2012 in review: The New Statesman on... identity

From the new patriotism to Ed Miliband's Jewish heritage, the best NS writing on identity.

Welcome to the fifth instalment of the New Statesman's 12 Days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up, of our best writing on the media, is here.) 

After a year in which the Olympics revived the debate around patriotism and Britishness, today's theme is identity. Here are a selection of our best pieces - click the headlines to open them in a new window.

The Olympics changed what it means to be a winner

A week after the opening of the Olympics and in the wake of the euphoria that greeted Mo Farah's first victory, the author and former England cricketer Ed Smith asked what the Games told us about modern Britain. Arguing that our vision of "a champion" was no longer defined by Thatcherite notions of "aggressive individualism", Smith held out the possibility that the Olympics could provide a basis for national renewal. 

The Olympics, however, is no longer really a sports tournament. Sport provides the surface and the pretext; the real point is the opportunity to reboot a city, perhaps even a country.

Olympics sceptics once used that fact as a criticism: look how detached the Games have become from sport, they complained. Yet if the Olympics aren’t about sport, the logic follows that Britain must have succeeded at something much more important. Perhaps we can’t yet be sure exactly what that is. But the prospect of finding out is thrilling.

Ed Miliband: the patriotism of a refugee

In a piece for our special issue in May on the British Jewish experience, Ed Miliband reflected on how his Jewish heritage helped shape his political beliefs.

Above all, what I see in so many parts of the Jewish community is a desire to leave the world a better place than you found it. Whatever people’s politics, that is so familiar from the upbringing my parents gave me.

I was not indoctrinated with Marxism. Nor was I brought up with religion. But I was given a sense that the world could be a better, fairer and different place. And we all have a duty in our own way and our own time to seek to make it so. 

Tale of a city: From hell to hipsville

A lifelong east Londoner, Bim Adewunmi explored how Hackeny, the borough that her mother warned her never to go to unaccompanied, became a playground for hipsters. 

There are still the distinctive Caribbean and African accents I remember but there are lots of younger Home Counties ones, too: it’s no coincidence that the Office for National Statistics reported an increase in Hackney’s white population between 2001 and 2007. Hackney is a very young London borough – second only to Newham – and it shows. Come Christmas, the streets empty as the non-natives go back to their parental homes for the break. They leave behind all her old people; and the lifelong Hackneyites come out to play.

"Plastic Brits" - and the Mail's struggle to decide who isn't British

Back in March, after the Daily Mail took to describing some foreign-born British athletes as "plastic Brits", British Future director Sunder Katwala probed the inconsistencies in the paper's approach. His prediction that the crowds at the Olympic stadium would "cheer for every athlete representing Team GB" proved prophetic.

If Team GB is only nine-tenths British-born, that team meeting will look like Britain itself.

Twelve per cent of people in Britain today are foreign-born. Because that percentage is twice as high in London, the Olympic host city, the team of Olympic volunteers will probably have more multinational roots than Team GB. As a newspaper that celebrates patriotism and integration, the Mail could celebrate that 70 per cent of those born abroad feel a strong sense of belonging to Britain, even slightly outscoring those born in this country (66 per cent), as a State of the Nation poll found.

They don't think they are Plastic Brits; instead, they fly their flags with pride.

The NS Profile: Tim Soutphommasane

In May, Ed Miliband transferred responsibility for Labour's policy review to Jon Cruddas, who has since invited a range of international thinkers to address the party on the subject of national identity. One of those was an Australian political philosopher, Tim Soutphommasane, whom I profiled for the NS in August. His call for Labour to develop a "nation-building story" and to "reclaim patriotism" from the right was a key influence on Miliband's "one nation" speech to the Labour conference. 

In Soutphommasane’s view, Ed Miliband could yet succeed where his Australian counterparts failed and develop a convincing “nation-building story”. “The task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project,” he says.

In 1945, Clement Attlee campaigned on the promise of building a “new Jerusalem” in postwar Britain. Nearly 70 years later, a patriotic vow to “rebuild Britain” has the potential once again to sweep Labour to power.

Girls with toy guns and boys with doll's houses - what on earth is the problem?

After Swedish toy chain Top Toy produced a gender-reversed toy catalogue, Glosswitch explored the controversy and fear that the subject provokes. 

I don’t have particularly strict ideas about which toys my children should or shouldn’t play with, although I prefer it if said things are one, cheap and two, not mind-numbingly boring. I buy some things which are deemed to be for boys and some things which aren’t. This shouldn’t be a big deal, yet it is. Giving your children gifts that transgress “accepted” gender boundaries can be surprisingly controversial. Even so, those who object the most tend to be the same people who’ll tell you “but they’re only toys!” the minute you point out how rubbish the gender stereotyping that goes into all the advertising can be.

Ed Smith wrote of Mo Farah in the New Statesman: "When he crossed the line first, blowing a kiss to the crowd, we knew it for certain: London had a triumph on its hands." Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot