Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Who/How are you, Ivan Ivanovich?

In the 1970’s, Finnish foreign minister Karjalainen was to welcome his American colleague Kissinger to Helsinki. The problem was that Karjalainen hardly knew any English. In great haste he was taught at least some fundamental phrases. In the limo from the airport, Karjalainen, however, had great difficulties to remember a single word of this new language. In the end it came to him. With a smile, he lent over to Kissinger and asked: “By the way – who are you?” – Instead of an “How are you?” Karjalainen’s mistake turned out to be one of the basic questions of international relations – that of identity.

In his National Self-Images and Regional Identities in Russia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), Bo Petersson deals with the issue of Russian identity. By doing so, he unveils new perspectives of how to explore the empirical basis of national identity.

As for the theme of the by now five year old book - that of centre vs. periphery in Russia, it is motivated to question what relevance such a publication may have in these days of Putinist centralisation. However, the overarching juxtaposition of identity and relations between Moscow and the regions, still makes it a study of interest.

Over the last decade there have been numerous studies trying to grasp Russia’s ‘Self’ (e.g. Neumann, 1996; Prizel, 1998). Most of them share with Petersson’s study the theoretical tenet of symbolic interactionism. Few, however, turn to Russians themselves to disseminate individual and collective identities. Therefore, the great merit of Petersson’s approach is that he doesn’t hesitate to go into the trenches to dig out the lacunae of national and regional self-perceptions. Juxtaposing national self-images and regional identities, the author puts relations between centre and periphery at the fore. Thus, “tensions within and between the national self-images [---] in the regions” (2001:18), would show whether there are “any chances of attaining a viable sense of civic nationhood in this extensive country” as contrasted by “centrifugal tendencies and regionally based identity structures” (2001:16).

From a theoretical perspective, Peterson holds that: “National self-images are cognitive and affective conceptual lenses, organising devices and information filters which partly represent, and partly inform national identity” (2001:7). From this perspective, politicians in Khabarovsk, Perm, St. Petersburg and Volgograd are interviewed to discern differences in regional identities and national self-images. They represent an average stratum of political society by age, ideology and regional distribution. Confronted by Petersson’s questions, their answers illustrate how regional politicians perceive the country’s present, past and future as well as its internal and external relations. The study encompasses a period from 1997 to 1999 when the perspective of centre and periphery is becoming increasingly acute in Russian politics.

Therefore, Petersson’s results are immensely interesting by combining self-images and identities with centre and periphery to illustrate Russia’s general political development, leading up to Putin’s seizure of power in 2000. By studying respondents’ perceptions of what Russia was, is and ought to be, Petersson points to viable factors for common and unifying national self-images. In analysing external others (the U.S. and China), an ambivalent relationship is found in positive and negative reflection. Internally, however, the strongest negative reflection is found in regions’ relations with the centre. Moscow is, by all standards, Russia’s negative internal ‘Other’. Results are even so far-reaching as to indicate that regional identities – to the extent they exist – are actually formed by negative reflection of Moscow. The single exception is St. Petersburg, being the only example of a positively defined regional identity.

To sum up, regional identities may form by distrust in Moscow being stronger than uniting national self-images. In order for the centre to remain control over periphery – the regions – a strong positive image must be displayed to unite the Russians. Today, we might witness this in Putin and his centralising policies. Finally, what the author shows, is a viable approach to the empirical study of national self-images and identities. In essence, by asking the intended “How are you?” Petersson’s query also answers the accidental “Who are you?”

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