Separating culture from nationalism in the age of Russian belligerence
By George Moshenski-Dubov
This article was originally published by The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student-run newspaper of record. You can read the original article here.
Though I have lived in Canada for almost my entire life, I am Russian*: My parents were both born in the Soviet Union, I have relatives all over Russia, I speak Russian, and I celebrate Russian holidays and celebrations.
But I cannot bear to call myself a Russian. Particularly, I could not allow myself to root for Russia at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Recently eliminated from the quarterfinals of the World Cup, the Russian national football team brought pride to over 100 million Russians and 600,000 Russian-Canadians for its heroic performance, doubling as both host nation and underdog.
Yet I could not stop supporting the host’s opponents. I cheered for Saudi Arabia and Egypt when they faced Russia in the group stage, although both lost. It was not until Uruguay handed Russia a 3–0 loss that my ‘unpatriotic’ stance was finally rewarded.
This wasn’t enough, as Russia made it out of the group stage to ultimately upset Spain in a penalty shootout. The win shocked football fans all over the world, but devastated me as if I were a die-hard Spaniard. In what ended up being Russia’s final match at the World Cup, I cheered endlessly for 120 minutes and into another penalty shootout for the Croatian team, when I finally got to witness Russia’s elimination.
I am grateful to live in Toronto and attend the University of Toronto, where I am able to engage with a culturally diverse population — including a large group of Russian-Canadians. However, many have been confused as to why I would root against my own country, and many have told me that my actions are a betrayal to my very bloodline. But I have my reasons.
Russia is a country of historic greatness. It is the winner of the second World War, victor of space races, and builder of a great republic. Russia’s greatest achievement may be its ability to resist and challenge Western society and the United States.
Today, there is no urgency to send humans into space. But the Russian government still attempts to relive the glory days of the Soviet Union — dare I say, it wants to make Russia great again — and this has dire consequences.
My decision to distance myself from my Russian identity occurred in 2014. Russia had illegally intervened in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, where I have family. Eventually, the Russian government annexed Crimea from Ukraine in an allegedly illegal and fraudulent election.
This act of modern imperialism and apparent disregard for international law demonstrates how far Russia and its leaders are willing to go to reclaim their country’s place on the international stage. This has led to a divide between Ukraine’s western and eastern territories and a war in the Ukrainian region of Donbass. The war, which has been fought since April 2014, has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
As the world continues to evolve, it becomes more and more evident that Russia is stuck in the past. While the world becomes more diverse and inclusive, many regions and citizens of Russia still hold homophobic, racist, and misogynist beliefs. Like the Soviet Union which preceded it, Russia continues to promote the idea of unity against the outside world to its citizens — specifically against the liberalism of the West.
This early twentieth century mindset has seen little improvement. In fact, much evidence has shown that Russia and its citizens are becoming more homophobic and more racist. According to Pew Research, 74 per cent of Russians believed that homosexuality is socially wrong in 2013, up from 60 per cent in 2002. Another study found that in 1998, only 45 per cent of citizens believed in a “Russia for Russians” ideology, which increased to 55 per cent in 2011.
I pride myself knowing that I’ve been able to meet and befriend people from all walks of life at U of T. But I cannot help thinking that a majority of them would be unwelcome in Russia simply because of their sexual identity, race, or religion.
On top of politics, the Russian doping scandal, which saw the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspend the Russian Olympic Committee and ban many Russian athletes from the 2016 Summer and 2018 Winter Olympics, is an example of Russia’s attempt to achieve the historic Olympic success of the Soviet Union.
According to many reports, there were strong allegations of officials recommending and demanding that athletes participate in state-sponsored doping programs. The ban and the stripping of many medals proved that the IOC would not stand for cheaters — and neither will I.
Adding to the list are countless other ways Russia remains untrustworthy, such as allegations of illegal elections in the country, lack of support for environmental protection, and the country’s possible role in interfering with the United States’ presidential election. Every win for Russia is a win against unity, against diversity, and against peace.
While Russia continues to strive for ‘glory,’ I will continue to separate my national identity from the culture I follow. I cannot stand by a country that promotes human division as an element to achieve success.
I cannot use my culture as an excuse to support the Russian national team. These athletes have made the choice to represent their country, even under its current regime. Every minute of every game that these men were on the field of the World Cup, they must have known that they represent their country, and that their country also represents them. They promoted the ideologies of today’s Russia – even if they did not know it themselves.
On the other hand, culture is for the most part unconnected from modern politics, as it has been passed down through generations. While I cannot change the fact that I have Russian blood coursing through my veins, I can pursue an identity that acknowledges both my family’s roots and culture, and my personal protest against the nation I call the motherland.
So I am Russian*. The asterisk will continue to denote my separation from personal national identification.