Simplistic view of “identity” causes Western confusion

Another aspect of reporting and commentary on the Crimea situation, and Russia’s interventions broadly, is the alarmingly simplistic way in which notions such as “Russian identity” or “ethnic Russians” or “Russian speakers” (or similar) are referred to. None of these is a remotely simple concept – identity, understanding of ethnicity and language choice changes over time, depending on trends and circumstances.

For example, on my own visit to Chisinau in 2004, I noted that the road signs were in Romanian (sometimes referred to as Moldovan) yet the language spoken on the street was almost exclusively Russian. When I asked about this, I was told several times that in fact the language on the street “changes depending who is in government“, and that the language had been Romanian before the Communist Party had regained power, and would probably become Romanian again once they lost power.

This whole situation was made even more complex by controversy surrounding the terms “Romanian” and “Moldovan” – while few disputed they are the same linguistically, many disputed they are the same ethnically, and thus were inclined not to use “Romanian” to refer even to the language. This again was something which had changed over time and may change again – upon independence from the Soviet Union, many Moldovans were tempted by unity with Romania (western Moldova actually forms part of Romania; Moldova is partitioned); this temptation had declined over time, yet I noted most people on my flight held Romanian (and thus now European Union) passports. On the other hand, many Russian speakers were in fact not ethnically Russian at all, but Ukrainian or something else.

In Estonia, I visited the border town of Narva, where one looks directly at a citadel and an imposing hill with the very word “RUSSIA” written on it in Cyrillic script, Hollywood-like. Narva is 96% Russian-speaking (though again, by no means all ethnically/nationally Russian). When asked where their capital was, most people said “Tallinn”, an acceptance of a degree of Estonian statehood; yet when asked who their President was, most said “Putin” – after all, Russia gives many of them a vote as Russian citizens, but Estonia disallows them because they do not speak Estonian. Such split identity is rarely stable.

It is exactly this uncertainty which Putin himself has capitalised on in Ukraine. Crimea’s population is indeed 58% ethnically Russian and huge-majority Russian-speaking, yet there had been no serious attempt on the part of its citizens to unify with Russia. Many had come to accept a trial identity – Crimean (region?), Russian (nation?), Ukrainian (state?) – without real difficulty. Yes perhaps, when their media is taken over by people suggesting they are being purged and troops enter the streets to “protect” them, their identity shifts to predominantly “Russian”. But it is far too simple to cast them off as solely that.

A further important point is this: within Ukraine itself, the prime identity shift is not west-east (the maps doing the rounds of social media displaying mere “linguistic majorities” do not do justice to the sizeable minorities across the country), but over/under the age of 25 or so. Those below the age of 25 had no experience of the Soviet Union, and grew up in a sovereign Ukraine. Few – even those who prefer to speak Russian – have much difficulty with that situation. Those above the age of 25 may long for the “good old days” as a world superpower – event those who prefer to speak Ukrainian.

In other words, “Russian identity” outside Russia often really means “nostalgia for the Soviet Union”, and perhaps for the Superpower status that went with it. Again, Putin has skilfully played to this – while the one-dimensional West has totally missed it.

We in Northern Ireland should be well versed at this. A BBC NI report on Sunday showed people at Ballynahinch Rugby Club cheering on the new Six Nations’ (i.e. European) Rugby Champions. The team they were cheering was Ireland, i.e. all-Ireland; yet we can be fairly sure that, to a man (and woman), they almost all vote Unionist (i.e. for NI to be part of the UK, not an all-Ireland). They will probably happily cheer on English athletes competing for “Team GB” at the Olympics, but probably split when it comes to their fellow Britons in the “England” football team. Of course, they will probably be Euro-sceptic, but will perhaps assemble at the very same location to cheer on the “Europe” team at the Ryder Cup later this year…

Even the “nostalgic identity” strikes me as relevant in Northern Ireland. When people say they are “British” or “Unionist”, do they really mean that in a contemporary sense for a multi-cultural UK? Or do they really mean it as a means of promoting nostalgia for a time when the UK was a Superpower? And is it this which conditions their political views – from instinctive Euro-scepticism to promoting pointless air routes to Canada rather than rationally useful ones to Germany (more of which tomorrow…)?

The Western media would have us believe identity is a single, lineal thing – you are either “Russian” or “Ukrainian”; “British” or “Irish”. It isn’t! Our misunderstanding of that is leading us to make appalling errors of judgement in our commentary on Crimea and elsewhere; and perhaps much closer to home too.

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3 thoughts on “Simplistic view of “identity” causes Western confusion

  1. martyntodd says:

    The two most extreme political parties (DUP and SF) are content with the simplistic notion of single identity. It serves their purpose to argue that if you are against “them” then your best action is to vote for “us”. The media, led by the media outside NI, has colluded with this simplistic notion for years – the multi-identity reality that you rightly describe is too complicated for a short newspaper article.

    The big political question for the next two years is whether enough people in NI see through the zero sum game that has been the adversarial politics of the last fifteen years and choose to vote for the Northern Ireland part of their identity, whether another part of their identity is irish or British. It will be the challenge for the Alliance party to appeal to the Northern Irish identity that unites us, and to generate hope for the greater good of all in NI.

  2. martyntodd says:

    Reblogged this on where are you francis hutcheson and commented:
    An excellent analysis of multiple identities, whether Crimea or Northern Ireland

  3. […] on the streets of Chisinau, the Republic of Moldova’s capital city. As I wrote last yet, it just isn’t that straightforward – and the media shouldn’t present it as […]

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