Finding a Place in the Soviet Empire: Cultural Production and the Friendship of Nations

By Dr. Harriet Murav

The 2011 Fisher Forum, “Finding a Place in the Soviet Empire: Cultural Production and the Friendship of Nations,” was held in late June. The symposium brought together leading scholars from Russia, Canada, the UK, and the US, with expertise in a variety of disciplines, to explore the problem of empire, subjectivity, and cultural production in the Soviet Union. The conference was co-organized by Harriet Murav (Illinois) and Gennady Estraikh (NYU).

In his keynote address, Evgenii Dobrenko (Sheffield) set forth the basic methodology, paradigms, and criteria by means of which the Soviet Union created the minority cultures of its multicultural empire. A folk literature, typically in the form of an epic, was the necessary first stage in the development of a national literature. The translation of the national literature into Russian was a requirement for its recognition as a valid form of national self-expression. Marina Mogilner (Kazan) explored the theoretical tensions in definitions of the nation on the part of Jewish ethnographers in the early days of Soviet power. As Marina Balina (Illinois Wesleyan) showed, Russian language children’s literature ended up “othering” foreign and ethnic minority nationalities. Anika Walke (Washington U., St. Louis) revealed the degree to which the principles of internationalism and the friendship of nations did in fact “take root” at least among Jewish youth growing up in the 1930s. The Soviet project created out of the layered cultural legacy of the imperial borderlands an essentially provincial cultural ideal. However, cultural exchange, and not cultural provincialism, argued both Mayhill Fowler Princeton and Amelia Glaser (UC San Diego) were key to artistic production at the borderlands. Several papers examined the paradoxes of Soviet translation policies. Vitaly Chernetsky (Miami of Ohio) focused on the “boom” of publication of Ukrainian translations of Pushkin from the 1920s to the 1950s, a time when Ukrainian culture was suppressed. Gennady Estraikh’s, showed that translation could allow for greater literary openness. Russian translations of Yiddish works had more leeway in terms of specifically Jewish topics than original Russian language works. The themes of loss, mourning, and haunting emerged from Alexander Etkind’s and Mikhail Krutikov’s work. Etkind (King’s College, Cambridge) argued that Grigorii Kozinstev’s Hamlet and Lear allowed for a cosmopolitan—and hence distinctly unSoviet—vehicle of mourning the otherwise unacknowledged victims of the Soviet regime. Krutikov (Michigan) stressed the “poetics of the void,” the absences and silences in postwar Yiddish travelogues. Sasha Senderovich (Tufts) discussed the representation of the Holocaust in late Soviet film. Oleksandra Shchur’s (Illinois) paper about the Ukrainian writer Nina Bichuia revealed another kind of haunting, not by the victims of Soviet terror or the Second World War, but by the key perpetrator, Stalin. There is a kind of haunting as well in the three stories Thomas Lahusen (Toronto) told about the end of the Soviet Union in what became Kyrgyzstan. Finally, Helen Sullivan, of the Slavic Reference Service, unveiled a new “Library Guide” on how to research Soviet cultural production under the banner of “the friendship of nations.” Please visit the guide  for this event as it is open to the public:

REEEC would like to acknowledge the generous support of our co-sponsors:  College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Hewlett International Conference Grant; School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics; Program in Jewish Culture and Society; Center for Advanced Study; Center for Translation Studies, and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

Dr. Harriet Murav is a Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois. Her research interests include Russian culture, film, women’s studies, theater, and 19th century literature; also Comparative Literature and Jewish Studies.

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