What is Russia?
This existential question bedevils politicians and academics alike. During Soviet times, there was a much clearer answer to the question, “What is the Soviet Union?” It was the union of peoples working towards a socialist society. Questions of nationality (what government leads you) were easy to answer: the Soviet government. But questions of ethnicity (what group you belong to) were still there: Armenian? Tatar? Chuvash?
When the Soviet Union feel apart, nationality came back in the mix once again since Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, etc., were all now their own countries. In fact, it became ever more complicated as people migrated from one country to another, and from one region to another. All the organizations I visited on Thursday were wrestling with this issue.
First stop was Library #8, the People’s Friendship Library. Founded soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1994, the library’s main goal is to help people keep up with their heritage and pass cultural knowledge on to children. The library has over 18,000 items in its collection, with over two thousand in languages spoken in Bashkortostan.
We were welcomed by the bubbly Roza Raisovna, a Bashkir herself who, oddly enough, can speak Tatar but not Bashkir. This is one of the weird things about Bashkortostan– it’s like I said in my last post, there are fewer Bashkirs in Bashkortotstan than Tatars. Anyhow, Roza enthusiastically served us tea and showed me around the library. She was all dressed up, as if my visit were a special occasion. I got the feeling maybe she was told I was some sort of important guest, and I awkwardly explained that I’m just a random American who found her way to the library out of curiosity.
Behind us you can see the displays for all the books in the region’s languages. Roza’s on the right and to my left is a Turkmen gentleman named Sapamurat; more on him in a minute. I honestly do not know who the woman on the far left is, but she mostly spent her time trying to get Roza’s camera out of video mode. This is certainly another Universal Human Experience: every time I meet anyone new we all spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to figure out how to operate our own tech devices.
Roza took me through the stacks to show me their American literature section. “Who is your favorite American author?” she asked. I desperately tried to think of an American author that I both genuinely like and that she might have heard of. I settled on Hemingway out of simple mental exhaustion. I think I remember I liked some Hemingway back in high school. “Oh, we don’t have any Hemingway, but look, here’s Catcher in the Rye and here’s The Call of the Wild!” Pretty darn impressive for a little library. Does the Tucson library have any Bashkir literature?
We exchanged business cards and promised to keep in touch for an as-yet-unconceived-of collaboration and Lyalya pressed on, leading me off to the House of the Friendship of Peoples.
There I was met by Ambartsum, the Vice-President of the Armenian Cultural Center. We got to talking about migration pretty quickly. He moved from Armenia a long time ago and now helps new Armenians adjust to Ufa. He said it was much easier during Soviet times because the idea of the “brotherhood of nations” was taught in school; it was part of the common fabric of understanding. Now…not so much.
I was soon treated to coffee (everyone generously caffeinates me everywhere I go) and Central Asian dried fruit and nuts. Saparmurat came in and talked about his home country of Turkmenistan, from which he had relocated many years ago. He repeated several times that Turkmenistan is neutral and, as a parting gift, he gave me a book on “Neutral Turkmenistan.” Apparently, since 1995 Turkmenistan has declared itself to be permanently neutral, like Switzerland. Turkmenistan is in a rough neighborhood (it borders Afghanistan and Iran) and has quite a lot of natural gas so it has reason to worry about getting drawn into some sort of war with somebody. For decades Turkmenistan was ruled by a colorful dictator that outlawed opera and named everything after himself. Saparmurat was the first Turkmen I had ever met and he was charming. Look at him and his family making dograma, a dish of torn bread, stewed lamb, and chopped onion. You hear his “Mmm-hmmm!”?
At the House of Friendship of Peoples I also chatted with a very nice man who invited me to visit Tajikistan and a gentleman from Azerbaijan.
We hurried off for a quick visit to a museum and then met with one of Lyalya’s friends, who quickly asked me this difficult question: the United States is a multi-ethnic, multicultural society, how have you managed this?
I started thinking about it. We have problems of racism in the United States along with problems of Islamophobia. But it seems unlikely to me that part of the country would try to strike out on its own. It occurred to me that what unites us, as Americans, is American soil. We may be of many races and many ethnicities, but those ethnicities are not tied to the earth (except in the case of Native Americans). African-Americans, for example, are so dispersed across the country that they could not unite and try to form a separate country. The same is true for Mexicans.
But in Russia, ethnicities are tied to the land. The Mari people live in Mari-El, the Chuvash in Chuvashia, the Tatar in Tatarstan, etc. Stalin realized this– he was fond of uprooting ethnic groups and deporting them thousands of miles away so that they could not start an uprising. Sometimes, he would just brutally suppress uprisings (and we saw echoes of this in Chechnya in the 90s). But now that we have all firmly agreed that this is wrong (we have agreed this, right? I mean, it seems to keep happening but we all agree it’s wrong, correct?) what else can Russia do to keep from splintering apart? How can Russia create a unified identity? It’s the question of the century.
All of these questions are above my pay grade, but I wish they weren’t. I wish diplomacy these days was carried out by people with genuine affection for and knowledge of the missions they serve. Until then, I’ll just continue on as Rachel the Random American and bring my individual message of peace, love and understanding.