In London, they don’t give a shit about you. That’s what many of the Russian-speaking Londoners think. ‘”They” (meaning, primarily, the English) don’t really care about who you are’, say the migrants. ‘No’, they add: ‘of course you can have a pleasant chat with a shop assistant, or a bartender, or a colleague. You can easily make acquaintances in bars and pubs, especially after a couple of drinks. But ‘they’ won’t be really interested in getting to know you as a person, with all your highly spiritual and very complicated soul’, sigh the Russian-speakers. However, this does not necessarily seem to be a bad quality, some of the migrants admit: at least, ‘they’ will leave you alone, unlike the intrusive and inquisitive compatriots back home. Even in the Soviet times, one of the names of the state – Country of the Soviets [Strana Sovetov] – was a wordplay also meaning Country of Advice. Soviet citizens were known for, and reflexively acknowledged, their ability to advise, criticize and comment on the actions of each other gratuitously. In today’s Russia, it looks like the Land of Advice is still well and thriving, albeit in a different form.
Indeed, when someone is trying to chat you up in a London pub, a small talk would occur. The questions would be quite typical: ‘Where are you from? Can I guess? Is that French accent? No, Lithuanian? Oooh, Siberia! Is it very cold there? This must feel very warm to you (irrespective of the actual season). I’ve always wanted to take the Transsiberian! And what do you think about Mr Putin? You must drink vodka like water! How do you actually survive in -40?’… And so on.
However, when someone is hitting on you in a pub in Russia, the conversation may take an unexpected turn. Some of the pub encounters I had in Novosibirsk, a large Siberian city with over 1,5 mln inhabitants, made me wonder about the qualities of the local pub sociality. In fact, what would you expect, assuming that you are a single lady with a drink? Pubs and bars are spaces of drinking and meeting, dating and mating. However, if you (as an object of attention) do not abandon field researcher’s stance, you may notice how popular attitudes and certain aspects of identity transpire in people’s mating endeavours. Clearly, I may be biased with my ‘sample’ – but it felt like there were some strange parallels between the mundane politics of mating and the politics of the nation.
They know better
It’s 10 pm, Thursday. I’m heading to an Irish pub, one of a number of places to go on Lenin Street, a small boulevard-style street in the centre of the city. I’m tired, not wearing any make-up, dressed in jeans and trainers. I clearly don’t look like the girls I see in the streets who are amazingly skilful in walking on infamously humpy Novosibirsk’s pavements on their sky-high heels. I just want to sit down, have a pint and to read the news. As soon as I manage to get a glass of cold Newcastle Brown Ale (for an extortionate £6 per pint), however, a man in his late 30s lands opposite me, holding a glass of JD.
‘Do you mind if I sit with you for a while?’
‘Erm, no, but I will not be the most talkative companion tonight…’
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. I’ve just seen your face, and you looked interesting to me. I just thought, I’d love to join a lovely lady…’
Ok. I don’t care, after all, this could be an interesting ethnographic observation. He introduces himself as a ‘specialist in bankruptcy’. ‘How interesting’, I say. For a while, he goes on about his work. I nod politely and insert ‘oh, really’ in the pauses in his speech. Almost angrily, he tells a story about a new business acquaintance who dared to ask my interlocutor whether he was a lawyer. ‘I’m a lawyer, I have a degree! I’m almost thinking about teaching at Moscow State University!’ – he raises his voice. ‘Well, and what do you do, my darling?’
I mumble something including ‘unemployed’, ‘researcher’ and ‘on holiday’. ‘Researcher? What do you research? Migrants? Do you mean Tajiks? Oh, Russians in London! Well, and what for?’
I stumble for a moment. What does he mean ‘what for’? Surely he does not want to hear about super-diversity and the transformation of the migration patterns in the UK? ‘You see’, I start carefully, ‘this is a very topical theme. Since the beginning of this century, a lot of people from Russia and other post-Soviet countries – of course, for different reasons…’
‘No, this is not so interesting’, he abruptly interrupts me. ‘You’d better do research on a different topic.’
I’m baffled, to say the least, and try to defend my work: ‘But don’t you think that it might be interesting to learn about how your compatriots live in the other countries?…’
‘No, what for? You know what, I’ll tell you what to do. You need to study Russia. Just get back here and study this country. Don’t believe those who say they don’t pay enough here, I’m absolutely sure you’ll be able to get the same salary in Novosibirsk!’ (just so you know, in November 2012 ‘official’ data by the Ministry of Education and Science claiming that the average salary in Novosibirsk State University is 65,000 roubles – around £1,260 per month – caused a storm of resentment together with bitter laughter amongst lecturers and researchers earning a monthly sum three times less the mentioned one, in the best case). ‘Oh, and by the way – the quality of scientific research here, in Russia, is much, much higher. What are you smiling at? It has always been like that! Yes, social sciences included!’ (apparently, notwithstanding the increasing numbers of cases of plagiarism and fraudulently obtained degrees in Russian academia, especially in its humanities sector; or the appointment in 2008 of Alexander Dugin, a neo-Eurasianist and propagator of ultranationalist neo-imperialist and anti-Western views, as Professor in Sociology and director of the Faculty of Sociology’s Centre for Conservative Studies at Moscow State University – the only Russian university in current Times Higher Education rankings).
‘And then again’, he continues – ‘what’s the point of studying migrants? They are lost people, lost for their homeland, seduced by the false attractiveness of the Western cities. You need to study locals, native people! For example (he proudly straightens his back), I am a native of Novosibirsk [korennoi novosibirets], and all my ancestors come from here! (considering that the city is only 120 years old, he may well be, however I am not so sure about most of his ancestors). Or you could even study America. Why study Britain, do you even know there are no pure Britons? They’ve been mixed throughout their history with those who conquered them, Saxons, Normans, whoever else’.
The argument about the role of migration, military conquests and mixing in the history of the USA does not seem to be heard by him at all. ‘No’, he claims! ‘You can find pure Americans, ancestors of those who founded the country! You should do your research on them, not those Russians in London’.
They are patriots
‘…And after all, what is so special about this London? Really, do you even talk to the English? And you think they are ok? Really? I think, if I saw an Englishman hitting on a Russian girl, I’d kick his ass, just like that! And of course you can’t have an intellectual discussion with an Englishman in a pub, like we are doing now. No, you definitely can’t, I don’t believe you. So, listen to me, I hope you return to Russia and work here! Will you?…’
He finishes his drink and leaves. I’m getting another beer, struck by the intrusive potential of the person. On the other hand, if he hadn’t given a shit about me, I wouldn’t have just heard such a wonderful pile of verbal rubbish.
While the Bankruptcy Specialist made some hints at ‘here’ being better than ‘there’, a group of cheerful white collars who got acquainted with me in that pub on another occasion used a rhetoric more related to internal affairs of Russia. Do they like ‘us’ there, in the West, they asked me? I’m not so sure, I reply. ‘Why don’t they like us, then?’ I say, partly because of some recent changes in legislation that look like an infringement of human rights, like the gay propaganda law.
A plump man in a wrinkled tie insists: those who implemented these laws were right. ‘These buggers really allow themselves too much! And what if a child sees that? Bloody faggots!…’ One of the girls tries to argue that the law actually doesn’t provide a proper definition of ‘gay propaganda’. I don’t care, says the man – ‘as long as these homos know their place, fuck each other at home and don’t show up on the streets’.
An absolutely drunk girl constantly tries to make a knot on his tie (‘That’s what a woman must be able to do if she wants to live with a man’). The Plump Man continues: ‘those Westerners don’t like us because they are afraid of us! And they are right. Because Russia must be strong! And they don’t want it to be strong…’
Russia must be strong! This phrase floats in the air. White collars are getting wasted and repeat it like a mantra. The Plump Man digs out his phone, googles something and suddenly stands up and starts singing the Russian national anthem, at times checking the words with the Wikipedia page. Everyone joins in, even the girl who questioned the justification of the gay propaganda law. It’s 3 am, and I’m feeling the urge to hide under the table when I notice the bartender and his manager at the distant end of the bar, giggling and filming them with a phone. That’s some sort of relief – it would have been much worse if they, too, had joined the discordant choir.
Don’t listen, strike
How come does the narrative of strong Russia, evil gays and impure and unintellectual Britons creep into something that should have sounded like praise of beautiful eyes or exaggerated interest in the female specimen’s job? Not that I am complaining about not getting enough of the latter kinds, but at times it felt like being patronised, dissuaded, confronted – indeed like in a Country of unwarranted Advice. Strange as it may seem, I could draw some parallels with a long-awaited boxing event that took place in Moscow on 5 October 2013.
The Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko faced the Russian Alexander Povetkin, a known Putin loyalist and a strident nationalist. The whole opening ceremony reeked of a nationalist display, including a live song invoking the pagan Slavic god Svarog and a pompous performance of the Russian anthem by the Soviet-era crooner Joseph Kobzon accompanying Povetkin’s entrance. Klitschko defeated Povetkin and retained his WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight titles, but the result or even the fight per se is not the reason why I mention it.
Throughout the whole broadcast, the commentators couldn’t be heard well. Somewhere in the crowd, a number of male voices were yelling hysterically: ‘Come on Sanya! Hit him! Don’t listen to the judge, hit him! Sanya, get him! Hit the bugger in the pelvis, on the nape! Sanya, come on!’ Povetkin fell again, and the high-pitched voice screamed: ‘What are you doing, you fucking bugger!’ – probably meaning Klitschko. The crowd jeered and chanted: ‘Russia! Russia!’ Klitschko won, but for some reason – at least on the Russia’s 1st channel’s broadcast – it was the Russian flag you could see behind his back when the judge raised his arm and handed him the belts.
In fact, this kind of fans’ behaviour in general is not something you completely wouldn’t expect to encounter at sporting events like that, and surely it is not unique for Russia – think of football and British pubs. There is the national discourse which may be appropriate in sports. Even in case of a boxing match, though, there may be too much of it: too many Slavic neopagan symbols and runic lettering on Povetkin’s clothes, too many Russian flags behind the Ukrainian winner’s back, too loud and agitated fans whose obscene drunk screams were a too regular accompaniment to the live coverage. But in case of a pub interaction which is supposed to be a mating practice, such rhetoric seems simply awkward and out of place.
The communication style of the people I’ve met in Russian pubs is not too different from that of boxing fans: don’t listen to the judge, listen to me and hit him! The Other is evil and should be blamed and punished for that. Don’t trust anyone saying silly things about socioeconomic development or academic standards – just remember Russia is the best. Shove your national symbols in everyone’s face, this will make them see how proud you are.
These methods didn’t quite work in boxing – they hardly influenced the outcome of the fight, although made the show somewhat fun for the watchers. Equally, they don’t work as an efficient way to pick up a woman in a pub. But at least it was fun as an ethnographic practice.