Russian Week at Urbana Fine Arts Center’s Summer Camp

During the week of July 10th,  REEEC visited Urbana Fine Arts Center’s annual summer camp to give presentations on Russian language, dance, and music. On Wednesday, Nadia Hoppe, PhD candidate in the Slavic Department, and Stephanie Chung, Outreach and Programming Coordinator of REEEC and also a PhD candidate in the Slavic Department, introduced the summer camp participants to the Russian alphabet. The summer camp participants, who ranged from ages 6-8, then learned how to write their names in Russian script. On Friday, Hoppe returned to give a presentation on Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. After learning about the Firebird in Russian folklore and watching several productions of the ballet, ranging from Margot Fonteyn’s 1954 performance to a contemporary performance in Mariinsky Theater, the campers enjoyed a Firebird mask craft.

REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture: “Politics in the World of Art: Representations of Russia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries”

On June 27th, Professor Cadra McDaniel gave a Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled, “Politics in the World of Art: Representations of Russia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.” Professor McDaniel is an Assistant Professor of History and Liberal Studies at Texas A&M University-Central Texas and the author of American-Soviet Cultural Diplomacy: The Bolshoi Ballet’s American Premiere.


According to Professor McDaniel, the emergence of the World of Art (Mir iskusstva), a Russian art magazine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, heralded a new and innovative phase in the world of Russian art. Artists associated with the World of Art, the Miriskusniki, became known for their avant-garde works and for their appreciation of Western European aesthetics and cultural trends. The name World of Art was meant to highlight their cosmopolitan proclivities and to build a bridge between Russian art and Western European art. While many scholars have acknowledged the World of Art for its cultural achievements and contributions to European art as a whole, few have considered how the World of Art interacted with Russian politics. Although the World of Art is commonly seen as having been apolitical, Professor McDaniel argues that the World of Art and the Miriskusniki often expressed political and nationalist themes through their art, many of which have continued to feature in 20th century and contemporary Russian art.

In the late 19th century, nationalism became a powerful force in Europe and Russia. Amidst ongoing nationalist debates in the country, the Miriskusniki sought to illustrate national identity not through politics, but through what they saw as authentic Russian art. In their search for national identity, the Miriskusniki looked to the past, finding inspiration in ancient Russian myths and folklore, as well as 18th century Russia and France.

Viktor Vasnetsov, Knight at the Crossroads, 1882

Viktor Vasnetsov, Knight at the Crossroads, 1882

The artist Viktor Vasnetsov and his painting Knight at the Crossroads became a source of nationalist discussions among the Miriskusniki. Knight at the Crossroads, which celebrates Russia’s glorious past and the Slavic soul, depicts a Russian bogatyr, and draws heavily on Russian folklore. Sergei Diaghilev, one of the founders of the World of Art, believed that nationalists such as Vasnetsov would help Russia transition into Western European culture. In Europe at the time there was a widespread interest in myths and folklore, so Diaghilev believed that works like Knight at the Crossroads would integrate Russia into larger European artistic trends. Following the ideological traditions of Viktor Vasnetsov was Mikhail Nesterov, who was seen as representative of Russian national romanticism. Many of Nesterov’s works focused on religious themes, such as his Holy Trinity from 1895. Holy Trinity is a direct imitation of Anton Rublev’s icon, The Trinity. McDaniel argues that Nesterov’s imitation of the famed icon painter shows the continued importance of Orthodoxy in Russian nationalism. By harkening back to the Middle Ages, both Vasnetsov and Nesterov highlight the medieval period as a formative and glorious time in Russian history and as a central part of Russian identity.

Alexandre Benois, The King's Walk, 1906

Alexandre Benois, The King’s Walk, 1906

Moving forward in time, the World of Art also exhibited a great love and appreciation for the 18th century. Artists like Alexandre Benois, Valentin Serov, and Konstantin Somov, who were not interested in the medieval period, devoted their work to glorifying 18th century Russian culture. Benois’s painting, The King’s Walk, shows a stylization of the period that evokes a longing for a bygone era. The glorification of the 18th century by the Miriskusniki could be interpreted as a rebellion against bourgeois practicality, but it could also be seen as a celebration of Russia’s integration into European culture. As Professor McDaniel notes, “for the Miriskusniki, a Russia fully integrated Europe should serve as a basis for contemporary political and national identity.”

The ideologies of the Miriskusniki were not shared by everyone in Russia and even proved to be contentious in some circles. Vladimir Stasov, a supporter of the Peredvizhniki, often shared his contempt for the Miriskusniki in his journal, Art and Art Industry. He found the Miriskusniki and their works “anti-artistic,” “repulsive,” and derivative of their Western counterparts. McDaniel claims that Stasov’s distaste for the World of Art was rooted in his love for realism and his inability to appreciate new trends in Russian art, and she further argues that these tensions between the Miriskusniki and the Peredvizhniki highlight the importance of art in Russian society.

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, October Idyll, 1905

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, October Idyll, 1905

Toward the beginning of the 20th century, the political landscape in Russia became increasingly volatile. This volatility came to a head on January 22nd, 1905, a date that would come to be known as Bloody Sunday. Led by Father Georgy Gapon, thousands of workers marched to the Winter Palace with a list of demands for improved working conditions. As the unarmed workers peacefully approached the palace, they were fired upon by the Imperial Guard; countless were killed or gravely wounded. Bloody Sunday sparked a widespread outcry throughout Russian society and many Miriskusniki unabashedly vocalized their disapproval of the event and of the monarchy as a whole.

Some of the Miriskusniki, such as Valentin Serov and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, started a new satirical journal, Zhupel, and used it as a platform to publicly criticize the monarchy. Zhupel included works like Dobuzhinsky’s October Idyll, which depicts a scene of political violence committed by the government. Boris Kustodiev’s Entry illustrates a similarly macabre scene; Kustodiev depicts a battle between soldiers and workers, who are overshadowed by a massive, blood-covered skeleton. Not all artists of Zhupel chose to focus on themes of violence and death. For example, in the third and final edition of Zhupel, Ivan Bilibin published his illustration An Ass (Equus Asinus), which features a donkey accompanied by symbols of the Romanov dynasty. The illustration was an obvious critique of Nicholas II and was not received warmly by the government; Bilibin was sentenced to a brief house arrest and Zhupel was subsequently shut down.

Leonid Nikolayev, Blue Bucket Protests

Leonid Nikolayev, Blue Bucket Protest, 2010

According to McDaniel, the legacies of the World of Art and Zhupel continue to resonate into the 21st century. Government-sponsored art, such as World War I monuments, echo the early nationalist sentiments expressed by the World of Art, while the satirical traditions of Zhupel live on through the works of contemporary dissident artists like Gosha Ostretsov and Leonid Nikolayev. Nikolayev’s performance piece, Blue Bucket Protest, is a commentary on the abuse of political privilege by governmental officials, and mirrors the themes found in Ivan Bilibin’s An Ass. In contemporary Russia, as citizens grapple with concepts of national identity and struggle to wade through the political mire, the World of Art continues to serve as a source of inspiration and discussion.

Lucy Pakhnyuk is a second-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests are in comparative politics, including issues of democratization, mass mobilization/political protest, and human rights in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia.

REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture: Ingrid Nordgaard, “On the Frozen Sea: Exploring, Writing and Painting the Northern Frontier”

On June 20th, 2017, Ingrid Nordgaard (PhD Candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University) gave a REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled: “On the Frozen Sea: Exploring, Writing and Painting the Northern Frontier.”

The project, slated as the first chapter of her dissertation, “Aesthetics of the North: Russian Modernist Culture and Scandinavia 1891-1910,” examines the North and its aesthetic representations in Russian Modernist culture. In her dissertation, Nordgaard seeks to understand how and for what reasons Russia became invested in the North and Scandinavia. She hopes to show that the North—in different contexts understood either as an imagined geography or as a composite for real geographical locations—functioned as a creative repository for Russian cultural producers of the late imperial era.

For the writers and visual artists that Nordgaard studies, the North came to be understood as a mythical place that promised purity and rejuvenation, an escape from the pessimism of the end of the century. However, the North was also a geographical frontier, that is, a space of physical riches to be explored and conquered. She seeks to understand how these two approaches, one based on artistic considerations and the other on material interests, contributed to Modernist aesthetics between 1891 and 1910. By taking both approaches into account, Nordgaard will tie her discussion about aesthetic representations of the North to larger narratives that characterize the period – such as capitalism, nationalism, and questions of socioeconomic development – as well as comment on how modernism moves between cultures.

In her talk, Nordgaard focused on an 1894 journey in the northernmost part of Russia, Arkhangelsk and the Murmansk coast. The trip, led by Sergei Witte, finance minister of Russia at the time, aimed to search for a new naval base and to survey the area for the construction of a railroad that would connect Moscow to Arkhangelsk. This trip, which lasted three weeks in the summer of 1894, was recorded in the travel log of Evgeny Kochetov, entitled On the Frozen Sea: A Journey to the North, published in 1895. She argues that Kochetov’s book consciously creates something that Nordgaard coins as “aesthetics of the North.” In other words, she seeks to explore the making and components of the set of principles that together constitute the “aesthetic of the north” that Kochetov’s book represents. By investigating these question, Nordgaard asserts that we can see how Kochetov’s account connects to a bigger discussion about politics, nationalism, and about the function of literature and art in Russian Modernity.

Nordgaard called Kochetov’s travel logs a “hybrid literary product” because of its many registers and styles. However, she asserts that its agenda shines through – it is a narrative aimed at informing, inspiring, and educating the reader about North of Russia and its apparent economic and material potential. However, while Kochetov points the reader to the future, he also reminds the reader that the North has a special position in the Russian past. Kochetov continuously refers to Ivan III and all that he did for the development of Northern Russia, as well as mentioning that Peter the Great created a shipyard in Arkhangelsk. Kochetov’s writings treat the North as a region where the past and the future coexist. Although Kochetov’s writings were probably influenced by the voyage’s leading man, Witte, Nordgaard stressed that the travel logs should not be simply regarded as political propaganda. As Nordgaard argued, it is too conscious about encouraging, informing, and enticing the reader to explore for themselves. As Nordgaard stated, the travel log differs from other travel logs of the nineteenth century in that it is not just about brave men exploring the frontier, but it is an account that repeatedly reminds us that we might be able to do the same.

Nordgaard then turned to artistic depictions of the North, particularly those created by Konstantin Korovin. Korovin and Valentin Serov, were the artists responsible for the thirty illustrations and sketches that are included in Kochetov’s travel logs. However, Nordgaard focused on Korovin’s contribution to the 1896 All-Russia Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod. Korovin was appointed as the designed and architect of one of the exhibition’s pavilions, which was dedicated to the Russian North. Within the pavilion he exhibited ten of his side-by-side large-scale paintings, which were adapted from sketches that Korovin created during trips to the North, funded by Savva Mamontov, another leader in the construction of a railway to Arkhangelsk.

Konstantin Korovin. “Fishing in the Murman Sea.” 1896.

Nordgaard noted their simultaneous attention to the beauty of the region and potential commercial value. The paintings in the series feature fishermen on the Murman Sea, the market at the Arkhangelsk Dock, the construction of the railway, and polar bears among nature. Thus, as Nordgaard asserts, the paintings combine different narratives about the North. The North is imagined as a land of potential riches and as concealing nature’s greatest bounties, while also a place where man’s struggles and is challenged by nature. Furthermore, since the railroad was already under construction at the time of the exhibition, the canvases also sell a product, that is, the Moscow-Arkhangelsk railroad and the North as a concept.

Thus, as Nordgaard explained, Kochetov’s travel log is a literary work that is extremely aware of the political and socioeconomic agenda of which it is a part. She asserted that his writings make it especially clear how government officials, political actors, artists, and writers come together to further the development of Russian culture from a political, cultural and aesthetic point of view. Also, Kochetov’s travel log and Korovin’s illustrations prove that commercial development does not have to take away from the mystique of the North. To Kochetov and Korovin, it is just as important to convey the beauty of the North, as it is to present it as an area with great commercial and industrial potential. Furthermore, the conscious construction of the aesthetics of the North paint a new picture of the construction of Russian image and identity. As Nordgaard stressed, by looking North, we are looking away from the centers of Berlin and Paris and turning our gaze toward the periphery, challenging traditional accounts about how, why, and where modernist aesthetics come into being.

Nadia Hoppe is a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include Soviet and Post-Soviet film, art, and literature, as well as gender and critical theory.

REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture: George Liber, “Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914-1954”

On Thursday, June 15th, Dr. George Liber presented his noontime scholars lecture, “Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914-1954.” Dr. Liber is a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. His research interests include Soviet, post-Soviet, and East European social history; center-periphery relations in the Soviet Union and its successor states; nationalism and national identity formation; processes of democratization, and 20th century Ukrainian history. He is also an international election observer for the Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). He has published several books which include Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film, Soviet Nationality Policy, Urban Growth, and Identity Change in the Ukrainian SSR, 1923-1934, and Total Wars and the Making of Modern Ukraine, 1914-1954.


In his lecture, Dr. Liber focused on the grand themes of how and why modern Ukraine emerged in the course of the 20th century. Dr. Liber opened his lecture by presenting two maps; the first map was of Europe in 1871. This was the age of sprawling multinational empires and monarchies, before the emergence of a modern Ukraine. The second map was of Europe in 2014—the age of nation-states. It was in the second map that the audience was able to see the familiar contours of Ukraine’s borders, which had been absent from the first map. Dr. Liber posed the question—what exactly happened between 1871 and 2014 that, quite literally, put Ukraine on the map?

In the 19th century, politics were driven by unspoken assumptions about how things were and should be done. The elites had a stake in maintaining the status quo, while the masses, especially those living in rural areas, experienced many hardships, such as overpopulation and social injustice. It was in this context that nationalist sentiments began to stir in Europe and eventually in Ukraine, which followed suit behind Poland, Russia, Italy, etc. A radical idea emerged during this time, the idea that Ukrainians were not Russians or Poles, but that Ukrainians were Ukrainians. For the elites in the various multinational empires, this was a dangerous idea. As Dr. Liber noted, the making of Ukraine would spell the unmaking of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

While this idea was dangerous, it was only shared by a narrow circle of people, namely the literate middle class. Unsurprisingly, the majority of people living on the Ukrainian territory were poor, rural, illiterate, and uninterested in lofty concepts like national identity. With the onset of the era of total war, this paradigm shifted, attracting more and more people to the idea of nationalism. European political hegemony was unraveled in the wake of World War I, which in turn accelerated processes of nation-building, state-building, and mass politics.

Over a period of forty years, the people living in what is now known as Ukraine experienced a series of forced evacuations, wars, famines, and other atrocities. These atrocities resulted in over fifteen million deaths, but they also led to the birth of Ukrainians and the Ukrainian nation. According to Dr. Liber, these unprecedented levels of violence institutionalized the idea that the Ukrainian-speaking population was different from Poles and Russians, and it was this violence that mobilized Ukrainians into realizing their goals of nationhood.

In making his argument, Dr. Liber cited Peter Gourevitch, an American political scientist, who claims that states of emergency “pry open the political scene, throwing traditional relationships into flux. Groups, institutions, and individuals are torn loose from their moorings, their assumptions, their loyalties, their ‘cognitive road maps.’ Circumstances become less certain, and solutions less obvious. Crises thus render politics more plastic.” The great wars and conflicts that broke out from 1914 to 1954 made European “politics more plastic” and forged a new reality for the Ukrainian people.

The violence that was employed in the territory of Ukraine produced massive social disruptions and various responses to these disruptions. The colossal loss of life resulted in a breakdown of community and society, creating a haze of uncertainty and confusion. Groups and individuals felt powerless, but they were forced to pick sides and decide which sovereign entity was best equipped to bring stability to the region.

Unfortunately for Ukrainians, stability did not come in the form of independence. Despite some attempts at national liberation, Ukraine was not formally recognized as an independent state, and was simply absorbed into the Soviet Union. While the Ukrainian SSR enjoyed relative peace and prosperity during the Soviet era, it was subject to social engineering that rearranged the demographic composition of the country, essentially creating five distinct territories and populations. Even after Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the sociocultural fault lines remained in place. In recent years, with the Euromaidan Revolution and the ongoing Ukraine crisis, these fault lines have become more apparent and more gaping, revealing cracks in the foundation of Ukrainian society.

Lucy Pakhnyuk is a second-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests are in comparative politics, including issues of democratization, mass mobilization/political protest, and human rights in post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia.

2017 Fisher Fellow: Ingrid Nordgaard

Ingrid Nordgaard, PhD Candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University, was awarded the 2017 Fisher Fellowship for her research at the Summer Research Lab on aesthetics in Russia’s north. The fellowship, named after Dr. Ralph Fisher, the founder of SRL and REEEC, and a champion for building the Slavic collection at the University of Illinois Library, provides funding to a scholar with a particularly promising research project.

While at SRL, Nordgaard worked on the first chapter of her dissertation project, “Aesthetics of the North: Russian Modernist Culture and Scandinavia, 1891-1910.” She also gave a Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled “On the Frozen Sea: Exploring, Writing and Painting the Northern Frontier.”

According to Nordgaard, SRL has been on her radar for a while. After reading about it on SEELANGS, she was encouraged by professors to apply and heard excellent reports from fellow graduate students, who had attended SRL in the past. After defending her prospectus last spring, she decided to kick-start her dissertation, or, as she calls it “the big forest that is The Dissertation” by attending SRL, knowing that she would be able to work with the staff at Slavic Reference Service, who would be able to give tips on how to tackle such a big project.

At the early stages of her research, Nordgaard has found SRL most helpful for getting advice on how to collect materials most efficiently, that is, locate archives, track down obscure sources and access them in the US. In general, she is searching for resources that shed light on how cultural producers in Russia approached the North within the period she is studying. Since she has been at SRL, she has been able to locate articles on the topic from several Russian journals published in the 1890s, and she has also made a list of what archives and folders to look into when she goes to Russia. Additionally, she remarked that the Slavic Reference Service librarians have been an excellent resource on their own.  “You might find several copies of a book, but there’s only one Joe Lenkart!” said Norgaard.

Her favorite thing about the SRL experience has been allowing herself to completely indulge in her work without thinking of anything else. “Waking up in the morning,” she said, “I’m excited to start another day of research — every day brings something new, since you can never really be completely certain about what you might find!”

“I would highly recommend SRL! Even though I attend a large research institution like Yale University and have access to a wide array of resources, it still does not compare to attending a lab in which you get to work so closely with a librarian and receive personal advice on how to approach various research questions,” said Nordgaard. Plus, she remarked, the people in Urbana-Champaign are very friendly, the squirrels and the rabbits are amazingly bold, and the campus area has a lovely atmosphere.

REEEC New Directions Lecture: Martin Previsic, “The Yugoslav Gulag: The Goli otok (Barren Island) Labor Camp, 1949-1956”

Martin Previsic (Assistant Professor of History, University of Zagreb) gave the REEEC New Directions Lecture entitled “The Yugoslav Gulag: The Goli otok (Barren Island) Labor Camp, 1949-1956” on April 17. His presentation, part of a larger study on prison camps and the Tito-Stalin split, centered on Goli otok, the largest and most notorious prison in Yugoslavia. Goli otok was a public secret and a huge taboo in Tito’s Yugoslavia that is only recently being studied in detail. Previsic began his lecture by explaining why it was built. On November 11, 1945, when the Communist Party of Yugoslavia took power, Soviet methods were used in all spheres of economic life . However, on June 28, 1948, Tito was expelled from the Cominform, an organization of socialist countries led by the Soviet Union, because he had proposed a more independent approach to communism and a break from Soviet hegemony.

Martin Previsic speaking on violence in Goli otok and Tito’s communism

Previsic argued that the split was not unanimously supported within the Yugoslav Communist Party. While some party members were supporters of Stalin and opposed Tito’s action, the question of who were Stalin’s supporters was ambiguous. Anyone who did not completely agree with Tito’s position could be labeled a Stalinist and imprisoned, likely in Goli otok. It was a purge of anybody who was not considered a genuine Tito supporter.

At its height, Goli otok held 30,000 people and incarcerated 75 percent of alleged Stalin supporters. The main purpose of the prison was reeducation. Stalin supporters would be persuaded by pro-Tito prisoners to abandon their views in a non-violent environment. In reality, violence and humiliation were everywhere. The “bandits,” the lowest class of prisoners and those who were not sufficiently pro-Tito, could be tormented for months, and were assigned the hardest and most meaningless work.

To Previsic, Goli otok was a classic example of Yugoslav Stalinism, an “Anti-Stalinist Stalinism” that was designed to eliminate Tito’s party opponents in order to consolidate his power. Though Tito proclaimed that Yugoslav communism was a purer, better form of communism, Goli otok represented how Tito’s brand of communism also killed its own people for political reasons. By 1981, dozens of novels described Goli otok figuratively, signaling the crumbling of Tito’s persona and system. Through his study of Goli otok, Previsic tried to give the prison’s survivors a way to voice their experience in interviews and oral history. Even after Goli otok officially closed in 1987, released prisoners continued to be humiliated and subject to surveillance. They had to work for the secret police and pledge to not talk about their experience there.

Goli otok exemplifies the complexity of Yugoslavia’s communist heritage. It remains a well-kept secret without much documentation. In Croatia, many still say that only “bad people” were sent there. Previsic argues that memories of Goli otok reemerged periodically in the 1990s and 2000s in different contexts. The prison camps of the Bosnian War resembled Goli otok. “Spanish swimming,” a torture method the UDBA used to force prisoners to give up names, reemerged as waterboarding during the U.S. war on terror. Yet, there is no memorial or museum at Goli otok. Though tourists visit from time to time in the summer (and write articles for travel blogs about it), it remains a largely abandoned, crumbling place that still hovers over Croatian society.

Stephanie Chung is the Outreach and Programming Coordinator at REEEC and a Ph.D. Candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She received her B.A. in Plan II Honors/Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently writing a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs as literary and media texts.

History PhD Candidate Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman Awarded Midwest Slavic Association’s Student Essay Prize

Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman, PhD Candidate in the History Department, earned first place in the graduate category of the Midwest Slavic Association’s Student Essay Prize for her essay “Cooking Up a New Everyday: Communal Kitchens in the Revolutionary Era, 1890-1935.”

The Midwest Slavic Association’s Student Essay Competition is open to all undergraduate and graduate students attending an institution in the Midwest or that participated in the 2017 Midwest Slavic Conference. For her winning paper, Harshman will receive a one-year membership to ASEEES and will be entered in the ASEEES national essay competition.

Harshman’s research interests include Russian History, Urban History, Everyday Life, Modern European History, Working Class History, and Utopian Studies.

Originally posted on The Ohio State University’s Center for Slavic and East European Studies’ website: