Photo: Kelly Bedeian
To what do i belong?
To what do I belong? I come from Dagestan, a mountainous region in the Caucasus, densely populated by dozens of ethnic minorities, each spilling into a variety of communities, which in turn disperse into a variety of houses, or clans. Belonging to a given clan was crucial for one’s self-definition, marital prospects, etc. Even today, my older relatives keep bragging about the superiority of their clan, though the names of those clans have virtually been swept into oblivion, and nobody cares about them.
In the 1930s, my grandfather, along with other Dagestanis, adopted a new Russian-style last name. Passport clerks sliced off the half signaling his father’s name (Abdul-Gani) and stuck a Russian ending onto it. Thus he became “Ganiev.” They also ripped up his proper name—Hadzhi-Musa—and turned its second half into the Russian patronymic Musaevich, as if his father’s name had been Musa.
Belonging to a particular mountain village mattered as well. It could tell almost everything about a person: his likely profession, his goings-on, even his character. But I’ve been deprived of having a native village: some of my ancestors’ nests were burnt down by the imperial Russian army for mutiny (and my forefathers fettered and sent to Siberia); other villages decayed by themselves, as their inhabitants were resettled or voluntarily exchanged the high peaks for the lowlands’ urban facilities.
Moreover, the twentieth century was cruel to the people of the Soviet Union. They had to erase their memories and forget their family roots if they didn’t fit the dominant ideology. One of my great-grandfathers died in a Siberian concentration camp; another went through total dispossession, was sent to a labor camp, and survived by a mere fluke. My grandfather tried to forget about his origin as a “people’s enemy” and struggled to become an earnest Communist, but he too ended up in a Soviet prison, an accidental political victim.
My ancestors must have been ferocious fighters. There were incessant feuds between the people in the mountains. Foreign invasions succeeded one another: the Mongolian conqueror Timur, then the Iranian ruler Nader Shah (who was finally defeated near my mother’s village; a folk epic describes my great-great-grandfather as a merciless fighter of cruel hand-to-hand combat).
My mother’s clan was rather open to the refugees and fugitives from other regions and nations. Thus I have the blood of several local princes from other Caucasus regions, of a Crimean khan who lost the throne to his brother and had to flee his would-be killers, and of some Jews who sought asylum there after being expelled from the Iranian highlands.
My father’s kin, by contrast, lived isolated and unmixed for centuries in their stony pockets; that’s why half of them retained their blond and blue-eyed appearance.
I remember walking in the mountains with my paternal grandmother right before her death. She was a very strange woman, without any personal attachments and very cold towards her offspring, but absolutely passionate about extinct traditions and the lost property of her clan. She pointed out the patches of the fields that once belonged to her mother and were later nationalized by the Soviet state.
She also recalled her first marriage, which I had never heard of before. It lasted for six days, after which her husband (who was also her first cousin) departed to tend to a herd of state-owned horses. My grandmother was so filled with revulsion at marital intimacy that she instantly ran back to her mother’s house and knocked on the door; her family didn’t let her in, though, and ordered her to return to where she belonged—with her husband. The situation ended with her mental breakdown in front of the assembly of elders, who were admonishing her to remain a good wife. She snatched a tambourine and broke, weeping, into a sung lament, cursing her sad fate and orphanhood. Impressed, the elders gave in to compassion and released her from the hated marriage bonds. As for her orphanhood, her father had been killed by his own cousin when she was a year-old baby. On a certain important occasion, the two quarreled about which was a more competent Quran reader, and the quarrel ended in tragedy.
It’s difficult for me to see myself as belonging to these lost tribal values and the rigid, endemic rules of the mountain communities. They all are dead. But do I belong to my present country, Russia? Not entirely. When I moved to Moscow to study, I was treated as an illegal immigrant, although my documents were in order. Dagestan belonged to Russia, and Dagestanis were Russian citizens, yet they were regarded as outsiders, and potential terrorists. Almost every day I was stopped by Moscow subway security personnel and brought in for questioning.
Once when I was quarreling with one of my Moscow classmates, he suddenly called me “a Chechen,” as if that was some brutal curse. And those who overheard it stared at me nearly in horror. In reality, I’m not a Chechen. I’m Avar by origin, but most Russians have no idea about the Avars. There are too many tiny indigenous peoples in the Caucasus to know them all. And do I indeed belong to the Avars? I speak Russian better than my endangered mother tongue, my name is Alice after the Lewis Carroll character, and I chose not to be a Muslim, though my native region is suffering vigorous Islamization.
In fact, step by step I cast aside my identities and came to the conclusion that any belonging is divisive. That it makes you position your group against other groups, while I am trying to do the contrary—to cross boundaries. To, from time to time, imagine myself belonging to different alien backgrounds. Apart from some civil and moral principles, nothing keeps me from stepping into somebody else’s shoes, from trying on another nation, age, or gender. I love being cosmopolitan. It really creates social empathy, boosts literary inspiration, and gives you a rich feeling that you belong to all of humanity...
But that’s what I feel, not what I probably seem to be. In reality, as a writer working on the edge of two very different cultures, I have to contend with powerful external expectations; a definite identity has been forced upon me. This is a universal challenge for writers born into one language and writing in another, having a distinct ethnic background, and living in the environment of an alien metropolis. We are supposed—nay, we are expected—to write in a certain literary tradition and on certain, purely ethnic, topics. We are earmarked by our origin.
Sometimes this can boost a “half-breed” writer’s career because the book market likes a clear differentiation of authors and the topics they–predictably--raise. But at other times, this narrows the choice of your creative themes and plots to a single one—like a narrative about, say, an immigrant successfully working his way up in the imperial capital, or about “aborigines” enjoying the benefits of being conquered by the “civilized,” or something similar.
This can be a trap—to play the proffered role of the tamed native, cutely domesticating the dominant language. It took some effort not to be irritated by the condescendingly indulgent praise from critics referring to me as an Avar rather than a Russian author, which would have been more logical. As long as multinational states exist, you can’t help being pigeonholed according to your ethnicity, be it in the negative and degrading or the positive and profitable way. Still, a writer can keep writing despite labels or expectations from the public or publishers.
Besides, I’m sure identity is shifting in nature. Mine surely was. I started my life as an Avar girl, from a nation most of the people on earth have never heard of. Then I evolved, first into a Dagestani, then into a Caucasian (I mean a region, not a race), then into a Russian, and now I’m just a person of the world, with a personal fancy for highlands, rare languages, and indigenous cultures. Which grants a much broader perspective on things, and more sense of recognition of something homey in completely strange places. After all, geneticists say we all have common ancestors. This is an idea I really love.
In giving this account of my personal identity, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s not simple to gain one when one’s country or community has none, or rather when its identity is false, or adopted. I was born in USSR, a country that fell apart a quarter of a century ago. It shed its smeared and compromised representation as the “prison of nations,” yearning for a brand-new, young and democratic self. A complete reassessment of the in-valid Soviet values, a transformation of its people, captives of a great social experiment, into citizens—that’s what was expected to happen. Expected by millions of Soviet people themselves. But the change loitered and lingered, and it didn’t take long for my country to run into its own past and to revert to an old, discarded identity. People’s initial hope and craving for complete renovation turned into bitter disillusionment and a nostalgic worship of the lost imperial paradise they want to belong to again.
Today, statements about a political and cultural recovery of the Soviet discourse in Russia are banal, even cliché, but unfortunately their banality makes them more real. All its conceptual paraphernalia is back: a mythology of an enemy (Putin’s “traitors of the nation” and “fifth column” are all too similar to Stalin’s “peoples’ enemies”), Russia’s “special” (non-European) path, the self-isolation, the suspiciousness (c.f. the recent shutdowns of foreign-funded NGOs as proclaimed spy nests), the reduction of federal rights, and thorough centralization... One part of this process—protectionism and mistrust towards the outside world—seems to have seized even liberal countries such as Britain or the US, but if there it seems to spring from economic and social depression, which can be overcome and absorbed by a strong system of checks and balances, in Russia it’s just a giant failure to break with the looming past—stepping twice on the same rake.
Our past is being deloused of the awful memories of repressions, purges, and ubiquitous lies, and rewritten according to the goals of the present political elite. There was no radical farewell to the bad old yesterday, even though we do have a successful example of the Soviet state pulling this off—a complete erasure of historic memory of everything before 1917 (the Soviet Revolution). Instead, the recent past is sacralized. We have a slightly brushed up Soviet anthem, the same youth movements, and even the same Kafkaesque court trials (such as the trial of the director of Ukrainian Literary Library, or the recent arrest of a theater director accused of pocketing money intended for a performance that allegedly was never staged. The absurdity lies in the fact that a performance was in fact happily staged, running several times—but the prosecutors are persuaded neither by video recordings nor by critics’ reviews, nor by spectators’ testimonies, pretending they are all fake).
So what is so endearing about the Soviet identity? It must be its great-power charge. Public polls show that my countrymen prefer to live in a giant country feared by others rather than in a small, comfortable, harmless state. Stalin is a hero again. He keeps beating other historic Russian figures in polls, and from time to time a bust, a monument, or even a museum to him pops up in some Russian region. Unlike Germans who coped with Hitler, we screwed up de-Stalinization, and the shifty ghosts are bright and back. Other powerful historic figures such as the medieval Prince Vladimir the Red Sun—an alter ego of our present leader, whose giant statue appeared near Kremlin last year—are being glorified in movies and official speeches.
Certainly, not everything was bad in the Soviet past. There were many daring scientific projects and victories of modernization, a giant blooming of education among illiterate bonded peasants, and an incredible industrialization of a previously agricultural country ... But instead of developing education and science, we chose to retreat to something ruinous—an absolutization of power.
A strong fist and the expanse of the land are once again more important than the rights of individuals. Rather than gain a new identity, we lapsed into a derelict and rusty feudal guise because a counterfeit and outmoded idea of belonging to a great, endless, powerful state is lulling the masses into symbolic bliss, into finding fulfillment in revanchism after the trauma of the 1990s, even while giving the elites an illusion of control and power. Building a new belonging and identity is risky, and may take some decades. It also means losing power to others in an imminent democratic rotation. Instead, it is much simpler to freeze the situation and squeeze out as much booty as possible. The elites don’t care what’s on the horizon, even though they might be realizing from the past—a past they are vigorously copying—that the system they reanimated will, inevitably and catastrophically, come to an end.
This escape from the future entails that the question “where do we come from?” is more important than “where are we going?” That is why Russian literary prize longlists are swarming with historical novels and family sagas, while the Ministry of Culture is feverishly funding epic films about our (Russian-Soviet) glorious past, comprised of winning and conquering. When a movie based on a cooked-up Soviet story about a heroic battle of twenty-eight Red soldiers against the Nazi army came out, the director of Russia’s State Archive doubted the plot’s authenticity. As a result, he was immediately fired, and our outraged Minister of Culture claimed that those doubting and besmirching the sacred legend were disgusting lowlife.
Identity, as we know, implies two senses: a positive one (self-creation and self-building) and a negative one (defending and distancing oneself from the Other). It is normal that they coexist in a dialectic relationship, but it is essential that the creative “I” dominates the negative “I.” Russia’s identity today is negative, and that is why it is chained to immutable myths and pseudo-memories of the past. A positive identity, on the contrary, would have been transformative, changing, alive. But alas, ruins are taking sway over progress, nostalgia over modernism, longing for imperialism over civil solidarity.
Fake and contradicting identities are also plaguing my native North Caucasus. Its inhabitants share the delusional post-Soviet identity with the rest of Russia. At the least occasion, the officials and local authorities, appointed by Moscow, are quick to laud and eulogize the Russian president, competing in obsequious demonstrations of loyalty to our main state ideology, articulated vaguely as “patriotism” and “spiritual ties.” Parades and spectacular patriotic performances are held on a regular basis. Paradoxically, boosting and propagating the main ideology, a resurrection of Soviet imperialism, led to a permanent stance of self-flagellation, such as the glorification and honoring of those nineteenth-century Russian generals who contributed to a bloody conquering of Caucasus—the land of these very officials’ ancestors.
Territory, in Russia, remains an all-sufficient symbolic value. In the public’s mind, all the freedom and liberty brought by Gorbachev (the most undervalued, the most hated figure in contemporary Russia) were not worth the loss of acres of land, most of which, coincidentally (having turned into independent states) also chose to freeze themselves within Soviet and paternalistic models of governance—much safer for the short prospect of their leaders’ lives. After us, the deluge.
Also returning is the old Soviet practice of the central state’s patronizing guardianship towards the national peripheries: a new life is being given to the Soviet concept of the so-called “friendship among nations.” This entails a restitution of the old sub-identity for, say, the Dagestani people—grateful “younger brothers” of the fair, guiding, big brother, the Russian nation. The ethnic diversity of Russia, always emphasized in the president’s speeches, works as a justification for imperialist claims: the herds can’t manage themselves and need a caring supreme supervisor. Many of my Moscow acquaintances can never stop repeating that Russia is the only empire that never annihilated its conquered indigenes, bringing them instead to civilization and treating them lovingly—one of the things the West, now drowning in its migration crises, should learn from us (instead of trying to make Russia learn from it).
Another identity formation among my compatriots in the Caucasus is politically inverse but still borrowed, and fake. It is the identity of Muslims, and, in the most radical cases, Muslims as suppressed by the lawless and corrupted secular state (Russia), struggling for justice. That identity is not a given, for in the Caucasus Islam has always been superficial, and blended with local rules and beliefs. Only in times of political resistance did it gain its toughness and its thirst for a rigorous adherence to sharia laws and the prophet’s Sunnah. That was the case for example during the years of the Caucasian mountaineers’ war against tsarist Russia in the nineteenth century, or at the end of the 1990s, with the Middle East emissaries’ impact on the initially a-religious Chechen war of independence.
This masquerade is a clear sign of the vast identity void in the national republics, hastily torn from their ancient heritage and not yet adjusted to a rapidly changing modernity. That same void is felt in the larger Russia, locked up in the carapace of an outlived and pernicious recent past.
And this, then, must be the reason I can’t belong to anything in particular. The existing models do not work for me at all. Which is why most of my identities have nothing to do with my citizenship or my communal origin: they are related to my biology (I’m a female homo sapiens), to my professional skills (I’m a writer), or to my transient pursuits (I’m a reader, or a talker, or a doubter)... But the more of them I have, the richer I feel.
Alisa GANIEVA is a fiction writer and essayist from Dagestan (southern Russia), now based in Moscow. In 2009 she published Salam Dalgat! under a male pseudonym, winning the national Debut Prize. Her next novel appeared in the US in 2015 as The Mountain and The Wall; the most recent, shortlisted for the 2015 Russian Booker, will come out in the US in 2018 as Bride and Groom. In 2015, The Guardian listed her among the “30 most talented young people living in Moscow.” Her stories, articles, and reviews are widely published, translated, and anthologized.