July 2013

Thomas Newlin, “The Thermodynamics of Desire in Turgenev’s Notes of a Hunter”

Critics have long recognized that Ivan's Turgenev’s Notes of a Hunter (Zapiski okhotnika) is only nominally a work about hunting, and that it is concerned, at a deeper level, with much more important issues (serfdom, narrative form, and so on). This essay argues that Turgenev’s cycle of stories is indeed about okhota, but not just in the traditional sense of the word: it is centrally (though not exclusively) a book about desire. Turgenev is fascinated by desire and longing (okhota) in its many different manifestations (sexual-biological, psychic-emotional, spiritual, aesthetic), by its slow simmer and burn, its cultivation, suppression, release, dissipation. Again and again throughout the cycle his narrator-okhotnik positions himself, both literally and figuratively, “in cover” (na taige)--a vantage point whence he can study (and vicariously participate in) the romantic longing of his various targets. The essay explores implications of this paradigmatic pattern in a number of the stories (most importantly, and in the most detail, in “Yermolai and the Miller’s Wife” and “Living Relic”). It argues, furthermore, that Turgenev’s preoccupation in Notes of a Hunter with the nature and dynamics of desire was highly personal in its origins (it reflects his longing for Pauline Viardot), yet also universal in its implications: he drew deeply on his own experience to articulate a model of existential and affective conduct that resonated quietly but profoundly in Russian literature in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Ann Komaromi, “Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House: A Critical Analysis of the Late Soviet Hero”

This article analyzes Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House in light of discussions of the French nouveau roman and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s theory of the new novel. The goal is to define Bitov’s technique as neo-avant-garde, rather than postmodernist or neo-modernist, in order to show how Bitov used avant-garde techniques in combination with elements of the novelistic tradition to express--and create--new relations between the Soviet person and the world. This approach sheds light on Bitov’s innovative use of collage to produce a rough verbal and narrative surface in the novel. It emphasizes also the contradictory psychology of protagonist Lyova as constructed by Bitov in the novel on the basis of classic psychological prose updated for the late Soviet period.

Julia Fein, “Talking Rocks in the Irkutsk Museum: Networks of Science in Late Imperial Siberia”

This article critically examines the intervention of a collection of geological specimens into local politics in Irkutsk in imperial Russia’s constitutional period. Gathered for research on the Circumbaikal (Krugobaikal’skaia) Railroad in 1904, these rocks were donated to the museum of the East Siberian Section of the Imperial Russian Geographic Society in Irkutsk; but were subsequently removed from the storage tower, taken to European Russia by train, and pulverized in a laboratory in order to test their weight-bearing potential and open them up to chemical examination under a microscope. The ensuing conflict in Irkutsk over their removal divided local men of science into factions, both of which called on the rocks to “talk” for them in different ways. The culmination of the conflict was the publication in a local newspaper of a traditionally formatted “grievance” voiced by those rocks that remained in storage in the museum. This grievance played on assumptions by Siberian elites about the superior moral authenticity of the local over abstract central authority. I argue, however, that while this was a savvy political move by the defenders of the rocks as museum property, this conflict was not actually a case of resistance to central crushing of local agency, nor should it be understood as a linear ascendency of professionals over amateurs. Rather, it was a conflict between overlapping and competing scientific networks, both of which had ties to the region around Irkutsk as well as to agencies in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and both of which depended on the circulation of things, people, and values to make the local meaningful. Both sides depended on the possession of objects for the legitimacy of their science, and appealed to the concreteness of rocks to make a case for the objective correctness of their points of view. Thinking about rocks as participants in an assemblage of human actors; tectonic (and political) instability; indigenous markers of place; museum storage rooms; railroads; newspapers; and laboratory instruments enables us to conceive of late Imperial Russian culture and politics as embodied, vibrant, and in constant motion.

Isabel Tirado, “The Komsomol’s Village Vanguard: Youth and Politics in the NEP Countryside”

A mixture of youth vanguardism and class politics shaped the particular identity of the rural Komsomol during NEP. Rural komsomols repudiated village traditions and “backwardness” and embraced instead a purposeful life dedicated to service to the Party and to the countryside’s economic, cultural, and social progress. They committed to self-improvement in order to become forward-looking Soviet peasants, bearers of socialist modernity. The activism and dedication of rural activists allowed the Komsomol to become one of the most important Communist organizations in the first decade of Soviet power. Yet within a few years, these inroads in rural areas would be undermined by the anti-rural sentiments that swept the urban-dominated Communist organizations, the Komsomol included. Based on archival research, the article looks at NEP politics and documents the evolving relationship between rural youth activists and the Komsomol organization, and between the Komsomol and the Party and the state.

Kevin M. F. Platt, “Russian Empire of Pop: Post-Socialist Nostalgia and Soviet Retro at the ‘New Wave’ Competition”

The article is an analysis of the "New Wave International Competition of Young Performers of Popular Music," a televised spectacle in the music format of "estrada" ("stage song"), that has been held in Jurmala, Latvia, since 2002. The competition is discussed in terms of the history of its Soviet predecessor, the "Jurmala" competition that was held from 1985 to 1989 in the same concert hall, involving many of the same figures who organized "New Wave." Originally a showcase for "all-union" culture and interethnic relations in the mode of the "friendship of peoples," in its last two years, that earlier competition became a stage for agitation in connection with national independence movements. In this light, the contemporary "New Wave" competition may be seen as a form of memory project. Eliding the separatist politics of the last years of "Jurmala," "New Wave" reconstitutes the "friendship of peoples" model of multiethnic Russophone culture in which Russians are first among equals, for a television audience that encompasses not only Russia but many of the former Soviet and former socialist states. In some ways, this is a form of cultural imperialism, a projection of Russian soft power that matches projections of hard power into the ostensible Russian "sphere of influence." Yet despite the aspiration to unification of the post-Soviet and post-Socialist audience, the competition may take on distinct political and cultural significance in various locations. In Latvia, it may represent a clever marketing move, taking advantage of the demand for ironically inflected "Soviet nostalgia." In Russia, the project should be viewed not as "nostalgia," a term that may properly be applied to projects relating to scenes of cultural life that are truly past, but rather as "soviet retro"--dedicated to the recovery of modes of political and cultural life that are still meaningful and subject to revival.

Stephen Hutchings, “Serializing National Cohesion: Channel 1's ‘Shkola’ and the Contradictions of Post-Soviet ‘Consensus Management’”

Parliaments rarely debate television serials. Such, however, was the controversy surrounding Valeriia Gai-Germanika’s 69-part “Shkola” (“School”), shown on Russia’s Channel 1 in 2010, that several Duma Deputies called for its banning.  Filmed with hand-held cameras and unknown actors, “Shkola” offered an uncompromising insight into problems afflicting Russian schools: racism, corruption, casual sex, suicide, drug-taking, self-harming, bullying, bribery, violence, and unremitting disorder in classrooms characterized by unimaginative teaching. “Shkola” posed unprecedented challenges to the boundaries of the permissible. This article, however, evaluates the serial’s capacity to foster national cohesion, not in the “top-down” manner characteristic of state media events such as Victory Day, but through a multi-leveled dialectic of centre and periphery. Drawing on Jesus Martin-Barbero’s mediation theory, the article traces the dialectic through the serial narrative’s split structure: its oscillation between a naturalistic aesthetic based on metonymic displacements from society’s center to specific conflicts at its margins, and a melodramatic sentimentalism suited to the metaphoric modeling of that center and the articulation of a discourse of universal empathy. The dialectic facilitates a mutual engagement of voices (official patriotic, Soviet nostalgic, nationalist extremist, liberal oppositionalist, vernacular racist) in which each contaminates or revitalizes the other and in which Gai-Germanika’s preferred universalist stance fails to prevail. The article includes an assessment of the broader implications of “Shkola” for public discourse in Russia.

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