A Joint Area Studies Symposium: A Century of Revolutions

On March 29th and 30th, the Area Studies Centers of UIUC hosted the annual Joint Area Studies Symposium (JACS). This year’s theme was “A Century of Revolutions: Past and Futures of Radical Transformations.” The symposium aimed to reflect on the meaning of revolution in the age of globalization. Part of the year-long initiatives to discuss the history and legacy of the Russian Revolution of 1917,  JACS contributors discussed today’s legacy and significance of the concept of revolution in multiple cultural contexts.

Kicking off the event was a keynote address by Tariq Ali entitled “The Broken Ladder: The Global Left Fifty Years After 1968.” The symposium was articulated in four themes: religion and revolution; anti-colonialism; violence and transformation; and gender, race, minorities, and revolution. The goals of JACS was “to contribute to the debate on radical transformations today from a multilateral perspective that abandons the parochialism of a Western-centric understanding of the world,” and, thus, the symposium featured scholars from experts on China, India, Latin America, Europe and Africa in order to provide a truly transnational perspective.

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Phillip Bohlman, “‘Some for Laughs, Some for Tears’ – The Cabaretesque and Jewish Music”

On March 29, 2018 the Chicago-based New Budapest Orpheum Society came to Urbana-Champaign to perform Jewish cabaret music in “Making Sacred All the Whispers of the World,” which was part of the Krannert Uncorked series. The concert was preceded by Professor Philip V. Bohlman’s lecture, entitled “‘Some for Laughs, Some for Tears’: The Cabaretesque and Jewish Music.” In the lecture, Professor Bohlman, a distinguished professor in the Music Department of the University of Chicago and the Artistic Director of the New Budapest Orpheum Society, introduced his theoretical concept of the cabaretesque, which is defined in the program as “…a performative moment in which cultural, religious, and aesthetic differences of modern Judaism converge upon a stage, both metaphorical and physical, mediated by music to reframe the narratives of the everyday and of history.” Drawing from diverse fields, such as queer theory and Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia and the carnivalesque, Professor Bohlman’s theoretical configuration of the cabaretesque promises to deepen our understanding of cabaret and its enduring relevance. The lecture framed “Making Sacred All the Whispers of the World” as an instantiation of the cabaretesque.

New Budapest Orpheum Society’s extensive repertoire was comprised of songs in Yiddish, Russian, Czech, German, Polish, and Hebrew, which were united by their common origin in Jewish cabaret. Translations and the original text were provided for the twenty-five songs performed. The songs explored diverse aspects of Jewish life and history that were in turns heart wrenching and comical. The major themes of the repertoire included immigration, destruction, love, the city, everyday life, memory, the Holocaust, and Zionism. In juxtaposing these themes, the New Budapest Orpheum Society’s performance illuminated the richness of Jewish experience, as reflected in the genre of cabaret songs. The concert was a well-attended and lively event that was staged on Krannert’s Stage 5, where the audience could enjoy the excellent lecture and performance accompanied by friends and a glass of wine.

LeiAnna X. Hamel is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality in nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian and Yiddish literature and culture. 

Sharyl Corrado: “An East Asian Monster: Mankind vs. Nature on Sakhalin Island (1850-1905)”

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On June 26th, Dr. Sharyl Corrado presented a Noontime Scholars Lecture titled “An East Asian Monster: Mankind vs. Nature on Sakhalin Island (1850-1905).” Dr. Corrado is an Associate Professor of History at Pepperdine University. She is also a 2018 Summer Research Lab associate.

Dr. Corrado stated that her talk represents an environmental history of Sakhalin Island because descriptions of its landscape changed over time—even though the landscape itself remained static. She opened her lecture by describing the island, which sits off the coasts of Japan and Russia, between the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. Though there is a north-south climatic division, there is also an east-west division because the center of the island is mountainous. Russian colonization of Sakhalin Island began in the 1850s following the discovery of coal there. Fears of potential American colonization of the Amur basin as well as new shipping ventures opened by the conclusion of the Opium Wars and the discovery of gold in California prompted the imperial government to seize the potential profits there.

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The initial first-hand accounts of Sakhalin Island describe it as bountiful and welcoming. The island is described as a gift to Russia from a generous natural world intended to compensate for the barren Russian heartland. Settlements of Siberian peasants, who would establish agriculture, and a self-financing penal colony focused on coal mining were planned. Yet, by the end of the 1870s, the official optimism surrounding Sakhalin Island faded. The settlements of Siberian peasants failed and the penal colony—established in the early 1870s—never achieved self-sustainability. Accounts of Sakhalin Island now described it as a land of extremes characterized by subarctic conditions in the north and mountainous center, and relative warmth and humidity in the south. The island teemed with unfamiliar flora and fauna. Nonetheless, first-hand accounts show that the officials still believed that intrepid Russians could persevere over the harsh landscape. The meager Russian settlements displaced the wild landscape as the source of beauty on the island, while optimism that the harsh environment would reform the convicts remained.

By the end of the 1890s, all optimism disappeared as agriculture failed, mining remained unprofitable, and convicts were not reformed. Sakhalin Island took on a supernatural guise in the popular press. Accounts described the phenomenon of ‘sakhalinization’ through which all men became monsters. When Anton Chekhov visited in 1890, he described Sakhalin fever—a bizarre illness apparently not caused by an infection. At the close of the nineteenth century, men were no longer believed to be in control on Sakhalin Island—rather the island was in control. Dr. Corrado argued that the accounts of this period show not only a process of colonial othering, but a general disillusionment with science and modernity. When the Japanese reclaimed the island in 1909 following the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, the imperial government was perhaps relieved.

Kathleen Gergely is a second-year student in the MA program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests include political Islam in the North Caucasus, Russian counterterrorism policy, and regional administration in the Soviet Union and Russian Federation. 

Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures Lecture: Katherine Bowers, “Terrible, Mysterious, and Fantastic Stories: Gothic Frames in Realist Fiction”

On April 23, 2018, Katherine Bowers gave a lecture titled “Terrible, Mysterious and Fantastic Stories: Gothic Frames in Realistic Fiction”. Dr. Bowers is an Assistant Professor of Slavic Studies at the University of British Columbia. This event was sponsored by the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

During the lecture, Katherine Bowers presented a piece of her wider project related to the influence of European gothic on Russian realism in the nineteenth century. She started with a general introduction into the topic of gothic literature and gothic realism as something that depicts the incomprehensible in a way which harmoniously coexists with the realist depiction of life. Since the 1840s and up to the early twentieth century, realist writers were incorporating gothic motifs and plots in their works. According to her, there were three main gothic narratives: paranoia, barbarism, and taboo, which authors invoked aiming to disturb the reader.

Bowers addressed the question of what these mechanisms add to Russian realism by focusing more specifically on a close reading of two stories, Ivan Turgenev’s short story “Bezhin meadow” from the 1852 collection Sketches from a Hunter’s Album and Anton Chekhov’s 1885 sketch “The Dead Body.” Both of them use realist poetics and conventions but include a gothic framing device. While she mentioned the differences between the usages of a gothic frame by the two authors and between its meaning in the two cases– by the 1880s was already a cliché – she mostly focused on what is common in how the two stories use this device.

In both stories, an educated narrator encounters uneducated peasants and presents to the reader their understanding of the world, their superstitions, and the blurred line between this world and the after world in their imagination. Interestingly enough, according to Bowers, these depictions of folk imagination about the supernatural are not the source of the gothic. In fact, they are quite at odds with the gothic frame, as the folk ideas about the demonology and the after-life are presented as a part of the “natural” world for them, or at least of the natural explanation of the world, while the uncanny feeling typical for gothic literature arises as these traditional explanations fail. Thus, according to Bowers, gothic adds an extra textual layer to these realist narratives.

During the Q&A session, Bowers and the audience raised a question of comparing the gothic in different literary traditions. For instance, a tentative conclusion was put forward that in Russian literature, the world of the uneducated peasants is the typical gothic location, unlike the common chronotopes of an abandoned mansion in English literature or of endless uninhabited spaces in American literature.

Daria Semenova is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at UIUC. Her interests include comparative Slavic literatures, literature for youngsters and fostering ideologies through art.

Summer Research Lab Reception

On June 21st, the Slavic Reference Service hosted a reception for the 45th Summer Research Lab and in celebration of the Association for Women in Slavic Studies (AWSS). Joseph Lenkart of the Slavic Reference Service welcomed SRL associates and workshop participants. John Randolph gave remarks on behalf of REEEC and Christine Worobec on behalf of AWSS. Browse through a selection of photos from the event below.

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JACS Keynote Address: Tariq Ali, “The Broken Ladder: The Global Left Fifty Years After 1968”

Throughout the fall semester, REEEC held a series of events to commemorate and understand the Russian Revolution of 1917. At a talk given by Tariq Ali on March 29 as a part of the Joint Area Studies Symposium, titled “The Broken Ladder: The Global Left Fifty Years After 1968,” Ali offered his interpretation of another momentous year.

Ali began by contextualizing the historical moment of 1968 within its wider scope. The arc towards 1968, he theorized, began in 1965, when the United States military faced a series of defeats in Vietnam against the Viet Cong. This military defeat led to a cascading wave of upheavals—including massive protests against the U.S. military by former GIs—up until the removal of U.S. troops from Vietnam in 1975. These waves of upheavals led to a transformative shift in political consciousness and culture, and allowed political-cultural movements like socialism and feminism to gain ascendancy.

It was these trends that led to 1968, a year that was marked by “school students confronting power articulations.” But, Ali noted, as the memory of events ossifies, moments that were important in the contemporary situation often fade to the background of historical memory. Today, 1968 (and the global 1960s as a whole) are largely remembered under the familiar motif of ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll.’ Meanwhile, what Ali argues was the most successful victory of 1968—a three month-long general strike in Pakistan in favor of a return to democratic practices—is largely forgotten.

The general strike in Pakistan was successful, Ali argued, because those who participated were willing to risk everything, including their own lives. “Once people lose their fear of death, they can accomplish miracles,” said Ali. The movement was also structured around concrete needs of people—“food, shelter, and clothing for all” was a popular slogan—and the rhetoric focused on how capitalism was not working for the average Pakistani. For all of these reasons, Ali called the Pakistani General Strike the last attempt to mimic the Russian and Chinese “old style” revolutions. And, indeed, it did largely accomplish its goal, as Ayub Khan was forced to cede power because of the strike.

However, elsewhere in the world, the “old style” revolution was becoming less and less tenable. In Portugal, where a domestic revolt overthrew the dictatorship and crumpled the Portuguese Empire from within, the rigidity and inflexibility of the Communist Party led to its quick marginalization. After the Communist Party of Portugal was sidelined, non-radical organizations quickly used the language and rhetoric of revolution to support their own goals.

It was at this point that Ali shifted the focus of his talk, and moved from discussing the events of 1986 to discussing how the legacy can inform our current actions. There is, he noted, a crisis in current revolutionary movements. Even a criticism frequently leveled against old-style revolutionaries—that they are dinosaurs—is inaccurate, because at least dinosaurs are popular. Meanwhile, the dual movements of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism have become dominant. The event of September 11 gave neo-conservatives their chance to impose their view on the world, and neo-liberalism and late stage capitalism have gained footholds in places like China.

There needs to be another movement to combat the hegemony of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, Ali argued. Marxism is largely dead. Social democracy (as practiced by politicians like Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party) is a particularly vibrant movement in the contemporary political scene, and its practitioners have been among the only leaders willing to fight the seemingly never-ending war machine. Whatever emerges to fight the status quo, be it social democracy or something else, will have to be flexible, adaptable, and powerful. But what it is, exactly, remains to be seen. In the closing words of Tariq Ali’s address: “Something has gone very wrong in this world. What no one know is what the answers are.”

Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman recently completed her PhD in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and will be a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in the fall. She is the Book Review Editor and Editorial Board member of The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review. Her research interests focus on modern Russian history, urban studies, and everyday life.

Film Screening: “The Wood Floaters” (“Platagony”)

REEEC recently hosted the first US screening of director Kirill Makarenkov’s feature length documentary Platagony, or The Wood Floaters. The film follows the work of men and women employed in transporting lumber from Russia’s northern forests to processing plants in industrialized areas hundreds of miles away. The trees are cut during the winter months, bundled and bound together with chains, steel rope, and bolts, and then, when Spring finally comes and begins to cut through the river ice, these bundles of felled trees are floated down the still icy river by the platagony.

As Makarenkov explained in his opening remarks, this is very old work, it is difficult and dangerous but platagony have been doing this very job in more or less the same way since before the revolution. Watching the film, you do get a sense that the work the platagony do and the world they inhabit belong to another era. In fact, by the time the film was released, the slow, brutal work of the platagony had been replaced by more modern methods. Makarenkov actually unintentionally followed the platagony on their last trip down the river in 2008, making his documentation of this traditional form of labor all the more important as it fades into history.

The film is presented in three parts organized more or less chronologically with the flow of the work. Part 1, “Wood cutters,” shows the loggers in the remote, frozen Kostroma forest. Although the film is described as depicting a man’s world there is actually a single woman working alongside the men, cutting limbs from trees, smoking and drinking tea in a little wooden shack, and telling stories about the cold. Part 2, “Wood floaters,” shows the preparations for transporting the lumber as the men gather along the frozen river and then take their boats out into the ice to break it up. Most of the film’s dialogue takes place in this section as the men repair their boats, trade and barter with each other, attend a prayer service, and tell stories to each other around campfires while they wait for the real action to begin; but there are long stretches of silence as well. When one of the boats gets stuck in the ice a particularly weathered old man starts telling rambling stories about beavers flooding pastures in nearby towns, and about traveling to African when he was in the navy, and why it is better to be cold than hot. Then, suddenly the boat is free and they are moving down the river again and the camera shifts back to long shots of the barren riverbank. When they rejoin the others to wait for the rest of the ice to melt you get the sense that weeks pass with little to no activity. One man gets an accordion and they add singing and dancing to the repertoire of smoking, drinking, and telling stories. Finally, in part 3, “Rafting,” the long wait is over and we see the bundled logs floating down the river as the riverbank slowly turns green and becomes more populated.

Each of these sections is introduced with intertitles that are shot to look like early silent films with poor lighting and a shaky camera. The little dialogue we get from the men working and telling stories is supplemented by explanatory intertitles but no voiceovers are used and very little extradiegetic music is available to help set the tone or control the pace. The camera work sometimes focuses our attention up close on the workers’ hands, the gears of the motors they repair, or the industrial materials that bind the raw logs together. At other times beautiful shots of the icy river, the surrounding forests, or the desolate, muddy riverbanks take us out of the intimate, quiet spaces inhabited by these men to their incredible surroundings as the camera slowly zooms out or is pulled up to a long overhead shot. This creates a very intimate and personal portrait of the platagony and their work. They are not portrayed as ideological symbols or state propaganda—they are treated as human subjects laboring in a world that is harsh but beautiful, whose work is both interesting because of its novelty and tradition while also being incredibly outmoded and lonely. These men wait around, joke with each other, prepare food and repair their equipment like workers rather than heroes.

The film ends rather abruptly as 20 of the original 36 bundles of rafted trees are brought into the processing center. With the beautiful camera work, the aesthetic of an old soviet-style documentary, and the unusual subject matter, the film is compelling and well crafted, although you do start to feel the burden of all the waiting and isolation since Makarenkov intentionally does very little to alleviate the boredom of waiting nearly 2 hours to watch bundles of logs float down a remote Russian river.

Meagan Smith is a PhD candidate in Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the representation of border walls in twentieth and twenty-first century dystopian fiction from the US, Russia, and Mexico.