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Imagining Post-Imperial Order: New Historical Study of the Imperial Crisis

December 19-21, 2014 the international research project "Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism" under directorship of Ronald Suny held a three-day seminar «Imagining Post-Imperial Order: New Historical Study of the Imperial Crisis» in Repino.



The seminar was a follow-up to the summer meeting "Society and Politics in the Time of Imperial Crisis" organized on August 23, 2014 in the HSE in St. Petersburg. This second workshop of the project was dedicated to the models of political imagination of post-imperial political, social and cultural spaces that were historically associated with the discourses of federalism, autonomy, supranational and macro regional societies, and scientific discourse of social and cultural diversity. All sessions were held in English.

The members of the working group of the project presented their work:

  "Between Wakefield and Marx: Siberian Regionalists (Post) Colonial Future”

Sergey Glebov (PhD, Amherst College and Smith College, visiting professor at HSE in St. Petersburg, affiliated participant of the project "Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism") offered a new analytical model for understanding the federalist tradition in the history of the Russian Empire in its relation to social thought, social-reformist and social-revolutionary ideas;

  "Negotiation and Nationality Status in the Soviet Union"

Jeremy Smith (PhD, University of Eastern Finland) radically revised the fundamental to the history of Soviet society and the state term "national policy" and suggested a new approach to understanding the processes of managing heterogeneous space of Soviet Ethno Federation and the historical experience of culturally separated Soviet society;

“State-Building and Transcultural Governance in North and East Asia, 1920–1923”

Ivan Sablin (PhD, member of the working group of the project "Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism," HSE in St. Petersburg) spoke about the Buryat and partly Mongolian attempts to create their own state after the collapse of the Russian and Qing empires. Two of them, the concept of the Mongolian state and the idea of the Buryat autonomy had national context. The two others, the concept of Buddhist theocracy and Buryat-Mongolian United State were based on the idea of super-ethnic Mongolian identity. Biographies of Tsyben Zhamtsarano and Elbek-Dorji Rinchino were also discussed.

  “Imagined Continuities: Conservation, Nationalism and Local Identity in First Soviet City Arms (1964-1970)”

Eugene Manzhurin (graduate student, HSE in St. Petersburg) presented his dissertation research. The language of Russian imperial territorial heraldry had been forgotten by the time the grass-root symbolic revival started in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. Local visions and references to centrally produced visual discourse jointly formed new symbolic languages with important bridges to imperial symbols. These imagined continuities became possible with the increasingly laissez faire policies of Moscow that allowed local elites to take initiative in identity politics. The cultural heritage movement gaining strength at the same period is another important context. The speaker interpreted symbolic reconnections to pre-Soviet history as distinctly local developments. While most of them recontextualize (and thus normalize) the Soviet experience as a stage in Russian history, some early examples, eventually curtailed by Moscow, strive to create a distinctly national local symbol language. They push Soviet visuals aside, creating a national symbolic space with only minor necessary concessions to the central discourse.

Faculty and students of the Department of History also participated in the seminar and presented their papers:

“Law between Revolution and Tradition: Russian and Finnish Revolutionary Legal Acts, 1917–18”

Tatiana Borisova (Candidate of Science in History, HSE in St. Petersburg) in her talk explained how in very different legal cultures, such as Russian and Finnish, which actually came from the same imperial background, the revolutionaries tried to legislate.

“The Persistence of Race in the late Russian Empire and Beyond”

Dmitry Mordvinov’s (PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia, International Associate Research Fellow, HSE in Saint-Petersburg) paper examines the notion of race in the late Russian Empire. It addresses, in particular, the very language of race in Russian contexts and how it was transferred into Russian liberal discourse of the late nineteenth century. The paper addresses the question of the inorodtsy, a category denoting non-Slavic subjects of the Russian Empire, and argues that the inorodtsy were often understood in racial terms, as anthropology and ethnography were called upon to study the “indigenous races” of the Russian Empire. The paper affirms that seeing the category of inorodtsy as a distinctively Russian imperial way to think about race adds to our understanding of both the Russian imperial state, and pan-European scientific processes it was involved in. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the rapid decline of the idea of race in the young Soviet state, and contemplates the effects the Russian imperial way of thinking about race had on contemporary post-imperial space.

“Making the Arctic Comfortable: Changes in Urbanization Models for the Soviet Far North in the 1950s-1960s”

Ekaterina Kalemeneva’s (graduate student, HSE in St. Petersburg) presentation was focused on the problem of the Arctic urbanization in the USSR in the 1950-1970s. Since a part of new political course after Stalin’s death was the task of improving living conditions for the Soviet people, the architects were able to offer their own construction projects, designing new types of cities in the Arctic. A group of architects in Leningrad in the 1950-1960s started to argue that only creation of special towns with artificial microclimate in the North would make this region “suitable for life”. While most of those projects were not implemented, this case highlights several important aspects of the limitations of expert knowledge in the Soviet Union and the phenomena of colonization view on the Soviet North.

"Evolution of Historical Research in the World Borders Imperial and Post-Imperial Times"

Kuzma Kukushkin (graduate student, HSE in St. Petersburg)

“From Collecting for Oneself to Collecting for the Nation: Alexander III at 1882 All-Russian Exhibition and Birth of National Arts Museum”

Nikita Balagurov (graduate student, HSE in St. Petersburg) focused on the shift in the collecting practices of Alexander III after his ascension to the throne. This shift from collecting as a private person to collecting for the nation was prepared by the exposition of Russian art at the 1882 All-Russian Art and Industrial Exhibition in Moscow. Featuring more than 900 pieces executed by Russian artists in 1855-1880, this was an unprecedented showcase of the achievements of the “Russian School of Painting” that was becoming perceived as an important contribution to the prosperity of the Empire. The context of the 1882 Moscow Exhibition highlights that both the Emperor’s collecting practices and the development of arts in Russia are best interpreted not as pure change of ideological preferences but as a part of the process of Russia's modernization. The exhibition shows that art was an essential part of the process.

Since the project was designed to attract new approaches and methodologies of historical analysis to the educational process, undergraduate students majoring in History were motivated to speak in English about their current work and receive feedback from the leading researchers in the field:

“Soviet Architects in Vyborg: Transition of Identity, 1947-1964” Ksenia Litvinenko (3d year student, HSE in St. Petersburg)

“National gender policy in the USSR at the end of 1920th (using the series of brochures “The Female Toiler of the Orient”)” Valentina Smirnova (3d year student, HSE in St. Petersburg)

“The Soviet speechwriters on the example of the Diaries of Teimuraz G. Stepanov-Mamaladze”  Yana Kitaeva (2nd year student, HSE in St. Petersburg)

“The Second Boer-War and its Representation in the Russian Press” Oleg Kudinov (3d year student, HSE in St. Petersburg)

“The International Postal Exchange in the Nineteenth Century: the Way to the Universal Postal Union” Sergei Mikhailov (3rd year student, HSE in St. Petersburg)

“Visualizing Diversity between the 1870s and 1910s: the Kunstkamera Photographic Collection” Maria Zimina (2nd year student, HSE in St. Petersburg)

"Nationalism and Regionalism in the Context of "Alash Orda "" Alexander Korobeynikov (2nd year student, HSE in St. Petersburg)

“Images, Identities, and Spaces in the Context of Russo-Japanese Relations in the Late XVIII - Early XIX Century” Alexander Kuchinsky (student, 2nd year, the HSE in St. Petersburg)

Alexander Semenov (PhD, Professor, Head of the Department of History, Head of the working group of the project "Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism," HSE in St. Petersburg) and Ronald Suny (PhD, Professor, University of Michigan, Head of the international project “Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism,” HSE in St. Petersburg) were the moderators of the discussion.

Manuscripts of the articles to be published in English and the concept of the conference "From Empire to the Post-Imperial: Alternative Political Imaginaries", planned for 4-6 June 2015 as well as the Summer School "Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism ", planned for 4-12 June 2015 became the main outcome of a three-day intensive workshop.

Feedback from the participants:

While the seminar was an undoubted success overall, I would like to particularly emphasise high level of presentation by the BA students of HSE St. Petersburg. While the presentations of the graduate students and faculty members met high expectations, it was with the BA students that high level of theoretical, methodological and practical aspects of research work in history conducted at HSE St. Petersburg became apparent. It will be fair to say that some presentations made by BA students were of the graduate level.

In my opinion, such research and networking-oriented seminars held beyond the confines of the main campus should definitely continue and expand, as they present an opportunity to both present one's own work and receive constructive and challenging feedback to it, while having ample time and opportunities to get to know one's colleagues better both intellectually and socially.

Dmitry Mordvinov (PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia, International Associate Research Fellow, HSE in Saint-Petersburg)