How to love a homeland. A book by Oxana Timofeeva

«Russians could say: If you tie yourself to the tree, they will simply cut you down together with the tree. At this struggle, all means are good enough: if you cannot love your homeland as a human being, if the enemy pushes you out, love it like a plant – stay, resist; or love it like a beast – run, attack, or escape, but don’t leave them your homeland; just pack it in your heart and take it with you wherever you go.»

How is it possible to love a homeland in a country like Putin’s Russia, increasingly authoritarian, tyrannical and engaged in a war of invasion? In this book, written in 2019 but nonetheless very current, Oxana Timofeeva writes about her three homelands in the Soviet Union: where she was born, the first childhood memories in the Kazakh steppe and her days as a student near the Arctic Circle. She writes about the distinction in Soviet schools between ‘small’ and ‘big’ homelands, she addresses through the words of Bertolt Brecht the problem of the homeland and exile in the fascist era and she rejects the reactionary philosophical desire of the origins. The homeland need not be the legacy of the past but rather, through resistance, it can be reinvented and transported into the future.

Oxana Timofeeva, born in Siberia, is a professor at the “Stasis” Philosophy Center of the European University of St. Petersburg, an author and a member of the artistic collective Chtodelat [What must be done]. Among her books translated into English: Solar Politics (Polity 2022), History of Animals (Bloomsbury 2018), Introduction to the Erotic Philosophy of Georges Bataille (Moscow: New Literary Observer, 2009). How to Love a Homeland (Kayfa ta 2020) is Timofeeva’s first work translated into Italian.

Elisabetta Michielin Internationalism vs homeland. We have always thought this way. You, on the other hand, blow up the most classic of dichotomies by saying internationalism and homeland. Does the secret of this happy coexistence lie in how one loves the homeland? What do you mean by homeland?

Oxana Timofeeva In my perspective, homeland is not a nation, national identity, ethnicity or something. It is also not really about the place of birth, not the name for the origins. I do not therefore use words ‘motherland’ or ‘fatherland,’ which would bring in an oedipal, family story. Motherland and fatherland are often referred to by propaganda machines, especially in war times. This rhetoric alludes to the idea of biological origins and produces the illusion of a unity between bio- and geo-logics which Nazis called ‘blood and soil.’ Also, motherland and fatherland bear the meaning of nationality as belonging to a certain state with its rulers and dominant ideology.

Thus, those who call themselves ‘patriots’ in Russia today are often active supporters to Putin’s regime with its aggressive militarism, or mere conformists who try to benefit from this regime. In contrast to that, homeland is about home, the place we inhabit, the environments and the landscapes with which we as living beings develop a sensual relationship. As far as, through the course of our life, we are moving here and there and capable to inhabit more than one place, homeland can be understood as multiple. Imagine a new place where you come and settle down, providing yourself with the necessary amenities. This place will be your new home, and a city or a town or a village, as well as a country where it is situated will be your new homeland.

E.M. Could your point of view be summarized with a slogan, used years ago by some migrants’ associations, that said: “Who is here is from here”?

O.T. Yes, absolutely. But there is one more thing that I find important, especially when we are talking about migrants and refugees. Homeland do not only refer to a place, but also to the experience of displacement. In a certain sense, in order to find a homeland, one first have to lose it. Sometimes we only get the feeling of homeland when we are already displaced and realize that we have or do not have a possibility to return. With the war in Ukraine, millions of people both from Ukraine and Russia are losing their homes. Ukrainians become refuges because Russian militaries bomb their cities and civil infrastructures every day. Becoming a refugee is an urgent question of survival. In Russia cities are not bombed, but still millions of people have to flee the country, not only because there is a police terror on the one hand, and army mobilization on the other, but also because they do not feel home here anymore.

I am keeping an almost impossible position of travelling back and forth between Russia and Germany, and now Berlin seems to become my second home. I am trying to sense this city, to discover my personal things there, to explore it as an animal brought to a new habitat. But I still have a place where I can return. It is a privilege. I know Russians who cannot return, because they escaped the state not on their own will, but under the pressure of the police, and Russians who do not want to return, because they want to get rid of their national identity and any associations with their country. But I also know Ukrainians, who would love to return, but do not have a home any more, because their city or their house was destroyed by bombing. They have to begin a new life in Europe, and it will take a while until they will finally feel home and comfortable there. The best country would be the one which would easily offer itself as a new loving home for all the refugees and exiles. May be such country does not exist, but I like to think that I am from there.

E.M. I was very impressed with your writing as it anchors philosophy to biography, not intertwining them but instead putting them on an equal footing. Why this choice?

O.T. Someone just commented that my problem is that I identify myself with my profession, but I do not think that philosophy must be situated in the domain of professional activity. Philosophy is a way of living, and not just a profession or a job of which you are free when you come back home from your office (if you have one). You can be good or bad philosopher without necessarily becoming a professor of philosophy or academic in general. It is enough just to permanently question the frameworks of empirical reality. Training in philosophy makes a person able to read what is behind this reality, and to conceive it in concepts and structures; it gives us a method according to which we can make sense of any kind of apprehended material, including our own biography.

This book is definitely not an academic, scholarly piece, but an attempt to commensurate empirical and conceptual homelands in a sort of travelog. Elements of biography, or rather personal geography outlined there manifest that the idea of homeland as a nation or a state shared by all kinds of right-wingers is wrong: it is just an abstract idea that does not have actual existence. What exist in reality is material and concrete: smells, colors, multiple living and nonliving things which connect us to the experience of a homeland. The flowers do not have nationality, but they grow there, in that particular area, which we might remember from our childhood or just invented anew.

E.M. Brecht, Deleuze, Guattari accompanied you in this reformulation of the idea of homeland. In particular, your contemporisation of Aristotle from a Deleuzian perspective is surprising. Can you elaborate on this aspect?

O.T. I don’t like the tendency which exists in some contemporary theory to disregard all what has been in philosophy before Deleuze. In fact, there are so many things in the history of Western philosophy (I speak about Western, because I am more familiar with it) that are absolutely groundbreaking if we read them open-mindedly, beyond all stereotypes. I adore old philosophical treatises and volumes, written by Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Schelling or Hegel. One can always find there something that will sound really fresh and new. Philosophy always begins from the struggle against dogmatisms and dominant ideology. In contrast to a positivist science, the way how philosophy develops its concepts is such a way that each new theory does not refute the previous ones, but, not only constitutes itself in a dialog or discussion with them, but also repeats them in a kind of new transcription, in the language of its own time. It is like a musical score with changing variations and tempo, but the motive can be the same.

Thus, I take the motive of the three souls – plant, animal, and human, which exists already in Plato and Aristotle, but then persists through the whole philosophical tradition. I like how in their reflections on re- and de-territorialization, as well as their concept of ritournelle (or refrain) Deleuze and Guattari elaborate on what the ancients would call the animal soul. They write about animal’s relation to the territory, and it is in this context that they explain what is love. When I say: I love you, I mark you as my territory, my home: all love songs in this sense are about homeland. Isn’t this amazing?

But the closest reference in your list is indeed Brecht, because the context of his work to which I refer in my book reminds me, to some extent, our own historical situation: the rise of fascist regime and the experiences of relocation. I would say, Brecht’s reflections on immigration as a school of dialectics and his address from abroad to his comrades, who stayed in Germany under Nazi regime and created there an underground fascist resistance is more that relevant today, when Russia lives through really dark times. Brecht’s ‘Five difficulties in writing the truth’ is also a manual, a ‘how to’ essay, a guide through the hell.

E.M. Your book was published two years ago but it turns out to be very necessary these days; what does it mean to love the homeland and how can Russians love the homeland nowadays? I think of those who stay but also to those who leave.

O.T. At the time when I was writing this book, I was driven not so much by some anticipation of the war, as by the desire to share happiness which I felt after visiting the places of my birth and childhood. The experience of return made me reconcile with my own past, which was dark, terrifying and full of violence. It was as if memories brought back in this magic trip had some healing effect, and they thought me a lot. They taught me, for instance, that homeland is not just a dream, but something truly material and full of life, and that I can keep something from it. An object that will serve as a portal to the continuity of my life. Say, yellow tulips: each time when I see these flowers, I remember them growing wild in my steppe in the Chuy Valley in Kazakhstan. I can live wherever, but an object from my homeland, even the smallest one, will always and immediately connect me to my place of power.

Since February 2022, when the full-scale war against Ukraine begun, my book received a lot of feedback. As it is a small pocket-book, many people were reading it while fleeing the country, crossing the borders, trying to escape from the police or from the army. I myself received a message from a friend, who just read this book in his hotel room in the middle of nowhere, when I was passing the border control in Helsinki airport, in a crowd of passengers fleeing from Russia, with huge suitcases and carriages with cats, hiding their faces full of fear and shame. Losing a homeland is a misfortune, but maybe we need it now, need to become more nomadic, to lose our privileges and wander around in search for what? May be freedom?

Now, we have a wall of misunderstanding between those who left, and those who stay. Those who left tend to blame those who stay in collaborationism, in supporting Putin’s regime by simply being present there. Indeed, I can understand this position, but I do not share it. I know how difficult is to leave and to try to settle in a new country, where you are not a citizen, and have much less rights, money and things like this. But I also know how difficult is to stay for those who cannot leave because they have relatives, pets, someone or something to take care about, or just some stuff to do. Among those who stay there are also underground partisans and people engaged in a direct action. How can you do a direct action when you are abroad? In my book, this tension between those who left and those who stay was described as the tension between the animal and the plant soul. The animal soul needs to move, whereas the plant way of life is persisting in staying here: whatever happens, I will stay at my place, until they come and cut me. Our survival now depends on our ability to create a smart balance between animal and plant souls, or, better say, to create chains of solidarity between these two forms of life.

E.M. The longer the war lasts the more real is the danger that in Ukraine, but also in Russia, the love of your country will be welded with nationalism. How can this drift be averted?

O.T. As a citizen of the state which begun the war and committed multiple acts of violence and aggression against Ukraine, I do not have a right to say anything about Ukrainian people and their attitudes, but can only speak about my country, which does not really coincide with my homeland. I was born is Siberia, which, centuries back, was colonized by the Russian Empire, and spent my childhood in Kazakhstan, which was also colonized by the Russian Empire, then became a part of the Soviet Union, and then an independent state. I am from the Soviet Union – a state that does not exist anymore. Today’s Russian Federation consists of many regions and territories, that were conquest, colonized, annexed, or became a part of Russia on their own volition. These territories are populated by various indigene nations with their unique cultures, religions, and languages. Nationalism in such a state sounds absurd, and yet it is still having place, and the longer we are at war, the more it grows. In war times, people think less, and logic is often replaced with fear, hatred and other negative affections. The illusion that one nation is better than others can help one to reconcile with reality which otherwise looks too depressing.

‘I am Russian, my blood is from my father!’ – sings one popular ‘patriotic’ singer. This song manifests an existential collapse, when nationalism goes hand in hand with patriarchal values. In today’s Russia they are called ‘traditional values.’  State propaganda appeals to the long tradition, within which the strong beat the weak and which normalizes slavery, domination, and violence. But we feminists know the secret: patriarchal ‘love’ is not really love, but abuse. Nationalism is like an abuse relationship, where love here is nothing but the struggle for domination. Therefore, traditional ‘patriotism’ implies war. In contrast to that, I believe that there can be free love – to other persons of all genders, as well as to the places where we are, or were, or may be one day will be happy.

How to love a homeland is an very internationalist book written in Russian [Родина] and translated into English, German and now Italian [free download]. (I thank Oxana Timofeeva and the Kayfa ta publishing house for granting us the right of translation and publication).