2006, No. 2

How “Natives” Think: About Dr. Girenko, For Example

In 2004, the intellectual circles of St. Petersburg were shocked by the news of the grisly murder of 64-year-old Nikolai Girenko, Ph.D., a member of the Department of Africa of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology “Kunstkamera,” and the Head of the Minority Rights Commission at the St. Petersburg Scientific Union.


A famous human rights defender, he was a consultant to 15 high-profile court cases concerning allegedly racially motivated attacks administered by Russian neo-fascist and skinhead groups. Nominally pro-Russian, they neverthless are fascinated with Nazi Germany. The critical difference between German and Russian fascism is that the Russian nationalist ideal is a rural nation led by a divinely appointed monarch, while the German nationalist idea is a genetically pure nation led by a natural-born Fuhrer. These two nationalist ideas are contrasted with the Judaic model, in which religion overlaps with nationality. The Russian Judaeophilic philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), explained the chosen nature of the Jewish people as the special attractiveness of the unity of religion and nationality to God (see Moss 1970). Secretly coveting the Judaic model, anti-Semites try to painfully overcome the disparity between Russian religiosity and German nationality.

Girenko’s job was to give an expert assessment of whether a murder had a “racist” motivation or whether a newspaper/website incited “racial hatred.” Girenko’s objective analysis played a decisive role in issuing prison sentences to a number of aggressive nationalists all of whom were ethnically Russian. On one morning, he was shot dead through the door of his apartment on Podkovyrova Street. The website of the Russian nationalistic group “The Russian Republic” called Girenko “Russian Jew” (i.e. a Russian who acts like a Jew or supports a Jewish cause, not an ethnically Jewish person who was born in Russia) and posted an order for his execution signed by the “president” of this “republic” Vladimir Yu. Popov. He was “sentenced” to death by “firing squad” for the crime of sending several “true Russian patriots” to jail. Soon after the murder, Popov victoriously posed in front of Kunstkamera. But he almost certainly had nothing to do with Girenko’s murder, and only used this event as a publicity stunt. The real criminals are still unknown.

Popov Kunstkamera

The ideology of the Russian Republic and similar organizations is built on the nominally correct observation that the Russian Federation does not have a Russian administrative unit. Consequently, unlike other members of the federation, Russians have no flag of their own, no government, no academy of sciences, no ethnic schools. Russian is a default nationality, and the quality of Russianness is defined by the centralized state apparatus. There is a tendency to terminologically isolate Russian ethnicity (russkii) from Russian citizenship (rossiianin), but one such authoritative attempt (see Tishkov 1997) was met with suspicion, for it threatens to treat ethnicities as self-contained “boxes.” There is a pervasive double standard, so that the president of Tatarstan or Adyghea must be ethnically Tatar or Adygh, even if Russians constitute a sizable minority (or even a majority) in that republic. The President of the Russian Federation, at least nominally, can be of any nationality. Germans or Jews can legally have their ethnic schools (I taught English in one of those schools in St. Petersburg called Peterschule). Nobody else but ethnic Germans or Jews are admitted there. But Russians cannot have a Russian ethnic school. Popov and other ultra-right nationalists believe that the faceless state has hijacked Russia, and they attempt to rectify this usurpation by declaring independence. They go as far as issuing their own passports, printing their own currency, and appealing to Putin for admitting their “Russian Republic” into the Russian Federation. Ridiculous as their claims for national sovereignty may appear, it is hardly coincidental that the Iroquois Indians carry their own passports (never recognized by the U.S.), while Russian Indianists declared themselves a “nation” in 1999. The Russian Republic defies common sense by claiming indigeneity in the lands long believed to have been nationalized by an imperial state. In the absence of any land base or kinship-like continuity with traditional Russia, Russian neo-fascists indulge in physical violence against “people of color.” In this regard, they are rather different from other nationalities within the Russian Federation or the former USSR that, in the course of recent national awakening, subjected to organized physical violence either the organs of the state or other ethnic minorities, but rarely, if ever, local Russian populations.

Like Forrest Gump, I happen to be around important political events and figures. I knew human rights defender Girenko and that very door that was destroyed by a blast from a substandard weapon very well. He was the one who, ten years prior to his death, organized a dastardly attack on my Ph.D. dissertation on the historical typology of kinship terminologies and made everything possible to prevent it from being successfully defended.

In the Russian ethnological circles, Girenko and myself belonged to a narrow circle of the students of kinship. In the late 20th century, kinship studies were mostly conducted as part of the so-called Leningrad School of Africanistics that flourished in the 1970s-1980s under the guiding hand of its patriarch, Dmitry A. Olderogge (1903-1988). Olderogge’s influence and authority were so incontestable that he was customarily referred by his subordinates as “Chef,” “Pasha,” “the king of kings,” etc. Olderogge imposed a rigid research agenda on St. Petersburg Africanists that rested on three pillars: the study of textual sources, the study of languages, and the study of traditional social and political systems. The latter venue brought together such scholars as Viacheslav Misiugin, Nikolai Girenko, and Vladimir A. Popov. In an ingenious application of comparative method, Misiugin re-established connection with the 19th century Russian school of kinship studies by trying to demonstrate that contemporary Swahili systems of inheritance (the so-called “ndugu rule”) can shed light on the obscure passages in the old Russian chronicles dealing with the succession within ruling (prince) families.

I was an Americanist, and my kinship interests could not be supported by available specialists in the field. (Following the legendary Yuri Knorozov, Russian Americanists were usually trained in Mesoamerican writing systems.) Consequently, my M.A. and Ph.D. advisor was Vladimir A. Popov, who by the time my graduate studies began had published two monographs on the Ashanti. In kinship studies, Popov is a Marxist formalist with a penchant for componential analysis, ethnosemantics, Gutman’s scaling, equivalence rules, system theory, and evolutionary stages. Popov has always been fascinated with natural and exact sciences. His published works are always immaculately structured, and each paragraph is numerically ordered according to a tradition found in mathematical and linguistic publications. In 1995, Popov launched the almanac Algebra Rodstva (Kinship Algebra) reclaiming an algebraic metaphor for kinship studies from Bronislaw Malinowski’s snide critique. It is the only periodical in the history of the social sciences dealing exclusively with kinship studies. I was a regular contributor to the almanac, and in 2001 my book, which grew out of the Ph.D. dissertation, was published as a separate issue of Algebra Rodstva.

V. A. Popov’s M.A. thesis from St. Petersburg State University’s Department of Ethnography and Anthropology was on the formal analysis of Crow-Omaha kinship terminologies in Africa. When he entered Kunstkamera’s Africa Department, he did not have a regional focus, and his formalist approach to kinship terminologies was not met with enthusiasm by Olderogge. Ironic as it was, a Russian Africanist must have had a focus on a specific African tribe or nation and s/he must have had knowledge of an African language. Olderogge suggested that Popov should choose a tribe, and even pointed to the Ashanti as an insufficiently-studied one. In a matter of just several years, Popov mastered all the available literature on the Ashanti, defended a Ph.D., and published a monograph entitled “Ashanti” (1982), in which kinship terminologies and componential analysis occupied a modest but significant place. Without much support in the Africa Department for his systemic interest in kinship terminologies, Popov moved into political anthropology and received his habilitation degree in 1988 for the study of Akan political evolution as it challenged the rigid Marxist assumption about social classes as a prerequisite for the evolution of state structures. His dissertation came out as a book in 1989.

Girenko was Popov’s antagonist always meandering between British structural-functionalism, French structuralism, and his own murky ideas such as “the social organism of kinship.” By education, Girenko was a Swahili linguist, but this original interest was quickly replaced by an ethnological research agenda (his Ph.D. thesis was entitled “The Social Organization of the Nyamwezi”) and would never return. Girenko spoke fluent English, while Popov’s spoken English was as poor as that of a typical Russian mathematician or engineer. Girenko shared Olderogge’s emphasis on the tribe/nation/region specialization in Africa, and thus was more privileged in the eyes of the all-mighty “Chef” than Popov. Popov’s strength was in his realism: no matter how hard one tried, it was impossible to become a serious specialist in piecemeal African ethnography when there was almost no possibility for a long-term fieldwork in Africa under the Soviets.

According to the procedure adopted in Russia for the submission of a dissertation, a draft of it is first discussed in one of the departments of the host institution (usually in the department to which the candidate’s advisor belongs). The members of the department read the draft, pose questions before the candidate, and eventually vote to allow or disallow the dissertation to be defended before the supreme Dissertation Council of the institution. The result of this “pre-defense” is usually positive: the candidate collects the comments and improves his text before the final defense.

Girenko and his cronies managed to thwart my pre-defense. A day before the pre-defense, Girenko spent hours on the phone with Lidia Lisnenko, a specialist on ancient Mixtec manuscripts, who had been my college advisor before I delved into kinship studies. We were good friends for several years, and she was a strict, slightly whimsical, but a very appreciative advisor. Originally Lisnenko read my dissertation and assured me of her support. But after this conversation, Lisnenko turned her back to me, and voted against the dissertation on flimsy grounds that, since my bibliography numbered some 500 titles, I allowed myself to get overwhelmed by my own data. As a result, the Department of Africa voted 3 : 2 against recommending my dissertation for the defense before the Dissertation Council. Another pre-defense was scheduled for the following year, and Girenko was prepared to discredit it again. However, Konstantin Pozdniakov, a  member of Kunstkamera’s Department of Africa and an INALCO professor, who Girenko thought was on his side, unexpectedly supported my dissertation. Having himself a penchant for intricate graphs, Pozdniakov even exclaimed that just one of my figures by itself “deserves a Ph.D.” His vote tipped the scales in my favor, and I won the vote 3 : 2.

Frustrated with the defeat, Girenko turned my dissertation defense into a court case. He went as far as co-opting a Mandeist, Valentine Vydrine, of the Department of African Languages of St. Petersburg State University (at the moment, Head of Kunstkamera’s Department of Africa) to serve as an expert in general linguistics. Vydrine might have held a personal grudge against me. Earlier he had attacked Popov and his co-author, Vladimir Arseniev, for mishandling Bamana phonological data in a paper devoted to the componential analysis of Bamana kinship terminology. The absurdity of brain wars was such that Vydrine published his rebuttal of Arseniev & Popov (1982) in an obscure French Mandeist periodical Mandenkan, without bothering to show it to his colleagues next door. In (Dziebel 1995), I mildly criticized his own presentation of Bamana kinship nomenclature for failing to give a full account of kin term morphology. This, however, was a legitimate way of handling intellectual disagreements.

At Girenko’s prompt, Vydrine took up a mission to demonstrate the worthlessness of my work as such. The expert, however, based his rebuttal on an abstract of my dissertation. Consequently, he had to resort to such “arguments” as “Dziebel throws the science of linguistics back to the pre-Humboldtian times” that did not make a strong impression on the committee. (I personally was flattered, for some parts of the science of linguistics do need a thorough critical recapitulation.) They were too reminiscent of the vociferous resistance of the Soviet academic nomenclatura to any “innovative” or “traditional” idea, of which the reception of Vladimir Propp’s folktale morphology is a good example. In 1997, however, times were different. Unlike Propp who, being utterly exhausted after the years of intellectual harassment for being a formalist and instututional harassment for being a German, once fainted in class, I survived with little ill effect, and won the Dissertation Council’s vote with the score 12 : 2.

There were no academic reasons for Girenko’s assault. (His supporters did not even read the text.) Neither did I do anything to him personally that would warrant his rage. As an aspiring 23-24-year-old scholar, I just happened to be caught in the crossfire of incessant Kunstkamera internecine wars. My academic advisor, whose name, ironically, is also Vladimir Popov, did not come from Girenko’s camp and, as Chairman of Kunstkamera’s trade union, he strongly opposed certain internal policies administered by Girenko during his tenure as Kunstkamera’s Deputy Director.

After Girenko’s murder, Popov put their quarrelsome past behind and generously wrote of him as a scholar of a high caliber: “He was not an erudite, but professed gripping and organized thinking, which, combined with independent judgments and a critical stance, often led to the re-thinking of many fundamental problems. At the same time Girenko operated with his own understanding of the logic of the epistemological process and strove for the stringency of scientific categories, sharpening his formulations during endless discussions. He was an avid debater. Any event Nikolai Mikhailovich treated in its historical dynamics, and he strove for interdisciplinarity in any research project” (Popov 2006, 172-173).

When faced with my dissertation, Girenko could not accept the fact that a nascent specialist on kinship, whose bold attempt at a historical, interdisciplinary, reflexive and critical reconsideration of a bulk of interrelated issues, would initiate a new paradigm and make Girenko’s own academic strengths look like ghosts. (At my defense Pavel Belkov stepped up for me countering one of Girenko’s many misjudged comments by noting that twenty years ago Girenko cautiously proposed what Dziebel has so intensely explored.) Several years prior to my defense, his ambitious but flimsy book entitled “A Sociology of the Tribe” (Girenko 1991) was creamed by other specialists in the field (see Semenov 1992; Belkov 1994). In his defense, Girenko could offer only ad hominem arguments. He claimed to possess “multidimensional intelligence” and falsely accused one of his opponents of complacency with totalitarianism and the other of “belligerent dilletantism” as a continuation of “belligerent atheism” (see Girenko 1994; Semenov 1994; Girenko 1995; Belkov 1995). He earned the reputation of a cantankerous, arrogant, and foul player. These brain wars seems to have aggravated his academic insecurities and propelled him on the path of human rights activism. Without trying to put a blemish on Girenko’s name, his personality slightly deviated from the ideal image of “a conscience of the Russian intelligentsia” promoted by the Russian and international media.

Girenko treated neo-fascists and new names in his discipline with equal hostility, and was capable not only of giving scientific validity to court decisions but also of turning an academic discussion into a shameful litigation. (On a funny note, Girenko once suspected me of being a “Mormon” because of my serious focus on American Indian kinship systems.) While Girenko interpreted Russian neo-fascism as a direct descendant of the Soviet totalitarian regime, his own witch-hunting demonstrates that totalitarianism strives for perpetuation by taking different pathways. Girenko operated with a dichotomy “the social vs. the ethnic” and was willing to grant reality only to the latter. He was incapable of seeing the third component of the equation, namely the human or global dimension of the social process (as in Morgan’s ground-breaking Systems of Kinship and Affinity of the Human Family), without which both the social and the ethnic can easily degenerate into totalitarianism, violence, and the suppression of truth. Nationalism is a legitimate and productive social force if one conceives of the whole humanity as one’s nation. Alternatively, the marriage of democracy to abstract humanism generates a detached elitist discourse in which the whole world is marginalized and demonized under the assumption of its violation of a social contract. In order to be truly “people’s rule,” democracy has to be built on a diversity of local self-organizing communities of which neo-Nazi groups, their horrendous violence notwithstanding, or Indianist pow-wows, their ostensible childishness notwithstanding, are good contemporary examples.


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