The Russian Leon Trotsky, the English Abraham Lincoln, and the Spanish Juan Peron

I’m reading a novel by a Spanish writer called Julia Navarro, and at some point a character says,

A while ago he had requested a meeting with Leon Trotsky, and finally, the Russian politician accepted.

“That’s weird,” I thought. ‘This is happening at the time when Trotsky is living in exile in Mexico. Why would a Russian politician arrange his meetings for him?”

It took me a while to realize that the “Russian politician” in question was supposed to be Trotsky. Of course, not only was Trotsky a Jew, he was never a politician in Russia. He was a revolutionary in the Russian Empire and a politician in the Soviet Union. And he wasn’t even a Russian Jew. Trotsky was born in Ukraine.

This casual reference to a Ukrainian Jew as a Russian reminded me of  a video clip for a documentary I had seen earlier today. “The Russians made a decision. . .” the narrator enunciated, as the footage of Iosif Stalin and Lavrenti Beria appeared on screen. Both these men were, of course, Georgians. Stalin spoke Russian with a strong accent until the day he died. Still, ignoramuses around the world can’t manage to distinguish a Georgian, an Armenian, a Ukrainian, a Moldovan or a Jew from a Russian.

Maybe I should refer to the Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, etc. as “English.” They do speak English, so they must all be English, right? Just like Mexicans, Peruvians, Chileans, Dominicans, and Guatemalans must all be “Spanish.”

Seriously, the ignorance is daunting.

12 thoughts on “The Russian Leon Trotsky, the English Abraham Lincoln, and the Spanish Juan Peron

  1. Someone did that in my Russian literature class with Gogol. My professor was quick to say, “No, he’s Ukrainian!” He then got a thoughtful look on his face, and said, “But we’ll still read his stuff because it’s good.”
    I liked that professor.

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  2. I do not think genetics and the place of birth should be determining factors for somebody’s national identity. (Of course the formal compatriots of any celebrity in question would disagree.) It is especially evident in the case of Stalin. Try to construe him as a Georgian nationalist… Then try to construe him (knowing his actions) as a Russian nationalist. Much easier, isn’t it?
    (Of course, I am also operating under the assumption that SU was a natural and logical reincarnation of the Russian Empire, not some accident which happened because the Marsians implanted the Bolsheviks there. So for me it is completely appropriate to call Trotsky a “Russian politician”. Was he Ukrainian one, or Jewish one, or Mexican one?)
    And, by the way, the most ridiculous Russian patriot I’ve met in real life (there are more in the internet, of course) was an Armenian by birth. But he had the full garbage bag of propaganda with him. I almost chocked when he started talking, dead seriously, about “European Union as a fascist organization”… did not expect to hear that shit in the middle of Mississippi…

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    1. No, I’ll never be convinced that referring to Stalin as ‘Russian” will ever make sense. He simply wasn’t.

      It always bothers me beyond what I can express to hear, ‘The Russians won WWII.” That’s just not true. Why can’t one say “The Soviets won WWII” and stop conflating the victory with just one group?

      “Of course, I am also operating under the assumption that SU was a natural and logical reincarnation of the Russian Empire, not some accident which happened because the Marsians implanted the Bolsheviks there.”

      -Of the Russian Empire. But not of Russia. These are two completely different entities.

      “And, by the way, the most ridiculous Russian patriot I’ve met in real life (there are more in the internet, of course) was an Armenian by birth. But he had the full garbage bag of propaganda with him.”

      -But does that make him Russian? I’d say he’s just a self-hating Armenian.

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  3. As someone who read a great deal of the subcontinent’s literature, and is therefore familiar with our enormous ethnic and linguistic diversity, does it ever bother you to see Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans being called ‘Indians’? It bothers me. Partly because as an Indian — I am all too aware of the sense of identity-repression and violence that has, in our past, been rooted in such uninformed categorisation. It makes me embarrassed for the people blithely making the mistakes, and a little nervous as well.

    What bothers me even more, however, is many Western countries putting down “Indian” as an ethnic category. There is no ethnicity called ‘Indian’ that I’ve ever encountered. It is a strictly political identity. We may all be subjects of the Socialist Republic of India, but we’re ethnically all proud Punjabis or Gujaratis or Drukpas or Chinese or Bengali or Telugu or Santhal or Tulu or any of the thousands others. And I don’t think it’s too much to expect Departments of Immigration and the foreign national monitoring folk to realise that.

    P.S: speaking of the English, I once met a Welsh chap who objected politely but quite firmly to being called English. On the other hand, he did go to a semi-posh public school and Cambridge, and had much of his native accent sawed off in the process.

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    1. I’ve seen people raise the same point as you, Rimi, on both people of the subcontinent and people who are Indian nationals. Among my friends, I’m always careful to not slip back to identifying them as Indian, and call them “Desi” or “Punjabi” at their wishes.
      This reminds me of another friend who is Jewish like me, but is Sephardi, not Ashkenazi, and frequently gets annoyed at people lumping her in with Ashkenazim, since their food, rituals, and language are all different. She coined one of my favourite phrases: “You know, it’s not all Yiddish and bagels!”

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      1. “I’m always careful to not slip back to identifying them as Indian, and call them “Desi” or “Punjabi” at their wishes.” — that’s very thoughtful of you. An immense number of people simply don’t bother. On the other hand, an immense number of non-Americans call all Americans Yankees. This, I imagine, causes some serious riling of the non-New Englanders, especially of the sports loving kind.

        I’m okay with being called Indian. I am, after all, Indian and I don’t expect non-Indians to realise from my name that I am Bengali. But I’m always amused when people ask me what’s “Indian” for a certain English word 🙂

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  4. I agree with everybody that it is not correct and not polite to misidentify people by lumping different national/religious groups together, or to ascribe anybody’s achievements to somebody else.
    Fortunately, we cannot ask Stalin or Trotsky if they considered themselves Russian politicians, or Soviet ones, or Georgian/Jewish ones. But imagine, what would be their response if it were possible to ask such a question?

    —-Of the Russian Empire. But not of Russia. These are two completely different entities.

    And what exactly is Russia without Empire? Sounds too artificial to me…

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    1. I can’t imagine either Stalin or Trotsky referring to themselves as “Russian.” These guys were Communists, which means that they have to reject all national identifications. They are supposed to believe in internationalism, world proletariat, etc. “Small-bourgeois nationalism” was never highly appreciated by them.

      “And what exactly is Russia without Empire? Sounds too artificial to me…”

      -The imperial way of thinking is precisely the kind that sees everybody subjected by the Empire at any point as “Russian.”

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  5. -The imperial way of thinking is precisely the kind that sees everybody subjected by the Empire at any point as “Russian.”

    But my question was purely technical: what territory belongs to “Russia”, not to be confused with “Russian Federation”, which is still an empire, even though it is reduced in size and might?

    —“Small-bourgeois nationalism” was never highly appreciated by them.

    and yet Stalin in his later years seemed to de facto support Russian nationalism. Russian nation as the big brother, etc…

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    1. ” “Russian Federation”, which is still an empire, even though it is reduced in size and might”

      -I don’t think it still is, though. In the same way that Great Britain isn’t really an empire any longer. Irrespective of the imperial language and dreams of many of its citizens.

      “and yet Stalin in his later years seemed to de facto support Russian nationalism. Russian nation as the big brother, etc…”

      -A true Communist can pretend to support any ideology according to what’s expedient at the moment. Lenin introduced NEP, which didn’t make him a capitalist. Stalin also supported the creation of Israel. Which didn’t prevent him from unleashing an anti-semitic campaign right after.

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    1. It will now be up to the subjects of the Russian Federation to define that for themselves, The Basques, the Welsh, the Catalonians managed to do that very well. In the RF, the Chechens have done that. Now will see if anybody else in the RF is interested in asserting their separate identity outside of the blanket definition of Russianness.

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