Kurdish migrants in Saint Petersburg are watching the situation in the Middle East carefully, not least because a new influx of Syrian migrants could disrupt their settled way of life.
Vaddah Al-Djundi sits on a sofa and drinks a relaxing cup of tea. On the wall behind him hang several flags, those of the Russian Federation, the Syrian Arabic Republic and one with a golden sceptre, white grappling hook and an anchor on a red background – the flag of Saint Petersburg. Al-Djundi is the chairman of the Syrian culture centre in St Petersburg. For eight years, his office has been close to the Peter and Paul Fortress, in the centre of the historical city. It’s been 28 years since he came to what was then called Leningrad. Motivated by a love for the city, he’s created a new life for himself.
Al-Djundi takes a sip of his tea and speaks in a calm voice. “What counts for us is not where someone is from, what his religion might be or which party he favours, although those topics appear from time to time. While in Moscow it might be different, with communities quarrelling, for us a Syrian is a Syrian, no matter of belief, as if it’s not bad enough what they have been through – their home country is destroyed by war.”
There are several Kurdish and Syrian cultural centres in Saint Petersburg. According to their own accounts, some have up to 2,000 members, but there are no official numbers, because there are no exact records of membership. All it takes to be a member is a feeling of identity and contact with a centre. “We assume that the number of Syrians in the city has increased since the civil war,” Al-Djundi says. “We cannot confirm this assumption because we cannot count those Syrians and Kurds who aren’t in touch with our centres. Those who seek contact with a cultural centre do so of their own free will.”
Another reason for the disparity in official figures is that Syrians who marry Russians but have not yet given up their passports do not count as newcomers at cultural centres. Due to their family circumstances, these citizens face fewer bureaucratic obstacles than Syrians in other countries. For the Syrians who fled the war, meanwhile, things work differently. A year ago, many émigrés were on their way to Scandinavia. On their way, they had to go through Saint Petersburg. But at the beginning of 2016, Norway shut down the Arctic route and fewer Syrians reached the city where Russia has only granted a select few asylum. The rest live on tourist visas, unable to legally work.
Today the community faces troubled times due to sanctions and an economic downturn. Refugees and students are therefore in the minority at the cultural centres. The majority are older migrants, in their forties. During the 1980s, the era of glasnost and perestroika, they came to Russia because of their love for the country and, like Al-Djundi, they stayed. Occasionally they gather and play football or celebrate festivities such as Iftar, during Ramadan, breaking fast with local people of all faiths. Those who can visit family in Syria or send aid packages home. But today the community faces troubled times due to sanctions and an economic downturn, resulting in less support than before.
There isn’t much of a relationship between the Syrian and Kurdish communities in Saint Petersburg. They are aware of each other’s existence, but tend to keep to themselves, with apparently little enthusiasm for changing that.
An Influx of Newcomers
The Kurdish diaspora in Russia dates back to the 17th century, dwarfing the Syrian diaspora’s influx over the past 30 to 40 years. In the aftermath of World War I in Armenian Ararat, the first Kurdish republic briefly flourished between 1927 and 1930. After it fell, the Kurdish and Yazidi communities stayed in what were then the nations of Armenia and Georgia. They have assimilated into Soviet society, but today face challenges from Kurdish newcomers from the Middle East.
Sheikh Muraz Broyan sits in front of two flags, Kurdish to his left and Russian to his right. Portraits of Abdullah Öcalan and Vladimir Putin hang in his office. Muraz was born in 1951 in Tiflis. He is a Yazidi Sheikh and the director of the Kurdish cultural centre in Saint Petersburg.
“We consider ourselves preservers of Kurdish culture,” he says. “We are not diplomats.” Muraz thinks his fellow Kurds in the Middle East realise the value of the work undertaken by the cultural centres in Russia in bringing together Syrian and Kurdish groups. In 2010 he visited Erbil, in the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq. “Our brothers recognised how much culture we were able to maintain,” he says.
The cultural centre in Saint Petersburg was founded in November 2014. “We decided to start a centre for Kurds and Yazidis, because they have had an impact on Russian history,” Sheikh Muraz explains. Kurds served in the Red Army during World War II, and Muraz considers the preservation of this alliance between Kurds and Russians to be one of his key responsibilities.
It’s mainly old men drinking tea and waiting for Kurdistan to arise. Soviet-Caucasian Kurds and Yazidis established themselves as a successful and hardworking community, integrating into Russian society, with Georgian and Armenian Yazidis dominating Kurdish communities in Saint Petersburg. While they uphold their cultural traditions, the unique cultural make-up of the Russian Kurds sees, for instance, Russian vodka, Armenian baklava and traditional Kurdish Govend dancing to Turkish music at a wedding. It is typically the older members of the community who still speak Kurdish. Youngsters speak Russian – many are also learning English, German or Chinese.
The dynamic among the Caucasian Kurdish Yazidis is shared by other minorities in Russia, such as Kazakhs, Tatars and Mongols, who share an experience of 60 years of Soviet ideas followed by the changes of the post-Soviet era. The Caucasian Kurds in Saint Petersburg consider themselves loyal Russians. They do not want to fight for a Kurdish state. This passive mentality annoys the Iraqi Kurds, arriving in Saint Petersburg in increasing numbers. This outlook, coupled with the increasing scarcity of spoken Kurdish in the region, further alienates them.
“We live among Russians. When we first came to Saint Petersburg, there weren’t any Kurdish people there to welcome us – in the end, some Arab students took care of us. Kurdish communities over here? They’re all businessmen, they don’t care about us,” says 20-year-old student Weshar. He and his compatriat Zhiwar received scholarships from Russian energy giant Gazprom to study petrochemicals and geology, along with 30 other Iraqi-Kurdish students at the famous Saint Petersburg Mining University. Naturally, they are inclined towards the Russian lifestyle.
Seven years ago, Rebwar came to the city. He has a similar story. “We have learned Russian and oriented ourselves differently in order to adapt to society.” He now works for the NRT television station, a member of the Kurdish community who is fully integrated into Russian society and daily life.
For some Soviet Kurds, newcomers are troublemakers. They fear the new arrivals will try to impose their ideas on the established community. For instance, offering to teach Kurdish to children confirms fears that new arrivals will stir up pro-nationalist feeling and undermine the interests of the Caucasian Soviet communities.
From the newcomers’ perspective, Kurdish communities in Russia are maintaining their collective culture through their attempts to try and preserve it. “It’s mainly old men drinking tea and waiting for Kurdistan to arise,” Rebwar says, summarising the feelings of many newcomers about this established community.
This article was first published in the 2016/4 edition of zenith. Translation by Lisa Neal.