Reflections on the “Utopian Project” of Russian Studies

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By Luke Stanek

On October 27th, Dr. Ilya Gerasimov, co-founder and executive editor of the international quarterly Ab Imperio visited the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies and delivered a lecture entitled “Why Russian History?”  In the lecture, Gerasimov reflected upon the field of Russian Studies and Russian history from the mid-Soviet period up to the present day and encouraged Russianists to expand their interdisciplinary horizons and allow the field to find new ground to cover and new material to explore.  By inquiring into the reasons why his fellow scholars decided to study Russian history, Gerasimov brought into question the nature of doing historical work outside of one’s own country of origin and the particular benefits that such a perspective entails.

Gerasimov noted that the United States (and in particular the American Midwest) has served as the global center of Russian historical work and Russian Studies due to both the voracity of scholarly interest in Russia of so many Midwestern scholars and the financial capacity with which American institutions have funded Russian historical scholarship.  Speaking to just such a Midwestern scholarly audience, he began his lecture by arguing that the foreignness of Russia to a non-Russian provides a unique opportunity for history via “estrangement,” whereby the excitement and discovery of encountering another culture yields insight into that culture that might otherwise be overlooked by a native.  Gerasimov then read a number of short responses to the question “Why Russian History?” from his non-Russian colleagues, whose answers ranged from interest in Russian literature to desire to travel, and from political career opportunities to distant links of Russian heritage.  He referred to his journal Ab Imperio, which publishes research on Russian imperial history concurrently in English and Russian, as a “utopian project” to draw together numerous perspectives on Russian history from across Russian Studies, especially among non-Russian Russianists, to display the complex and “entangled” nature of the human experience in Russia.

Gerasimov then lamented the decline in interest in Russian Studies that had enamored a generation of scholars in the mid-to-late 20th century.  He argued that the breakup and compartmentalization of the USSR in the 1990s was mirrored in Russian Studies by the breakup and compartmentalization of research into regionally-focused, national histories and studies which maintain a myopic scope and have yet to integrate the latest methodological and theoretical developments of historical work.  One area in which Gerasimov encouraged Russianists to engage to expand their scholarly horizons was that of post-colonial and subaltern studies, which he believes provides a fresh and compelling way to rethink Russian imperial history, allows for the rediscovery of the Russian past through new eyes, and can produce answers to questions that Russianists in their current modes cannot answer as thoroughly.

Gerasimov claims that the field of Russian Studies embodies a quest for diversity, and as such, diversity should be sought by Russianists and other scholars whose subject areas may differ, like that of post-colonialists, but who nonetheless have valuable contributions to the field.  At the end of his lecture, Gerasimov reasserted the importance of non-Russians in producing Russian histories in dialogue with Russians, noting that “the past is a foreign country to everyone.”  Like non-Russian Russianists, those who are exposed to their field of work as a literal foreign country may have just the tools necessary to help us better understand the curious, the provocative, and the unique that continues to drive the imagination of the historian.

Luke Stanek is a second-year M.A. student in History.

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