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First of I should mention that I like Russia, have been there and I just like the people, the culture, the architecture. Pretty much every friend/coworker/family members knows and accepts that.

But lately I have gathered a lot of strange stares and questions that I feel uncomfortable or forced to answer.

I live in Germany and I a friend of mine (I know him since 1st grade, he's Russian) gifted me some Russian souvenirs for Christmas. One of those things is a small velcro patch with the Russian flag (tricolor one) on it that I put on my backpack. It's the only flag on my backpack.

Everything was fine up until the attack on Skripal and his daughter. So ever since that happened whenever I walk through town with my backpack some people stare at me (especially on the bus/train) and some even ask me strange questions like

Why do you even have a Russian flag on your backpack? (In a tone that makes it sound like it's illegal to have that)

or

Aren't you ashamed you have a flag of the country ruled by a dictator and killer? (Not even joking, even though questions like that are rare, it sometimes happens)

I just really don't feel like I need to answer their rude questions. So I usually just ignore them. I'd like to avoid all discussions about Russian politics.

So my question is how can I avoid or - if necessary - answer those super weird encounters/questions besides to not have the flag on my backpack because I don't feel like I should be ashamed for my opinion?

  • 1
    If you like, we can continue this discussion in chat: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/78585/russia-germany – user6109 Jun 7 '18 at 14:40
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    NOTICE: Please try not to start discussion about the past history or modern day politics. Keep things civilized and use comments ONLY for asking for clarifications or suggesting improvements. Comments used for other purposes will be removed WITHOUT NOTICE. That goes for answers as well. Thank you. – A J Jun 8 '18 at 6:29

10 Answers 10

65

There are two answers, one for each of the paths that you ask about:

Avoid questions by either removing the flag or putting it in context. The context could be other countries you like, or stickers that establish a travelling meaning. The flag by itself raises questions because it does not indicate if you enjoy the country, its politics and leadership, its political system or its landscapes. Unless you can provide a context, people will either wonder, or read into it whatever they want to read into it. You could also opt for another symbol if you are not particular about the flag, but as it was a present I assume that is not an option.

Answer the questions in a similar way. Grab the assumptions hidden by the horns and make the person asking uncomfortable for having jumped to conclusions. For example, you could say:

I really admire the wide forests and wonderful northern tundra landscape. It is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. What do you mean by "aren't you ashamed"?

For people who are a bit stupid and won't get the hint, you can be more direct:

I don't care much about politics. I love the country and its people, the (food/music/architecture - whatever it is you love most) is just amazing. Do you have a problem with that?

If they talk back to you and you don't feel like having an argument:

I don't really care much about your opinion. Have a nice day.

Sometimes being blunt and straight, but without being personally insulting, is the best approach.


Update:

I cannot comment anymore, so to address some of the comments:

  • Feel free to tune the exact wording up or down depending on your preferences. Note that the OP will anyway have to make these statements in German, so pedantery about specific words or phrases is misplaced
  • The last statement is meant to be blunt, on the edge of rude, intentionally. The OP stated he has no interest in engaging in an extended conversation and primarily wants to shut people down. The answer is given in light of the question.
  • I missed pointing out that after giving that last statement, you disengage yourself, e.g. walk away, look away, turn back to the friend you were talking to or whatever is situationally appropriate. If you say that and stand there staring someone in the eyes, yes that would be a provocation. Don't do that. After wishing them a nice day, disengage.
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    If the goal is to not have an argument, stating that you do not care about the persons opinion is surely not the most effective way to go about it... – Jesse Jun 11 '18 at 3:28
125

You know, I'd like to quote the British comedian Stewart Lee on this, because there is many a true word spoken in jest. By way of a disclaimer, the subject of this comedy routine is absolutely not the target.

"...sometimes you're stuck with what a symbol means to you, aren't you? It's a bit like these old hippies that say, "The swastika... far from being a symbol of Nazism, is in fact a Hindu good luck charm".
And I always think, "Well, good luck with that".
That may be the case but you're going to need a lot of Hindu good luck if you're considering wandering around Golders Green (a predominantly Jewish area of London) waving one."

The point this satirically makes is that you can argue until you are blue in the face that a certain symbol, or flag means X but if everybody else (or a majority) see it as meaning Y then you have to face the fact you are going to get questions, funny looks, hatred, assumptions, whatever the symbol invokes.

A lot of communication is non-verbal. Honestly, the answer to your question of "how to avoid questions" is to take the symbol off your bag. To be clear: if it were a flag or a symbol that were connected to you on a deeply personal level I would not give you this advice. For example if you were Russian; or if it were any other symbol synonymous to your personal identity - we should never have to hide who we are! But this symbol means something to other people and so by having it on your back it is that meaning you are sending to them.

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    @Astralbee BЈовић doesn't think this is anti-semitic but "anti-russian" to use an analogy where the swastika is used in the place of the russian flag. – BlackJack Jun 9 '18 at 0:35
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    @blackjack Again, sorry you have misunderstood. It wasn't a comparison. It is an example that shows a symbol or flag can inherit meaning due to circumstances and there is no getting away from it. If some Germans find a non-Russian displaying a Russian flag at a time when Russia has made attacks on European soil to be questionable, then it is irrelevant what you or I think of Russia, the inherited meaning of that flag or the act of displaying it is the message being sent. – Astralbee Jun 10 '18 at 10:09
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    @Astralbee I get what you want to say, and I think BЈовић does to, it's just that this analogy can easily upset people, because you are in a way comparing the Russian flag with a swastika. Comparing almost anything with a swastika will be perceived as bad taste or rude by some people. – BlackJack Jun 11 '18 at 15:55
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    @BlackJack Final word on the matter - I am not comparing the Russian flag with the swastika. I quote a comedian, who compares people that argue that a swastika means peace and good luck when to the majority of mankind it means fascism, to people who want to wave any other flag and not have other people draw any possible meaning from it. Actually, if you look up the comedy routine I quoted and see the context, Stewart Lee had been talking about the British flag being a symbol of white supremacists. I'm British (so is Stewart Lee for that matter) and I am not offended. – Astralbee Jun 12 '18 at 8:33
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    Just like with the russian flag in the question it doesn't matter what you want to say with this quote, because you can't control how this will be perceived by people. I'm not offended either by this analogy, and I wouldn't mind if this was about my country's flag, but again this doesn't matter if there are people with more pride of their country and flag who are offended by it. It's almost funny because you don't seem to see the point this very joke makes in connection with your answer. ☺ – BlackJack Jun 12 '18 at 12:45
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If this is the only flag on your backpack, one answer could be to add some flags for other Countries you like or have been to.

Considering the current geo-political situation, having only one flag (the Russian one) on your backpack is going to be seen by many as you making a strong political statement.

A Russian flag, along with flags for other countries is going to raise less questions, as people are more likely to assume you maybe just travel a lot, or are a football fan (the next World Cup is being held in Russia).

29

Problems

Few flags in Germany

You probably have noticed that there are very few flags in Germany. Except during a soccer world cup, you simply don't see many people wearing a flag anywhere on their clothes or backpacks.

After WW2, German citizens have been suspicious of people who are proud of a flag.

Not limited to Russia

Taking the previous point into account, people will ask you questions about the flag you're wearing. I don't think it's limited to the Russian flag, though.

I can very well imagine that a non American person wearing a US flag in Germany will have to explain why and might receive inconvenient questions about the current POTUS, Guantanamo Bay or the invasion of Iraq.

Flags aren't just about culture

Flags might represent a language and a culture but they are also a political statement. If you wear a Russian flag, you cannot claim it isn't related in any way to the current regime, its actions or the man who has been its de-facto leader for almost 20 years.

Possible solutions

Wear different symbols

One possible solution would be to pick a different symbol. If you like the architecture, you could wear t-shirts representing Saint Basil's Cathedral or any building you like.

You could wear pictures of famous writers, T-shirts with Russian quotes or a map of the Trans-Siberian Railway. There are thousands of symbols that could display your love for the culture while not being linked to the current political regime. Those would help spark discussion but wouldn't encourage confrontation.

Spread the love

You could learn the language, display Russian movies or documentaries at a local theater, propose Russian books to the book discussion club.

It should make it clear what you're interested in and if someones still tries to link these cultural events to any political ones, you wouldn't be able to save the conversation anyway.

9

Why do you even have a Russian flag on your backpack? (In a tone that makes it sound like it's illegal to have that)

Aren't you ashamed you have a flag of the country ruled by a dictator and killer? (Not even joking, even though questions like that are rare, it sometimes happens)

Avoiding

I would recommend wearing headphones as it gives a clear message: I don't want to be bothered. I wear headphones, even if I am not listening to music when I want my colleagues and/or friends to leave me alone to get work done, which works for the most part. Whenever someone bothers me while I have them on for a reason that is seemingly unimportant (in your case, bothering you about the flag patch), I give them a quizzical look which clues them into how unimportant I feel the question was.

Another option you can try is putting the German flag (or your current country's flag) next to the Russian one, if you're interested. People might be staring because they don't think you care about Germany and placing the flag could relieve tension they might have.

Answering

You can always state what you said at the start:

I like Russia, have been there and I just like the people, the culture, the architecture.

Stress the "just" so that people know that you are not talking about the politics that is going on. I personally enjoy going to America for vacation, so I have a few pieces of memorabilia from the country, including a flag. People (rarely) ask me why I support America with the current political issues going on (I am from Canada). I just give them a weird look and say (somewhat loudly if there are other bystanders watching)

I like the places, not the people.

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    Got to say I disagree with a couple of points. Firstly saying "I like the places, not the people" is tantamount to saying you don't like the people. I'm sure that's not what we're about here on IPS. Secondly, although tied to the first point, wouldn't you say that a flag represents the nation of people rather than just the land? Lands didn't have flags before people were there. Flags are highly politically charged, and in times of extreme regime changes certain countries have changed their flags. – Astralbee Jun 7 '18 at 15:09
6

My answer: I recommend putting away the symbol until such time as it is unlikely to cause suspicion unless you wish to invite the hassle. Under certain circumstances, continued use of it puts your safety at risk.

From an observers point of view, it usually does not matter (to an observer) why you are using a particular sign or symbol. Most who think it suspicious will not bother to ask why you are using it. Most who think it suspicious will simply mentally label you as "not-safe".

In public, a minor amount of being "not-safe" is usually not much of a threat to you. In a crowded place where you raise suspicions in certain sorts of folks, you might get "bumped into" pretty hard, but you'll mostly just have to deal with suspicious glares of those who take notice.

If you wind up alone and isolated, there is a minority of people who may take that opportunity to assault you, perhaps verbally, perhaps physically.

People don't generally care why you have picked a symbol to associate yourself with. They make up the reason they need, and this helps drive their behavior. Your choice of a symbol offends them, and they act offended. To stop this, discontinue use of the symbol.

4

I assume "take it off" isn't an option, but if you put a German flag next to it (assuming you also like Germany), it would probably help send a much more welcome message: you like both countries.

There's a chance people will assume you're a dual citizen if you do that, so if you really care about that, you could also add a third flag, but that might be overkill depending on your taste.

But I don't see a way forward that involves keeping just the Russian flag on you.

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    One problem with this is that they may also assume you are a supporter of the ultra-right-wing AfD. – user510 Jun 8 '18 at 13:03
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    @user510 Apparently you need to add also an EU flag to the mix... ;) – Frax Jun 8 '18 at 22:13
  • @Frax But that won't help with people staring, because now it's even more unclear and confusing what the message of the flag trio could be. :-) – BlackJack Jun 9 '18 at 0:49
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The two examples are quite a bit different.

Being Civil

Why do you even have a Russian flag on your backpack? (In a tone that makes it sound like it's illegal to have that)

This at least has a thin vernier of civility to it. Were I in your shoes, I'd simply tell them the truth - One of your closest friends is Russian, the flag was a gift, and you wear it out of respect for him. That way it's a personal issue instead of a nationalistic one, and unless they're profoundly bigoted, they shouldn't have a problem with you having a Russian friend.

The other response is a bit more... Problematic.

Dealing with conflict

Aren't you ashamed you have a flag of the country ruled by a dictator and killer? (Not even joking, even though questions like that are rare, it sometimes happens)

Right out of the gate, they're picking a fight. This person is not, and will never be your friend. You shouldn't try to make peace or reason with this person - they've already decided they hate you - instead your goal is to avoid this becoming something worse.

Option one, as others have said, is to simply ignore them. If you don't engage at all, they can only leave or kick and scream like a child. If they continue to pester you, remain calm and insist that this is not a productive line of conversation. Do not engage them about the topic at hand, just say that you'd rather not get into an argument on public transport.

The Nuclear option

If you are bold or stupid enough, meet them head on. Point out that no country is free of sin - not even Germany. You could say that NATO and the EU are guilty of destabilizing the middle east and ruining the lives of millions, or you could invoke Godwins law and mention the holocaust. Say that that's just what happens to spies, and every country probably does the same thing and covers it up. Whatever truth you think will be ugliest to them, run with it. Turn their blade back upon them.

This is most likely going to severely piss them off, but at least you can gain some smug satisfaction from "Winning" an argument.

DISCLAIMER

Do not take the Nuclear option. Humans are violent, scornful, and unpredictable. Possible consequences range from public humiliation, the filing of false police reports against you, and good old-fashioned beatings. You have been warned.

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    I wouldn't even mention the Nuclear option, you even stated the reasons why not to use it. Might just as well leave it out of the answer. By the way, you don't "win" an argument by using a straw man fallacy, i.e. redirecting their argument against Russia to an argument against Germany, NATO, EU... – Ian Jun 8 '18 at 8:34
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    @Ian Bad decisions make good stories. – UIDAlexD Jun 8 '18 at 16:13
  • apparently, if someone confronts you rudely, they hate you?? – dn3s Jun 8 '18 at 18:18
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Sadly, there is usually no way to selectively reference a country's history(or parts thereof), politics (or parts thereof), people(...), architecture,.. via a simple signifier .

If you also like the parts that makes people look critically upon the Russian flag (criminal and/or subversive interventions in foreign countries), or think those are not real, you might try brushing up on the facts, and then start an amiable conversation with the critics.

If you like the Russian spirit, spirits, and language, while commiserating with the Russian people for being caught in the current quagmire, tell anyone asking that. They will immediately view you in a different light, as this is what Völkerverständigung is all about.

I generally view any person wearing any national flag as suspect, so i'd be in the crowd seeming to criticize you for the Russian flag - wearing a critical face is just as much subject to (wrong) interpretation as is any other sign.

1

From my experience, some people are guilty of trying to find a "statement" in the public display of a foreign flag.

The thing is, of course, there is no actual statement written on the flag. Instead, every person has to "fill in the gaps themselves", based on their own stereotypes and world view. Most people — I'm sure of it — will correctly conclude you have certain ties with the country or like its culture. There will always be few others, however, that will try to project their worst political or xenophobic stereotypes that are so dear to mass media nowadays.

So my question is how can I avoid or - if necessary - answer those super weird encounters/questions besides to not have the flag on my backpack because I don't feel like I should be ashamed for my opinion.

Your actions should depend on how much you want to "fit in" with the society you live in.

If you want to avoid attention from the handful of bigots that you occasionally face, your only choice is to get rid of the flag. I don't think there is anything inherently "bad" in it, but it does mean you will have to subject yourself to self-censorship in order to "conform".

If you actually don't mind "talking about it", I think it is best to honestly and calmly tell those people what you just told us: that you've got a dear friend in the country, that you are interested in its cultural heritage (assuming that you are!), and that this is just an innocent souvenir which is not meant to show support of some shady assassination most people in Russia have never even heard of. Depending on the person you're talking to, that may work (congratulations!), or it may only upset them. At any rate, stay kind, polite and truthful. If all fails, "I'm sorry to hear you feel that way." may be a decent finishing line.

The choice is ultimately yours.

protected by Community Jun 8 '18 at 11:55

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