Very Dark Anthropology: Aphasia, Presentiment of a Civil War, and Anthropology at Home

From the Series: Russia’s War in Ukraine, Continued

Photo by Serkant Hekimci / Alamy Stock Photo.

The war caught up with me while I was working on an article about Orthodox activism: grassroots initiatives aiming to increase the presence of the Russian Orthodox Church in the urban landscape by building new churches, creating monuments to saints, or erecting memorial crosses. As is expected of an anthropologist, I tried to understand the inner viewpoint of my informants, who were fighting for the right to voice their opinions in the Russian public sphere with its own, strange regulations. It was obvious that their fight for visibility was uneven inasmuch as their secular critics belong to a culturally different and more powerful class or social stratum. This inequality becomes visible in the command of speech. While secular critics of Orthodox initiatives can speak in their own name and formulate original pronouncements, their opponents use someone else’s words by appropriating passages of text from a limited set of sources. As an anthropologist, I sympathized with my informants in view of their aggrieved weakness.

The horrible new reality has forced me and many of my friends in the Russian anthropological community who conduct anthropology at home to rethink our position and the purpose of our work. The topics that we investigate suddenly seem petty and senseless, and the people whose worlds we want to describe and understand have become extremely alien. This is not only because many of our informants (the majority, I think) embrace a position that is actively prowar. It is also because the consistent political apathy of Russian anthropology has suddenly been revealed, making many of us unprepared for the new political reality that has forced us to redefine our positionality in the field. I do not mean to say that local anthropologists had not been interested in political activity before, but those who did such work preferred to study the pleasant and sympathetic people of their own social circle who engaged in protest actions in the big cities. A sort of class-based squeamishness, the roots of which one can find in the good old contrast between the educated intelligentsia and the “deep folk,” made the study of political apathy and political nonparticipation uninteresting and unpleasant (see, however, Zhelnina 2020). It is unclear what to make of these monstrously alien people—in my case, Christians who support the war.

Observing the anthropological tradition of not meddling in the life of the community under study and “not altering the field,” even when my informants uttered xenophobic or imperialist pronouncements that were unacceptable to me as a private person and citizen, I never tried to argue, to “enlighten” them, to persuade them to alter their views. A sign of my own change came when I was no longer able to passively read their bloodthirsty posts on social networks or in forwarded chat messages. The reaction to my comments from some of my informants was harsh and frightening. A woman with whom I had been in conversation for many years told me that people like me would be “dealt with later.” In another chat, one of my study participants proposed to throw me out of the group and in a personal message advised me to “calm down” and not to “tear my heart out.” On March 3 came the law on “fake news about the war,” according to which spreading any kind of information about the conduct of the “special operation” from nongovernment sources would be severely punished, and I had to delete my comments. The chat of this group unites people who go together on processions of the Cross. Now it is full of forwarded messages in support of the war and invitations to pray for the president and for the captured or missing soldiers. Those members of the group who do not support an actively militaristic position resist in the only way that is available to them: they post pictures of processions, christenings, and other apolitical Orthodox events. And they remain silent.

Aphasia—that is, the inability to express one’s thoughts and feelings—was first described by Roman Jakobson, the Russian linguist of Jewish origin who wrote his major works in emigration, first in Prague and then in America. Serguei Oushakine has convincingly demonstrated how the notion of aphasia works in the post-Soviet context. He showed that a “state of lacking” following the disintegration of the USSR led to a situation where the search for adequate symbolic forms was increasingly replaced by the use of ready-made symbolic constructions (Oushakine 2000). This is what we observe today. The kit of such constructions in the contemporary speech of aphasia includes geopolitical optics (the West, China, America), the pejorative characterization of actors with references to World War II (Fascism, Nazism), and indications of the violation of the basic social order (the tolerance of gay pride parades and same-sex marriages). Here one needs to mention the common assertion of Russia’s particular historical mission and the threat to its political system represented in this rhetoric by the word “Maidan,” a reference to the Ukrainian protests of 2013-14 that resulted in the ouster of the pro-Russian Ukrainain president. The state of social aphasia makes it impossible to speak in the first person; my informants always talk about “us,” “the people.” If one proposes to them to speak in their own name, a heavy, unresolvable conflict ensues, a confrontation with reality, from which they are shielded by the collective speech of aphasia. This happened with one of my Orthodox informant-activists when she was asked how many of her five sons she was willing to send into this war. As it turned out, there is a deep conflict in her family; some of her children categorically oppose their mother’s position and even live outside Russia. Of course, she blamed Western propaganda for this family drama.

In a situation of despair—such as what my friends, colleagues, and I in Russia are experiencing so acutely because of what is happening to our relatives and friends in Ukraine—our voices are not heard. We are forced to recognize ourselves as part of the “people” from which we used to disassociate ourselves, while our collective “we” does not conform to our ideas of humanism and common sense. Yet, a promise of hope arises unexpectedly from this same fieldwork. One of my fieldwork friends is an Orthodox priest in a small city in Southern Russia with a military base that is participating in the current war activities. As a Christian, he is deeply shaken by what is happening. He is the one who has to comfort the wives and mothers of the soldiers, to perform the funeral rites for their sons and husbands. Often, he is the only one who has words—not of protest, but at least of solace and support. During a recent burial, nobody from the city administration was present, not one of the comrades-in-arms gave a farewell speech at the tomb of this fallen soldier. The aphasia was total. The priest was the only one who spoke. “When all had taken leave, I untied the hands and feet of the deceased and got hold of a funeral cloak, on top of which I laid the state flag. I sprinkled blessed earth according to the tricolor—as if I were burying the Motherland.” He calls himself a mystical anarchist who is building the Kingdom of God in himself and in the people around him, and he believes that one can be an Orthodox Christian and still preserve personal freedom (giving up the possibility of advancing one’s career, of course). When he heard that I have relatives in Ukraine, he asked my permission to pray for them. I gave my assent, even though, unlike him, I now believe even less in the possibility of God’s existence than before.

Translated from Russian by Catherine Wanner.


Oushakine, Serguei. 2000. “In the State of Post-Soviet Aphasia: Symbolic Development in Contemporary Russia.” Europe-Asia Studies 52 (6): 991–1016.

Zhelnina, Anna. 2020. “The Apathy Syndrome: How We Are Trained Not to Care about Politics.” Social Problems 67 (2): 358–378.