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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Valerii Belianin

Slavic Studies 2002: From USA With Anxiety

November 21 to 24, 2002, on the three rivers' intersection in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, there were four days filled with anxiety about Russia. This happened at the annual Congress of the American Association for the Advancement for Slavic Studies. Over those four days more than 2000 scholars and independent researchers at more than 300 panels discussed problems of politics, culture, literature, folklore, religion and language of the countries of Eastern Europe.

Bosnia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Ukraine were given due attention. And even gypsies were mentioned. But Russia was the main issue. At least it seemed so to me.

I learned that the North American approach to history is nowadays not purely chronological but mostly, so to say, semiotic. History is no longer viewed as a chain of events that took place in such and such year. History was regarded by most of the speakers at the Congress as a set of schemes and frames that are repeatedly taking place in different countries at different times. And it turns out that it is more important to understand the repeatedness of a model of behaviour or a discourse than uniqueness of an event.

Thus, the speech of Ol'ga Velikanova (University of Toronto) was titled “Narrative of Conspiracy in the Soviet Public Mind”. She dealt with the depiction of the enemies of the Russian October Revolution on the posters of 1920s and 1930s. The researcher talked about how ordinary people internalized the official message. Her point was that the myth of conspiracy was not simply inculcated from above by propaganda. Such a perception had deep roots in the collective representations of the Soviet population at the moment of crisis. Russian people often saw plots even in cases where propaganda kept silence. Independent stories of plots already existed in the public mind, so that the deaths of prominent political leaders of those years were interpreted as assassinations. One example is the narrative of Jewish-Bolshevik plot against the Orthodox people. Thus the mythological thinking of Russians made an input into the Soviet ideology.

Very close to the ideas of Ol'ga Velikanova was the concept of William Rosenberg (University of Michigan). His lecture was considered to be the best at the conference and was repeated at the evening session. Titled “Processing the (Soviet) Past,” it dealt with the unhealed trauma of Russia. In the opinion of William Rosenberg the punishment for the crimes of collectivization and “dekulakization” has not yet been defined. And moreover the whole history of self-punishment has not yet been brought to self-consciousness of Russians. Russia does not call what has happened in its history a social catastrophe. And though this may be interpreted as a testimony of strength of spirit, at the same time it is the burden of the past. Not being able (or willing) to understand its own past the country may not be able to move forward, though the process of reflection and healing from trauma is rather painful.

Russian culture was also in the focus of AAASS. Thus Helena Goscilo (Pittsburgh University) and Elena Prokhorova (George Washington University) spoke of the advertising campaign of the Russian bank, “Imperial,” which they viewed as an alternative to “pushy” Western commercials full of ready-made icons that exist in mass consciousness. In general, according to Prokhorova, Russians perceive advertising as an alien and hostile phenomenon because the commercials advertise what is unavailable to most of the population and because of the habit of viewing wealthy characters as class enemies.

There were a lot of panels dedicated to Russian (pre-revolutionary and modern) literature. There were almost no speeches devoted to the Soviet literature of so called socialist realism. The only one I heard was the speech of Annie Fisher (University of Michigan), devoted to the comic novel The Twelve Chairs. She contributed a paper entitled “ A Language-Based Approach to Ostap Bender” and examined Ostap Bender from Il'f and Petrov's satirical dilogy written in the early 1930's. She proposed two new approaches to understanding the construction and interpretation of the character. By viewing Ostap as a practitioner of “ life acrobatics,” a term describing the widespread post-WWI phenomenon of identity flux and manipulation, listeners were invited to see Ostap as a participant in contemporary European literary modes of questioning identity and meaning, such as dada. Her second proposal was that the linguistic category of speech play is a useful tool for interpreting Ostap's character. Close readings of excerpts from the dilogy showed that Bender's use of language reveals as much about this trickster (and his society) as what he actually says. She mentioned his techniques of verbal manipulation as switching the codes of speech (and also social dialects), excessive use of cliches and metaphors, certain speech constructions (such as “one of my acquaintances said thatů”) and also literalization.

I attended the panel called “Gender and National Identity in Russian Literature”. Luc Jean Beaudoin (University of Denver) spoke of Russian national sexual identity, analysing the gay subculture in contemporary Russia. Kelly Herold (Grinnel College) delivered a speech “The Creation of a Russian Face in Eighteen-Century Russian Prose”. She made an attempt to analyse women's portraits existing in Russian classics and through them tried to reconstruct a typical Russian woman who turned out to be blonde and brunette simultaneously. The typical examples are Ol'ga and Tatyana Larina from Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin.

A lot of papers were dedicated to modern Russian literature or, better to say, to the post modern one. It was mentioned that it is very intense and a little bit aggressive. Thus Vladimir Stroukov (Voronezh) devoted his analysis to the naturalism of Sorokin's novel Blue Fat. Pavel Lion, a discussant, suggested that one of the main concepts of modern Russian literature is terror. There was even a panel devoted to cruelty in Russian literature (led by Ilya Vinitsky, University of Pittsburgh).

The panel led by David Birnbaum (University of Pittsburgh) was titled “ Aspects of Russian Linguistics” but it also touched upon the issue of cruelty. Valentina Pichugin (University of Chicago) in her talk “Language of Russian Folk Lullabies” analyzed how specific structural and semantic features of this genre affect its linguistic build up at different levels (phonetics, word-formation, vocabulary, etc.). She focused on occasionalisms, various types of proper names, as well as regular and irregular patterns of diminutives and terms of endearment. She also examined types of lexical restrictions and major semantic fields associated with this genre. But the audience was particularly stirred by examples drawn from the “ death lullabies,” known for their violent and morbid content.

Linguistics, as traditionally understood, was not very popular at the congress. Thus in the paper by Victor A. Friedman (University of Chicago), “The Romani Press in Macedonia: Language and Perspective,” the accent was on sociolinguistics. He stated that Romani language in Macedonia is under the process of standardization, which is not an act but a process that can cycle back to the preceding stage. Thus, the Romani-language press provides a variety of interesting case studies both for theories of language planning and theories of socio-political development.

More than three-fourths of the talks at the AAASS Congress (to my rough estimation) were devoted to politics. The speakers were trying to understand modern Russia through the history of peasantry, repressions and wars, hot and cold. What was the foreign policy in pre-revolutionary Russia? How militant was its economy? Where are the roots of modern corruption and bureaucracy? Those were the unanswered questions behind many of the speeches.

One of the most engaging papers on the topic was given by Julie Corwin (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty), who spoke on Russian PR (in Russian it is pronounced as “pee are”) and political spin doctors. Mentioning that the US was the teacher of Russian PR-managers, she said that during electoral campaigns many Russian politicians are balancing between the so-called administrative resources, money, and verbal tactics.

What also made me title this review “From the USA with Anxiety” was the speech of the General Secretary of the Union of Journalists of Russia, Igor Yakovenko. He spoke about corruption in the mass media and latent censorship in modern Russia, which to his mind means a step-by-step introduction of limitations on the freedom of speech. He brought with him a book of 820 pages, Public Expertise. The book represents a map of the new Russia where instead of forests and swamps the zones of freedom of speech are depicted. The subtitle of the book was “Anatomy of the Freedom of Speech” and it showed clearly the areas of freedom and non-freedom or reaching for information in the regions of Russian Federation.

A book fair operated along with the congress of Slavists. More than fifty publishing houses were present there. Among them were the leading editorials from Universities — University of Pittsburgh Press (www.pitt.edu/?press/order.html), Oxford University Press (www.oup-usa.org), University of Washington Press (www.washington.edu/uwpress), Northern Illinois University Press (www.niu.edu/univ_press), Texas A&M University Press (www.tamu.edu/upress), Harvard University Press from UK (www.hup.harvard.edu), IDC Publishers from Holland (www.idc.nl).

There were also private publishers: Frank Cass Publishers (www.frankcass.com) (which was selling a very thick dictionary by Vasily Mitrohin, KGB Lexicon); the Hoover Institution Press; and Slavica Publishers, operating at Indiana University (www.slavica.com).

There were also agencies that sold books from Russia (Natasha Kozmenko www.nkbooks.ru), New Literary Review (www.nlo.magazine.ru), Carnegie Center in Moscow (www.carnegie.ru).

At the book fair there were also companies offering various educational programs: Fulbright Scholar Program (www.cies.org), Open World Center Russian Leadership Development (www.open-world2002.gov), American Council for International Education (www.actr.org), the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (www.unc.edu/depts/slavic), and also Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute (www.huri.harvard.edu).

Many publishing houses offered computer projects and data bases. Thus Proquest advertised the project “Eastern European and Slavic Studies” (www.umi.com), Swets Blackwell (www.swetsblackwell.com), Norman Ross Publishing Inc. (www.nross.com), Integrum World Wide (www.integrumworld.com), Electronic Archives Company (www.biblio.ru) also came forward with multimedia projects. In fact a lot of the newspapers and magazines of pre-revolutionary and post-soviet Russia turned out to be presented on microfilms, microfiches and CDROMs. This, though, is a separate topic.

Finalizing the survey (which is far from being full) I would like to mention that among those invited were such persons as the journalist Alexander Genis, the son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Sergey Khrushchev, the philologist Yuri Shcheglov, journalists from Radio Freedom and other famous sovietologists. Or “antisovetchiki” as they could have been called years ago.

What will be their assumptions, what will be their approach to modern Russia, how will it influence Russian-American relations? I do not know.

The only thing that became clearer to me was that Russia is a country with a difficult but interesting destiny.

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