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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


Archive for May, 2013

Crystal Palace (F. C.): Chernyshevsky’s barmy army

BlogAdmin30 May 2013


Russia at the Great Exhibition, 1851. From Dickinson's Complete Pictures. Author's copy

Russia at the Great Exhibition, 1851. From
Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures. Author’s copy

Sarah J. Young finds a rich history of Russian connections to the Crystal Palace, the glass and iron building by Joseph Paxton for London’s 1851 Great Exhibition.

When one thinks of Russian connections to English football, it is most likely the owners and shareholders of certain premier league clubs that will to spring to mind, or the small number of Russians who have played for English clubs, including Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin. But as Crystal Palace F. C. reaches the premiership following a tense play-off final against Watford, the status of the club as possibly the only one in the English league to be named after a building – its former nickname the Glaziers emphasizing the connection to the iconic structure, which still features on the club badge – provides a legacy of historical and literary Russian resonances that far outstrip the transient presence of mere players and owners, or indeed football itself.

The Great Exhibition was intended, among other things, to bring together the industry of all nations for the promotion of peace and free trade (whilst, inevitably, demonstrating the superiority of Britain in all regards). The Russian exhibit drew attention owing to its late arrival, and was notable for the malachite products that stood out in a display mainly consisting of raw materials.

Tsar Alexander II at the Crystal Palace, 1874. Author's copy

Tsar Alexander II at the Crystal Palace, 1874. Author’s copy

But in a climate of general xenophobia and fear of foreign revolutionaries who might visit the Exhibition – which took place three years after the 1848 wave of European revolutions – as well as intensifying Russophobia (the Crimean War was only two years away), it is perhaps not surprising that Russians themselves, as much as their manufactures, were seen to be on display. Among the exotic foreigners caricatured in descriptions and cartoons, the fearsome ‘Don Cossack’ always had his place alongside the Chinese mandarin and the African ‘savage’, reminding us how alien and un-European Russians seemed to the British imagination at that time. The notion of the palace as an international space may also have been behind the visit of Tsar Alexander II in 1874. As a later cigarette card commemorating the event indicates, the emphasis on this occasion was reconciliation and sameness – the Russians in the royal entourage pictured here are indistinguishable from the British guests – but the commentary on the reverse reminds us of that ‘other’, alien Russia, ending ominously: ‘The Tsar was assassinated by Nihilists on 13th March 1881.’

But if British views of Russians at the Great Exhibition simply reflected contemporary events and attitudes, within Russian literature the Crystal Palace assumed a particular significance, as it became a touchstone for debates about modernity, westernization and social transformation. (more…)

Alexei Balabanov: the potency of cinematic story-telling

BlogAdmin22 May 2013

Balabanov on the set of 'Morphine'. Via Wikimedia Commons

Balabanov on the set of ‘Morphine’. Via Wikimedia Commons

Alexei Balabanov was as much a cinematic translator as a chronicler of post-Soviet reality, finds Seth Graham

A few days before Alexei Balabanov’s death at age 54 on May 18, I was finishing a blurb for a talented film scholar’s forthcoming book on the director’s work. I wrote: ‘The downside to studying artists who are still alive and working, of course, is that they will always outflank those who study them by creating more art’.

The particularly superstitious might accuse me of hastening Balabanov’s death with this fate-tempting, tongue-in-cheek line (sglazil!). But Balabanov himself did some mortal tempting, and hinting, of his own in his fourteenth and final film, Me Too (2012), in which he appears as a film director who (spoiler alert!) dies an early death. It was not a secret that Balabanov was chronically ill. His relatives, friends and colleagues certainly knew it, and he did not hide it from the public. He said in his last interview that ‘there probably won’t be any more Balabanov films’.

Still, the news of Balabanov’s passing, announced by Sergei Sel’ianov, the director’s perennial producer and co-founder of the CTB production company that funded all of his films for nearly two decades, came as a cruel surprise to Russophiles and cineastes who had gotten used to the regular pleasure of seeing what Balabanov’s latest work had to offer, and which self-designated guardians of Russian culture it would offend.

The latter pleasure was made even more, well, pleasurable due to the fact that Balabanov as an artist typically stayed above such criticism; he was simply not interested in epatage or chernukha or schlock/trash/exploitation or whatever film-studies term you want to use that has been lobbed at filmmakers whose work is considered controversial. He did not make films in order to antagonise or offend or scandalize. He was not the ‘Russian Tarantino’ or even the ‘Russian Scorsese’, despite a similar level of graphic violence combined with formal virtuosity and thematic omnivorousness; Balabanov’s depictions of violence were not, as they often seem to be for Scorsese and other directors, excursus on the nature of violence. His films were excursus on nothing but the concentrated potency of the particular form of storytelling at which he excelled: cinema. (more…)

Eastern Europe: Parties and the mirage of technocracy

Sean LHanley16 May 2013

Non-party technocratic governments of experts have stepped in to fill a political gap in several European countries. But in East and Central Europe they are not always what they seem, writes Seán Hanley

Many commentators saw the governments of non-party technocrats formed in Greece and Italy in 2011 as an ill omen for development of party-based democracy in Europe. Established parties, it is suggested, are turning to technocratic caretaker administrations as a device to manage economic and political crisis, which allows them both to duck (or least share) responsibility for painful austerity measures. Such non-partisan governments of experts, it is argued, can only widen the yawning the legitimacy gap between governors and governed.

 Technocratically-imposed austerity backed by big established parties can further undermine party democracy by provoking anti-elite electoral backlashes:  the rise of new populist parties or breakthroughs by previously marginal radical groups. This in turn, makes coalition formation difficult and further rounds of caretaker government or awkward left-right co-operation more likely. The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy and its difficult political aftermath, which has finally resulted in an implausible Grand Coalition, seems to illustrate this scenario perfectly. Sometimes, caretaker technocrats themselves even add to the uncertainty, revolting against their erstwhile masters and founding their own new parties.

 How has the drift towards technocratic crisis management impacted Central and Eastern Europe?  The region is sometimes grouped with debt- and crisis-afflicted Southern Europe states as an economically weak periphery of flawed and potentially unstable democracies, where technocratic crisis governments are the order of the day.

And not without reason. In March this year the President of Bulgaria Rosen Plevneliev appointed a technocratic caretaker government to lead the country to early elections on 12 May following the resignation of prime minister Boyko Borisov in the face of street protests against poverty, high utility prices and corruption. Hungary had a year-long technocrat-led government in 2009-11, as did the Czech Republic in 2009-10 following the fall the centre-right minority government of Miroslav Topolánek. Meanwhile, Slovenia – one of three CEE states in the Eurozone – is set for a Southern European-style bailout following the downgrading of its bonds to junk status with undoubted domestic ramifications. (more…)

Remembering the war: 70 years on in the Hero-City of Novorossiisk

BlogAdmin9 May 2013

War memorial, Novorossiisk. Photograph by the author

War memorial, Novorossiisk. Photograph by the author

Local war commemoration in Russia persists through the invention of tradition, finds postgraduate student Vicky Davis.

Over the last decade, remembrance of World War II in Russia has become increasingly visible in a state-sponsored revival of the war cult of the Brezhnev era. On significant anniversaries, notably Victory Day, 9th May, Russians celebrate in a series of special events, the most well known of which is the massive military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. Honoured veterans don their uniforms and are showered with gifts and privileges, proof of their special status in society. Most people wear the popular symbol of memory introduced in 2005, the George ribbon, and even those staying at home cannot escape the programme of war films and music around that date. The President makes speeches and takes tea with veterans, confident that memory of the war is the one theme that cannot fail to unify the country. It seems that, in Russia, memory of the war has been re‑appropriated as a political tool, just as living witnesses are rapidly disappearing, rendering it increasingly the subject of scholarly research.

It is not surprising that on 2nd February this year President Putin and the world’s press were gathered in the Russian city of Volgograd. Formerly known as Stalingrad, the city was celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the defeat and final surrender of the enemy in 1943 after months of bitter struggle, marking the pivotal point of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Stalingrad was one of the first of the thirteen towns honoured as Hero-Cities of the Soviet Union for their significant role in the war.

On the day following the Stalingrad ceremonies, commemorations were also held in Novorossiisk, on the Black Sea, made a Hero-City of the Soviet Union in 1973, long after the end of the war, thanks to the involvement in its liberation of Leonid Brezhnev, the former Soviet leader. In turn, Novorossiisk was remembering the seventieth anniversary of the landings onto occupied territory by Soviet troops, who went on to hold the small beach‑head, known as ‘Malaia zemlia’, for seven months prior to the liberation of the town in September 1943. The heroes of this localised campaign are commemorated through an amalgam of memoir, monuments and ritual, rendered particularly paradoxical by the discrepancy between the relative insignificance of the actual campaign as it unfolded at the time and the importance attributed to it retrospectively thanks to Brezhnev’s inflated war memoirs.

As the war in Novorossiisk, and indeed in Russia as a whole, is on the cusp of the transition from living memory to history, my research project analyses the relationship and interaction between different forms of memorialization in the construction and propagation of present‑day inter‑generational remembrance in Novorossiisk. I had planned this year’s trip to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the Malaia zemlia landings on the night of 3rd to 4th February, which are commemorated annually in a ceremony unique to the town, ‘Beskozyrka’. In 1968, at the beginning of the Brezhnev era, this ritual was invented to mark the 25th anniversary of the landings by a group of young people in search of romantic adventure and forming the ‘crew’ of an imaginary yacht, the ‘Shkhuna rovesnikov’ (the Schooner of fellows). (more…)

Borders and what they do: lessons from a lost Habsburg province

Sean LHanley3 May 2013

Contested Frontiers in the Balkans-p17oi0ls081o7l132i1l2ld101al9Why write about a province that has long ceased to be and is currently divided between three states?  Irina Marin explains why she wrote about the historic Habsburg province of the Banat of Temesvár

Well-hidden behind the title Contested Frontiers in the Balkans: Ottoman and Habsburg Rivalries in Eastern Europe is a monograph of the Banat of Temesvár or, by its Romanian name, Banatul Timișoarei. Why write a book about a historical province that has long ceased to be one and is currently peacefully divided between Romania, Serbia and Hungary? Outside the region and a narrow circle of historians, the Banat is a classic Ruritania, a non-existent land for all the reality it has for outsiders.

Everybody will have heard of Transylvania, Bosnia or Kosovo, but I doubt the Banat of Temesvár is at all known in the English-speaking world. Even when events take place there which are worthy of public attention, people usually refer to the present-day countries rather than the historical province, even if the name ‘Banat’ is still in local usage. So why write a history of this seemingly obscure province?

First of all, because no such history is available in English. The region deserves putting on the map of Anglo-Saxon historical scholarship. This, however, is not a strong enough reason and does not forestall the Ruritanian accusation. We instead should perhaps turn the question around and ask what makes a province worthy of interest. Sadly, more often than not the answer is blood and violence: whether blood sucked by vampires (as in Transylvania) or massacres and ethnic cleansing (as in Bosnia, Kosovo). Extremes of violence should, of course, never be ignored or left unexplored and unexplained.

The problem arises when one concentrates exclusively on such places visited by unprecedented violence. It creates the impression that nothing but ethnic violence comes out of Eastern Europe and fuels myths of  ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ as characteristic of the region.

I have therefore stopped at the Banat of Temesvár as a relatively peaceful province, with just as many ethnicities and religious denominations as these, but if anything dogged by myths of harmonious ethnic cohabitation rather than the perennial ancient-hatred myth. My new book is not intended to solve bibliographical disputes, count populations or work out who was there first. It is instead a historical meditation on the destructive and creative effect of ebbing and flowing borders on an ethnically variegated population, who lived and died under several waves of imperial rule, under nation-states and under communist and post-communist regimes. (more…)