Author’s note: The following interview took place May 12, 2008. On August 14, 2008, the Georgian parliament unanimously voted to withdraw from the CIS, a move that was celebrated by the European Union and the United States.
I worry about Akhmed, though he doesn’t seem to worry about himself.
But I enjoy his perspective. At the movies, we both groaned at the trailer, an Angelina Jolie shoot-’em-up. When the smoke cleared and revealed the words “Choose your destiny,” he burst into a guffaw. (I feared apoplexy.)
In the feature, Peter Greenaway’s Nightwatching (my proposal), Rembrandt is blinded by Amsterdam’s Musketeer Militia after exposing their war profiteering. Afterward, Akhmed suggested going to a club organized around showing videos of ’60s Western bands.
A metro ride later, we descended into a Day-Glo basement near Moscow State University. At a grainy clip of Steve Winwood singing before scrubbed Finnish prepubescents, “I’m a man, oh yes I am, and I can’t help but love you so,” Akhmed again burst into laughter—grateful, restored.
Akhmed comes from the North Caucasus, specifically North Ossetia, traditionally one of the most “loyal” and favored of five Russian republics in the southern region—at least in comparison with its traditionally “rebellious” neighbor, Chechnya.
A recent transplant to Moscow, he lectures in English for international law and media studies at one of the top-rated university humanities programs in Russia. (Again, for issues of safety, I have changed his name, and will not disclose his university.)
Although we had from time to time discussed similarities in the terrorist policies of the U.S. and the Federation, I wondered how he saw himself fitting into the current Russian context. I asked if he might talk about that, which he kindly consented to do over a $15 pot of tea in a chain coffee shop.
He arrived bubbling about the previous four-day weekend celebrating June 12, “Russia Day,” the date in 1990 when parliament had declared sovereignty—a weekend he spent at a blues festival. “It was Woodstock, five stages set up in the countryside. And the rain, people getting completely muddy, some wandering naked. I’m not one for tents—I got quite wet. But the music? Ah, I love that sort of thing.”
He apologized for not asking me; he had heard of the festival “at the last minute.” I apologized for turning back the clock, so to speak.
Rebecca: Can you tell me more about where you’re from? Where is your hometown, exactly?
Akhmed: That would be Mozdok, North Ossetia. I’m often asked, Are you from the place where there are suicide bombings? But there have been more bombings in Moscow. There are far more interesting things about my place than reducing it to a propaganda trick.
Mozdok has some industries—actually, had one of the first oil refineries worldwide. And it was an important city at the foundation of the USSR. There were the first Russian schools for aboriginals in the area, like missionary schools, trying to bring Russian values to the region. Most Ossetians have converted to Orthodoxy. But many have kept their epic fairy tales, their pagan rituals. Some people argue that they are pagan still. Christianity tolerates paganism.
You know Stalin’s father was Georgian, his mother Ossetian. So he manipulated borders during World War II, took the best land to make new districts for North and South Ossetia. Ossetians remain very loyal to Moscow. There’s a sort of pseudofederalism there.
R: You’ve told me that you didn’t think the Western image of Khrushchev as a hardliner was correct, that he allowed many ethnic Russians to move out of the camps. I believe this was in 1956.
A: Earlier, many ethnic groups were driven out of Ossetia. There were at least three purges. First, the religious figures and aristocracy were executed or shipped off to Siberia, then the rich and the middle class, and, finally, whoever was left that might be troublesome. “There are no irreplaceable people,” Stalin said.
In the ‘90s, many countries reintroduced their native languages, though the attitude is not fully supported. Ossetian remains a kind of kitchen language. I don’t speak it—I know only a few phrases and greetings. I always felt a minority in North Ossetia. My mother is Kumyk, which are like the Tartar but not nearly so populous. And my father is Circassian, a group originating from the Black Sea area who used to be quite numerous but now consists of large diasporas in Turkey, Jordan, New Jersey.
Now it’s conventional to say, in terms of Soviet politics, that Ossetians form the largest number of people who have been awarded generalships, military medals. They were favored while others were kept away.
R: But it appears that Russia wants the Georgian states back, particularly Abkhazia, and has moved troops and air force to the region, so that the oligarchs can more cheaply ship construction materials to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. And also so that Russia can regain control of the oil and gas pipelines in the area from European and American interests.
A: It’s the Big Game, all over again, isn’t it? The area has always been under conflict. Like Ossetia, Armenia and Georgia asked to be joined to Russia to get rid of Turkey and with Iran, the latter of which at one time had alliances with Western oil. Then what was not allowed in Russia was allowed in Georgia, politically, socially. But the North Caucasus has always been dependent, on Turkey, then Iran, and now Russia. Independence is an illusion.
R: How old were you when the Soviet Union broke up? What was the feeling where you were?
A: I was 15. There was not so much euphoria. I think I was happy, not sad, for sure. I was happy to get rid of my Pioneer tie! After sports classes, it got really hot and wet. It seemed like everywhere no one wanted to wear it. It seemed that, when Gorbachev was elected, the Pioneers should survive, but that was when the policy of leaving off your tie started.
R: I’ve heard from others about the lack of goods in the Soviet period. Was that part of your experience?
A: There were queues all the time. To rise at dawn, literally at the dawning, to take your place in lines for flour, salt, sugar, milk, bread, everything! The old ladies especially used to take notice if something was available. I remember there was an old lady in my five-story block, quite loud, who used to shout if there was a sale, then everyone would rush to the queue. Then you could reach the end of the queue and find out there was nothing left. It was a very primitive, very scarce time. Some people rethink it now and say it was a healthy time—there were nice juices, no chemicals in the food.
R: Have people’s attitudes in North Ossetia changed now, toward the Federation?
A: The unit of measurement of popularity was and is, even in the provinces, the availability of food and its price. So now the government is popular—it’s how they win elections, by talking about the wide range of food. There is a saying, “They use the sausage to stick in the people’s mouth.” Or they say, “We switched from difficulties in pricing.” Which is quite in contrast to having equitable salaries. But that’s how it is in the West, though here even less is affordable.
R: Let’s switch gears for a moment. I liked what you told me about what your mother said, “Turn off that English!” What were the circumstances that led up to that?
A: I was always playing English study tapes. She couldn’t tolerate it. Well, you can’t tolerate always hearing a language you couldn’t understand. She got fed up.
R: What drew you to studying English? Was that an interest in Western culture generally?
A: It was a popular school subject. We had a very nice teacher who was a real fan of Margaret Thatcher. We’d get her talking about the Iron Lady to take up the hour. So I managed to combine being naughty and studying well. Studying English meant we could imitate certain aspects of the culture, like we acted out a day in parliament. We fancied ourselves as identified with British culture.
But we could only get books approved by the Soviets, that had a kind of pro-Soviet attitude, like Dreiser, the book by John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, or classics like Swift, Robert Burns. Or E.A. Poe. No beatniks! Otherwise, the textbooks were so boring, very systematic, an artificial Soviet English, not an English spoken anywhere.
R: And then you went to university in the south?
A: Pyatigorsk University of Linguistics, in the North Caucasus, a two-hour trip from my home, and at the time one of the top four linguistic departments in the country. In 1999, I started my M.A., completed a Ph.D. in linguistics. I did German as a second language, and Middle English—which, of course, I can’t speak—and Latin.
R: You’ve told me that you made the move to Moscow after friends encouraged you to join them. Were there other reasons?
A: I was quite desperate, unhappy with my job as an English teacher. I had finished my Ph.D. in 2006, did a year of teaching at the university, then another year at a commercial institute for business and law—the supply is larger than the demand. It was not the level I wanted. I thought of myself more as a university lecturer.
But I had lots of difficulties here, getting the registratsiya—getting the addresses for work. You know there are lots of fake registrations, but I wanted a real one so I could work at the university. So I had to undergo something like forensics, getting the fingerprints and all that.
R: I’m under the impression that Russian universities are now becoming much more like the Western model, driven by the job market.
A: Education looks like a market, just like buying food, doing yourself a hair style. You may specialize in some area, but 90 percent of the students can’t find a job. They just have to make a choice of what to study. Now, you choose the subject, the electives, but if you don’t like it you don’t have to attend classes. Sometimes it’s only after graduating, students regret their learning or lack of it. People say we’re experimenting more but at the expense of the quality of the Russian educational system.
But I mostly look very critical. I see things through a magnifying glass, things I’m upset about. I can’t put up with it, but I can’t do anything about it.
R: What do you feel accounts for the increase in violence against ethnic Russians? So far this year, there have been nearly 60 murders reported, more than half in Moscow—committed by skinhead groups. Have you ever felt threatened personally?
A: So far, I feel secure. I was lucky not to have met any of these people yet. This is quite silly in the country now. This idea of fascism doesn’t fit the Russian context. But there are definitely some serious people behind them to create the political atmosphere they use. Nationality as a policy seems quite popular with segments of Russian society. It’s demographically linked—people like to imagine the Muslim threat, the threat of the Central Asian states.
The problem is the corruption. People who deserve the jobs can’t get them. I think there should be strict policies about discrimination—there are none as such. You can still find signs posted, about housing, jobs, “for Russians only.”
R: About this question of “for Russians only,” of Russian identity, I wonder if you could comment on Ryszard Kapuscinski’s claim in Imperium—and he was quite harsh about this—that in Russia the climate is too cold, large stretches of land too poor, for growing crops. As well, the mineral wealth is easily monopolized by a central power. In short, Kapuscinski claimed that in Russia there will always be a master-slave mentality.
A: It may be a dirty pit, but it’s my dirty pit.
Social indifference is quite a threat. Russians can have a very escapist attitude toward life, being more into your hobbies, home life, instead of caring about something that is political. It doesn’t only mean you’re disorganized. I don’t know what comes first—the start of consciousness or the existence.
I’m so tired of hearing about terrorism and no one caring to do anything about it. Russia and America resemble each other in the way they want to manipulate the Middle East, or any small nation they think they can be in charge of. We have our string-puppet members of parliament, who are allowed to act the buffoons, in order to express what others can’t say. You could place [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky next to Bush. He serves as a sort of jester when he says, “Let’s not bomb Iraq, let’s bomb Georgia.” And he’s quite changeable. Every day, he expresses opposing views. It seems funny, but not funny when you consider that he is only allowed into the parliament not as an elected official.
And now we have the devaluation of the ruble. It’s an illusion—they’re telling us that we are progressing, reality is changing. The politics are there to pursue their own interests. It’s a banal thing to say—but it’s the only answer.
R: And Chechnya?
A: The Chechen wars were simply meant to distract people from administrative failures, the social and political reforms that failed in the 1990s. Yeltsin should have been pursued and tried like Hussein—except, unlike [Hussein], he could get immunity.
So, yes, I think there’s a problem with Russian attitudes. It’s not a very nice picture of Russians as a people, who deserve better.
R: Finally, what interests you about the ’60s club?
A: It’s an island of alternative thinking, people who care about things.