By hughollard, on 8 March 2021
International Women’s Day is now recognised by the UN and celebrated in countries across the globe. But where did this distinctly twentieth century holiday come from? And what do modern celebrations of it say about the fight for gender equality and recognition in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia? Managing Editor Claudia Griffiths and Online Editor Hugh Ollard chart the history and prospects of the day.
International Women’s Day is now an accepted date in the international calendar. However, its history and how it is marked today is not without conflict. The ultimate origins of International Women’s Day (IWD) may well come down to how you feel about the wave of socialism that overtook the industrialised world at the start of the twentieth century.
In broad strokes, the day developed from protests in the USA before being taken up in socialist circles across Europe. The International Women’s Day website describes ‘great unrest and critical debate was occurring amongst women’ in New York City in 1908. This culminated in a march, calling for better pay and working conditions. To grow visibility of this movement, in 1909, a Women’s Day was celebrated on 28th February. In 1911, women’s rights groups in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland recognised 19th March as International Women’s Day, a date which remained in a limited number of progressives’ calendars until 1913 when the date was moved to 8th March.
The event continued to grow with Russian women observing the day in 1913 – though of course on 23rd February due to the Gregorian calendar – and British suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst being arrested on her way to the event in London in 1914. However, the event that entrenched the socialist and eastern European roots of the day was the 1917 Women’s Strike in Moscow. Protesting the war and the lack of food, this strike, starting with a march on 23rd February, culminated in Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication.
Alexandra Kollontai, the founder of Zhenotdel or “Women’s Department” in the Bolshevik government, convinced Lenin to commemorate this day as a national holiday. The linkage of the date to such outwardly revolutionary and socialist history limited the day’s spread in the West. It was only recognised by the UN in 1975, and only grew in stature following the creation of the official internationalwomensday.com domain in 2001. In 1994, Maxine Waters, a Democrat in the US House of Representatives, put forward a bill to make IWD a holiday in the USA but it never passed committee.
IWD’s centenary was marked in 2011 with Barack Obama hailing a Women’s History Month in the USA. The choice of year encapsulates the debate over IWD’s origins, choosing to commemorate the first IWD of 19th March 1911, on the date set by the USSR. The day’s history is by no means straightforward.
Against the backdrop of this 100-year history, steps taken towards gender parity are still painstakingly forged. 2020 alone saw outrage sparked by a near-total abortion ban in Poland and arrests of IWD marchers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The IWD website claims that we will face yet another century fighting for equality, since ‘none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children’.
That being said, IWD is now celebrated in a plethora of eastern European countries, and that it is on the agenda, can undoubtedly be seen as a positive. Countries including Azerbaijan, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Montenegro, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan all recognise the holiday in one way or another. It could be argued that some celebrations, however, lose sight of the day’s progressive history.
As a British student in Russia, I was at first surprised at how widespread the celebrations were for the day which unlike in the UK, was designated a public holiday. The celebrations were undoubtedly cheerful, with women gifted flowers, free meals at restaurants and the day off work, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that in some ways these festivities were reinforcing the gender norms that IWD aims to dismantle. Some have gone as far as branding it ‘a concoction of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day – schmaltzy, tacky, and commercial all at once’. There is no doubt that the celebrations in Russia seek to glorify women, but as one author puts it, ‘the irony is they go home and cook – not the most progressive reward’.
In recent years, IWD has been seen as an opportunity for Polish activists to tackle this disparity head-on. It is a country where the theme of women’s rights recently made international headlines with its introduction of a near-total abortion ban. Under the name Manifa, Polish women’s activists have taken to the streets on 8th March to confront ‘issues that are too toxic for political parties to touch: abortion, unpaid labour, and the rights of disabled people and sex workers.’ In 2017, they campaigned under the slogan ‘we are the revolution. No more being nice to violent guys’.
According to the 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, Eastern Europe and Central Asia falls behind the rest of Europe in the sphere of gender equality and will require another 107 years to close its gender gap. That is not to say that there have not been advances – as of 2020, the region has already closed 71.3% of their gap and Albania was listed as one of the top 5 most improved countries in the world for reducing gender disparity in health, education, economy, and politics. But if we have learnt anything from the recent events in Poland or indeed the shocking figures relating to domestic violence against women and girls during the pandemic, it is that we still have a long way to go, and it is not the time to be complacent. So this year, the IWD campaign asks us to celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, and take action for equality by ‘choosing to challenge’, for ‘a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change.’
By Claudia Griffiths (Masters Student in Russian and East European Literature and Culture) and Hugh Ollard (Masters Student in Russian Studies) at UCL SSEES.
Are you interested in finding out more about the history of IWD in Eastern Europe or in participating in events to celebrate the day? We encourage you to attend the Ukrainian Institute London’s Event: “30 Years of Women’s Activism in Ukraine”.
By serian.carlyle.14, on 31 December 2020
On this strange New Year’s Eve, the Slovo team invite you to read this review of the quintessential Soviet New Year’s Eve film, a film that remains a staple for many Russian households on the 31st. In her review, Lara Olszowska explores the role of architecture as an ideological signifier in the film. If you’ve seen the film, we’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #SlovoSuggestions. Until then, Happy New Year!
Film, 184 min
Directed by Eldar Ryazanov
Written by Emil Braginsky, Eldar Ryazanov
Produced by Evgeny Golynsky
Soviet Union, 1976
“Совершенно нетипичная история, которая могла произойти только и исключительно в новогоднюю ночь”
“A completely atypical story that could happen only and exclusively on New Year’s Eve”
–Eldar Ryazanov, Irony of Fate
On New Year’s Day 1976, Eldar Ryazanov’s Irony of Fate or Enjoy Your Bath! was first broadcast to television audiences across the Soviet Union. The epigraph attributes the ludicrous events that unfold to the date on which they occur, whilst the second title highlights the initiator of the action as the bathhouse. It later becomes apparent that the true driving force behind the plot is something far less magical than New Year’s Eve and even more ordinary than a festive drinking session at a bathhouse with friends. It is the typical setting in which this “atypical story” is told: a standardized Soviet apartment in an archetypal mikroraion, or suburb. This review posits the role of architecture as an ideological signifier in the film.
Zhenya Lukashin lives in apartment 12, 25 Third Builder’s Street, Moscow. So does Nadia Sheveluova, but in Leningrad. Once Zhenya enjoys his bath and too much vodka, he mistakenly flies to Leningrad, gives his address to a taxi driver, lets himself into Nadia’s flat using his key, and falls asleep in her bed. After she stirs him from his stupor, the pair spend a farcical evening together and eventually fall in love. The irony of their fate is that their chance romance is a result of Soviet residential planning; a dreary housing block can become the locus of a New Year’s Eve miracle. One of the final lines in the film is Zhenya’s: “Fate brought me to Leningrad and in Leningrad there is a certain street, with exactly the same housing block and apartment, without which I would never be happy”. In other words, he thanks the city for Nadia, not New Year’s Eve for his newfound happiness. Ironically, his destiny as a Soviet man to live in an unremarkable mikroraion with any wife (he manages to substitute his fiancée for Nadia almost seamlessly) remains unchanged no matter how much of an “adventure seeker” Ippolit (Nadia’s fiancé) considers him to be. The conventional fairytale ending neatly upholds traditional Soviet values of domesticity and glosses over the deeper levels of conflict within soviet housing.
The cartoon that preludes Irony of Fate makes a visual mockery of Soviet architecture and marks the film’s raison d’être: two matching flats in identical housing blocks, both with identical addresses, both in identical mikroraiony and each inhabited by the two lead protagonists. The animated architect seeks approval for his imperial-style buildings from bureaucrats, who reject the designs until every decorative feature has disappeared from the façade leaving the prototypical Soviet housing block behind. The newly approved rectangular block shown in the cartoon has nothing “new” about it. As viewers were aware, the only choice for architects was to build according to the model that aligned with the regime. By the 1970s Khrushchev’s prefabricated housing had been reproduced so many times with so little innovation, it demonstrated the absurdity of Soviet planning and the inescapable influence of socialist ideology. The character’s inability to escape the army of apartment blocks that chase him in this opening sequence shows his personal resistance to the regime, personified by a marching mikroraion. The need to present the mikroraion as such a caricature reveals how the ubiquitous ideological signs of the Soviet period were and how desensitised citizens had become to them.
In his light-hearted deprecation of soviet planning, Ryazanov alludes to a heavier criticism of socialist byt, or living. The undisputed aim of socialism was to build a new society from scratch. Housing to induce socialist byt was therefore ideology materialised. The new Soviet person would live in and be conditioned by the new socialist city and form a collective of like-minded individuals, their individuality suppressed by the state. As the voiceover sarcastically narrates: “a person can come to an unknown city and feel at home there” because they are all familiar and all the same. In the film, the uniformity of the suburbs do not generate social harmony as intended, but instead cause chaos for the protagonists. The verisimilitudinous Soviet architecture in the film held a mirror to the Soviet viewer on that New Year’s Day in 1976, likely watching from the comfort of their prefabricated home, reminding them of the ideological project their houses were constructed to complete and how that project remained unfulfilled. There lies the true irony beneath the surface of the lovers’ luck: the irony of socialism.
Review by Lara Olszowska, Masters Student at UCL SSEES
By stanca.oproiu.18, on 22 March 2019
Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War & David Hoffmann, Stalinist Values: the Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941
‘Thank You, Comrade Stalin!’ by Jeffrey Brooks is written with the intention of explaining the functions of Joseph Stalin’s personality cult. The book covers power dynamics in the Soviet Union from 1917 to his in death 1953, and the implementation of de-Stalinisation. Brooks’s major argument is that because of the states monopolisation of information, the Soviet Union was able to carefully construct a unique cultural understanding for their citizens, which emphasised Stalin as the provider of great economic and social prosperity. Social and economic “gifts” from Stalin were used to justify an obligation on Soviet citizens to work hard, contribute and conform. However, Brooks adds that this constructed cultural understanding for citizens ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union.
Brooks was able to construct his argument with a quantitative approach to his research, using of a range of primary resources. Jeffrey Brooks continuously refers to contemporary readings of the press, sampled newspapers and propaganda posters, mainly from the newspaper Pravda. Brooks’s quantitative approach allowed him to discover a number of reoccurring themes in Soviet literature, which became essential to his argument. These themes included an emphasis on metaphors such as “the path”, “the line”, and “the gift” in media outlets.1 The bulk of Jeffery Brooks’s book focuses on the utilisation of “Socialist building”. According to Brooks, Socialist Building was an initiative by Stalin, which drastically changed the political system by limiting public discussion and replacing the previous societal understanding of authority.
David Hoffman’s book ‘Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941’ is a worthy contribution to “The Great Retreat” debate stimulated by Nicholas Timasheff. Timasheff argues that in 1934 the offensive broke down, and the Soviet state began to withdraw from its commitment to the socialist ideology.2 Hoffman disagrees, and declares that at no point did Stalin articulate a retreat from socialism. He adds that Stalinism meant a continuation of a commitment to social transformation, and the creation of the New Soviet Person. Hoffman contends that this was a sharp contrast with traditional Tsarist culture.
The most convincing aspect of Hoffman’s argument lies in his view that many of the Stalinist policies that have been accused as a retreat of socialism can instead be understood as pragmatic solutions to political, social and economic dilemmas in the Soviet Union. Hoffman uses Soviet patriotic and nationalistic propaganda as an example, deeming it merely as a means of mobilising society in the defence of the socialist state in a time of international uncertainty. According to Hoffman, Soviet consumerism was distinct to Western Liberalism because it maintained an emphasis on collectivist ideals, whilst providing incentives for hard work. 3
Hoffman also addresses the supposed ‘retreat’ to a patriarchal view of the household in the Stalinist era. Hoffman instead explains it as a measure to deal with low birth rates rather than a withdrawal from the socialist ideology. These changes in social policy should instead be understood as pragmatic measures used to maintain the Socialist state in a time of great political stress.
Hoffman acknowledges the use of traditional symbols, institutions and appeals by Stalin and the political elite. However, he adds that these were used merely for mass mobilisation
purposes as a means of strengthening the new order.4 Hoffman summarises Stalinism as a consolidation of Socialism, rather than a retreat from it.5 According to Hoffman, the Soviet Union remained fundamentally Socialist throughout the period referred to as “The Great Retreat”. The planned economy remained, state ownership of the means of production continued, and the Party’s vanguard role in leading the country towards communism was sustained under the rule of Stalin.6
Brooks’s understanding of the functions of Stalin’s cult of personality helps to develop Hoffman’s argument against the idea of a “great retreat”. Hoffman stresses that although some of Stalin’s policies had not derived from a socialist ideology, the states infrastructure remained fundamentally socialist under Stalin, and thus no retreat was undertaken.
Hoffman writes that “Presenting Stalin as the personification of the Soviet system provided a tangible symbol to which individuals could attach their loyalty. The cult provided a human face that appeared to care about people’s welfare”.7 Hoffman is suggesting that Stalin’s cult of personality was a powerful tool in restructuring society’s understanding of power dynamics in the Soviet Union. ‘Thank You, Comrade Stalin!’ develops Hoffman’s argument of a Socialist continuation under Stalin, because it offers a tangible explanation for the use of an authoritarian cult of personality in a socialist society.
Brooks offers a useful explanation into the purposes of the Cult of Stalin. He begins, by explaining Socialist realism as a state led initiative to promote the idea that life ought to be portrayed how it should be, and not necessarily as it was.8 Socialist realism is a key aspect of Brooks’s argument, because it manipulated society into appreciating the utopian aspect of the Soviet Union, and ultimately led people to believe that life was better than it was. The economic and social prosperity that was portrayed in propaganda was heavily attributed to
Stalin. Stalin was responsible for the provision of all social benefits and all that was good in Soviet life according to media outlets. This understanding of Stalin’s personality cult is useful to Hoffman, because it stresses the mere purposes of mobilisation, and not a withdrawal from the socialist ideology.
Brooks continues to raise another important theme, which advances Hoffman’s claim.
Brooks explains the relevance of Stalin as provider of “the gift”. Brooks introduces his conception of a “moral economy”9 which deeply resided in Soviet culture during Stalin’s time of influence. The demand for society to acknowledge Stalin’s unprecedented influence in the production of social and economic prosperity was met with an expectation for citizens to repay this favour through hard work and conformity. Hoffman would argue that this constructed power dynamic was a means of enhancing the socialist state by use of traditional ideals and understandings of power.
Jeffrey Brooks states that although Stalin acknowledges the contradictions of an authoritarian personality cult in a socialist society, he used it to promote a very unique and precise understanding of state legitimacy and authority. This new understanding of power was used to shape a unified national agenda, with a new understanding of Soviet society, and national identity.10 The legitimacy of orders from institutions replaced the need for rational explanations of behaviour or orders from the state. 11 Brooks makes this point, because this rhetoric remained central in legitimising Stalin’s authoritarian style to governance. Hoffman would argue that this constructed understanding of state legitimacy was used to strengthen the socialist infrastructure in the Soviet Union.
Brooks and Hoffman however fail to explain what the utilisation of prerevolutionary ideals offered to Stalin that previous Bolshevik discourses on power did not. Jan Plamper offers an explanation into why Stalin’s cult of personality was so effective in seizing the public’s
imagination. She argues that since Russia’s Christianization (988), the Russian sovereign was both head of the Russian Orthodox Church and the head of the state12. Thus historically, Russia was used to being centered on a single person, and a retreat to this conventional understanding of authority was greatly advantageous for Stalin.
Another question that Brooks and Hoffman fail to address is the extent to which the Soviet population bought into and supported the reconstructed Soviet culture. Hoffman briefly mentions that some members of the military, party and Stakhanovite workers held a genuine reverence for Stalin. Hoffman also highlights that many also privately criticised Stalin and the cult. He adds, “much of the population viewed Stalin and other leaders as oppressors rather than benefactors.”13 However this point remains underdeveloped. Perhaps Brook and Hoffman’s arguments may have been more convincing if their research had comprised of a greater level of qualitative methods such as readings from private letters, diaries and other personal documents.
One text that does this well is Nora Dudwick’s “When Things Fall Apart”. Dudwick offers an analysis of poverty in the Soviet Union through a number of first hand interviews and readings of personal contemporary texts, and proves that qualitative research can offer a useful insight.14 Both Brooks and Hoffman’s arguments could benefit from implementing some of these research methods, in order to give a more humanist understanding of the period covered.
Brooks concludes that Stalin was able to implement a unique cultural understanding for the Soviet Union. However, he contends that it was ultimately counter productive and led to the dismissal of the state. Brooks accuses Stalinist Soviet culture of having left little room for critical commentary, which would have allowed the state to recognise its own weaknesses,
and thus adapt. Brooks adds that the monopoly of information also contributed to the decimation of the state because it gave little room for an exchange of informal information on an international level, which was necessary for scientific and economic development.15
This conception complies with Hoffman’s understanding on the demise of the Soviet Union. Hoffman claims that state led attempts to change people’s lifestyles and values through coercion and violence ultimately led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He continues to say “social change must be gradual and consensual, as violence only achieves superficial change and failed to change the way people thought.”16 Brooks and Hoffman agree that the authoritarian nature of the Soviet Union greatly hampered it from flourishing and achieving the social harmony that it set out to accomplish.
Brooks and Hoffman offer insightful conclusions, however neither authors offer an explanation into the nature of Stalin’s terror nor the extent of coercive measures conducted by the state. Although neither book intend to narrate the coercive measures of the Soviet Union, some general background would be useful for some readers. Readers without a pre-existing understanding of the level of oppression conducted by the Stalinist state may find their arguments unconvincing.
Both ‘Thank You, Comrade Stalin’ and Hoffman’s ‘Stalinist Values’ have provided a great contribution in the study of the Soviet Union, and its attempts to create a unique, stringent and powerful cultural understanding of state authority. However, because both texts deal with such a wide scope of study, they can at times allocate too much emphasis on the collective at the expense of personal experience, which can provide relevant and useful insights. An adoption of a balanced approach to the use of qualitative and quantitative research methods may have benefited both arguments.
Although both texts require development in some areas, they provide a number of conclusions that are difficult to scrutinise. In particular, Jeffrey Brooks’s convincing claim that Stalin was able to use traditional and popular understanding of power to enhance the hyper-centralisation of the state and create a new cultural understanding the Soviet Union. David Hoffman offers an engaging contribution to the Great Retreat debate, and presents many plausible reasons to support the notion that the Soviet Union remained fundamentally socialist throughout its existence.
Brooks, Jeffrey. Thank You, Comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture From Revolution To Cold War, (Princeton University Press: New Jersey, 2000).
Dudwick, Nora. When Things Fall Apart: Qualitative Studies of Poverty in the Former Soviet Union, (World Bank Publications: Washington, 2002).
Hoffman. L. David, Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity 1917-1941, (Cornell University Press: New York, 2003).
Plamper, Jan. The Stalin Cult: A Study in the Alchemy of Power, (Yale University Press: Connecticut,1970).
Timasheff, Nicholas. The Great Retreat: The Growth and Decline of Communism in Russia, (Ayer Co Publishers: New York, 1972).
By Borimir S Totev, on 18 September 2017
By Borimir S Totev, on 15 September 2017
Dr. Mila Maeva is an ethnologist from Sofia University. She has specialised in Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Norway. Her main interests focus on migration, culture and self-identification in minority groups – primarily the Muslim minority in Bulgaria. Her first book “The Bulgarian Turks” was published in 2006 and is dedicated to the migration from Bulgaria to Turkey in 1989 due to the so-called ‘Revival Process’.
Why did you decide to write a book about Bulgarian migration to the UK? Talk more about how the idea became a reality.
Like with most of my research, the topic finds me. My brother – Ivo Maev – was the first editor of the Bulgarian emigrant newspaper ‘Budilnik’. During his time as editor I was involved with contributing to the newspaper, having a column on Bulgarian festivities. The connection with immigration from Bulgaria from the beginning of the 21st century was the starting point of my research on the topic. During that period, Bulgarian immigration was still relatively small in number, whereas its organisation – in a process of coming to life. The book presents the first complete and in-depth analysis of Bulgarian emigration to England from the Bulgarian Revival to present day. My research is based on British archives and my own field work collected in the period between 2007 and 2015 in places like Manchester, Birmingham, Rochester, and London, amongst others. I analyse changes the in ways borders are crosses, the motifs, and the socio-economic specificities of Bulgarian immigrants in England in the period after 1989 to 2015. I focus on the Bulgarian institutions from the prism of subgroups created by the emigrants. The book also presents the changes in religious views when in the process of arriving to a new country. It analyses language as a key emigration component in view of starting a new life in a new society, as well as the changes in every day life and festive culture. My key aim is to present the view point of the emigrants in England – why and how they migrate, what their reflections are on the topic of migration, how they learn a new language and create a new home, how they integrate into British society, what they change in their own culture and traditions, how they feel in Britain, and understanding how and why they create their subgroups and zones of comfort.
Can you share an interesting story from the process of writing the book?
Every piece of research has its own interesting story. My story connected to the writing of this book is concerned with the difficulty I experienced when trying to infiltrate Bulgarian immigrant groups in England. Despite knowing a few Bulgarians, I wanted to produce much more expansive research. This approach connected me with different highly qualified immigrants. Interviews with less qualified and less educated Bulgarians created a number of problems. I encountered the fear of the immigrant from his fellow countrymen, as they saw in me not a researcher, but a competitor, who’s after their jobs. Other striking stories include the emotional traumas of migration. Quite often, my interviews showed that many of the stories of migrating to England were connected primarily with emotional difficulties, as opposed to social and cultural obstacles – an unexplored avenue in this field of research.
What is the most important lesson you’ve taken out from writing the book?
In writing this book I realised how multi-faceted Bulgarian immigration in the United Kingdom is. My initial desire was to write about as many immigrants as possible, from different countries. However, in the end I decided to limit my research exclusively to the Bulgarians living in England. I realised that despite my initially held beliefs that immigration is a product of economic motifs, in the course of the research, it became obvious that people come with different reasons – searching for security, personal growth, or plainly, because their friends and families are leaving.
The book is available online in Bulgarian from the Paradigma Publishers website.
By Borimir S Totev, on 14 September 2017
Dimitar Bechev is currently a research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has extensive experience in the world of policy and is affiliated with the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington, D.C. In 2015, Dimitar Bechev became the founding director of the European Policy Institute, a small but dynamic outfit based in Sofia, Bulgaria. His area of expertise cover EU external relations, especially enlargement and neighbourhood policy, the politics of Turkey and the Balkans, and Russian foreign policy. Prior to the University of North Carolina, Bechev held fellowships at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and the London School of Economics. Having authored or edited several books and articles in academic journals, he also publishes on current affairs in outlets such as the American Interest, Al Jazeera Online, Foreign Policy, openDemocracy and others. In 2010-14, he headed the Sofia Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Prior to that Dimitar Bechev taught International Relations at Oxford where he obtained his D.Phil. in 2005.
Dimitar Bechev is in conversation with the Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal, Borimir Totev, about his latest book ‘Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe’ published by Yale University Press.
Why did you initially decided to enter academia within this particular field? Was there a turning point or a moment of clarity?
I have always been fascinated with international politics and knew I would pursue a graduate degree. I arrived to Oxford in 2000, at a moment the EU, as well as Europe as a whole were undergoing dramatic changes. Southeast Europe was at the forefront as former Yugoslavia, following a decade of wars, and Turkey embarked on the path of membership, and Bulgaria and Romania entered accession negotiations with the EU. Such momentous events provided the inspiration for my D.Phil thesis and ultimately the book I published in 2011, Constructing South East Europe (Palgrave), which explores the international relations of the region. Though there are IR scholars who stay in the academic ivory tower, that has not been my case.
Where do you position of social sciences within wider society?
I have not pursued a typical academic career but have been moving back and forth between universities and think-tanks, which does have its disadvantages but also helps one get a better perspective on world affairs. Academic training provides the means to think a rigorous manner. There are far too many pundits and current affairs analysts who juggle terms and conceptual shortcuts uncritically. Or who lack historical depth to see through the latest hype. Equally, academic researchers are better off if they keep up-to-date with global political events which, admittedly, develop at breakneck speed and think more clearly about what their particular project means for those outside the university circuit. Navel-gazing is not what social science should be about.
How does ‘Rival Power’, as a Russia focused project, differ to your previous book publications?
Rival Power is an attempt to bridge the divide between scholarship and current affairs writing. It looks at Russia’s growing footprint in Southeast Europe – a region comprising the post-communist Balkans, Greece, Cyprus, and even Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, which once dominated the area. I argue that Russia has no strategic ambitions nor is it driven by the rich historical legacies which link it to the Balkans. It simply exploits opportunities to poke a finger into the eye of the West, at a moment when relations with the US and EU are at their lowest point thanks to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Yet, contrary to other authors, I put a great deal on emphasis on local players too (governments, individual leaders, business lobbies, political parties etc.). Rather than being mere pawns or proxies of Moscow, they often leverage their connection to the Russians to advance their own, often parochial interests. It is a two-way street. And more than once, Russia has suffered setbacks – a point that many writing about the standoff with the West and Putin’s talents as a foreign policy chess master often fail to appreciate. Readers can also learn much about the twists and turns in the ambiguous relationship between Russia and Turkey, a marriage of convenience, as I call it. My hope is to draw in both readers following Southeast Europe, who may or may not know much about Russia beyond the usual stereotypes, and those interested in the broader subject of Russian foreign policy and Moscow’s influence beyond the confines of the former Soviet Union.
The book is available on Amazon or from Yale University Press’ website. Excerpts will be published by The American Interest.
By Borimir S Totev, on 14 August 2017
Agne Dovydaityte (A.D.) and Alexander Belinski (A.B.) in conversation with the Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal, Borimir Totev, about the passion for cinema, the Lithuanian country side, an old diary, and their first documentary film project entitled “The Sun Sets in the East”.
How did you end up on the path towards documentary film making? Did you encounter a turning point or a moment of clarity?
I came to London in 2014 to study Journalism, while working as a bartender in one of Angela Hartnett’s restaurants on the side. I wanted to be a journalist since I was five years old, and I’ve always envisioned myself to be involved in print or online media, with a focus on Eastern European culture and politics. However, as someone who has high expectations, I found Journalism studies rather boring and disappointing. I met Alex at university and consequently was introduced to avant-garde cinema, cinematography, and film production. I also began practising Russian with him. Initially we collaborated on video projects for university, then for the hospitality industry, also filming some events and conferences. We felt rather comfortable working with each other – him as a camera person and editor, and me as a producer.
I was born in Ukraine and lived in Germany for a short while, before moving to the United Kingdom. After finishing secondary school, uncertain as to whether I was more interested in politics or communication, I decided to study Journalism at university, where I met Agne. I have been interested in film for a long time. What started out as regular watching of films gradually turned into a passion, perhaps even an obsession with what cinema as a concept had to offer. Inevitably I found myself at a point where things I watched rarely satisfied me anymore, and I therefore developed a desire to create, based on all that I had learned along the way. I didn’t necessarily pick documentary cinema as the format to pursue, and I am very much open to narrative cinema as well, however this is what I’m currently doing. Having said that, I believe the highest form of cinema is a kind of hybrid of documentary and narrative formats.
On one of your trips back to Lithuania you stumbled across an exciting discovery. Tell us more about what inspired “The Sun Sets in the East”?
When I discovered my grandfather’s diary and mentioned it to Alex, we came to a natural realisation that it was a valuable document, telling of moral values and a pastoral lifestyle that is all but forgotten in the ‘developed’ world. We also realised that it would make for an interesting documentary. The diary of my grandfather described the slow and simple life of a peasant in 1984 Soviet Lithuania, in a very delicate and touching manner. Contrary to what some might expect, it is not an emotional diary, he wasn’t a person who experienced loads of suffering, he wasn’t deported, he did not get lost in the stream of history. It is a diary of the everyday life of a peasant, who wakes up in the morning and goes to weed furrows or cut trees in the park. Politics barely reaches him, and he allows himself to seek God, also in a very non-emotional way – simply living by the rules, following church orders, and being a good person. My grandfather, Jonas, writes in a very natural way, non-professionally, rather objectively, makes many mistakes, and uses old Lithuanian, sometimes Russian slang too. He was a very religious person, and went to church a few times a week, noted how many people attended the service, as well as how many pupils and teachers showed up. In Soviet Lithuania, teachers and state workers were not allowed to attend mass. At one point Jonas writes: “Kurtimaitis, a school teacher was buried with the Church, therefore none of the school staff attended. The priest said that other believers have to fill up this gap and pray to God for everyone.” Modern day Lithuania has unfortunately become the leading European country in suicide rates, especially within rural communities. Life there is slow and not everyone can handle this sort of pace. For this reason we believe that now is an appropriate time for a film like ours. Although the diary itself appears to be of a very religious nature, this does not necessarily set the tone for the film.
Where exactly are you in the process of making the film right now and what can we expect to see as a finished product?
At the moment we are alternating between pre-production and principal photography. The film is as planned out as can be for a haphazard project of this nature. It is partially funded, and we hope to close the gap soon with a crowdfunding campaign. Recently, we were in Lithuania for a week, in order to shoot the summer segment of the diary, with the help of friends and relatives acting as chauffeurs and guides. This segment is now being edited, so in a way we are also stepping a little into post-production territory too.
I am mostly responsible for the organisational part of the film – PR, social media, human resources, timing, and planning. We both have a clear vision of how the film is going to look, and we’ve already started shooting it. The visuals mostly show countryside Lithuania, lone villages and houses, fields of barley and hay, with industrial buildings and constructions disturbing this peaceful scenery. Where before there used to be allotments, now there are factories, the landscape is divided by electricity pylons and giant industrial chimneys. These visuals are combined with a voiceover of the diary. Without spoiling too much, we can say that this film will be straightforward, and non-judgemental, with a focus on aesthetics. It simply showcases how the life of a regular Lithuanian peasant looked like, and the landscape in which it unfolded. This is not a film about Lithuania. This is a film about a man at a certain period of history where nothing was certain, apart from one’s faith and nature. Most of what is told by him and shown by us is applicable everywhere and always.
Where would you position documentary film within wider society, how much power does the medium of film generally posses, is it a means to an end?
Documentary film occupies a kind of middle ground between regular mainstream cinema, and more esoteric ‘art house’ cinema. Documentary cinema is not without its own mainstream entrapments, and the ratio of truly unique and challenging documentaries is probably around the same as regular narrative cinema and ‘art house’ cinema. In what I would consider to be the upper echelons of cinema as an art form, there is a great deal of overlap between documentary and narrative cinema, to the extent that one may become indistinguishable from the other. Film is a tremendously powerful medium, both politically and financially. Precisely this power is what has hampered the progress of cinema as an art form. Almost immediately after its inception, cinema was exploited around the world – for financial gain in the West, and for propaganda in the East. Eventually the two systems collided, and much of world cinema became an ugly amalgamation of both models. It’s notorious effectiveness is an unfortunate testament of its ability to have an effect on people. In that regard, in a cynical manner, it is indeed a means to an end. But it shouldn’t be. ‘Real’ cinema, that is, as an art form, is a means unto itself. However, whether that stage will ever be reached universally – I cannot say.
Those interested in the “The Sun Sets in the East”, willing to give advice, financial support, or ask further questions can stay updated via the film’s official Instagram account @eastern.sunset
By Borimir S Totev, on 4 August 2017
Flora has just completed her undergraduate degree in Russian with German at University College London. Studying the Russian language from scratch has had a very strong influence on her interests, starting with the language itself initially, and later moving far beyond into politics, culture and everything in between. From learning Russian, Flora got into making documentaries and during her time at UCL, she made two films about the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine and one documentary about the LGBT community in Moscow. When she was on a year abroad in Moscow, Flora learned more about internal Russian politics by interning at TV Rain, arguably Russia’s only non pro-government television channel. Her interest in the ideas of modern propaganda in Russia and restrictions on freedom of speech was the starting point for the SLOVO published article about the opposition’s use of the internet as a tool for resistance in Russia. In the near future, Flora plans to travel more extensively in the post-Soviet region, especially in Moldova, Georgia and the Central Asian countries, perhaps making some more films along the way. Her further interests include organised crime, conflict management, and security issues. Flora is set to be in St Petersburg from late September until Christmas, trying to keep up her language skills and to complete a short translation internship.
Flora’s article explores the role of new media in Russian politics and ultimately argues that their potential to bring about significant political change in the current Russian political landscape is limited. The 2011-2012 winter protests, in Bolotnaia Square in Moscow and across Russia, led to a boom in both Russian and English-language protest scholarship, especially regarding the role that new media and online communication networks play in the organisation and execution of political movements. But the significance of her case study is not limited to Russia: this question must be understood in a global context. In a post-Arab Spring world, this topic is one of active discussion and current global relevance. Her paper aims to consider the Russian case study in that broader context, bridging gaps in existing scholarship in this field.
The article ‘Bolotnaia Five Years On: Can Online Activism Effect Large-Scale Political Change in Russia?’ by Flora Murphy (School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London) was published in SLOVO Journal, VOL 29.1, and can be read in full here.
Posted by Borimir Totev, Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal
By Borimir S Totev, on 3 August 2017
Andreea has been a Researcher at the Department of Interdisciplinary Research in Social Sciences and Humanities, “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University of Iasi, Romania since 2013. She obtained a PhD in Philology in 2012. Andreea has also been a postdoctoral fellow of the Romanian Academy during 2014 and 2015, with a focus on the theme of the relationship between literature and cultural memory in post-Communist Romania. She is currently an invited researcher in the project “Erinnern and Vergessen in Posttotalitarismus: Kulturelles Gedächtnis–Ästhetisches Erinnern” (Remembering and Forgetting in Posttotalitarianism: Cultural Memory-Aesthetic Remembrance), Humboldt University of Berlin. Her domains of interest are Romanian modern and contemporary literature, post-Communism, memory studies, and East-Central European literary cultures.
Drawing on concepts such as post-genocide literature, postmemory (Marianne Hirsch), and resonance (Aleida Assmann), Andreea’s article discusses a third-generation narrative of the Armenian genocide, namely Varujan Vosganian’s novel The Book of Whispers, originally published in Romania in 2009. The first section of the paper examines whether the concepts of post-genocide literature and diasporic literature (Peeromian) can be applied to authors of Armenian origins writing inside the literary traditions of East-Central European national cultures. The second section analyses the literary techniques of inter-generational memory transmission in Vosganian’s novel. Particular attention is paid to the way in which family and documentary photos are employed in the novel, and three functions of photographs are discussed in relation with autobiographical memory, historical representation, and literary aesthetics. The third part of the paper uses Assmann’s concept of resonance to investigate how the Armenian genocide narratives are linked with other traumatic events such as the Holocaust, the mass deportations in the Soviet Gulag, or the political repression in Romanian totalitarianism, thus reshaping the European memory of violence.
The article ‘Quiet Voices, Faded Photographs: Remembering the Armenian Genocide in Varujan Vosganian’s The Book of Whispers’ by Andreea Mironescu (The Department of Interdisciplinary Research in Social Sciences and Humanities, ‘Alexandru Ioan Cuza’ University of Iasi) was published in SLOVO Journal, VOL 29.2, and can be read in full here.
Posted by Borimir Totev, Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal
By Borimir S Totev, on 1 August 2017
Genevieve just completed her degree in French and Russian, which she studied alongside Czech, and will be starting an internship in Prague from September, after which she plans to spend some time working in Russia. Cúshla has also just completed her degree in French and Russian, and will soon be moving to St Petersburg to teach English, and further study the Russian language.
Genevieve and Cúshla have translated two stories by Irina Luk’ianova, one of Russia’s foremost writers. Originally from Novosibirsk, Irina moved to Moscow in 1996, where she now lives. Her work spans journalism, blogging and creative writing. Irina’s fiction exhibits psychological acuity often laced with irony and humour, but there is always a human warmth to her writing. The two stories translated and published in SLOVO Journal VOL 29.2 are ‘Nightmare on Garibaldi Street’ and ‘Miracles for Dummies’, first appearing in the Russian daily newspaper New Gazette in 2009.
The translation of ‘Two Stories by Irina Luk’ianova‘ by Genevieve Silk (University of Bristol) and Cúshla Little (University of Bristol) was published in SLOVO Journal, VOL 29.2, and can be read in full here.
Posted by Borimir Totev, Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal