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Being an ethnic minority

By Irina Malenko

Let’s face it. My people are not used to being an ethnic minority. In our own country we are an overwhelming majority of the population. And even here, being abroad, in a country where many people have told me that I was actually the very first Russian they personally met, some of us are not willing or able to face this fact.

“What do you think, you are an ethnic minority here,” – I said once to my mother.
to her dismay. “Me, an ethnic minority? I cannot be! I come from a great nation!”
“Great or not, but you ARE a minority here”, - I was trying to explain, but in vain. Despite all her progressive political views, this was something she just wouldn’t comprehend. More than that – she saw something humiliating in this term itself:  “ethnic minority” to her sounded like somebody who is not being treated respectfully.

Maybe it is because this is an unfortunate fact of reality – that ethnic minorities are being treated this way?

I believe it is actually a very useful first-hand experience for those who belong to what they call “great” (in numbers, it is!) nations.

Even to myself. I was always trying to learn more about different nationalities both in my own country and right across the whole world. This interest might come from my own background: the place where I grew up, was extremely mono-cultural, not by choice of the people, not because of bigotry and ethnic cleansings, but for historical reasons. If somebody was a bit different or behaved just a bit strangely, the common thing to say to this person, was: ”Are you non-Russian or what?” The people who said this, did not see anything offensive in it.  They didn’t mean it as offence, you see. But as we know, what counts, is not how you mean it, but how the others perceive it. And, despite my best efforts, despite the fact that I tried very hard and in many ways went further in my understanding of other nationalities’ feelings than many Russians around me (including my mum), there are many things I was only able to understand fully once I’ve become “an ethnic minority” myself. 

Recently one of my Irish Republican friends has told me that my country was an empire. I could get offended; most Russians, in fact, would. They would point out to you that Russians did not live any better than any other nation in USSR; they would give you figures on development of various nationalities’ schools, newspapers, magazines, theatres, literature, even just grammar books and literacy after the Revolution. They would tell you that there were special places reserved in universities all across the country – especially for the students of ethnic minority background who didn’t even have to pass entrance exams like the rest of us.

I do not understand why when Cubans are showing solidarity and internationalism to other nations, this is good, but when the USSR was doing the same,  that was “evil”. Where is the logic in it? Is it not something that was “planted” in the heads of the progressive people here by the imperialist media who are, unfortunately, far more influential than this people would even realize?

Is that because Cuba is small – and we were a big country? 

Was Afghani Revolution in 1978 not done by the Afghani’s people? Were they not progressive forces? Was the people of Afghanistan better off at any stage before this Revolution – or indeed, after the fall of Nadjibulla?  Those who know a little bit more about Afghanistan than an average Western media consumer, would know what I am talking about. …

But to get offended to this, without trying to look deeper into our souls and into the reasons for so much nationalism and chauvinism in our once so multicultural country, would be a silly thing to do. If I did this, I’d be like the local unionists who are denying any wrong-doing from their part and who are absolutely unwilling to see the suffering of anybody who is not one of them.

So, in defence of my country I told to my comrade only :” Have you ever known any  British child to whom his mother would sing the songs of all British colonies as a lullaby? Have you seen a child who’d refuse to sleep until he’ll hear every single one of them?”

I was a child like that, you see. Every night my mother would sing me the folksongs of all the 15 republics of USSR – some of them in the languages she didn’t speak. And I wouldn’t go to sleep until I’d hear all of them. I remember them even now.  I look over and over again into my photo album from my teenage years that keeps the photos of my pen friends from all over USSR. All so different and so beautiful. Where are they today? How many of them have perished in the fires of the civil wars spread across of what was once our country? I was in touch with Layla from Chechnya until the second war started. Is she alive today? ? I will probably never know.

I remember my discovery (when I was a teenager) that not everybody in my country was a true internationalist and anti-racist.  I saw in it the biggest evil of all– bigger than the nuclear threat. And the current situation is showing me that I was right.

I remember the stories told to me by my Estonian friend who came for the first time to Moscow with her school class. “I was amazed to discover that are actually nice Russians!” – she said to me in amazement. “I only knew Russians who live in Estonia. And they are very nasty to us”. Now these Russians are paying the price for it. They are complaining that they are being discriminated – but in fact, most of them never bothered to learn the local language and about the local culture when they moved elsewhere within USSR. That would be the first thing I personally would do. 
But to what extend was it these people’s fault – if it was the state’s policy, not to encourage it?  There was a dual system of Russian language and National language schools in every republic, and you had a choice to which school to send your child. I would make the local language compulsory for every school. You don’t have to use it in your personal life, but you have to understand and to respect your neighbours, people on whose land you live.  Now they have an additional difficulty: even if they want to learn the language now, most of them are simply not able to afford to pay for the course. If it would have been done in Soviet days, it could have been all done for free!

Some Russians now ask me when does a person stop being a coloniser: after 100,200, 400 years? I answer then: when this person will learn about the culture, the language, the traditions of the people who have lived on this land for many generations before he/ she or his ancestors came. When this person will treat this people with respect. When he/ she will stop imposing on them his/her own traditions and norms as the only “right” ones. And old Russian saying was very wise: “You don’t go into another monastery with your own set of rules” it said. 

How could I blame anybody for feeling bitter about my people – after I have witnessed myself a Russian woman living in Lithuania saying : “Our Palanga is such a nice town! There is only one problem: too many Lithuanians…”? 

My mother didn’t  understand many things until she came here and became an ethnic minority herself. “Sure, we were treating people equally and not exploiting anybody?”- she ‘d say. “This is how WE feel about it, but you don’t know how other nationalities feel. You just don’t know what they feel, you can’t see it through their eyes,”- I was trying to explain. Would you like to be told day-in, day-out that we are all equal, but one of the nations (not yours!) is  “an older brother to the rest”?

I never had any hang-ups about the language. If Estonians, Georgians, Uzbeks wanted to speak to me in another language that we both knew, and not in Russian, that was never a problem for me. If that makes them feel more comfortable, why not? I never had any emotional problems with other people’s of the ex-USSR finding their own way of life and becoming independent. If it was true independence, of course. If other people believe that they are better off without us, so be it.  I’d love us to remain friends, to help and to respect each other.  I think this diversity was the strength and the pride of my country. And I am deeply ashamed to witness an incredible chauvinism of my own people today.

Lenin has always said that the “great”-Russian chauvinism is a far bigger danger than any of the nationalistic feelings of the smaller nations, and I agree. But I would be a liar if I’d say that it just  appeared now and that it didn’t exist before. If we would have admitted it earlier to ourselves and would have tried to understand others’ feelings and needs better, many of the sad consequences  could have been prevented. Not for the sake of any “Russian empires”, but for the sake of thousands of human lives. For the sake of our children.  Who has won from our fights with each other? The new neo-colonialist Western masters of these new countries. The countries that call themselves independent – but in fact, they are more dependent than they ever were. And is being “under West” any better that being “under Russians”? I do not think so, but if I am not to be listened to because I am Russian – well, go ahead and find it out for yourself…

But I do object and I will always object when I see the West trying to set us up against each other for its own political, military and economic purposes. When the West comes in with its double standards (Russia in Chechnya – it’s a war crime, NATO in Yugoslavia, Iraq or Afghanistan – it’s “peace and democracy”). To the West, both Russians and non-Russians on ex-Soviet land are simply “sub-humans”, subjects of the new colonisation. In fact, what they are trying to do, reminds me of a fairy tale in which a dying father was trying to teach his constantly quarrelling sons that they should stick together. He gave them a broom and asked to break in with their bare hands. Naturally they couldn’t. Then he asked them to take the broom apart and to try to break each branch separately. That was easily done. “This is what will happen to you, if you will not stick together in life”, - he said to his sons.  This is what is happening to my brothers and neighbours now. This is what is happening to my own people too. 

… When I was a teenager, I was reading a lot of South African novels.  I was wondering; what is it really like, to live in South Africa? I thought it must be the most horrible country in the world! It went beyond my imagination how some people can be such racists.

Now I know it from experience – thanks to my living in the North of Ireland and constant confrontation with “white supremacist “ mentality of those, some of whom at first sight seem to be polite and “civilized” people. Yet, you are not allowed to utter any critical word about their “wonderful UK”. They might criticise it themselves, you see, - but they are allowed to because this is “their” country. You are not allowed to say anything critical – about NHS, about police, about anything. You should “swallow what you get” and be grateful. You are not one of us, remember!

I think, being in the position of an ethnic minority is an extremely useful experience for everybody who has never felt what does it feel like. It is especially useful for the representatives of the so-called “big” nations who simply never had a chance to look at their own nation’s actions through the eyes of somebody else. 

Where shall we send those local supremacists on a study tour?

Would living a couple of years in my native and now more than ever chauvinistic Russia be a good lesson for them?

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