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Fieldwork 2010: Moscow (2): a bloody romance

Laura van Deventer. Foto Mirjam Dorgelo.

In part 5 of the fieldwork 2010 series, Laura van Deventer posts an update on her research in Moscow.

A few weeks ago I told you about my arrival, getting settled and first contacts with the ‘N’. Some of you have inquired about this mysterious group – who are they, what am I doing here? Although I can answer the second  question, and will try to do so in this post, I will not disclose what group it is I am doing research among. This is for security reasons. The ‘N’ have received some harsh treatment in the past and me mixing with them and gathering data about that, well, I’m just not quite sure if the authorities applaud that. Once I’m back in April, I’ll make it public, promised!

So I’ve been hanging out with some N – visiting in their homes, sometimes going out on the street, sharing stories, eating and drinking (I may have gained a pound or two… keeps me warmer ; ). I’m basically trying to find out what it is like for N to live here, for individuals, but also as a group. What problems they may encounter, and what ‘being N’ and ‘home’ means to them.

That life in Moscow can be dangerous is illustrated by what happened to a young, nice lady I’ll call Maria. In 2003, she was on an excursion in the city with her class. A skinhead spotted her, grabbed a bottle and tried to smash her face with it. She was able to protect it by holding her hands before it – leaving her hands wounded from the glass. As her clothes were stained from blood, not to mention the shock this assault must have caused, she went home. When her older brother heard what had happened, he went out to find the skinhead. He didn’t succeed, but he did spot a cute looking lady at the bus stop. Hearing that she spoke the N language, he made a move… They dated for a year and are now married!

Now is that what you call a bloody romance?

Maria suggested to her brother that he should thank the skinhead – but I don’t think he ever did…

Negative behaviour against N is not just something of the past. A few days ago, my N friend Sven and I went out on a mission to find the office of the embassy for N people in Moscow. As the address I had was not entirely clear, we asked some people for help. One security man pointed us to a building further up the street: ‘There are lots of N.’ Inside the place (probably a hotel), Sven asked the security guys if they could tell us where the office was. The moment he mentioned ‘N’… we were kicked out of the building! Not friendly asked to leave, simply kicked out. Thank you. [We never found the office – ended up at the Omnipresent Mc Donald’s instead.]

As a good anthropologist, I try to honour and respect the traditions of the people I’m staying with. When I visited a new family about two weeks ago, I figured I’d do as nearly all of their ladies do – wear a skirt (yes, with my snowboots). About 5 minutes after I arrived, the mother of the family inquired if I don’t own any jeans. It’s cold outside! Before leaving at the end of the evening, she again restated her concern: ‘Laura, you are our guest. Please, wear jeans next time!’ Well yes, I just thought… nevermind.

Now this ‘respecting their culture’ thing took a bit of a different turn in my conversation with Sven. He suggested ‘do your scarf like this. Over your hair. Yes, like that. That’s how our ladies wear it. It looks good…. Do you do lines on your eyes?’ Me: ‘You mean make up? Yes.’ He: ‘It would be better if you wouldn’t.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because then people look at you.’

So the next time I visited his family, I put on some extra eye-liner. Not only are there limits to adjusting to your research population, there is also a thing called the rebellious female anthropologist.

These stories give you some insight into my life as researcher. For those of you wondering – yes, there are also Miserable Moments in Moscow. Moments where I am fed up with the ‘here now – gone 5 seconds later’ internet connection in my room. Moments where I miss my friends and family; where I really really don’t want to spend many hours typing out conversations and observations; moments where I genuinely feel like Moscow is a boring city. I am still the only person that sings in the metro.

If more people would do that, this would be a better place.


  1. Interesting, but *too* mysterious. Please give some clues to what sort of research you are doing — what kind of questions? — and roughly what kind of people these N are. It’s just impossible to figure out what you are working on!

  2. bruno bruno

    God mijn leraar heeft ook nog wat van de wereld gezien.

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