So What is Your Ethnicity?

1997 > Russia

Not your nationality, but your ancestry!

The FuzzLast night, as I was strolling home along Novy Arbat, I was
“controlled.” An uniformed Moscow militzi (policeman) stopped me and asked
me for my documents. When he saw my passport, he looked at me funny and asked
me where my real papers were.

Here is one of Moscow’s Fattest, err, Finest, on patrol by his hotrod
Lada. They know they can’t catch ya in those crappy little cars so
if you don’t stop they will just shoot at you.

Seems he didn’t believe I was an American. He thought I was Chechen, a person
from the “breakaway” republic if Chechnya in the Caucus Mountains of Southern
Russia. The Chechens have humiliated the Russian military by defeating them
repeatedly by stealing the Russian’s weapons and using them against the Army.
So, this officer felt that I was ethnic, and needed to be harassed. He took
me down to the police station, where I sat for two hours, before being released
to walk an hour home in -20C weather.

Being regarded as ethnic here surprises me. I do look a bit different from
the average Russian, with my black wool fez, dark hair, and beard, but it
is a strange twist for me to consider myself ethnic enough to be noticed.
In the States, I am viewed as a very white man, free from racism, but I always
though of myself as ethnic.

Here I think of myself as American, but the Russians do not see this distinction.
When they ask what “nationality” I am I say American, but this is not the
answer that they want. When they ask what my parents are and I say American
they get mad and confused. They want to know if I am Latin, Indian, Arab,
etc., my ethnicity or ancestry, not the nation I am from. Their word,
“nationalitize” actually translates to something closer to “ethnicity” in

On the Russian internal passports there is a line (#5 to be exact), where
you state your “nationality,” be it Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, etc. During
Soviet times, this line would determine if you got the great, good, or shitty
job, with the best privileges for the Russians. The new Russian internal
passports do not have this line, which makes many happy, but some mad. People
are very proud of their “nationality” here, and want to keep an official
record of it, although it may be used against them. Go figure.

In answering the “nationality” question, once I say I am from a specific
“old world” ethnicity like Italian or Spanish, but not something generic
like Latin, they are happy. I think I’m gonna start answering “Samoan” and
really throw them for a loop.

2 Comments on “So What is Your Ethnicity?

  1. Stumbled on your site and got reading. Ah the memories. I’ve never been to Russia but I’ve been teaching here in Lithuania since 95 and it was exactly the same. trolleybuses, remontas, the post office you name it. We had lots of pcvs here too and they were cool but not quite up to the scottish drinking league. Keep up the fun articles.

  2. I emigrated from Russia back in 1974 and never went back. I love to read your articles. Changes in Russia are so great, but still I recognize old stuff. Amazing mix of old Soviet life and Western one. You are very talanted journalist. Keep up good work.