Sanna Turoma

Imaginative Geographies in late Soviet Russian Culture

Syftet med projektet är att undersöka på vilka sätt geografiska och imperiella rum uppfattas och representeras i ryska kulturella praktiker under decennierna som föregick Sovjetunionens fall. Projektet fokuserar på litterära praktiker och ska studera representationer av geografiska rum genom följande frågor:
Hur har det sovjetiska geografiska rummet representerats i sentida sovjetrysk litteratur och vilka symboliska betydelser tilldelas det? Vilken roll har imperium och impersikt rum i dessa geografiska föreställningar? Hur artikuleras distinktionen mellan ryskt och sovjetiskt rum? Vilka berättelser om historia och identitet frambringar dessa rumsliga föreställningar? Hur framställs begreppet "Norr" och vilka betydelser tilldelas det? Hur uppfattas Rysslands relation till de nordiska länderna? Vilken roll har "Norden" i dessa föreställda geografiska rum?


Sanna Turoma

I received funding from Nordic Spaces at a time, when I had finished my PhD dissertation and was going to defend. In other words, the funding came to me at a critical time of my academic career. It enabled me to develop my postdoctoral research at the transitional period of turning from a doctoral candidate into a postdoctoral researcher.


1. Has the project plan been followed or has it been adjusted?

My plan was to develop the research idea, and for that part I did not need to adjust the project plan. The working title of my postdoctoral research project is now "Empire and Space in Late Soviet Russian Culture". I have been able to focus on the concept of empire, seminal to my research, and develop my theoretical understanding of the concept outside literary and cultural studies. At the time when I applied for the NS program, I was not aware that there exists a cross-disciplinary field called "imperial studies". This is a broad academic field, which explores the theory and practice of empire. The field has expanded over the recent decades from mainly historical scholarship into a vibrant multidisciplinary field of research enriched by postcolonial theory and historical/comparative sociology. In Russian and Soviet studies this global academic phenomenon coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the interest in empire it ensued. I now affiliate my own research with this field of study.
What comes to more specific research questions and my plan to answer them, I have been approaching that goal by deepening my understanding of the key concept (empire). I have been able to specify the objective of my research and thus get closer to answering the main research questions: How is Soviet geographical space represented in late Soviet Russian cultural practices and what are the symbolic meanings invested in it? What is the role of empire and imperial space in these representations?
Before answering these questions, it is necessary to rethink the relationship between Russian critical intellectuals and the concepts of empire and Soviet space in the late Soviet period. This, in turn, requires a reassessment of the influence official Soviet ideology, and more specifically, Soviet ideology of space and geographical mythologies exercised on the cultural practices of the unofficial or non-conformist Soviet Russian intellectuals in the post-Stalin era. Moreover, it requires reading against the grain of the late twentieth-century narratives of dissident and émigré identities-especially the 1970s "third wave" Soviet emigration-in which anti-Soviet positions were associated with anti-imperial/ist views. These associations originated in Russian-language unofficial cultural practices, in which the term "empire" (imperiia) had negative and dissenting meanings in reference to the 1960s Soviet Union. At the same time, however, Russian and Soviet imperial mythologies, which were rediscovered with the rediscovery of turn-of-the-century modernist movements excluded from the Stalinist canon, re-entered creative and intellectual practices and continued to exercise cultural authority on the ways Russia and the Soviet Union were imagined. Furthermore, while the destalinization of literary life and cultural practices was well under way, the Soviet ideology of space with its imperial implications continued to inform the representations of Soviet territory.
My current research hypothesis stems, then, from the recognition of the following ambiguity: while the term "empire" came to be applied to the Soviet Union with solely negative meanings and subversive ideological underpinnings in the critical intellectuals' discourse, there still persisted a fascination with historical empires and transnational imperial models of culture and society. The concept of empire did not undergo a similar intellectual reassessment and critique, as was beginning to emerge in Western intellectual practices. Instead, the Russian-language narratives of empire, space, and nation, which I examine, were informed by articulations of imperial sublime and imperial nostalgia, and the quest to undermine these both by means of irony, anecdotal humor and/or intertextual play. With this peculiar rhetoric of imperial ambiguity, which translated sometimes as imperial indifference (to quote from Boris Groys's concept of "thinking in post-utopian indifference" coined in a discussion of post-Stalin Soviet Russian art and literature), Russian and/or Soviet imperial attitudes to what was perceived as Russian and/or Soviet territory remained fundamentally unchallenged. As a result, Soviet ideology of space, as well as eighteenth and nineteenth-century Russian imperial mythologies, continued to exercise authority over the representations of Russia's historical territory and Soviet geographical space.
As far as the concept of "Norden" of the "North" is concerned, I will look at it in the article that will be included in "Decentering Empire". This is an analysis of the text which triggered off my query into the post-Stalinist geographical imaginings. It is 60-e: Mir sovetskogo cheloveka (The 60's: The World of Homo Soveticus), a highly popular memoir of the Soviet 1960s written by Aleksandr Genis and Petr Vail, two leading émigré figures of late Soviet period. In their effort to restore the mental landscape of the 1960s Soviet Union, Genis and Vail describe the "hypnotic sense of the magnitude of land mass" as one of the major factors, which shaped the worldviews of the Soviet citizen in the 1960s. Every Russian (rossiianin) was "aware of the importance of the State", which covered "one sixth of the earth" and "a whole one side of the globe, the North". The imaginative map Genis and Vail create in their collective memoir renders a majority of the geographical magnitude curiously anonymous. A large part of the empire has no identity, nor language; it is an emptiness of nothing waiting for the Russian language articulations to give it a signification: "Somewhere there existed the absolutely definable France, England, Italy. But only Russia (Rossiia) was on one side bordered by civilization and on the other by endlessness."

What emerges from Genis' and Vail's conjecture is a map with three geographical designations: "Civilization" in the left, "Russia" in the middle, and "Endlessness" in the right. The latter is then identified as Siberia, and the signification Genis and Vail give to it, is its role as the space where "russkaia udal'", the reckless boldness thought to be characteristically Russian, has traditionally been played out. In this historical conjecture, the role of Siberia is, then, to reinforce Russia's self-identification with the wild and austere "North". At the same time, the distinction between Russia and Siberia remains: unlike the parts of Russia, which lie next to the "civilization", Siberia is a space "not within the borders of the cultured world but outside it". Not that Siberia ever was, the authors are quick to contest, an "ordinary colony", it was an "abstraction": "a storehouse of space, an almost inexhaustible geographical depository. Siberia served not so much as a source of material profit, but as a spring of poetic metaphors." Without much analysing the ideological or political underpinnings of the national metaphorics, their own included, Genis and Vail venture on to describe the Siberian contribution to the mythologies of Russian national identity. In this narrative historical events recognized by historians as a colonizing processes of military conquest, systematic scientific research (cartography and geology), commercial exploitation, and extensive russification of indigenous peoples are romanticized as empire building founded on individual men's heroic if "despairing bravery" (otchaiannaia hrabrost'). The concept of North, disassociated now from Siberia and associated exclusively with the more "civilized" Russia, is invested, then, with positive meanings signifying the Russian national character.

Genis's and Vail's essayistic style is ironic, and the authorial irony is intensified, when the text turns to concern the post-Stalinist effort to replace the construction of communism, defeated in European Russia, on the "virgin soil of Siberia". The aim of the irony is to expose the inefficiency of the Soviet enterprise and the disillusion it brought about. Its aim, however, is not to undermine the imperial attitudes involved. Genis's and Vail's description of the Soviet migration to the massive construction sites, which were established to transform the Siberian wilderness into an electrified Soviet land, presents, again, another Russian language articulation, no matter how (self)-ironic, about sibirskaia legenda-a Russian representation of the Russian myth about Russian Siberia.

While Genis and Vail ironically undermine the official narratives of Soviet space, they reconstruct an alternative narrative, the narrative of historically more legitimate and original Russian imperial space. Furthermore, instead of uncovering the official ideologies underlying the geographical mythology of the "one-sixth", which informed the patriotic and imperialist discourses of the Soviet Union, Genis and Vail further mythologize it. They endorse it by representing it as a base for the coherent if somewhat naïve world-picture of the 1960s Soviet citizens, their idealized projection of their own generation, who emerge as the collective positive hero of the memoir. Genis's and Vail's ironic style signals the authors' dissident positions but does not aim at deconstructing or even challenging Russian or Soviet myths of empire or imperial missions; their nostalgic recapturing of the 1960s "mental landscape" reinforces the mythologies they set out to explore. Meanwhile, their writing recapitulates the idea of geography shaping the history of Russia, providing another example of how the unwieldiness of space repeatedly offers a powerful symbol of Russian national identity.

My plan also included developing my individual research into a research team, and that, too, has been partially executed. In May 2009, after the NS funding period but very much as a result of it, I organized a workshop "Imperial Space and Soviet Russian Culture" at the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki (see