A new study by Research Director Geir Hønneland of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) looks at the identity of Russians on the Kola Peninsula: Living in the high north, hailing from the south, and with Western neighbours within throwing distance across an increasingly permeable border.
In his study, Geir Hønneland discusses some of the big questions in social science: What is identity? How is it narrated by subjects? What is the role of identity and narrative in the study of international relations? His point in case is the Russians of the Kola Peninsula, the most heavily militarized area of the world during the Cold War, now set to become Europe's next big oil playground.
Hønneland looks at how living close to the border affects people, and whether borderland people are different from other people. Above all, he asks empirical questions about identities in a specific geographic location, discussing what it means to be Russian, what it means to be a northerner and how people in Russia's north-western corner define themselves in relation to their Scandinavian neighbours and their southern relatives.
"People's self-perception seems firmly rooted in the mythology of the Soviet conquest of the north," Hønneland says.
"My interviewees praise the northern virtues. Being a northerner is more than geography; becoming a northerner implies certain skills or attributes. First, you are most likely well-educated. The Kola Peninsula is the land of specialists: scientists, engineers and military personnel. Furthermore, not everyone dares to face the northern wilderness. It requires boldness, dedication, physical and mental fortitude, and living there strengthens you as a person and forces you to treat others with respect. Most of my interviewees see these factors as their main identity, in addition to their national identity as Russians: they're proud northerners, happy that life gave them the opportunity to become one."
According to Hønneland, many say they would like to move south, but none of them say they would like to become southerners.
"As for the east-west dimension, the difference in the portrayal of a northerner between Russia and Scandinavia is striking. In Scandinavia, a northerner is generally described as self-made, reckless, noisy and extrovert, while in Russia, my interviewees portray the Russian northerner as well-educated, cultured, restrained and introvert," Hønneland explains, and adds:
"Not all Russians were impressed with what they saw on the other side of the border when it was opened."
Hønneland's study is, however, principally a work on narrative theory, the Kola Russians being a case study. Based on his interviews and experience in the north European borderland, he finds that vocabulary does not dictate action in all situations, though it may have an effect in situations where the outcome is uncertain, where there is no specific material interest to defend, and where a decision is nevertheless required of an actor.
"Whenever activated, I assume often-repeated narratives have a larger effect than more 'arbitrary' comments, because they confirm old truths people know are widely accepted in society. I venture to say that it's 'easy' for political actors in Russia to throw out allegations about Scandinavian bad will towards Russia -- or about Russian participants in cross-border cooperation being suspiciously friendly towards the West -- simply because the home audience is very receptive to such claims."
"I did not discover a large amount of suspicion towards the Nordic countries among my interviewees, but there was substantial derision and contempt. Such sentiments resonate with age-old Russian perceptions of the West, but in my interviewees I got the impression that they were found not too far under the surface -- ready to be activated when someone demands an opinion of Scandinavians from you, but possibly also ready to be modified in encounters with alternative narrative practices," Hønneland ends.
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