This is the fourth entry of Russia’s Alien Nations: The Secret Identities of Post-Socialism, an ongoing feature on All the Russias. It can also be found at russiasaliennations.org. You can also find all the previous entries here.
My search for a framework to understand these phenomena led me to studies on minority identities, this despite the fact that, whatever the iteration of Russian statehood, “Russians” are clearly a majority. But, as is the case with Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, numerical majority (or, failing that, plurality) is not a guarantor of the comforts usually associated with majority identity (the ability to think of one’s own identity as unmarked or neutral, as white people tend to do in the United States). As confidence in the Soviet Union erodes in the 1980s, replaced by despair in the 1990s, two ethnic studies models suggest themselves: self-hatred and melancholia.
As a concept, self-hatred has been most clearly elaborated as a phenomenon within the Jewish community. Sander Gilman’s landmark study, Jewish Self-Hatred, argues that
self-hatred results from outsiders’ acceptance of the mirage of themselves generated by their reference group-that group in society which they see as defining them-as a reality. This acceptance provides the criteria for the myth making that is the basis of any communal identity. This illusionary definition of the self, the identification with the reference group’s mirage of the Other, is contaminated by the protean variables existing within what seems to the outsider to be the homogeneous group in power (2).
Gilman identifies a key mechanism in self-hatred in the isolation of a particular subgroup within the community of outsiders that can bear the entire burden of “otherness,” allowing, in this case, the “good” Jews to feel unsullied by ethnic slander: “the quality ascribed to them as the Other, is then transferred to the new Other found within the group that those in power have designated as Other” (4).
Jewish self-hatred is a controversial notion, most notably because of its use by some in the Jewish community against fellow Jews who criticize Israel. Paul Reitter notes the “sense that today the phrase ‘Jewish self-hatred’ can serve only as a smear ( Conclusion). Theoretically, there is nothing about “self-hatred” that should make it an exclusively Jewish concept, but recent scholars of (non-Jewish) ethnic identity in America have more and more turned to a new framework: racial melancholia. Though recently taken up as a heuristic for African Americans in Joseph R. Winters’ Hope Dressed in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress, the concept was initially elaborated in an article by David L. Eng and Shinhee Han as a “depathologized structure of everyday group experience for Asian Americans” (667) (their book on the subject just came out a week or two ago). Asian Americans, they write, find themselves mourning an original, pre-immigration “home” while experiencing melancholy over the endless deferral of eventual acceptance within the American “melting pot:”
To the extent that ideals of whiteness for Asian Americans (and other groups of color) remain unattainable, processes of assimilation are suspended, conflicted, and unresolved. The irresolution of this process places the concept of assimilation within a melancholic framework. Put otherwise, mourning describes a finite process that might be reasonably aligned with the popular American myth of immigration, assimilation, and the melting pot for dominant white ethnic groups. In contrast, melancholia describes an unresolved process that might usefully describe the unstable immigration and suspended assimilation of Asian Americans into the national fabric. This suspended assimilation—this inability to blend into the “melting pot” of America—suggests that, for Asian Americans, ideals of whiteness are continually estranged. They remain at an unattainable distance, at once a compelling fantasy and a lost ideal (671)
Obviously, the Russian context is different. Assimilation is not the issue for Russians; what is “suspended, conflicted, and unresolved” is the relationship with the lost USSR. In our case, racial melancholia suggests a structure of feeling rather than a model to follow or impose. Both self-hatred and (racial) melancholia offer a productive way to address post-Soviet Russia. As categories, they overlap in time and space, but each focuses on a specific aspect of contemporary Russian identity. Self-hatred most clearly operates when intellectuals and media figures adapt stereotypes about Russian backwardness in order to project them onto an at times imaginary Russian subgroup, shifting the burden of stigma from “good” Russians to “bad” Russians. Melancholy, a category examined in the conclusion of Alexander Etkind’s Warped Mourning, underlies a more complex reaction formation, an obsession with lost great power status that exceeds the bounds of mere nostalgia (Eng and Han’s “compelling fantasy and lost ideal”). Rather than mourn a past greatness and move on, post-Soviet melancholia will not let go of the USSR’s imperial grandeur; this does not have to translate directly into a desire to rebuild the Soviet Union itself (a motivation often mistakenly attributed to Vladimir Putin), but lends an appeal to an imagined recreated great power structure that can finally compensate for the loss.
Next: Russians on the Verge of a Nerdish Breakdown
Etkind, Alexander. Warped Mourning: Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.
Gilman, Sander L. Jewish Self-Hatred: Anti-Semitism and the Secret Language of the Jews. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
Reitter, Paul. On the Origins of Jewish Self-Hatred. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Winters, Joseph R. ’Hope Dressed in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
Eng, David L. and Shinhee Han. “A Dialogue on Racial Melancholia.” Psychoanalytic Dialogues. 10.4 (2000): 667-700.
——. Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian-Americans. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.