Lehrveranstaltungen von Urmila Goel an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder

Wintersemester 2004/05: Virtual Ethnicity - Ethnic Identity Construction in the  Internet

Russians in London on www.russianlondon.com

reports by Natalja Tabolich


Sites as commercial or private projects can be sold at any time, and I already wrote last week that a great part of users of my forum came from an old forum of another site, now I’ve got some new information about it that says that those old forum and the site were not closed but they were sold through the E-Bay and in fact they were sold to some company here in Germany. And the users who were discussing it also said they didn’t like it and they wanted to warn friends working in the IT-field in Germany not to buy such products, but actually I didn’t understand why, if it was a project for sail and it was made like this starting from the first day than what was wrong with the cery fact of sail... However it may be a good example for our last week’s discussion about moderating a virtual space and how vice versa users may create conditions when moderators play along, but it all can be changed like this happened to the described site.

I was surprised to see a topic “the bigger disctance the bigger love”. But actually the questions raised there are rather important to everyone who leaves his or her home and must live not only through difficulties in new countries, but also has to deal with some domestic interests common for the post soviet union space. Maybe of course all people has the same family interests t odeal with, but something suggests that it may be specific for our russian speaking countries due to the lack of living space, I mean appartmenets. It was a wide spread problem some years ago, when families in order to receive (not to buy but just to receive from the state) an appartment had to wait long time. And now when some people went “abroad” what has been a sort of taboo back then, a simple question of who will live in emty appartments come to life. I should also explain that we still have a system of “propiska”, It means that everyone must be registered in some appartement, so that he or she has a certain place to live. But if one gets registered in an appartement he has some rights on it and for example may restrict its sail. So people see it as a problem when they must decide whether to let some relatives live there (i.e. give them that majical right of “propiska”) or let someone rent there. It was a little bit long preview, and I wanted to describe how many problems and how much damage to relationships within a family can be caused by this “flat queastion”. Many users say they almost had fights with their relatives over appartements they left, how they allowed their relatives to register themselves in empty flats and then the relatives took their flats away. So the discussion about the people feelings turned into a not very pleasant review of bad experience connected with property and relatives fighting over private flats. That’s an interesting feature of living abroad which is really typical for our area, and represents the specificy of our attitude to the moving somewhere and abroad in particular.


As I always chut up all pop-up windows today was the first time when I noticed a banner that appears whe one gets to the front page of the site. It says that www.russianlondon.com is the leading russian language based internet portal since 1997 nad makes advertisement for different areas of the site, such as the forum, the on-line version of the newspaper “The Russian London”, the free matching service, the on-line e-store and some others.

On the front page we can see the list of up-coming events, that will take place in London, but all of them are connected with the russians. I’d like to give just one example of how an event can be presented “the exclusive bar Calma Lounge presents a unique possibility to light the night with russian music till the dawn, a seductive girl – DJ will not let you be bored. There gathers the upper class here, hot girls and cute guys. If your soul is still russian enough and you are not ashamed of a great quantity of vodka, you must be with us”. Along with parties for young generation one can find previews of events interesting for more serious audience, like the retrospective of  old movies of a famous soviet director, or the concert of russian romances and folk songs.

During last week the forum has been a little modified and now users can change the language of the forum, in their ooptions it’s possible now to go to one hundred percent russian forum where all the scripts are in russian. There’s a forum discussion that lead to such modification. Users were talking about pros and contras of translating forum’s options to russian. Some posts said that it was the waste of time to translate functional words since users would have hard times translating them back to english, as those words are best recognised in english. It was obvious that the policy of the russification was not really popular among registered users. Almost 93 percent voted for the not translated forum, maybe because of it the administrator made it as an additional option. That may be seen as an exampple of influence on the forum’s administration team from the user’s side.

And finally I understood what was the reason of such an avvalance of new users. I found a forum thread where users were discussing a division of topics and their tittles and I saw a couple of posts saying that the old place had this or that division and so let’s make the same here. So I went to the site the name of which I could find there by some given hints, and I saw the message “under construction”. The rest of that thread gave some others clues about the new users and their way here to the site russian london. Apparently a great ammount of users that joined the forum in the beginning of January, were transferred from the forum which was  based on the site www.bratki.com. The site was closed for the reconstruction and all users were sent to a new virtual space, which they immediately began to warm up and build according to their needs. There were so many recommendations from the side of new users, that they even tried to excuse their active position on the place that they didn’t own. They even told that with them on this forum it might become much alike with an old forum on the www.bratki.com, with a lot of topics, no structure, and thanked administrators for allowing them to influence and give their outside suggestions. They also thanked a lot for letting them feel free on the new forum, but since there are now the majority of the users it’s understandable.

The topic of the held changes and modifications is the hottest on the forum now, another problem widely discussed is whether to let unregistered users participate and post or not. The majority agrees that it might be a useful experiment for everyone, the only thing is that they are concerned about the quality of posts made by visitors who may not reappear ever again.

The number of other topics is increasing every day. From the list with which they began a year they grew three times, so there were 10 topics, now the number is 32. There’s even a discussions about the russian quisine. It was in the center of my interest this week, as I promised myself to practice some traditional russian recepies. I found a discussina called “Two questions about russian pan-cakes”. It has about 90 posts, which surprised me, and gives a lot of recommendations to those who would like to make this simple at the first sight but really difficult actually dish. But it was only in the beginning, by the twentieth post participants were lost in the discussion about who in a family must cook, and what russian guys like about russian girls. They started to share personal experience of what they did at home, what their life-partners liked to eat and so on. But for me  actually the first part of the discussion was more informative, though I know my own recepie of pancakes. Also I visited a discussion dedicated to favourite meals in England. It’s a pity many of users didn’t post the recepies. The most wonderful thing there was a huge picture of two torts which returned me from my external observation of forum’s problems to the ground of participating on the forum. So my point here is that when I had to get new information about changes and news around the forum itself I went to the “questions of organization” but to see what concerns the community itself I needed to ge to the discussions where people where talking not only about the organization of their favourite virtual space, but mainly about their everyday problems, views and points of view about world’s news. That is where I dare to say the spirit of the virtual community is. An I saw it especially after looking through the first discussion group and than paying attention to people’s words and posts on their daily conversations.


My site has gone through logical changes. As I visited it during december I didn’t notice any banners or any notifications about reconstructions being prepared. It was a surprise for me. On the 7th of January by means of the official newsletter of the site a letter was sent with invitations to visit the forum and participate on it, there’s been said nothing about the innovations made there, so I had to learn about them on the spot. The structure of the site is still the same, they still give and post different interesting and useful information, but the forum is now based on the verz wide spread forum-modell, that is appropriate to highlz used forums. Here it’s worth mentioning that the forum before was rather quiet but still heavely moderated, there was a group of moderators who made a volounteer job and held on to strict forum’s rules, I watched some of the users being warned about breaking the policy of the forum. Now I had to observe a completely different from what I was used to space, but it, I mean the changes, was done according to the site’s internal logics I will describe it later. Now I can’t see any of old moderators, they are all changed and now instead od their private data one can see their work phone numbers and e-mails (the office of  the administration) which means those peopl eare hired to do a certain job, and I want to point it out, that it’s a free forum, and to get people paid for moderating free spaces of  communication is not typical for an usual internet resource. However there were cases of which I already wrote reports and the main point of them was to indicate that on my forum users are not provided only with useful information but also with following links to real services such as the law firm and translation service. It might be an answer to the question why this space is watched so cllosely. If it’s a part of marketing programm of a certain organization interested in immigrants from russian speaking countries or people just moving to England, than keeping this space clean from flooders and flamers, or just from users who don’t seem to qualify.

Once again we can see on the example of my site that the big business find different and various ways to defend its interests even in the believed to be free interactive virtual world. As I’ve understood so far from what I’ve seen on the site, the organization Russian London Ltd. sponsors the site and is responsible for all performed services on it. On the forum there’re special subtopics dedicated completely to the problems that only the company can solve and indeed there exist special persons who are obliged to answer to all requests for information. It may lead to getting real applies and real clients. The situation seems to be rather clear and normal, but I’m highly interested in understanding how it affects common users who are just eager too communicate with people sharing their common interests without getting any respond from profit oriented personal of some company.


How is the website used to cater for special needs of migrants.

From my website one can get all the sorts of information needed. It concerns both those who only plan to change the country they live in and those who have already found some difficulties in England. The most unofficial is the forum area, where I found a sector “The UK Immigration” with vast subtopics. Many of them are strict and wait for a serious answers, the round of wanted information includes getting visas for a longer time, getting work permissions, visa help and so on. The biggest number of topics sound like “Help”, “I need the answers”, “Very important question” and on and on, when you go inside it’s noticeable that almost all questions are duplicated, for example, someone may point out, that this problem was already discussed, or someone may add his personal experience with discussed situation, and many times moderators close the topic or just write a notice with a link to the already existing discussion. But I’ve found also some interesting materials like the topic “help me get married” where as far as I’d understood a guy wanted to get a British passport and nothing else, end the best solution for him was proposed by many users (using free internet match services), but soon the discussion changed its direction and from the approximately tenth post, it was about socio-psychological problems of today’s youth and where and how it’s possible to meet someone in London. Though once in a while someone remembered the active topic and wrote something like “got to www.friends.com... and has anyone read the article in Peoples where...”

So, the site provides with not only personal information, having nothing to do with real problems and their solving. Actually right from the main page one can go to the directory www.russianlondon.com/immigration, and it’s a link of the Law Firm Ltd., where all kinds of supports for migrants is served. Lawyers with rich experience in this sphere are ready to work, and the thing that really surprised me was that they really give some “samples of their service”. I’ve written above about the part of forum dedicated to the Immigration problems, and in fact almost every topic is viewed by some representative of this Law Firm. They post the solutions they find appropriate and really give the direction to move in, of course on some certain point they propose visiting their official site or contacting them in any preferred way, but still for those who at the beginning had no idea what to do and where to go, they certainly present a starting point.

Another remarkable directory of the forum is the topic “UK Survival Guide”, now mostly occupied by people in search for apartments and rooms to rent. But there’re also posts dedicated to the legal detail of life in England such as divorces, health insurance adaptation to the new way of live (the topic that is much broader presented in the directories like Entertainment and Leisure).

All this helps to survive in legal jungles but of course it doesn’t cover all “special needs of migrants”. If to think of other needs as those like to lack of communication with relatives and friends from across the Europe, than I could say some words about the directory “SMS” which allows to send smses for free, but even after I was registered everywhere it asked me to get registered in order to get access to this service, so, most likely, the service is not available at the time. Anyway the forum and the chatroom function perfectly (though from our computer classes it’s rather difficult to maintain normal mode communication, due to connection speed problems).

I tried to present at least several sides of that what is connected with migrants needs and is presented on my site, but I think the main message here could be that the site itself is the instrument that works for migrants needs, satisfies them.


Are there signs of hybridity on the site?

I’ve been searching for them for two weeks now, and I haven’t noticed any. That’s my problem that I met, while developing last week’s main topic “Hybridity”. I’ve explored most of interactive spaces on my site, which included forums, chat, online voting (that was empty), even beauty contest, and official events schedule, but I didn’t find anything. My conclusion was that probably it’s too early for the signs of hybridity to be obvious.

As I read different posts on different forum’s directories I got a general view on how long users of the site had been in England and how old they were. So, the age of users varies from 20 to 35, most of them claim to be young professionals or house-wives, and they have lived in England for from a half of a year to 10-12 years now. The numbers are really approximate and I can’t operate with them as with something final and useful, but at least it gives me a blurred picture of why I had no success in my research on the hybridity topic. Partly it happened because of absence of pure political content on the site. Though there are electronic versions of printed articles from the newspaper “The Russian London”, and from some other international media resources, the content is very liberal, and they obviously tend to avoid any strong politically, maybe not neutral articles. I managed to get this also from the forum topic initiated by an user, coming from the Ukraine, about the Ukrainian elections, and he got only a couple of answers, which showed no interest in developing this discussion (though all the world media discuss it these days). That’s why I came up with the statement, that since no in social and political problems is shown, and since everyone as I saw is concerned only about his o her personal problems and questions, maybe it’s too early for those people to demonstrate their active social position, when they try to make their everyday life be as much as possible the British everyday life.

I know I can’t judge or make any final statements, and I’m far from it, but I can’t stop myself from keeping noticing and giving remarks. And a very interesting event that I observed on the site was a beauty contest, which at first seemed to me to be held just once, but when I started to serve through it,  I saw that it was not just one time a year event. It actually lasts in time, and the results are updated, and all the participants are all users of the site that have downloaded their photos to their profiles. Everyone can check them and vote them. The collection that is open to anyone is really admirable, I was mostly interested in the male sector of the contest, and I was deeply impressed by looking at traditionally Russian faces with somewhat new background, but it didn’t make faces any less of Russians. The Slavic features, like little eyes, broad cheeks and cheer smile were very recognizable even with british sights on the background. That was a strong and impressive part of interaction between users, because anyone can leave his comment on any picture, and most of them were rather friendly with a little bit of irony. Also I visited the site’s photo gallery, and it was worth seeing, because it gave me an opportunity first of all to see the team that created the site, not the technical part, but the content part. Many of those who participated rather often in the forum’s life also created special folders for themselves where they put many photos from different parties, they had together, the only thing was that all the pictures were two or three years old, so I couldn’t find any of the users that were active at that time on today’s forum. Or maybe they are now hybridized. The time will show.


If we take the forum on the site I’m observing it will be really easy to see that people who attend it, tend to maintain together, are linked to their national roots and still feel somehow united though in a strange manner. For example if they plan to organize some public or open meeting there’re always two groups: “the enthusiasts” and “the pessimists”, so that sometimes it’s hard to tell whether they really want to rest “Russians” or they want to forget about this fact of their biographies, but still they remain there at the virtual place which marks them as belonging to the outside-given category “Russians”. If we see it as something that has a real basis under, we can say that they are a real Diaspora, at least within a virtual space, because all the components that the classical Safran’s definition gives us are represented: there is dispersion to two regions (even more if we count The Ukraine and Belarus), the forum discussions are full of myths about homeland (even provided from that very Homeland, by those living there, but visiting and participating on the Forum), users do show that they realize they are already strangers for the host society, though their idea of return is really clear. In fact it’s not only the idea, from what I’ve read on the forum, they go home, or at least some of them, they visit their families and friends circle, not very often, but enough to maintain relations to homeland. Though collective memory and myths about their homeland tend to be always closer to the present moment thanks to the latest changes that Ex-Soviet countries have been going through, so if someone goes to Moscow once a year, he will for sure notice many changes, and that allows many participants point at it on the forum.

From what I’ve seen it might seem right to tell that the site is frequented not by immigrants of the second generation, or even those who left their homecities many years ago as children. There’re people who do remember how it was to live “back home” and who really want combine two ways of life here and there. When someone from outside of their community points out that once a choice is made they can not return to the start, users who long to be Russians but only for themselves, start to convince everyone around (and maybe even themselves) that it’s possible to become a true part of their new society and still keep roots of the “Russian soul” within. I’ve seen roots of it in a discussion about how a “Russian evening” was organised, a very active participant of the forum (but he participates from the Ukraine, not London) was angry because he didn’t like that women were made to pay for the entrance as much as men, and he continued with little bit of aggression that the West changed people, who once left their home. His words met strong protest from the side of those who were “found guilty”.

For me the most important sign of existing something that can be described as Diaspora on my site was that participants really stick together, they provide newcomers with help (like propositions of being guides and so on), they meet each other often enough, they share their personal experience and not only this. When I started to observe the forum I read I paid a lot of attention to the directory Entertainment where I found an interesting topic that was initiated by a member, who didn’t post anywhere else only at the moment, and he listed all the events, that somehow could be of interest for other members and users, and he invited them to go to the concerts and exhibitions and evenings together, and in the mean time gave to all kind regards from their common friends from all over the world. So I enjoyed seeing not only national minority, or national Diaspora, presented on the site, but also the group of people, who maintain the contact between themselves.

The only doubt I had was, what if it has nothing to do with nationality, since the example I saw was connected with personal relationships, though created on the national minority basis? It makes the strength of Diaspora depend not on the external definition but mostly on their personal “wealth”...


The site www.russianlondon.com was created in 1997 and was an internet-version of a week-newspaper “The Russian London”. From 1997 till our days the site has been managed and mastered by a special editorial team, responsible for internet editions and information given on the site. The title of the newspaper shows what kind of information may be presented rather obviously, and so does its slogan “UK media coverage of russian related issues”.

The site provides its visitors with many useful services like free e-mail boxes, on-line translation, weekly newsletters,  previews of russian community related events, news updating, various support services, and also language services. The interactive part of the site may be described as well-presented, I mean a person who decides to participate in the on-line life of the site is more than welcome and has many possibilities of expressing himself there. All needed features of a modern well-thought through site are presented. It starts with matching service, than recruitment solution service, e-shop, forum, e-version of the newspaper editions, chat, yellow pages, advertisement place, it even offers free scripts download, on-line tourist guides and property for sale section. This great variety of possible opportunities for interactive leisure and business solutions presents a wide specter of fields to research and places of educational interest.

It also contains, as one can see, a perfect balance between serious information and entertainment, so to give everything that anyone who plans his or her visit to England or has a business there, or has plans to immigrate there, and of course already belongs to the Russian community there, might need. It also may be described as a particular feature of a general russian character “all here and now”, but probably it has a simpler answer: profit.

If I return to the subject, i.e. to describing the ambience of my virtual space, I can tell that one important thing must be mentioned: how closely all the sections of the site are watches by the editorial team, or moderators, especially forums and chat. The information is checked and you can sense the official tone even in the party announcements. The rules of the forum say that only Cyrillic way of typing can be used there, and the choice of topics and posts that are posted must be carefully viewed so that they don’t disturb the perfect structure of the forum. Or, for example, little sample of the forum’s policy „Forum is under constant monitoring. All unauthorised messages will be deleted, and your accounts terminated. Decision of moderators is final and is not subject for discussion or explanation“. It’s not the words, it really works like this, and here and there you can see messages cut or edited.

As for those who visit the site, they have their “roots” and “routes”, so the stories to share, and remarks to give, and sometimes they seem to be rather aggressive to their opponents, but most of the time discussions or chats are friendly, and I wonder if it is due to the fact that they all have the same cord that unites them. They are those who actually make the home-site out of the house-site. The forums has 6,686 members and 38,434 posts by today. On e must register on the forum to get access to other services, so the number doesn’t show the real amount of users as it never does elsewhere, but still it gives some clue to understand how often the site is frequented and used. And the most important detail is that my virtual space is not made as a place where the second generation of immigrants can meet and share their experience and homesickness, it’s a place that is very alive, uptodated and is really well built source of information and services for those who personal or business interests in England.


© Urmila Goel, www.urmila.de 2005