Articles in Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus
A recent report in India Today mentions a fatwa (Muslim religious decree) issued by a cleric associated with the Muslim Brotherhood to prohibit women from swimming in the sea. The declared reason is that the word for ‘sea’ is grammatically masculine in Arabic, and so when a woman goes swimming and “the water touches the woman’s private parts, she becomes an ‘adulteress’ and should be punished”. An earlier fatwa issued in Iraq in 2007 “warned street vendors not to place tomatoes beside cucumbers because the vegetables are different genders”. But are authors of these fatwas driven by grammar or by culture? And how do literary translators grapple with gender issues?
The special role of Moscow and Saint Petersburg is highlighted by a consideration of the space between them. A recent photo diary in The New York Times documented a trip taken by Ellen Barry and Dmitry Kostyukov between the two principal Russian cities. This trip was inspired by an imaginary journey described by liberal-minded bureaucrat Alexander Radishchev in his book A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, written in 1790. In this post we revisit the cities and towns visited by Radishchev.
The last three decades have witnessed a remarkable rise in xenophobic, deeply conservative, and even extreme right-wing parties across much of Europe. Whereas thirty years ago most xenophobic parties failed to even pass the 5% minimum voter threshold that is typically required to enter government, they now constitute as much as ~28% of the parliament in countries like Austria, and arguably have reached the ~70% level in Hungary. Hoping to understand these surprising changes in the European political climate, this post will briefly analyze the characteristics of the xenophobic right as of 2013, underscore the diversity of xenophobic parties, and try to explain some of the patterns encountered when the far-right takes hold, as well as their exceptions.
A recent trip to Tromsø, Norway reminded me that there is nothing more beautiful and life-affirming than spring in the Arctic: the return of the sun and the melting of the deep layer of snow allow the first fragile flowers to bloom. It is not this delicate beauty, however, that has recently attracted international attention to the circumpolar region. Six countries—China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore—exhibited renewed interest in the Arctic and were granted observer status in the Arctic Council during its May 15, 2013 meeting in Kiruna, Sweden.
The spatial distribution of words for a given meaning can reveal interesting patterns of both language spread and language contact. While both factors are always at play, language contact is more evident in regard to words for cultural innovations, such as ‘tea’ or ‘computer’. Another interesting case is the geography of words for ‘book’, which many languages borrowed along with the general concept of ‘book’ and more often than not with one particularly important religious text.
The Deportation and the Return of the Crimean Tatars—And the Controversial Issue of Collaboration with the Nazis
Crimean Tatars were among the many ethnic groups deported under Stalin during World War II due to the alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Today, this Turkic-speaking group constitutes merely 0.5% of Ukraine’s population, but historically, they held the key to the Black Sea shores that the Russian Empire (and later independent Ukraine) needed to gain access to warm sea ports.
When I was a college student in Russia, one of my classmates was a Volga German from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. At the time, her identity made no sense to me as Germany, the Volga River, and Uzbekistan are thousands of miles apart. Who are the Volga Germans? How did they come to live in Central Russia, and later in Central Asia? This post examines the twisted history of yet another group victimized by Stalin’s deportations.
One of the first ethnic groups deported by the Soviet regime on purely ethnic grounds was the Koreans of the Far East. Their deportation was conceived in 1926, initiated in 1930, and carried out in 1937, when virtually all ethnic Koreans were forcefully moved to unpopulated desert areas of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. This resettlement program was so brutal that it engendered enduring bitterness not only among the deportees themselves but also among many of their descendants as well. It is thus unsurprising that the two most famous ethnic Koreans in Russia are songwriters known for the subversive lyrics.
An earlier GeoCurrents post mentioned Finns among the nationalities deported by the Soviets before and during World War II. As it turns out, the situation in the Finnish borderlands is rather more complicated than that. The territory between St. Petersburg and Helsinki is home to a number of ethnic groups whose histories range from cultural and linguistic assimilation to population transfer to outright ethnic cleansing.
An earlier GeoCurrents post on Chechnya mentioned that the Chechens were deported from their homeland in the North Caucasus to Central Asia in February 1944. However, the Chechen nation was not the only one to suffer such a fate under Stalin’s regime. He took to gerrymandering the country’s ethnic map by moving whole nationalities around like chess pieces on the board.
Several earlier GeoCurrents posts examined the history and geography of culinary vocabulary, particularly words for ‘cheese’, ‘onion’, and ‘tea’. It has become clear that the distribution of such words in European languages tells a story of both common descent and borrowing. But a completely different picture emerges if we examine words for ‘cucumber’ (see map on the left). Here, areal patterns are more conspicuous than those of language-family relationships.
Russian cuisine, as can be expected, is a multifaceted phenomenon, varying with time, space, and social class. Like much of Russia’s material and intellectual culture, Russian cuisine finds itself at the crossroads of West and East, having soaked up influences of neighboring peoples—Ukrainians, Tatars, peoples of the Caucasus and of Siberia—as well as of Western cuisines, chiefly that of France. Traditional Russian cookery, which is the focus of this post, goes back to the customs of the medieval period.
As the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings—Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, killed by police, and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19—have been identified as immigrants of Chechen origin, it’s worth taking a look at their homeland, Chechnya, and its bloody history.
Like the Samaritans, the Karaites accept only the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) and the Book of Joshua, and their identity as Jews has been questioned on a number of occasions. Unlike the Samaritans, the Karaites celebrate Passover on the standard date, though their observance of the holiday is quite distinctive.
More on the birch bark documents from Veliky Novgorod, Russia. With letters scratched into the inside surface, these scraps of birch bark, well-preserved in water-logged soils near Lake Ilmen, contain a wealth of information for historians and linguists alike. One of the most fascinating puzzles of Slavic historical linguistics was posed by birch bark document #247.