in any case, quite successfully.
My personal denazification began shortly after my third birthday—when I first went to nursery school. At that age I spoke fluently in my native Tatar. One of my relatives loves to recall me energetically explaining the pictures to her from my book about the surrounding world: Менә бу әшәке гөмбә, ә менә бусы — әйбәте. (Mena bu ashake gumba, a mena buse—aibate: “This is an inedible mushroom, and this one is good.”)
I have to admit that it would be hard for me to repeat the stunt now. The nursery-school teachers had been given strict instructions: Soviet children should only have one language—Russian. Everything else was the devil’s work, forget it.
The denazification worked—by the first grade I still understood Tatar, but already had a hard time speaking it. That’s how I am now: I can understand everything being said to me, but I switch to Russian to reply. Why waste time fumbling for the right words?
For many people, Tatar language was a much-despised subject at school. And it’s not surprising: you knew that there was absolutely no reason to study it. People rarely spoke it at home, and in some places not at all, and it was unlikely to come in handy in the future either. Some of my Tatar classmates didn’t even go to Tatar language classes, preferring to take local history classes with the Russian kids instead. That is, they practically didn’t know their native language at all.
This was the late Soviet period, when the myth of the “friendship of peoples” and equality was still actively promoted. “Look at what a good student Farida is,” my teacher Anna Viktorovna would say to my classmate Roma. “Even though she’s a Tatar girl.”
I suppose that my mother had also encountered the same sort of approving motherly intonation at her first job at a nursery school (when she was just out of school and hadn’t yet entered Kazan University as a physics student). One of the other teachers—a woman from a Russian village—would tenderly refer to my mother as “my little chaplashka.”[The chaplashka is a typical Tatar skullcap, but it can be used as a condescending term for Turkic peoples.] At around the same time you could regularly hear people on the Kazan trams saying, “Hey you there! Quit talking in your language!”
But I digress. These are my memoirs, not my mother’s.
I can say that nearly all of my urban Tatar agemates—people who were kids in the 1980s—are a linguistically handicapped generation. Speaking Tatar was awkward and embarrassing. The primary native speakers at this time were people from the villages. Of course, there was also the urban Tatar intelligentsia, but it was so thin and fragile that one almost never heard Tatar spoken in the cities. Except maybe in the national theater.
Because of this, when the republic declared its “sovereignty” in the 1990s and Tatar became a required subject, the majority of the people who came to teach it in schools and universities were villagers. Many of them spoke Russian with a strong accent, lacked a certain confidence and even dressed more poorly than their colleagues in physics, algebra, or English. People treated them correspondingly, referring to them condescendingly as “Soviet farm workers” [kolkhozniki].
It’s hard to imagine anyone yelling at their schoolkid for getting a D in Tatar. What’s more, some parents openly admitted to encouraging their kids not to study it. No one was worried about the final grade report—by the time graduation rolled around, they would get all As and Bs. Who would want to ruin someone’s life over a pointless subject? The same situation held in the technical schools and universities.
The time came for us to become parents ourselves. What could we say to our kids in the “mother tongue”? At best a few primitive phrases. The grandparents would try to make up for lost time, but “lost” is the key word here.
I’ve observed the following scenario several times. At the playground, a group of mothers gangs up on the mother of a “late-speaking” child. “It’s all because you speak two languages at home. That’s not right, you have to pick,” they say. Some of these “instructors” themselves send their kiddos to “early development schools” where the kids are taught English as early as possible—either from the moment the child starts turning over, or maybe when it can lift its head. After all, everyone knows that the earlier you start learning a second language, the better.
Meanwhile, the Russians in Tatarstan are very tolerant Russians. They’re long since used to Tatar names and holidays, and mixed marriages. They know the words isanmesez [исәнмесез] (hello), rakhmat [рәхмәт] (thank you), and sometimes even say Alla birsa [Алла бирсә] (God willing) as a joke. When I left for Moscow, I realized that in other regions the problem isn’t just that Russians don’t want to learn the languages of ethnic minorities. Russia is both a multi-ethnic and a xenophobic country.
My experience working as an anchor on TV channel Rossiya was pretty revealing. It was 2007. Alexandra Buratayeva and Lilya Gildeyeva [who are ethnic Kalmyks and Tatars, respectively] had already made their names on national television, but the negative wow-effect was nevertheless plain to see. Online, I would periodically run into requests like “get rid of that churka” [a racial slur mostly used for people from the Caucasus and Central Asia] or questions like “What, you couldn’t find a Russian woman? Where are the Katyas, Mashas, Natashas?”
My colleagues mostly treated me with decency and goodwill. Well, if you don’t count the entertaining questions like whether I’d been on the Hajj or eaten horsemeat. Or the kinds of questions every member of an ethnic minority gets, like:
“What is your Russian name?”
“This is my only name.”
Rage, negotiation, unwilling acceptance.
I know of many cases when a Fidail has become a Fedya [Ted], a Gulnur., a Gulya, and a Kamil, a Kolya [Nick]. Even closer to home, my grandmother, Khadicha Fazleyevna, lived for fifty years in a communal apartment where she was known as “Auntie Katya.” My friend, an Avar named Maryan, told me that when she was studying at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, she usually told people her name was Marianna. She thought that people would be nicer to her that way. One girl from her circle of university friends would periodically say to her, “Gosh, you’re so normal—just like us.”
I remember that once a Sberbank employee, holding my Russian Federation-issued passport and reading out my full name, asked me what my citizenship was. That the principal of the school my daughter went to wasn’t sure that her intellectual capacity was the same as her Muscovite agemates: “Southern children (!) achieve physical maturity more quickly, but sometimes lag intellectually.” A midwife in a Moscow birth center asked me whether newborns are swaddled in my country.
One time my wallet was stolen in a mall. The first word uttered by the policeman who came to investigate was “Darkies?” [churbany]. I was stunned, because in my understanding no defender of public order has the right to utter this word. I replied, “It was two women of Slavic appearance,” which obviously stunned the policeman in turn.
My second cousin Azamat was unable to rent an apartment in Moscow. As soon as they heard his name over the phone, Muscovites would ask, “What are you, an Uzbek?” and hang up. He didn’t have time to tell them about his excellent job or steady salary at Sberbank. He was able to rent only through people he knew.
To expand my examples beyond my personal life, I called all my non-Russian friends. I didn’t have to make any effort to seek anyone out or ask insistently for comments. These are all stories of just “one degree of separation.”
Ibragim, a Kumyk born in Grozny (Chechnya): “Once I submitted my papers for a foreign-travel passport and couldn’t get it for eight months. I was told repeatedly that it wasn’t ready yet. In the end I just sat down in the office of the passport officer and declared I wouldn’t leave until I got my passport. The man clearly hadn’t expected such audacity. He thought for a while and then took my passport out of his desk.”
Artur, a Chechen born in Grozny: “We fled Chechnya during the First Chechen War. I went to a bunch of different schools. When I was in the fifth grade, we lived in Cherkessk. One time in class, people started talking about Chechens, and the teacher said, looking right at me, ‘You’re basically all terrorists, you need to be isolated.’ When I started at university, I couldn’t get a job. I didn’t become a waiter at a cafe, a salesman at a store, or someone handing out advertisement flyers [like other university students]. A few years ago, I was barred from entering a Moscow nightclub on New Year’s Eve. The security guy looked at my passport and refused to let me in. When I asked him to explain why, he said, ‘No comment.’”
Alexandra, a Buryat from St. Petersburg: “I never wanted to go down into the subway, where people always gave us dirty looks. One time I was riding with my whole family and heard someone say, ‘They’re breeding up a storm.’ Another time I was walking toward the escalator and a stranger started to shoulder me out of the line. I kept going, so then he shoved me aside roughly and said, ‘You should always let Russians ahead of you! Got it?’”
Alexandra was one of the organizers of the initiative Buryats Against the War in Ukraine. She asked Russia-based subscribers to talk about examples of xenophobia they’d encountered living in Russia. She’s been getting messages for over a month now. Reading them, Alexandra nearly stopped sleeping. One time she wrote me at three in the morning to say she (and many of her respondents) needed a therapist.
But getting back to my Tatars and my denazification. A few years ago, Tatar language was once again made optional as a school subject in Tatarstan. It was happily dropped not only by Russians, whose pressure had largely caused the law to be passed, but also by many Tatars. Why bother? Everyone knows that there’s absolutely no point: almost no one speaks Tatar anywhere, and there’s unlikely to be any need for it in the future. At least at this point in history, speaking Tatar at home isn’t forbidden. The idea was just that: “Speak it at home” and even “How terrible that they used to forbid that.”
Thanks a lot, but “speaking at home” is also a road to nowhere. It also means the loss of language, just dragged out a bit. I can confirm this through the example of some Russians I know who have lived in the Czech Republic for many years.
Here’s a mother who delights in her fifteen-year-old daughter: “You wouldn’t believe it! She wrote a card to her grandma yesterday without making a single mistake!” That is, the girl speaks Russian very well (because they speak it at home), but the grammar is a real problem for her. This girl’s children will speak Russian a bit worse and barely be able to write. The grandchildren will speak in broken Russian and tell their friends that their grandma was Russian. Cool, right?
Without systematic lessons and academic programs, textbooks and teaching aids, courses and constant practice, a language cannot be preserved. All the more so if it’s optional. Imagine if people studied Russian in schools as an elective. Or chemistry, or algebra. Would many students want to take these subjects? Losing a language when it’s “study it if you want to” is just a matter of two or three generations.
No one among my Russian friends who were born and raised in Tatarstan knows Tatar or is planning to learn it. As an illustration, I offer a few sample conversations with my girlfriends. Both are cultured, educated women and highly empathetic. They would never call me a “Tatar Chukchi.”
Dialogue No. 1 (which took place prior to the reversal of the Tatar language requirement in schools):
“Tatar’s on the schedule every day, I’m so sick of it! Katya (her daughter, whose name has been changed) gets so exhausted by it. I wish they’d get rid of it already!”
“And what will you do if they get rid of it?”
“I want them to bring in English, and Italian would be good too. I’d love for her [Katya] to go to university in Italy.”
“But it’s not like all the kids are going to go do that. Many of them will spend their whole lives in Tatarstan.”
“So? What do they need Tatar for?”
“To talk with their friends, for instance. Listen, wouldn’t you like to know Tatar, so you could speak it with me? I speak Russian with you, after all.”
“You got to be kidding! Isn’t that an awfully big sacrifice to make—studying Tatar just so I can talk with you?”
Dialogue No. 2, quoted as a monologue (it was delivered after Tatar was made non-obligatory):
“Thank God, they got rid of Tatar. When I think back on my school days I just shudder (she utters in Tatar the phrase ‘My homeland is the Republic of Tatarstan,’ purposefully mispronouncing the words). They should just make them take local history instead. At work I have a ton of Russian colleagues who used to live in Kazakhstan. They have a hard time getting Russian citizenship here. They have to take a Russian-language exam if you can believe it. But in Kazakhstan they’re really mistreated—they’re forced to learn Kazakh. I even thought lucky my grandparents came here to build the KAMAZ [auto factory] instead of Baikonur [a cosmodrome built in Soviet Kazakhstan]. Otherwise, I’d be suffering—having to learn Kazakh or trying to get Russian citizenship.”
Just a minute! My grandparents didn’t go anywhere to build factories. And my other grandparents didn’t either. They spent their whole lives living on this land. And before that, for centuries, their grandparents lived on the same land. They spoke, read, and wrote in Tatar. Until the moment when someone decided to administer and regulate this process—to denazify the Tatars, you might say.
Yes, Putin started using the term, but he didn’t start the process, of course. The policy of stan “foreigners” was pursued under the Russian Empire as well and hit a high point during Soviet times. Over the past one hundred years, the Tatars have had their alphabet changed twice. Before the Bolshevik coup and for a little while afterwards, Tatars wrote and read in Arabic. This writing system was left alone even when the gate of Lyadsky Garden in downtown Kazan sported a sign saying, “No musicians or Tatars allowed.”
In the late 1920s, Tatar was switched to yañalif—an alphabet based on the Latin one, and then in 1939 to Cyrillic—by the way, easily the most inconvenient option for Tatar phonetics. Consequently, Tatars were cut off from an enormous store of literature, poetry, philosophical and religious works written using the Arabic script. And, by extension, from their own history and culture.
My father, who was born in 1940, spent his childhood and youth in the Old Tatar district—a low-lying part of Kazan where Tatars historically lived. Now this neighborhood has been transformed into a colorful tourist trap with a gaudy ethnic flair. But we have to remember that before 1917 Tatars didn’t have a choice: they did not have the right to live in the prestigious upper part of the city.
According to my papa, when he was growing up in the neighborhood, not a single Russian lived there who didn’t know Tatar. And around mid-century there were quite a few Russians living there. His childhood friends Polina and Katya would switch to Tatar every time they wanted to keep secrets from their mother, who didn’t know Tatar. This means that places spared the denazification process saw wonderful results—a genuine, not sham, friendship of peoples. With true equality, mutual respect, and the preservation of ethnic identity.
Nowadays this tale sounds fantastical, and I can’t find an answer to my question: why did those Russians not mind speaking Tatar, and where did those Russians go? I also have a feeling of guilt for not putting enough effort into developing and preserving the language in my own family. I think I should have hired a tutor. I think I should have bought a self-instruction manual. I think I should speak with my elderly parents more often. At least now, at least a little. And even in a sloppy way, I should still try to speak Tatar with my kids.
So, there is a grain of truth in what the unknown woman on Facebook said. In some sense I really am a “Tatar Chukchi”—an incomprehensible hybrid, a person without kith or kin and without a language, trying to seize hold of her roots before they wither away.
And what will happen later, when Ukraine prevails in the war with Russia, securing both a moral and a physical victory? What will happen when the Ukrainians liberate the occupied territories, when they bring Ukrainian back into the schools, when they publish wonderful new books written in Ukrainian? And when Russia (I really want to believe this) will truly and finally be free? What will happen, not with the Ukrainians, of course, but with us—the denazified Russian-dwelling chebureks? I hope I’m wrong about this, but I think I know what will happen.
I recently stumbled across an openly xenophobic comment on Facebook. The thread was discussing the sanctions that the US government was afraid to implement against Alina Kabaeva. One of the contributors wrote, “What do they expect from her? She’s a typical Tatar woman: husband, kids, family. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to do that.” This comment was liked by someone with whom I share a few dozen friends, someone who’d posted lots of fiery statements against the war in Ukraine.
When I expressed astonishment in response, the Facebook-friend posted a bunch of smile emojis and wrote, “Sorry.” But when I noted that I didn’t find it funny at all, his tone changed abruptly. He wrote repeatedly that he was “speaking with me as an equal” and advised me to “not be stuffy and blow things out of proportion.”
Thus, we non-Russians will go down with this warship. We’ll go where the free Ukrainians—who speak their native language at home, and at school, and at work, and wherever they want—sent it.
We’ll head for the bottom along with our country’s liberal civil society, which will genuinely rejoice over Ukraine’s victory, and then set about building “the beautiful Russia of the future.” But a few things in this new Russia will stay the same. No one there will force anyone to study non-native or pointless languages. After all, this is a violation of rights and freedoms and is basically non-democratic. There will be fewer and fewer people trying to study them on their own. Those who wish to can speak them at home or take elective classes. And not blow anything out of proportion. Those who attempt to get uppity about it will be declared ethnic nationalists and Russophobes.
You’re hearing this from me, the “Tatar Chukchi.”
Source: Farida Kurbangaleyeva, “My Personal Denazification,” Holod, 28 May 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM. Photo (above) courtesy of Wikipedia. Farida Kurbangaleyeva (Фәридә Корбангалиева/Färidä Qorbanğälieva) worked as a presenter of the program “Vesti” (“The News”) on the Rossiya channel until 2014 and, later, as a presenter on the channel Current Time. Now an independent journalist, she lives in Prague.
According to official statistics, ethnic Kazakhs [so-called Astrakhan Kazakhs] make up 16% of population of the Astrakhan Region. At the same time, 80% of the region’s residents who have been killed in the war in Ukraine and whose deaths have been publicly acknowledged by relatives or the authorities, are members of this particular ethnic group. Idel.Realii talked to several Astrakhan residents to understand why this is the case and what reaction it causes in the local community.
The situation is similar in regions without the status of “republics” — the Astrakhan Region is sending mainly ethnic Kazakhs, not ethnic Russians, to war. According to our figures, the regional and municipal authorities of the Lower Volga have acknowledged, as of today, the deaths of twenty-six natives of the region in the war in Ukraine. Based on the names of the victims and their places of birth, it is possible to say with a high degree of probability that twenty-one of them are ethnic Kazakhs.
Kazakhs are the second largest ethnic group in the Lower Volga after Russians. The 2010 census revealed that around 150 thousand Kazakhs live in the Astrakhan Region. Thus, the ethnic Kazakh population makes up 16% of the region’s residents who indicated their ethnicity. But Kazakhs are in the majority among the acknowledged war dead. Twenty-one out of twenty-six is 80% — that is, the disparity is fivefold.
Fragmentary reports coming from Astrakhan’s rural areas in the early days of the war suggest that the number of the region’s residents killed in Ukraine may be significantly higher than the official data admits. The ethnic imbalance is also noticeable in unconfirmed cases. Reports of war dead appeared mainly in the chats of residents of the Volodarsky District, the only part of the Astrakhan Region where Kazakhs make up the absolute majority of the population.
Idel.Realii talked to several residents of the Astrakhan Region to understand the possible causes of this imbalance and what people in the region think about it. The names of the interviewees have been changed for their safety.
“THE ONLY WAY TO FEED A FAMILY”
“This is not a new story: Kazakhs have always been represented in the uniformed services more than other Astrakhan residents,” says Aisulu from the Volodarsky District. “If you walk around the regional center, you will notice that almost half of the police officers are Kazakh in appearance — which is also much more than the proportion of Kazakhs in the entire population. You see the same picture among contract soldiers in the military.”
She believes that this is due to the fact that Astrakhan Kazakhs have traditionally been settled in small villages in rural areas.
“Many of them are located far from the city. They do not have permanent transport links with the outside world. They are separated from the main roads via one or more ferry crossings,” she says. “There is a high unemployment rate in such areas, and if you have bigger ambitions than working in agriculture, the main ways are rotation work or service in law enforcement and the military. The second option, of course, is regarded as more stable (not to mention respectable), so young guys from villages go en masse into the army and the police. This is often the only way for them to feed their families.”
According Aisulu, Kazakhs also choose to serve in law enforcement and the military more often than ethnic Russians because they have fewer job prospects in large cities: due to xenophobia, many employers prefer to hire a person of Slavic appearance, automatically considering them more competent and presentable. According to Aisulu, this further narrows career choices, motivating Astrakhan Kazakhs to go into voluntary [contract] military service, where ethnicity does not play such a huge role.
“WE DO NOT AND CANNOT HAVE INTERESTS IN UKRAINE”
“In the context of the current war, there may be another factor — ideology. Yes, there are an unusually large number of Kazakhs among Astrakhan military personnel, but they are clearly not the absolute majority. Why do we hear almost only about their deaths? We can assume that the command deliberately sends soldiers of non-Russian appearance to the front line to emphasize the formal justification for the attack on Ukraine: ‘the multi-ethnic people of the Russian Federation’ are fighting ‘fascism,'” says Adilbek, a native of the Narimanov District.
In his opinion, this is ironic.
“This is, allegedly, a campaign by a multi-ethnic people, in which there are Kazakhs, among others, and Putin says, ‘I am Lak, Jewish, Mordvin, Ossetian,’ but this campaign is aimed at expanding the ethnic Russian world and promoting Russian ethnic interests. It has nothing to do with the interests of Laks, Ossetians, or Kazakhs. We do not and cannot have interests in Ukraine at all, we have nothing to do with it. I see a sad irony in this. Russian fascists are waging an aggressive war, leading minorities into battle and taking cover behind fictional anti-fascism. Consequently, our guys are dying for people who actually despise them and are just using them.”
“WE DON’T WANT OUR CHILDREN TO DIE”
Rufina, a relative of an Astrakhan Kazakh who has died in the war in Ukraine, and a native of the Astrakhan Region’s Kamyzyak District, says that many residents of her village have gone to fight. Two other relatives of her parents are currently in Ukraine.
“My mother, grandmother, and other women who remain in the village are rather apolitical people with no coherent system of views. They are, in fact, now opposed to the war, but in their own way: ‘We don;’t want our children to die god knows where and god knows for whom.’ This does not prevent them from chewing out Ukraine and making fun of Zelensky, but they also chew out Putin. The only thing they really want is for all of it to stop and for their children to come home. The men are a little different: my uncle wears a T-shirt emblazoned with a Z, and some people in the village dress up children in these symbols. But I don’t consider this a direct endorsement of the war. In my opinion, their motivation, rather, is just to support their brothers, since they are [in Ukraine],” explains Rufina.
She actively opposes the war and puts up anti-war leaflets in the courtyards of residential areas in Astrakhan, but admits that this stance is not very popular even among her peers — people of high school age.
“Propaganda, unfortunately, does a bang-up job in these parts: many people believe in the ‘special operation’ and despise all Ukrainians. Our Russian-language teacher told us in class about ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ and went to a rally celebrating the ‘reunification’ of Crimea and Russia. I don’t see much opposition from schoolchildren,” says Rufina.
“On the other hand, I met some like-minded women who helped me with leaflets. We made small handwritten posters featuring slogans like ‘Silence is consent,’ ‘No death, no war,’ and ‘Bring flowers, not destruction,’ and pasted them on poles and bulletin boards. They were quickly torn down, however — whether by janitors or ordinary people who didn’t agree with [our message], I don’t know,” says Rufina.
“THE SENSELESSNESS IS STUNNING”
Kanat, who lives in Astrakhan, believes that the region’s residents are gradually losing interest in the events in Ukraine.
“War, like any other topic, cannot grip people’s attention for a long time. During the first month, I heard condemnation and discontent from the people around me and noticed that they were depressed. Now everyone is immersed in their daily problems again,” says Kanat. “There are more of these problems, but for some reason people no longer link them to what the army has been doing at the behest of the authorities. At the same time, it is clear that there is no freedom of speech, there is no criticism of the government and its actions, and we are thinking about how to live with what we have at the moment.”
“A colleague of mine says that when a war is on you must not condemn your country’s army. You can figure things out afterwards, but for now you can only support them. I don’t understand this. If this were a war to defend our own territory, to defend our rights and freedoms, then yes, we could say that, for the moment, we could close our eyes to certain crimes committed by the army or by individuals, and we would get to the bottom of them later. But now the exact opposite — a war of aggression — is happening,” claims Kanat.
According to him, he finds it “strange to see the posthumous medals for Kazakhs.”
“Maybe Kazakhs are not the only soldiers from Astrakhan Region who are getting killed, but I don’t really remember the others, to be honest. The senselessness is stunning. If you believe the rhetoric of the authorities, ethnics Russians are not loved in Ukraine, but ethnic Kazakhs from the Volodarsky District are dying for their interests. But I think that protests in Kazakhstan are more important to them than the rights of Russian-speaking residents of Odesa,” Kanat argues.
“TO BECOME WHITE IN THE EYES OF WHITES”
“Why are Kazakhs and other non-ethnic Russian Russian Federation nationals fighting? I would like to say that it is impossible to explain, but in fact I understand it,” says Rasul, a Kazakhstani national who moved to Russia to study at university. “First of all, these are people from poor regions, for whom the army is a way to move up in life, to become white in the eyes of whites, to become ethnic Russian in the eyes of ethnic Russians, to join something big and supposedly majestic. Secondly, Russian propaganda has this amazing property — it takes all imperial narratives that have existed in this country and fascistizes them to the limit. If you love the Russian Empire, here’s Christ for you. If you love the USSR, here’s the red banner. If you love Russia, here’s the tricolor. Are you a Tuvan who speaks Russian poorly? Here’s the opinion that [Russian defense minister Sergei] Shoigu is the reincarnation of Subutai. Are you a Kadyrovite? Here’s jihad for you. It all affects you, staying somewhere in your head, and when you are sent off to war, you easily find a moral justification for what you are doing.”
Rasul notes that he, perhaps, “would like to denounce ethnic Kazakhs involved in the war, to ‘discharge’ them from the Kazakh people, to say that they are all traitors.”
“From the viewpoint of sharia, they actually are traitors: all muftis, except the pro-Putin ones, have condemned this war. At the Last Judgment, these soldiers will be asked, ‘What did you die for? For Putin and his yacht? Well, then go to hell with them.’ But, to be honest, I feel more sorry for them on the purely human level than for the ethnic Russian guys, because after three years of living in Russia I understood how this propaganda works, how this society as a whole is organized, what the dynamics of interethnic relations are. I myself have many questions for our government, many problems with ethnic Kazakh and Kazakhstani identity, but over these two months I have repeatedly discussed Ukraine with my friends from Kazakhstan — with ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Russians, ethnic Uyghurs, ethnic Dungans, ethnic Germans, and ethnic Poles — and we have always agreed that if Russia invaded us, we would go to war and shoot at the occupiers. We may speak Russian perfectly and have an excellent grasp of Russian literature, but this is our land, and we don’t need any ‘Russian world’ in it,” the Kazakhstani concludes.
Leader of World Proletariat with Female Gate Attendant Reflected in Security Mirror, SUV, and New Year’s Tree. December 18, 2016, 11 Lomanaya Street, St. Petersburg
Monument to V.I. Lenin
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (pseudonym – Lenin) (1870-1924) was a Russian and Soviet world-class politician and statesman, revolutionary, founder of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party (Bolsheviks), and one of the organizers and leaders of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. The monument was erected on the 87th anniversary of Lenin’s birth on the premises of the former Proletarian Victory shoe factory. Unveiled on April 22 , 1957. Cast from a model by the sculptor P.I. Bondarenko.
Source: 2gis.ru. Photo and translation by the Russian Reader
• • • • •
In Petrograd, “cryptic” messages like this one (spray painted on the fence of the now-defunct Krupskaya Confectionery Factory) are giving the sex ads stenciled everywhere on the pavements and walls a stiff run for their money. Basically, if you want to get whacked out of your mind on “bath salts” and then have sex with a prostitute, this town is the place for you. And it visually reminds you of that fact a thousand times a day, every which way you look. But don’t dream of holding a spontaneous political protest: then the law will come down hard on you. But gnarly, highly addictive drugs and prostitution (amidst an HIV epidemic) it can live with. ||| TRR, December 18, 2015
An important public service message from the kleptocratic post-fascist hybrid regime: Make your family strong, not your liquor! “In Russia, 16% of families break up due to alcoholism.” Uff da! ||| TRR, December 18, 2015
Post-Soviet “ethnic diversity” gone bad. Four “folk singers” from god knows what republic or “little people of the north” lip-synching a folk song at the New Year’s bazaar on Pioneer Square in Petrograd. ||| TRR, December 18, 2015
The incident involving Lucia Timofeyeva (pictured) took place in an Omsk city jitney. Photos courtesy of Oleg Malinovsky and Lucia Timofeyeva. Courtesy of NGS55.ru
Male Jitney Passenger Hits Female Pensioner on Head for Speaking Her Native Language He rudely demanded that the woman speak Russian, and when she refused, he punched her NGS55.ru
September 24, 2020
On September 21, 66-year-old Lucia Timofeyeva was going home on the No. 51 jitney in Omsk. The ethnic Tatar woman was talking on the phone in her native language with a friend. But the ethnic Russian man seated behind her didn’t like it.
“I was talking calmly and quietly, my back turned to the window. I was talking to an old woman, and since she couldn’t hear well, maybe sometimes I spoke louder, I don’t know. The man tapped me on the shoulder, roughly, and said, ‘Either speak Russian or shut up!’ He was a tall palooka. I looked at him and said, ‘Go to hell! Why can’t I speak my own language?’ started talking again. He hauled off and punched me in the head. He was wearing knuckledusters probably because there is a bruise on my head and it still hurts,” the pensioner told NGS55.ru.
Timofeyeva threatened to report the man to the police, but he got up from his seat and was ready to continue the dust-up. Frightened, the woman decided to calmly travel to her stop. However, the aggressive man got out of the bus with her. She recognized her assailant as a forty-year-old gardener at the local gardening co-op.
“My relatives decided that we should not the matter go. I wanted to calm down, though. My daughter took me to the police, and they took my statement, but told me to wait until the district police officer returned from sick leave. I still need to gave my injuries officially certified. I have a bruise. It hurts especially when I comb my hair,” the woman said, adding that her family wanted to deal with the assailant themselves, but she dissuaded them, hoping for a legal resolution to the situation.
The press service of the interior ministry’s regional office confirmed to NGS55.ru that Lucia Timofeyeva had given them a statement.
The woman added that she had never been in such situations in her life, nationalism was alien to her, and she had had an ethnic Russian husband. All she wants from the man who assaulted her is for him to admit his guilt and apologize to her. So far, however, he has not taken any action.
“I sometimes get on the bus and Caucasians and Armenians are speaking their own languages. Would he have said anything to them, I wonder? I don’t think so. He would have kept his mouth shut. But he was quick to raise his hand against a woman,” she noted.
Thanks to Elena Vilenskaya and RFE/RL for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader
“My name is Bayan Mirzakeyeva. I am 21 years old, and I am an ethnic Kazakh from Almaty. I have been living and studying in St. Petersburg at the Architectural University for several years. It was here, in Russia, that I realized that I was “non-white” and learned about this condescending and contemptuous attitude towards myself. Since almost no one around me talks about racism and migration, I wanted to make my own statement. I posted these pictures on social networks and have faced different reactions, from support to aggression and rejection. This was expected, but it has been a kind of impetus for me to continue working with this problem.”
Bayan sent us her illustrations, and we are publishing them for you.
Anush Avetisyan’s opinion piece in the Stavropol Pravda newspaper. The sidebar contains a summary of polling data on (the mostly negative) Russian attitudes towards ethnic minorities and migrants. Courtesy of Anusha Avetisyan’s Facebook page
I haven’t written about racism, the death of George Floyd, or the protests all these days. It hurts me to think and talk about it. No matter how childish it sounds, I would have liked to have been on the scene at that moment and saved Floyd by getting personally involved. When I was a second-year student of journalism, I needed such help. I couldn’t breathe, either. I was suffocated by constant reminders that I was an “other,” that I and my kind had “ruined the neighborhood,” that I was “desecrating Russian culture,” and that I was a “blackass.” (Sorry!)
I had thought that once I found myself among educated people, I would finally forget what discrimination and nationalism were. But no. Even more often was I forced to hear comments like “Why are so you normal, when all wogs act like they’ve just come down from the mountains?”
Maybe because you have a lot of prejudices?
I was the only person in my class to graduate from school with distinction, and the teacher decided to congratulate me by saying the following to my schoolmates: “Look, you lot should be ashamed. Even she, a NON-RUSSIAN, could do it!”
During lectures on the cultural history of Stavropol Territory, my female university classmates were eager to prove that Caucasians were originally not from the Caucasus, and that “national minorities” (as they called all non-Russians) had no place in Russia. My classmates would ask me mockingly why I didn’t cover my head with a scarf and celebrate Ramadan. This proved not only that they were ignorant of the history and culture of other countries, but also that they viewed all people with dark hair and thick eyebrows as an undifferentiated black mob of non-Russians with cultures, traditions, and values they found incomprehensible.
When I got a job on the radio, the editor tried to make me lose my “Caucasian accent.” I still don’t understand how I could have had one, since we spoke Russian at home all our lives. Unfortunately, my dad does not know Armenian, as he grew up in Petersburg.
The problem of racism exists here in the United States, but it was in this country that I first felt at home. This can be said by many immigrants from all over the world, by people of various nationalities. Here “others” are accepted and given the same opportunities.
I found this copy of an opinion column in the Stavropol Pravda that I wrote as a second-year journalism student in my grandmother’s personal belongings. She trusted me with her innermost secrets. Among letters from her son, audiotapes of her daughter singing, and postcards from her beloved granddaughters, I found my cri de coeur, neatly clipped from the newspaper. My grandmother, the closest person in the world to me, knew how important the subject was to me, how much anguish I feel when faced with injustice.
Anush Avetisyan is a journalist at Voice of America and lives in Washington, DC. Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the link. Translated by the Russian Reader