The Belly Button Window Details

About Belly Button Window

The Semi-Regular Newsletter


Russia, December 10, 1997

So What is Your Ethnicity?

Not your nationality, but your ancestry!

The FuzzLast night, as I was strolling home along Novy Arbat, I was "controlled." An uniformed Moscow militzi (policeman) stopped me and asked me for my documents. When he saw my passport, he looked at me funny and asked me where my real papers were.

Here is one of Moscow's Fattest, err, Finest, on patrol by his hotrod Lada. They know they can't catch ya in those crappy little cars so if you don't stop they will just shoot at you.

Seems he didn't believe I was an American. He thought I was Chechen, a person from the "breakaway" republic if Chechnya in the Caucus Mountains of Southern Russia. The Chechens have humiliated the Russian military by defeating them repeatedly by stealing the Russian's weapons and using them against the Army. So, this officer felt that I was ethnic, and needed to be harassed. He took me down to the police station, where I sat for two hours, before being released to walk an hour home in -20C weather.

Being regarded as ethnic here surprises me. I do look a bit different from the average Russian, with my black wool fez, dark hair, and beard, but it is a strange twist for me to consider myself ethnic enough to be noticed. In the States, I am viewed as a very white man, free from racism, but I always though of myself as ethnic.

Here I think of myself as American, but the Russians do not see this distinction. When they ask what "nationality" I am I say American, but this is not the answer that they want. When they ask what my parents are and I say American they get mad and confused. They want to know if I am Latin, Indian, Arab, etc., my ethnicity or ancestry, not the nation I am from. Their word, "nationalitize" actually translates to something closer to "ethnicity" in English.

On the Russian internal passports there is a line (#5 to be exact), where you state your "nationality," be it Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, etc. During Soviet times, this line would determine if you got the great, good, or shitty job, with the best privileges for the Russians. The new Russian internal passports do not have this line, which makes many happy, but some mad. People are very proud of their "nationality" here, and want to keep an official record of it, although it may be used against them. Go figure.

In answering the "nationality" question, once I say I am from a specific "old world" ethnicity like Italian or Spanish, but not something generic like Latin, they are happy. I think I'm gonna start answering "Samoan" and really throw them for a loop.

Enter your email for Belly Button Window updates:


Stumbled on your site and got reading. Ah the memories. I've never been to Russia but I've been teaching here in Lithuania since 95 and it was exactly the same. trolleybuses, remontas, the post office you name it. We had lots of pcvs here too and they were cool but not quite up to the scottish drinking league. Keep up the fun articles.

I emigrated from Russia back in 1974 and never went back. I love to read your articles. Changes in Russia are so great, but still I recognize old stuff. Amazing mix of old Soviet life and Western one. You are very talanted journalist. Keep up good work.

The comments on this post are now closed.