by Oleksandra Seliverstova, Marie Curie Fellow at the Institute of Political Science and Governance at Tallinn University.
The research on the role of consumer culture in the formation of national identities in the post-Soviet Estonia and Ukraine offers a novel and under-theorised approach to national identity studies – via study of consumer culture. It has a scholarly value in its grounded, everyday ethnographic approach and its focus on minority communities in post-Soviet states, such as Russian speakers. The interest in the everyday dimension of post-socialist identity construction, which is at the core of this research, is driven by the fact that it is a widely under-exploited category capable to explain, at least partially, a number of socio-political processes of the region.
Eastern Europe and, in particular, the post-socialist region, have often been regarded as areas where hot forms of nationalism were prevalent. After two dozens of years since the complete dissolution of the Soviet Union we can observe that some hot expressions of nationalism continue to exist or to reappear in that area, however it can be also seen that to some extent nations have been domesticated or, in words of Michael Skey (2011), ‘sedimented’ there. It signifies that in a relatively young post-Soviet states people are able to take category of nation already as a taken-for-granted one. Still, despite such positive dynamics, some tensions, usually fired up by either ethnic or language different backgrounds continue to exist or reappear in the region. Some groups continue to feel excluded or hardly accepted as full members of a newly appeared nations on which territory they happen to reside.
Among the so-called ‘problematic’ groups there are Russian speakers and/or ethnic Russians minorities, which nowadays are present almost in every former Soviet state. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in the states where national policies had a character of nationalization of the state – giving preference to one particular ethnic majority group and constructing of a national narrative on this group’s values, language, folklore – Russian speakers found themselves at the ‘edge’ of their national communities. The disappearance of the Soviet ideology, loss of tie with Russia, unstable economic situation and downgrading of social status, in particularly in nationalized states, brought a large number of Russian speakers, living outside of Russia, to some problems with their self-identification. Such an identity crisis from one side and from another sometimes hostile national policies and negative attitudes from the side of ethnic majorities resulted in problems with integration of Russian speakers and shuttered the success of some post-Soviet nation-building projects.
The role of Russian ethnic/language minorities in former Soviet countries has been regarded in a new light since the outbreak of the military conflict in Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) and the annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea to the territory of the Russian Federation. Taking into consideration such events some scholars and experts noticed a new vector in development of Ukrainian nationalism and observed some agitation and concerns about national cohesion in other post-Soviet countries, especially those like Estonia that has a common border with the Russian Federation and a large presence of Russian speaking community.
This research, addressing the renewed interest in accommodation of ethnic minorities when constructing national communities, aims to improve understanding of some still unsolved issues about national identities. It explored everyday expressions of nationalism in Estonia and Ukraine and tried to identify the position of Russian speaking communities and their participation in the national identity formation process. The more specific question of this work was: How do different ethnic/language groups relate themselves to a common national category through consumer culture?
While acknowledging the role of the state in formation of national identity, this work looks at how the concept of nation is conceived and experienced at the level of common people, thus applying a non-conventional bottom-up approach. Consumer culture, which is used as a lens to learn about everyday expressions of national sentiments, is seen here as a symbolic field in which nationalism could be reflected and also as a source of potential new markers of national belonging.
Previous research on nationhood in the post-Soviet context has mainly focused on the role of political institutions in nation formation processes and the explicit forms of nationalism, like popular unrests and conflicts. In the same time some works, when focusing more on the practices of everyday life revealed some discrepancies between the official view on national communities and the unofficial one, which is shared among common people. In other words very often citizens don’t see themselves as the state sees and represents them as a national community. They might have different interpretation of their role as citizens, of how to express loyalty to the state and/or belonging to the nation and they might have different understanding of the borders of one nation, making them sometimes either more inclusive or more exclusive then it is dictated by political elites. Moreover, national identity could be interpreted differently by members of the same national community and its experience is relational and situational, which means that expression of feelings of belonging depends strictly on the context, moment and on the set of other social identities that individual might possess.
Methodologically this research implied a combination of qualitative interpretative approach with ethnography of everyday, embedded in a specific focus on material culture. The goal of this interpretative approach, which so far was used widely in works on everyday nationalism, was to inquire into the process of how people interpret existent concepts, symbols, categories and how in some cases they produce new ones. The method of semi-structured interviews was chosen to answer the main research question of how ordinary people perform, and renegotiate their national identities in their everyday lives. Adopting such approach helped to identify that the meaning and the value of taken-for-granted social categories, such as nation and ethnicity, vary from one person to another, and might be interpreted or performed differently according to the moment and the type of context. In this research, methodological instruments were carefully selected in order to show how people perceive a concept of a nation and demonstrate that in some cases, people can not only accept/reject instructions on national markers, channeled through official discourses of political elites, but also create alternative ones which they find more acceptable and which represent the ways in which they want to be seen as a national community.
The main tools to collect data were interviews, participant observation at the sites of consumption and media and document analysis as additional tool to build the context of this study. There were in total 63 respondents who participated in this study, 9 of them were experts in the spheres of interest, like food retail sector or construction sphere. Other informants were urban citizens of Tallinn (Estonia) and L’viv (Ukraine), in general representatives
The main contribution of this research findings lays in its critique to current national narratives through a comparison of two parallel realms. This work contrasts official narratives of existing dominant national discourses (proper to the Estonian or Ukrainian societies), constructed along ethnic or language lines, and the the everyday nation. The focus on the everyday allows us to appreciate that ethnic and linguistic divisions are not fixed, but nuanced by the context in which they are embedded in. If the official symbols are not getting accepted by one or another group, it does not imply automatically that representatives of such groups are not feeling part of the nation or are not loyal to the state, which symbols they contest. In such cases, when the portrayal of nation in official accounts is not shared, people might develop alternative national symbols and perform their belonging to the nation through them in their own, unique way. The diversity in the ways they experience the participation in one national category shows the absence of a unique, and unchangeable, framework for being, for instance, Estonian or Ukrainian.
In the times when nationalism seem to gain a new force in Europe and not only there, policy makers should pay more attention to the roots of nationalist feelings, expressed by ordinary people. We can analyse policies or geopolitical changes that sometimes bring to some escalations of conflicts or just tensions, but we will not understand completely such processes and neither find a solution to them, if we do not listen to what ordinary people think about them and to how they see their role in them. A better understanding of how people interpret what is being done by political elites will help to understand why some policies do not work, why some groups raise against governments or other groups, which seem to be more loyal to their states. In other words nationalism should be tackled from different angles. The more perspectives we have on one problem, the easier will be the process of finding the solution – the right number of policies.
Low level of integration of some minority groups in European societies is a results of not only poor integration policies, but also of many other factors, like simple not counting of an opinion of the people who are being affected by such policies and not including of it at the stage of the policy design. The governments cannot expect that all the citizens will behave in a similar way as nationals and will have the same idea of a nation. Accepting the plurality of interpretation of what is nation, making national symbols less ethnocentric but more acceptable for people with a diverse cultural background will contribute to the development of the feeling of belonging among those who are considered to be poorly integrated.
This research demonstrated that identification with a nation is possible even in cases when people share only partially or do not share at all official narratives and symbols of that particular nation. In such cases people can find new national meanings in everyday culture and create alternative identity markers, that help them to associate themselves with national community of the territory on which they reside. The state should be attentive to such new markers and include them in the national narrative, making its borders more flexible and therefore more inclusive.