How should I engage with my partner's strong Russian nationalism?
May 14, 2015 8:45 PM   Subscribe

My partner is Russian and fairly nationalistic about it. He and I (and sometimes some of our mutual friends) occasionally tangle over statements he makes, increasingly now with the situation in Ukraine. I'm not entirely sure of the best way to reduce these conflicts, if I even should, and I would be super thankful for any advice.

We both live in Canada (I was born here, though my parents were not, and he moved here from Russia when he was around 8). When I say he is nationalistic, there are two main things that bother me (there are lots of things that don't, and I'm not opposed to taking pride in your country/heritage, but this question is about the parts that bother me): one, that he sometimes makes statements that I take as disparaging of other countries, but especially Canada (Russian kids learn things in elementary school that Canadians struggle with in high school, Russia is the best at science and math and literature, North Americans are self-centered and ignorant of history), and two, that he says things that generally seem to be considered Russian propaganda (almost everyone in Ukraine is a Nazi or Nazi supporter, the fighting in Ukraine is due to American meddling, Nemtsov was killed by enemies of Putin to make him look bad).

I've asked him to ease up on the former because it makes me feel bad, even though sometimes they are objectively true, and I think he is trying. But maybe it's unfair of me to ask that of him, because he has told me that growing up here he endured a lot of bullying and racism that didn't make him feel particularly fond of the country, and maybe he should have the right to vent to me if he wants. And like I said, sometimes they are just true things.

For the latter, though, I am utterly at a loss as to what's right. It's not like I know more than he does about the truth of things. The things he says sound to me like conspiracy theories or propaganda sometimes, and from what I've read in Metafilter threads on Ukraine people here would probably denounce him as a Putin-loving shill if he were commenting. But at the same time, I think it is certainly true that there is a lot of anti-Russian bias in Western media, and that the story I get is very much incomplete (I'm learning Russian but I can't really read it yet). Or maybe it doesn't even matter what's true! I don't know whether this is a human relations question or a politics question.

I want to be supportive of him. You could say that we should just not talk about the subject at all, I guess, but if he says, "Nazis in the Ukraine are killing my people", I don't want to just ignore it, because it's true to him and he is distraught, and if it's true, that's completely understandable. But I also don't want to say "that's terrible and it's a good thing the Russians in Donbass are fighting back" if it's not true, nor to tacitly agree that Ukraine is full of Nazis.

His parents are much more fervently nationalistic than he is (and don't really acknowledge my existence since I am of an inferior race, but that's another story), and I suspect that they are the original source of some of these comments, but he's an adult who makes his own choices, and I feel like it would be very disrespectful of me to suggest that his beliefs are flawed or not his own. But they do sound so much like propaganda... but how much propaganda have I myself internalized without knowing?

Since this is AskMefi, I should probably make sure to clarify that this is not some sort of huge problem. It is one of the larger sources of friction in our relationship, but there is very little friction overall. It's more just "once in a while he says something and I am uneasy as to how to respond". So I would be happy and grateful to hear anything you think might help - whether it's conversational advice or a good source of unbiased journalism or anything else. Thank you all very much in advance!
posted by daelin to Human Relations (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would be upfront and say, "I understand you have strong feelings about it, but I don't necessarily agree, so can we agree not to talk about it?" If your partner obliges you to agree, then it's probably not a great relationship; many people however can agree to disagree about politics and religion. James Carville and Marlee Matlin, for example.
posted by musofire at 9:11 PM on May 14, 2015

Best answer: My general stance is, If the other person does not have any actual power to enact their screwed-up beliefs other than maybe casting one vote, it's not worth arguing about.

So, social-justice-y conversations that will affect the way a male partner interacts with (female) me? Or that will affect the way my partner interacts with my friends, co-workers, loved ones, etc? Yes, those are worth hashing out. Politics-only conversations about what national governments are doing? Not worth (to me) hashing out, unless I'm dating a senator or other world leader.

You can certainly decide that the political divide is annoying enough to be a dealbreaker, but arguing about the actual politics does not, unless your partner has some major pull in the Russian government, actually change anything.
posted by jaguar at 9:16 PM on May 14, 2015 [11 favorites]

I prefer to be with a person who is of my own heritage. That is, French. He is France-french and i am American-French. His folk and my own folk were of mixed heritage, on either side. But I really like the French side of him. I really love the "I love you so much" side of him

Don't fall for nationalism. Fall for the guy. Please. I am all for the other divide but we love each other with no politics.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:26 PM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about neither option?

I don't know how to break it to him, but there is no such thing as "Russia" or "Nazi's" or whatever. None of what he is investing in is real. If kids bullied him for being Russian when he was younger, well, that was a bunch of folks buying into differences that also don't really exist.

You could definitely continue to ignore it in the vein of, "He is too ignorant to realize that believing in geopolitical conflicts is manufactured bullshit expressly manufactured to generate money and power for a select few." Personally, I'd be more irritated that my guy thought conflict and violence was OK.

I'm not necessarily a peacenik or anything, it just annoys me so much that people don't understand how money and power work. It is very difficult to get large groups of people to take up arms against each other, and so a lot of lies get told to populations to get them to buy into violence and aggression. Rarely/never are the surface reasons broadcasted to the general public the real reason conflicts are enacted. Are you prepared to tell your guy he is entirely ignorant? Nah, and I wouldn't say anything to him, either.

Were I you, I would probably just laugh and shake my head knowingly. It's easy for him to blow hard from nice safe comfy Canada.


"People are dying on both sides of that conflict and it's a tragedy. We're lucky we don't live in a country known to invade or be invaded by others."

Then change the subject.
posted by jbenben at 9:28 PM on May 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'd be inclined to just not get into it with him. Like, he says some propagandistic thing about Ukraine. And you say "Huh." And then " you want to get Mexican food for dinner tonight?"
posted by feets at 9:48 PM on May 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yeah, you don't need to respect this or be sensitive about it. It's dickish. It's also potentially really rude- my brother in law in Ukrainian American and there is a large community of Ukrainian-Canadians as well. He just can't get away with saying that stuff in public and shouldn't be encouraged. What he says with his family is outside of your control but calling people nazis has the potential to be hugely embarrassing for you.

When he brings up the "North Americans don't know this or that" stuff, just laugh. He's right that North Americans have different values than Russians but consider the source- this is the grumbling of a man who now lives in Canada (for a good reason-my sister lived in Moscow for 5+ years. Russia ranks really damn high on my list of "horribly hard places to live.") Is knowledge of history of ancient, pointless grudge matches over minuscule differences really a good thing? Is strict schooling that shunts all kids into one career path early on really that "optimal"? Is the goal in life to be the best and the most competitive, or to be happy and live in peace and freedom? You know?

I have so little patience for this stuff. Objectively, Russia is a pretty rough and amoral country right now and that makes it hard for Russians to feel proud. Can't you make him feel proud of Tolstoy instead? Give him something else positive about his country and ethnicity that is not about conflict but about art?
posted by quincunx at 9:54 PM on May 14, 2015 [10 favorites]

Or maybe it doesn't even matter what's true!

This is up to you. Do YOU care about what's true? If interacting with your boyfriend requires you to agree with things that aren't true, and those are things you care about, then... not sure how that is supposed to work long term.

Also, I gotta say... I have a parent who was a grumbly immigrant. I grew up around that nasty, provincial, "I will snicker at America and extol the (imagined) virtues of the old country, even though I have chosen for obvious reasons to live here and enjoy life as an American" attitude. It was pretty toxic, and alienating, and hypocritical, and confusing, and really someone should have told my parent to knock it off. So if you're planning on having kids with this guy, I think the situation is more urgent than if you can just tune out while he talks pro-Putin nonsense.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:57 PM on May 14, 2015 [13 favorites]

I was involved at one time with a man who spent time in prison for his political activism. Suffice it to say, he was extremely opinionated and self righteous on political topics. It was the only thing we ever fought about. I quickly decided to just not discuss it with him.

He had been tortured in prison. I figured this was a little like me being molested and raped as a child and there just was no point in expecting him to be rational or whatever you want to call it. So refusing to discuss it was not just to protect me, it was a courtesy to him. He was entitled to be extremely opinionated, but I wasn't going to fight with him about it -- nor have it crammed down my throat.

He spoke English as a fourth language, so he sometimes asked me to explain terms to him in articles he read. I was willing to do that. So it is not like politics was completely off the table for discussion. But anything where he tried to tell me what I should believe or do or that involved judging me was something I just refused to get into.

Perhaps you could take a similar position.

Another tactic that might help is to state that you honestly don't know if his statements are true and that it isn't important enough to you to adequately research to determine what you personally think is really going on. So while you will make a note of his opinion and you respect his right to have an opinion, you aren't willing to have this argument and you reserve the right to have an opinion of your own, even though you are currently in no position to win a debate on the subject.

Try to be really respectful of him as a person and his feelings while drawing that boundary of "My current lack of information does not deprive me of the right to have my own opinion on the subject."

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 10:57 PM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's unfortunate that he was bullied as a child, but he can't go back and erase the bullying by putting down Canada and Canadians. I think that what he's doing just makes the problem worse, because he's further reinforcing national/cultural divides.

I would have a talk to him about how his attitude is negative and hurtful, and doesn't do much for the greater good. If he's so proud of being Russian, doesn't he want to be a good ambassador? Doesn't he want to help work towards a society where people can acknowledge their own cultural backgrounds without putting other people and cultures down?

Honestly, though, I couldn't be with someone who was so blindly nationalistic that they'll believe what the Russian media/government is telling them. Because, no, Russia is not justified in what they are doing in the Ukraine.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 11:00 PM on May 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Definitely don't pass up the opportunity to parlay his more exaggerated boasts about Russia into Russian reversal jokes. If he appreciates that form of joke, as I understand many Russians do, maybe coming up with a suitable punchline when he's said something uncomfortable can become a little mutual game to defuse the tension.
posted by XMLicious at 11:27 PM on May 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tell him to stop being such a fucking Vatnik. When he gets in a snit, email him Vatnik memes.

Russia already has a meme to make fun of the way he's acting. He'll either be able to laugh at himself or won't, but that can hopefully defuse some of the situation.

Past that, you might try talking about the things you like about Russian culture — my armchair Freud is that a lot of this nationalism happens when people (especially ex-pats) feel compelled to compensate for the embarrassing current circumstances of a once-proud people. There's gotta be some current Russian culture that you like and that's unconnected to militarism, or opposed to it. Talking about that will give a way to get some national pride out there for him without having to channel it through the bizarro-world of Putin apparatchiks.
posted by klangklangston at 12:00 AM on May 15, 2015 [7 favorites]

Best answer: My stepson came from Russia when he was 7 (25 now), with his mother. He's maintained a strong connection with his father, and gives us a glimpse of what it is to look at the western world through Russian eyes. There's a lot of themes you've mentioned that he explores : Russians are stronger, smarter, survivors, the U.S.A. are the bullies of the world, Russian culture is delicate. He justifies what the Russian government is doing. Of course he's echoing his father.
Anyway, I don't know much more than him about all the questions he raises. I've often tried to tell him he's wrong, in a sort of knee-jerk reaction ("Russians can't be right" is the subtext I guess). It always struck me as inappropriate : what he's really doing is taking care of the link he has with the culture, with his father, with a country which is like a long-lost family member. If he largely fantasizes it, I must say that I'm incredibly ignorant about it, but more than that : it isn't a part of my being.
So, my own grain of salt would be to pay attention to what he's looking for when he's making those stances, not that much to their litteral meaning, which needs to be put into perspective.
posted by nicolin at 4:28 AM on May 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

I get phone calls from an 85 year old former professor who met me one day and invited me for coffee. I liked him and felt a bit sorry for him - he doesn't speak the local language (Hungarian) and doesn't get around easily. When he is in Budapest he calls me to visit and chat. Except that he watches FOX News and is obsessed with Obama and how Obama is destroying everything and he goes on ad nauseum and repeats himself endlessly. I have simply taken to avoiding him. I told him that I respect our president and don't like to hear him denigrated, but every two months I get a call inviting me to dinner followed by a rant about Obama. So I cut him off. Not happy about it, but I have my limits.

If it doesn't seem like it is going to get better, it will get worse. Get on with your life.
posted by zaelic at 5:07 AM on May 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

I need to correct musofire. James Carville is married to Mary Matalin. Marlee Matlin is the deaf actress.
posted by H21 at 6:54 AM on May 15, 2015

I have a very close friend who think 9/11 was an inside job. There is absolutely nothing to be gained for either of us by arguing about it. Like, literally nothing depends on which of us is right and whether or not we convince the other. Likewise, nothing depends on whether or not your partner believes Russia is on the angel's side in Ukraine.

My friend and I had a couple of conversations about it and then just agreed it wasn't a fruitful debate and stopped talking about it. If your partner can't agree that this isn't a topic of conversation in your house, well, that is a bigger problem.
posted by 256 at 7:06 AM on May 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Daelin, it is possible that your partner is a crank and an all-round pain in the behind. But speaking as another adult immigrant to North American - in this case the United States - and who also has been known to be grumpily critical of the anti-intellectualism, crass popular culture, brain-dead media, materialism, poor educational standards in public schools, gun culture, slovenliness and worst of all - American nationalist exceptionalism!! - I wonder if it might help you to reframe some of your partner's discourse as the typical struggle of the immigrant to find his/her place in the host country and its culture.

Oscillating between legitimate but partial criticism of the new country and idealization of certain aspects of the old one - including not wanting to hear criticisms of it by others, even as the immigrant him/herself retains the privilege in other moments to criticize that same old country in the harshest terms - all this is very typical of the immigrant experience. Again, you still have to parse out how much of the behavior you observe reflects the defective psychology of your particular mate ... but could a good portion of it be put down to this kind of immigrant psychology?

You might like to consider reading some works by recent immigrants to North America, including the rather funny works of Gary Shteyngart, who writes about the contemporary Russian Jewish immigrant experience in the U.S. Would that perspective help you relate better to this guy?

With respect to the commentators who tell you just not to engage with this guy when he gets political, I would say at the risk of stereotyping that that is a very typical North American strategy for resolving conflict. But is it possible that he might enjoy arguing with you about some of this stuff, and thinks that that is what you do with people you like and are close to? Does it have to be taken so seriously? Maybe he likes getting a bit shouty, finds the disagreeing the fun part of the discussion, and is okay with you not having to agree with him? I guess what I am saying is that in my experience different cultures have different ways of negotiating conflict, and conflict-avoidance is only one viable strategy here.

Again, it is possible that he is a totally pig-headed, irrational jerk by anyone's standards, or that he is just not worth the bother for you, given your own background and personality. But I would suggest, simply, that you think and talk with your partner about the extent to which cultural differences and the immigrant experience are playing out as factors in your relationship; and the extent to which you might be able to work out a modus vivendi with this guy that involves a bit of give and take on both sides.
posted by Linuxfan at 8:52 AM on May 15, 2015 [10 favorites]

Has he been back to Russia since he moved to Canada? I wonder if a visit would release some of the more black-and-white ideas he has. I had some rosy-colored memories of a country I lived in 20 years ago, but a recent visit tempered some of those, which was a good thing, I think.
posted by megancita at 8:59 AM on May 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I haven't had this experience with a dating partner but what you describe sounds awfully similar to something I encounter frequently with my mom: I'm a fully-Americanized Serb who grew up in America for all intents and purposes, she's lived here on and off but has largely lived in Serbia for my whole life (where I've frequently visited).

Due to a myriad of complicated political and emotional reasons, she holds many views similar to your partner (in fact, nearly identical ones as far as our Slavic brethren the Russians are concerned). She's also not a fan of "Western" culture, particularly American culture, and she sees its nefarious manifestations virtually everywhere. A lot of her "kids these days" complaining lays the blame solely on American culture, which has produced evils such as smartphones, Facebook, an obsession with dinosaurs*, and so on and so forth.

She has a lot of beliefs about world affairs that are kind of on the wrong side of the realpolitik vs. conspiracy theory line, and she likes to send us kids email forwards of hysterical op-eds from New York Post style rags in Serbia or Russia (or worse: one time she forwarded us an "essay" that was completely over-the-top frothing nationalism, indeed, comparing Ukrainians to Nazis, and so on and so forth, to which my brother, who was in his sixth year of living in Russia, calmly pointed out that this authoritative piece had appeared on no less prestigious a platform than Livejournal and was written by some total rando.)

Anyway, at this point I'm just venting to you about my mom, but my advice is as follows:

-recognize that a lot of these beliefs are an emotional reaction to real pain. It can be hard to understand for those of us, like myself, and I'm guessing you, for whom our political reality has consisted of living in a powerful, stable country- we have the luxury of not considering ourselves to be "patriots" or "nationalists" and to think we have a clear understanding of our countries' imperfections and flaws, but that is because we are unlikely to have had our country's failings laid at our feet.

-when my mother spent time in America, she was made to feel small - because of her accent, because of being from a country that people had only heard negative things about, if at all, and because she found that her values were not our values (both small and large: our lack of a sense of community, the fact that people go around in sweatpants, the TVs everywhere), and for other personal reasons specific to my family.

-my mom isn't stupid and I'm sure your partner isn't either, but when you go to another country and you are treated as a representative of your entire home country, you do begin to take it personally how people see it/you. Also, America and Canada are somewhat unique in how many immigrants they have attracted throughout history; many Americans are aware of their heritage as it relates to ancestry in other countries; in contrast, my entire family going back as far as anyone knows is from Serbia- as a result, that sense of national identity is much stronger.

So, as for dealing with it, I don't think you have to necessarily engage with the "facts", since that's not really what's going on. What's happening is a pre-emptive reaction to being blamed or villainized yet again as a member of a bad country full of bad people who do bad things. I usually just say something that is true, but neutral, like, "It's terrible how many people are suffering right now," or similar. Also, I like to appeal to what I think is a generally Eastern European mistrust of government and authority and lament that, "once again, the common people are victims of deceitful leaders etc". That seems to work too.

When my mother talks shit on America, I do occasionally agree with her, but I also like to gently remind her about all the real live Americans, her daughter included, who she knows not to be whatever stereotype she is ranting about. This may work even better with your partner, since unlike my mom, he can’t take credit for your positive attributes :-)

Of course, my mom is my mom, so I've found these ways of dealing with it because she'll always be in my life. If your partner repeatedly makes you feel less-than because of something you had no control over, like being Canadian, and explaining it to him doesn't change anything, you may find it to be a dealbreaker.

* about the dinosaurs: I was on the phone with my mom the other day and we were chatting about stuff, she mentioned how she was getting rid of her iphone and couldn't wait to go back to a "dumb phone" since she's not on board with the touchscreen thing at all. A joke was made about her being a dinosaur, and I playfully asked what kind of dinosaur she would be if she was one - she responded that she "hates dinosaurs," "finds them disgusting," thinks "we are obsessed with dinosaurs in America," and she doesn't get it, she's not interested in them at all, and so on and so forth. Very unexpected. I was honestly kind of shocked because I didn't know there was anyone who didn't think dinosaurs are if nothing else, Cool. I was scared to inquire further because what else might she hate? Jazz? Astronauts?
posted by Aubergine at 9:47 AM on May 15, 2015 [14 favorites]

As others have said, this is common behavior for Russians in the West, and I've certainly encountered in a lot in my part of the US. I tend to take Aubergine's approach: these people have been through way more shit than I have and their defense mechanisms go all the way to 11, there's no point trying to change their minds, so the best thing to do is either change the subject or (as Linuxfan says) argue, if you and your partner can do that in a way you both enjoy. This is, of course, assuming (as I infer from your question) he's just a typically grumpy immigrant and not (to quote Linuxfan) a totally pig-headed, irrational jerk.

That said, he's full of shit about Ukraine, and (unlike Russians living in the motherland) he doesn't have the excuse of being subjected daily to a steady dose of state propaganda with no countervailing facts. You don't have to take my word for it; if you're interested, I can point you to sources in both English and Russian that should convince you, if you care enough. I gather you don't care that much, which is great for your projected happiness, but I couldn't let that "Ukrainians are Nazis! the West shot the plane down! dissidents killed Nemtsov!" crap go without comment. Good luck to you!
posted by languagehat at 1:54 PM on May 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

« Older Not invited to the wedding   |   Replaced HD in iMac, didn't back up... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.