Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review

Tatiana Zhurzhenko. Borderlands into Bordered Lands: Geopolitics of Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine. Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, 2010. 321 pp. + Images, Maps. $49.50. ISBN: 978-3-8382-0042-2.

Since 1991 Ukraine has become more important in the geopolitical trajectory of Eastern Europe. The country showed considerable promise throughout the decade, gaining independence from Soviet power and engaging in nation- and state-building. Notwithstanding the occasional regressions toward authoritarianism that marked the presidencies of "the two Leonids" Kravchuk and Kuchma, Ukraine seemed on the right track toward territorial sovereignty, economic stability, and the consolidation of Ukrainian national identity. After the victory of the Orange coalition in 2004 Western observers thought Ukraine was destined for European Union integration.

One major issue stood in the way, however: the case of the Ukrainian-Russian border, the symbol of division between Europe and Asia, which acts as the tinderbox for geopolitical instability between the two continents. Border disputes between Ukraine and Russia and fears of regional separatism shape political discourse, and enter into the regional and national identities of these and neighboring countries:

The 'migration of borders' destroys old communities and shapes new ones; it causes resettlements, deportations, and even ethnic cleansing, while creating new minorities or homogenizing the population inside the new borders. With these border changes, not only do the political and legal systems become subjects of reform; school education, official national symbols, dominant historical narratives, and even the official language can change as well. Border shifts reshape the collective memories and identities of populations, and challenge their loyalties and emotional attachments. A new nation state usually requires a new national history; it needs symbols and myths for the majority of its population to identify with. (29)
The migrating borders and their impact on identity in regions of the former Soviet Union are the main subject of Tatiana Zhurzhenko's evocatively titled Borderlands into Bordered Lands: Geopolitics of Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine. Zhurzhenko employs various methodologies in her understanding of post-Soviet border making, as well as state- and nation-building, chief among them the political implications of border changes in Ukraine's proposed EU integration, the sociological impact of Soviet nation-building on populations today, and the discrepancies between international relations and (ultra)-nationalist domestic politics. The border between Ukraine and Russia, particularly the "Slobozhanshchyna" region (Kharkhiv oblast in Ukraine, Belgorod oblast in the Russian Federation), is a stage where the macro- and micro-dramas of post-Soviet politics, society, economics, and culture are performed and transformed every day.

The border region between Ukraine and Russia is significant on three primary levels of analysis: “(1) the symbolic geography and geopolitics of the post-Soviet space/'new' Eastern Europe; (2) the Ukrainian-Russian border in bilateral relations, in the nation and state building processes and in regional politics, and (3) the micropolitics of border construction and the role of the border in everyday life”; thus providing the basic structure of Zhurzhenko’s book (38). The first level of analysis involves a discussion of the historical role of borders, and the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of a geopolitical concept of post-Soviet identity construction. This discussion is largely influenced by the historical developments of Eurasianism and pan-Slavism, popularized throughout the twentieth century and revived after the fall of the Soviet Union. In contemporary Ukrainian discourse, however, pan-Slavism and especially Eurasianism are synonymous with authoritarianism and Russian neo-imperialism, and stand in the way of closer cooperation and integration with the West, as well as the stability and development of Ukraine’s own institutions (73). Though neither theory is widely accepted in the former Soviet Union nor Yugoslavia they exert much influence on the political discourse surrounding nation-building, regional separatisms, geopolitics, and international cooperation.

In the remaining two levels of analysis Zhurzhenko applies her understanding of border politics to the borderlands between Ukraine and Russia, a contiguous region that shares much of its history, economic life, and culture in common, but is now separated by imposed international borders. This discussion focuses on the effects of regionalism on nation- and state-building processes, particularly the threats to regime stability presented by regional and language separatisms, and the answers or proposed solutions provided by political and societal actors. The interactions of Belarus and Russia (read: the domination of the former by the latter) present both real and perceived anxieties about the future of Ukraine. Zhurzhenko notes how the discourse of pro-Western Ukrainian intellectuals on Belarus “was actually more about the fate of Ukraine and could be summarized as ‘Today’s Belarus is tomorrow’s Ukraine’” (102). Will Ukraine break free from Russian hegemony in the region and pave its own course toward Western-style democracy, civil rights, and sovereign economic institutions, or will the state continue its present slip toward authoritarianism, the repression of civil liberties, and greater economic cooperation with/dependence on Russia? What are the implications of the border region for the larger geopolitical discourse of Eurasia? What is the significance of the border for its inhabitants?

Ukraine’s border with Russia presents unique challenges for both the region and the continent. Real problems do exist for states bordering Russia, as the arms trade and various forms of trafficking are ubiquitous on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Zhurzhenko does not go into any detail about the issue of arms, drug, and human trafficking at the border. Rather, her work focuses on instances of economic and strategic cooperation, which are faciliated by relaxed travel and visa requirements, and common memories and shared experiences throughout history. The Ukrainian-Russian border is typical of what Zhurzhenko calls a “soft border” that is “shaped by identities, representations, and images of ‘us’ and ‘them’, memories and stories. In other words, soft borders are narrative constructs” (156). The discourse at the Ukrainian-Russian border is Zhurzhenko’s primary concern, and the observations she provides are telling of the past, present, and future relations of the two populations.

The populations of Kharkiv and Belgorod called the “Slobozhanshchyna” home long before the present-day borders were drawn, that is, imposed from above by Soviet geographers. All too frequently similar instances of top-down border drawing results in conflict, in which the populations vie for control over a demarcated region’s resources. Zhurzhenko’s careful treatment of the “Slobozhanshchyna” convincingly demonstrates that the region is, unique and the discourse between populations is a phenomenon. The region’s trajectory vis-à-vis recent social and political developments in Ukraine and Russia (among other things, the promotion of Russian to second official language in parts of Ukraine, re-re-reelection of Vladimir Putin and what his presidency spells for democratic hopefuls in Russia) is unknown, but Zhurzhenko’s book highlights an instance of cross-border cooperation, everyday interaction and cohabitation at the regional level, on the periphery.

Zhurzhenko's book provides a welcome introduction for students of nationalism and post-Soviet geopolitics. Observations about the history and future of the "Slobozhanshchyna" region are well-presented and serve to influence further studies of similarly significant border regions across the globe. The various sociological, political, and geographic theories employed throughout the work are explained in sufficient detail so as to engage casual readers and serious scholars alike. Zhurzhenko’s prose is marred by a number of editorial oversights, which are perhaps the result of simultaneous or subsequent translations from native to publication languages. This issue does not detract from the importance of Zhurzhenko’s study nor the strength of her arguments throughout. Rather, the lack of “fine-tooth comb” editing is merely an eye-sore in what is a compelling addition to the literature of post-Soviet nation- and state-building, and the role of ideology and discourse in the construction of post-Soviet society.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Picture taken at Petrova Crkva;
Looking through the entry gate

Impressions from the Field V

Picture taken by Petrova Crkva
Picture taken by Petrova Crkva 
One develops a keen sense of history when strolling through Novi Pazar. On display are – as if one were to walk through a live museum – old Ottoman bathhouses, Mosques, Orthodox Churches, bakeries, a great big fort and remnants of the Yugoslav socialist past. What becomes apparent when visiting the town’s most prominent sights is the grade of deterioration each of the buildings display. Is it random coincidence, I started to wonder after some time, that most of the Orthodox structures are wonderfully renovated while some of the Muslim sights seem left to deteriorate?
Picture taken by Đurđevi Stupovi; 
Looking up at the Monastery
Picture taken by  Đurđevi Stupovi
            Take for example the Petrova Crkva (Peter’s Churc). The Church stands somewhat elevated on a small hill about a mile or so away from city center and is surrounded by graves that look like they have been around for quite some time. The Petrova Crkva herself dates back to the 9th century while I have been told that it was built on top of another site that dates back to the 6th century. In 1979, the Church was placed on the UNESCO’s world heritage list, which perhaps explains the sights fresh appearance. When comparing newer images of the Church to older pictures found on the web, one will notice that reconstruction efforts were made, specifically to the cobblestones and the entry gate leading to the Church herself.
Picture taken in NP; Looking at
the Hammam from the outside
Picture taken in NP; in the courtyard
of  the Hammam; looking at the
gate leading in to the bathhouse 
The same is true for the Monastery called Đurđevi Stupovi (The Tracts of St. George). On foot, it takes about an hour-long hike to reach the Monastery, which too appears cleaned up and renovated. Đurđevi Stupovi was built in the 12th century as an endowment to Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanja Dynasty and father of Serbia’s first King Stefan Nemanja; needless to say that this structure is historically significant.

                Upon returning to town, it became apparent to me that historically significant Ottoman and/or Islamic structures had received less care and perhaps financial support. The most likely once magnificent Isa-Begov Hammam (Turkish Bath), built in the 15th century, surely has seen better days. The inside courtyard is used as a café courtyard during summer time because of its cooling properties but lies bare and unused for the rest of the year. Inside the courtyard, I met a professor who expressed regretted over the deterioration of such magnificent structures.

Picture taken inside Altun-Alem's
courtyard;looking at a Dervish tombstones  
Picture taken inside Altun-Alem's
courtyard; looking at the
fresh water well  
Mosques too have not received any state funding. Novi Pazar’s Altun-Alem Mosque (With the Golden Gem Stone) has been built in the 16th century and is its oldest and perhaps most famous Mosque in Novi Pazar. The architecture was considered unusual for Serbia for its single dome and portico that is covered with two smaller domes. Similar structures can be found in Turkey. Atlun-Alem has a courtyard that includes the original fresh water well, a maktab (elementary school where children learn how to read and write, grammar, and Quran recitation etc.) and old Muslim grave sites. As I looked around the mosque’s courtyard, I was invited to climb the minaret by its caretaker. I had visited many mosques, though was never able to climb a minaret before and excitedly accepted. As we climbed the long, narrow and dark tower, the caretaker explained to me that he had brought the mosque and its surroundings by himself in order. The entry gate coming from the road as well as the maktab seemed indeed nicely renovated, as were some of the dervish gravesites that carried Turkish names in Arabic calligraphy. The inside of the mosque too seemed restored with its newly painted white walls and wonderfully soft red carpet. State finances did allegedly not reach this mosque. Instead, private investments allowed for somethe renovation of the prayer house.
Picture taken inside Altun-Alem's mosque;
looking at the stairs leading up-down the minaret 
Picture taken in Novi Pazar's Altun-Alem Mosque; looking
down at the city from the minaret 

            In midst of these cultural and religious structures tower huge socialist blocs – remnants of this region’s not so long gone Yugoslav past. There is not much controversy that surrounds these buildings. They are used as sturdy apartment blocs, storefronts or office buildings that are shared by Bosniaks, Roma, and Serbs alike. Perhaps they also stand as sturdy reminders for a past in which the government provided living spaces and financial aid for cultural pastime to all citizens of Novi Pazar and surrounding regions. 

Picture taken in Novi Pazar; looking at one of the buildings
that were built during the existence of Yugoslavia 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

It's Official, but is the Ukrainian-Russian Language Debate Really Over?

On August 8 President Viktor Yanukovych signed into law the controversial bill raising the status of Russian as a second official language in 13 of Ukraine's 27 administrative territories. This piece of legislation guarantees the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens, at minimum 10% of the total population of Ukraine, to use Russian in all spheres of life. The report from the head of the press service of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine confirms that the decision is the result of Ukraine's continued efforts to protect its citizens rights through European standards: "The purpose of [the legislation] is to ensure the comprehensive development and functioning of the Ukrainian language in all spheres of public life on all administrative territories, guaranteeing free development, usage, and defense of all the native languages of Ukrainian citizens, fulfilling the obligations, assumed under international treaties on these matters, and further introducing European standards in this area." Native languages guaranteed protection under the new law include: Russian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Armenian, Gagauz, Yiddish, Crimean Tatar, Moldavian, German, Modern Greek, Polish, Romani, Romanian, Slovak, Hungarian, Ruthenian, Karaim, and Krymchak.

The benefits of the language law are apparent for those populations who view it as a safeguard of their human rights. Citizens should have the right to speak whichever language they would like, and most countries in Europe and the West guarantee this right. History brought these populations together and the responsibility to protect and serve their interests falls on the shoulders of the government. One of the problems that persists in Ukraine today, however, is how the interests of the minority nations fit into the interests of the ruling regime.

While the legislation will be tied up within Ukraine's state bureaucracy for a number of months, the bill continues to stir debate. The signing of the bill might end the legislative debate about language, but the discussion among citizens and demonstrations will no doubt continue until the late-October parliamentary elections. The national languages and nations that call Ukraine home deserve to be protected by the rule of law, but much of the debate has focused on the Russian population, decidedly the largest contingent among the minority national / language groups. Fears originating among Ukrainian nationalists and the united opposition parties echo sentiments about the Russification of Ukraine under the Soviets. Linguistically speaking, Russian continues to act as a language of international communication in Ukraine, a holdover of Soviet times when Russian was the lingua franca of the multinational state. the situation is further complicated by how alive the memories of the persecution of Ukrainians, as harmful nationalist elements within the Soviet state, are in the minds of Ukrainian citizens today.

Independent Ukraine has only carried the modifier for 20 years now, and even independence has been marred by frequent political, social, and economic scuffles, and, perhaps more tragic, strengthened partnerships with their neighbors to the east. Ukraine's geopolitical position was, is, and perhaps always will be challenged by the Soviet past and the continued domination of the Russian Federation in the country's various enterprises. Russia's seemingly apparent stranglehold on Ukraine and its close relationship with (read: control over) Yanukovych and the Party of Regions paints a bleak picture of Ukraine's future sovereignty.

In my next post, I plan to shed some light on reactions to the language law in the Russian and Ukrainian blogospheres and social media sites, specifically highlighting instances where the two populations share similar sentiments about the bill and what it means for the future of relations between Russia and Ukraine.

Articles referred to in this post:

"Интеллигенция Украины требует учесть ее мнение в вопросе о языках,"

"На Украине вступил в силу закон о статусе русского языка,"

"Янукович подписал закон о статусе русского языка в регионах Украины,"

"Analyst: Language Law Unlikely to Add Rating to Regions Party,"

"Language law comes into force in Ukraine,"

"Language law signed. Now what?"


Denman, Gregory. “Women’s Movements Against Collective Male Violence,” MS Thesis, Kansas State University, 2006.

Denman’s thesis analyzes and compares 4 different women’s movements and their strategies against militaristic violence. He argues that above all, the CSM strived to remain visible. Hunger strikes, marches, and protests all contributed to keeping the CSM relevant and in the news. These mothers also often carried or wore pictures of their dead or missing sons (something I’ve seen many Gold Star Mothers do as well). All of this was done to make the war feel more tangible and unavoidable in daily life. What I’d like to find out is if SOMO over-saturated society with their demonstrations.

Denman also addresses some of the discrepancies between statistical information provided by the CSM versus the military reports. In the late 1990s, the CSM reported that 40,000 soldiers deserted the military due to hazing, whereas the military argued it was only 20-30% of that number (this does lead to curiosity about what other reasons the 70-80% deserted for). The CSM also claimed twice the amount of casualties in the first Chechen war than the military reported. The family of a “missing” rather than dead soldier would not receive financial compensation for their loss. 

Peter D. Waisberg, « The Duty to Serve and the Right to Choose: The Contested Nature of Alternative Civilian Service in the Russian Federation », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 1 | 2004,

Waisberg analyzes how civil organizations participated in public discussions of instituting alternative service, which seemed to be a common unifying factor among these organizations. Waisberg makes two observations that stand out-
1. SOMO “groups saw alternative service as the means to an end, rather than an end in itself.” This is an important distinction in progressive politics, and demonstrates the more long-term strategic planning of SOMO. In progressive politics it's often easy to be appeased by small successes, yet this is a dangerous approach because it can halt momentum of a movement. 
2. Public discussions exhibited a “complete lack of discussion of what constitutes religious freedom and freedom of conscience.” Given the widespread use of technical and legal language employed by SOMO, it is surprising that these terms were not more specifically defined. If SOMO wanted to shift patriotism to meaning upholding the rule of law, why leave anything ambiguously defined?

Sperling, Valerie. “The last refuge of a scoundrel: patriotism, militarism and the Russian National Ideal,” Nations and Nationalism, Vol. 9, Is. 2. April 2003.

Sperling argues the greatest strength of the CSM is its ability to instill doubt in society concerning the military.
Her article also critically explores different avenues of patriotism. Though the CSM sought to re-constitute the meaning of patriotism, the traditional form was very much entrenched in society. It’s important to note that that SOMO and the military shared the same end goal- honor and pride in the country. Even though they pursued quite different strategies to achieve that goal, it can be quite difficult to change minds when your approach is to change means to the same end.

The CSM wanted to shift sources of national pride from the military to Russia’s political institutions. They argued that upholding rule of law and promotion of human rights would be better standards to measure national honor. This approach, unfortunately, is what caused many to perceive the CSM as anti-military, instead of just pro-reform. 

Eichler, Maya. “Militarized Masculinity and State Leadership in the Russian-Chechen Wars,” in Militarizing Men: Gender, Conscription, and War in Post-Soviet Russia.

This chapter of Eichler’s book seeks to explain how the Russian government tried to instill a militarized form of patriotism to justify military intervention.
I’m continually interested by how the government and SOMO both seemed to prioritize the legal/technical aspect as justification for their respective goals. Yeltsin appealed to the constitution as why Russian soldiers needed to defend the unity of Russia, as well as playing up the theme of crime and lawlessness in the region. At least publicly, the operation was justified by linking the Dudaev regime to criminal acts. Similarly, SOMO often claimed that the military operation violated the new constitution, partly because alternative service was largely not enforced or accessible and partly because of the lack of transparency concerning the validity of the operation. Regardless, it’s fascinating that both sides focused on the law as their main argument against each other.

The ethnic and religious dimensions of modern war also play a huge part in opposition movements. Eichler wrote that Yeltsin tried to distinguish the military operation from an action directed toward Muslims. Wagnsson’s dissertation addressed the seemingly lack of ethnic hatred on behalf of Russians toward Chechens, and Zdavomyslova to some extent talked about this- but the most direct correlation I can find between SOMO and the Chechen ethnicity is SOMO’s concept of universal motherhood. In this sense, SOMO transcended ethnic divisions in favor of gendered divisions. They argued that mothers are mothers, independent of their ethnicity. I have not found out how this message was received by society. I’d like to find out to what extent terrorism has been conflated to a specific ethnicity in Russia, and how this conflation has been dealt with by SOMO.

Though my research primarily focuses on the first Chechen war, the interim time period is telling of the endurance of SOMO influence. By 1999, the “fear of terrorism helped justify the need for masculinized-militarized protection and strong leadership, and generated support for the military campaign and for Putin as a leader.” Vulnerability persuaded the public to support a figure they believed would restore Russia’s status and diminish (perceived) threats. Of course, no civil organization can bear the weight of removing societal fear of death/violence, but I’m left to wonder if a strategy that did not include a direct discussion of the dangers of societal vulnerability could have any lasting effect. It seems that regardless of the technical changes made in the military (ie- ending conscription, changing term limits, etc), a society driven by vulnerability is one tolerating (accepting? encouraging?) military adventurism.

“The Societal Crisis of Militarized Masculinity.”

Re-thinking and re-constituting gender roles are major themes in Post-Soviet Russia. This chapter discussed the feminization of men in the military via dedovshchina. Hazing was a means to force new conscripts to perform menial tasks overwhelmingly associated with womanhood. Eichler writes that “enduring their feminization is a phase that conscripts must pass through on their way to achieving ‘manhood.’”  It’s no surprise here that womanhood was demeaned, but it is interesting that experiencing the tasks of womanhood was seen as a pre-requisite to masculinity. The fact that the dedy called new/weak conscripts sestri does demonstrate an active gendered aspect of dedovshchina.
The relation to SOMO-
So much of SOMO’s strategy relied on promotion of traditional gender roles. It seems true that to many SOMO participants, these roles served as a source of empowerment through the image of the strong, heroic mother protecting her children. However, this empowerment seems restricted to the public image of the mother, while not addressing (ignoring?) the private role of the mother; the mother who is expected to cook and clean and be confined to menial tasks. It’s concerning that SOMO put so much stock in the paramount importance of motherhood without (at least I have not read of) critically interrogating the highly gendered nature of the phenomenon they were trying to eradicate.
At the same time, it’s often noted that draft evaders did not receive significant public scorn for their actions. They were not feminized for not wanting to fight. Being able to evade the draft more often carried a class association than it did a gendered one.

Overall comments/conclusions

My goal was to discover how SOMO uniquely impacted civil society in the 1990s. Above all, it seems exposure was their primary success. I'm still critically analyzing the influence/representation distinction to determine how SOMO acted as both a mouthpiece of society, and the agent filling in the words.

Zdravomyslova makes compelling arguments that SOMO taught struggling mothers the language of the law, even if it couldn't teach many mothers to be public about their opposition. Vallance supports this claim, and argues that if nothing else, SOMO educated mothers and young men about their legal rights.

What a wonderful opportunity to complete this research. There is still so much to be discovered about the public/private dichotomy and its relation to the military, and I look forward to continuing this research.