Constructing ethnic identity: two tales of local Siberian communities

5 May, 2015 the Centre for Comparative History and Political Studies hosted an open lecture by Natalia Galetkina on “The study of social identity: an example of local transmigratory communities”.

The lecturer covered a problem of group identity and its ethnic origins. The lecturer draws on two examples of local resettlements: "Golendrzy from Pikhta" and "Poles from Vershyna". Both groups descended from migrants, who had moved to Eastern Siberia from the Western regions of the Russian Empire in the 1910s as a result of Stolypin's agrarian reform. Galetkina paid specific attention to the process of intergroup consolidation and the development of new local communities. The extensive longitudinal fieldwork from early 1990 until the late 2010s, archival and bibliographical records constitute the backbone of the research.

Identity construction has followed two different models: if Poles from Vershyna in the 1990s borrowed almost forgotten Polish rites, Golendrzy from Pikhta preserved their own rites and refused to define themselves through other “big” nations, primarily Germans. This is why this kind of identity may be legitimately coined as a “protest identity”.

The researcher touched upon the topic of the role of the scholar in anthropological research. According to her, there is no possibility to avoid the influence on the subjects under study. As Natalia Galetkina confessed, she unintentionally set off the ethnonym “Golendrzy”, which had not been common among the locals and the scholarly community. This fact relates to her publications on the region, where she marked the local community as “Golendrzy”. The origin of the term is not clear but the most common idea relates it to Dutch roots. 

The discussion touched upon the interrelations between the terms ‘local community’, ‘nationality’, ‘ethnicity’, the adequacy of Hobsbawmian ‘invention of traditions’ and the limits of identity construction. On the other hand, people from the audience brought up questions about externally imposed bureaucratic ethnic categorizations and the eclectic set of identity features (language, religion, rites, names) of the Golendzry. For instance, Golendrzy marked themselves as Germans or stopped doing so depending upon the historical situation and prestige of this group.