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. 

2017 Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum: Central and Eastern Europe in the Global Middle Ages

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On June 22nd, the Russian, East European, Eurasian Center hosted the annual Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum. This year, the forum was organized by REEEC Director David Cooper (Associate Professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures), and was co-sponsored by the Ralph and Ruth Fisher Endowment, the Program in Medieval Studies, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics, and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

The theme of this year’s Fisher Forum was Central and Eastern Europe in the Global Middle Ages. The presentations were broken up into three different panels, each focusing on a different region of Central and Eastern Europe. The first panel was dedicated to Kievan Rus’ and its environs, the second to Central Europe, and the third panel focused on Southeastern Europe.

The first panel included Ines Garcia de la Puente (Boston University), who discussed “The Translated Worlds of Kievan Rus’”; Olenka Pevny (Cambridge University), whose work focused on “‘Living’ Orthodoxy and Petro Mohyla’s Restoration of the Kyivan Rus’ Patrimony”; Matthew Romaniello (University of Hawaii), who presented his lecture “Commodities without Context? Rethinking the History of Medicine in Medieval Russia”; and Michael Bechtel (University of Chicago), who talked about “The End of the Nomadic Military Elite: Technology and Institutional Change in Late Medieval Central Eurasia.” 

The scholars who discussed Central Europe included Julia Verkholantsev (University of Pennsylvania), who presented her lecture “Medieval Historian at Work: Historical Method and Linguistic Thought”; Paul Milliman (University of Arizona), who presented his research on “The First Invention of Eastern Europe: Sclavia, Scythia, and the East in the Medieval Map of Civilization”; and Eva Doležalová (Center for Medieval Studies, Prague), who discussed the “Image of the Jews in the High and Late Medieval Bohemian Society in Comparison to the Holy Roman Empire.”

The third and final panel included Gabriela Currie (University of Minnesota), who gave a lecture entitled “Eurasian Sonic Borderlands: Cultural Encounters in the Danubian Plains”; Donna Buchanan (University of Illinois), whose research focused on “Sonic Politics of the Sacred: Bells and Belfries in the Bulgarian Middle Ages and Contemporary Medieval Imaginary”; and lastly, Robert Romanchuk (Florida State University), who discussed “The ‘Formulaic Style’ and Its Role in the Translation of Digenis Akritis into Old Slavic.”

Although the participating scholars all discussed different topics and focused on different areas, the lectures were all united by a common goal: to deconstruct outdated divisions of an “Eastern” and “Western” Medieval Europe that imagine the continent as a collage of separate, isolated parts. Medieval Europe was not split into two, but was instead composed of a plurality of networks, communities, and other social formations that brought distant peoples and cultures into contact. By looking to the past and showing the interconnectivity of Europe in the Middle Ages, the Fisher Forum scholars ultimately sought to offer a new perspective on processes and problems of globalization in the modern era.

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.

New Directions Lecture: Yuliya Zabyelina, “The Urge to Purge: Lustration in Ukraine during Ongoing Conflict”

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Dr. Yuliya Zabyelina

On November 10th, Dr. Yuliya Zabyelina presented her research in a New Directions Lecture, “The Urge to Purge: Lustration in Ukraine during Ongoing Conflict.” Yuliya Zabyelina is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice with the John Jay College of Criminal Science at the City University of New York (CUNY). She examined the development of the lustration program enacted by the Ukrainian government in 2014,  analyzing the different aspects of the lustration program and the impact or lack thereof on those who would be targeted by the lustration program’s policies. The implementation of lustration followed from the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, Euromaidan, as the activists attempted to work with the new government to remove those from the state that were active members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Yanukovych regime. Zabyelina aimed to address the following questions with her research into lustration: What to focus? What is lustration and what functions does it serve? How can late lustration programs be explained? How can lustration systems be categorized and what is the expected effect of each of them? What is the expected impact of lustration in heterogeneous and divided societies? Should lustration embrace the fight against corruption?

Lustration comes from the Latin word “lustrum,” which denotes a ceremony of ritual purification. Essentially, lustration was an act of cleansing of the state apparatus of those who were a part of the state apparatus during times of oppression (under Communism) and during the Yanukovych regime. The lustration package in Ukraine post-Euromaidan had mainly one tangible, general function, as do most lustration policies, and that is to cleanse the state apparatus of those old policies and people who are no longer part of the status quo, who represent that which must be changed. Lustration in Ukraine also carries a long with it, as Zabyelina stated, a number of intangible functions, functions that are by-products of the lustration policies, intangibles that would hopefully come from a forward-looking, cleansing of the state of the old, making way for the new. Some of these intangible functions include: Drawing the line between the past and new regime, ritual purification of the old regime, the transformation of mentalities within the state towards policy and the nation, and responses to extraordinary politics.

According to Zabyelina, the type of lustration that Ukraine is undergoing can be called “hard lustration” with policies are meant to exclude and make public those who are being cleansed. In contrast, a mild or informal lustration policy might involve reconciliation or be conducted internally rather than publicly. Zabyelina argued that  Ukraine’s hard lustration policy lacks aspects of reconciliation, transparency, and consistency that might make it more efficient and safe. Thus, this half-baked hard lustration coupled with the fact that 81% of Ukrainians believe lustration is necessary to fight corruption, has led to vigilante lustration, where mobs of people would attempt to expose corrupt officials. For example in “Dumpster lustration” a lustrated individual is put in a dumpster while a crowd cheers “shame”. These events are often recorded and posted online.

Zabyelina suggested that there is no clear answer to whether lustration is working or not in Ukraine at the moment, as lustration is not only still ongoing, but also lustration is happening alongside ongoing conflict. She argued that as long as the conflict in Ukraine goes unresolved, lustration will never be able to fully work efficiently and to achieve the purposes for which it was enacted by the Ukrainian government.

Nicholas Higgins is a Masters student in the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include the development of identity separate from the Soviet identity during Glasnost’ and Perestroika, the current relations between Russia and its neighbors, especially Russia’s relations with Ukraine. He received his B.A in Philosophy and Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies from Miami University of Ohio in 2015. He is currently working on his Masters thesis, which is attempting to adapt Søren Kierkegaard‘s model of faith into a political and social model that could represent the political and social nature of the late Soviet era.

 

 

 

New Directions Lecture: Faith Hillis, “Europe’s Russian Colonies: Tsarist Émigrés and the Quest for Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Europe”

Professor of Russian History Faith Hillis, University of Chicago

Professor of Russian History Faith Hillis, University of Chicago

On March 3, 2016, Professor Faith Hillis (University of Chicago, History) gave a REEEC New Directions lecture entitled “Europe’s Russian Colonies: Tsarist Émigrés and the Quest for Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Europe.” Her lecture was part of the research she is currently conducting for a forthcoming volume on Russian émigré communities in Europe in the 19th century. Hillis is also the author of Children of Rus’: Right-Bank Ukraine and the Invention of a Russian Nation (2013).

According to Hillis, in the 1860s, there was a “sudden explosion” of movement from the Russian empire to central and western Europe, a phenomenon which she attributes to the spread of railroads and rise of “political ferment” within Russia, as well as to increasingly liberal admission policies in Western universities. By about 1870, distinctive “Russian colonies” had emerged in Western Europe, the largest of which were in London, Paris, and Geneva. These colonies “tended to coalesce in inexpensive and rather dire neighborhoods on the urban periphery.”

The most populous group in such colonies was made up of university students, including many women: according to Hillis, a full 90% of the first cohort of female university students in Europe were Russian subjects. There were also a significant number of political dissidents in such communities: “leaders of liberal, socialist, anarchist, and radical terrorist groups were all operating in exile” in Russian colonies, as were many nationalist activists, promoting Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Armenian causes.

Russian colonies were “strikingly complex and diverse” in terms of origin: in addition to émigrés from Moscow and St. Petersburg, there were “strong contingents from… the Caucasus and Ukraine,” and “more than 50% of students came from within the Pale [of Settlement].” Non-ethnic Russians, and Jews in particular, were much more likely to emigrate, mostly due to increasing discrimination in the Russian empire (e.g. the introduction of a numerus clausus in the 1880s). According to Hillis, these colonies “served as microcosms of the empire, condensing its diversity into very small districts.”

Hillis attributes a “spirit of openness, exchange, and improvisation” to Russian colonies, which allowed them to “evolve into spaces in which residents tried to reimagine the ways in which humans could live.” Experimentation with different modes of society, such as “communal living, wealth redistribution, and self-governance,” was a common practice. Russian colonies also generated campaigns for women’s emancipation: many female students were “radical utilitarians who scorned bourgeois norms,” and they became Europe’s first generation of female professors. Projects for national emancipation and Jewish liberation also emerged.

Initially, these émigrés enjoyed popular support in Europe—they were idealized as “freedom fighters” struggling against tsarist despotism. The colonies inspired left-wing Europeans, many of whom saw the new models emerging from them as inspirations for European society. However, there was a growing rift between the Russian colonies and the Russian state, particularly in the wake of the 1881 assassination of Alexander II. The head of the Russian secret service, Piotr Rachkovskii’, undertook a sustained campaign to turn public opinion in Europe against the colonies and their residents. According to Hillis, Rachikovskii’ even masterminded bombing plots, supplying radicals with materials and then tipping off the local police. He also established a press agency which published propagandistic articles and pamphlets, which “insisted that the revolutionary movement [in Russia] had been conjured up by Jews, and… that Jews were a similar existential threat to western Europe.” A rumor emerged that Jack the Ripper, then terrorizing London, was himself a radical Russian Jew.

Such efforts to manipulate public opinion were ultimately successful, undermining asylum laws first in Switzerland, then in France, then in the United Kingdom (in the Aliens Act of 1905). New emigrants were increasingly met with oppression in the Russian colonies, which led to increasing radicalism: “Bolshevism was literally created in these communities.” According to Hillis, World War I marked the formal end of Russian colonies—émigrés were expelled en masse, and an era of experimentation and exchange between Russia and western Europe came to an end.

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.

Anna Shternshis, “Machine Guns, Mothers’ Graves and Hitler the Haman: Soviet Yiddish Songs of World War II”

Professor Anna Shternshis

Professor Anna Shternshis

On February 15th, 2016, Professor Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto) delivered her lecture “Machine Guns, Mother’s Graves, Hitler the Haman: Soviet Yiddish Songs of World War II.” Shternshis is the author of Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (2006) and the forthcoming When Sonia Met Boris: Daily Life in Soviet Russia (2016).

Shternshis spoke about her latest project, which she described as “something between history, literature, and art.” This project is based on a recently discovered archive of World War II-era Soviet Yiddish folk songs, collected by a team of Ukrainian (Soviet) scholars led by the Jewish ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky (1892-1961). During the war, Beregovsky and his colleagues at the ethnomusicology department of the Kiev-based Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture (including the famous linguist Elye Spivak) were evacuated to Central Asia, where they continued to collect songs, stories, and testimonies.  In 1947, they recorded hundreds of songs in Yiddish from Soviet Jews who had served in the Red Army, returned from Central Asia, or survived the war in Europe. Beregovsky and his colleagues prepared this material for publication under the title Jewish Creativity in the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War, but the volume was never released, likely due to its aberrance from Soviet ideology: Shternshis remarked that most of the songs emphasize specifically Jewish (rather than Soviet) suffering and/or heroism.

According to Shternshis, songs about service in the Red Army tend to emphasize violence and revenge. In the songs about life in occupied territories, a common motif is that of losing one’s parents: unlike Jews who joined the Red Army (of whom roughly two-thirds survived the war), the survival rate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Soviet territories was about 1%.  In many songs, Hitler is compared to Haman, the villain of the Book of Esther, over whom Jews celebrate victory during Purim. Shternshis mentioned that Hitler was cursed as a specifically Jewish enemy, in myriad ways: “there are not enough curse words in the Yiddish language to describe every way they cursed Hitler.”

In the context of Soviet culture during World War II, Shternshis said that music “played a role in ideology, entertainment, and social commentary.” Many songs were specifically commissioned to motivate people to build and fight for a communist state. Other songs functioned as an outlet for escape—humorous music was an important wartime genre. Finally, folk songs were a means of interpreting events, and served as a medium for the preservation of historical memory.

After the war, Stalin changed his policies toward Jews, and all institutions of Jewish culture were closed down. Beregovsky and his group were arrested and their work was seized by the authorities. Elye Spivak died during interrogation in 1950, and others were sent to gulag labor camps for years: Beregovsky was released after his “rehabilitation” in 1956. In the Soviet Union of the 1950s, it became dangerous to speak about Yiddish culture in public. The material collected by Beregovsky’s group was transferred to a “department of restricted access” at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, where it remained for decades.

When Shternshis discovered this material, which “changes our understanding of the history of the Holocaust and how Jews in the Soviet Union made sense of their wartime experiences,” she felt that it was important to share it with a broader audience. She wanted to tell “the story of the people who sang these songs, but also that of the scholars who risked their careers to collect this material.” As such, a central part of her project was recreating these songs, a process which Shternshis described as “a sort of archaeological dig”—while many of the texts did not come with music, “the majority of wartime Yiddish songs in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Europe were sung to already-existing tunes.” Once the preliminary work was completed, Shternshis brought together an “eclectic” group of classically trained musicians, the “Yiddish Glory” band. Yiddish Glory recently finished recording an album, and a Toronto-area promoter is now “booking shows [for them] all over the country.”

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.

Backlash in East-Central Europe? What Happened to the Promise of 1989?

On February 27, 2015, John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, gave a talk that was part of the European Union Center’s Jean Monnet lecture series and co-sponsored by REEEC entitled “Backlash in East-Central Europe: What Happened to the Promise of 1989?” As the title of his lecture suggests, he attempted to explain the disillusionment with the post-socialist system that is taking place in several countries of East-Central Europe, such as Hungary, Bulgaria, and the successor states to the former Yugoslavia. Many of these countries are now members of the European Union and NATO. In terms of economic growth and democratization, the post-1989 transformations  have been remarkable. Yet many in the region – politicians and everyday citizens alike – perceive the promises of 1989 as unrealized, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current system. In the face of broadly emerging Euroscepticism, some leaders – most prominently Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary  – have blatantly acted to undo aspects of the post-1989 transition to economic and political liberalism.

John Feffer describing the difficulties of the post-socialist transition in East-Central Europe

John Feffer describing the difficulties of the post-socialist transition in East-Central Europe

Mr. Feffer attempted to put these developments in context. He had traveled to the region in 1990, and interviewed over 250 local leaders and activists on the changes that were happening, specifically concerning the Roma, women and the workplace, and Yugoslavia. In order to gauge public perceptions of change, he traveled back to the region in 2012-13 as an Open Society Fellow to re-interview those with whom he had originally spoken, as well as many new people from civil and political society.

Mr. Feffer began his lecture with two stories illustrating contradictory experiences during the transition from communism. One was of Bogdan from Poland, who experienced a typical progression of shock, adjustment, and prosperity – or the “Golden Age” of the post-transition period. Mr. Feffer countered Bogdan’s story with that of Miroslav from Bulgaria, who had been a minority rights activist but left the country after facing extreme political isolation and disillusionment with the transition. Together, their stories create a picture of two co-existing worlds in today’s East-Central Europe – one of prosperity and a successful transition to economic/political liberalism, the other of widespread disillusionment and dissatisfaction complemented by strong anti-liberal trends.

Several factors indicate this latter world, which Feffer referred to as the “non-Golden Age.” One factor consists of public opinion polls, in which people say that their experience is worse today than it was under communism. There are also problems associated with mass emigration from these countries, often of the young and educated (i.e., those most capable of enacting further change). Coinciding with these trends is the rise of intolerant nationalistic parties, who take advantage of disillusionment in the region. Mr. Feffer lastly described the new push towards “illiberal democracy,” in which some countries have seen polar transitions from liberal ideas and parties towards models based on Russia or China.

If the above serve as indicators for what has happened, the following attributes of the transition help contextualize the situation that exists now. Mr. Feffer described disappointment (i.e., failed expectations), economic hardship (i.e., shock and unemployment), justice deferred (i.e., neglect of rule of law and immunity to those who benefited from insider privatization), and political backlash (i.e., a leftist critique of economics mixed with far right politics). Mr. Feffer argued that the left has been largely discredited in the region today because of its communist connections and conduct after 1989, while those from the far right have become the main actors on a stage of bad economics and politics. One such example is the rise of anti-Islamism in the region. Those who are not necessarily racist still often support overtly racist parties because of other unrelated hardships.

Even though most of the countries in the region are now full members of the EU, Euroscepticism is on the rise. Superficial images of progress (e.g., infrastructure development and EU membership itself) belie local disenchantment with the European Union and the perception that the expected benefits of EU membership have not manifested. Another important point Mr. Feffer made is that many of these countries are relatively conservative, and therefore, their stance on issues such as women’s and gay rights lead Western Europe to regard them as fostering “social illiberalism.”

Mr. Feffer did not try to argue that the liberal project has completely failed in East-Central Europe because the people there now have a degree of agency which they previously lacked. Rather, he suggested that there were flaws in the liberal project to begin with – even with Poland, considered the EU’s success story. In Poland, Mr. Feffer learned from his interviews that even those who favored the Balcerowicz Plan of rapid liberalization still admitted that the plan should have paid more attention to those left behind. Those who were left behind the most in the region were the Roma. Mr. Feffer described their situation as simply being a process of “uninterrupted shock,” consisting of widespread discrimination and extremely high unemployment.

However, Mr. Feffer concluded by arguing that these trends – disillusionment, economic problems, and a return to conservatism – are ultimately not peculiar to East-Central Europe. Instead, he saw them occurring throughout Europe, especially concerning debt issues and austerity. Furthermore, Euroscepticism and disaffection with politics are also happening in Western Europe, not just in the former socialist states. He described those sentiments in terms of a “pendulum swing.” Whereas there was wide support for liberalism in the 1990s, the pendulum now swings the opposite way and will likely shift again in the future. This was his larger argument, but the trends have been particularly acute in the places where a significant many perceive the promises of 1989 and the post-socialist transition to be currently unrealized.

To see a video recording of Mr. Feffer’s discussion, please follow the link to the EUC article on their website: http://eucenterillinois.blogspot.com/2015/03/backlash-in-east-central-europe-what.html

Alana Holland is a second-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests include the Holocaust, modern Russian and East European history, memory studies, and the post-socialist and post-Soviet transitions. She is currently writing her thesis on themes related to the Soviet liberation of the Majdanek concentration and death camp, and will pursue her PhD in History in fall 2015.