Nash chelovek (Russia and FSU)

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Nash chelovek
Location: Russia and the Soviet Union
Russia map.png
Author: Åse Grødeland and Leslie Holmes
Affiliation: Fafo Research Foundation (Oslo) and University of Melbourne

Original text by Åse Grødeland and Leslie Holmes

Nash chelovek is one of the most common concepts reflecting informality in Russia (plural: nashi lyudi, or the closely related svoi lyudi literally translated as ‘our people’). In some contexts a better rendering of nash chelovek is ‘one of ours’ or ‘one of us,’ though the term is all too often translated as ‘our man.’ Despite the commonality of the concept, an online search, using both Latin and Cyrillic script, reveals that very little has been published on it. Such searches do however indicate that the phrase often makes it into the titles of movies and books, some of which will be familiar to Anglophone readers (for example, the Russian title for Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana), or in videos on Soviet leaders. A Russian play by Aleksandr Ostrovskii, ‘Svoi Lyudi – Sochtemsya’ (usually translated as ‘It’s a Family Affair – We’ll Settle It Ourselves,’ but referring to the code of a social circle) has been popular in Russia since 1849.


Linguistically, the use of svoi is more restricted than that of nashi, and similarly the circle of svoi lyudi is narrower in comparison to that of nashi lyudi. Svoi connotes belonging (as opposed to ‘stranger,’ ‘foreigner’ or ‘outsider’ (chuzhoi), whereas nash implies ‘solidarity’ (the opposite of ‘alien’ or ‘extraneous’ [chuzhdyi]). The words can however be used interchangeably. The divisive meaning of both nash chelovek and svoi lyudi points to the ever-shifting and thus hard-to-pin-down borderline between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The confrontation between ‘one of us’ and ‘not one of us’ appeared in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Following an altercation with his second son (Ivan), the father of the three Karamazov brothers, Fyodor Pavlovich, tells his youngest son (Alyosha) that rationalist Ivan ‘is not one of us in soul…. Ivan is not one of us. People like Ivan are not our sort, my boy.’


In Soviet times, nash chelovek was most often used pejoratively with the word ‘not’ in front of it, usually meaning someone who does not share the same view of the world and emphasising certain ideological connotations. The frequency of negative usage may be interpreted as an expression of Russian ‘negative identity,’ defined by what it is not rather than standing for its own set of values (Gudkov 2004[1]). The intricacies of crossing the ‘us versus them’ border are depicted in an early film by Nikita Mikhalkov ‘Svoi Sredi Chuzhikh, Chuzhoi Sredi Svoikh’ (1974; the title is usually translated into English as ‘At Home Among Strangers,’ though a more literal translation would be ‘One’s Own Among Strangers, A Stranger Among One’s Own’). In the post-Soviet context, and particularly in contemporary Russia, understanding of continuity and change in the usage of the term presents a challenge: what does it mean to Russians nowadays; how do people view divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’; and do their perceptions reflect on the private/public division, the ‘Russian idea’ in Putin’s Russia, or wider societal tendencies?


Using an original dataset on legal culture, corruption and law-enforcement in Russia, funded by the Norwegian Research Council, we have distinguished the following types of discourses on ‘nash chelovek’ (Grødeland and Holmes, in progress). In 2013, 18 focus groups, each of eight persons, in various parts of Russia, both urban and rural, were asked to discuss practical usages of the term nash chelovek; the data collected were subsequently analysed using N-Vivo software. The discussions identified the following range of meanings and concentric circles of belonging: from trusted persons and those sharing less formal, subjectively formulated identifiers (similar interests, shared professional experience, values, class or way of thinking) to those pointing to objective forms of identity (the same country, region or place) or emphasising a mix of the above.


According to the frequency of responses, the significance of sharing (similar interests, views and so on) predominated over trustworthiness and compatriotism. The most revealing result, however, was the overall predominance of other meanings, among them ‘close to one’s family,’ ‘someone with whom you’d go drinking,’ ‘someone who helps us’ and ‘someone you respect,’ thereby pointing to the ambiguity of the term nash chelovek. Such ambiguity expresses essential features of the sense of belonging: defined by context and hard to pin down in a general way. While you can be one of us in one context, you can be excluded in others. The moving boundaries between us and them and the context-bound nature of nash chelovek can thus be regarded as part of its conceptualisation.


The most identifiable meaning of nash chelovek relates to sharing, that is someone who has ‘common views,’ thinks ‘in the same manner’ or ‘shares the same interests’ as the others. Such circles of people share the same values, engage in the same type of behaviour, ‘understand’ one other and are considered ‘reliable.’ It is therefore possible to depend on them and to ‘reach an agreement’ with them. Here are some of the typical responses: ‘a person who thinks in the same way’ (Focus Group [FG]10, Maksharip); ‘this is a person with my interests’ (FG13, Sergei); ‘a person with our views and emotions’ (FG15, Anna); ‘a person who is convenient, useful; there are some common interests and goals’ (FG2, Lyudmila).


While the concept is generally context-bound, certain contexts such as sports or professional experience invoke particular understanding of sharing, close to solidarity: ‘I think that if a supporter of the [Moscow] football club Spartak said “our man,” then another supporter would also call him “our man”’ (FG12, Musa); ‘a person who does sports, who does not drink or smoke’ (FG7, Tolya); ‘this is professionalism’ (FG16, Yuri).


While some focus group participants confined nash chelovek to personalised trust, meaning ‘someone who can be trusted / is trusted’ or ‘can be relied upon’ — ‘nash chelovek is like me…someone on whom one can rely’ (FG17, Tatyana) — others opted for more general contexts, such as politics—‘(a person) with a red banner’ (FG1, Igor) — or someone who also enjoys a drink: ‘he drinks (like us)— nash chelovek’ (FG1, Dimitrii). Thus, nash chelovek may be an ‘acquaintance’ or a ‘close person,’ such as a member of one’s family or one’s own circle, but it can also refer to President Vladimir Putin, as well as to unspecified ‘nationalists’: ‘Putin is our man’ (FG13, Nina); ‘nationalists’ (FG16, Chechen). It should be noted in this context that Putin’s Presidential Administration sponsored the establishment of the youth organisation Nashi (‘Ours,’ established 2005), which was seen by some as having nationalist tendencies and was compared with the Soviet-era youth movement the Komsomol, and even with the Hitler Youth (Whipple 2006[2]; Young 2007[3]). Such comparisons and Nashi’s reputation for thuggery began to embarrass Putin in his third term (Stanovaya 2013[4]), and the organisation has since been replaced by less confrontational groups such as ‘Set’’ (‘network‘; Nemtsova 2014[5]).


The divisiveness of cohesion, Implicit in the term, may be illustrated by diverging views on whether the term essentially refers to belonging to one’s own ethnic group and/or to living in one’s own country or local community (‘locals’ [FG8, Vera]); occasionally it may refer to belonging to ‘a workers’ collective’ (FG17, Julia), or be more generally associated with ‘Russians’ (FG5, Nikolai), ‘our people abroad’ (FG2, Vladimir) or ‘a patriot’ (FG7, Vova).


The patriotic connotations of nash chelovek are somewhat wider than those of the more exclusive and pragmatic-sounding svoi chelovek. Exploring the instrumental connotations of nash chelovek was aimed at establishing whether or not this term is used to describe people who pull strings, use connections, or go between. Some participants noted that nash chelovek is someone who can effectively do this. Nash chelovek can promote the interests of a locality or group of people, defend someone or ‘fight for the truth.’ Further, and more importantly, s/he is influential and thus able to achieve something, including resolving problems. Sometimes nash chelovek is able to achieve something that, in principle, is not feasible. But s/he might also be ‘dishonest,’ ‘break the law’ or ‘engage in corruption’: ‘someone who does something for our local area’ (FG17, Aleksandr); ‘someone who promotes the interests of the masses’ (FG10, Nadezhda); ‘an influential person’ (FG12, Makka); ‘someone working in the police or who works somewhere, you have an acquaintance. Aha – “nash chelovek”’ (FG17, Elena); ‘some problems may be settled through him/her’ (FG17, Sergei); ‘from the depths of corruption, nash chelovek is the one bought by me’ (FG15, Alevtina); ‘corrupted people’ (FG16, Petr); ‘it is something dishonest’ (FG1, Natalia); ‘nash chelovek will most likely violate the rules and laws’ (FG9, Aleksei); ‘someone who steals together (with someone)…’ (FG15, Sergei).


Those who were uncertain how to define nash chelovek noted that the term has ‘different,’ ‘dual’ or ‘broad’ meanings, is context-dependent, and is used essentially as a slang word. According to our original findings, then, there is a significant degree of ambiguity in the practical usage of the term nash chelovekin Russia today. However, the views of those who committed to a clear response and highlighted consensus that emerged around the idea of sharing—predominantly, sharing similar views and values—were not essentially different from the connotations of nash chelovek in the Soviet era. Specific meanings are context-bound and, in those contexts where nash chelovek can be ‘appropriated’ for pursuing certain interests, its meaning is closest to ‘svoi chelovek.’


What is clear even from the small sample of responses cited here is that, whereas some Russians will turn to ‘one of us’ to obtain something or to resolve a problem through unofficial channels and means, others are critical of nash chelovek precisely because their understanding of informality precludes bending the rules too much. What is also clear is that it is unsurprising that outside observers find it so difficult to pin down the concept of nash chelovek; other cultures can be rather opaque to external analysts, especially when the locals themselves are divided about the meaning of an ambiguous term (for further examples from other post-communist societies see Miller, Grødeland and Koshechkina 2001[6]).

The authors gratefully acknowledge Professor Alena Ledeneva’s invaluable feedback on and contribution to the original version of this entry, as well as the linguistic advice kindly provided by Svetlana McMillin.

Notes

  1. Gudkov, L. 2004. Negativnaya identichnost’: Stat’i 1997-2002 godov. Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie
  2. Whipple, T. 2006. ‘Disturbing echo of youth group that lauds Putin,’ The Times (London), 9 December
  3. Young, C. 2007. ‘Putin’s young “brownshirts”,’ The Boston Globe, 10 August
  4. Stanovaya, T. 2013. ‘The Fate of the Nashi Movement: Where Will the Kremlin's Youth Go?’ Institute of Modern Russia http://imrussia.org/en/politics/420-the-fate-of-the-nashi-movement-where-will-the-kremlins-youth-go
  5. Nemtsova, A. .2014. ‘Putin Youth: The young Russians who see the president as a father,’ Newsweek, 24 November
  6. Levada, Yu. (ed.). 1993. Sovetskii Prostoi Chelovek. Moscow: Mirovoi Okean Miller, W., Grødeland, Å. and Koshechkina, T. 2001. A Culture of Corruption? Coping with Government in Post-communist Europe. Budapest: Central European Press