Student News

REEEC congratulates the following student award winners and the Summer 2017 FLAS fellows:

2017 Yaro Skalnik Prize for the Best Graduate Essay in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies:

  • Felix Cowan (PhD Student in History) for his essay, “Beyond Urban Boundaries: The Penny Press and Lower-Class Integration in the Russian Empire”
  • Daria Semenova (PhD Student in Slavic Languages and Literatures) for her essay, “A Robinson for an awakening nation: a case study on a translation which is not one”

Summer 2017 FLAS Fellows:

  • Tyler Dolan (PhD Student in Slavic Languages and Literatures) for Russian
  • Jacob Goldsmith (PhD Student in Slavic Languages and Literatures) for Russian
  • LeiAnna Hamel (PhD Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures) for Yiddish
  • Douglas Heintz (MS Candidate in Library and Information Science) for Russian
  • Marco Jaimes (PhD Candidate in History) for Czech
  • Jennifer Jenson (PhD Student in German Studies) for Russian
  • Benjamin Krupp (PhD Student in Anthropology) for Russian
  • Thornton Miller (PhD Candidate in Musicology) for Russian
  • Hannah Werner (PhD Student in History) for Yiddish

Slavic Story Time

On April 15th, 2017, the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center hosted Slavic Story Time at the Urbana Free Library. The program, held once a semester, introduces small children in the Champaign-Urbana community to the countries and cultures of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia through stories, songs, and crafts. At this spring’s Slavic Story Time, graduate student Madeline Artibee and REEEC Outreach Coordinator Stephanie Chung presented on the Czech Republic. The children watched the cartoon “Marishka’s Salt.” After watching the short cartoon, Stephanie taught them the Czech song “Šla Nanynka do zelí” (“Nancy Went to the Cabbage Field”). Madeline and Stephanie both assisted in making folded paper salt cellars, which the children colored and decorated. Everyone had a fun time. We at REEEC were delighted to once again work with the Urbana Free Library to promote learning about the countries and cultures of the region.

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Distinguished Lecture: Sergey Zenkin, “Revolutionary Event and Literary Discourse”

On April 10, 2017, Sergey Zenkin presented a lecture entitled “Revolutionary Event and Literary Discourse” as part of the REEEC Distinguished Lecture Series. Dr. Zenkin is a Professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities. His lecture focused on the works of two French philosophers, Maurice Blanchot and Paul Ricoeur, through which we can gain a more complex understanding of revolutions and their subsequent interpretations.

Sergey Zenkin giving his REEEC Distinguished Lecture

Dr. Zenkin introduced his lecture with a point about how history is interpreted. He said that, in antiquity, history was interpreted using the reigns of monarchs and emperors as guides.  Currently, however, history is interpreted using chronological points as guides, especially wars and revolutions. History is, therefore, inhuman and catastrophic.

Turning to theoretical analyses of revolutions, Dr. Zenkin noted that revolutions are imbued with an aura of heroism and entail both creation and destruction. In Maurice Blanchot’s analysis, literary creation is based on rupture. The act of writing or speaking serves to separate the author from his subject. Likewise, revolution is a “fabulous moment” in which history is emptied out. The revolution is distinct from human time, desires, and projects. The individual is no longer relevant and is replaced by the community. Blanchot viewed the revolution from within, which removes it from chronological history. He also viewed revolution as a “total event” or “super event” because it overturns the world. The totality of the revolution ultimately necessitates that it be viewed from within because there are no external points of view. Moreover, there are no possible actions because all that could be done has been done already. Perhaps the only response available is seeing. However, according to Blanchot, there are no spectators, but only readers who interpret the revolution after it has occurred. The readers can confirm or reject thought about the revolution and therefore imbue it with meaning. Through their interpretive work, the revolution ultimately becomes history.

Paul Ricoeur offers a different interpretation on revolution. He argued that there is a homology between texts and actions because both are separated from their subjects and constituted of material objects. Moreover, neither actor nor author can control the consequences of action or text. The author addresses his text to an indefinite audience. The audience reads his work and this implies action as well—a reaction to the author’s text. Ricoeur also analyzed “events of foundation,” which are extraordinary, total events affecting an entire nation or all of mankind. These events combine both negativity and creativity. Zenkin posited that, for modernity, the “event of foundation” is the revolution. Revolutions are endowed with meaning through the reactions that they evoke, such as commemoration through semi-religious rituals or repetition. Ricoeur also analyzed revolutions through the frame of mimesis of total events. The mimesis of total events shows that revolutions are paradoxical, endow absolute and negative freedom, and generate a rupture which must be sustained.

Dr. Zenkin concluded his lecture with a brief discussion of Yuri Lotman’s analysis of revolution as both culture and explosion, which normalizes revolution. Zenkin suggested that we ultimately cannot choose between revolution and normalization, writing and interpretation, or culture and explosion.

Kathleen Gergely is a first-year REEEC MA student. She is also a 2016-2017 FLAS Fellow for Russian.

FLAS Fellow Benjamin Wheeler Starts a Radio Show in Tbilisi, Georgia

Benjamin Wheeler

REEEC FLAS Fellow Benjamin Wheeler (PhD Candidate in Ethnomusicology) has spent the 2016-2017 academic year in Tbilisi, Georgia, studying Georgian and Anthropology at Tbilisi State University. While attending classes at a local university, he has started an English-language radio show on the university’s radio channel (GIPA FM 94.3) called “Caucasus All Frequency,” which plays music from the Caucasus region and explores “the many meanings and unique stories behind the music.”

Check out Ben’s show at: https://soundcloud.com/radiogipa/caucasus-all-frequency

REPOST: Historian wants readers to experience the Russian Revolution

Editor’s notes:

To reach Mark Steinberg, call 217-300-4104; email steinb@illinois.edu.

His book “The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921” is published by Oxford University Press.

 

Professional Development Workshop: Terrell Starr, “Covering Trump in an Age of Russian Propaganda Wars”

REEEC welcomed back journalist and REEEC MA graduate Terrell Starr for a professional development workshop on March 30 entitled “Covering Trump in an Age of Russian Propaganda Wars.” Starr argued that in order to understand how many Americans today perceive the Russian government, we need to understand how Americans perceive threats. There is overwhelming evidence that the Russian government used hacking and technological manipulation to influence and perhaps even swing the recent presidential election. And yet, when confronted with evidence of this tampering, Americans who identify as Trump supporters are indifferent, or even supportive, of the Russian involvement. How do these supporters justify such a position?

Journalist and REEEC alumnus Terrell Starr

The answer, Starr proposes, lies in the way Americans perceive threats. People will either intensify or minimize a threat depending on their positionality. In other words, the extent to which people perceive an action to be threatening is not value neutral; it is calibrated through public discourse and private identity politics. Throughout his campaign, Trump played heavily into this process, basing much of his campaign around specific kinds of threats. By focusing on the supposed dangers of spaces like the US-Mexican border or Chicago, or on the process of refugee resettlement, Trump has created a narrative in which threats emerge from people of color. The narrative that Trump has created, in short, is a narrative that protects American whiteness.

The danger of Trump’s re-centering around American whiteness—beyond its obvious deleterious effects on the American social fabric—is that it allows threats like the Russian election interference to be easily minimized. As part of Starr’s journalistic work, he has spoken extensively with Trump supporters to try to understand the way in which they recontextualize information to fit it into this narrow vision of a threat. Starr noted that compared to ISIS, refugees, and the southern border, Trump supporters do not see Russia as threatening. Because the election interference does not fit into the Trumpian narrative of what a threat is, many (even most) of his supporters are unwilling to consider it one.

Starr himself has reevaluated his role as a journalist in light of these findings. He has made it his goal to learn about hacking and other forms of interference in order to better understand them. He then acts as an educator, explaining to the public how these hacking attacks work. There are limitations to what he (or any reporter) can do, as he cannot access any secret or classified information, but he has managed to gain an idea of how this sophisticated system of hacking functions.

Yet even while Starr has expanded his job as a reporter, he wonders what effect his actions will have. If we found a smoking gun that implicated the Russian government in election hacking, would it matter to a majority of Trump’s supporters? Drawing upon his interviews with them, Starr is not sure. The narrative that Trump has created has staying power, and many of his supporters are deeply invested in its promotion of American whiteness. What use is a smoking gun in an era in which a narrative is more powerful than facts?

Starr is also pessimistic about the ability of the Russian government to continue to interfere in the American political system. The Russian government, he notes, has been particularly adept at using racial and ethnic tensions to serve its own means. For example, Russian officials launched a DDOS hack on Georgia during the 2008 war, in which they fabricated and circulated a photo of then-president Mikheil Saakashvili with Nazi imagery. Although the photo was proven to be false, the damage was already done. This is the danger of information wars: even false information can have real power when they fit into the right narratives. It is a problem, Starr says, that will continue to have a real and tangible impact on our political system for years to come.

Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois. Her dissertation, “A Space Called Home: Housing and the Construction of the Everyday in Russia, 1890-1935,” explores how multiple, often conflicting, understandings of the home emerged across the revolutionary divide of 1917, and what these conceptions tell us about belonging. Her article “Cooking Up a New Everyday: Communal Kitchens in the Revolutionary Era, 1890-1935” was published in the December 2016 issue of Revolutionary Russia. When she is not doing academic work, she is working on perfecting her plov recipe. 

Noontime Scholars Lecture: Laura Dean, “Incongruent Implementation of Human Rights-Based Policy in the Post-Soviet Region”

Laura Dean giving her Noontime Scholars Lecture on March 14, 2017

Every year, approximately one million people are trafficked throughout the post-Soviet world. Although human trafficking is a global issue, Laura Dean (Assistant Professor of History and Political Science at Millikin University) argues that the problem is particularly acute in the post-Soviet region. In her lecture, entitled “Incongruent Implementation of Human Rights-Based Policy in the Post-Soviet Region,” she explored why the region has had such a problem controlling human trafficking. Do the difficulties stem from internal or external forces? And what factors help or hinder the implementation of more comprehensive human trafficking policies?

In order to answer these questions, Dean’s research focuses on state structures and institutions, to see how responses to the problem of human trafficking have varied from country to country. In this presentation, Dean focused on three countries: Ukraine, Latvia, and Russia. Although every country in the post-Soviet region has adopted at least a criminal code against human trafficking, their responses beyond that have varied widely. In tracing out the particularities of these three states—each of which have different resources, institutional networks, and overall approaches—Dean aimed to explore what was working, and what could be improved.

Ukraine, the first state Dean discussed, was the first post-Soviet state to address the question of human trafficking with a criminal code in 1998. Despite this promising policy step, Ukraine has had problems with implementation: agencies and institutions have problems communicating with each other, local officials have little instructions on how to implement top-down policies, there is a lack of resources due to the overwhelming problem of internally displaced people from eastern Ukraine. Dean’s second example, Latvia, addressed many of these problems of implementation. It has fewer policies than Ukraine, but it has done a much better job of implementing them: agencies and institutions have clearly defined relationships, and they work closely with international organizations and governing bodies. Finally, Dean focused on Russia. While Russia has implemented a criminal code, it has no other state policy connected to anti-trafficking measures. There is also no centralized rehabilitative service; as a result, people who have been trafficked often have to rely on local institutions or Orthodox churches. Although there are people trying to tackle the issue of human trafficking in Russia, Dean noted, they are severely limited by the lack of state support.

Although Dean’s lecture focused on the state-level process, she also devoted some attention to broader, regional issues. Perhaps the most pressing of those issues is changing the perception of what human trafficking looks like. Due to the “Natasha Effect,” the popular imagining of a human trafficking victim is a young woman, usually trafficked as part of the sex trade. Though the sex trade plays a role in human trafficking, that a narrative ignores other forms, such as forced labor or organ trafficking. As the name “Natasha” indicates, it also emphasizes that most victims of this process are of Slavic descent, whereas in reality, Central Asians are increasingly becoming the target of trafficking operations.

Furthermore, Dean observed that it is important to use quantitative data carefully. One commonly used metric to discusses the success (or failure) of anti-human trafficking policy is to trace the number of initiated criminal investigations and the number of rehabilitated victims. The assumption is that higher numbers mean more effective enforcement, but lower numbers may mean a country’s approach is so effective that traffickers are more hesitant to use it. Pure quantitative data also gives researchers no information on how policies are implemented, another critical factor to consider.

Since only relying on quantitative data to study human trafficking policy gives a very limited view of the issue, Dean’s lecture underscored that researchers, policy advisers, activists, and others need to use a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches to study the issue. States that have good legal structures, like Ukraine, may face challenges with implementation. Only using quantitative data would mask Ukraine’s trouble implementing human trafficking policies, and makes less apparent Latvia’s success in fostering inter-agency communication and creating policies that are easy to implement. In other cases, such as Russia, wider political narratives make tackling the issue of trafficking difficult. Given the vastly different approaches that states in the post-Soviet region have used, more research needs to focus on the long-term consequences and effectiveness of each state’s trafficking policies, using both quantitative and qualitative data.

Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois. Her dissertation, “A Space Called Home: Housing and the Construction of the Everyday in Russia, 1890-1935,” explores how multiple, often conflicting, understandings of the home emerged across the revolutionary divide of 1917, and what these conceptions tell us about belonging. Her article “Cooking Up a New Everyday: Communal Kitchens in the Revolutionary Era, 1890-1935” was published in the December 2016 issue of Revolutionary Russia. When she is not doing academic work, she is working on perfecting her plov recipe.