Nasreddin in Russia is a non-regular multi-language publication covering events in the lives of people who have come to Russia looking for work. The newspaper raises important issues, including real experiences of labor migrants. The first issue of Nasreddin in Russia was published in 2014, while overall four editions have been released as of today. While the participants of the project, including the artists Olga Jitlina and Anna Tereshkina, are currently preparing the fifth, which is going to be published within the framework of Bureau des transmissions, we present the previous issues of the paper here.
The issue's focus: Housing
This newspaper recounts how Nasreddin Hodja, a folk character renowned for his wit and talent for getting out of difficult situations, and famed from Aksehir to the Pamirs, from Bukhara to the Balkans, went to work in Russia. Or rather, it recounts how we, a group of artists and migrant workers, looked for Nasreddin’s qualities in each other and ourselves.
Nasreddin has poked fun at Emir Timur and the Khan of Bukhara, Russian colonialism, thieving collective farm chairmen, and patriarchal mores in Central Asia and the Caucasus. With his resilient temper and sharp eye, we have great need of Nasreddin in today’s Russia. In Soviet times, his parables and anecdotes were translated into Russian. Books were written about him, and films made about him. As poet Hassan Holov, one of the people who attended our meetings, put it, “The Soviet Union was smashed into smithereens like a giant pot in which there was nothing to cook.” Cultural ties between the newly independent post-Soviet countries have almost been lost. But maybe Nasreddin, the naive sage or wise fool who roams the land riding backwards on a donkey, can help us not to lose them completely?
Can laughter make people forget, at least temporarily, what divides them? Can rich and poor, policemen and academics, laugh at the same things? Or is humor tightly bound up with education, income, customs, and language? Who would find Nasreddin’s jokes funnier, a Russian university student or a Mexican worker in the US? Is humor a defense against racial prejudice? Can humor liberate people? Can it help us understand the situation in which we find ourselves? Can it be used to build qualitatively different relationships between people?
By way of finding out, once a week from March to July 2014 we met in Petersburg’s cafes, teahouses, courtyards, and parks to socialize and play a game of strategy. We imagined how Nasreddin Hodja and his sister (a character we invented) would react to situations in which migrant workers often end up.
In the newspaper Nasreddin in Russia, we publish the fruits of these meetings and our contest to find the best Nasreddin joke: Anna Tereshkin’s sketches and comics, with dialogue supplied by the contestants. The comics are interspersed with dispatches from the Utopian News Agency (“News the Way It Could Be!”) These articles were published in various media in 2012–2014. The people who wrote these fictitious news stories about ethnic and cultural policy, urban development, and gender relations liked them more than real events in these same areas.
The issue's focus: Mass Media: Tongue Twister!
Whose language, whose tongue is this in my mouth? Who is moving my lips? Who speaks? Liberal media? Victor Shenderovich? Or a leading talk-show host? Some righteous activist?
Where is my tongue? Have I swallowed it? Did I ever have it to begin with? Does it exist at all? What language does my tongue speak? Russian? Tajik? English? Uzbek? Armenian? Tigrinya? Spanish? Azeri? Ukrainian? Does it speak Hebrew or Yiddish? Pashtun? Perhaps it speaks a mix of all of these tongues. Maybe it doesn’t speak any of them at all. Perhaps it has fallen through the cracks in between languages.
I don’t know where my tongue is or if I really have one at all. But maybe I can get a feeling for someone else’s language in my mouth, and then figure out what it’s doing there. Is it possible to weave together other tongues in order to create my own?
This issue's focus: Your Work or Your Life?
What do migrants and artists have in common?
In their everyday lives, these two groups rarely ever interact. They take different routes around the city, the daily routine of one is very different from the other, they even eat different kinds of food and wear different types of clothing.
It is implied that one of these groups is doing physical labor, while the other is doing creative work. It is implied that the labor of one of these categories is alienated, while that of the other is about self-realisation and self-expression.
We assume that those whose work involves hard labor, who work for longer than they should according to the labor code and for whom the simple act of going outside means risking being detained by the police or falling victim to racist attack, don’t have the time or the strength to do art; whereas those who make their living doing art are free to do as they please. But is this really the case? In the process of keeping up with a schedule, meeting mercilessly approaching deadlines in conditions of an economic race, doesn’t art risk losing its free-spirited recklessness and becoming like any other form of production-line labor?
During our meetings and the discussions that we held as part of our Contest, we talked about the risks and features of unstandardised labor. Neither migrant laborers nor artists can expect paid vacations, sick-leave, or pension plans. Both groups grab wildly at any work they can get, often driving themselves to exhaustion in the process. Self-exploitation is a trait we both have in common. Our lives become our work, our work becomes our life. Work enters every area of our lives, including friendship, love and sleep. It may be also the case, because our work is motivated by faith, and hopes for a better future, or else a parallel reality, whether that be getting an education for one’s child, or building a new home, or perfecting society by searching for truth in language and form, or the creation of enclaves of whimsical fantasy and castles in the air.
Could these hopes and illusions help create a new societal structure? Is it possible for art and labor to interact in new ways?
We tried to find migrants who were able to combine labor and art work. In this issue, we publish an interview and story by Ilhamjan Abdukaharov, who makes his living doing physical labor and performs as part of Vsevolod Lisovsky’s “Aqyn-Opera”, sharing his experiences as a migrant laborer with audiences.
One of the most interesting discoveries for us during the research for this issue became a new genre of folk art referred to in Internet as “Uzbek LOL”. This genre is defined by the reenactment
of popular music videos or scenes from Bollywood films. Without leaving their work stations, construction workers or food processors readapt their work tools, turning these tools into musical instruments and imitating the instrument’s use in performances which they film on mobile phones. It turns out, laborers from Latin America practice similar forms of performance. Thus, we are in fact, witnessing a global cultural phenomenon, the transformation of physical labor into creative work by means of its very own tools. Laborers, perhaps without any prior knowledge of one another, from different countries and different continents are involved in the transformation of hired labor into new art form that is free from laws of cultural industry economics. This Lunch Break International opens new and revolutionary prospects for both of us: artists and physical laborers.
This issue's focus: Together Apart
Nasreddin has been traveling to Russia for many years to earn money. How does he live apart from his family? How does his family handle his absences? What is a family in an age of large-scale labor migration? Wage labor far from home can have a huge effect on relationships amongst loved ones. What happens to the traditional roles of men and women? We have met women who were moved by the long absences of their husbands not only to take charge running their families but also running their communities.
What kind of new relationships take shape in countries of immigration? Why do some migrant workers arrive to earn money to get married back at home, while others plan to get married in the new country and stay? How do different conceptions of family—the modern urban notion of family as a pact amongst husband, wife, and children, versus the largely rural understanding of family as a large community of relatives—coexist? And what about love? Where is it possible nowadays? What shapes does it take?
Looking for answers to these questions, we spoke with migrant workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in Petersburg. And we took a trip to Armenia, a country whose famous sense of humor has helped people cope with the hardships of separation.
The fourth issue of our newspaper has been published in Russian, Uzbek, and Armenian. In future, we would like to translate the newspaper into Tajik, Kyrgyz, Moldovan (Romanian), Azeri, Ukrainian, and the other languages spoken by the people who come to Russia to work and live.