Ethnically based conflicts on post-socialist space
Causes and alternatives

Oleg Patchenkov

Center for Independent Social Reserach (CISR), Saint Petersburg, Russia
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002

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One research experience
What we explored during field research
Importance of a scholar's position
What to do with people or possible alternatives
From identities to activities: instead of conclusion



In my paper I am going to talk about possible alternatives to ethnically based nationalism, racism and multiculturalism. These phenomena form a paradigm for modern era world viewing. This perspective became a basis for many post-socialist time conflicts in Eastern and Central Europe. In my paper, which is not a paper actually, but an attempt to initiate discussion, I would like to raise the following question: is there a possibility to turn from ethnicity and nationality to other types of human identities which could allow us to avoid mass killing, in the region of Eastern and Southern Europe especially?

I am quite far from the idealistic viewpoint that human beings could avoid ascribing themselves and others to certain groups and dividing the world into "them" and "us". However, I believe the division into "them" and "us" groups should not unavoidably cause war and death.

If we only agree on this point we will have to re-think the role that scholars, especially social scholars, play in the process of interpretation of the world, because the interpretations we make are used by ordinary people as well as by politicians and thus these interpretations have practical consequences. And because of this I claim that the turn from ethnic or national identities to other ones - is just the first step. The second step in the same direction is to try to answer the question: does it really make sense for sociologists and anthropologists to investigate identities or should we rather investigate the activities of people, their behaviour? I will try to answer both questions but it will be not more than my own opinion. The aim of my presentation is to initiate discussion about these issues since it is discussion that produces truth.

* * *

Let me start with the example which forced me to doubt the totality of nationalism and to think about the existence of a basis which would allow us to abandon the nationalistic paradigm and replace it with another.

One research experience

Once we - myself and colleagues of mine from the Center for Independent Social Research in St.-Petersburg - we carried out a research project. We conducted the project between the years of 1997-1999 in St. Petersburg. Then I made a second project myself in 1999-2000. It was a continuation of the joint research project. The purpose of both projects was to investigate the problems of integration of Caucasian migrants as the most problematic and conflict-prone group in public discussion in St. Petersburg and Russia. There were several target groups in the study. Me and one of my colleagues - Olga Brednikova - collected our data during two years of participant observation among Azerbaidjanis and Tadjics at St. Petersburg vegetable markets(1).

In both of these research projects we used the research tactics of case-study. Our main informants were two families from the town of Gyandja in Azerbaijan and two males from Tadjikistan who immigrated without their families. The "length of migration" of our informants was approximately two years. My colleague and I investigated the new social networks, the living strategies and the everyday practices of migrants in the context of their life stories. We used qualitative methods: participant observation that we strongly connected with in-depth interviewing and talks.

Our target group consisted of recent economic migrants. There were some reasons for the choice of such a group as a subject: The group of recent economic migrants is the least integrated into the urban community and its participants are weakly adjusted to the new conditions of life in the "alien" culture. The highly competitive capabilities of migrants from the Caucasus in certain spheres of activity (for instance: in trade), their distinctive appearance, which differs from that of the local inhabitants, as well as the sharp differences in cultural and everyday practices, result in the ascription of negative features to these migrants and leads to an increase in hostility with respect to "Caucasians".

At the beginning of the research project, we started to read a lot of literature based on research on ethnic migration and ethnic diasporas that had been conducted in the US and Western Europe. Thus, from the day of starting field research we knew what phenomena we were looking for: it had to be an ethnic community with some informal or even formal organizations; with strong links between all the representatives of a certain ethnic group; and with an economy organized on the basis of strong ethnic solidarity.

However, we did not succeed in finding such a group in the field. What we found were far more complicated phenomena and at first we couldn't find an explanation for this.

What we explored during field research

First of all, we found that in spite of their large numbers, the Azerbaijanis as well as Tadjicistanis of St. Petersburg do not form any united community with clear boundaries, collective consciousness, articulated group interests or strategies.

The Diaspora of St. Petersburg consists of various social milieus which are relatively closed and have a weak interaction with each other. There are, for example, scientists or successful businessmen connected with Azerbaijan etc., who do not communicate with market traders and, moreover, try to make a strong border with them, to stress a difference between themselves and those "dirty and wild" recent migrants. There are several criteria of distinctions between these milieus: the length of time resident in the city, the level of adaptation, social status, etc. The combination of these characteristics forms diverse social communities and boundaries between them in spite of the fact that people who compose these communities formally belong to common ethnic group.

Further, we explored that the economic networks of the migrants from the Caucasus in St. Petersburg are not based on the co-ethnic criterion. When creating these networks and choosing the economic niche, migrants do not use co-ethnicity as a criterion. The biggest role is played by territorial ties, while at the same time there often appear to be neighborly, familial, or friendly ties. Besides, the study of the interactions between the economic migrant-newcomers and their co-ethnics, who have been living in St.-Petersburg for a long time, shows that the greatest importance in these interactions is the identity of the economic migrant.

So to draw brief conclusions for this data we collected from the field: we realised that ethnic identity though took place and was among most important identities for our informants if we asked them, however did not play so important role in their everyday activities. It meant two things among many others:

  1. our informants found many other identities but ethnic or national to act, to live, to survive and to prosper in migration, or in other words: it was not ethnic or national identity that became a material for creating their new social networks, for choosing social encounters, for building their life in new conditions. It meant that there were alternatives for people to establish and realize their social interaction, alternatives to ethnically or nationally based identities, even for those people who were prescribed by majority to ethnic minorities;
  2. an importance of ethnicity/nationality for our informants - economic migrants who might be prescribed to ethnic minorities - was often an art-fact, a product of interpretation of scholars, whose interpretations were based on the same basement of "taken for granted" "everyday knowledge" as those of ordinary people.

Let me explain the second claim. Just imagine the situation we observed while our fieldwork. People from the country side of Leningrad oblast' come to market place in the early morning to sell whole portions of good - green grass - to not whole sellers who are supposed to sell that green grass by small portions at the market place during the rest part of the day. There are at least three possible interpretation of this activity in terms of identities:

  1. "Russians" sell goods to "Azeries" and "Tadjics" (let me to note in the brackets that possible and widely spread explanation here might be: "because those bloody Mafia-like Caucasians occupied all markets and rose prices too much and restrict poor Russians to sell goods for low prices"),
  2. "Locals" sell goods to "migrants" (here you get another explanation to answer "why" question, no space to offer an explanation, everyone can think him/herself),
  3. "Whole sellers" sell goods to "not-whole" ones - usual economic transaction which take place everywhere.

I claim now that if scholar pretends to make a sort of what Clifford Geertz called "thick description", means to give a description which shows the situation in its context and from perspectives of its participants, he or she is supposed to think a lot before giving the interpretation #1 and describing the situation in ethnic terms. Someone could object: this is "a fact", like positivists prefer to say, "they are Russians and Azeries". Right, but so what? This claim says nothing about "what does it mean - to be Russian or Azery" since it is taken for granted as if it is clear and obvious thing (usual position for positivists). And further: even if we know what does it mean to be Russian or Azery, are we sure they interact with each other as "Russians" and "Azeries" in that exact situation? I really doubt. In the article I wrote altogether with my colleague we claimed that ethnically based interpretation of this situation is one which is far from real subjective meanings of those people, meanings that determined their activities, their interaction with each other at that market place (Brednikov, Patchenkov 2001).

Importance of a scholar's position

This is a good example of possibility for scholar to become free from nationalism eye-glasses in his or her interpretations of observed life. Of course it is important to be sensitive to people and their meanings, to be sensitive to data you collect in fieldwork: when people interact as representatives of different ethnic/national groups, i.e. head their activities towards subjectively felt ethnic or national identification. In this case good scholar should not avoid ethnic terms in interpretation the event. In this concern me and my colleague we drew conclusions as follow: it might be useful to avoid the concept of ethnicity everywhere it is possible, or at least one should not use it in the cases it can not help to describe reality in adequate way. Researcher should not make up an ethnicity where it does not exist - and I think economic migration is such a case in some sense. Some years ago, anthropologists refused to use race concept and there are reasons to repeat this practice with ethnicity concept. The main reason for it is that ethnicity, which is closely connected with nationalism, is a political phenomenon and a lot of danger is hidden in it.

Sometimes it is impossible to avoid ethnic or nationalistic concepts because people themselves think in the frame of nationalistic discourse and reproduce it in their activity. However, I think that the task of an anthropologist or sociologist is not to reproduce ethnic or nationalistic discourse following his informants - this is not a science. Scholars have to deconstruct this discourse that means to show how did it appear, who is interested in its existence, how does it work today, and what danger it brings to people. Unfortunately not all scholars would agree with this claim.

What to do with people or possible alternatives

Ok, it is clear with scholars now. But what with the rest people? As it was mentioned, sometimes scholars are forced to use ethnic or nationalistic concepts because people themselves think in the frame of nationalistic discourse and reproduce it in their activity, they act as "homo ethnicus ". This is not new idea, that people in modern age, including scholars, prefer to to see surrounding reality through nationalism-like eye-glasses. In according to Benedict Anderson this is a feature of modern human beings to ascribe themselves and others to "national state"-like "imagined communities" (Anderson 1998). This popular point of view to surrounding world was used by politicians in their "games" and have caused a lot of violence, conflicts and wars.

It is well known and obvious, that people always identify themselves with some "we-group" and make boundaries or borders with "they-groups" - this is a feature of human being's nature. At the same time I would say there are not so many identities which cause strong violence and death: they are ethnic/national, religious and class identities, that is it. Neither, for instance, professional identities, nor even gender ones have ever caused wars and wide-scale bloody conflicts.

In this regard I would like to rise a question as follows: is there a possibility to turn to other types of human identities which could allow us to avoid mass killing, in the region of East and South Europe especially? And we as scholars - could we stipulate, promote other social identities of human beings in order to avoid conflicts, wars, killing? Shall we stress for ordinary people that they have other identities as well and those other identities - in fact - play more important role in their everyday lives and activities? Shall we popularise constructivist approach and to underlay the role of politicians who consciously construct social identities for ordinary people and then abuse those people just in a way that "muster of puppets" does?

Are there alternatives to ethnic/national identities for people to organise their everyday experience? I guess there are. I tried to show it in few examples I gave in my paper. I would like also to borrow one example from the paper by Benedikte M. Kristensen, which was presented at this Workshop.

In this paper we can see the difference between Mongolian Duha Tuvans and Russian Tuvans. The difference is that in a case of Duha Tuvans we get an example of following religious traditions without claiming any ethnic identities. What matters for Duha Tuvans are land, ancestors, shamans as mediators between alive and dead. It proves that religious believes could exist without any linkage to ethnicity. What links religion and ethnicity is politics. We can see it in case of Russian Tuvans as of Benedikte M. Kristensen shows us. She wrote: "Urban Tuvan shamanism can be seen as a revitalization movement, who in trying to make claims for ethnic identity and rights in the national and global arena are cultivating the contrasts between their own culture and the culture of the majority, and at the same time is forced to adapt themselves to the discourse of the majority " (page 7 of the paper).

It proves the idea that religion might exist separately from ethnicity and nationalism and the former not necessarily causes the latter. It probably proves in some sense, that it is possible as well as makes sense to refuse and avoid ethnic/nationalistic dimension wherever it might be avoided, since it brings scholars and people to the field of politics with all consequences.

From identities to activities: instead of conclusion

So we saw successful examples of replacing ethnic and national identities by not so dangerous ones which are even more relevant and adequate for interpretation of people's life than ethnic ones. However, I believe there is one even more adequate way of interpretation of social life. It lies in the sphere of analysis of people's behaviour instead of analysis of their thoughts.

Another important mistake of scholars, from my point of view, is tendency to investigate identities as if human activities are directly and easily caused by the former. The connection between self-identification and real behaviour in certain situation are quite different things I guess, even though linked to each other. Unfortunately the very fact that this linkage is really strange and complicated is usually ignored by scholars. Sociologists study people's attitudes as if people always follow their attitudes and always remember about self- and other- identifications when act. Here I would like to remind well known "pragmatic turn in humanities" and "the theory of practice" which stressed practical dimension of social life instead of traditional too deep concentration on thoughts, attitudes and identifications. I believe that these contemporary theories heritages Max Wbere's postulate about the subject of sociology as a discipline: he claimed that sociologists are to be interested, first of all, in social action. Identifications, attitudes and all the rest products of intellectual reflexivity are just means on the way to main goal - study of people activity. However scholars today, especially those who study ethnicity and nationalism issues forget about it and replace the goal by the mean. They just investigate identities and attitudes and then - stop. It is really pity. So I call my colleagues to study activity and behaviour and believe that this investigation strategy might let us to avoid bloody conflicts in real life since we - scholars - are among those who has got legitimate right to let reality exist through the procedure of nomination it.


Anderson B. (1998) Imagined Communities. Verso. London, New York.

Brednikova O., Patchenkov O. (2000) Ethnicity of "Ethnic Economy": Economic Immigrants to St.Petersburg. In.: Ethnicity and Economy: collection of articles based on the materials of international workshop. Ed. by O.Brednikova, V.Voronkov., E.Chikadze. Centre for independent social research. Works. Vol. 8. St.Petersburg. (In Internet:, Journal, Vol. 7, 15 February 2001)

Bourdieu P. (1977) Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu P. (1984) Distinction. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Benedikte M. Kristensen (2002) The landscape of Knowledge: a discussion of the construction of shamanistic knowledge among rural and urban Tuvans. Paper presented at The Fourth Nordic Conference on Anthropology of Post Communism. Coppenhagen.

Weber M. (1949) The methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe, Free Press, Ed. by E.Shils and H.Finch.


1. The joint reseacrh project was called "Caucasians in Russian Megopolis: strategies of integration on the background of xenophobia (the case of St.Petersburg)" and has been realised with the financial support of the MacArthur Foundation. The second research project - the individual one - was called "Caucasians in Russian Cities: Problem of Discrimination of Ethnic Minorities. (Case of St.Petersburg)", financial support - by the Research Support Scheme of the OSI (Grant: RSS No.: 956/1999).