Cultural Creation of ‘Russian Reality’. Oxford: St Antony’s College, Oxford University, 15.03.2009.
Reviewed by Katharina Uhl
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (May, 2009)
Cultural Creation of ‘Russian Reality’
It is widely accepted that our sense of ‘reality’ is constructed by cultural representation. Literature, film, painting and other cultural media attempt not only to reflect ‘existing’ reality but also to determine our modes of perception and behaviour. In Russia, this use of representation to create ‘reality’ seems to have been particularly powerful. It is in this context that the conference on Cultural Creation of ‘Russian Reality’ was located. It was held on 15th March 2009 at St Antony’s College (Oxford University) and focused on the pre- and post-revolutionary period of Russian history. Organized by Junna Hiramatsu, Kyohei Norimatsu and Katharina Uhl (all St Antony’s College, Oxford University) and sponsored by the Slavic Research Center at Hokkaido University, the conference provided the framework for a valuable interdisciplinary discussion. The papers were read in three panels: the first two panels were organized around the theme of “Reality of Socialist Realism”, and the afternoon session was concerned with the theme of “Colonial Reality in the Russian Empire”.
Going anti-chronologically back in time, the first panel, which was chaired by CATRIONA KELLY (Oxford University), was opened by MONICA RÜTHERS (University of Konstanz) with a paper on “Socialist Living in the New Family Home of the Khrushchev Era”. The paper focused on visual culture, using photographs of the inside of the new living space in Moscow’s experimental quarter Novye Cheryomushki Nr. 9 as sources for exploring socialist domesticity as one means of staging reality in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. Rüthers thus demonstrated how the photographs were able to construct specific gender roles within the family as well as drawing a clear distinction between the different layers of Soviet society. Functioning as a “visual grammar of social and cultural capital”, the visual sources were part of a Soviet discourse on modernization, rationalization and hygiene.
The second paper in this section, which was entitled “The Creativity of Rubbish or the Reality of Ambivalence in the Communal Apartment”, was presented by SANDRA EVANS (University of Tübingen). The paper was concerned with the “symbolic dimension of social(ist) practice, i.e. …the absurd 'reality’” in everyday life and in its representation in satirical texts such as Daniil Kharms’ story Pobeda myšina. Characterizing the communal apartment as an utterly “ambivalent space” and using Victor Turner’s concept of the social drama, Sandra Evans demonstrates that the anti-structural elements of rubbish and the “objectified subject” represent the disorder and the ambivalence which are inherent to Soviet everyday life.
The second panel on “Reality of Socialist Realism” was chaired by ANDREI ZORIN (Oxford University) and was opened by MIKHAIL RYKLIN (Humboldt University, Berlin) who read a paper on “‘The Best in the World’–Discourse of Metro, Discourse of Terror”. The paper proposed a cultural reading of the metro as a construction site during the period of the “Great Terror”: it was not only the metro which was built, but Communist society was to be constructed “from the underground”. Serving the whole Soviet people and not the commercial purposes of individuals, the metro stations as “underground palaces” were to attain quasi-religious meaning in order to clear the way for the new atheist society.
The second paper in this section was read by JUNNA HIRAMATSU (Oxford University) and was entitled “Mimetic Representation and Violence in Stalinist Culture: The Case of M. Sholokhov”. It argued that previous studies on Socialist Realist representation had treated it as “a realization of intention” – the intention of the people who produced the representation, whether in order to create a new Soviet reality or to “lacquer” their own “reality” – and that these studies had thus paid less attention to what Socialist Realist texts refused to represent. Stressing the gap between the “funny” representation of collectivization of agriculture in the Sholokhov’s novel Virgin Soil Upturned and the “sad” representation of the same event in Sholokhov’s letters to Stalin, Junna Hiramatsu examined how one can read within Socialist Realist representation what the official aesthetic wished to efface.
The third panel of the day was chaired by MARK BASSIN (University of Birmingham) and embraced three papers on “Colonial Reality in the Russian Empire”. SUSAN LAYTON (University of Edinburgh) opened the session with her paper on “Russian Tourism, Nationalism, and Social Identity: Representations of Self and Other in the Early Reform Period”. The paper concludes that the period immediately after the Crimean War was a watershed for Russian tourism, which since then has been regarded as a part of the national culture. The paper shifted the focus from the usually applied distinction between “us” (the Europeans) and “we” (the Russians) to the development of a “Russian consciousness of divisions within the nation – divisions of social class, gender, educational level, cultural values, and religious values”. Through the examination of literary texts of the time, Susan Layton demonstrates the different meanings of tourism for different agents: travelling was regarded as an expression of modernity as well as “menace to Russianness”.
The second paper in this session was read by KYOHEI NORIMATSU (Oxford University) and focused on “The Dispute over ‘Russian Orientalism’ in the Mirror of Bestuzhev-Marlinsky’s Ammalat-bek”. Focusing on the scholarly debate on Russian Orientalism, the paper revised the concept of the Orient as an “internal outsider” that is represented by the protagonist of Bestuzhev-Marlinsky’s novel: his “identity suffers from ambivalence as he is sometimes evaluated to be ‘European’ and sometimes an ‘Asian’”. Kyohei Normimatsu offers an explanation for this ambivalence of the Russian concept of Orientalism, by stating that “the ‘internal outsider’ is not the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ simultaneously, but only sometimes the ‘self’ and sometimes the ‘other’”. He argues that this subjective nature of colonial representation in literary works is due to the special historical conditions under which Russian Orientalism developed.
The last paper of the conference carried the title “Colonizing Shambhala: From the Usurpation of a Buddhist Myth to a Usurpation of Identity (the Roerich Expedition in Central Asia–1924-1928)” and was read by DANY SAVELLI (University of Toulouse). Focusing on the expedition of the painter and mystic Nikolaï Roerich to Central Asia between 1925 and 1928, Dany Savelli examines the meaning of Shambhala, the legendary country of Tibetan Buddhists, as an appropriation of the creeds of a foreign people and thus speaks about the colonization of this imaginary land. Claiming that “the United States are Shambhala”, Roerich uses this assertion as a practical argument to encourage US investment in Tibet. In his accounts, Shambala appears not only as a land to be colonized but also as “a country to create”.
Assembling scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, ranging from history to literature and cultural studies to Himalaya studies, the conference engendered a wide-ranging discussion about “reality”, its construction, and perception. Thus the papers and the following discussions certainly did not provide a final answer to the question of how “Russian Reality” was constructed, but the discussions included clearly demonstrated by the wide range of topics covered the variety of areas in which promising research can be conducted to shed light on this question.
Panel 1: Reality of Socialist Realism I
Chair: Catriona Kelly (University of Oxford)
Monica Ruethers (University of Basel): Socialist Living in the New Family Home of the Khrushchev Era
Sandra Evans (University of Tübingen): The Creativity of Rubbish or the Reality of Ambivalence in the Communal Apartment
Panel 2: Reality of Socialist Realism II
Chair: Andrei Zorin (University of Oxford)
Mikhail Ryklin (Humboldt University of Berlin): ”The Best in the World”. Discourse of Metro, Discourse of Terror
Junna Hiramatsu (University of Oxford): Mimetic Representation and Violence in Stalinist Culture: The Case of M. Sholokhov
Panel 3: Colonial Reality in the Russian Empire
Chair: Mark Bassin (University of Birmingham)
Susan Layton (University of Edinburgh): Russian Tourism, Nationalism, and Social Identity. Representations of Self and Other in the Early Reform Period
Kyohei Norimatsu (University of Oxford): The Dispute over "Russian Orientalism" in the Mirror of Bestuzhev-Marlinsky's Ammalat-bek (1832)
Dany Savelli (University of Toulouse): Colonizing Shambhala. From the Usurpation of a Buddhist Myth to a Usurpation of Identity (the Roerich Expedition in Central Asia 1924-1928)
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: http://hsozkult.geschichte.hu-berlin.de/.
Katharina Uhl. Review of , Cultural Creation of ‘Russian Reality’.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2009 by H-Net, Clio-online, and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact H-SOZ-U-KULT@H-NET.MSU.EDU.