Tuesday, March 9, 2010

My (Own) Invented Country

Portrait Of Isabel Allende

Forgive me for posting a second time on the magazine, Russian Life, but I’m still under its spell. Reading Russian Life, I’m reminded of the scholarship that emerged from Benedict Anderson’s anthropological book, Invented Traditions. That book and its imitators reminded us all that national traditions are constructed rather than timeless objects. (See also Isabel Allende's brilliant book on her own artificial nationality, My Invented Country.)Indeed, the very essence of a country, say Scotland’s affinity for bagpipes or kilts, or the British love of tea, may have been adopted only recently, and adopted from a foreign country to boot. Anderson’s thesis was that nationalism is a modern phenomenon, the result of literary culture and modern technologies such as the printing press. People had to learn through the act of reading that they were supposed to be aligned with many other people in their home nation-state.

The implications of this truism about the artificial nature of national identity are profound and far-reaching. And every issue of Russian Life reminds me of this fact. When you pick up an issue of Russian Life, you see how Russians (and those who write about Russians) are engaged in an active and passionate struggle to create meaning out of the potentially meaningless. What does it mean to be a Russian? Russians are interesting primarily because they have answered this question so badly over the centuries. Is Russia an Eastern country, a Western one or some combination thereof? Is Russia inherently despotic or anti-democratic? How important is Orthodoxy to Russia’s sense of self? With so many foreign influences, would Russia be Russian without Russian poetry? Do Russians have to like chess and figure skating to remain Russian?

The British and French and Americans have done such a good job of camouflaging the artificial nature of their own nationalities that these discourses can be extremely dry. In any event, the March/April 2010 issue of Russian Life tells us a lot about the cracks in a Russian nationhood that is constructed internally, but also in dialogue with external actors (such as Russian Life.)

To their credit, the editors are aware of these cracks and report on them. In this issue, they explore the oddities of the Russian language, and even the way in which Russians take pride in these oddities. Apparently, the Russian fondness for rhyme leads to the following everyday catch phrases, that bare little resemble to their ostensible meanings: “I kindly invite you to a lean-to,” “just a piece as big as a cow’s toe,” “love is a carrot,” “What people you meet in Hollywood,” “a horse in a coat,” “a cat soup,” et cetera and so on.

This month, Russian Life also deals with Russia’s attitude toward NATO (i.e., the West) in Afghanistan, Russian orchestral music, the architectural legacy of the Kremlin, the nationalist assertion that abortion is undermining Russia’s power, Russia’s lost cultural heritage in Riga, the Nobel nomination of Svetlanda Gannushkina (member of the governing board of the International Memorial Society), and so on. One interesting aspect of Russian Life’s approach to the enigma of Russia’s identity (to paraphrase Churchill’s cliche) is that the Russian Life appears to embrace both liberal and conservative approaches to Russia’s efforts to stabilize its sense of self.

On the one hand, the editors seem to mock Putin, on the other hand the editors necessarily acknowledge the fragility of the liberal approach to Russian nationalism. For Russians really suffered a psychic loss by being displaced from a former homeland such as Latvia, and Russians really haven’t quite recovered from their national disgrace at the hands of chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer. It’s fascinating to follow the magazine as it attempts to play both sides of the national identity issue.

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