by Justin Balcor
Justin Balcor: So, Hello, Professor Lucey. Is this your first time in Champaign-Urbana?
CL: No, actually. I was here in 2014 for a brief visit to SRL back when I was just starting my dissertation research. I had just recently defended my dissertation proposal and I stopped in for a brief visit. I had a really wonderful experience, specifically, working with Joe Lenkart in the Slavic Reference Service. I had also done a reference service kind of correspondence with Joe on my topic – going through bibliographies of the necessary items when thinking about the prospectus, the outline for the bibliography, the areas that I wanted to focus on: medical, judicial, religious, and literary texts. And that was really informative, at that beginning stage, because it laid the groundwork for everything that I needed to do when I got to Russia.
JB: Did your first visit inform your current visit? Are they connected or is your visit now as completely different project?
CL: Now is kind of a nice bookend, as I have been revising the dissertation and am now completing the book project, to come back to SRL to remember some of the foundational questions and the problems and the contexts that inform my study. I would say this time around I’m more accustomed with the material and the project has grown from its original stages considerably. Also this time I came in connection with a workshop on US-Russian relations, which I was really interested in, because I think that while my book project is on 19th century and early 20th century manifestations of the prostitute plot and libidinal economy in prose and poetry and visual culture, the work that I want to do later is looking much more into the present moment with sex workers’ rights and advocacy and sex worker’s performances in Russia and how they’re mitigated in the cultural realm. So, the workshop was also informative and interesting because it brought together a bunch of people from different disciplines who oftentimes don’t get the time or the space to discuss the work, not across avenues, but actually with one another.
JB: So, with that, you are this year’s Fisher Fellow…
CL: Which is a huge honor. I’m really delighted to have been able to share the research that I’ve done so far and it’s really great that it honors such a wonderful visionary in our field.
JB: You gave a Fisher Fellow presentation as well as another for the workshop. What are the topics that you presented on and what are the gaps that are bridged between the two? Are they completely separate topics?
CL: So, in many ways, the 19th century perceptions of womanhood and emancipation and autonomy of women’s sexuality run into the present moment. The talk that I was giving was on two hotly debated texts at the end of the 19th, early beginning of the 20th century, so Fin de siècle kind of literary discussions of the prostitute. One is from Tolstoy and the other is from Andreev. The talk was really about why, at the end of the 19th century, when there has been so much literature produced, by Nekrasov, Dostoyevsky, Krestovsky, Chernyshevsky, and a bunch of boulevard writers. I mean, the market was inundated with stories of prostitution and these women who come to St. Petersburg and there’s no way to find work that will sustain them and so they turn to prostitution. Usually there’s a Brothel Madame who like sinks her teeth into them, and then she spirals downward usually into tuberculosis, and then she ends on the streets dead… and the body of the prostitute haunts all of these 19th century works. So, why? My research question that I posed in this talk was why would somebody like Tolstoy, who is already canonical, why would he return back to this question after so many texts have been written on the topic? What could he and the writers of his generation say that was new and why would readers be interested in it?
The conclusion that I drew in the talk was that the question of regulating prostitution, state regulation of prostitution, troubled writers and cultural thinkers because it brought together the dual matrix of state oppression and the marginalization of women. So the topic continued to interest writers of different echelons. But what happens in the Fin de siècle literature is that the more emancipated women become, and the more autonomous women become, and the more people discuss the question of women’s autonomy and women’s rights to vote, and women’s right to different resources (divorce and so forth), the more violent the stories become and the more deadly the prostitute’s death is envisioned in the text. So, I’m making the argument that as women search for political, sexual, and financial autonomy, writers want to advocate for the removal of state sanctioned prostitution, but at the same time, there’s an undercurrent of complete disgust and fascination with the prostitute’s body. So, the harbinger of modernity is the prostitute’s body, not only in the Russian context, but across European literature. The more emancipated women become the more deadly their deaths are. This is not a coincidence. The only way to contain the prostitute’s kind of erotic body is through silencing her.
In the workshop on US-Russian foreign relations, we were asked to present on topics that bring together or consider where the future is in US-Russian relations. They’ve never been at such a low point. It seems that in the current moment politically, socially, economically, Russia and America see each other as adversaries rather than allies. What can we do as scholars, as policy makers, to alleviate or explain some of the difficulties that we face? My contribution was to discuss how, in the realm of oligarchs and politicians, sex work is extremely politicized. By that I mean Russian oligarchs and billionaires are somehow subject to interesting conversations of scandal and intrigue connected with prostitutes. It can equally propel a politician’s career or it can jettison it. So, I gave three instances that have taught us something about US-Russian relations. My argument is that Vladimir Putin, very early on in his career in 1999, realized how kompromat, which has now entered public discourse in America interestingly through the Russian language, of a sexual nature can be used to destroy an opponent’s career and how that sexual discourse can be weaponized. It seems like it’s only weaponized now with the Steele dossier, but what I did was trace it back to the Soviet period where there is a long tradition of KGB collecting kompromat on foreigners, and then drew the lines to the present moment with an interesting case between the aluminum tycoon or oligarch Oleg Deripaska and a sex worker escort named Nastya Rybka. They’re two very different projects but they’re both are aligned in their investigation of how sexual labor and venal love is read in the public sphere, whether or not it is politicized, sentimentalized, revolutionized, and how that discourse tells us something critical about different cultural productions.
JB: That’s very interesting. Both sound very informative to one another. With politicized sexuality, of course, we recognize that sexual policy is political policy, and it’s a very common thing to use sexuality and sex as a power component.
CL: Yes. What’s interesting too is that in the Russian landscape, and the post-Soviet landscape, discussions of prostitution, scandals of a sexual nature oftentimes devolve into discussions of male virility. Another point that I made was rather than focus on a sex worker’s ability to choose her own profession, the discussion in the press and among the journalists has to do with male virility. How do the men perform? Were the prostitutes disgusted? How big was the size? And so forth. What that tells us is that there is a kind of a gesture to remove the political power of sexualized labor, because these women hold great power over the men that they’re servicing. Also, it’s again kind of encapsulating the question of political acumen as related to male virility. We see that in the discussion between Trump and Stormy Daniels and the political fallout of the Steele Dossier. But there’s quite a bit of concern about how a male politician’s reading as a powerful figure is connected with his sexual performance. So we’re not really that far advanced from the 19th century. It feels like some things just circle back.
JB: We have an immense library system here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a very large Slavic collection. What kind of resources are you utilizing and how helpful have they been?
CL: Sometimes when I’m back at my home institution I look from afar at you all and I think if only I were in Urbana-Champaign, things would be quite different because of the amount of resources that the library has. It is a treasure trove of lost materials. It’s not only the amount of materials that you have, it’s also the expertise of your librarians and your bibliographers who so lovingly, and with such precision, complete their tasks. It’s a real testament to Ralph Fisher’s memory that it continues to be a stopping point for all major scholars in our field, and the other disciplines. SRL is groundbreaking for people’s research and that has specifically to do with the legacy of REEEC but also with the great work that Joe Lenkart and the SRS team do.
But also, everything that has to do with a text. So, for instance I’m writing about Tolstoy’s Resurrection (Воскресение). What’s beautiful about the library here is that they have Полное собрание сочинений (complete collected works), of course, but then you have everything around the text that you need to know in order to understand what Tolstoy is considering when he’s writing this text. So, there’s access to the leading prosecutor’s speeches, A. F. Koni, which was instrumental for Tolstoy’s conceptualization of the trial scene in the text. You also have access to some of the first illustrations that went along with Resurrection. So you get to see how the illustrator envisions these highly dramatic court scenes. You also have the reception and the critical literature and access to all of the major publications of day. And then you have the secondary scholarship on these publications and so you’re able to see where the gaps in the research are and where you can contribute. So, absolutely, it’s kind of, it is unparalleled, I think, in our field to have this much access not only to materials, but also to experts who can point you in the right direction when you’re lost, when you’ve hit an impasse, when you think “how can I understand what this particular abbreviation even means?”
JB: What are your plans moving forward, having had this experience with SRL and having had access to these records?
CL: So, there are a couple of parts of the next stage. First is verifying footnotes, and what is wonderful about the SRL and being a part of it is that you have access, until December, to the library here, to the resources. So, even after I leave, I know that I can still access some of things that I would need in order to verify some of the finer points of the data collection. What am I doing next, basically, is collecting all of the source material so that I’m able to do everything that I can, after I leave, to compile the material in a convincing way within the book manuscript to put down the final touches on the project.
JB: Is there anything you’d like to add?
CL: Another aspect that I really enjoy about SRL is that you’re not alone. So much of our work as scholars is really a solitary endeavor. You’re alone with your books. You’re alone in the archives. You’re alone in your office. You’re teaching and that’s a kind of performative space, also kind of interactive. But what is great about SRL is that you’re bouncing ideas around with people. You’re comparing notes. You’re workshopping papers. So, what happens at SRL, I think is that you start to ask yourself additional questions that then generates next projects. For me, for instance, it’s really interesting to hear from my colleagues who study the Soviet period, how sexual labor, especially in the late Soviet period, was part of the political economy. I know how it read in the social and the cultural realm, but they’re also interested in discussing the political sphere. So that brings up some points of expansion for our other projects, as well. And also, you know, people who are studying wildly different topics make you think about your own work in a different way.
I think the work that is done here this summer really honors the best our profession has to offer. Because it’s collaborative, it’s interdisciplinary, it brings together people who would not necessarily, even in conferences, get to discuss their work together. And it is a wonderful place for scholars at all stages of their career to network with people from across disciplines. And that’s very exciting and unique in our profession because there just aren’t many places like this.
Justin Balcor is a PhD student in Musicology.