zondag 15 november 2015

a litter of churches.

An addition to my last post. The Russian lands weren't opened only by fur trappers and merchants. I would say, it was trappers, traders and churches. The Russian Orthodox Church functioned - functions - for a long time as a substitute, or at least a strong ally of the Russian state. Where the Russian church went, the Russians went - and Russian power came. The Russian name for the Orthodox church is pravoslavnyj - which means 'true Slavic'. Being a Russian is being an Orthodox. Churches and monasteries were build in far-away places, fortified and self-sufficient. Cloister lands often formed an outpost, a small village, which, one day, might have turned into a town, a city, a regional centre.

Uncultivated Nenets in the North

I imagined something like that whilst I worked on the properties of the Valaam monastery, up North of Saint Petersburg. Chopping wood on a small island, about two hours from the mainland, I could perfectly imagine the local monks literally cultivating the land. However, there were so many churches that not all churches on the island could possibly fulfil the role of outpost. I looked it up, and these 'sketes' facilitate both isolation and communal services. Besides a church or chapel, there's living space for monks - whether it cells or a cave. There isn't quite much of en mass masses going on in these sketes, but there's always monks who perform service. With only the act of service, they praise the higher being, I guess.

 A monk and a chapel ... or a hermit in a cave.

I volunteered on the Valaam archipelago, spread out in the Northern part of Lake Ladoga, the biggest lake of Europe, right at the border of Finland. The islands were moving back and forth between Finnish and Russian hands, but have always been Orthodox. Frontiers between nations in empires like the Swedish and the Russian were unclear. In time the Russians took the Duchy of Finland from the Swedish empire, and Valaam as well. The island and monastery were part of Finnish independence in 1917, however. Eventually, they ended up in Russian hands again , after the Finno-Russian Winter War in the fourties.

A skete that looks rather Finnish

The work I was doing wasn't work, technically. It was called poslushaniye - which can be translated as penance, obedience, submission and more like that. Sin is a quite central concept in Orthodoxy, and I contemplated if purgatory is an easier way out.

There was quite a lot of time to think. Lumber-jacking, collecting potatoes, cleaning up stables and beaches - it sometimes felt like a work camp. We ate buckwheat and fish soup from metal bowls, with a spoon only. Accommodation was simple, with no warm water and no toilet doors. And labour was physical and for free, but no slavery for sure.

Indeed, labour camps are no anachronism. Even though the GULAG doesn't exist any more, penal colonies live on. Convicts are still send to inhospitable places in the North and East of Russia. I have no idea to what extend they look like Valaam. The nature might be as stunning, the work might be worse. Food and isolation are probably similar.

Collecting wood

There's more churches to build.

In Orthodox churches, ritual is more important than theology. Contrary to Western church, sermon and Bible reading aren't as central as singing and praying. The gender roles are quite striking. It's both women and men who are veiled in Orthodox surroundings. On church properties we wore trousers and long sleeves - the women long skirts and head-scarfs. In church, the women were standing at the left, the men right.

Please, come further!

The island didn't seem to have a food culture. There was no chatting, just hurry. There's something with morning porridge with kompot, however. After work, there was always time for tea. We made potato pancakes with smetana, and raw garlic or horse radish could spice anything up. In the end, I will miss the omnipresent cats, the real banya, the cold lake swims, and the Russian club dancing.

Sunday morning mass

maandag 31 augustus 2015

america is russia.

Seen as the ultimate antagonists, I more and more think that America is Russia, or, for that matter, Russia is America. I mean, think about it: these countries share so much! Not only were they the opposing and sole superpowers in between the Second World War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but far more than that. Characteristics that makes them more alike, but differ from the rest.

Edes Harrison's depiction of the USSR. 

Their sheer size. The Russian Federation is the biggest country in the world (17 million square kilometres) and the United States are the fourth (9,5m km2). The US is third population-wise (326 million), whilst Russia is ninth (144m). However, in regard of population density, they rank respectively 224th and 182nd. It's enormous, empty space.

The Nearctic biogeographic region. 

Their geography. Yes, I admit, Canada is more similar to than, but both the US and Russia occupy a vast belt of the Northern hemisphere. As a result their countries are a composite of plains, evergreen forests, mountain ranges - and the occasional desert. As the Russia Federation lies even further Northwards than its mirror image, it consists of a lot of tundra as well, and nearly half of the Arctic circle. This creates challenges in logistics, accessibility, with water, roads, long winters, time-zones, and what not.

The Palearctic biogeographical region. 

Their politics. It is fairly popular to attribute the emergence of tsarism, stalinism and putinism to geographical factors such as a harsh climate, awkward logistics and a troubled history (think 'Asian despotism'). But aren't the USA composed of fifty states with an all-powerful President presiding as well? Since the fifteen republics of the USSR gained independence in 1991, the sixteen constituent republics of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic live on in a still federal Russia, now counting 22 republics (among a plethora of other bureaucratic divisions) - and with a President at its head.

The natives. The founders of the United States, and until today its most influential inhabitants, are 'white, Anglo-Saxon protestants' originating in Western Europe (of whom actually a plurality were German, so forget about the 'Anglo'). The original American inhabitants, Amerindians and Inuit, and Latino settlers as well, were pushed aside - expelled, assimilated, battled, killed. The Russians, originating in the Eastern Slav principalities or Kiev Rus in contemporary Ukraine, Belarus and South-western Russia, only moved Eastwards after being subjugated for hundreds of years by Mongols and Turkic Tatars - the so-called 'Tatar yoke.' As the native Americans, the Tatars are still around, but confined in their very own reserve (although Tatarstan indeed enjoys a high degree of autonomy and a lot of oil moreover).

Native populations. 

Colonialism. Even though never explicit, both Russia and the US might in fact be two of the last remaining colonial empires. During the Cold War and before, the USSR and the USA presented themselves as anti-colonial powers, trying to attract the support of newly independent former colonies - and probably believing in their idealistic selves as well. However, Dominic Lieven defines the imperial idea in Empire (2003) as large, multinational, hegemonic entities (China, India, and Indonesia - and possibly Iran, Brazil, etc. - are likely other candidates).

Today, both states still consist of multinational populations with a dominant people. In the USA, about sixty percent of the people identify as white, descending from immigrants from Europe, North Africa or the Middle East. About twenty percent identifies as Hispanic, and is from Iberian, Catholic descent. However, the dominant culture continues to be a Protestant one, and that's how about 45% of the Americans identify (70% as Christian in general). The population of Russia consists of about 80% ethnic Russians (in the Soviet Union, their majority was only just over half). The dominant religion in the Russian Federation is Orthodox Christianity, with which at least a plurality of 40%, but probably as much as three-quarters of the population identifies. As for the Russian colonialism, Alexander Etkind explains the concept of 'internal colonization' in the similarly titled book from 2013. Indeed, it was often the Russian nation itself that had to bear the heaviest burden of Russia's imperial ambitions, in both tax and human toll.

Ethnic composition of the former USSR. Pink is Great Russian. 

The frontier. As mentioned, the nations and states currently dominating the Northern confines of the Americas and Eurasia, didn't originate there. Their current hegemony started with small and insignificant settlements (such as Moscow) on the outskirts of far more powerful entities (the British Empire and Kiev Rus). The inhospitable environment of dense forests, wilderness and cold was pioneered by fur trappers and lumberjacks, only to be claimed afterwards by authorities in far away capital cities. These states kept growing, almost organically, before they became empires.

Russian expansion. 

The mentality, maybe? A vast country, abundant of natural riches, space and opportunities might create a people of pioneers, programmed to set their own rules, and - if not allowed to - who might as well move forward.

The world according to Reagan. 

dinsdag 31 maart 2015

across the sea.

When the late French historian Fernand Braudel wrote his La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II in 1949, he did something unusual. Before that, histories were written from a national perspective. Braudel wrote a history of the Mediterranean though. Indeed, the water connects - and probably even more than land does. For a long time, crossing a sea or lake by boat was a far easier task than the travel over land - over mountains and through woods full of dangers, both human and wild. In our age of cars, trains, highways, and TGV this might be difficult to imagine. Just as hard (even though it's logical) as it might be to see that history doesn't stop at a border. 

All these lands were once under Roman rule or influence. 

Indeed, the Roman Empire was centred around the Mediterranean - which was dubbed Mare nostrum after all. This made the British, Germanic and Northern Gallic provinces over here a periphery. When their link with a transalpine centre in the fourth century broke, however, they naturally reconnected over the North Sea. Germanic tribes migrated to Northern Gallia and Southern Britain. Frisians traded and fished up to Scandinavia. Wool of British sheep was processed in Flanders and Holland. Britons went for study to Paris. And it wasn't a surprise that it was coastal trading towns from the Baltics to England - but mainly from Northern Germany - that united in the Hanseatic League. 

As much as we are used to the idea of a sea that divides, it is striking how many of them don't. In many ways - history and economy for example, the Southern US shares more with the Caribbean than with the Great plains. The Southern Caucasian state of Azerbaijan is regarded at times part of Central Asia, with which it shares authoritarianism apart from an oil-dependent economy.

Connected by more than pipelines? Not only Azerbaijan, but basically 
all Caspian littoral states are oil dependent dictatorships. 

Both Ukraine (2004, 2013) and Georgia (2003) revolted against the mafiose Post-Soviet structures in their countries, and they subsequently even proposed a 'Black Sea Union'. Ukraine and Georgia bonded that much that currently many former Georgian revolutionaries serve in the Post-Maidan administration in Ukraine. Georgia looking West - over the Black Sea towards the European Union, and Azerbaijan looking East - over the Caspian towards Central Asia, suddenly sounds a lot more plausible. 

The Black Sea is surrounded by real (Turkey, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria) 
and would-be (Ukraine, Georgia) NATO members.

At the moment, we see how Egypt's Vietnam (Yemen) is just accross the Red Sea and how the Persian Gulf simultaneously holds Iran and Saudi Arabia in a deadly embrace. Yes, the more I look at my maps, the more they look like this:

zaterdag 31 januari 2015

when one turns two.

This year, I was lucky to spend Christmas and New Year with minus 26 high up in Northern Sweden. There, I spend some time with a Finnish-speaking family. I hear you thinking, and I thought as well: what are Finnish-speakers doing in Sweden, why don't they move to Finland, or why isn't their home part of it? Obviously, I started to read and this is what I found out. 

These Swedish Finnish-speakers are separated from their co-speakers since Finland became a part of the Russian Empire. Before, there was no border, and there was no Finland: all was Sweden. In 1809, the Treaty of Fredrikshamn (Hamina) ended the Finnish War (1808-9) between Sweden and Russia. It created two nations where there was only one before.

Large parts of present day Finland had become part of the Swedish realm in the fourteenth century. Finnish speaking people are living in the Swedish Torne valley since at least this day. Therefore, they are known as Tornedalians. At times, they were instrumental in the colonization of Northern Sweden. When the Russian Empire acquired present day Finland in 1809, the Tornedalians were not included, although the Russians pushed for it. Until after the 1950s the Swedish government tried to Swedify the Tornedalians. Since then, the policy was reversed, and in 1999 the Tornedalian language, Meänkieli, was officially recognized as a minority language. It is said that there's still about 150,000 Swedes who understand Meänkieli. Many of the developments of standard Finnish in the nineteenth and twentieth century didn't happen in the Meänkieli dialect. Moreover, it contains many Swedish loanwords. As such, a new nation with a distinct language is created.

There's also many Finns in Sweden, by the way, but they find their origin in what is now Finland. The Swedes in Finland settled there ages ago (since 1200), but as a matter of fact, they don't see or at least call themselves different than the Swedish Swedes. In Norway there's Finnish speaking people known as Kven.

Finnish is a Finno-Ugric language, as Hungarian is famously as well. These are not all of them, however. In Northern Russia there's many more Finno-Ugric speakers. Read more about this here. 

There's more examples of a divided nation which becomes or might become two - or more. For example, the Turks (Turkey and Azerbaijan), the Azeri (Azerbaijan and Iranian Azerbaijan), the Arabs (Syria, Iraq, etc.), the Bulgarians (Macedonia, Bulgaria), the Albanians (Kosovo, Albania), Mongolians (Inner and Outer Mongolia), Bengali (Bengal and Bangladesh), etc. Of course, it's all about identification. Even though many Arab dialects aren't mutually intelligible, many speakers see Arab as one tongue. And what about the Korea's, or the Pashtun in Pakistan and Afghanistan? The Germans were never together in one state, but what is it that separates Swiss, German Germans and Austrians? And what would have happened if the German Democratic Republic would have lived on? More people today identify with Meänkieli, but almost nobody without abandoning their Swedish identity. A feeling which is stronger, obviously, than the language bond with Finland. 

donderdag 4 december 2014

Mongolia as SSR.

Last week, I wrote ‘the gloves are off’. Indeed, I would argue that, with the cancelling of the South Stream gas pipeline project, the conflict Russia has with many of its neighbours - including the EU, entered a new phase. The move shows that the Russian leadership is willing to abandon its strongest leverage towards Europe: gas. Simultaneously, something else happened, which was covered less: a remarkably deep new pact between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia – including military cooperation. Although Russia recognized the independence of this Georgian breakaway region in 2008, many see this move as the prelude to a future annexation. In 2008, many would have regarded this exaggerated, but since Ukraine lost Crimea in March, everything seems possible. However, Russia doesn’t need to. With its formidable army, size and status, it is able to project quite some power without annexing anything. Abkhazia is an example, as are Transnistria in Moldova, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, and South Ossetia in Georgia  - and the considerable Russian minorities in Eastern Ukraine, Northern Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia and Belarus furthermore. The case of Mongolia is in that regard an interesting one, and one I wanted to delve into for quite some time.

Some time ago, in that peaceful time long gone when Crimea was simply Ukrainian and Armenia was eager to be the next member of the Eurasian Economic Union, I joked with my friends that Mongolia might be the next republic in the Russian Federation. Russia, as what’s left from the USSR, consists of 22 federal republics (including Crimea since March). Three of them, Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva, are inhabited by ethnic Mongols. One more makes little difference, wouldn’t it? Increasingly threatened by an more and more expansionist China to its South, joining its enemy enemy might be the only way to survive. We all know it didn’t happen. However, with the tension around the South China and Black Seas, it seems a miracle that none of the big powers tried to court Mongolia more explicitly. Most probably, it’s still beneficial for both China and Russia to let Mongolia be, and maintain its neutral status squeezed in between the two authoritarian powerhouses.

The Federal Republics in the Russian Federation inhabited by ethnic Mongols: Kalmykia, Tuva and Buryatia. 

As we speak, there is talk that Mongolia might join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The SCO is a club of mainly Post-Soviet countries plus China, established in 1996 to settle border disputes in the heart of Asia, but increasingly helping each other out to streamline regime security and the fight against terrorism. Mongolia is an observer state since 2004. The question is though, if the wish to join is cherished more in Beijing than in Ulaanbaatar. Most Mongols, including in government, see the SCO as a China-dominated club of authoritarian regimes. This image is the opposite of Mongolia’s: democratic and carefully manoeuvring in between Russia, China and the USA – the so-called ‘third neighbour’ policy. (There’s few other examples. Nepal and Bhutan are also stuck in between big powers, but they seem to have chosen for India.) Moreover, apart from its SCO observer status, Mongolia has an ‘Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program’ with the NATO, and it delivered troops to the NATO missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Mongolia continuously needs to balance its foreign policy act.

Mongolia and the Mongols: in red the places inhabited by ethnic Mongols, and accentuated the boundaries of the Medieval Mongol Empire. 

Outer Mongolia, conscious of Ming China’s policies in Inner Mongolia, looked at the Russian Empire to counter Chinese colonization efforts. Shortly after the Outer part of Mongolia became independent in 1912, it signed a Friendship Treaty with the Russian Empire, and subsequently Russian settlers arrived. China, now a republic as well, continued to meddle in Mongolian affairs. Russian presence in Mongolia continued to grow, however. During the Civil War that followed the October Revolution from 1918 to 1922, many ‘White’ Russian fled to Mongolia, and stayed. However, the Reds won, and two years later, in 1924, Communists took power in Mongolia as well. As the powers in Mongolia got even more cosy with Moscow, a new wave of immigrants followed: Soviet specialists and advisers. The Soviet Union encouraged cross-border contact, especially between areas populated by ethnic Mongols in the Soviet Union. In 1944, the Mongol-inhabited Tuva republic was annexed by the Soviets, but Mongolia kept its independence.

The Soviet Union expansion during and around the Second World War. 

During the Second World War, Mongolians fought the Japanese side to side with the Soviets (and even under their formal command). As a result, China recognized Mongolia’s independence finally, in 1945 – but under protest. After its establishment in 1949, the People’s Republic of China directly recognized Mongolia’s independence, but relations neither got that warm. After the Sino-Soviet Split in 1960, Mongolia firmly chose the side of the USSR. In 1986, as a result of Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’, the relationship between China and the Soviet Union improved. It was even proposed to withdraw the Soviet troops from Mongolia. Of course, this alarmed the Mongolian leadership. To reassure them, the Soviets explicitly stated the obvious - that ‘no third countries should be harmed.’ In the end, not all Soviet troops were withdrawn from Mongolia. Anyway, the Mongolian leadership established ties with the US in 1987. A ‘third neighbour’ was created.

Mongolia abandoned Communism in 1990, but the re-branded Socialist Party only lost power in 1996. Contrary to many Post-Soviet states, the Russians of Mongolia nowadays speak Mongolian. There’s only 1600 left of the 110.000 that lived there before 1992. Like in Georgia, English replaced Russian as ‘the language of inter-ethnic communication’ – and as the gate to the outside world. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the Mongolian-Russian trade plummeted, and the business contact with China rose simultaneously. However, even though the relationship between the three neighbours is more balanced than before, the Russian continue to maintain their strong ties with Mongolia.

zondag 23 november 2014

Mingrelian mourning.

Eastern Georgia is the home of the Mingrelian people. At times, Mingrelians are called 'the Jews of Georgia'. With both Europe and the Middle East at reasonable distance, this shouldn't be mistaken as anti-Semitism. Actually, Georgia is a good friend of Israel internationally. As such, the label 'Jew' can even be seen as a compliment. However, Georgians from the Eastern regions call them untrustworthy and cunning as well - or even sly. But, how come? Traditionally, the Mingrelians are traders.

Trading in Megruli. 

I am fascinated by cross-border communities as the Mingrelians. It is striking how many of them - Armenians, Lebanese, Tuareg, Dutch (?) - are involved in trading (without being particularly affluent per se, by the way). People from peripheral regions seem to fulfil a middle-man position. 

Indeed, the capital of Samegrelo, Zugdidi, is not exactly what you would call a thriving trade centre (although I do love the place). 

Mingrelian is related to Kartuli, the main Georgian language, but the languages aren't mutually intelligible. The Mingrelians inhabit both the region stretching from the Caucasus mountains to the Black Sea, Mingrelia or Samegrelo, and parts of Abkhazia, the region further West along the coast. Abkhazia is de facto independent since 1993, when it fought a short separatist war with Georgia (see earlier posts).

Another view of Zugdidi. 

Many of the Abkhaz Mingrelians where expelled from Abkhazia during and after the war, as they were seen as Georgians (and many see themselves as such indeed) - but some of them stayed. Mingrelian surnames tend to end in -ia, -aia, -a, and -ava - just like many the names of ethnic Abkhaz do. In a territory where there is many inter-ethnic marriage, and where the language of day-to-day communication is Russian anyway, it is often rather difficult to differentiate between Mingrelians and Abkhaz. Furthermore, many of the government jobs are reserved for ethnic Abkhaz. Since 1993 in particular, it's quite beneficial to register as an Abkhaz, therefore. (When Abkhazia was under control of the Georgian state, many Mingrelians were registered as Georgians, for the same reasons.)

A typical Mingrelian house, both in rural and residential areas. 

Characteristic for Samegrelo are the two-storied detached houses surrounded by a large, green, fenced yard full of palm trees (and if you're lucky apricots, tangerines, pears, etc.). All houses have an elevated veranda. Often there's water tanks on a high platform. Houses are strikingly often painted in mint green, by the way.

A front door with the characteristic mint green plaster. 

As the Likhi mountain range divides Georgia in two, the Western part of Georgia was often separated from it's East. The Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires had a bigger influence here than in Karli and Kakheti (there it was Persians before and Persian after). Only during Russian and Soviet rule both parts were properly unified again since long. Konstantin Gamsakhurdia, the poet father of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first President of independent Post-Soviet Georgia, was from Abasha in Samegrelo. Therefore, the support for Zviad was higher in Samegrelo than elsewhere. However, Zviad was a Georgian nationalist. Not all Mingrelians feel that Georgian though. When I was around, it happened several times that the ubiquitous toast 'Gaumarjos Sakartvelos!' (Long live Georgia!) was replaced with 'Samegrelos gaumarjos!'

The yard and the colour are typical Mingrelian - the architecture less.

Traces of the different past of Western Georgia can be found in the existence of milk kinship, for example. Milk kinship is also present in many Muslim societies. However, just like the Georgians, Mingrelians are Christians for centuries. They are Georgian-Orthodox. Therefore, the literary language of the Mingrelians is Kartuli (Georgian), and and attend church service in Georgian. However, like anywhere, many pre-Christian rituals are preserved. It wouldn't surprise you that liquor is involved in many of them, even during funerals and the subsequent mourning process.

A funeral company in Zugdidi. 

Mingrelians mourning is quite ritualized. Libation or drinking offerings are part of this. It's fairly common to see small glasses of wine or liquor on a gravestone. Sometimes there's grapes as well - or even flowers. During the visiting of the body, a banquet for close kin is organized - although the food shouldn't be prepared in the same house. Night wakes last for four to six days. The women in particular scream, howl and sing polyphonic songs. Forty days later and a year later again, commemorate feasts are held. During these commemorations, food, drinks and candles are put on the grave. Interestingly, it is also tradition for male relatives to not shave on Saturdays for a year after the deceasing of their family member.

A grave stone with drink offering.

zondag 19 oktober 2014

one day in the life of a small crossing.

As a contrast to the big Enguri crossing, we visited one of the five smaller ones that provide an entry point into Abkhazia as well. Here you see some pictures of the Khurcha crossing, near the village of Orsantia. The five 'small' crossings are mainly used for trade and family visits. It is the time of the hazelnut harvest, and since Nutella and Ferrero Rocher discovered the riches of the Black Sea shores recently, business is booming. Nuts are brought from Abkhazia, and sold to the Georgian traders who are in contact with international buyers. It is said that annually twenty tons hazelnuts are crossing the ABL (the administrative boundary line, yes).

Apart from the all the nutty business, the crossing seemed a quiet place.  

It turned out the Russian border guards, probably conscripts, were as curious for us, as we were for them. 

There was something of a Wild West atmosphere, with lots of cigarettes, motor bikes and wodka. 

Talking about cigarettes: you probably find this type of claw machines only in Georgia. Imagine, and this particular one was placed at a remote border crossing! 

Georgians who cross are usually able because they got hold of certain documents. If you don't have the right documents, no crossing. As simple as that, even when you live there your whole life and even if everybody knows your mum lives in the next village. 

There's different 'right' documents. One type is an old Soviet passport. It turned out they are still useful, at least at the Georgian-Abkhaz ABL. During Soviet times, a passport was valid for life, and with pictures taken only during your childhood, twenties and fourties, some old people still manage to use them to cross with. 

Another way is an Abkhaz passport. With the 'international' version, you're able to travel to Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru, the only countries recognizing the Abkhaz state obviously. If you, as an ethnic Georgian, happen to carry a Georgian passport as well, there won't be any trouble crossing back-and-forth (although the Georgians officially say you're crossing nothing - you just move around in Georgia). Carrying an Abkhaz passport is a sensitive topic for ethnic Georgians though, which makes it a tricky strategy.

There's also an Abkhaz 'internal' passport. There's no big difference with the international one though, but with this one you can't travel to South America or the Pacific. Note that most Abkhaz inhabitants also carry a Russian passport, which they use for the biggest chunk of the usual passport stuff.