De-Centering Russia

Bookcase file photo, adapted from image at nlm.nih.gov

Subject: De-centering Russia
Date: Sun, 11 Feb 2024
From: Karen Hewitt <karen.hewitt@conted.ox.ac.uk>

My comments on the lecture by Juliet Johnson on ‘De-centering Russia’

aseees.org/news-events/aseees-blog-feed/2023-presidents-address-de-centering-russia-challenges-and

I am not a specialist in Slavic Studies. My academic work has been in English Literature, and my focus in Russia has been on introducing English Literature, especially contemporary literature, to some seventy university departments across Russia. For thirty years I have been visiting cities, from Smolensk to Vladivostok, from Arkhangelsk to Pyatigorsk, so I do not regard Moscow as the centre of the world. My own ‘home’ centre is Perm, a Ural city.

Dr Johnson insists that ‘ “de-centering’ is NOT a call to stop studying Russian politics’. She could then have argued that research on Russia is too exclusively Moscow-centred. The regions are mostly ignored except insofar as they relate to Moscow. Dr Johnson, however, seemed to be concerned only with minority peoples as though they automatically resented the power of ‘Russia’. This makes no sense if you are looking at – for example – Permiaks and Komi people in Perm region or Buryats in Ulan Ude. But if you want to look, at how Russia dealt with the Covid pandemic, you have to examine the reasons why different regions took different paths and to consider the role of governors and geography.

Dr Johnson also had a good point about not referring to ‘the former Soviet Republic of Armenia’ if one doesn’t give a similar label to Russia. Language, though, is human on several levels. ‘The near abroad’ is an expression acknowledging that the former Soviet peoples shared a culture, a system, a set of values which were as strong as or stronger than national cultures. Soviet concepts have diminished over the years, but not so long ago the term наш was regularly used in Russian provincial markets for goods from former Soviet republics, not as ‘imperial’ but as ‘comfortable, friendly’. Whether market people in Georgia or Belarus or Kyrgyzstan have similar usages I do not know – it would be interesting to find out.

Then the tone of Dr Johnson’s talk changes, and we are given an unexamined Western narrative. She tells us that it is Ukrainians who have ‘through sheer force of will and blood’ ‘reinvigorated a faltering European Union’ and made themselves a ‘viable potential member state’. Oh really? The EU has always been a wobbling and uneasy coalition of member states – that’s politics – but in what sense have Ukrainians ‘reinvigorated it’? Not by example: the EU is a patchwork which more-or-less works whereas the Ukrainians have been unable to run their own patchwork country but allowed parts to drift into extreme poverty while the leaders corrupted each other. (And is Dr Johnson altogether comfortable with the language of ‘sheer force of will and blood’?) Germany is now developing its own military power, while the EU is more entwined with NATO (so much for independence) and is submitting to US plans for economic control via destruction of Russian oil supplies. Meanwhile, the poor wretched Ukrainians have been subjected to years of civil war, years of bad leadership, and years of grotesque corruption before being embroiled in a Russian military invasion in the east of the country. The last thing the EU wants is for Ukraine to become a member though it speaks weasel words to Kyiv. Even the Poles are not at all keen.

Dr Johnson then tells us about the huge range of Ukrainian-centred initiatives which have been developed in North America. Fine; but should not research be open to criticism and analysis? If not, one-sidedness turns into trivialising a morally serious situation. At no point does she suggest that the marginalised people of Donbas deserve a hearing. At no point does she suggest that this ‘full-scale invasion’ of Ukraine was actually something very different or that there are reasons why there are more Ukrainian refugees in Russia than in any other country. The proposal on ‘de-centering Russia’ has become a plea for ‘centering Ukraine according to the Western narrative’. Poor Ukrainians!

Finally, as a deeply interested outsider, I find that one of the saddest aspects of research on the region is that scholars who used to study Russia have given way to a generation who think it is beneath them to listen to what the Russian leader says. Why is it assumed that the proper response to an agonising international conflict is to jeer at Putin and all his works? Jeering is understandable if you are a Ukrainian soldier in the trenches or a bombed-out civilian, but it should not be the response of a serious scholar. As a teacher of literature, trained to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes, I feel bound to ask the question: ‘If you had been Putin, what would you have done about the fighting in the Donbas in 2014, and what would you have done thereafter?’ Personally, I thought and think that he made the wrong decision when he invaded in 2022 but his explanations were neither wilful nor stupid. What is the point, if you want to study his country, or Ukraine or the wider region, of ignoring a man who is knowledgeable, who thinks, and – crucially – who has power?

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