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The Name of a People: �Astrakhaners�!
Training session in Astrakhan 20-22.06.07 �Youth Initiatives to Counteract Xenophobia, Racism and Extremism�

From 20 to 22 June in Astrakhan� a training for youth representatives from ethnic organizations was held. This training was part of a series of trainings held in the framework of the project �Developing a Network of Ethnic Organizations in Opposition to Xenophobia in Russia.� The project was carried out by the Center for Interethnic Cooperation in partnership with the organization UNITED, the European network against nationalism, racism, fascism and in support of migrants and refugees. The training was lead by trainers from the Center for Interethnic Cooperation, and 19 people took part.

Astrakhan is an amazing region. From ancient times it has welcomed different peoples and tribes who cross its territory, and without losing its national originality incorporated newcomers into the special ethnicity of �Astrakhaners�. Apparently, the proximity of the Great River, a special climate, a rich history, and modern social-economic realities have combined to give the residents of Astrakhan a warm and open approach to visitors.

Arriving here for the first time in three years it was extremely pleasant to discover how our friends, the leaders of ethnic organizations and officials from local administration, still retained warm memories of our work and were sincerely enthusiastic in assisting us with the organization of this training session. We would like to express our deep gratitude to Violetta Aksyenova, a member of the local administration responsible for ethnic organizations and to Victor Victorin, the advisor to the Governor of the Astrakhan region, scientific encyclopedist, skilled orator, and outstanding ethnographer. It is with deep regret that we remember Alexander Stadnik, who died suddenly not long ago. �Stadnik�s Triangle� is a test created by Alexander that we use at practically every training session. It is used to prioritize concepts of �pers on, citizen, representative of ethnicity�. This remarkable man will always be warmly remembered by us.

This training session, just like the training session in Krasnoyarsk was dedicated to the theme �Problems and prospects of the development of a network of social organizations to counteract xenophobia, racism and extremism�

Our partner, the head of UNITED, Geert Atess and the European expert Mirek Prokesh also took part in this training session. Thanks to their presence at the training session we were able to introduce the participants to European methods of resolving the kind of problems that we are all faced with. This was their first visit to such a southern part of Russia, and the tours of the city and the Volga arranged by the organizers of the seminar made a great impression on them.

We were also joined by our Canadian volunteers Miriam Ross and Deanna Allan. The girls have already returned home to Canada and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them for their wonderful work in our organization, and for their amiability and humour. I hope that they will retain fond memories of our travels together. We really miss them!

This training session was slightly different than the others in that we decided to invite only representatives from Astrakhan to it. After such a long absence we wanted to devote particular attention to the problems of this specific region and get to know the local youth activists better.

The group turned out to be very vibrant and interesting. There were representatives of ethnic cultural organizations, young members of �United Russia�, and young student activists. It was not by chance that the training session was carried out in the boarding house with the symbolic name �Friendship�. Within a short period of time the participants had become a solid team, and they considered that the tasks set for them by the trainers of the Center for Interethnic Cooperation, Victoria Shuxat and Ashot Ayrapetyan, were extremely effective in organizing a discussion of their activities and points of view.

The first question which we traditionally ask at every seminar is �Which specific characteristics are inherent to a typical young person of this area in the present day?�

The youth of Astrakhan are perceived as such:

Portrait of a typical young person from the Astrakhan region in 2007

  • Has ambitions, plans
  • Not idealistic - Is interested in money
  • Avoids responsibility
  • Does not comprehend ethnicity
  • Loves to relax and not to work
  • Hospitable
  • Purposeful
  • Has a feeling that he/she lacks opportunities

We would like to note that this is one of very few regions where the description of a young person included even a shade of positive characteristics. The �hospitable� young person from Astrakhan, to me personally, seems to be of a positive nature. And a person who is �purposeful, has ambitions and plans� hardly possesses the kind of primitive conscience which might explain the tendency to use the presence of immigrants as a scapegoat for personal failures.

One of the chief tasks which we set ourselves in such training sessions is the formation of a youth action, people who are professionally involved in social work. Therefore we asked the participants to answer the question �Which character traits should be inherent to a youth leader in order for him to inspire the kind of typical young person described above?� In my opinion the resulting list is exceptional :

Qualities of a Leader

  • �Pure� past
  • Commands Authority
  • Active
  • Ambitious
  • Diplomatic
  • Well known (acquired quality)
  • Has a team of followers
  • Possesses Communication skills
  • Creative
  • Young
  • Open minded
  • Optimistic
  • Good orator
  • Organized
  • Responsible
  • Open in dialogue
  • Has practical experience
  • Decisive
  • Ability to use situational thinking, logical thinking
  • Modern thinking
  • Keen on his/her work
  • Has ability to inspire others- a leader!
  • Has ability to rally the public
  • Charismatic
  • Purposeful
  • Has a sense of time and conditions

But even for the greatest leader it is not always easy to rally youth to their cause. All came to the conclusion that in order for youth to become actively involved in the life of a society there must be some kind of incentive making the work genuinely interesting for them. The list of incentives that might capture the imagination of young people turned out to be very varied:

What modern youth like

  • Active participation in elections
  • Archeological excavations
  • Money
  • Orienteering
  • The study of languages, cultures etc
  • Innovation (Internet, Instant messenger)
  • Internet
  • Youth comedy club (KVN)
  • Cultural events
  • Interethnic meetings
  • Ethnic Festivals
  • Beaches
  • Sports Competitions
  • Art
  • Parties
  • Freebies
  • Hobbies
  • Ethno-cultural camps
  • Humour

It stands to reason that the principal leit-motif of our work is the summing up by leaders of youth organizations of the measures needed to single mindedly oppose the growth of the nationalist mood in Russian society, and in particular amongst youth. Therefore we always ask the participants of the training sessions to discuss why it is, that in countries that have overcome fascism sociologists still note that neo fascist and nationalistic attitudes continue to grow. Below is the analysis that the group carried out:

Reasons for nationalism amongst youth

  1. Heritage, History
  2. Influence of upbringing, family
  3. Transferring personal qualities on a people
  4. Non integration of immigrants
  5. Particularities of a persons character and temperament
  6. Non acceptance of other religions and traditions
  7. Illiteracy, Ignorance
  8. Public disorder
  9. Influence of crowd
  10. Inculcation of biases
  11. Malicious intent of a hidden leader
  12. Silence of science and journalism on these questions

But youth is only one part of society. What are the general reasons behind such tendencies in our country?

Reasons for racist attitudes in society

  1. Bad PR
  2. Business interests, small and large
  3. Lack of prospects
  4. Lack of respect of visitors for local ethnicities
  5. Lack of interest for the culture of others

Alas it isn�t only from sociologists that we learn about the racist attitudes in our society. Unfortunately the main manifestation of such a widespread social illness as racism is interethnic conflict. Why conflicts occur:

Reasons that spark conflict

  1. Break up of the Soviet Union
  2. Disagreements, national conflicts
  3. Selfishness, no unity from the beginning
  4. Idleness
  5. Disrespect for culture and tradition
  6. Envy of success
  7. Press, media

Whilst speaking about racism as one of the poisons that infects modern Russian society it should not be forgotten that this process is part of a global universal situation. Therefore, we are always keen to show residents of different Russian regions that the problems that they have are not exclusive to them but occur in other regions and other countries and so it is very interesting to learn about the experience of our foreign colleagues. They have had to face up to racism in the past and had to think of how dangerous it is for society and government and what measures should be taken to combat it. We asked our foreign friends to form a separate group in order to discuss the reasons behind xenophobia in Europe:

Reasons for xenophobia amongst young people in Europe:

  1. Feeling of social and material helplessness and a lack of prospects
  2. Media, Politicians, Immigrants (etc) reasons for internal problems of countries(unemployment)
  3. selfishness, People thinking only of themselves
  4. Loss of solidarity
  5. State need for an enemy (USSR is no more � a new enemy is needed)

For the participants of our training session who do not really remember the time of the �Cold War� it was a great surprise to discover that the stand off between the west and the USSR was a unifying force within each camp.

And of course we were very interested to find out the opinions of local inhabitants on the question: Level of tolerance in the Astrakhan region in 2007 . The group gave Astrakhan a 3.5 rating on a 5 point scale. All present agreed that this rating was not high enough for a region that is famous for its multi-cultural composition and a great deal of work is needed to raise this rating.

What specific kind of work is required? Having split into two groups the participants formulated ideas, goals and certain steps that should be taken to bring about some concrete projects. Realizing these projects would allow the youth activists to show local residents the importance of interethnic harmony and the necessity of staging special events to foster this harmony.

Regional Council of Ethnic Unity

Aim � Avoiding conflicts by attracting authoritative leaders

  1. Constant functioning of the council in order to coordinate joint action
  2. Calling on and assembling leaders of ethnic communities
  3. Acceptance of documents
  4. Schedule of sessions
  5. Distribution of duties according to project
  6. Search for sources of funding
  7. Control and evaluation of effectiveness

The World of Childhood/

Aim - To carry out an interethnic event for children

  1. Contact with sponsors
  2. Links with corresponding local authorities
  3. Organizing a venue for the event
  4. Distribution of duties, script writing
  5. Carrying out the event
  6. 400 thousand rubles for the project

We really want these projects to be realized. In the future we plan to involve the representatives of this region more actively in our interregional projects. To our great joy this became possible straight away as 5 representatives of ethnic organizations then took part in the training session in Pyiatagorsk which took place immediately after Astrakhan. Girls from the German, Tatar and Azerbaijan organizations went on to represent their regions and were a real addition to the following event in which as well as contributing organizational skills they added artistic talent. Victor Victorin, the advisor to the governor, and Baxadir Aminov, the leader of the Uzbek organization (and a great friend of ours), represented Astrakhan in impressive style at the interethnic conference in Anapa.

After our talks and those given by our European friends, all of the participants of this training session evaluated the effectiveness of the sharing of experience and of the active work of network of ethnic organizations and also of various themes relating to interethnic relations. We are looking forward to seeing the results! And in turn, it will be very interesting for us to let the readers of our site know about the experience of such a special region, where the inhabitants, regardless of race or nationality, proudly share the common name �Astrakhaners�!

Victoria Shuxat
Programme Director
Center for Interethnic Cooperation

� 1993-2003

If you have some interesting information about interethnic situation in your region or about activity of your organisation, we would be glad to post it on our website [email protected]