On the meaning of decolonising Russian Studies

Can you spot the barriers to decolonising in the picture at my workplace?

In the previous post I responded to an article that accused ‘Russian cultural studies’ in the West of inculcating ‘imperial’ values in students. As a follow up, the Moscow Times asked me to comment for a piece. They asked: are you in favour of an art for art’s sake approach to studying Russian culture? Should Russian culture be ‘decolonised’ and have any efforts to do this backfired? In your opinion, what is in the immediate future for Russia studies? And how should Russia experts respond to criticism from scholars of Ukraine? Here’s my detailed response. You can read the interview here (when it appears).

Art for Art’s Sake

As discussed in my previous post, these questions largely show widespread misunderstanding of what humanities and social science education in universities is for. While students who enter universities might conceivably choose a subject like Russian Studies because of their romantic ideas about its exoticism, they are quickly disabused of this motivation in pretty much any state university programme on either side of the Atlantic. And actually, I think the idea that students nowadays choose subjects based on such notions as ‘art for art’s sake’ is rather condescending. Most students on my courses acknowledge that Russia is an important part of the world, and a constituent of Europe, or European culture, and think that they should know more about it, quite often because of the inadequate caricature of ‘The East’ they perceive in journalistic and public culture in general. To come back to the first question: 99% of  university courses abandoned the naïve idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ long ago. The purpose of Area Studies, of which Russian Studies is an small component, is to inculcate (or rather promote and encourage) two things: expert and usable knowledge, wielded by critical thinkers.

It is true that the study of Russian literature was once (long before my time) similar to the study of other literatures: taught from the perspective of a ‘canon’ of universally great writers studied for their intrinsic insights into Western-centric concepts of moral complexity (the F R Leavis tradition), or, in the already anachronistic contrarianism of Harold Bloom, writing in the 90s, for “aesthetic pleasure and self-insight”. It is ironic that these kind of charges should be put to a curriculum of Russian literature in 2023. It says far, far more about those imagining this non-existent Bloomian classroom, than those who teach and study. Bloom was reacting in the early 1990s to the dominant approach, ‘social reading’, that had been operative since the early 1970s and before: that a value of studying literature was to better understand history, society, and the big structures shaping change. If Bloom fought a rear-guard action for essentialism and elitism, the vast majority of literature students had, for generations already, been made painfully aware that the ‘canon’ was itself an artificial construction after the fact. When I studied literature at university from 1992, my teachers were already ‘decolonising’ the curriculum, by reading and analysing ‘neglected’ works alongside, or more often, in favour of, ‘the classics’. I spent more time reading Mary Wollstonecraft than Byron or Shelley, Fanon than Conrad, and South Asian writers than Kipling. Indeed, it was already indispensable to do such parallel reading. When I started teaching Russian literature in 2000 I continued the work of my teachers, selecting works for study which told us something important about Soviet and Russian history, politics and society. And that included works written in the twentieth century which revealed the horrors of the Civil War, Stalinism, collectivisation (and Holodomor), WWII and the Holocaust, and the collapse of the USSR. In educational contexts where it was possible, students read these works in the original Russian language.

Should Russian culture be ‘decolonised’?

Decolonising, along with post-coloniality, and anti-imperialism are all tricky concepts that are quite difficult to use without further definitions. In particular the first term has been strongly associated with recognising the deep structures and currents of racism and their roots in Euro-American culture and society. I work in a global studies department and our courses on Eastern Europe are merely a part of many programmes. Some of our more advanced programmes ‘provincialise’ Europe by studying it and the ideas associated with it alongside, and from the perspective of, scholars from South Asia, East Asia, and South America. Russia is a ‘special’ case because it is a Eurasian country and can be viewed as a ‘subaltern’ empire – as Viatcheslav Morozov has memorably written. What he means by this is that historically Russians strove to be treated ‘equally’ with other Europeans, but were invariably relegated in a process of ‘orientalisation’ – seen as exotic, backward, and a threat to the more advanced and enlightened Western civilization. Ukraine sat both within this paradigm – orientalized as part of East Slavic ‘non-really European Europe’, and within the Russian imperial hierarchy. A curriculum proposing deep knowledge about the USSR period and after would have to address both Russian and Ukrainian (and others’) postcolonial identities. Specifically the process of ‘decolonising’ would recognize that the Russian and Soviet empires generated of cultural knowledge about Ukraine privileging the ideas and narratives of the centre (Russian-centric, or perhaps in the USSR more complicatedly, Moscow-centric) over those of Ukrainians themselves. Decolonial study of Ukraine would also show how that Russo-centric cultural knowledge was applied to subjugate, mute, and disempower Ukrainian aims to attain statehood and develop a national identity. However, this would be need to be done in parallel with recognizing those same decolonising processed as applied to ‘Russia’ (which has never been a ‘nation state’ and is a product of complex processes of internal colonization and imperial expansion), and ‘Russians’, whose own search for a national identity has been stymied by the imperial overlay for centuries.

However, we should not be coy: what most people mean when they say we must ‘decolonise’ Russian Studies is that a hygiene test should be carried out on all writers and thinkers and that those failing this test, from Dostoevsky to Brodsky, should be inscribed in a black book, accessibly only with a key from the head librarian. A keynote to a recent academic conference I attended in 2022 was by a Ukrainian sociologist. His proposal was clear: all study of Russian culture should be stopped immediately. Russian authors and books (all of them) should be removed from European seats of learning until the war ends, reparations are paid, and Ukrainian studies given an equal ‘footing’ with the study (whatever that looks like) of Russia. The academic audience was very receptive to this proposal.

The immediate future for Russia studies? And how should Russia experts respond to criticism from scholars of Ukraine?

Hopefully it is clear from what I’ve already written that literary, culture, and indeed Russian studies also, has been ‘critical’ (of colonialism, imperialism, racism, dictatorship, and totalitarianism) for generations, and in some ways at the forefront of decolonizing and anti-imperial thinking – particularly where is it part of a curriculum (as in my institution) aimed at provincializing Europe. But let me be more specific, the best response to criticism from scholars of Ukraine is to take action. I take decisions I make about course curriculum very seriously: in my previous position (2005-2016) we collectively taught a course on the ‘cultural politics’ of the former Soviet space. The course was initially conceived by scholars of Georgian, Armenian, and Polish-Ukrainian heritage. In its many iterations, ‘Russia’ as an object and subject of study in the course was positioned appropriately: as merely one perspective. A whole semester was given over to non-Russian and non-Ukrainian topics and another semester saw Russia, Ukraine and the Soviet experience share roughly equal billings. No one would say there was ever an ‘ideal’ balance, nor that such a balance was possible or even desirable (because in some years we were fortunate to have more ‘indigenous’ scholars contribute). Today I teach a descendent of this course and because I know little about the Caucasus and I have much fewer contact hours, I have adapted this course and now it has roughly equal coverage of Russia and Ukraine since the perestroika period of the USSR. In my view the ‘global’ study of Russia, and any other state, is the way to go forward – contextualising it at every turn. The vast majority of sources on Ukraine in my course are from contemporary Ukrainian scholars. In conclusion, as long as ‘area studies’ exist (they tend to be reinvented every thirty years) there is unlikely to be any other sustainable model (outside tiny ivy-league colleges) for teaching Russia and Russian, and that is true also of Ukraine and Ukrainian.

2 thoughts on “On the meaning of decolonising Russian Studies

  1. bt

    I really enjoyed this article! I read you on Twitter, but it’s hard to get more complex ideas through in 79 character bits, or whatever it is.
    especially this: “inscribed in a black book, accessible only with a key from the head librarian”

    Liked by 1 person


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