We are pleased to present here an excerpt of Don’t Be a Stranger: Russian Literature and the Perils of Not Fitting In, accompanied by a short personal introduction in which the author, Jason Galie, situates the volume’s analysis of the svoj/chuzhoj dichotomy in Russian society and literature within the larger context of the current war in Ukraine. Don’t Be a Stranger explores the consequences of being marked an outsider in the Russian-speaking world through a close study of several seminal works of Russian literature. The author combines the fields of literary studies, linguistics, and sociology to illuminate what prompted Christof Ruhl, an economist at the World Bank, to comment, about Russia, “On a very broad scale, it’s a country where people care about their family and friends. Their clan. But not their society.”
Don’t Be a Stranger is out now and available wherever books are sold. The excerpt published here is from the conclusion, and explores the dynamic of the “outsider” in Russian society in recent times.
Personal Introduction to the Excerpt from Jason Galie
In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin referred more than once to Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” (odin narod). In refusing to make a distinction between the nations and its peoples, Putin is invoking the powerful linguistic and cultural opposition contained in the words svoj (one of us) and its antonym, chuzhoj (outsider, foreigner, someone else). What he is saying about Russians and Ukrainians, essentially, is: vse tut svoi (everyone here knows each other, we are all in the same group). To the many Russians who support the war, then, it is the Ukrainians who are to blame. They are the ones rejecting the label svoj.
This “choice” to reject acceptance in a group of one’s own is all the more bewildering to many Russians if we consider what Anna Schor-Chudnovskaya, a psychology professor at Sigmund Freud University in Vienna, has conveyed to me in private correspondence. She believes that a core goal of a Russian speaker’s existence is to seek out and find this group of one’s own (svoi), an often lifelong, enduring process.
Although most Ukrainians most certainly do not think of Ukrainians and Russians as “one people,” they are also fully aware of the power of the svoj/chuzhoj opposition. The Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs created a website at the beginning of the war with the title “Ishchi svoikh” (Look for your own). The site is presented as a tool for Russians to find information about Russian soldiers missing or killed in action in Ukraine. The wording of the site’s title, however, is not accidental. It beckons a Russian, especially one worried about the fate of a loved one, to use it, to explore it, and then, perhaps, be shamed by it. It calls on a Russian to question the opposition. Who exactly is “one’s own” here? Are these dead Russian soldiers truly svoi? If so, the site implies, why are they waging an illegal war against other svoi?
The excerpt from my book below shows how in recent times the Russian government has tried not only to control access to information in the country, but how it has tried to control the workings of the svoj/chuzhoj as well. The Ukrainian site mentioned above does not fit into the plan; in fact, it made the Russian government so uncomfortable that it immediately blocked the site on its territory.
Excerpt from the conclusion of Don’t Be a Stranger
Perhaps one of the most impersonal relationships in a society is the one between a government and its people. Russians view its leadership class not as neutral, however, but as chuzhoj. They have little desire to interact with the country’s elites; they do not know them and will never know them. They are thus essentially writing off an entire portion of society, a decision that then allows their leaders to act with little participation from the people. In fact, the Russian government, left to its own devices, has seized on the svoj/chuzhoj opposition and is exploiting it to the utmost. Once the people of a nation decide that its government is made up of people with whom no one would want to associate, it cedes a great deal of power and decision-making to this chuzhoj entity. The result, then, is that the Putin regime is free to use these very same terms as a cudgel to advance its aims.
The government, especially since the terrorist attacks in Moscow (2002) and Beslan (2004), the color revolutions of the mid-2000s, and the “August conflict” with Georgia in 2008, has exhibited an almost laser-like focus on the dichotomy, safe in the knowledge that they are in command of its interpretation. The regime has at its disposal a powerful rhetorical tool, one firmly entrenched in the culture and language themselves, for dividing and separating people, groups, even entire cultures, into categories.
The Putin regime employs slickly produced documentaries made by the likes of Arkady Mamontov and Alexander Rogatkin, directors whose films lack subtlety in driving home their point: our enemies are chuzhoj. The titles of a series of made-for-television documentaries made by Mamontov and Rogatkin speak for themselves: Chuzhie, Svoj-chuzhoj, Svoi lyudi, Chuzhie?
The first of these films chronologically is from a larger project of Mamontov’s entitled Obratnaya storona (The Flip Side). The online description of the forty-five-minute film reads:
Терроризм в переводе с латинского языка значит “ужас”. К сожалению, в нашей стране ужас стал повседневным явлением. В 1999 году в стране было зарегистрировано 20 террористических актов, в 2000 году 135, в 2001 году 300. Тысячи людей погибли и были ранены. В нашу страну вторглись чужие, это люди, которые ненавидят нас, они хотят только одного—уничтожить всех, кто думает иначе, чем они. 
Terrorism translated from the Latin means “terror.” Unfortunately, terror has become an everyday occurrence in our country. In 1999, 20 terrorist attacks were committed in the country, 135 in 2000, and 300 in 2001. Thousands of people have died or been wounded. Our country is being overrun by outsiders. These are people who hate us. They want only one thing—to destroy anyone who thinks differently than they do.
This alarmist description of the state of world affairs was something encountered in many countries and cultures after September 11. In fact, if you called it a standard “us vs. them” call to arms, you wouldn’t be incorrect. The difference in the Russian context, however, lies in the use and the power of the word chuzhie. My translation of the word as “outsiders” is weak. The Russian word produces an unsettling effect in a native speaker, which most any translation into English fails to convey. The word suggests something hidden, something at times unrecognizable, something that has infiltrated the space where one should feel safe. At the same time, however, it implies something possibly once familiar, which has gone on to betray us. It is no coincidence that the word is used so frequently in both the titles and in the overall narration of the Mamontov and Rogatkin propaganda films. Again, the directors’ use of the word both registers and plays up the fear in Russian society of being perceived as chuzhoj.
As I have mentioned, the implementation of the “us vs. them” conceit hardly constitutes something novel in speaking about most anything, and especially when the subject is international terrorism. But Mamontov in particular weaponizes the opposition in a manner that would be difficult to imagine in other cultures. He blames not Islam as a whole for the terrorist attacks in Russia, but what he refers to as “foreign Islam” (zarubezhnyi Islam). This “foreign Islam” is juxtaposed to what the filmmaker and others refer to as “domestic/homegrown [Russian] Islam” (otechestvennyi Islam). The outsiders, according to Mamontov, appeared in Russia in 1995. They settled in Chechnya and Dagestan in particular, infiltrating the local culture and espousing radical ideas. But they were never accepted fully. Of the main protagonist of the film, Mamontov says “Он женился на местной девушке, но все равно остался чужим” (He married a local girl, but nevertheless remained an outsider).
It is interesting to note that in the particular scenario put forth by Mamontov, the group of “one’s own” (svoi) that is being infiltrated includes naïve, non-(ethnically) Russian residents. Mamontov’s purpose seems to be to elicit the maximum level of fear in the viewer, an effect accomplished through the constant use of the word chuzhie. The “flip side” of the use of the opposition is to arouse sympathy and a feeling of solidarity with the supposedly innocent citizens of Chechnya and Dagestan. It presumably evokes nostalgia in the Russian viewer for a time when the USSR looked after the citizens of its less fortunate and less powerful republics.
The documentary outlines how these outside forces opened educational institutions and community centers in the former republics under the guise of providing aid to the country through philanthropic work. Mamontov claims that one institution in particular, the “Society for Social Reform” (Общество социальных реформ), is ubiquitous in the former republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus: “В каждом регионе существует свой центр. Например, город Бишкек. Киргизия. Здесь обществом построен университет. Перечисляются огромные деньги для помощи нищим собратьям” (“Each region has its own center. For example, the city of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The people have opened a university here. Large sums of money are sent to aid their poverty-stricken brethren,” “Chuzhie. Naemniki na Kavkaze”). The university in Bishkek is called “Kyrgyz-Kuwait University,” and a department head states in an interview that the institution employs teachers from across the Muslim world. The Kyrgyz students, these “poverty-stricken brethren,” are indeed Muslim, but they practice the above-mentioned otechestvennyi, mirolyubivyi Islam (domestic, peace-loving Islam), which the outsiders are trying to supplant.
As the documentary progresses, the word chuzhie is heard more and more often, while the word terroristy (terrorists) is used only occasionally. If a documentary such as this were to be made in English (or perhaps any other language), the word “terrorist” would suffice as a descriptor. The word “terrorist” would elicit the requisite level of revulsion and fear in the viewer. But in Russian-speaking cultures, the word chuzhoj is clearly more forceful than the word “terrorist.” Mamontov knows this, and by the end of his film, we no longer hear anything about “terrorists.” We hear about “банды чужих” (gangs of outsiders) and “базы чужих” (outsider bases). When a young Chechen man admits to shooting three Russian women at point-blank range with a pistol at the behest of his terrorist mentors, the narrator does not call him a murderer or a terrorist. He calls him chuzhoj: “Этот парень уже чужой. Настоящий чужой. Без тени сомнения в глазах. С руками по локоть в крови” (This guy is already an outsider. A true outsider. Not the slightest bit of doubt in his eyes, up to the elbows in blood).
As the documentary reaches its conclusion, the narrator starts to repeat the word chuzhoj over and over, a powerful aural assault on the viewer. The word “terrorist” disappears entirely. He laments the suffering of the Chechen people, and states that this suffering has been caused by a “нашествие чужих” (an invasion of outsiders) and by the fact that “чужие покупают души их детей” (these outsiders buy the souls of children).
Another crucial characteristic of these outsiders is that they are, and always have been, according to the documentary, homeless, or rather homeland-less (“без родины”). And because they have no home of their own, they are trying to infiltrate someone else’s and impose foreign values on it. It is this threat that is so dramatically portrayed in the documentary. Yes, they are terrorists, and the film begins with a definition of the word from the Latin. But in the minds of the filmmakers, terrorism on Russian soil is perhaps not as frightening as an invasion of different/foreign/alien thoughts and ideals. They do not blame religion, for it is not Islam that is a threat, it is “foreign/alien Islam.” They do not blame race, either, for it is not those with Turkic or Arabic blood that are a threat, it is those Arabs who are from somewhere else, who are without a homeland, and who have possibly spent some time in the West.
Again, this rhetorical and linguistic tool is unique to Russian speakers; its equivalent is distinctly missing in other languages and cultures. The word chuzhoj, taught to generations of students learning Russian in the English-speaking world to mean simply “someone else’s, a stranger’s,” evokes a powerful uneasiness in those born and raised in the culture. The antonym svoj, on the other hand, still operates in the Russian-speaking world as one of the highest of compliments that can be bestowed on someone. These distinctions are difficult to grasp to those with only a cursory familiarity with Russia and Russians. […]
There is a battle looming in Russian society, which will involve to no small degree a conflict over the interpretation of the svoj/chuzhoj opposition. If the Russian people continue to view the government as utterly chuzhoj, the elites in the country are free to use these terms, especially on the ethnic level, in any way they see fit. They are able to define patriotism, citizenship, and betrayal.
 “Chuzhie. Naemniki na Kavkaze (Rossiya) 2006 god,” October 7, 2015, shtab.su/video/rf/vtoraya-chechenskaya-vojna/chuzghie_naemniki_na_kavkaze_smotret_onlayn.html.
Jason Galie is a Russian language analyst at Booz Allen Hamilton and has taught Russian at Columbia University, Middlebury College, the Defense Language Institute, and The George Washington University. He lives in Washington, DC.
Don’t Be a Stranger is available for purchase here and wherever books are sold.