X Close

SLOVO Journal


The blog of the postgraduate journal at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies


Archive for the 'Opinion' Category

So Far, So Good, So SLOVO

By Borimir S Totev, on 17 April 2017

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 10.57.27 am

Today the Royal Academy of Arts ends its exhibition on Russian art in the period of 1917-1932. The much celebrated works of Malevich, Petrov-Vodkin, Kandinsky, and Chagall, amongst many others, remained open to visitors of the Main Galleries for more than two months. Back in February, SLOVO Journal was invited to the Press Viewing of the exhibition supplemented by a tour with the curators Ann Dumas, Dr Natalia Murray, and Professor John Milner.


The Press Viewing of ‘Revolution: Russian art 1917-1932’ at the RA

It was made obvious to me then, that a season of appreciating Russian art was slowly about to unravel in our country’s capital, and with its cultural calendar London fully embraced the task of marking one of the most profound and consequential moments in world history. However, much in contrary to what some critiques suggest about the centenary of the Russian Revolution, I contend that its acknowledgment here was done elegantly, with an accurate awareness of history and its plights.

We are now almost half way through the year. So far, so good. Fear not, there is still plenty out there to see, explore, and read on the topic of all things Russian.

For starters, if you haven’t done so already, make sure to read through the latest issue of SLOVO Journal available online, or rummage through our collection of electronic archives. For nearly three decades we have provided a platform for the publication of promising academic work covering the Russian, Post-Soviet, Central & East European regions. In VOL 29.1 published in January this year, our authors covered intellectually stimulating explorations of human testaments to past events and cultural relations, as well as the more contemporary topics of online activism in Russia and the revival of populism in Europe.

There is still some time left before our 1st May deadline to submit your own papers and reviews for consideration. The publication of VOL 29.2 will complete our annual run marking the centenary year of the Russian Revolution and will be published around the autumn season of 2017.


SLOVO Journal’s Call for Papers

Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the events that are constantly taking place at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Back in March, SLOVO Journal screened the feature documentary ‘Revolution: New Art for a New World’ as part of SSEES’s events calendar, hosting BAFTA Award wining filmmaker Mary Kinmonth.


SLOVO Journal organised screening of ‘Revolution: New Art for a New World’


Executive Editor Borimir Totev (left) in conversation with Director Margy Kinmonth (right)

What else is left? Plenty. The Design Museum is in the middle of its ‘Imagine Moscow’ exhibition exploring Moscow as it was imagined by a new generation of bold and creative architects and designers. The launch of the new book ‘The Sixth Sense of the Avant-Garde: Dance, Kinaesthesia and the arts in Revolutionary Russia’ by Irina Sirotkina and Roger Smith will take place on the 18th May at the Calvert 22 Bookshop. Film fans can look forward to the screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 cinematic masterpiece, ‘October: Ten Days that Shook the World’ with a live orchestral accompaniment at the Barbican on the 26th October. Tate Modern is still only getting ready to join the wave of exhibitions with its own ‘Red Star Over Russia’ covering artworks from five decades, between 1905 and Stalin’s death in 1953, opening on the 8th November. In the meantime, you can always head to Pushkin House or the Gallery for Russian Art and Design (GRAD) and discover what’s on schedule there.


By Borimir Totev, Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal



Migrants and the Media

By Borimir S Totev, on 13 April 2015

image credit: Hope Not Hate

With the persistent misrepresentation of Romanians and Bulgarians in the British press, Rebecca McKeown asks: is it time for an end to unfettered free speech?

Britain’s press freedom must end.

Even as I type the sentence I flinch and want to hammer repentantly on the backspace key. The words read like democracy gone wrong: an attack on a fundamental human right. They bring to mind the heated debates of the post-Charlie Hebdo moral melee. They seem to typify everything that a truly liberal society might hope to denounce.

And yet … I stand by them. The callous portrayal of East European immigrants by the red-top right and the racist generalisations and lies peddled to petulant and ill-informed swathes of the British population have become intolerable. Who gave the British media a free pass to provoke societal division and institutional racism?

Those liberal Britons who have grown up accustomed to the tabloid circus joke at its expense and shake their weary heads at every new, bigoted headline. It seems to me, a newcomer to these green and pleasant lands, that Britain’s populist press is all too often brushed off like an embarrassing drunk uncle—a little bit puckish, a little bit provocative and opinionated, but all in all, harmless.

If you had been a fly on the wall in conversations I have had with UK-based Romanians of late, you would be as certain as I am that such coverage is anything but harmless. Any medium which allows the publication of material that, for example, calls Romanian workers “a huge army of parasites” is in no way innocuous.

It has now been over a year since labour market restrictions were lifted in the UK, allowing Romanians and Bulgarians to work here legally. Certainly, some came. Many went home again too. This is the nature of today’s mobile workforce, and the reality of EU membership. Many Brits count themselves lucky that they can hop across to the continent to live or work in Paris, Munich, Seville, or Budapest. Romanians now have that same right, and, bravo them, many are exercising it.

The great majority of those Romanians who come to the UK prove themselves to be hard-working, honest, contributing members of society, as immigrant communities so often are. But still, still, in this enlightened, largely-liberal, globalised society—still there are a great many Britons who believe the generalisations printed on a daily basis about a people who are no less intelligent, creative, and proud than they are.

Researching this post, I embarked on a Google search for “UK Romanians”. I should not have troubled my fingers with the exercise. So predictable were the headlines, so copy-and-paste clichéd, I could have written them myself given a burst of creative malice. The stories read like bad jokes:

‘Romanian planned to smuggle 3ft 2in burglar known only as ‘The Midget’ out of the UK by hiding him in his luggage and flying to their home country’

‘Romanian thief caught shoplifting twice within three days of arriving in the UK including just hours after stepping off a plane’

‘Romanian children 130 miles from home demand taxi and McDonald’s at London police station’

And these were only the first three headlines I encountered in a search of the past few days alone. Eighteen months ago, I investigated the media’s depiction of Romanian workers somewhat more extensively. In a study of four tabloids and 315 articles, I categorised each piece by the type of language used and whether a positive or negative depiction of Romanian and Bulgarian migrant workers was given.

The results of the study found that the three right-leaning tabloids (The Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Express) were far more likely to report hyperbolic, negative pieces about Romanians and Bulgarians than the left-leaning Daily Mirror. In other words, the tabloid nature of the paper appeared to have less effect on the anti-Romanian rhetoric published than did its partisan leanings. Some of the headlines recorded during the study included:

Bogus Bulgar Benefits Rackets Exposed’

‘Time Bomb: Special Investigation in Romania – Migrants to Bring Drug-Resistant Superbug to UK’

And my personal favourite, demonstrating the innate talent of tabloid journalists at disguising ingrained racism in crude quips: “BULGAR OFF”.

The inanity of tabloid immigration puns aside, the issue of racism towards Romanians (or insert the Central/East European nationality of your choice here) is ongoing and unrelenting. Very often when I meet a Romanian in London, I am shocked by their stories of discrimination. Frequently they are apologetic about their ethnicity. A personal experience of this just two weeks ago almost brought me to tears.

In a small café just north of UCL, a waitress came over to deliver my food. Her accent and appearance led me to believe that she was Romanian, and so I asked her: “Where are you from?”

The look of trepidation and distress that flashed across her face, just for that split second that her eyes met my own, was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my time in this city. “I’m from Romania”, she replied, every syllable apologetic, bracing herself for what she seemed sure would follow.

My answer, in imperfect Romanian, felt—appallingly—like giving a gift. “Romania!”, I exclaimed, “You have the most beautiful country in the world! I wish I was Romanian!”

How wonderful would it be if such a simple gesture was not so rare as to elicit an overjoyed response? The young woman beamed, sat opposite me for a minute, and poured out her troubles.

“Everyone is horrible to me when they hear I’m Romanian.”

“I miss my family, but this is the best chance I have to support them”

“I want to study, so I am working hard to fund my education”

“The management here treat me very badly. They take the tips I earn and I never see them again”

How I wish this was a one-off conversation. Similar ones are, however, to be had with a great many of the Romanians working hard to earn and contribute here. A young man I met recently came to London to study, but finding himself out of pocket, quit school to work instead. The persistent suggestions that he was in the UK to scrounge off the system had left him determined to prove his worth in a way that other Europeans are rarely forced to:

“I am going to work hard for a few years. Then, when I have enough money, I’m going to walk up to the admissions desk at the university with bundles of cash and pay in advance for my degree, right there on the spot”.

These Romanians, the Romanians that I know and often meet, in no way resemble the violent and dishonest characters that the British press so often choose to splash across their pages and that certain sections of British society choose to see as representative of an entire nationality.

Luckily, I am not the only person who thinks that depictions of Romanians in the UK have spiralled out of control. A group of good people, Brits and Romanians alike, are seeking to remedy the misrepresentations of Romanians in this country. Their documentary is titled 13 Shades of Romanian—but let us not hold this against them. They are producing thirteen stories of thirteen Romanians living in the UK, with the aim of showing a side of Romanians few Brits are exposed to. The project has just achieved its funding goal through a crowdsourced Indiegogo campaign, though they are still welcoming support.

How sad that such a campaign is necessary, and that it is very much an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff remedy. Can Britain’s media not be held more accountable for damning the reputations of every Eastern European who walks through the arrivals gate at Heathrow? As far as I am concerned, the rhetoric that continues to abound about Romanians and other East European expats is a human rights abuse of the first order—more so, I believe, than restricting the unfettered, unfiltered, and unacceptable racism so often printed and consumed in this country.

Rebecca McKeown is a Romaniaphile and Hungarian language learner from New Zealand, currently studying at SSEES. A former radio journalist with interests in diplomacy and development, her current research explores the performance of national cultures in Romania. Twitter: @rebiccamck

A Hope that Died with Boris Nemtsov

By Borimir S Totev, on 9 March 2015

By Natia Seskuria

He understood how Vladimir Putin’s regime worked and still was brave enough to oppose it. He was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, and never hesitated to make sharp statements against the direction Russia was going. He publicly denounced Russia’s war in Ukraine, and went to the European Parliament to call for the imposition of ‘Magnitsky sanctions’ against regime officials. A former Deputy Prime Minister, who Boris Yeltsin almost named as his successor, a man committed to liberal values, freedom of expression and human rights, Boris Nemtsov has paid the ultimate price for his bravery.

Nemtsov’s murder is the highest profile killing during Putin’s fifteen years of rule. That the leading voice of opposition could be gunned down in public, two hundred metres from the Kremlin, under CCTV cameras that happened not to be working, can hardly be perceived as a coincidence. Like all opposition leaders, Nemtsov was under constant surveillance by the Russian security services. It is hard not to conclude that no matter who pulled the trigger, they were allowed to do so.

During Putin’s rule, several symbolic figures have been sacrificed to intimidate other potential dissidents. In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the outspoken owner of the Yukos oil company and the bank Menatep, was arrested and jailed for ten years. His imprisonment brought the oligarchic class to heel and consolidated Putin’s ‘vertical’ of power. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent reporter of the Russian Army’s abuses in Chechnya, was shot dead, apparently as a warning to other journalists.

One month later, Alexander Litvinenko’s death proved that no one is beyond the reach of the regime. The former FSB officer, who became an outspoken critic of Putin, was poisoned by radioactive polonium in London. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused Russian officials of large-scale theft and tax fraud, died in prison after being denied medical care. Thus the most vocal critics of the Kremlin have often ended up silenced.

Semi-official theories about Nemtsov’s murder have pinned the blame on everyone from Islamist militants, to Ukrainians, to CIA agents, to liberal provocateurs, to Nemtsov’s lover, the 23-year old Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dimitry Peskov, implied that the state had no reason to want Nemtsov dead when he commented that “Boris Nemtsov was only slightly more than an average citizen”.

It is true that Nemtsov was not immensely popular as a politician. His role in Yeltsin’s governments in the 1990s led many Russians to regard him unfavourably. He lost his seat in the Duma in 2003, and came a distant second in the Sochi mayoral elections in 2009. He certainly did not have the profile of the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, released from jail last Friday after serving a fifteen-day sentence for distributing leaflets.

However, with the rouble crisis, a shrinking economy, oil prices down 50% and rising unemployment, a leader like Nemtsov could have become a real threat for Putin’s regime. He had been a longstanding irritant for the Kremlin, producing reports for several years detailing government corruption and incompetence, but it was the Ukrainian crisis that returned him to national prominence.

A supporter of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and a former adviser to president Viktor Yushchenko, Nemtsov had been among the first to criticise Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. Last year he produced two films which highlighted Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine and suggested Russian rebels may have been responsible for downing Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

At the time of his death, he was preparing to publish a report based on interviews with relatives of Russian soldiers who had been killed fighting in Ukraine, which would have further undermined Putin’s assertions that no army units were on Ukrainian soil. Not for nothing did Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko describe him as “the bridge between Ukraine and Russia”.

Just weeks ago, Nemtsov said in an interview: “I am afraid Putin will kill me”. Even though he knew he was in danger, he continued to condemn the Russian president’s aggressive domestic and foreign policies, and the principle of ‘managed democracy’ by which the state exercises control over television channels and the press. It is Putin’s media that is behind the intolerant and paranoid public mood in Russia today, which portrays opposition leaders as evil forces, foreign agents and traitors. The responsibility for the atmosphere of murderous hatred in which Boris Nemtsov was killed lies squarely with Vladimir Putin.

Five men are now in police custody, suspected of Nemtsov’s murder. But this will not bring about an end to speculation over who pulled the trigger, and who gave the order. Few of his supporters expect the full truth to come to light. With Boris Nemtsov died another piece of hope that Russia might become a liberal country without totalitarian features, a democratic country without adjectives, and a place where individuals will be able to express their thoughts without being afraid that they will be the next victims of the regime.

Natia Seskuria is completing her Master’s degree in Politics, Security and Integration at SSEES. Her thesis focuses on the Russian-Georgian War of 2008. Follow her on Twitter @natia_seskuria.

The Creep of Nationalism in the First Russian State

30 January 2015

Stephen Hall

On December 15 last year, a blog appeared in Russia claiming that the Belarusian regime is comatose and sleepwalking to a revolution as it allows the West to undermine it. It was followed five days later by a short documentary film, Military Secrets, which furthered the claim that Belarusians in western Belarus were in the pay of Europe. Both spelled out Russian displeasure with Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s regime and spoke of the need for Russia to counteract this threat either by replacing Lukashenka with a more pliant pro-Russian leader, or by increasing the Russian presence in Belarus.

Why would a pro-Kremlin blogger, albeit a relatively minor one, and a TV channel have reverted to castigating Lukashenka? Not since the 2010 film The Godfather has Lukashenka faced such Russian ire. This is partly due to Minsk’s unwillingness to rally behind the Kremlin and give support to the escapade in Ukraine and partially because the Belarusian regime appears to be finding some long-forgotten Belarusian identity.

The rise of Belarusian identity?

Belarus has been alarmed by Russia’s adventure in Ukraine, especially its annexation of Crimea under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians. Having experimented at length with different ideologies, Lukashenka has had to reverse years of telling Belarusians they are the first Russian nation. After all, if Belarusians are Russian, as Lukashenka has claimed, then it makes it easier for Russian nationalists to claim that Belarus does not exist.

One such group marched through the Belarusian city of Vitsebsk in early November, calling for the reuniting of all Russian lands. At the same time, other Russian nationalist groups like the Orthodox Brotherhood and the wonderfully-titled Russian Public Movement for the Spiritual Development of the People for the State and Spiritual Revival of Holy Rus’ have become active in Belarus.

There has been political friction too. In November, Russia banned Belarusian meat and dairy products, to chastise Lukashenka for his support of Ukraine and for attempting to undermine Russian sanctions on EU food. The loss of $160 million in five days drastically affected the Belarusian economy and emphasised to Minsk that overreliance on Russia was dangerous. At the same time, events in Ukraine and the impressive mobilisation of Belarusian youth into Russian organisations have alarmed the authorities to such an extent that Minsk is now promoting a distinct Belarusian culture.

Lukashenka would not call this nationalism, which he recently and publicly condemned. However, like so much else in the Shangri-La that is Belarus, rhetoric and reality do not match. Nationalism is a dirty word after the failure of the Belarusian National Front (BNF) in the 1990s. Instead, what is occurring is a conscious promotion of Belarusian culture without explicitly nationalist rhetoric, and a concomitant marginalisation of Russia and Russianness.

As early as November 2013, Lukashenka had begun to look past Russia to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, to offer Belarus a different national-historical narrative. This culminated in the unveiling of a monument to a Lithuanian Grand Duke in July 2014, which Russia had long opposed. Then, in December, Lukashenka moved his ‘grey cardinal’, Andrei Kabyakou, to the position of Prime Minister. Despite his Russian origins, the Kremlin appears to consider Kabyakou less accommodating then his predecessor Mikhail Mayasnikovich.

The Belarusian government has also debated increasing the number of hours of Belarusian language training at schools, at the expense of Russian and English. The language issue is particularly stark, given that Vladimir Putin justified intervention in Ukraine by citing the need to protect ethnic Russians, which for him meant Russian speakers. In a country like Belarus where nearly 95% of the population speaks Russian, and most use it as their first, or only language, this is a worrying turn of events.

Pidgin nationalism

This beginning of the creation of a Belarusian identity is so far limited. It also smacks of something else. Lukashenka has been adept at creating ideologies for himself that are empty caskets to which he adds different items depending on his needs. He began with visions of neo-Sovietism and of Belarus as a part of an Eastern Eurasian civilisation, remarking that “Belarusians are just Russians but with the sign of quality”.

This concept of Belarus as a part of a Russian world evolved into a claim that Belarus was on a higher level of civilisation than Moscow and represented the fourth Rome. This in turn evolved into the ‘For Belarus’ ideology, the emptiest casket of all, into which Lukashenka poured a mixture of state centralism and nationalism-lite. It is highly probable that we are now coming full circle as Lukashenka reverts to promoting to a domestic and international audience the concept that Belarus is different from Russia.

It is a cynical and pessimistic view, but Lukashenka has promoted such a notion before when he felt that he could make political capital from it. Since 2013, Belarus’s foreign minister Uladimir Makei has practically been living in Europe, flying between Brussels, Warsaw and Belgrade. Indeed, his deputy Alena Kupchyna appeared to have set up a permanent residency in Brussels for a long time to try and improve the relationship between Belarus and the EU.

Belarus’s relationship with Lithuania has warmed, and the ‘teddy bear incident’ of 2012, when a private Swedish plane dropped soft toys carrying anti-regime messages over the country, was relegated to history as Belarusian envoys even went to Stockholm. The Ukraine crisis has provided Lukashenka with the perfect opportunity to show that he is not the worst bastard in the former Soviet Union. As Russia becomes pariah number one, it is highly likely that Lukashenka is trying to placate European states and distance himself from the erstwhile motherland.

The juggling exhibition continues

The analogy of Lukashenka as a juggler remains apt. He is brilliant at playing off Russia and Europe while doing just enough to keep the stuttering Belarusian economy afloat, to keep ordinary Belarusians relatively appeased, and to maintain his grip on power. With a presidential election coming up this year, he may have guessed that simply by not being cosy with Putin, Europe will turn a blind eye to his electoral fraud and quashing of protest. The release of political activist Ales Byalyatski may have been the first step in this strategy.

It has been suggested that Lukashenka wants to push Russia into backing him more closely for fear that he may slip Moscow’s leash for good. However, I do not buy this idea. Belarus is now nearly totally reliant on Russia not only for oil and gas, but also as an export market, and the a Belarus entirely detached from Russia’s orbit does not seem a realistic prospect inside the Kremlin or anywhere else. Belarus may well look to diversify, but for a state that has been a part of all Russian regional institutions, isolationism looks an idle threat.

Maybe, just maybe, the clown is becoming a nationalist

Gauging the juggler is a difficult task, but I think that the Ukraine conflict has spooked the Lukashenka regime. If you are not with Putin, you are against him, according to Gleb Pavlovsky, one of the former ‘grey cardinals’ of the Kremlin, and the Russian president will not forgive Lukashenka for siding with Ukraine. With the continuing squeeze on the Russian economy under Western sanctions and the falling price of oil and gas, it is possible that an isolated country, considered by many Russians to be six western oblasts of Russia, will become too much of an attractive target, as the Kremlin looks to bolster its public support.

Whether Lukashenka’s newfound (or rather re-established) nationalism remains a pidgin or limited nationalism remains to be seen. I feel that this current incarnation of ‘nationalist Lukashenka’ may actually be relatively real. He has been very protective over his personal fief and has been loath to cede power to Russia before. He has often enticed Russia to support him with promises of privatisation only to renege on the behind-doors deals. Now fearing the hand that feeds him he is likely to protect his cave from this more dangerous friend.

This does not mean however that Minsk will look west. Lukashenka has tried this before, and every time European governments have spoken of human rights he has gone back to Russia. Besides, the Kremlin would not accept a Western-oriented Belarusian regime. Moscow knows that Belarus is beholden to it and will eventually return to its embrace. But, for the first time, it must confront a more assertive Belarus determined to create its own identity.

Having spent the early part of his tenure eradicating any nationalism that was not controlled, Lukashenka has ample avenues to build a Belarusian nationalism he can control. Talk of him undermining his own regime is overblown, as the juggler is adept at maintaining support from diverse societal factions. The clown may, just may, have clothed himself in nationalist garb. It is not yet clear whether these vestments are more than just for show, to be changed when needed, or whether a more nationalist Belarus is here to stay. Without political competitors and fearful of a resurgent Russia, Lukashenka the clown may just become a Belarusian nationalist.