guest post: nationality in eastern europe

or "Blah Nationality Blah Blah"

 "the army and the people united"

i'm pretty excited to introduce my (first!) guest post.

nn is a close friend of mine, geographically (we're in the same state, at least) as well as personally, though we met in israel. (the irony of geography!) she was born in kiev, ukraine two months after chernobyl. she kills people with laser beams that had become attached to her forehead during birth.


First and foremost, I would like to state that I am honored to write this guest post for the 'Cactus Garden.’ I am an avid reader of SM's blog and her recent entry on identity caught my particular interest. I, too, have my qualms with how race and identity are viewed in the United States –  as if we, a society built on the backs of immigrants, can view ethnicity in such a uni-dimensional way. The categorization of people according to biological or physical features is nothing new, and yet it is a deeply sensitive issue that continues to follow us throughout generations. Unfortunately, the U.S. is not alone in this ethnic/racial simplification.

Race and ethnicity in Eastern Europe are closely tied with nationality. While some Eastern European governments have been trying to stamp this out (albeit slowly), you cannot wipe out the decades of racial classification which has permeated the Eastern European psyche. In the Soviet Union and in many Eastern European countries today, everyone carried or carries passports. These passports are more like identity cards and on them are written basic personal information. In the past, this included a listing of one’s nationality, such as Russian, Ukrainian, Tajik, Uzbek, or Jewish, though I am told this practice has ended for the most part. Judaism in the former Soviet Union, and even today, was seen as a separate national identity of its own. Those fortunate enough to have one non-Jewish parent or have their papers lost (this was more common during and immediately after World War II) could change their nationality to something more desirable like Russian or Ukrainian. In reality, there are no real ethnic differences between Ukrainians and Russians, only political and lingual. The fact that you were sometimes able to choose your nationality reveals that these nationality separations were simply just a way of categorizing, labeling, and pointing out differences that were hardly biological.

While nearly all citizens were Soviet and Russiafied, nationality was something that all were aware of. Unfortunately, while racism of any kind was officially banned by the government, one cannot ignore clearly anti-Semitic policies in place in addition to the blatant anti-Semitism that was and still is rampant in Eastern Europe. By the time the Soviet Union had dissolved, nationalist movements were popping up all around Eastern Europe. Each satellite country clamored to rid themselves of the Russian yoke and at the same time tried to deal with promoting their nationalistic ideologies to heavily Russiafied populations. In essence, they were trying to create and/or take back an identity that they felt the Russians had stolen and/or corrupted. The Ukrainian national movement, for example, had begun to slowly gain momentum among those in Western Ukraine, which had always been largely anti-Russian. This ideology was marketed to those in Eastern Ukraine who were always largely pro-Russian and held a Russian identity. Everyone who was educated in Ukraine knew Ukrainian, but unless you were living in the villages or in the Western part of the country, you spoke Russian. Ukrainian was seen as a peasant language and, in the past, people were beaten for merely speaking the language in the streets of Eastern Ukrainian cities. Russian language and culture in the Soviet Union was a way for all Soviet citizens to be unified by a Russian-Soviet identity and, in many ways, this is still in effect as people from all over the former satellite states can relate to speaking the same language, listening to the same music, watching the same movies, and eating the same cuisine. However, even up until very recently with the emergence of the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has been unable to shrug off Russian culture and influence. Russian culture is heavily ingrained in Ukraine and in the identity of its citizens, many of whom are reluctant to give up the Russian nationality for a Ukrainian one. Nationality is still a hot issue in Eastern Europe and with the rapid rise of ultra-nationalist movements in Eastern Europe, it seems like an issue that will never truly go away. The situation is much worse in Moscow, where those who look anything other than Russian (i.e. white, blond, blue eyed), are regularly harassed, beaten, and killed in the streets. This has worsened with the conflicts with Georgia and the more recent Chechen suicide bombings. Ethnic identity in Russia and Ukraine is seen as more important than ever these days and is one of the main reasons why I am glad I no longer live there.

This of course brings me to my own dilemma. As an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, I have struggled to find my own identity in two societies which have two very different definitions of who I am. I am Jewish, but I was born in Ukraine and am culturally more Russian than Ukrainian. Russian was my first language and I immigrated to the United States before I could properly learn Ukrainian, which was taught in all primary schools in Ukraine. Politically, I believe in an independent Ukraine devoid of Russian political influence. Typically most of those who believe in this concept are Ukrainian nationalists. At the same time, I cannot consider myself Russian or Ukrainian because, though I may have Russian or Ukrainian ancestry, that is not a part of my current ethnic identity which is still very much governed by Soviet standards. 

In Ukraine and in Russia, I would be seen as a Jew from Ukraine – not as a Ukrainian Jew or merely a Ukrainian or a Russian, as I am seen in America. If I were speaking to a fellow Eastern European, I would not tell them outright that I am Russian or Ukrainian or Jewish. I would tell them where I am from first, because stating that I am Jewish is never a wise thing to do and stating that I am Russian or Ukrainian is simply akin to lying. The other person would know immediately that I’m not ethnically Russian or Ukrainian since I don't look particularly Slavic in my features. My father's family came from Romania and Moldova and my mother's family has been traced back by my maternal grandmother's cousin to a Slavic tribe which converted to Judaism. However, my birth certificate clearly states Jewish under nationality and I would never pretend to be something I'm not nor deny who I am. In a way, I have become complacent in this aspect, as my parents and grandparents have before me have.

Ethnically, I suppose I view myself as a myriad of things, which is why, like SM, I find it so difficult to put a direct label on who I am. Thus, in terms of American ethnic/racial labels, the waters get a bit murky. Whenever someone asks me "what" I am, I always squirm for the first few moments, struggling to decide whether to tell them that I am Ukrainian or Russian so I usually go with "I was born in Ukraine." This usually follows with:

 "Oh, so you speak Ukrainian?"

 "No, I speak Russian."

"Oh, so you're a Russian from Ukraine?"

 "No..." *Sigh.*

Usually when I’m not feeling particularly clever or feel up to explaining, I will state that I am Russian or Ukrainian. It is much faster and to most people in the States, it’s all the same. Telling someone that you are Jewish when they ask you your nationality will usually land you a strange look as 'Jewish' is not in the nationality category in the U.S. However, for me, no matter what I choose to be in the US, it will always be classified as ‘White’ or ‘Caucasian' in documentation. Here, you are put into a singular category that, as SM stated, does not reveal a single attribute about who or what you truly are. You are simply grouped by a superficial racial construct and become yet another muddled statistic that is not truly representative of any particular population. On the other hand, is it better to be grouped into a general category rather than separated (and more often than not segregated) according to your particular sub-category? Why should race/ethnicity matter in terms of politics or statistics at all? While I am not aware of a society in this modern day that does not pay attention to such labels, in the United States we often take for granted the ability to choose what ethnicity we are rather than it being chosen for us depending on the label that our parents held.

Sure, officially we may not be able to choose that we are mutts, but for me, I find it much easier to be under a general category than to be ostracized for being under an incredibly specific one. To quote SM: “no matter how other people label you, they can't define you unless you let them. self-identity continuously trumps public assumption. if you let other people decide for you, you really will only be one thing or another.”

I couldn’t agree more.

the above photo is from - many thanks to them and (their creative commons license).