Revolutionary Film Series: “I Am Cuba”

Watching Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba in a theater 2017 is a strange experience. I first watched the film by myself for a class assignment, later writing up a paper about the history of this film being one of failed and misdirected narrative, a theme which found ironic reflection in the Art Theatre’s screening of the film earlier this month. Produced by a supergroup of the USSR’s best storytellers–the film’s director and cinematographer, Kalatozov and Sergey Urusevsky, were the architects of the Soviet triumph at the 1958 Cannes Film festival with their film The Cranes are Flying, and the screenwriter Evgenii Evtushenko was a leading poet in his home country–I am Cuba was intended as both a gift and a love letter to Cuba. A gift in the sense that the production, tremendous both in length and budget, served to train a while generation of socialist Cuban filmmakers, and as a love letter from the Soviet intelligentsia to the Cuban Revolution. The film goes to great lengths to romanticize the “island of freedom” and sympathize with the plight of its residents.

Unfortunately, the love letter was returned to sender. Cuban audiences hated the film so much that in some cities riots broke out after screenings. Ordinary Cubans rejected what they saw as a stereotyped, exoticized version of themselves and their struggles on the big screen. Meanwhile, Soviet critics and audiences panned the film for its self-indulgence and seemingly positive attitude toward certain aspects of bourgeois life in pre-revolutionary Cuba. So a film intended to symbolize the international relevance of the socialist cause and to invoke a revolutionary spirit in its audiences failed because it was too narrow-minded and bourgeois, in the judgment of its intended audiences. For this reason, the film ceased to be in theaters quite quickly, and was only ‘rediscovered’ in the 1990s through Kalatozov retrospectives in the West. It was here, far from the tropical battlefields depicted in the film that I Am Cuba found an eager and celebratory audience. Hailed as a forgotten masterpiece, acclaim from American directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola provoked the licensing of the film by the Criterion collection, and thus its canonization as a classic within the Western cinema establishment. I Am Cuba was a film with radical socialist politics that failed to appeal to any liberated proletarians in the USSR or Cuba, and instead received acclaim only after communism fell and in the eyes of the Western cultural elite.

With this in mind, I had mixed feelings about seeing the film in a theater for the first time. Earlier that week, a conversation about the film with an older woman exacerbated my trepidation. She was going to see the film because she and her husband had travelled to the island as tourists recently. She then described her trip, and her tour guide who, unbelievably to her, was passionate about communism. To her total surprise, he enthusiastically championed the accomplishments of the regime in healthcare, education, and athletics. In her judgment, he had clearly “drunk the Kool-Aid” of the “dictatorship” and would be blown away by the freedom and prosperity he would see if he ever got to visit the United States. I held my tongue rather than openly question whether a man from a country with higher literacy and life expectancy than our own would really be impressed by the poverty and racial violence that only seems to be getting worse here; whether a country with a criminal who was not popularly elected as its president could claim to be more “free” than any other nation.

My fear that the rest of the audience would echo her sentiments was realized once I arrived at the screening. The theatre was lousy with Americans loudly discussing their recent trips to the island. It was as if they were the advance scouts, seeking to resurvey the location, for the impeding US incorporation of Cuba within the same imperial system of neoliberal economics, aka a booming tourist destination where the locals live in absolute poverty, as the rest of the Caribbean, reducing it to yet another destination for those sections of the Western white middle class looking to prove themselves more “cultured” than their neighbors back home in the suburbs. Cinematic tourism as an imperial project.

The movie itself is quite good, if a tad long, and my misgivings about the screening should not be misconstrued as dismissing a flawed but enjoyable film by one of the great directors of the twentieth century. It depicts the gradual development and eventual victory of the radical movement in Cuba, from initial outbursts of spontaneous resistance to the development of a full-fledged insurgent army; similarities abound to the better-known 1966 film The Battle of Algiers which also tells a revolutionary story in discrete stages. Of particular note are I Am Cuba’s depictions of villainous Americans. Having grown used to ethnic stereotyping of non-Americans, it’s almost refreshing to experience how the rest of the world must look at you and your countrymen: as nasal-voiced, cocksure brutes prone to spouting off platitudes about liberty and our own exceptionalism while terrorizing others. The section of the film depicting the struggle of student rebels and their insurrectionary efforts felt especially familiar and included some wonderful shots as it depicts the development of a riot. One wonders how the audience felt about the overturning and incineration of cop cars in the streets of Havana; are they more or less sympathetic when people fight back against police in the US? Finally, it must be said that the film has no feminist component; while one of its main characters is a woman, unlike the others she never asserts her own agency and rather serves as a hapless victim whose plight sets the tone at the start of the film.

As for what message the audience took away from all this, I cannot say. It was clear from the way that the film was introduced that it was intended to be somewhat polemical, to serve its original purpose as revolutionary propaganda. This is not why this audience came to the screening, however, and when the time came for a Q&A afterward, rather than queries about the political implications of the film or its relevance to contemporary social problems, the comments fell into two categories; one, graduate students trying to prove their intelligence by asking about the most esoteric details of the film and its production, and two, middle-aged filmgoers complaining that the movie was too long and that it bored them (“Were all Soviet movies from this period so awfully slow?”). Cinematic tourism can disappoint, I suppose, and narratives can fail to achieve their goals.

Franziska Yost is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her scholarly interests include Russian national identity, diaspora nationalism, and Cold War geopolitics. She is currently researching Russian immigrant communities in South America.

Films of the Revolution: The Commissar

On Friday, October 20th, The Commissar or Komissar, was screened as a part of the 1917/2017 Event Series’ Films of Revolution. Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature and Comparative and World Literatures, Harriet Murav introduced the film.

Professor Murav noted that the film was made in 1967, was composed of many sharp juxtapositions of scenes, and is based on a 1930s short story by Vassily Grossman entitled “In the City of Berdichev”. The protagonist of the film is a female Bolshevik Commissar who must leave the army to have her baby, where she is housed with an uncouth, messy, and rambling Jewish family. The Commissar, Klaudia Vavilova, is played by Nonna Mordyukava who plays the uncle’s mistress in War and Peace.

The film was extremely controversial in Russia; as a result, the director of the film, Aleksandr Askoldov, was banned from making films and dismissed from the Communist Party. He was told (falsely) that the film had been destroyed.

Professor Murav’s introduction called attention to the film’s characteristics that were uncommon to cinema at the time, such as the birth scene in which Vavilova’s pain is depicted as the impossible struggle of pushing a canon up a sand dune, suggesting through this surrealism that childbirth is more difficult that the Commissar’s experiences at war.

The characters in the film are steeped in violence. As we see in the children of the household, the three brothers gang up on their sister and tie her up (picture below). Though they do not harm her in any overt way, they terrorize her and torture her in hanging her to a swing until her cries are heard from inside. Through this scene, Askoldov shows how the violence of the period permeates into the otherwise innocent lives of the children. Professor Murav pointed out that Askoldov layered the anti-Jewish violence of the Civil War over the Holocaust violence.

Further, the film foreshadows the Holocaust in a jarring scene of Jews being deported from the local village wearing armbands and gold stars, and while the scene is very familiar to the viewers of the film, the scene feels incongruous to the viewer because the film was set well before the Second World War and thereby muddles the timeline for the viewer.

Professor Murav likewise highlighted that ordinary people had a hard time playing the film’s extras during the Holocaust scene because the location in which the scene was screened was allegedly near the location of a German round-up point during the German occupation. As the title “Films of Revolution” suggests, the film is set during the Russian Revolution of 1917, which resulted in a civil war between the Communists and the Bolsheviks.

Professor Murav added that this juxtaposition style used by Askoldov was dropped in the later cinematic period. The Commissar won various awards including the Silver Bear at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival in 1988, as well as several Nika Awards in 1989.

Throughout the film, the partriach of the Jewish family muses upon the dream that a tram will be built in Berdichev. His musings symbolize the family’s hope for the future, for prosperity and development in the town. The film ends on a rather stark note as the patriarch of the family concludes that a tram will certainly never be built in Berdichev as there will not be anyone left to ride it.   

Lizy Mostowski is a graduate student in the Program in Comparative and World Literature and John Klier Scholar in the Program in Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on Polish-Jewish literature and surrounding discourses. Her writings on Polish-Jewish topics in contemporary Poland can be found on the Virtual Shtetl website.

On Using Russian

“I haven’t spoken Russian in the course of ten year,” I bumbled to my instructor at a private language school near Belorussky Station in Moscow. “So what,” replied my instructor, “seems like you speak Russian to me.” That interchange started a six-week language-recovery and business-vocabulary-building program funded entirely through a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) by the United States Department of Education (Ed) and administered by the University of Illinois’ Russian, East-European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC).

The first weeks of our daily six-hour, one-on-one meetings were tough. I botched palatalized consonants; after a few days of toil, we let our battles with the glide vowel slide into the background. And then, by the third week, I was speaking in a way that was not a total affront to my own ears. Yes, I had trouble getting my lips and tongue to contort just the right way to make Russian sounds; yes, my vocabulary felt like Swiss cheese. But, I made progress and began to acquire more confidence in speaking Russian poorly. 

By the end of six weeks, I was watching the slightly obnoxious “Time will Tell” on Channel One,” enjoying the best of Russia’s new “intellectuals” using foreigners with Russian skills worse than mine as their punching bags. What’s more, I was beginning to express my emotions, my desires, and my humor in Russian. I developed a solid foundation in the anglicisms of modern Russian business and, perhaps most importantly, I improved my ability to improvise when confronted with unfamiliar or extremely technical topics.

Since the fellowship ended in July, I have been working as the library systems engineer for Russia and CIS countries at EBSCO Information Services, a major global library software and content company. I am based in Berlin, and I travel to the region about twice a month. My language is not perfect. Still, I write a dozen emails a day in Russian to business partners, I give presentations on systems librarianship to large groups of experts, and I participate in negotiations with senior university administrators.

I want to thank Ed and REEEC for this wonderful opportunity to re-activate my Russian and use it. The fellowship allowed me to start my new career in the region with the confidence and humility I need to be successful. While my language aptitude might still be outside of Turgenev’s “Great, Powerful, Language,” it is fully operationally proficient. I’m using Russian — and that is the most important thing.

Douglas Heintz is a Summer 2017 FLAS Fellow.He graduated from the Illinois School of Information Sciences in August 2017 with a master’s degree in library and information science. He received his bachelor’s degree in Russian Language and Literature from Illinois in 2007. After a brief stint in grad school supported by FLAS, he worked as a university administrator at Illinois before returning to graduate school. He has studied Russian at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Saint Petersburg State University, the University of New South Wales, Novosibirsk State University, Indiana University’s Summer Language Workshop, and the Liden and Denz Institute in MoscowAlways happy to discuss things Russian, Douglas can be contacted at

1917/2017 Symposium Keynote Address: Boris Kolonitskii, “100 Years Later: Memories of the Revolution in Contemporary Russia”

On Thursday, November 2, five days before the grand jubilee of the Bolshevik coup, in Soviet times known as The Great October Revolution, Professor Boris Kolonitskii of European University at Saint Petersburg delivered a lecture opening the two day 1917-2017 Fall Symposium. The talk entitled “100 Years Later: Memories of the Revolution in Contemporary Russia” concentrated on the problems of commemoration of the Revolution after the collapse of the Soviet Union, people’s opinions about the event and the ways the government tries to accommodate for the habit of having an official day-off in November. Professor Kolonitskii is Doctor of Science in History and Head Research Fellow at the St. Petersburg Institute of History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His main research interests include the history of the Russian revolution of 1917, World War I, the history of the Russian intelligentsia and historical memory.

Professor Kolonitskii began his address with a story: Last year while in Germany, he was repeatedly asked about the plans and prospects of commemorating the 1917 anniversary. As Russia is a country with an unpredictable past, and at this moment the past is defined in St. Petersburg’s eternal rivalry with Moscow, he was bound to compose a sort of a historical forecast, predicting the events that may occur in 2017 due to significance of the date. The lecture consisted of this forecast seen from the point of its fulfillment.

The anniversary, according to Professor Kolonitskii, is not as much a date to celebrate or commemorate, as it is a resource with certain limitations. One of the most important limitations is that the anniversary cannot be monopolized. In other words, the commemoration of the October revolution does not solely “belong” to the Bolsheviks, as the revolution concerned many antagonistic forces: SR’s, anarchists, different internationalists, etc. And they also wanted to preserve the authority of October, so they participated in part in the sacralization of October performed by the Bolsheviks. However, many of the forces who invested in October were openly anti-Bolshevik. For example, Antonov – the leader of Tambov anti-Bolshevik uprising in 1920-1921 – was a hero of October, who did a lot to establish Soviet power. There is a similar situation is with Kronstadt of 1921, whose leaders termed it “the third revolution,” counting the February one as the first and October as the second. The memory of October acted as a resource of legitimization for different political actors, not just for the Bolsheviks. And to some extent it continued later, so the Bolshevik celebration of October created a political space for many political actors other than the Bolsheviks.

The memory of October was used during perestroika, which was legitimized through its depiction as a continuation of October. However, very soon the myth of October was used by the opponents of the Communist Party. Thus, the Bolshevik slogan “all power to the soviets” was used to attack the communist monopoly, implying that the party should share the power it monopolized. The events celebrating the revolution created a public space for the anticommunist forces to boost their agenda as well, and to refer to particular parts of the myth of October, e.g. Yeltsin delivered his speech in Saint Petersburg (consciously or unconsciously) parodying Lenin’s famous speech from the top of armored car by getting on the top of the tank.

Finally, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, October lost its official legitimization as the main holiday of the state. However, the habit of having a day-off in the beginning of November was still quite strong. According to Professor Kolonitskii, that made the authorities face the necessity to reimagine the celebration by attributing it to a different cause. He avoided entertaining the thought that the November 7th holiday could have been abolished altogether, although the fact that it does not look like a possibility seems emblematic. So, dealing with the necessity to find a justification for a holiday in the beginning of November, the Russian government came up with several things. First, in 1996, a year before the 80th anniversary of the revolution, November 7th was declared a day of agreement and conciliation. Since nobody understood what it actually meant and how to organize it, the very style of the celebration and its elements were very Soviet. In 2004, the authorities decided to change politics, possibly under the influence of the first Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Another turning point in Russian history, namely the Time of Troubles, was brought about. This time in history was very important for Russian patriotic myth, because it was the time when the Romanov dynasty was established. This myth was already used by Stalin in 1939 by launching the movie devoted to Minin and Pozharskii, leaders of Russian militia who liberated Kremlin from Polish invaders. The choice of the date may also be buttressed by the other force on the political scene: the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1981 Nikolas II, the last tsar of the Romanov dynasty, was canonized. In 2000 his family was canonized too, thus supporting various conspiracy theories about the revolution being made by “Russia’s enemies,” who destroyed one of the most important part of the Russian patriotic myth, Russian monarchy. Ironically, the restoration of this memory was timed to coincide (and replace) the commemoration of the event that undermined its mythical meaning, the understanding of autocracy as the very basis of Russian nationality. The decision to commemorate the Kremlin’s liberation on November 4th was not buttressed by academic calculations, but the date was close enough to November 7th without coinciding with it, so the Soviet sacralization was transposed to the reemerging national one.

To commemorate Minin and Pozharsky’s feat, November 4th was called “the day of national unity,” which is sometimes interpreted as the “day of the all people of Russian Federation.” There could be a different motivations for changing one day to the other, but the problem stays the same: the authorities did not know what to do with this memory. It was clear from the very beginning that the idea was not viable; November 7th was the resource of the Communist Party, it could not be used by other political groups. However, the traditional day-off had to be dealt with, and the authorities gave this day to right-wing organizations, which became the main challenge for the authorities before the crisis of 2008. Being to a certain extent limited by their previous actions and previous statement, the authorities were bound by the celebration of the anniversary in 2007, which was used for conservative purposes. In 2007 Solzhenitsyn’s article on the revolution was republished. This article contained an anti-revolutionary and anti-intelligentsia message and blamed everyone, but most of all Russian intellectuals. However, all this was not imposed by the authorities. In contemporary Russia, there is an anti-revolutionary consensus, i.e. nobody wants a new revolution. This consensus has nothing to do with appreciation of the existing system, it is a mere rejection of the resource.

Another important anniversary is connected with the monument to the heroes of World War I (pictured above). At the opening of the monument on August 1st, 2014, President Putin delivered a speech glorifying the soldiers and explaining why the Russians lost the war. As a main cause for the defeat, he mentioned some unidentified traitors. From his less official speeches one can infer that he was talking about the revolutionaries and Lenin in particular, whom Putin unreasonably disrespects, despite the fact that Bolsheviks managed to do several important things: win the Civil war, create a federation, and build an empire that existed for an impressively long time. However, this romanticized view on World War I had strong support “from below.” Thus, there were popular initiatives, connected with reenactments of the war, often supported by the relatives of the soldiers who fought there and fans of white army.

In the year 2015, Medinskii, Russian Minister of Culture, who pretended to be a Russian supreme patriotic priest (i.e. he saw his goal as training Russians in patriotism) came up with the idea of national conciliation. This idea is reminiscent of President Yeltsin’s proposal in the 1990s, which offered heirs of Russian White Army emigrants reconciliation with the heirs of the Red Army. As a symbol of this reconciliation, Medinskii suggested the erection of a monument in Crimea, which did not get a lot of popular support from both the Soviet-nostalgic population of Crimea, who did not want to reconcile with Whites’ descendants, as well as other parts of society. Among other things, the legend of the Civil war as a war between the Whites and the Reds is universally disregarded, as for most Russians it is evident that there were many more forces than two. Moreover, there was a war of the Reds against the Reds, as exemplified in the beginning of the lecture with two rebellions of pro-communist forces.

However unreasonable it may be, the idea has some popular support, coming from local administrations and civil societies. There already are some monuments of this kind in Saint Petersburg, Krasnodar, and Novocherkassk. However, there conciliation is one of those things everybody talks about, but nobody actually wants. On the eve of the anniversary, the talks of the conciliation once again took the scene. In December 2016 the president Putin gave a speech appealing for conciliation for one united Russia. But the country is divided, and fact that there could not be any conciliation is proven by practical actions, mainly the acts of vandalism against the monuments to political figures. Thus, there is a monument to Nicolas II, which was erected in 1996, exploded in 1997 and re-erected in 2000. There were also a lot of monuments to Lenin or Russian tsars which were destroyed or vandalized. Another example is the Russian march, an anti-communist event where White general Vrangel and the leader of the Tambov uprising Antonov were brought together on the poster as a united anti-communist symbol.

The heterogeneity of the country regarding the opinion of the revolution is reflected in the polls, but also in the one of the explicit demonstrations of the politics of memory, namely the monuments. Thus, in Kirov there was a monument to Dzerzhinskii, erected in 2017 by the local KGB veterans. In Cheliabinsk, the monument to Stolypin was installed, and in Surgut an illegal one to Stalin was erected. The monuments which were already erected raised a lot of discussion. Monuments to Lenin in Ukraine were demolished, but in Russia some people want to keep the monuments just for the reasons that the monuments should not be crushed. The recent events in Charlottesville concerning the confederate monument are somewhat analogous.

Nevertheless, the anniversary as a resource is underused in Russia. People avoid referring to the Russian revolution in their protests against authorities. The revolution is depicted as a potential threat, and visual resemblance between Naval’nyi and Kerenskii (no matter how accurate) is used against the leader of the opposition who can open the way to radical forces. Instead of the anniversary, the most popular discussion in Russia concerned the film Matilda, which tells the story of the affair between Nicolas II and the Polish ballerina Matilda. The film provoked the “anti-Matilda movement” led by Natalia Poklonskaia, who treats Nicolas II like a saint and sees the movie as blasphemy. Discussions about the film “Matilda” exemplify how the 1917 revolution is largely unmentioned in political discussions. Nobody wants to appeal to, or to repeat the revolution. Russia has overfulfilled its plan for revolutions.

Marija Fedjanina is a PhD student in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Her research interest include Russian modernism and European avant-garde, postmodern literature and its relation to critical theory.

Feeling the Global and Temporal Reverberations of Revolution: The 1917/2017 Symposium

On Friday, November 3rd, the 1917-2017 Symposium commenced with its opening session, entitled First Decades, Global Reverberations. This session was moderated by Mark Steinberg (Professor of History, UIUC), and was made up of presentations by Jessica Graham (Assistant Professor of History at the University of California at San Diego), Kristin Romberg (Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History, UIUC), and Marcello Flores (Professor of History at the University of Siena and Director of the European Master in Human Rights and Genocide Studies at the University of Siena). These presentations were all tied together by Manuel Rota (Associate Professor of French and Italian, UIUC), who served as discussant.

Jessica Graham opened the first round of presentations with her work on “The Racial Reverberations of 1917: The Communist Party of Brazil’s New Antiracism and the Contest of Black Support in the 1930s.” While researching race and communism in Brazil, Graham discovered a dearth of scholarship on the topic, leading her to study black participation in communist and fascist movements in 1930s Brazil. In Brazil, both the Communist Party and the Fascist Party actively recruited Afro-Brazilians and vied for their loyalty. The Communists hoped that Afro-Brazilians would look to the USSR for inspiration and tried to tie anti-racism into a larger narrative of anti-capitalism. Similarly, the fascist movement helped to politicize racial and class identity, bringing these intersections to the fore. Through the rivalry between the left and the right, blackness was formed as an important political category, paving the way for further Afro-Brazilian political participation.

Kristin Romberg followed Graham with a discussion on “Constructivist Tectonics and the Wegernian Revolution.” She began her presentation with an examination of three important concepts: tectonics, faktura, and construction. Faktura and construction are the analytical workhouses of Constructivist scholarship, and both terms are part of a project of finding an objective way to determine form and composition outside of the individual. This project was inherently tied to a Marxist materialist praxis that would test the truth of the Constructivists’ ideology. While these two terms are certainly important, Romberg’s research focuses on the first term: tectonics, which can be defined as the ideological component of Constructivism. According to Romberg, tectonics, or tektonika, belonged to a broader social movement and took an inherently political stance. Tectonics was tied to Aleksandr Bogdanov’s tectology and Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift, which helped to create a low aesthetics and theory that organized knowledge from the perspective of the working-class.

Marcello Flores concluded the presentations with his research on “The Spread of the Soviet Myth in the West.” According to Flores, socialism was one of the most influential ideological and social forces at the beginning of the 20th century. The political potential of socialism came to a head in the Russian Revolution and continued through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. Even after the Soviet Union shed its socialist trappings, it served as a reference point in the fight against capitalism and imperialism. Despite its totalitarian reality, the Soviet Union became the symbol of revolution and the surrogate of what could have been socialism.

Wrapping up the first session, Manuel Rota connected the presentations together by identifying two key concepts: mixed metaphor and myth. The myth of the revolution remained active throughout the Soviet Union’s existence—it was active in the 50s and even in 1989. According to Rota, the revolution and its myth could be better understood through a mixed metaphor. For example, in the case of Brazil, the mixed metaphor of race and class served as an opportunity to explore nuance. Through this framework of mixed metaphors, we can look beyond the failings of the Revolution, and think about it as a transition and as a site of messianic possibility.

The second session of the symposium took place as a roundtable entitled “Work, Inequality, and Protest 100 Years after 1917.” The roundtable featured a panel of UIUC professors including Erik McDuffie (Associate Professor of History, African American Studies, and Center for African Studies), Tariq Omar Ali (Assistant Professor of History), Daniel Gilbert (Assistant Professor of the Labor Education Program), and Jessica Greenberg (Associate Professor of Anthropology, LAS Global Studies, and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies). With their wide-ranging areas of expertise and perspectives, the panelists explored how the 1917 Russian Revolution influenced later questions of protest, working through important questions of today’s politics, culture, and society.

First to speak was McDuffie, who focused on Russian Revolution in light of the catastrophic crisis that we are in today — on the UIUC campus, in the state of Illinois, in United States, and globally. In his talk, entitled “From the Kingdom of Necessity to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Russian Revolution and the Politics of Possibility in the era of Trump,” he argued that the 1917 Russian Revolution, the most important event of the 20th century, directly and indirectly informs us all in one way or another. He noted that the Russian Revolution was to the 20th century what the Haitian Revolution was the to age of revolution in the 19th century — a rupture that shook the world and threatened to fundamentally transform it. Because it expressed solidarity in issues of racial difference, as well as sought equality and opportunity for women, the self-declared worker-state of the Soviet Union posed an existential threat to the world of its moment and represented a politics of possibility, in which we imagine a new order and a new way of being. In connection with the 1917 revolution, McDuffie brought to the table four contemporary (and local) events: the controversy over the Chief mascot on the UIUC campus; the looming Graduate Employees’ Organization strike; Puerto Rico and the Hurricane Maria crisis; and the ambush in Niger during which four U.S. soldiers were killed. He concluded his comments with a quote from black, feminist, queer, communist, activist, scholar Angela Davis, who said, “Freedom is a constant struggle” of imagining and forging politics of solidarity and understanding various crises through an intersectional and transnational lens — and along these lines, as McDuffie suggested, the Russian Revolution provided a framework for us to imagine a new world order. 

Next to speak was Ali, who turned the conversation remembering the Russian Revolution in South Asia and why the revolution itself has been remembered wrongly. He cited the slew of uncles, brothers, and other family members named “Lenin” and “Stalin” throughout South Asia, remarking that there are so many that there is even an annual festival where those with Russian names come together. Not only is the revolution part of the social landscape, but is also part of the physical landscape of roads and series of busts of Lenin throughout the region. Thus, Ali agrees that the Russian Revolution was very important in India, though he contends that we’ve remembered it wrongly — according to Ali, we see it as the spread of how anti-colonist national elites were inspired by Bolshevism, we see it as the spread of Bolshevik ideas through certain intellectual networks, we see it as M.N. Roy (the famous South Asian communist) arguing as Lenin. As Ali said, “In this whole memory of what the Russian Revolution, we forget revolution.” We don’t remember that moment where everything seemed possible (as McDuffie mentioned). Instead, that revolutionary aspect is lost when reduce it to the circulation of ideas and their elite networks. 

The next speaker was Gilbert, who focused his comments on the history of public sector unions and other government employees — what he called the heart and soul of labor movements. As he said, recent years have seen a growing attack on the legitimacy of public employees unions and the Midwest has been a “ground zero” for the assault on union rights for these employees. He cited the example of the case Mark Janus v. AFSCME, in which Janus claims that the union violates his first amendment rights because he must pay dues to an organization which engages in political speech. According to Gilbert, given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, it is likely they will rule in Janus’ favor, “a prospect that threatens to undermine public sector unions all over the country.” He connected this to the 1917 Russian Revolution by explaining that the years after the Revolution were marked by a similar assault on workers’ unions, after a doubling of union density between 1910 and 1920. He zeroed in on the infamous 1919 Boston police strike. The Boston police strike, which is often remembered as the launchpad for Calvin Coolidge’s political career, actually launched the debate over public sector unionizing, a debate that continues 50 years later.

Greenberg was the last to speak and she began by asking: When is justice done? As she explained, this is a question that she and her students had been reflecting upon in the class that she co-teaches with Mark Steinberg (History) called “History Now!” Her students’ questions led her to think critically about “injustice” versus “justice” and the semiotic tools for naming injustice, an often affectively-charged, shared experience of mutual recognition. As Greenberg notes, the students seem to lack a clear framework for identifying when justice is “done” and often want to think of revolutions within the binary of “failed” or “successful.” She argues that justice is fixed in a time and place, but always remains unfinished, as action does not equate to justice. She continued by suggesting that we combat the anxiety of the “unfinalizability” of justice with judicial action. As Greenberg points out, law feels like action. She explains that rights must be grounded somewhere in order to achieve “finalizability,” thus the perceived need to judicialize justice. As laws pass, we feel that things are getting done, yet, often, nothing really has changed. She noted — it seems that the opposite of injustice is not justice, but despair. She asked, “How do we create critical and activist semiotics of justice that let us to experience the possibility of incremental hope?”

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.

Nadia Hoppe is a PhD student in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Her research interests include Soviet and Post-Soviet literature, art, and film, with particular focus in gender and critical theory. 


REEEC-affiliate Donna Buchanan (Musicology) awarded NEH Fellowship for 2018

REEEC-affiliate Donna Buchanan (Musicology) has been awarded the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for 2018 for her book project “Bells in the Music and Culture of Bulgaria.” In the last five competitions, the Fellowships program received an average of 1,178 applications a year. The program made an average of 80 awards per year, for a funding ratio of 7 percent.

Buchanan’s book considers how the gendered “voices” of pastoral and ritual bells make audible the contemporary Bulgarian beliefs about nature, the universe, spirituality and society. Whether pealing from the belfries of Orthodox cathedrals, jingling from the necks of herd animals or clamoring thunderously from the costumes of participants in Carnival masquerades, bells serve as powerful sonic metaphors of community belonging and musical beauty, their timbres informing both women’s singing and men’s instrumental practices. By attending to how bells resonate meaningfully for Bulgarians across diverse sociopolitical contexts and expressive media, this study demonstrates that we experience, know and inhabit our world not just visually, but aurally.

Buchanan is a specialist in the musical styles of Bulgaria, the Balkans, and the NIS, especially Russia and the Republic of Georgia. Her first book was an ethnomusicological monograph entitled Performing Democracy: Bulgarian Music and Musicians in Transition (University of Chicago Press, 2006). She also published an edited volume entitled Balkan Popular Culture and the Ottoman Ecumene: Music, Image, and Regional Political Discourse (Scarecrow Press, 2007).

She has been a REEEC faculty affiliate since 1998. Other than ethnomusicological methodologies and ethnography, Buchanan also teaches Mediterranean traditional and art musics, the musical cultures of indigenous peoples, and Russian and East European classical music, particularly Bartok, Musorgsky, and Shostakovich.


For more information about Buchanan, click here to see her faculty page.
For more information on UIUC faculty who were awarded NEH Fellowships, click here.
For more information on NEH Fellowships, click here.

Revolution at the Museum: History Now! Visits the Chicago Art Institute

Now through January 15th, the Art Institute of Chicago is presenting the exhibition “Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test.” The exhibition explores how the Russian Revolution of 1917 influenced every object and sphere of activity, illustrating how all things could be remade according to revolutionary principles. The exhibition is separated into ten model displays from the early Soviet era: Battleground, School, Theater, Press, Factory, Exhibition, Festival, Cinema, Storefront, and Home. These sections each hold rare works of art and expert, life-size recreations of early Soviet display objects or spaces.

It was only fitting that this semester’s History Now! (HIST 101) class visit the exhibition. Co-taught by Mark Steinberg (History) and Jessica Greenberg (Anthropology), the course aims to teach students how to apply historical thinking to present-day problems. This semester’s course focuses on “A Century of Revolutions,” beginning with the Black Lives Matter movement and working backwards in time to the 1917 Russian Revolution.


To learn more about the exhibition click here. Development of the course was supported by a Title VI grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s International and Foreign Language Education office.