The Other Animals
Situating the Non-Human in Russian Culture and History
Reviewed for H-Animal by
Robert Murray (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Other Animals Conference (http://www.history.vt.edu/Nelson/OtherAnimals/), an interdisciplinary, international conference co-sponsored by Virginia Tech and Bates College and organized by Amy Nelson and Jane Costlow, brought together scholars from multiple disciplines to discuss the place of the non-human in Russian history and culture. From May 17-19, 2007, historians, folklorists, archeologists, and literary scholars explored the interpretations of non-humans in Russian culture and literature and situated the "other animals" in Russian history. The participants presented papers united by a conceptualization of society as a hybrid space incorporating both the human and non-human.
Nigel Rothfels' (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) keynote address discussed the evolving interpretation of elephants from wise and benevolent kings of the jungle to violent and rampaging adversaries worthy of the hunt. Rothfels also addressed the implications of these interpretations for both humankind's historical understanding of mammoths and our continuing curiosity in this first known extinct mammal.
In the first conference session, Gala Argent (University of Leicester) explored alternative interpretations of Pazyryk culture in her paper, "A Herd of Two: The Influence of Intersubjectivity between Horses and People on ideology and Identity in Iron Age Southern Siberia." Rejecting traditional neo-Marxist interpretations of the Pazyryk material culture unearthed in burial mounds, Argent suggested that a fluid and blurry demarcation between human and non-human in Pazyryk culture may have led this mobile society to adopt the survival techniques of the horses upon which it relied.
Also interested in the means of communication between human and non-human, Ann Kleimola (University of Nebraska) highlighted the importance of Vladimir Durov's animal-training career in shifting popular understandings of non-human intelligence and behavior. In "A Legacy of Kindness: V. L. Durov's Revolutionary Approach to Animal Training," Kleimola noted that although Durov lacks the household recognition of Pavlov, the popularity of his exceptional circus acts consistently undermined the traditional understanding of "stupid animals." Durov's later work in scientific examination with V. M. Bekhterev, founder of reflexology, failed to validate the telepathy Durov claimed to share with his dogs, but did expose the sensitivity of animals to human reflexes.
Turning to the Soviet mobilization of animals and non-human imagery, Cathy Frierson (University of New Hampshire) examined this enlistment in her paper, "Soviet Chimeras: Animals in Official Rhetoric and Personal Narratives in the History of Children of the Enemies of the People." Frierson concluded that Soviet rhetoric transformed the children whose parents were repressed by the Soviet regime into monstrous human/non-human combinations whose continued existence threatened society, and that this manipulation of animal imagery caused at least one intertwined effect. Not only did these children suffer a disconnect from positive human/non-human relationships, but similar emotional growth was hindered throughout Russian society.
In "Soviet Use and Representations of Reindeer: The Cooptation of a Saami Animal on the Kola Peninsula," Andy Bruno (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) discussed the transformation of reindeer from their traditional role in the livelihood of the nomadic Saami herders to fully "Sovietized" modern animals stripped of their premodern interpretations. Bruno highlights three spheres, characterized by conflicting interpretations of time and space, in which this transformation occurred: economy ("traditional" practices supplanted by collectivization, settlement, and industrialization), locality (the use of reindeer both as a regional and Soviet symbol), and nature (Soviet establishment of nature preserves and conservation techniques).
Arja Rosenholm's (University of Tampere) paper, "On Men and Horses: Animal Imagery and Construction of Russian Masculinities," examined the gendered nature of animal imagery with a specific interest in the association of masculinity with horsemanship. Rosenholm maintained that while conventional post-Soviet cultural discourses continued to assert male strength and feminine weakness through animal imagery, a countercurrent discourse emerged that explored the "crisis of masculinity" by reversing gender roles; in post-Soviet literature and film, this crisis is embedded in the image of a woman climbing into the saddle.
Olga Glagoleva (University of Toronto) argued that the antithesis of masculinity symbolized by the horse is the male baseness captured within the symbol of the pig. In "Woman's Honor, or The Story with a Pig: Everyday Life in the 18 th-Century Russian Provinces," Glagoleva examines the intersection of honor, gender, and power through the "pig case" of the Psishchev family and human/non-human interaction in the provinces.
Utilizing both nineteenth-century sources and contemporary field records, Mikhail Alekseevsky (State Republican Center of Russian Folklore) examined the methods employed by peasants in caring for animals in his paper, "Treating 'The Other Animals': Russian Ethnoveterinary Practices in the Context of Folk Medicine." Alekseevsky concluded that although peasants conceptualized and classified diseases similarly for humans and non-humans, the actual practice of veterinary treatment and knowledge lagged behind human medicine as peasants only treated those animals essential for farming (primarily cattle and horses).
Ian Helfant (Colgate University) utilized nineteenth-and-twentieth-century hunting journals to trace the evolving representation of wolves in "That Savage Gaze: The Contested Portrayal of Wolves in Nineteenth-Century Russia." As hunting gradually shifted from an aristocratic endeavor to a more egalitarian vocation, hunters continued to perceive themselves as the heroic protectors of peasants. However, Helfant noted that a new discourse emerged, propagated by "reformed" hunters and members of the Russian Society for Animal Protection, that questioned the demonization of wolves and predators.
Shifting to the equally iconic bear, Jane Costlow's (Bates College) paper, "For the Bear to Come to your Threshold: Human-Bear Encounters in Late Imperial Russian Literature," interpreted the bear as a liminal creature representative of the "old" and "wild" Russia that was lost to modernity. Like the hunter's wolf, the literary bear became reflective of human emotions.
Amy Nelson's (Virginia Tech) "The Body of the Beast: Animal Protection and Anti-Cruelty Legislation in Imperial Russia" examined animal protection legislation in contemporary Russia and placed its origins in the legal debates surrounding the Great Reforms of the nineteenth century. Nelson asserted that some aspects of the nineteenth-century debate surrounding this legislation, particularly the question of human/non-human interdependence and moral considerations of animals, "resonate" with contemporary discussions.
In her paper, "The Animal Mayakovsky," Katherine Lahti (Trinity College) interpreted futurist poet Vladamir Mayakovsky's work through the lens of animal imagery. Utilizing this new approach, Lahti concluded that Mayokovsky, better known for his veneration of machines, employed animals to express emotions, particularly suffering. Lahti also examined the significance of animal imagery in the poet's visual art and his tendency to utilize non-human identities for humans.
Gesine Drews-Sylla's (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen) work examined the satire performance art of Oleg Kulik. In her paper, "The Human Dog Oleg Kulik: Satire in Post-Soviet Animalistic Performances," Drews-Sylla positioned Kulik in a long Russian cultural tradition of grotesque performance art. A paradoxical artist, Kulik simultaneously addresses serious social questions and ridicules them. The author concluded that Kulik's multicontextual performances stand in a tradition of symbolic dog representations, but also use this tradition to disrupt societal norms.
Surveying literature in the post-Soviet era, José Alaniz (University of Washington-Seattle) examined the gendered imagery employed by authors to convey an obsessive quest by men to relocate their identity in a consumerist and modern Russia. In "'Life of Ferret' and the 'Manimal' in post-Soviet Russian Literature," Alaniz argued that the symbolic merging of human and non-human reflects an escape from human degradation; the author asked, however, whether becoming an animal is an escape, a liberation, or a regression. In post-Soviet Russian literature, the gendered animal image offers a means to return to fundamental humanity.
Daria Kabanova's (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) paper focused specifically on a single work of fiction. Her paper, "The Animal Watches You: Identity "After" History in Tatiana Tolstaia's The Slynx," argued that by challenging the human/non-human binaries, The Slynx did not search for a solution to Russia's contemporary identity crises after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rather, this challenge ultimately questioned whether "human" is a functional category at all.
The Conference's concluding roundtable discussions highlighted the inadequacy of traditional "human/animal" binaries and the implications of more nuanced interpretations for anthropocentric scholarship. Although the conference focused on the non-human in the Russian context, participants also considered the broader implications of their work, specifically the extensive mobilization and utilization of animals and animal imagery during times of cultural turmoil. Reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of the conference, participants also discussed methods for bringing scholars from multiple disciplines together on common ground; also of concern was the fissure between scholars who exclusively examine animals and those who observe human culture. A spirit of scholarly generosity permeated all discussions that fostered frank and productive dialogue.
Review of "The Other Animals: Situating the Non-Human in Russian Culture and History"
Date Published: June 12, 2007