She Animates: Soviet Female Subjectivity in Soviet and Russian Animation

By Danielle Sekel

As part of the REEEC Virtual Summer Research Lab, Dr. Michele Leigh and Dr. Lora Mjolsness presented a public lecture on their forthcoming publication, She Animates: Soviet Female Subjectivity in Russian Animation. This volume was compiled largely through Leigh and Mjolsness’s research and collaboration done over the course of two summers at the Summer Research Lab, and it brings a welcome new addition to the existing conversation of not only film and animation history, but also women’s cinema.

Their research offers a close examination of twelve female animation directors in the Soviet Union and Russia, considering their contributions within the historical, cultural, and industrial aspects of animation. Their volume is framed by the concept of women’s cinema, challenging the fact that when one is asked to think about Soviet and Russian cinema, most often male directors come to mind. While it could be said that the same is held to be true in animation, there is a perhaps surprising amount of female animation directors who have made a name for themselves despite being largely ignored over time. This monograph works to reclaim the rightful place for these female animation directors within the larger conversation of Soviet and Russian film.

Of particular importance are the ways in which these directors have challenged the ideological norms of femininity in the Soviet Union and Russia; indeed, as Leigh and Mjolsness argue, the gendering of these works is instrumental in understanding the importance and impact of female animation directors’ contributions. Through a carefully curated examination of directors from both Soviet and post-Soviet eras, they weave a narrative demonstrating contributions to creating a women’s cinema in these spaces. Animators discussed range from the Brumberg sisters (Valentina and Zinaida), to more recent women, including Nina Shorina and Yulia Aronova. It is through looking at the works of such women in Soviet and Russian film and animation that we can see the creation and continuation of a Soviet female subjectivity that is still present in Russian women’s cinema today.

She Animates: Soviet Female Subjectivity in Russian Animation is set to be released through Academic Studies Press in September 2020.

Danielle Sekel is a graduate student in musicology at the University of Illinois. Her research interests focus on current works of LGBTQ artists in Bulgaria and Bosnia & Herzegovina. 

Professor Lilya Kaganovsky receives Provost’s Campus Distinguished Promotion Award

Originally posted on SLCL’s Latest News Website:


Lilya Kaganovsky, Professor of Comparative and World Literature and Slavic Languages and Literatures, has been named the recipient of the Provost’s Campus Distinguished Promotion Award.  She is one of only 12 faculty members campus-wide to be so honored for 2017.

The Campus Committee on Promotion and Tenure, in forwarding her case for promotion to full professor to the Chancellor, identified her as one of a set of scholars up for promotion “whose contributions were truly exceptional in terms of quality of work and overall achievement.”

During its annual promotion review process, the Campus Committee on Promotion and Tenure identifies exceptional cases of scholars whose contributions have been extraordinary in terms of quality of work and overall achievement. Only two to four scholars at each level of tenured faculty promotion (associate professor and full professor) are selected to receive Campus Distinguished Promotion Awards. Each receives a discretionary fund to support their scholarly activities.

Kaganovsky received a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. Her areas of specialization include Soviet literature and film, film and critical theory, gender studies, sound studies, the nineteenth century novel, and modernism.


New Directions Lecture: Christine Evans, “17 Reasons To Get Along with the Secret Police: Tatyana Lioznova’s ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring’ from the Soviet 1970s to the Putin Era”

David Cooper (Director of REEEC) introducing Christine Evans

On February 23rd, Christine Evans, (Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and a scholar of Soviet culture, mass media, and plays) gave a lecture on the popular 1973 Soviet TV miniseries Seventeen Moments of Spring. Her lecture, entitled “17 Reasons To Get Along with the Secret Police: Tatyana Lioznova’s ‘Seventeen Moments of Spring’ from the Soviet 1970s to the Putin Era,” was a sociological study of the show, and its reflections of Soviet culture and thought. It was a case study of some of the work that Evans had done to argue that the Soviet culture of this time was dynamic and vibrant, even though it was in a kind of stagnation along with the Soviet system in general.

The miniseries follows the fictional narrative of Maxim Isaev, a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany during the final days of World War II operating under the name of Max Otto von Stierlitz. Depicted by Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Stierlitz works to disrupt negotiation efforts between the Nazi and US governments for a separate peace. Evans focused on how the show’s recurring themes spoke to the trends of the 1970s Soviet society under Brezhnev.

One such recurring theme is that of questioning what is seen. Many times on the show, documents profiling Nazi officers and other characters are featured. These documents mention the crimes and horrible actions of the Nazis they name. However, these same Nazis are later portrayed as quite human characters when they are on screen. They are shown drinking, laughing, talking, and engaging like everyday people. The viewer is left questioning how such atrocities could be done by people who seem so human and normal, and a general sense of moral ambiguity prevails throughout the show.

This, Evans argued, resonated with the Soviet Union of the 1970s. Many Soviet people knew that their state had done terrible things; yet, they also knew that the people in their government were still human, and that they had done much good for others. They, too, were morally ambiguous in a way.

In another parallel, German officers and intelligentsia are intensely loyal on the show to the Nazi regime either by suppression or fanaticism, just as Soviet officers and intelligentsia were loyal to the USSR for the same reasons. Stierlitz always does his part to work loyally within his authority structures—his spy networks and his taking orders from other Nazis while undercover—while at the same time, acting independently enough to do what he needs to do. In this way, the show comments on the loyalty that many Soviets felt to their regime and the need they felt to do their part to make it work. Stierlitz’s independence and authority of action, devoid of any considerations beside his tasks, hearkens to the shadow of Stalin that hung over the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

Evans explored many other themes of the show in this way, also discussing the reactions and reviews of film critics in the Soviet Union and the notes of the producers of the show. Her extensive study of Seventeen Moments of Spring was a compelling testament to the values of sociological analysis as a tool for the historian or anyone who wants to further their understanding of Eastern European, Russian, and Eurasian societies and cultures.

Nick Goodell is a sophomore at UIUC, double majoring in History and Philosophy. He also speaks weekly about history on the radio show that he co-hosts, “The People’s History Hour with Grant Neal and Nick Goodell.”

Noontime Scholars Lecture: Kirill Maslinsky, “The Trace of the ‘Thaw’ in the Emotional Palette of Soviet Children’s Literature”

Kirill Maslinsky

Kirill Maslinsky, Fulbright Fellow at Illinois Wesleyan University and a Visiting Professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, gave the REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture entitled “The Trace of the ‘Thaw’ in the Emotional Palette of Soviet Children’s Literature” on February 21. He presented an innovative approach to studying literature through machine learning tools and language processing. Maslinsky focused on the “Thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev, which has received renewed attention in Russian cultural studies, and how that period shaped the emotions depicted in Soviet children’s literature.

In the 1950s, two opposing camps formed within children’s literature over the issue of sincerity. The divide was instigated by Vladimir Pomerantsev, who argued in his article “On Sincerity in Literature” (1953) that literature for children should eliminate all real conflict and show no dark sides to life. His view aligned more with Anatoly Aleksin’s short story “Two Presents” (1952), in which a five-year-old child comes to understand what production is and feels joy about it. However, other scholars viewed the “Thaw” as a period of instability and contested ideas that should be depicted in children’s literature. Lidiia Chukovskaya wrote the essay “Rotten Tooth” to voice her doubts about the sincerity of emotions shown in children’s literature. She believed that the emotions portrayed were false. In her essay, she used the metaphor of the rotten tooth to argue that any falsehood was a rotten tooth that should be extracted. Another scholar, Alexander Drozdov, also criticized children’s literature from that time period, noting that characters don’t have their own personality and don’t suffer; they never experience any negative emotions.

Maslinsky’s presentation demonstrated a way to incorporate digital humanities into an analysis of Russian literature. He explored this issue of sincerity by tracing the changes in language for describing emotions that were related to Thaw-era discussions about sincere emotions in children’s literature. He focused on the emotional discourse of the Thaw as sincerity and hypocrisy. To do so, he used a method known as “machine learning”  to mine the emotional language in children’s literature and evaluate the results on graphs. For example, he searched for emotional keywords and filtered out laughing from crying. He split novels into fragments (episodes) and measured the presence of each emotional category in each fragment.

One of the observations that he was able to make from this analysis was that male and female authors addressed emotions differently. For example, during the 1950s, texts written by women represented crying more often than those written by men; more women also wrote about love.

Another method he used was measuring emotional clusters. He presented four distinct clusters that portrayed four different ways of portraying emotions. Examining these clusters of emotions, Maslinsky observed that more female authors wrote about emotions than male authors. He also concluded that works written during the Thaw depicted more social and abstract emotions, which were more realistic.

Although Maslinsky did not explicitly say so in his lecture, his method indicated a shift in the argument regarding sincerity to a gender debate. His repeated observations that more female authors wrote about emotions in their works hinted that there could be a latent cultural bias in the debate. Maslinsky posed questions that could lead his research to become a more comprehensive project that might include translations, reprints, close reading, and a study of readership (older vs. younger children). Whatever new form it takes, it would be a significant contribution to the field, especially in its inclusion of technology as a way to analyze children’s literature.

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.

Faculty Publications

Mark Steinberg, Director of Graduate Studies, Professor of History, Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies, and the Center for Global Studies, published a new book on February 1st of 2017, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921, was released through Oxford University Press. Steinberg’s book explores a different perspective of the historical period that ranges from the 1905 Bloody Sunday events to the end of the Civil War, all presented through the perspectives and experiences of those who lived through the period. Writing on the key characters of the revolution, including Vladimir Lenin, Lev Trotsky, and Alexandra Kollontai, Steinberg takes knowledge and information from the present and uses it to breath new air into the past. For more information on Dr. Steinberg’s book, follow this link to Oxford University Press.

The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921

The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921

Marek Sroka, Librarian for Central European Studies and Associate Professor of Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies, published “American Books to the Rescue: The American Library Association (ALA) and the Postwar Restoration of Polish Libraries, 1944-1948,” in the final issue of 2016’s The Polish Review 61(4), and then published “”A Book Never Dies”: the American Library Association and the Cultural Reconstruction of Czechoslovak and Polish Libraries, 1945-48,” in Library and Information History 33 which was released in 2017.

The Polish Review, vol. 61, no. 4

The Polish Review, vol. 61, no. 4

Dr. Kristin Romberg, Assistant Professor of Art History and REEEC Affiliate, published an anthology, “Tektonika,” in volume 1 of Formal’nyi metod. Antologiia rossiiskogo modernizma (The Formal Method: An Anthology of Russian Modernism), edited by Serguei Oushakine and published by Moscow and Ekaterinburg: Kabinetnyi uchenyi in the summer of 2016.  Romberg also spoke at The Russian Avant-Garde: Scholars Respond panel at the Museum of Modern Art on February 8th, 2017. The panel was organized in tandem with the exhibition A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde and discussed the how an art object could be revolutionary. Information about the panel is available here.

Formal’nyi metod. Antologiia rossiiskogo modernizma (The Formal Method: An Anthology of Russian Modernism)

Formal’nyi metod. Antologiia rossiiskogo modernizma (The Formal Method: An Anthology of Russian Modernism)

New Directions Lecture: Mark Steinberg, “Leaping into the Open Air of History: The Russian Revolution and the Utopian Imagination”

On September 1st, Dr. Mark Steinberg, Professor of History, Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign delivered the first New Directions lecture of Fall Semester. The lecture, “Leaping into the Open Air of History: The Russian Revolution and the Utopian Imagination,” examines ideas surrounding “utopianism” as seen through the works of three radicals during the Revolution and the early Soviet era: Alexandra Kollontai, Lev Tolstoy, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Dr. Steinberg during Q&A

Dr. Steinberg during Q&A

The title for the talk comes from a quote from Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin, where he says in his On the Concept of History, “The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.” This adapts the Marxist metaphor of the kingdom of necessity as it changes into the kingdom of freedom. Utopia can be understood in three ways according to Dr. Steinberg, the first is Utopia as a critique of the present, citing German Marxist Ernst Bloch, when he states that the impulse towards utopia is an impulse to venture beyond, that is towards the “not yet”. The second is Utopia as the critique of knowledge of the possible and the impossible. Again, Steinberg looks to Bloch, where the ocean of possibility is that much greater than the customary and the possibility of reality. The final way that Utopia can be understood is Utopia as critical knowledge of time. This means that utopian time is considered as separate from the conventional understanding of time itself. Utopian time is time that is stepping out of the time of reality onto its own path.

Using these understandings of utopia, Dr. Steinberg looked at the influence of utopian ideas on the work of Kollontai, Trotsky, and Mayakovsky. Kollontai adopted Marxism and the possibility of utopian ideals through the realization of the utmost possibilities in earthly reality. While different from Kollontai in ideas and understanding, Trotsky’s understanding of utopianism is that the people of the present cannot hear the sound of the future, where the utopia lies. He disagreed with the Marxist idea that utopia can be realized immediately, saying that only with time will it arrive. Mayakovsky, according to Dr. Steinberg, found that they (the revolutionaries) must destroy the old to make way for the new, the utopian ideal.

Overall, Dr. Steinberg makes the point that while maybe the realization of these utopian ideals never came to fruition, the leap towards such a future and such a world is significant enough for historians and those studying the Russian Revolution to draw our attention. The importance of this point lies not only in the contents of the argument he has made here, but also, if not more importantly, in the grand gesture towards the past and the significance and implications of attempts for change, regardless of their successes or failures. In what was a fitting lecture to kick off the 2016-17 academic year, Dr. Steinberg demonstrated the power of the attempt to change history.

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: Alex Rabinowitch, “The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the Birth of Soviet Russia: Centennial Reflections”

Alex Rabinowitch

Alex Rabinowitch

When I was in the junior year of my undergraduate program, I began to think about attending graduate school to study Russian history. I had a strong interest in the field, but as a latecomer to the discipline—I had only added the major the year before, and I had just taken my first course specifically on Russian and Soviet history—I was not quite sure how to proceed. Without a clear path ahead, I asked my advisor for a book recommendation. He told me about Alexander Rabinowitch’s The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (1976).

Of course, at the time, I did not know that Dr. Rabinowitch’s work had been so groundbreaking. I did not yet know the ways in which it transformed historiographical interpretations, or the ways in which it caused a methodological shift in the discipline of Soviet studies. All I knew at the time was my impressions after having read it: This was a powerful work of scholarship. Dr. Rabinowitch’s monograph gave me an example of how transformative academic work could be when it took nothing for granted, and used a careful analysis of sources as a means to question assumptions that have become almost intractably embedded.

In his lecture, given on October 20, Professor Rabinowitch addressed the ways in which his manner of thinking about history emerged, and how that prompted him to think about “arguably the single most important event of the twentieth century”: the October Revolution. Noting that his work has been “stuck in the same place” of 1917, Dr. Rabinowitch used his talk to explore many of the issues addressed in his extensive published work.

His lecture began, however, not with academics, but with his family history. His parents were members of the Russian intelligentsia—his mother had been an actress in Zhitomir, and his father a scientist in St. Petersburg—who became émigrés after 1917. They went first to Germany, then to Massachusetts, before finally moving to Champaign, Illinois. While in Massachusetts, though, Dr. Rabinowitch and his family became deeply involved in the extensive Russian émigré community on the East Coast. Dr. Rabinowitch described a childhood in which he spent summers with figures such as the former head of the Provisional Government Aleksandr Kerenskii, novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and the founder of American-based Russian and Slavic Studies Mikhail Karpovich.

His interactions with these giants of the émigré community mattered, Dr. Rabinowitch explained, because they shaped his viewpoint of what the Soviet Union was. Among the émigré community, he noted, there was a consensus that 1917 had been a coup, and that everything that had followed since then was an abomination. When Dr. Rabinowitch entered graduate school under the tutelage of Leopold Haimson (University of Chicago) and Jack Thompson (University of Indiana), he initially expected to write a dissertation that promoted this conception of the Soviet Union and 1917.

As he hit roadblocks in his research—his first project, a biography of the Georgian Menshevik and Provisional Government Minister Irakli Tsereteli was abandoned due to language issues—Dr. Rabinowitch began to reconsider his assumptions. “There is simply no way for a historian to act like a photograph,” Dr. Rabinowitch said about this process. “But to the degree that I’m able, I try not to reach decisive conclusions until the evidence is lined up in front of me.” His two advisors, Haimson and Thompson, encouraged him to read sources with an open mind, and as he did this, it was clear that there was more to the history of 1917 than just disaster and catastrophe. Although the archives were not open to him, Dr. Rabinowitch pored through printed material; he used a comparison of Pravda and Sol’datskaia Pravda, for example, to illustrate the caution of the Bolshevik Central Committee in relation to the eagerness of the military branch.

His dissertation, entitled “Prelude to Revolution,” immediately made an impact. In the Soviet Union, it was widely condemned as it cast doubts on Party unity. Additionally, as Dr. Rabinowitch noted in the question-and-answer part of the talk, his old émigré community was “appalled” by his findings. Overall, though, his conclusions quickly became accepted within the American scholarly community.

As he approached writing his second book, Dr. Rabinowitch’s tendency to question his assumptions proved once again to be useful. When he began his research on the period following the July Days, for example, Dr. Rabinowitch said that he assumed the Bolshevik Party would have aimed to clamp down on flexibility. As he dove into the available sources, he noticed the opposite effect: the Party remained, even at its core, a “democratic, responsive party.” This flexibility allowed the Party to avoid pushing for revolution in September (a move that Dr. Rabinowich theorized would have been disastrous), and it gave the Military Revolutionary Committee (VRK) the maneuverability it needed to attract military support away from the Provisional Government. In other words, it was this flexibility—the exact flexibility that Dr. Rabinowitch had not initially expected to find—that made the October Revolution possible. And it would be this flexibility that would soon fade, as the responsive Party structure was replaced with a much more centralized and autocratic government in the early years of the Soviet Union.

Dr. Rabinowitch’s career shows the importance of analytical openness and scholarly rigor. It was this openness and rigor that impressed me with his work back when I was an undergraduate, and it was these same qualities that led Dr. Rabinowitch’s alma mater, University High School, to award him the Max Beberman Distinguished Alumni Award, the institution’s highest award, at the conclusion of his talk. Our congratulations to Dr. Rabinowitch, and our thanks to him for a fascinating talk.

Deirdre Ruscitti Harshman is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Illinois. Her dissertation, “A Space Called Home: Housing and the Construction of the Everyday in Russia, 1890-1935,” explores how multiple, often conflicting, understandings of the home emerged across the revolutionary divide of 1917, and what these conceptions tell us about belonging. Her article “Cooking Up a New Everyday: Communal Kitchens in the Revolutionary Era, 1890-1935” will be published in the forthcoming December 2016 issue of Revolutionary Russia. When she is not doing academic work, she is working on perfecting her plov recipe. 

New Directions Lecture: Eliot Borenstein, “The Talking Dead: Articulating the ‘Zombified’ Subject Under Putin”

Professor Eliot Borenstein

Professor Eliot Borenstein

On October 26, Professor Eliot Borenstein (New York University) gave a lecture entitled “The Talking Dead: Articulating the ‘Zombified’ Subject Under Putin.”  He is the author of Men without Women: Masculinity and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929 (2000) and Overkill: Sex Violence, and Russian Popular Culture after 1991 (2008). Borenstein is also the editor of the “All the Russias” blog (  His talk was part of his forthcoming book Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism.

Borenstein began by discussing the zombie’s place in contemporary American culture.  Its origins are Haitian, but “like most products of black culture in America, it has been whitewashed, only this time to an extreme, deathly pallor.”  In George Romero’s films, the zombie was transformed into a collective menace, and it became (among other things) a metaphor for consumerism.  According to Borenstein, “the figure of the zombie demands that we reexamine our ideas of knowledge and selfhood.”

Zombie narratives are less widespread in Russia than in the West – Borenstein argues that the “postsocialist zombie is less an imaginary creature than a state of mind.”  Russian discourse focuses on “zombification” rather than “zombies”: where “Western zombies are the threat of the Other… the Russian anxiety is different: the zombie will become you.”  Russian zombification is concerned with the relationship between mass media and audience – the danger is that the viewer’s mind may become colonized.  This “brainwashing” narrative suggests that “no one has any faith in the population’s ability to evaluate media messages.”  At the same time, it propagates an idea of one’s own independence: “I am not zombified, because I can perceive the zombification of others.”

Borenstein traces the zombification narrative back to the beginning of the Soviet Union.  The Marxist subject, he argues, “is not a closed-off, integral self.”  This idea was re-appropriated by the West in the 1950s, when the concept of brainwashing entered popular discourse.  In films like The Manchurian Candidate and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the utopian idea of the malleable Marxist self was transformed into its “demonic inversion,” which fed into Western anti-communist anxiety.  Following the 60s counterculture movement, however, the brainwashing meme jumped from the USSR to new religious movements (NRMs).  It was in this “anti-cult” context that zombification entered mainstream Russian discourse in the early 1990s, in connection with a movement called the Great White Brotherhood, led by Maria Devi Christos.  The zombification meme was also disseminated in post-Soviet conspiracy novels (in which mind-control, often KGB-derived, was a popular trope) and particularly in the works of Victor Pelevin, who wrote a 1994 essay on the topic (“Zombificatsiia”).

Borenstein claims that critics of today’s Russian media “posit an imaginary Russian media consumer,” an apathetic “post-Soviet couch potato whose gullibility helps the regime ruin the country.”  In such discourse, the source of zombification is believed to be television, or the “zomboiashchik” (roughly equivalent to the “boob tube”).  In recent years, a Russian Youtube celebrity who calls himself “Astakhov Sergii” has become the face of the zombified subject.  Astakhov refers to himself as an “invalid” – some viewers have speculated that he may be schizophrenic.  Two directors (Anatoly Ulyanov and Oleg Mavromatti) have released documentaries about Astakhov, in which they suggest that he is a stand-in or limit case representing the average Russian television viewer.  Borenstein contends that this is insulting to both Astakhov, who is “completely deprived of agency,” and the “Russian ‘patriotric’ viewer,” who is “implicitly being called an idiot.”

According to Borenstein, accusations of zombification are a way of undermining political discourse: “rather than evaluating speech according to its worth, its sincerity, and its effects, speech can be entirely dismissed – speech becomes excess.”  Furthermore, the use of Astakhov as a representative of the zombification model suggests one of its inadequacies: it assumes that political beliefs “are the product of rational [rather than emotional] thought, and that intolerable political beliefs are founded in faulty rationality.”  To Borenstein, the important question is not “who is zombified?” but rather “who is employing the message of zombification?”  The best way to resist zombification, then, is simply by not believing in it.

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

Marina Filipovic, “The Digestive Tract of the Universe: Andrei Platonov’s ‘Antropo-tekhnika’”

Ph.D. candidate Marina Filipovic

Ph.D. candidate Marina Filipovic

On October 20th, 2015, Marina Filipovic, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, gave a lecture entitled “The Digestive Tract of the Universe: Andrei Platonov’s ‘Antropo-tekhnika.’”  Filipovic began by situating her lecture in the 1920s, a period when “Soviet Russia embarked on the project of creating a super-science with the ultimate goal of achieving immortality.”  The revolutionary fervor of establishing a new order took hold of scientists, who believed that technology would allow them to “fulfill the dreams of human destiny.”  To illustrate this, Filipovic showed an image of Sergei Brukhonenko’s “autojektor,” a heart and lung machine he invented which (allegedly) enabled him to keep the severed head of a dog alive for several hours.

According to Filipovic, rejuvenation was also a driving force in literature – such biotechnological research inspired authors like Andrei Platonov, who engaged in this state-sponsored venture by way of “antropo-tekhnika,’ a literary project of immortality.

She first discussed Platonov’s 1927 novella Efirnyi trakt, in which several of the protagonists work on the project of extending human life.  One character posits that electrons are “no different from biological cells,” and speculates on the relationship of electrons to ether (the material that was once believed to fill outer space, making it possible for light to travel in a vacuum): “If an electron is a microbe, that is a biological phenomenon, then the ether… represents an electron cemetery… On the other hand, the ether is not only an electron cemetery, but also the mother of their existence, as dead electrons serve a unique food [pishcha] to the living electrons. Electrons eat corpses of their ancestors [ediat trupy svoikh predkov].”  In this conception, ether is an “intelligent organism that functions as a machine.”

Filipovic remarked that 19th-century scientists looked at ether as an “elastic jelly” stretching through the universe and filled with “cog-wheels” – it was envisioned like a machine or factory, representing a mechanistic worldview.  Physicists hoped that ether would provide a “theory of everything,” through which they would be able to link together all the processes of the universe.  In the scientific world, the concept of ether was largely abandoned after Einstein’s theory of general relativity, but it continued to serve as an inspiration for writers like Platonov.  For him, ether was “vitalistic” (a life-bearing organism) as well as mechanistic, which “opens a space for the merging together of disparate ideas” – hence it can be both the source of life and a graveyard for dead electrons.  Filipovic argues that ether becomes a “merger signifier” for Platonov, where biology and philosophy connect.

According to Filipovic, Platonov envisioned the “ethereal tract” as a sort of “cosmic brain in development.”  She connected this to his concept of the “socialist biological brain,” developed in a 1927 novel in which one of his characters argues that the “new socialist man” is formed by physical changes in the brain.  This strong biological bent receives support from the view of the electron as biological – in Platonov’s writing, Filipovic contends, all “living cells” (including the ethereal tract and the human brain) behave according to a biological model of existence.  Filipovic argues that he also saw the October Revolution in biological terms, as a consequence of evolutionary struggle and development.

The biological theme is expanded upon in Platonov’s 1923 story “Rasskaz o mnogikh interesnikh veshchak,” in which one of his characters presents a eugenic project.  This character, a scientist who believes the essence of humanity is chastity, declares that “[t]he time of an utterly chaste man has arrived; he creates a great civilization, he assumes [obretaet] the Earth and all other planets, he connects with himself all the visible and the invisible, he will finally turn time and eternity into a force and will outlive both Earth and time. For that reason I founded the science called Antropo-tekhnika.”  The scientist has a two-step plan for achieving immortality: after the creation of “durable flesh,” which “converts sexual energy into productive energy,” the second phase of the experiment is conducted in the workshop of “immortal flesh,” where a chaste body is transformed into an immortal body by means of ethereal electromagnetic waves.  Filipovic remarked that this story contains a notable strain of germophobia: “this newly immortal human needs an entirely germ-free environment in order to live.”

Platonov writes that “[l]ife is forwarded to us through ethereal space from other planets.”  In his view, Filipovic contends, the structure of the universe operates by the same bio-mechanical principles as the digestive tract.  According to him, “[t]he most ancient and genuine God in the world is the belly [puzo], and [it is] not a frail divine spirit… [t]he entire Earth is roused by the stomach.”  He compares the stomach to a temple (khram) to communicate the stomach’s mystery and its status as the source of life on earth.  Filipovic asserts that in Platonov’s writing, “abdominal imagery penetrates spiritual discourse and acquires new meaning”—“the ‘navel of the world’ (axis mundi) is the center of the universe.”

In his novel Schastlivaia Moskva (1933-1936), Platonov dives further into abdominal imagery: his characters and setting (Moscow) are both regularly described as having tubular bodies and as being part of a larger system.  A physicist named Sambikin, whose research is devoted to the study of the human body (which he believes holds the key to immortality), claims that the soul is located in a particular part of the intestine.  Moskva, the female protagonist, develops an emotional connection with her own digestive tract: “[she] was amazed by nature’s chemistry that transformed ordinary scant food… into a rosy purity [chistota] and the blossoming expanses of her body.”  Eventually, she becomes a worker in the metro system (i.e. “the bowels of the earth”), and when her leg is crushed in an accident, she is squeezed into a “dead end” (slepoi prokhod), which Filipovic compares to the large intestine – she literally becomes human waste, an unproductive part of society.

In her analysis of this imagery, which came out of a process of close reading, Filipovic shows that Platonov uses ether as a metaphor for a new existence, one which is “simultaneously biological, technological, and spiritual.”  Her framework also demonstrates his extensive use of gastrointestinal imagery, finally suggesting that in his depiction of the ethereal digestive tract of the universe, he abolishes death.  Platonov’s literary project thus complemented the goals of contemporary Soviet science.

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

Dr. Erik Scott, “Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of the Soviet Empire.”

Dr. Erik Scott (seated to the far left) and Professor David Cooper (standing).

Dr. Erik Scott (seated to the far left) and Professor David Cooper (standing).

On September 24, 2015, Dr. Erik R. Scott, Associate Professor at the University of Kansas, delivered his lecture ‘Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of the Soviet Empire.’  Scott began by putting forth the notion of reinterpreting the Soviet Empire as a collection of diasporas that were perpetuated by the structure of the empire itself, in the sense of distilling and elevating national cultures, and  by extension certain attributes and characteristics of those cultures. More explicitly,  Scott suggests that the idea of internal diasporas can be used as an analytical tool in order to re-conceptualize the relationship between the periphery and the center.

Cultural characteristics were promoted not just as distinctions but as the identifiers of that specific culture.  As it pertained to Scott’s lecture, Georgia quickly became known for its hospitality, toasting culture, national dishes and wines within the broader Soviet Union.  The relationship between the center and periphery was reinforced through the export of Georgian wines and foods, favored by the nomenklatura and others who had means.  Indeed, Georgian culture was perceived as one of the most prominent as far as peripheral relationships are concerned. The establishment of  Georgian restaurants in Moscow also transmitted a culture that was also very intensely exoticized.

Later during the 1960s and 70s, other aspects of Georgian culture such as film, literary publishing and music circulated in Moscow.  Such transfers of Georgian culture became associated with high culture and contributed to a Georgian intelligentsia community in Moscow, as Scott noted.  Moreover, the similarities between Russian and Georgian artistic representations encouraged these cultural links.  That said, this transferability of certain cultural aspects was done in such a way that its difference and “foreignness ” was made acceptable.

Further, Scott argues that it was apparent to internal diasporas that these  aspects of Georgian culture were overplayed often giving way to cultural clichés. Today there are still remnants of the role the periphery-center relationship assumed throughout the latter decades of the twentieth century but that emphasis, even though filtered to an extent through a Muscovite lens, has waned.

Katherine Butterworth graduated from the REEES MA program in 2015. She is currently working toward an MS in Library and Information Science in the GSLIS program here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.