For each half-term of the year, we showcase one piece of work from our faculty or research students.
In this feature, Eleanor Knott talks us through the research behind her book, Kin Majorities: Identity and Citizenship in Crimea and Moldova. The book was published in 2022 and explores the (geo)politics of identity and citizenship in Moldova and Crimea in the wake of Russian annexation.
Leveraging a bottom-up, interpretive and comparative approach, Kin Majorities analyzes data collected from ordinary people in Crimea and Moldova in 2012 and 2013, just before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, to provide a crucial window into Russian identification in a time of calm.
First of all, did the research evolve from its starting point? If so, in what ways?
My research transformed during two key moments. Before I went to Crimea, I had read a lot that left a certain impression on me about what Crimean society would look like: pro-Russian, pro-Russian nationalist. Critically, I had assumed that Russian citizens would be present in every aspect of Crimean life, as if everyone was, or wanted to be, a Russian citizen.
Arriving in Crimea, I remember doing a preliminary interview and asking about “the Russian question”. Those I was speaking with immediately told me: there was no “Russian question”. Moreover, this “question” made no sense. There was no – or at least very little – contestation. I also quickly learnt, during this preliminary interview and others, that Russian citizenship was by no means as possible as other scholars had assumed and written about.
Returning after my first trip to Crimea, I almost entirely had to reconfigure my project. While I knew that Romanian citizenship was prevalent in Moldova, I had assumed the same in terms of Russian citizenship in Crimea, as the previous literature had suggested. This was what I wanted to explore and explain. How could I study something that, for all intents and purposes, seemed absent in Crimea? I decided to go ahead with exploring the answer to this question. I also expanded to explore other potential, and potentially absent, ways of engaging with Russia in Crimea, via other non-citizenship rights and benefits. Further, I wanted to explore if, how, and who was engaging with these policies.
The second moment of transformation came later and was more of a realisation. In particular, it was a lesson in listening and understanding participants in Crimea. Again, I had assumed certain things, that Russian ethnic identification in Crimea would be strong, uncontested, and a majority sentiment. This analysis is often taken-for-granted in how people understand Crimea, not least since Russia’s annexation in 2014. Except, many people I interviewed resisted identifying not only as ethnically Russian, but in ethnic terms in the first place. These individuals put their identification as politically Ukrainian, and as Ukrainian citizens, front and centre. Listening, learning, and understanding allowed me to understand, conceptualise, and write about this resistance and articulation of identification in ways that had been previously missed in analysing Crimean society.
Could you tell us about research ethics in the production of this research?
To speak about the ethical challenges and questions of this project, it is necessary to trace back in time, first, to when I conducted the fieldwork of this project in Crimea and Moldova in 2012 and 2013 and, second, to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
In 2012 and 2013, when I was conducting fieldwork in Crimea and Moldova – primarily interviews – both sites were relatively banal contexts. That is to say, while neither fully democratic nor autocratic, neither were sites of conflict or potential violence. There was no evident “danger” to me as a researcher. Neither did the questions that I asked nor the way that I approached participants present risk to participants, whether political, physical, legal, economic, psychological, or cultural forms of risk. Rather, the way in which participants engaged with me signalled their willingness to discuss questions of identity and citizenship and sometimes bemusement with my questions and interests. “Why are you interviewing me?” some would ask, or “what can I usefully tell you?”.
But, I do not want to be blasé about the ethical challenges and questions that I navigated during fieldwork. These issues, among others, I consider at length in the book’s methodological appendix. Although not common, some participants would half-joke that I might be a “spy”, whether for my own government or theirs. As such, I was conscious of avoiding the gaze of the state and not appearing to have any connections with the state, especially the security services. More common would be questions about what brought me to Crimea or Moldova and who was funding me. Facing these questions, I had to answer diligently and justify my intentions and my funding situation honestly, and my specific – and to many participants – peculiar fascination with identity and citizenship in these cases.
In contrast to these fieldwork challenges of ethics, the greatest ethical challenge posed by this research in Crimea came after I left the field when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Noting these new ethical challenges led me to write an article on ethics “beyond the field”. In this article, I outline and discuss the unexpected ethical challenges that can emerge after we have left the field.
I was provoked to think about and address these issues because of how Crimea so radically changed because of Russia’s annexation between February and March 2014. After annexation, it no longer became possible to collect the kind of data that I had just eight months before. The questions that I was asking spoke directly to events that foregrounded annexation – questions of what Russia meant in Crimea, how Russia was understood, how and if participants identified as ethnically Russian or with Russia, and how and if participants were or wanted Russian citizenship. At least until Russian forces leave Crimea, it would be foreseeably too dangerous for researchers to ask such questions and for participants to answer them.
What were the key findings or outcomes of this piece of work? What might be the broader implications of this research?
The book tries to do a few things. First, it argues for a new concept that allows us to study where states engage with cross-border co-ethnic communities that are local majorities (kin majorities) and not local minorities. Second, it shows the possibility of an interpretive, qualitative, and comparative approach – exploring how communities and individuals in Crimea and Moldova engage with Russia and Romania (respectively) and how this plays out for meanings of identification and practices of citizenship. I use a comparative lens to explore convergences and divergences within and between these two cases. Third, I offer a theoretical approach for studying the intersections of identity and citizenship.
The main findings are of variation: boundaries of identity, such as ethnic identity, are not neat and mutually exclusive. For example, people rarely identified as either Moldovan or Romanian in Moldova. Rather, they identified plurally, and these identifications were infused with different meanings. I also argue there is variation in terms of how meanings of identification intersect with practices of citizenship: citizenship has to be both desirable and legitimate, for example, in the case of Moldova.
Crucially, I also describe how Crimea was passportized after Russia’s annexation, not before. Before annexation – when I conducted fieldwork in 2012 and 2013 – Russian citizenship was seen both as undesirable and illegitimate for those who had no interest in it (the majority), and as inaccessible for the minority who did want it. This minority were local pro-Russian nationalists and activists that were, unsuccessfully, lobbying Russia for citizenship. They were more successful in lobbying for financial support.
The main takeaways stem from these findings. First, in order to understand identity and citizenship, we need to study plurality rather than putting things into neat boxes and assuming that this neatness can simplify the complexity of a messy social world in a meaningful or useful way.
Second, qualitative in-depth research is important to counter existing assumptions and to do so in an evidenced way. For example, we often assume that Russia’s annexation of Crimea can be explained by pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea prior to annexation. I show how this was not the case. Russia, particularly the Putin regime, were not seen as legitimate actors. The small minority that did see Russia as legitimate were pro-Russian activists. We often read and try to analyse Crimea through this small minority. But, there is far more to the story. Moreover, no one – not even this small minority – saw territorial reconfiguration as possible or desirable; everyone I interviewed supported territorial status quo and saw Crimea as legitimately governed by Ukraine.
So, political events can change. And we need to be equipped to understand them, theoretically and empirically, rather than work with assumptions that only tell a part of the story.
Finally, what future projects are you working on?
My work in Crimea prompted my fascination with questions of ethics. I have several published articles on ethics after fieldwork and the broader ethics of interviews. I am also currently working on a project with Denisa Kostovicova that investigates how ethics is reported in published articles.
But, I’m also committed to being a researcher of identity and citizenship, both in post-Soviet space and beyond. Following Brexit, I became interested in how questions of identity and citizenship were being discussed and experienced by EU citizens in the UK. More recently, with Jelena Dzankic (EUI) and Szabolcs Pogonyi (CEU), we won a CIVICA grant to investigate how citizenship might be affected by democratization and democratic backsliding in central and eastern Europe.
Finally, in terms of the next big project after Kin Majorities and in the shadow of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, I’m beginning to explore ways to examine the effects of the war on neighbouring states, such as Moldova.