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.

Empire on the Steppe: Migration and Settlement in northern Kazakhstan from the Late 19th to the Early 20th Century

On June 23rd, Sean McDaniel, a PhD Candidate in History at Michigan State University, delivered the REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture, “Empire on the Steppe: Migration and Settlement in northern Kazakhstan from the Late 19th to the Early 20th Century.” McDaniel was this year’s Fisher Fellow for the Summer Research Laboratory, where he was conducting pre-field research on his dissertation prior to travelling abroad. His larger project involves migration within the Russian political space, but his lecture and research this summer focus specifically on the role of horses at the intersection of state, settler, and indigenous power in the Kazakh Steppe during the late imperial and early Soviet periods.

Sean McDaniel giving his Noontime Scholars lecture

Sean McDaniel giving his Noontime Scholars lecture

With the freeing of the serfs and the desire to increase the permanent Russian population along the Russian border, Russian authorities encouraged migration to the Kazakh Steppe in the late 19th century. The social climate began to shift as more Russian settlers came to the land and the government put forth efforts to make the native Kazakh population more sedentary. However, the real change came to Central Asia in 1891, with the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. As the infrastructure of the steppe changed and more Russian settlers established themselves in the land, Kazakh natives became increasingly poor and dependent on the Russian authority.

Horses, already a symbol of power and wealth in Central Asia, became increasingly more important to Russian settlers and the government. McDaniel’s lecture highlighted how the horse trade and instances of horse theft in Central Asia could tell us more about the power dynamic between the indigenous population, Russian settlers, and Russian authority in the steppe. As the value of the horse rose and the political landscape of Central Asia changed, new classes developed and small elite classes of Kazakh and Russian horse breeders emerged. A majority of the indigenous Kazakh population became increasingly poor and disenfranchised. Although the act was not solely committed by Kazakhs and was not always an act of retribution, horse theft became a heroic symbol of resistance for the Kazakhs against the Russian government.  The Russian government’s failure to curb the problem of horse theft illustrated the limits of Russian authority outside of major European metropolitan areas.

McDaniel will continue his research on the horse trade as he travels to Russia and Kazakhstan in 2016. He hopes further research will continue to illuminate the complex power structure in Central Asia at the turn of the twentieth century.

Samantha Celmer is a graduate student in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on incidents of genocide, crimes against humanity, and sexual violence in Russia and Eastern Europe. She received her B.A. from Oberlin College in History and Russian and Eastern European Studies in December 2013. After graduation, she hopes to work with organizations that focus on international human rights.