A Year of Trolling

Late last year, at an event organised by LSE’s Grimshaw International Relations Club, I shared my experiences of trolling as evidence of the implication of academics in an form of hybrid war and campaign of discreditation.

Well, this campaign became a bit more real (and surreal) when I stumbled across a Russian talk show discussing my research and more specifically my recent Monkey Cage piece, where I discuss the complexities of Russian identity, as I observed them in 2012 and 2013. Totally surreal, the talk show comes out of Zvezda, the Russian Ministry of Defence’s TV channel, and featured the well-known nationalist Konstantin Zatulin, who interesting and ironically, was banned from Ukraine during Yushchenko’s presidency for making claims on Crimea.

 

The name of the program is perhaps most revealing: “Information War against the people of Crimea” (Информационная война против народов Крыма). It’s like an Orwellian double-speak; implicating me as a weapon of an information war, when the program’s objective is precisely that: to discredit the argument I put forward in my research.

I’m still mystified what is so controversial about my argument, that identity was complex and that, among those I interviewed, across the identity spectrum, none imagined or supported separatism or unification, imagining it only as akin to violence. But, in particular, the speakers on the show seek to superficially discredit both the methodology of the research, that it’s unrepresentative, and the approach, that I ethnicise Russian identity in Russia, where Russia is multi-ethnic federation of Russian citizens. Of course, I don’t claim representativeness, I’m more interested in the meaning of being Russian for those I interviewed, and, of course, those I interviewed were not Russian citizens in 2012-13.

I’m not trying to respond to a superficial critique that is based around a politicised distaste for a counter-argument about how the current Russian regime imagine Crimea, but rather to consider the attention paid by the Russian state, and their instruments of propaganda, to my research. They seek to discredit not just my interpretation, but also the methodology of my research and the rationale. As Zvezda presenter, why would I want to conduct this research and why do I think I have the right to make these kinds of conclusions?  (that run counter to how a) the Russian state understands Crimea b) how the west is supposed to understand Crimea as a homogeneously Russian and pro-Russian region)

We can all become weapons in this information war whether we consent to or not, unaware of how far research can permeate. On the one hand, this is the impact we (are incentivised to) seek; on the other, it’s a nervous position for our arguments to be so visible and, as researchers, so powerless to control this visibility.

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Book Review: Brian Glyn Williams ‘The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest’

This book review was originally published on Open Democracy Russia under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

williams-crimean-tatars-cover-webThe Crimean Tatar population following Russian annexation is under renewed pressure. As a new history of the community shows, their troubles have many historical precedents—rooted in Russia’s first annexation of the peninsula.

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Crimea’s indigenous community faced a new level of threat and discrimination from the annexing regime. Crimean Tatars were the most vociferous—or at least visibly vociferous—opponents of annexation. Historically, too, Crimea’s Tatar minority had aligned with post-Soviet Ukraine against pro-Russian movements within Crimea. In the summer of 2014, Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzhemilev and Refat Chubarov, were barred from entering Russian territory including Crimea for five years following accusations of extremism.

With violence towards Crimean Tatars on the increase, including a raid and forced closure of the Mejlis (Crimean Tatar representative council) and Crimean Tatar media, Crimean Tatars comprise a significant proportion of those who have fled since Russia’s annexation. Crimean Tatars have come to fear exile, or even another deportation. This echoes the trauma experienced by Crimean Tatars’ Sürgün (deportation) in 1944, when the population was deported to Siberia and Central Asia in 1944 at the behest of Stalin. The order was taken to punish Crimean Tatars’ for betrayal of the Soviet motherland due to alleged collaboration with the Nazis, who occupied Crimea from 1941 to 1944. Many Crimean Tatars managed to return to their historical homeland only after 1989.

Crimea’s other annexation

Williams’s second book on the history of the Crimean Tatars, The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest, offers a timely and rich historical account of this community, stretching from Crimea’s annexation from the Ottoman empire to the Russian Empire in 1783 to the present ‘second annexation’ of 2014. It offers a historical context, if not haunting reflection, on the brutalities experienced by Crimea’s indigenous minority, of their ‘forced exile, genocide and revival as a nation’, at a time of great uncertainty, as well as the effect of these traumas on the national identity of this community.

Crimean Tatars were the most vociferous—or at least visibly vociferous—opponents of annexation

Williams’s narrative follows two central themes: firstly, of the building of a Crimean Tatar nation and sense of homeland, and secondly, the modernising transformation of Crimean Tatars, from a ‘pre-modern tribal-Islamic peasant people’ to a ‘modern secular nation’ in a matter of decades.

Williams contextualises the fears and worries of Crimean Tatars, residing now in Russia after a period of revival since the collapse of the Soviet Union, countering the enduring assumptions that Crimean Tatars might be a source of religious fanaticism. The Crimean Tatars, he stresses, have endured as a secular and peaceful community and nation, in spite of the numerous challenges posed by the deportation. This argument has increasing relevance since annexation, demonstrating the absurdity of Russia’s treatment of Crimean Tatars, depicting them as religious extremists, and including accusing Crimean Tatar leaders as recruiters for ISIS.

This history follows the pre-Tsarist period to the contemporary period, to discuss how a diasporic nation came to be constructed and how it endured despite the challenges of deportation.

Williams spends the first three chapters focusing on precisely how Crimean Tatars did not conceive of themselves as a nation, beginning his historical narrative with the Crimean Tatars’ dispossession—their loss of a homeland to the Russian Empire in 1783. This annexation caused micro-level changes in terms of property rights, contrasting the traditionally freer Crimean Tatars with a landowning Russian elite, who confiscated land from them, encouraged the Muslim minority to migrate en masse to the Ottoman Empire.

Those remaining fell victim to the suspicions of the Russian Empire, as religious fanatics and potential collaborators with the ‘invaders’, in a context of rising tensions between the Russian and Ottoman Empires culminating in the Crimean war of 1854-1856. Even in this period, the idea of mass expulsion of Crimean Tatars was considered, although as Williams argues it was not pursued due to a lack of logistical capacity. These rumours continued to circulate, however, and were successful in scaring Crimean Tatars to emigrate voluntarily.

From Muslim minority to Turkic nation

In the nineteenth century, an emerging Crimean Tatar intelligentsia constructed the peninsula as a vatan (homeland) for Crimean Tatars and transformed the population from a religiously-defined politically apathetic minority into a secular and politically active nation with a clear sense of territorial attachment. Williams argues that local intelligentsia were responsible for this transformation, in particular the cultural hero of Ismail Gasprinsky, the so-called ‘father of the Russian Turkic Nation’.

Gasprinsky sought to modernise and reform Crimean Tatar society, through education and newspapers, from an inward looking and conservative community to a secular nation. Gasprinsky was concerned too with self-preservation, supporting an international pan-Turkic affiliation between Crimean Tatars and Muslims across the Russian Empire which centred on a common language, culture and ethnicity (rather than a common religion) and opposing emigration. This was a watershed in Crimean Tatar history and marked the creation of Crimea as a territorial home for the Crimean Tatar nation.

Williams emphasises the role of Soviet policies in creating and shaping the Crimean Tatar nation, and the different dynamics of Soviet policy under Lenin and Stalin. The Crimean Tatars were crucial in helping the Bolsheviks capture the Crimean peninsula from the Whites during the Russian civil war. After a policy of repression by the emerging Soviet regime, the Soviet Union changed tactics and instead supported a policy of supporting Crimean Tatars—as the indigenous peoples of the territory—in line with Lenin’s policy of korenizatsiya(indigenisation).

The Soviet state promoted the flourishing of Crimean Tatar language, education and culture, though equally pursued a policy of secularisation, leading to the closure of mosques in Crimea. During this period, Crimean Tatars such as Veli Ibrahimov—chairman of the Crimean Central Committee—were empowered, pursuing policies to increase the population of Crimean Tatars and to resettle them away from over-populated coastal areas north of the Crimean Steppe.

With Lenin’s death and the rise of Stalin, the approach of the Soviet Union to the Crimean Tatars shifted dramatically. Ibrahimov fell victim to the first wave of purges under Stalin in 1928 and waves of deportations of Crimean Tatars to Siberia began in the early 1930s.

Moving towards the second world war, Williams discusses both how antipathy Crimean Tatars towards Soviet rule was already high and unpacks the complex experiences of Crimean Tatars during Crimea’s occupation by Nazi Germany. Crimean Tatars fought and died in the struggle against Nazi occupation and, after their capture, some were forced into fighting with Nazi soldiers. Williams complicates the collaboration accusation put forward by Stalin, highlighting coerced collaboration and significant wartime losses, where up to 20,000 Crimean Tatars died fighting within the Soviet army.

Enduring traumas

The Sürgün in 1944 saw the deportation of almost the entire population of Crimean Tatars following the liberation of Crimea from Nazi occupation, Williams’s analysis of the events centres on national identity, noting the ruthless rationale of Stalin’s actions. The deportation was to deterritorialise—and thus denationalise—Crimean Tatars. However, the consequence of this communal trauma was instead to converting a latent national identity into a site of mobilisation and politicisation. The risks of politicisation were something Crimean Tatar activists were willing to bear throughout the Soviet period. Many were imprisoned, notably former chairman of the Mejlis Mustafa DzhemilevQırımoğlu (Crimean Tatar: ‘son of the Crimean nation’) as they waited out the Soviet experiment in exile unable to return until the final years of Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost.

Tatars returning to Crimea were willing to sacrifice their standard of living in returning to a peninsula in which they were marginalised

With the return of Crimean Tatars to Crimea in 1989, Williams argues the diasporic identity of this nation and their attachment to the territory of Crimea were crucial to the endurance of a Crimean Tatar identity. This identity was passed down through generations via folklore and myths about the territory and the transgenerational and shared nature of the Sürgün trauma.

Those returning to Crimea were willing to sacrifice their standard of living in returning to a peninsula in which they were marginalised to rural and urban peripheries, self-made shacks in self-made settlements, often without running water, electricity and toilets. This process of deurbanisation, Williams adds, also affected the employment opportunities of those returning, with white collar workers becoming market traders.

This communal experience of trauma, post-Soviet return and renewal was the backdrop for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. New struggles began for the Crimean Tatar community. The occupying Russian regime was suspicious of the community, not only because they were consistently pro-Ukrainian minority, but due to an entire history of distrust which began with the ‘first annexation’ of 1783.

The resonance of the book is a testament to the richness and depth in which it covers Crimean Tatars’ history. Williams constructs a fascinating narrative and a convincing argument on the strength of deportation as a communal trauma, which served to preserve a nation in exile and incentivise return, even though this incurred significant personal costs.

Williams has a particular interest in the slur of Crimean Tatar ‘betrayal’—which is still used to delegitimise the community. As he notes, this accusation preceded Stalin’s 1944 denunciation of the Crimean Tatars, and had its roots in the ‘first annexation’ and then the Crimean war of the 1850s . It was unclear therefore whether the author intended to draw parallels between these periods, a point which Williams could have addressed more directly.

The Crimean Tatars’ expertise with the land in Crimea—in particular their skill for water conservation—was also briefly addressed by Williams. In a peninsula notoriously short of this precious resource and in a political climate where—since annexation—Ukraine has halted water supplies to Crimea, this point could also have been developed further. For example, one potential reason suggested for Khrushchev’s transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954 was Crimea’s reliance on water supplies from Ukraine, via the Dnieper. How far this reliance on Ukraine increased following the deportation of Crimean Tatars would then have been an interesting point for Williams to consider.

Williams projects a precarious future for Crimean Tatars: one in which they will likely remain a source of suspicion, at risk of continued discrimination and marginalization. If anything should be taken from his pessimistic history of the community, it is that the Crimean Tatars show incredible durability as a peaceful nation, even in exile. To this end, however tragically, Crimean Tatars may not need Crimea as a territorial homeland to endure as a nation.


 

Brian Glynn Williams’s The Crimean Tatars: from Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest was published by Hurst in November 2015.

Originally published on Open Democracy Russia: https://opendemocracy.net/od-russia/eleanor-knott/book-review-brian-glyn-williams-crimean-tatars-from-soviet-genocide-to-putin

Now *Open Access*: What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority?

My recent article for Social Science Quarterly, What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below, is now open access. You can read and download the article freely on SSQ’s website.

Abstract:

This article investigates what kin identification means from a bottom-up perspective in two kin majority cases: Moldova and Crimea. The article is based on ∼50 fieldwork interviews conducted in both Moldova and Crimea with everyday social actors (2012–2013). Ethnic homogeneity for kin majorities is more fractured than previously considered. Respondents identified more in terms of assemblages of ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic, and territorial identities than in mutually exclusive census categories. To understand fully the relations between kin majorities, their kin-state and home-state and the impact of growing kin engagement policies, like dual citizenship, it is necessary to analyze the complexities of the lived experience of kin identification for members of kin majorities and how this relates to kin-state identification and affiliation. Understanding these complexities helps to have a more nuanced understanding of the role of ethnicity in post-Communist societies, in terms of kin-state and intrastate relations.

View on Wiley Online Library

Citation: Knott, E. (2015). What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below. Social Science Quarterly, 96(3), 830-859.

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Identity in Crimea Before Annexation: A Bottom-Up Approach (Video)

As part of the Danyliw 2015 seminar, I spoke on my research unpacking the meaning of Russian identity in Crimea before annexation and the (lack of) sentiments of pro-Russian secession. Videos from other participants in the seminar are also available on Danyliw Seminar’s YouTube channel.


I summarised the ideas from the presentation in a previous post on Russian identity in Crimea before annexation

Identity in Crimea Before Annexation: A Bottom-Up Perspective

This week I’ll be presenting at the 2015 Danyliw seminar about identity debates in Crimea before Russian annexation of the peninsula in 2014. This blog article, originally posted on Krytyka, discusses the argument of the piece I’ll be presented, where I scrutinize existing ways in which Crimea has been framed and argue instead that identity debates in Crimea, and hte idea of being Russian, were more fractured than previously conceived by scholars and observers.

A YouTube video of the presentation is also available.


What does it mean to be Russian in Crimea? This should now be phrased in past tense because, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February 2014, being Russian in Crimea has become a different experience. It is now associated with being not only ethnically Russian but also with a political status, of “becoming” a Russian citizen, in a territory which is situated in the no-man’s land of international law as a de facto annexed territory.

Rather I now ask: what did it mean to be Russian in Crimea (in the period preceding the 2014 annexation)? I’m interested in this question because it has been a largely taken for granted idea that Crimea is a region populated by a Russian ethnic majority population. Many of whom, preceding annexation, were seen as more loyal to Russia than Ukraine, if not holders of Russian passports (although in 2012 and 2013 I could not find anyone with Russian citizenship and/or a Russian passport), supportive of Russian nationalism and pro-Russian sentiment, if not separatism.

Since annexation, understanding what it means to be Russian in Crimea has become more salient because ethnic Russians are often the overlooked community, as presumed endorsers of the annexation. I acknowledge, of course, that Crimea’s ethnic minorities—notably Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians—have faced increased, and horrendous, discrimination since annexation, from the closure of schools, to arrests and violence. However it is often presumed that ethnic minorities are the only losers of annexation. Aside from the social difficulties, for example the everyday disasters of bankingproperty rightspassports, Russia’s ban of methadone for (former) heroin usershuman rights, democracy, ethnic Russians in Crimea now exist in a territory where they have, culturally, ethnically and politically, to be Russian. However, the data that I collected in Crimea shows a much more fractured picture than the notion of a Russian ethnic majority, and the mutually exclusive categories of “ethnic Russian” and “ethnic Ukrainian” can explain. Instead I am interested, in everyday terms, in how being Russian is experienced, negotiated and subverted, and combined, or related, to ideas of being Ukrainian and Crimea, and situated vis-à-vis Crimea, Ukraine and Russia.

The most ardent supporters of being Russian and of Russia—who I label Discriminated Russians—as individuals who feel threatened by Ukraine and victims of post-Soviet policies of Ukrainization. They felt marginalized within Crimea, and Ukraine more broadly, feeling that more prominence was now given to Ukrainian language, culture and interpretations of history, at the expense of Russian language, culture and interpretations. However these individuals were both a minority of respondents, and were politically active, associated with pro-Russian organisations, such as Russkaia Obshchina Kryma (Russian Community of Crimea) and Russkoe Edinstvo (Russian Unity). Hence, they were quite different to those respondents (i.e. the majority of those I interviewed) who were not members of these organisations.  Rather, most identifying as ethnically Russian were able, and happy, to reconcile being Russian to belonging, politically, to Ukraine. As they described, having to watch cinema in Ukrainian (as was mandated across Ukraine) was not a “strangulation” of Russian language and culture, but just a “bad law”.

There were also many respondents who subverted ideas of being Russian, either rejecting ethnic categories in favour of emphasising their political membership to Ukraine—who I label Political Ukrainians—and those who combined their identification as Russian, and with Russia, with their identification as Ukrainian, and with Ukraine, by identifying as Crimean. These two categories as I conceptualize them—Political Ukrainians and Crimeans—do not fit neatly with the mutually exclusive labels. This is precisely what makes them interesting and challenging to the idea that Crimea was populated by an ethnic Russian majority: how would these individuals, who hybridized their sense of ethnicity or rejected ethnic labels, identify in a census? This is why it is vital to engage with notions of ethnicity, and identity more broadly, in everyday terms, i.e. in terms vernacular individuals use to describe themselves, and to unpack the rationale of this identification.

I emphasize in my research the complexity of being Russian in Crimea and problematize the idea that being Russian determined identification with Russia, and much less, support for the Russian regime under Putin. However, the story I tell of support for territorial reconfiguration, in other words support for secession or annexation, is much simpler. In the period preceding Crimea’s annexation by Russia there is a tragic irony to the evidence from my respondents which demonstrates the lack of support for secession and annexation. Simply put, most supported territorial status quo because they considered Crimea to be a legitimate part of Ukraine while others, primarily Discriminated Russians, preferred peace to war, believing that secession and/or annexation could only result in “bloodshed” and “conflict”, a cost they were neither willing to bear nor support. They conceived also that Russia did not want Crimea.

However, just because there was a lack of ethnic instability, to the extent that most respondents supported territorial status quo, this did not mean that there was not political fragility. Rather respondents, regardless of identification, were antipathetic to the Yanukovych regime, and to Kyiv more broadly, who they saw as taking more from Crimea than they were willing to invest. In this scenario, Crimea’s autonomous status appeared more fiction than a political reality because Crimea could neither make it initiate its own legislation nor hire locals to positions of power, subservient to Donetsk-based clans and interests.

There were clearly tensions existing in Crimea preceding annexation. However these can be explained more by the broader issues of political fiefdoms and a culture of endemic corruption, issues that continue to plague Ukraine, than by ethnicity. The greatest illustration of this is that, in spite of the diversity of identities within the ethnic Russian majority, there was relative homogeneity of concerns: socio-economic, corruption, disempowerment vis-à-vis Kyiv and support of territorial status quo. From this, Moscow should take note that Crimean residents neither like to be governed by corrupt, if not criminal, vested interests as post-annexation authorities exemplify nor from afar, whether by Kyiv or by “snooty Muscovites”.

Crimea Before Annexation: Reflections on Writing a ‘History of the Past’

There’s a strange feeling that comes with finishing something that has been a bit painful. Writing a thesis is supposed to be hard, but working with data that I gathered in Crimea in 2012 and 2013—when the idea of secession, annexation or even the end of the Yanukovych/Party of Regions regime seemed farcical—has felt particularly acerbic.

This pales in comparison to the suffering of those I know in Crimea, whose peninsula was “stolen” by Russia. This isn’t the typical story you see about Crimea where media reports generally repeat an argument that secession was a historical inevitability that never happened and/or would be the same result even if a free and fair referendum had taken place. This is something I refute, and continue to refute not least because of the people I know there that don’t fit into our neat boxes of ethnic Russian or ethnic Ukrainian. Before 2014, they were just Ukrainian. And while I acknowledge that ethnic minorities, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainian speakers, have faced increased, and horrendous, discrimination since annexation, the story of the majority is rarely discussed: everyday disasters of banking, property rights, passports, Russia’s ban of methadone for (former) heroin users, human rights, democracy, and more existential disasters, of belonging and identity.

But the discomfort of working on Crimea is something I’ve had to fight since February 2014. At first I panicked: how could I write about something that had changed so quickly? My thesis was based on territorial stability. I had assumed, presumed, that 23 years of stability vis-a-vis Russia and Ukraine, and Russia more generally vis-a-vis ethnic Russians, was a reasonable lesson for the future. Most post-Soviet scholars had predicted the same: Russia was faced with a commitment problem that it was unwilling to overcome. As masked men emerged in Simferopol, storming Crimea’s parliament, removing the Ukrainian flag from the Council of Minister’s building, replacing it with a Russia flag, and patrolled with automatic weaponry the same streets in Simferopol that I’d walked 8 months previously, my faith dissipated.

After this I thought I was going a bit mad: my argument was that identity in Crimea was much more complex than mutually exclusive census categories of “ethnic Russian” and “ethnic Ukrainian”, and where being “ethnically Russian” did not determine support of Russia, let alone support for Putin. I felt like I had collected data, and was making arguments based on my analysis of this data, that completely contravened how others approached the peninsula, as if of course the Russian majority favoured Russia, and separatism, rather than Ukraine. Including the minority of respondents who identified with Russia, and felt discriminated by Ukraine, none of my respondents supported secession from Ukraine: it just seemed unthinkable, if not farcical. Their gripe, regardless of identity, was with how Crimea was governed by Kyiv, and the Party of Regions, not with supporting secession.

I then read an article by Julia Ioffe, covering post-Soviet identity debates in Donetsk, a region that would quickly spiral much more out of control than Crimea, and it resonated distinctly with identity debates present in Crimea:

“The younger a citizen of Donetsk, the more likely she is to view herself as Ukrainian. The older she is, the more likely she is to identify as Russian. And this is the crux of it all: What we are seeing today is the reverberation of what happened more than 20 years ago. This is still the long post-Soviet transition. And this is what it’s like to wander in the desert, waiting for the old generation to die off.”

So now I just tell the story that I believe the data I collected speaks to: highly complex and fractured notions of identity in Crimea, that problematise the supposed cohesive idea of an ethnic Russian majority and the idea that identifying as Russian is analogous to identifying with Russia, as a society, state and, much less, regime. Similarly, I argue Crimea was not a region of Russian passportization: everyone I interviewed found Russian citizenship inaccessible and most found it undesirable. The small majority who wanted Russian citizenship/passports but couldn’t access them were the discriminated minority, who thought Russian citizenship would increase their leverage against Ukraine; but most I spoke to did not feel discriminated within Crimea by Ukraine. Nor was Crimea a region populated by those endorsing separatism, at least among those I met, because individuals supported Ukraine and/or supported peace. Neither they, nor I, thought Russia wanted Crimea or conflict.

Now I tell a ‘history of the past’ because for those I interviewed, many of whom fall into the chasm of the Russian ‘majority’ that are presumed as endorsing annexation, it’s the least and most I can do.

Russians are Coming! Crimea (2011)
Russians are Coming! Crimea (2011)

New Publication: What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below

I’ve just published an article in the September 2015 issue of Social Science Quarterly analysing kin identification from the bottom-up in Crimea and Moldova, based on fieldwork interviews that I conducted in 2012 and 2013. The article is part of a special issue in Social Science Quarterly which investigates the New Frontiers in the Comparative Study of Ethnic Politics and Nationalism.

In the article, I analyse the phenomenon of kin majorities, which I define as kin communities that comprise a local majority in the state or sub-state in which they reside and are claimed by an external state. I argue these kin majorities to be more fractured than expected, where respondents do not identify with neat mutually exclusive census categories, but instead in terms of ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic, and territorial forms of identification. For example in the Moldovan case, I find multiple ways of combining being Moldovan and/or Romanian, while in Crimea, I find multiple ways of being Ukraine, Russian and/or Crimean.

Overall, I argue both for a bottom-up approach to analyse kin-state relations where it is necessary to unpack how individuals identify with their home-state and kin-state, and how these identifications can be reinforcing or in competition. Moreover, understanding these complexities helps to have a more nuanced understanding of the role of ethnicity in post-Communist societies, in terms of kin-state and intrastate relations.

An ungated pdf of the article is available here.


Knott, Eleanor (2015) “What Does it Mean to Be a Kin Majority? Analyzing Romanian Identity in Moldova and Russian Identity in Crimea from Below”, Social Science Quarterly, 96(3): 830–859. doi:10.1111/ssqu.12193

Identity politics and kin-state relations from the bottom-up in Crimea and Moldova

In 1991, Moldova declared itself an independent state as part of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 2014, the recognised Ukrainian territory of Crimea was annexed by Russia. Here, Eleanor Knott discusses identity politics and kin-state relations in Moldova and Crimea, and writes that in order to understand what ethnicity and citizenship mean in the context of people’s everyday lives, bottom–up, people-centered research is crucial, yet underutilized.

I recently contributed to a special issue, “Whither Eastern Europe? Changing Approaches and Perspectives on the Region in Political Science” which explores the disciplinary relationship between political science and Eastern Europe as an area studies region, 25 years after the collapse of Communism. In my article, I argue that political science needs to engage more with an everyday, people-centred bottom-up approach, as opposed to a top-down state-centred and institutional approach. In particular, I argue kin-state relations research, which analyses relations between states and external co-ethnic communities, has predominantly analysed these relations and tensions from the perspective of the states involved. This has overlooked the bottom-up perspective of kin-state relations, in terms of what it means to identify as a member of a kin community, i.e. a community claimed by an external (kin-)state as co-ethnic.

This article was drafted, following the fieldwork I conducted in Crimea and Moldova in 2012 and 2013, in the months preceding the height of the Euromaidan violence in Kyiv when Crimea remained an autonomous region of Ukraine. Since then, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has unalterably shape post-Soviet politics and relations between post-Soviet states and Russia, and Russia, the EU and US. In this sense, the main argument of the article became the importance of studying bottom-up politics, engaging people who live in these contexts, not just to put people back into political science but also offer a point of reflection in a period of shifting political and geopolitical contexts.

Political science and identity politics from the bottom-up

In a simplistic sense, political science typically follows a neo-positivist goal of trying to measure political phenomena and establish causal relations between these phenomena to explain political outcomes. Contrastingly, interpretivism, the approach I use, is concerned with the meanings, experiences and plurality of interpretations, built on recognising subjectivity of these experiences, meanings and interpretations. While positivists might conduct surveys to verify, deductively, their ideas about the world (e.g. ethnic group membership), interpretivists can turn these identity categories on their head, question the mutual exclusivity of these identity categories and find out how individuals identify, how they experience these forms of identification, how they explain these identifications and why they identify in different ways.

Applying this bottom-up approach to identity politics, I argue the bottom-up perspective of identity politics is vital to understand how taken-for-granted concepts, like ethnicity and citizenship, function in everyday life. In particular, I criticise censuses as dominant a way in which identity is conceived, measured and analysed, by providing overly ascriptive and mutually exclusive categories, which indicate more about the way the state and regime conducting the census conceive of ethnicity than about those answering censuses.

In particular, post-Communist regimes have politicised censuses, both in the way regimes, such as Ukraine and Moldova, conceive of identity and try to measure it, to bolster the legitimacy of the regime. It may be significant that Crimea was a region that reported a majority identifying as ethnically Russian (58%) and speaking Russian (77%) in Ukraine’s 2001 census. However this indicates little about what itmeans to be Russian in Crimea, what relations are with Russia or the dynamics of ethnic identification in the post-Soviet period (i.e. where it has been well over a decade since a previous census). In this context, these regimes have struggled to conduct regular censuses, both in terms of the cost and the politicised context in which these censuses are conducted and their results interpreted.

Crimea and Moldova from the bottom-up

To circumvent the problems of existing data, and to collect more context-rich research exploring the meanings and experiences of kin identification, I conducted fieldwork with everyday citizens, such as students, in Crimea and Moldova between 2012 and 2013. In this sense, I was interested to analyse if individuals identified as Russian (in Crimea) and Romanian (in Moldova), how they identified as Russian or Romanian, as opposed to other identifications (e.g. Ukrainian, Crimean, Moldovan) and why they identified in this way.

The data I gathered showed identification in both cases to be highly diverse, according to different individual explanations of identification in terms of language, culture, history, territory and political affiliation. This data, conducted from a people-centred perspective, allowed me to challenge existing framings of both cases, whether Crimea as a homogenous region of pro-Russian nationalist and separatist sentiment before annexation in 2014, and a challenge to kin-state narratives, that want to frame Crimea as homogenously Russian, Russian speaking, and hence supportive of Russian nationalism, and eventually annexation.

In Moldova too, I was able to explore the relationship between being Romanian and being Moldovan, identities that are variously conceived (by Romania) as co-terminous or oppositional (by the Soviet Union). Rather I demonstrated a diversity of opinions between those who conceived of themselves as naturally Romanian, because of their language and “blood”, to those who negotiated these identities, pitching being Romanian as different because it meant more European.

The Benefits of a Bottom-up Approach for Post-Soviet Political Research

In political science, context-rich and specific, bottom-up interpretive approaches have been (unfairly) labelled as soft, unscientific, nonempirical and not really political science. However, empirically, I argue the approach I used in this research offers an important perspective for challenging the dominant framings of these cases. More theoretically, I argue it is important to challenge how identification is conceived within political science, not as something mutually exclusive that can be measured by separate census categories, but as something worth exploring from the perspective not only of how but also why, by gathering data about experiences, personal, familial, political and educational, that individuals used to construct identity narratives. The challenge is to frame and design interpretive research to ensure standards of rigour and transparency, for example by making interview questions available, while not reproaching interpretivism for not generating generalizable or representative findings, when the intention is to derive context-specific research, whether in a single case or a comparative context.

Beyond identity politics and kin-state relations, I argue the bottom-up everyday approach is an overlooked and under-utilised approach in political science. This approach has the potential to enrich understandings of other processes and phenomena too, such as democratization and Europeanization, by encouraging researchers to go further in to the “gray zone” of politics, away from state-centred formal institutional approaches, towards studying the informal practices and everyday experiences of politics. This may also be the pursuit of anthropologists but political scientists too should be concerned with collecting data that probes, and challenges, informal and everyday experiences of politics, whether in post-Communist states and societies and beyond.


This blog summarises the main conclusions from a recent article I published in East European Politics and Societies: Eleanor Knott (2015) Generating data: studying identity politics from a bottom-up perspective in Ukraine and Moldova, East European Politics and Societies, 29: 467-486, doi:10.1177/0888325415584047 [ungated pdf].

This article was originally posted on LSE Government Department’s blog.

New Publication – Generating Data: Studying Identity Politics from a Bottom–Up Approach in Crimea and Moldova

A bit excitedly, my first publication was just published in the May 2015 issue of East European Politics & Societies. The article is part of a special issue, following a workshop on “Whither Eastern Europe?” at the University of Florida at the beginning of 2014. My article, Generating Data Studying Identity Politics from a Bottom–Up Approach in Crimea and Moldova, argues for a bottom-up approach to political science, in particularly to political studies of ethnicity and citizenship, by trying to understand what these concepts mean in the context of people’s everyday lives.

The article first introduces the methods of political ethnography and bottom–up interviews by discussing how they can be applied and their value within political science. The paper uses data gathered from interviews in Moldova and Crimea (when it was still a de jure and de facto part of Ukraine) to demonstrate the value of this approach. It shows how interview data can add significantly to the understanding of kin-state relations within political science by adding a richness of context and a bottom–up perspective that quantitative and elite-level interviews fail to provide. Lastly, the paper draws on experiences gained from research design to discuss how bottom–up research in political science can be conducted rigorously.

The article argues that this bottom-up approach can deepen the understanding of identity politics and kin-state relations or, more broadly, important post-communist questions such as democratization and Europeanization. In particular, in the article, I reflect on the context when this article was originally drafted, when violence on the Euromaidan was in its infancy, and re-drafted, following Crimea’s annexation. In this way, we have to keep studying everyday politics, to challenge and, as Michael Bernhard and Krzysztof Jasiewicz describe, “to confront conventional wisdom on the Ukrainian crisis with the reality on the ground” and realities elsewhere that can, and may shift, dramatically.


You can read the article on the article on EEPS page or read an ungated pdf here.

Citation: Knott, E. (2015) Generating Data: Studying Identity Politics from a Bottom–Up Approach in Crimea and Moldova, East European Politics & Societies, May 2015 29: 467-486, doi:10.1177/0888325415584047.

Why is there Antagonism between Russian Nationalists and Crimean Tatars?

This text is based on a talk I gave on 6 March 2015 as part of a discussion hosted by Research Turkey on “Ukrainian Crisis and the Atrocities in Crimea: The Never-Ending Persecution of Crimean Tatars”.


Based on the fieldwork I conducted in Crimea in 2012 and 2013, I wanted to offer a historical perspective, or at least a pre-annexation perspective, on why antagonism from Russian nationalists within Crimea might be directed towards Crimean Tatars. Here I argue antagonisms pre-existed in the organisations (such as Russkaia Obshchina Kryma/Russian Community of Crimea [ROC] and Russkoe Edinstvo/Russian Unity [RE]) that were key in facilitating Crimea’s annexation in 2014, given the pre-eminence of key figures within these organisations (most prominently Sergei Aksenov, as head of RE) during and after Crimea’s annexation.

As Liana Fix and I argue, in a report for the German Council on Foreign Relations, Crimea should not be seen as a “fait accompli” or a realist situation to be dealt with by drawing lines in the sand, because there are real concerns about the deteriorating situation for, and heightening repression of Crimean Tatars since Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014. I want, therefore, to reflect on how and why Crimean Tatars might be the object of such repression since 2014.

Speaking to Crimean Tatars pre-annexation

Khan's Palace, Bakhchysarai
Khan’s Palace, Bakhchysarai

During fieldwork, I was able to conduct some interviews also with Crimean Tatars about how their position within Crimea. This was not a comprehensive study, since my focus was primarily on meanings attached to Russian identity, and others have researched Crimean Tatars, far more than me (e.g. Greta Uehling and Andrew Wilson’s OSCE report). However it still provided useful insights into Crimean Tatar perspectives and a fascinating contrasts with the Russian nationalist organisations I was focusing on.

In terms of identification, it was evident from those I interviewed they felt both as Crimean Tatar and as Ukrainian citizens. In fact, they rejected even identifying as Crimean (Krymchanka) on the basis that this was a “Soviet expression” (“sovok”). But those I spoke to retained strong ties to the land, reinforced by their sense of return to Crimea, and their ability to return to the land of “their ancestors” and the land from where their parents had been deported. That is to say, Crimean Tatar identification was strongly linked to the cultural memories, if not experiences, of deportation and return, since all I met had returned to Crimea from Uzbekistan in the preceding years and decades.

What was most striking, and reflecting on events post-2014, was a consensus that the situation, socially, politically and economically, had got better for Crimean Tatars in Crimea and Ukraine. They had already “experienced the worst years” (2012) and no longer subject to the same discrimination, seeing themselves as able to get jobs in peninsula, which previously had been difficult.

Хайтарма (Haytarma)

Хайтарма / Haytarma – The History of a Nation

My 2013 visit to Crimea coincided with the release of the first Crimean Tatar film Хайтарма (Haytarma, which can be watched online in Russian). Travelling to a small village beyond the outskirts of Simferopol to watch it in a Soviet-style Cultural House, I was (probably) the only non-Crimean Tatar person in the room watching the film. By the end I was the only person who left the room not in tears. Of all my memories in Crimea, this remains one of the most poignant.

Haytarma combined the story of deportation alongside the story of a Soviet hero, Amet-Khan Sultan who himself was half Crimean Tatar, and it was this combination that made the film so potent and controversial. Arriving in Simferopol in late May 2012, coinciding with Crimean Tatar protests outside the Russian consul in Simferopol following the order by the Russian Consul, Vladimir Andreev, for his delegation not to attend the premiere because it “distorts the truth about the Great Patriotic War” by failing to “reflect the mass betrayal of the Crimean Tatar people”. Alongside the protests against this rhetoric, and the observation about the potency of the idea of Crimean Tatar collaboration, the Russian Foreign Ministry seemed to want to lock the story down: the Russian Consul was promptly advised to resign, on the basis that the Russia, officially, did not want to seem to be endorsing this extreme opinion.

This contention, between Consul and Ministry, struck me at the time as interesting by demonstrating the Russian MFA’s willingness to scold its consuls; Russia, in an official capacity, seemed not to want to endorse the discourse of Crimea’s Soviet betrayal/collaboration, which in itself was quite surprising, and an interesting point of reflection given Russia’s willingness to suppress Crimean Tatars post-annexation.

The Three Sergeis and Andreev L-R: Sergei Tsekov (ROC), Vladimir Andreev (Russian Consul, Simfeorpol), Sergei Aksenov (RE), Sergei Shuvainikov April 2013

However, what I observed also were Andreev’s (the Russian Consul in Crimea) close informal ties to key actors in ROC and RE, demonstrating the highly developed relations that existed between Russia and local pro-Russian organisations, who themselves were key also in endorsing the idea of Crimean Tatar collaboration. I would add the idea of collaboration was supported only in the minds of the most heavily nationalistic; this was not a mainstream discourse among non-Crimean Tatars that I interviewed, who instead praised, often, Crimea as a multi-cultural peninsula, where people enjoyed this ethnic diversity, and the different experiences it presently, culturally, rather than pathologised this diversity.

Grievances of Russian nationalists towards Crimean Tatars

These Russian nationalists, who were often members of ROC and RE (and/or more extreme groups) which in themselves were key actors in Russia’s annexation, focused both on pre-Soviet and post-Soviet/contemporary grievances.

Sure enough, pre-Soviet grievances focused on the idea that the deportation of Crimean Tatars was justified by their collaboration, that they were “evicted, we say rightly because so many of them during the occupation during the war, worked on the side of Nazi Germany” (2013). This was combined, and strengthened, by post-Soviet grievances which maligned not only that Crimean Tatars felt they were returning to their “indigenous land”, but that this return threatened (according to this extreme position) the situation of ethnic Russians in Crimea. As one respondent described the “difficulty of being Russian in Crimea” was one where Crimean Tatar “nationalism […] leaves no room for Russians in Crimea, by considering that this is only the birthplace of Crimean Tatars” (2012). Here there was a clear “discursive inversion” through the portrayal by the majority as a threatened community (although a minority component of this majority) and the minority of Crimean Tatars as a malign threat to the status of this majority (even though it was the minority who themselves suffered greater discrimination and socioeconomic problems relative to the majority ethnic Russian community in Crimea).

Here they framed their organisations, such as ROC, as “legal” and “registered”, vs. the Mejlis (the council of representatives of Crimean Tatars) as “illegal” because they “did want to register” (2012), without recognising there were barriers, on the Ukrainian side, that had inhibited the Mejlis from being able to register. This ambiguous legal situation made it easier for post-annexation authorities, under the order of Aksenov, to argue Mejlis to be dissolved because it had never registered. 

A common structure built by Crimean Tatars involved in land claims (Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/ukraine-crimean-tatars-ethnic-cleansing/25306118.html)

The last important issue was the role these individuals and organisations took on the issue of land disputes in Crimea. In visiting Crimea, the presence of small structures (above) constructed by Crimean Tatars involved in land disputes was common. As one respondent explained (affiliated not with ROC but with another organisation), on the more extreme end of those aligned with Russian nationalist organisations and sentiments, they were active in arranging “Slavic pickets” alongside Cossack organisations to “prevent squatting” of “radical” Crimean Tatar organisations. On this basis, they were instrumental in furthering ongoing land disputes with Crimean Tatars, even when the Ukrainian state and its local authorities in Crimea were treading their feet in recognising Crimean Tatar land claims (hence the temporary structures).

2015: an ongoing and heightening repression

It becomes clear that Russian nationalist individuals and groups held grievances towards Crimean Tatars, portraying themselves as a threatened majority vis-a-vis an extremist minority (even if the reverse was closer to the truth) and of these, a minority were participating in more militaristic acts against Crimean Tatars. It is, therefore, less surprising when it is these elements of Crimea that have formed the post-annexation regime in a local context within Crimea.

However, this is also a shocking reality that should make us remember precisely who has taken power in Crimea and the sentiments they hold, that continue to indicate Crimean Tatars will face a precarious, if not threatened, existence in Crimea, shown most recently by the ATR raid (the Crimean Tatar TV channel) on 26 January 2015.

It is these elements that should compel us not to admit Crimea’s annexation as a “fait accompli”, nor in realist terms as facts on the ground that cannot be changed. A regime, that seized power illegally, is now trying to justify its oppression of a threatened Crimean Tatar minority not only to shore up its legitimacy but, on a symbolic level, to appeal to the interests of their support base, and to act on the grievances they held pre-annexation.


My co-author of the DGAP piece, Liana Fix, has also written an article as a follow-up for the one year anniversary of Crimea’s annexation: In Crimea, Time for Pressure