Eastern Slavic Diasporas in the UK

A review of the Eastern Slavic Diasporas in the UK: The Making of Communities by Ivan Kozachenko.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has had multiple ramifications that echo to this day. The pan-Soviet identity is no longer there to provide a common internal and external point of reference causing an identity crisis that has generated the need to re-define and at times ‘re-invent’ both national and cultural identities of the emerging independent states.

Ivan Kozachenko’s timely dissertation offers us an insider’s exploration of how the national discourses of the Eastern Slavic nations of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus have not only resulted in the construction of diverse and sometimes contradictory national myths and narratives but also in identity reconfigurations of the diasporic populations of Eastern Slavic people. And this is where Kozachenko’s main argument lies, that these diasporic communities, as a result of these “home” changes, had to reshape themselves as “imagined communities.” His research provides several unique perspectives, including an exploration of these groups at a community and individual level and their group identities in supra-national and national ways.

The thesis is structured around three parts. The first contains chapters that provide a conceptual and theoretical framework based on a literature review of diaspora studies from a sociological perspective (Chapter 2); explorations of community definitions (Chapter 3); and structural context of the sending societies (Chapter 4). Kozachenko chooses to focus on “contemporary” definitions that see diasporas not as a predefined social group with a distinct set of features but a form of consciousness and a project that refers to different aspects and dimensions of community making (p. 21). He conceptualizes diasporic communities as social networks and communities of interest and explores the role of the internet as a form of online public sphere where these diasporas perform representational and networking functions. In his exploration of Eastern Slavic diasporas in the UK, he unites conceptually the online and offline diasporic communities under Laguerre’s (2010) concept of “digital diasporas.” He hypothesizes and sets to provide evidence that representatives of Eastern Slavic diasporas in the UK can and often do develop linkages, cultural sentiments and economic ties that result in many of them to imagine themselves to be part of their national communities (p. 56). His analysis of the post-Soviet nation-building “narratives” in the sending countries forms the core strength of this dissertation and an integral part of our understanding of the community-making processes within these diasporic groups.

The second part deals with the methodological approaches in the ICT-mediated diaspora studies and outlines the key data collection methods (Chapter 5). Based on extensive qualitative content analysis of diasporic online sites, interviews with community organizers and biographical interviews with members of the diaspora along with the researcher’s invaluable observations as a cultural insider, this dissertation’s methodological strength lies in its combination of data collection from both offline and online sources. His careful positioning as the researcher-insider allows him to identify socio-cultural, historical, political and linguistic nuances that an outsider to this group might have missed.

In the third part, Kozachenko provides an analysis of the Eastern Slavic communities within two perspectives: collective (Chapter 6) and individual (Chapter 7), demonstrating the impact of the “network societies” (Castells 2000) that allow new ways of reconfiguring cultural and national belonging. Using Wellman and Hampton’s (2001) approach to community, Kozachenko sees these diasporas as social networks (including computer networks) of “strong” and “weak” ties within diasporic personal communities. He provides evidence through a combination of online and offline data that paints a more holistic picture of all national groups that helps us better understand them at a community level and through individual biographical interviews that reveals people’s motivations and beliefs.

Kozachenko approaches Eastern Slavic national identities in two distinct ways: as a cluster of identities that can be “imagined” either as belonging to a singular historical and cultural entity defined here as ”supra-national” or three distinctive national groups with their separate national “imagining” (a metropolitan Russia with its “colonized territories” of Ukraine and Belarus). For some diasporic communities, the historical references to the Soviet Union serve as a foundation for creating inclusive communities (mostly for Russians), while for others it is a “resistance identity” centered on “imagined” national boundaries that serves as a foundation of distinctive ethnic diasporas (Ukrainians and Belarusians).  The following quotes (p. 197–198) from biographical interviews illustrate the above very well:

“I don’t perceive Ukrainians or Belarusians as foreigners. …We used to be one country and our roots are in Kievan Rus and all ‘Russianess’ came from there to the north, not vice versa. What kind of foreigners are we talking about?” (Sasha, biographical interview, 18/04/11).

“I thought that Ukrainians and Russians are the same until I met some nationalist Ukrainians. They were just crazy nationalists and Russian was for them just a synonym for ‘evil’. Of course, at that time I had some patriotic feelings to Russia, but I never was a bigoted patriot. …(Luba, biographical interview, 10/06/11)

“There is no clear line that differentiates these nations. Cultures are similar, languages are very similar … But I think that Belarusians have different mentality…[they] identify themselves as Europeans […] Russians do not consider themselves Europeans…they think that they are something different “(Andrey, Biographical interview, 20/04/11)

Kozachenko argues the re-invention of these identities at the sending societies is reflected in how these communities organize themselves in diaspora. Although national identity provides a key reference for diasporic community making, enhanced in this case by the use of ICT, this research goes further in revealing the polarization of these processes that involve supra-national (for the Russian communities) and national Eastern Slavic identity (for Ukrainian and Belarusian communities) imaginations. Kozachenko demonstrates how these two groups use “Sovietophile” and Russophile national myths and narratives in distinctively different manner. While the former group is developed on the basis of their use, the latter group employs symbols that contests them, reproducing in the process what Castells (2004) refers to as “resistance identity.” Understandably, performance of national identities is not the main goal of the “supra-national” communities. Soviet and Russian symbols in this case are used as a way to attract new members (“communicative memory,” p. 222) from post-Soviet countries. Kozachenko’s findings indicate that these communities are highly commodified with professionally managed social networks also trying to meet the practical needs of migrants. This last finding points into the level of inclusiveness of these communities and provide another interesting point of analysis. While the supra-national ones are more inclusive in their approach with no strict membership criteria, the national communities employ specific criteria involving language, religion and political preferences. These communities struggle to recruit new members as the emphasis is more on communal interests rather that individual ones. They have more active print media that plays still a more important role in terms of community making.  Their community activities are mostly offline and do not fulfill individual practical needs of migrants in contrast to the Russian ones. The latter diasporas are seen as multi-centered social networks that change rapidly. Despite the considerable presence of communities of Russian opposition in London, a distinctive feature of Russian diasporas is in the strong support of the Russian state. Their offline community activities are often state-funded.

One of the most interesting findings of this research is that gender and class affect representations of national identities: while supra-national communities tend to reproduce a sexualized and commodified image of women, national ones are focused on presenting traditional gender roles. This certainly merits further exploration.

One of the central findings in Kozachenko’s research relates to the role of ICT in the shaping of diasporic social networks. He identifies a digital divide between the post-war and recent migrants. This can be seen as a generational one. Also, different kinds of ICT are used for different purposes with an increasing presence of social networking services that maintain “weak” ties. But most importantly, ICT allows for the effective maintenance of social relationships within the diasporic triad: diasporic community, sending society and host society. ICT allow the creation of transitional social spaces where diasporic subjects are able to maintain a sense of belonging to multiple locations.

In the concluding section (Chapter 8), the author provides a summary of the key findings and most importantly some critical theoretical points that crystalize the essence of this research. Kozachenko argues that discourses on national identities in the sending societies are transformed and require a more specialised and multifaceted understanding of the Easter Slavic identities, belonging and communities in the UK. The key therefore of understanding these particular diasporic communities lies more in the home country than in the hosting one. He adds that while national diasporic communities refer to a strong modern nationalist identity, the supra-national ones are based on more fluid and fragmented identifications. He observes that the latter are more effective in their realities as a ‘network society,’ and identifies certain shared characteristics: heavy reliance on the new ICT, quick adaptation to new conditions, highly commodified, and instrumental utilization of supra-national symbols and imagination. While national communities lack such efficiency they still provide their diasporic members “imagined” roots and a sense of belonging. As the myth of a return to a dreamed and desired homeland disappeared after the collapse of the Soviet Union, diasporic subjects have instead developed what can be called a myth of homeland without return. Kozachenko concludes that the East Slavic diasporic subjects can be seen as an important source of national identity allowing diasporic subjects to pick up a suitable national belonging in the “global supermarket of identities” (p.229).

Kozachenko’s dissertation makes contributions to numerous academic fields, starting with diaspora and migrant studies. His work contributes to the rich diasporic research in the UK and provides his case study as evidence to Tsagarousianou’s call for rethinking the concept of diaspora [R.Tsagarousianou, “Rethinking the concept of diaspora: mobility, connectivity and communication in a globalized world.” Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 1, no. 1 (2004): 52-65]. This dissertation is also offering a re-articulation of Anderson’s imagined communities within the contemporary space of digital diasporas. It also provides a considerable input into online social media and community building studies and builds further on Laguerre’s  work (“Digital Diaspora: Definitions and models,” Diaspora in the new media age: identity, politics and communities (2010), 46-64) and Castell’s “networked societies.”  Undoubtedly, this research also makes a substantial contribution to post-Soviet studies and nationalism through its analysis of identity (re-)construction and imagination of  Eastern Slavic countries and their diasporas and provides a continuum to earlier studies [i.e. Y. Hrytsak, “National Identities in Post-Soviet Ukraine,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 12 (1998): 261-281]. His interpretation of these identities still in the making give us intimate insights to personal narratives that reflect the collective changes taking place in both sending and host countries. It navigates skillfully and respectfully through the complexities of contradictory and ambiguous post-Soviet national identities, perhaps because of the researcher’s ability to negotiate his own complex identity that mirrors that of his research subjects.

A/Professor Evangelia Papoutsaki
Department of Communication Studies
Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland
epapoutsaki@unitec.ac.nz

Primary Sources

Qualitative content analysis of online data
Expert interviews with diaporic community organizers
Biographical interviews with members of the Eastern Slavic diaspora

Dissertation Information

University of Aberdeen, Scotland. 2013. 272 pp. Primary Advisor: Claire Wallace.

Image: Photo by Author.

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