This post is part of a series on the 2015 Northwest Regional Conference on Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies. This annual event was hosted by the Ellison Center at the University of Washington.
By Tiffany Grobelski
American movies, Russian comic books, public works projects in Skopje, urban beautification in Krasnoyarsk – what are the conceptual ties that bind these distinct topics?
This is the draw of the Annual Northwest Regional Conference for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies: the juxtaposition of diverse research topics and lines of inquiry which can yield productive insights into key themes. This year’s theme was “Between East & West: Identity, Opportunity & Security in the Post-Communist World.”
I attended a panel called Art and Architecture Shaping Post-Communist Identities. While the contributions were indeed diverse, each in its own way showed the “between-ness” inherent in identity formation processes in Post-Communist societies. While other sessions may have focused on geopolitical themes at the nation-state or international level, sessions like this one provided a different, less state-centric window into East-West relations and identity formation in the Post-Communist world.
Cinema as Public Diplomacy
Irina Barber, a Postdoctoral Researcher at Saint-Petersburg State University, got this visually rich panel going with her research on “American Cinema in the USSR and Post-Communist Russia.” She explored the relationship between perceptions of American cinema and identified a perhaps paradoxical inverse relationship: the stronger official anti-American propaganda, the more Russians want to watch American films. American films were conceptualized as a way to convey values, at times even more powerfully than words. She traces the use of Hollywood as a tool for public diplomacy from the 1942 launch of a cinema information campaign by the US Embassy in the Soviet Union to a 1958 agreement reached on exchanges in cultural, technical, educational fields. By 1950, 23 American films had each been watched by about 20 million Russian people; however, there were no opinion polls at the time to get at audience perception. Barber turned to other sources—namely, the Soviet press and memoirs of Soviet journalists and writers—to determine perception.
In the post-Soviet period there has been greater access to American films. From the 1990s to the beginning of the 2000s, there was an improving image of US in Russia. By the end of the 2000s, however, anti-American sentiments increased. Yet this anti-Americanism has been accompanied by a growing interest in American films. The presentation provided a glimpse into the politics and paradoxes of various waves of cultural protectionism, before and after 1989.
“Taking comics seriously enough to ban them is progress”
The next presenter was José Alaniz, Associate Professor in the Slavic Department at UW, presenting on Disability in Post-Soviet Russian Comics, part of his larger projects about comics in post-soviet Russia. Alaniz qualified his work by saying that comics are a marginalized practice in Russia, yet at the same time we can observe a boom in this area—most recently evidenced by a rise in comics festivals during the Putin era and, just last week, the removal of the graphic novel “Maus” from bookshelves in Moscow
Alaniz provided a picture of disability in the Post-Soviet era, influenced by the fraying of the social safety net which has resulted in people with disabilities being increasingly visible on the street. Alaniz’s work traces campaigns for disability rights from the 1960s to the present day, showing a shift toward more inclusiveness and promotion of positive images of people with disabilities and an engagement with the often shameful history of disability. One key site where this shift is happening is in graphic art, a form accessible to young people which is, even if not a mass medium of publication, seen as a way to teach a more positive, tolerant vision of physical difference. These trends are perhaps somewhat influenced by Western models and individual rights discourses, but are also ways that Russians are finding new ways, without copying the US, of being modern—and re-framing disability accordingly.
Skopje: “A city that eats itself”
The final two presenters moved us towards thinking about the landscape and historical memory. Michael Seraphinoff, an independent scholar and Examiner for Macedonian Literature for the International Baccalaureate Organization, presented on a Macedonian Public Works Project called Skopje 2014, an expensive project focused on monumental building in the downtown area. His presentation was largely a distillation of a book by Professor Nikos Chausidis critical of the project. Using historical and contemporary images to illustrate his point, Seraphinoff showed us “a city that eats itself,” a continual usurping and overshadowing of the structures of the past through the building of grandiose structures which arguably do not respect past architectural styles and are not a thoughtful way to maintain the city’s historical identity. The contestations playing out over urban space and cultural identity, besides through protests by Macedonian architects, are indicated by a quote seen as graffiti in the city, mocking the present era: “The beautiful city will rise again.”
Chausidis, via Seraphinoff’s interlocution, concludes that a more professional approach is needed, a more realistic and aesthetic experience of the city. Yet Seraphinoff, along with audience members, also reflected upon whether it was so unreasonable for the average Macedonian to gain comfort from the heroic structures springing up, what modernism and postmodernism in architecture really mean, and what bombastic, imitative architecture might signal about Macedonian perceptions of their relationship vis-à-vis the West.
Soviet and Post-Soviet urban futures
The session ended with a presentation from PhD student in Architecture at the University of Michigan, Maria Taylor, who brought us back to the 1950s to discuss urban greening and beautification in Krasnoyarsk, during the period of the city’s greatest growth. She began with the caveat that hers is not a post-communist project, since she is focusing on the era of post-WWII optimism simultaneously facing the challenge of reconstruction after the war. Yet her work, as it interfaced with the work of other presenters in the session, raised themes that are ever present and relevant in the current time.
In her presentation and the larger project of which it is part, Taylor looks at an aspect of Soviet planning that is often only mentioned in passing: greening, the linking of countryside and city. She sees greening as an understudied response to the idealization of heavy industry. She traces greening not as a universal good, but as it was tied to the changing party line, shifting and changing with time and evolving to have more quantitative elements over time. A take away point is that outdoor spaces are not empty, but imbued with ideological and utilitarian intent – for example that the problems of industrialization would be fixed; that fusion of city and countryside could occur. Greening of cities is more than just “shrubbing up” mass-produced housing, but also an elaborate (not necessarily successful) vision of what relationship cities ought to have with nature.
Overall, the panel facilitated reflections on larger themes of identity, ideology, and normative ideas about what kind of “modern” society citizens should live in. Each presentation showed us how these are contested, how they become inscribed in art, as well as on the landscape—and in turn, art and landscape shape identity and ideology. Besides being thought-provoking, another measure of the panel’s success was the lively discussion it inspired, which continued into other sessions and the closing reception.
Tiffany Grobelski is a PhD student in the Department of Geography and a graduate fellow in the Comparative Law and Societies Studies (CLASS) Center at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on environmental regulation and politics in Central East European societies. She is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on the use of administrative law by environmental advocates in Poland.