Since the early 20th century, a series of revolutions and wars has dramatically altered the world map. Empires collapsed one after the other, giving way to independent states. Yet, even in the early 21st century, we still witness the imperial ambitions of certain states, with post-Soviet Russia serving as a classic example. Public and academic debates in the Baltics, South Caucasus, and Central Asia have for some time been shedding light on the histories of Russian imperial oppression. They have also been advocating for decolonization through the empowerment of national and local identities, as well as “decontaminating” culture, languages, and knowledge-production from the “imperial spores”.
The unprecedented influx of Russian citizens due to the Russia-Ukraine war into states that were under Moscow’s rule for centuries, is often locally perceived as endangering the identity and undermining the independence of these states. At the same time, this new socio-cultural phenomenon also provides an opportunity to reconsider and redefine the nature of relations between different nationalities through everyday encounters and tensions, in search of new forms of coexistence.
Writing about issues related to the migration of Russians to Armenia and how Russians perceive Armenia, I wear two hats. One is that of a scholar researching space, place, and daily life in Armenia after the collapse of socialism. The other hat is that of a Russian citizen, a “relocant”(a contested term used to describe Russians who left Russia after the start of the Russia-Ukraine war) in Armenia since March 2022. For me, these issues are as much personal as they are professional. This duality presents some challenges. While my positionality suggests a conflict of interests, I hope this text will nevertheless pose productive questions and foster further discussions.
Russian Imperial Gazes
Within social studies, the notion of the gaze is used metaphorically to describe how individuals or groups perceive others and themselves. The gaze encompasses more than just looking. It is integral to systems of power and the means by which control is exerted and claims to truth are asserted. Building on the work of media scholar Ann Kaplan, the term “imperial gaze” gained prominence in post- and de-colonial studies, referring to how those being observed are defined through the privileged observer’s own set of value preferences.
In 2022, based on my observations in various “relocant” Telegram channels over a four-month period, I identified several tropes of how “relocants” relate to Armenia and Armenians. The data I gathered strongly suggested that a singular Russian imperial gaze should not be automatically assumed. Instead of one gaze, there are at least three broad ones. I refer to them as the Moscow gaze, the gaze of a griever, and the gaze of a giver.
The Moscow gaze is the gaze of an arrogant subject. It involves the interplay of two dynamics: the gaze of a Russian directed towards the “national edges of the empire”, and the gaze of an affluent creative/middle class person from a global city toward the perceived periphery. In each case, one dynamic may prevail over the other in shaping the gaze –– either class or the imperial condition –– but it is difficult to separate them completely.
The gaze of a griever emerges within a somewhat decolonial discourse. It is the gaze of a privileged individual who feels remorse and seeks to reflect on and address not only the harms of the imperial past, but also various forms of current structural oppression. This category includes Russians who actively seek integration in Armenia, work in Armenian collectives, and learn the language. The sincere remorse and pragmatic pursuit of building a life in a new place are intertwined with the external pressure that imposes collective responsibility on individuals for the imperial ambitions of the Russian state. This pressure is especially pronounced in fields that require critical thinking, such as creative industries or academia. It gets under the skin, becomes internalized and acted upon, even unconsciously. In this context, we encounter self-censorship and an extreme form of cultural relativism whereby any criticism toward Armenia and Armenians is suppressed. Furthermore, some form of internalized public repentance is felt as a precondition for integration.
Lastly, the gaze of a giver combines elements of the previous two. It is underpinned by a civilizing mission aimed at advancing the “underdeveloped” and “uncultured”, bringing together arrogance with a desire to integrate and do good.
Overall, the various power dynamics that shape the three broad Russian imperial gazes stem not only from the historical relations between Russians and Armenians. They are also significantly shaped by the contemporary global reordering and uneven spatial development under capitalism, where residents of metropolitan areas often dismiss others as being backward. Moreover, the personal attributes of “relocants” –– such as class, education, and ethnicity — and their self-perception ranging from expats to refugees, also play a role.
Having lived and conducted research in Armenia for over a year and a half, I feel that the division and many of my initial crude arguments not only hold true but are also supported by new examples. This follow-up is focused on what I perceive as the most problematic of the three gazes –– a wolf in a sheep’s skin—the gaze of the giver.
Gift in Theory
Despite our desire to believe otherwise, gift-giving is rarely an act of pure altruism. Rather, it is a form of reciprocity, where a return is eventually expected. According to cultural anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, there are several types of reciprocity. Generalized reciprocity involves giving without expecting a specific outcome. Balanced reciprocity is an equal exchange. Negative reciprocity, on the other hand, is an unequal exchange that can create a hierarchy if the debt is not fully repaid.
The act of gift-giving is a socio-economic ritual that involves a three-stage process. First, one presents a gift. Second, the gift should be accepted by the recipient. Third, the recipient reciprocates the gift. Throughout each stage, things can go wrong. Imagine the consequences of attending a birthday party without a gift, or giving something that is socially unacceptable. Consider the irritation and embarrassment if your gift is declined, or the disappointment if it is not returned properly. While the specifics may vary, gift-giving is a universal human practice that underlies every relationship and exists in every culture. Whether tangible or intangible, gifts connect people within a system of exchange, creating hierarchies, obligations, and raising expectations.
“Development” as a Gift of Civilization
Sovereign rule implies both coercion and giving. According to cultural anthropologist Bruce Grant, giving has been a long-standing aspect of Russian colonialism in the Caucasus and beyond. Despite the ambiguous motives, it is hard to disagree that the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union made significant capital, labor, and time investments in the Caucasus. The powerholders considered infrastructure, territorial “development” and urbanization as a “gift of civilization”, disregarding the agency and contributions of indigenous actors who were not mere recipients but also active participants and co-creators. By portraying “development” as a gift, the colonial state could claim a great premium for it. The premium was the taking of surplus value, resources, freedom, and lives.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the language of giving still proliferates Russian discussions about Armenia. The idea of providing cultural or expert “supervision” to a perceived “less developed state” is widely accepted as a supportive gesture, seen as a means of advancement and generous assistance. This dynamic has been further reinforced by the recent large influx of Russian citizens into Armenia.
Even if unconsciously, the gaze of the giver to some extent shapes the various educational, environmental, and creative initiatives implemented by the “relocants” throughout Armenia. Urbanists are attempting to “improve” Armenia’s urban development by engaging with heritage, developing masterplans, and fostering a variety of touristic initiatives. Environmental activists are organizing cleanup days in parks, gorges, and other areas. Creatives are hosting a wide range of events and masterclasses on different topics almost daily. The motives behind these actions are complex and diverse, arising from a combination of personal gain, consideration for others, and the need to be socially accepted in a new environment. The underlying premise behind all of these motives, however, is the presence of a perceived “lack” or “underdevelopment” that can and should be “fixed”, along with an expectation of an easier integration process and some sort of gratitude in return.
Outsider intervention can be highly beneficial for host communities as it combines deep internal knowledge with the novelty of external expertise. The interaction between the locals and the outsiders, however, requires a cautious approach and consideration of the context. Inquiring, rather than bluntly offering newness and improvements, should be the starting point for any initiative. Yet, many current Russian initiatives seem to lack caution, consideration, and respect for the locality, making them feel foreign and imposed, and at worst, counterproductive.
Take for example the case of heritage research in the Kond district of Yerevan conducted by a group of Russian urbanists in 2022. Firstly, the research approach resembled the “colonial descent” of 20th century anthropologists, as it intruded upon the livelihoods of Kond’s residents without adequately considering their relevance. Secondly, by failing to establish an engaging dialogue with Armenian experts who had been working in this district and raising awareness about it since the early 2010s, it demonstrated a lack of respect for local knowledge and experience. Lastly, the resulting narrative was imbued by language and terminology that not only devalued the place and phenomenon under study, but also occasionally misinterpreted them.
To be fair, the gaze of a giver is not exclusive to Russian “relocants”. In Armenia, there are also initiatives driven by other outsiders, such as diasporan Armenians, that are intertwined with efforts to “support” and “develop” places and people. What sets the Russians apart is the long-standing history of imperial dominance, which is immediately evoked providing their initiatives with an imperial overtone. This detail is crucial to remember in order to avoid triggering resentment. However, much like in the 1986 Georgian film “Repentance”, the unquestioned past resurfaces, and the problematic national hierarchies are perpetuated through the actions of “relocants”. Even as the formal dominance of Russia is being undone, the legacy of Russia’s “gift of civilization” continues to haunt the post-colonial landscape of independent Armenia.
 The term emerged from the Telegram channel “Relocation from Russia to the Free World” launched soon after the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war. Some of my Armenian interlocutors and friends view it as being deeply problematic. That is, why did Russians invent a different term for themselves and do not want to be called migrants? Though the latter sentiment is understandable, from a scholarly perspective the terms “relocation” and “relocants” can be viewed as marking a very time-specific cultural phenomenon and migration wave. In this sense, they are comparable to the terms “white emigration” and “white emigrant” that were specific to the out-migration from Russia after the Bolshevik coup d’état.
 “Relocants” are not only affluent business people, creatives, and IT specialists as they are portrayed in the popular narrative. There are also political activists who escaped Russia fearing for their own safety, as they were personally targeted by the repressive state apparatus. Such motivation complies with the definition of the UN High Commission for Refugees: “Refugees are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country.”
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