Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Life Coaching and Civil Society in Russia

First of all, HUGE shout out to my number one British babe Rebecca who recently acted as my errand girl from 4568.80 miles away and was an enormous help to me <3

This blog post is a little unusual. I sat down to write about my week and ended up with this! I think for anyone interested in, well, life there is something here you'll like  =)
Comment and let me know what you think!

Chapter 1

As some of you may know, over the past four or five years I have been pretty much addicted to reading Peace Corps blogs. I have attempted to put myself in the minds of Peace Corps volunteers serving all over the world from Azerbaijan, to Vanuatu, to Suriname. I have learned a tremendous amount about how Peace Corps works and what experience is like, about life in the countries where Peace Corps serves, and, I believe, about fulfillment and purpose.

I have just finished reading one of my favorite blogs thus far, by PCV John Williams who served in a remote jungle village in the interior of Suriname 2011-2013. As his service was drawing to a close he posted this video, and I while I'm sure everyone has heard some variation of this advice and there are plenty of other similar videos out there, I really loved this succinct, moving, beautiful clip. I am at that stage in my life where I have to contemplate the vast expanse of time ahead of me and decide how I will fill it, decide who I will strive to become. With so many interesting things in the world and so many problems to solve, if you take the time to actually examine all the choices and not just shuffle along the path of expectations predetermined by thousands of others whose minds and bodies work completely differently than yours, it's completely overwhelming. If you're reading this blog, then you have likely stood at this crossroads or are standing here with me now. 

I still have a few more years to figure it all out, but I think my life is probably too short and too much of a drop in the bucket not to throw myself into it 100%.

Chapter 2

As I promised in my last post, I want to go a little more in depth into what my internship organization, Deti Peterburga, does and why I think it's so important.
Civil society in Russia is not very well developed, and there are only a very small number of NGOs working to help immigrants. My area of research and deep interest is in the Caucasus, particularly Russian-Caucasian relations, and Deti Peterburga is the only organization in Saint Petersburg that does work related to that sector. Russia has the second largest number of immigrants (appx 11 million) after the United States (45.8 million) and there are big problems in that regard. Many Russians have a "Russia is for Russians" mentality (despite the fact that Russia has always been very ethnically diverse).
Illegal immigration is a big problem, and understandably very frustrating, as it is in the United States, but even legal immigrants face discrimination and prejudice. One of the reasons immigrants, particularly from Central Asia or the Caucasus, are seen as undesirable is because many Russians link them with increased crime and a dilution of traditional Russian culture. Most of these immigrants, for example, are Muslim, and thus desire to practice Islam when they come to Russia. They build mosques and Muslim community centers and as Russians see these developments many fear that the new immigrant population will eventually take over their cities and prevent Russians from practicing their culture.
I think the perspective from both sides is understandable, and that is where the question of "melting pot" vs "salad bowl" comes in. The idea of a country (notably the US) as a "melting pot" is that people from all over the world will come together to create a new culture that is a blend of all their existing identities. In recent years I have heard the term "salad bowl" used more, in which instead of melting down cultures and identities into one cohesive, unified, (in theory) culture, the country would preserve all the unique heritages of its citizens and encourage them to retain their differences yet still work together. I think each of these simplistic metaphors have flaws- a completely new culture will not organically emerge as an equal blend of all the ingredients, but it is not exactly practical to neither share a common language nor encourage multilingualism on behalf of all citizens.
So how does this apply to Russia? Russia is not like America. It was never meant as an immigrants' haven or a land free of religious persecution. Russia does not want to be a melting pot or a salad bowl or any other pleasant, positive metaphor for cooperative diversity. The options as I see them stand as this:
1) Force all the immigrants out of Russia.
      a) Will Russians fill their jobs (construction, hard labor, factory work) or will there be a workforce shortage?
      b) Who exactly qualifies as an "immigrant"? (see map of ethnic diversity above)
      c) How can they all be forced out without intense violence and riots and chaos?
      d) Example: Tajikistan, where many immigrants are from, has an economy that runs largely on remittances and drug trafficking- what will the consequences be of a large influx of citizens returning to a place they left because there were no jobs or money?

2) Leave everything alone- let immigrants come in as they please, build their insular communities and ignore them as much as possible until anger on the part of Russians bubbles over to the point of violence (we already see frequent examples of inter-ethnic violence). Then who knows what will happen...

3) Help immigrants integrate into Russian society.
      a) The majority of these people packed up their lives and left their homes, their families, and the security of being a native to come to Russia in search of a better life. Remember, Russia isn't exactly the easiest place to live, so what kind of lives are these people leaving that living here is the dream? They want to be accepted here, they want to feel wanted- doesn't everyone?
     b) By pushing against legal immigrants so harshly with racism and hatred, the only rational response is to push back. If you tell me I'm worthless and of no value, I can either run home with my tail between my legs (see 3.a as to why that's not really an option) or I can stand up for myself- this often results in physical altercations and a growing wall of misunderstanding and anger between the populations. It certainly doesn't help that in both Russian and many Central Asian/Caucasian cultures, it is important to stand up for yourself physically (especially men). Someone cuts you off in traffic? Pull out your baseball bat. Someone looks at your girl the wrong way? There's a switchblade.

In the States, we have one word for our population- American- and anyone can be American regardless of skin color, accent, occupation, place of birth, etc.
In Russia, there are two words- Русский (Russkii) and Российский (Rossiiskii)
Русский means ethnically Russian, while Российский means a citizen of the Russian Federation.
(This is a blog post by a Russian espousing one view of the immigration issue.)
The distinction between the two is acute and important. While an immigrant can never be Русский, he can be Российски if you let him, and there is value in that.

Clearly, I advocate for option 3. I think the work Deti Peterburga is doing is so important if option 3 is to be considered a realistic possibility, because as option 2 ferments time is running out. Russians must look at immigrants as enriching, as a source of growth and development. It's not like the country is overcrowded, and the birthrate is down. If Russia is going to prosper, it cannot be stagnant, it must accept the tools its been given as use them to build up the state. Rather than forcing immigrants to isolate themselves, which only furthers the problem, help them to become Российский. Teach the children Russian, teach them tolerance and acceptance, teach them love, and they will grow up to love and support their adopted homeland as the land adopts them in return. 

**Author's Note**
I'm not a Russian (Русская or Российская), so this is not really my problem to solve. I don't know if I really have the right to have an opinion on this issue- but I do!
If you disagree (or wholeheartedly agree) with what I wrote, let me know in the comments! Tell me if I'm missing something.
I don't mean to make anyone feel uncomfortable, only to shed a new light on the situation and perhaps provide an option that is often overlooked.


  1. You are talking about a global issue that affects every country. To be sure, each country will have some uniqueness to same essence of the issue in the integration of diverse cultures. The resolutions are dependent on education and enlightenment of all sides, and it starts with children and what is taught in school and in the home. Views and understanding to bring diverse peoples together on common goals, take generations and centuries to change and mold. Our world history need only be skimmed over to see these issues have resulted in blood shed for centuries. There is another similar issue that is gaining faster and faster relevance. Technology will most likely cause even more of the same issues, between those that have even more enlightenment, and those that do not. Tech is moving so much faster then we can come to grips with, these issues you speak of between peoples of different culture are part of an even greater issue of those that have tech and those that do not. Those that integrate tech into their lives, those that can, and those that cannot because of lack of knowledge, wealth, and availability. So, even within cultures, subcultures between those tech embracers and those that do not will seemingly have the same kind of issues as immigrates are facing. What you learn from your academic experiences in observing and documenting the issues of Russian immigration reforms may well serve you in the future.

    1. Thanks for the response, Bernie! I completely agree about technology. I heard about this experiment a while ago, check out this article!