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Following Politics: Russian Youth Activism in Post-Socialist Latvia

  • Author(s): Beliaev, Alexandre
  • Advisor(s): Cohen, Lawrence
  • et al.
Abstract

My dissertation is based on fieldwork conducted in Latvia. Latvia is frequently introduced with a demographic statistic which characterizes 60% of its population as Latvian and 40% as Russian. The ensuing discussion focuses on nationalism and ethnic tensions--terms central to scholarship on Eastern Europe. Below, I problematize the ubiquity of these terms in accounts of post-socialist politics. Drawing on ethnographic research with Latvia's Russian youth organizations, I argue that these terms obscure a phenomenon that has an important empirical bearing: the fact that actors, who are by no means marginal in electoral politics, have a stake in remaining legible within a sphere of action characterized by ethnic division; and, at the same time, challenge forms of action based on ethnic solidarity.

Recent events in Ukraine have once again brought to the fore the problematic role of ethnic Russians in post-Soviet republics. In much of political commentary Russians living outside of the Russian Federation appear as pawns of Kremlin's attempt to regain its dominance over the post-soviet world; as subjects injured by nationalizing elites' attempt to undo effects of Soviet Russification; and, fundamentally, as reactionary supporters of a (pro-) Russian autocracy. In fact, over the last decade policy makers from the European Union have spent a great deal of effort working with Russian activists in Eastern Europe in a hope to shift their political allegiances; to teach them the value of national sovereignty; and, fundamentally, to get them to differentiate between democratic freedoms (inherent in European institutions) and selective privileges (held over from the Soviet period).

In my dissertation, I challenge the assumption that Russians living outside the Russian Federation are pawns of Muscovite expansion, and, in the same vein, critique the hope that they make become agents of European democratization. Analyzing Latvia's Russian youth activists' ambitious for meaningful elected office, I argue that despite having different geopolitical and ideological orientations, EU- and RF-programs are equally likely to perpetuate parliamentary gridlock, voter apathy, and anti-political sentiment. In a related vein, I explore how youth activists turn to late-socialist practices in an attempt to create viable alternatives to both "pro-Russian" and "pro-European" positions; and how these alternatives have immense potential to draw together young people of different ideological persuasions, ethnic identities and life styles.

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