Book review: Culture, Ethnicity and Migration After Communism, by Anton Popov (2016, Routledge)

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked a period of intense social and political change in the former Soviet Union as well as in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, not least in relation to the re-construction of borders separating re-emergent nation-states. These re-constructed borders imposed separation on a formerly united space, while at the same time the region was opening up to transnational processes associated with globalisation. How, in this context, have people caught up in the shifting dimensions of nationalism and transnationalism negotiated their sense of identity and ‘home’?

In Culture, Ethnicity and Migration After Communism, Anton Popov offers a rich and detailed answer to this question. Popov focuses on the case of ‘Pontic Greeks’, or Greek people living on the Black Sea coast and in the North Caucasus, who have developed what he terms a ‘transnational circuit of travel’ between the former Soviet Union and Greece. He draws on rich ethnographic research, including interviews, photographs and research diary excerpts, to examine the ways in which this group negotiate their sense of identity, home, family and nation when they spend many months at a time each year in each location.

Through careful and in-depth study, Popov reveals these practices of negotiation in the everyday transnational lives of the Pontic Greeks. Popov shows how notions of ‘home’ and ‘homeland’ are renegotiated through cultural practices, family connections and property ownership. Disruption is a central theme of the book, as these transnational practices are shown to subvert established social categorisations of ‘migrant’ and ‘local’, and Pontic Greeks as ‘transnational locals’ challenge nationalistic visions of community and belonging. Yet it is the tension between these disruptive practices and the re-emergence of nationalism which is perhaps the most illuminating aspect of Popov’s work, as we see the impact of border bureaucracies and border crossing documentation, alongside anti-migrant policies and discourses of ‘indigenisation’, on the agency of the Pontic Greeks to carve out their transnational identity.

Culture, Ethnicity and Migration After Communism is a fasincating study of identity, place and cultural meaning-making at a critical juncture in the history of this region. In analysing the everyday complexities involved in articulating self, place and home in this transnational space, Popov exposes the often problematic binary assumptions implicit in the national membership model between self and other, ‘migrant’ and ‘local’. While the book is surely a must-read for scholars of migration and nationalism in the region, it should also have significantly wider appeal given these insightful contributions to conceiving of self, community and belonging in conditions of transnationalism. At a moment when the push-and-pull between nationalism and globalisation feels ever heightened, this is a timely contribution.

Dr. Katie Tonkiss