Back in the Ex-USSR: Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Condition
August 20, 2009
An event organized in collaboration with the International Alternative Culture Center (Hungary) and MEEM (Estonia)
Organizers: Aleksei Pemzin and Jessie Labov
Though theory has not advanced far in explaining and accounting for the post-Soviet condition, there has recently emerged some new approaching it. For example, with respect to post-Soviet economies “post-development” theory argues that in spite of that neo-liberal mainstream there has never been an “ideal” transition from a socialist economy to a market economy. Recent case studies have shown that a considerable share of Russian households are still not deeply involved in the market and monetary exchange, but have economic practices shaped by informal non-market relations and practices.
A similar logic can be assumed in sphere of the international relations. Despite their formal independence, the new post-Soviet States are tightly bound by the traumatic past history of “sovietization” and their status as national republics in USSR. Their mutual nationalisms and other dangerous social and political symptoms can be understood through the concepts and thematics of the field of postcolonial studies. Postcolonial studies as systematic area of research emerged in the 1980s and has now developed into an ambitious set of critical devices and accumulated knowledge, especially in the Anglo-American academic world. There have been some recent attempts to correlate Post-Soviet experience with the postcolonial condition.
But in the space of former Soviet republics, the postcolonial has certain anomalies. For example, the “subaltern” position of Russian-speaking minorities in some post-Soviet countries does not correspond to the familiar logic of decolonization; the retreat of former “colonizers” usually does not produce new subalterns in quite this manner. At the same time, inhabitants of contemporary Russia—the supposed “colonial” or “imperial” center—exhibit the cultural and behavioral traits described in postcolonial studies. A typical postcolonial symptom for those who lived under colonial control was so-called “compensatory behavior,” expressed though the search for authentic roots, myths, heroic legends, and the like. Such compensatory images and figures are widely present in official Russian media and TV-series recalling the new country’s “glorious” past. Another well known compensatory strategy is so-called "mimicry" (Homi Bhabha), in which the formerly colonized diligently simulate dominate cultural forms. If the first tendency describes nationalistic conservatives in Russia, the lateral names that of liberal "Westernizers" in the country.
Following the disintegration of the USSR and during 1990s, Russian culture and politics was undoubtedly characterized by such postcolonial traits and strategies. This was not the result of direct “colonization” but the traumatic effect of forced implementation of "Western" models of daily life, political forms, and global mass culture against the background of the catastrophic disintegration of the previous social order and all of its utopian imaginary. Formation of collective traumatic feelings of "backwardness" and "subalterity" can be traced to this sudden invasion of ideas and practices, which in last decade has been exhibiting itself in a multitude of symptoms.
A postcolonial condition without colonial past? Is this a theoretical paradox? We should keep in mind that the postcolonial is a discursive, cultural and ideological formation as much as the name for a lived reality. These problematizations might open a path to more attentive and critical usage of postcolonial criticism and a productive interdisciplinary dialogue. We invite to our symposium all those who are interested in discussion of themes described above and welcome all possible contributions.
Following up on last summer session’s opening talk on “Posts”, we have organized a full-day symposium which will explore more thoroughly the meaning behind terms such as “postsocialist” and “post-Soviet.” We will also provide a brief overview and interrogation of the application of postcolonial theory to this area. The range of topics includes economic relations between former “colonies”, language use and minority discourse in this corner of the former USSR, emigration and re-emigration, uses of the past, and the question of how Russian identity is constituted in relation to the “imperial” past and a “neo-imperial” present. The goal of this one-day event is to find the most productive points of intersection between these different POSTS, on the one hand to find possible alternatives to current theoretical approaches to the ex-Soviet reality, and on the other to reflect on how Cultural Studies (and its associated disciplines) are affecting the study of postsocialist spaces.
9:30-11:00 Lecture by Boris Kagarlitsky “Cultural Traps of Peripheral Capitalism”
Contemporary society has turned cultural process into an industry of sorts, which, like any other industry, gets its bearings by the exigencies of the market. The problem, however, arises from the fact that unlike material production that occupies a clear cut location within the global normative framework of capitalism, the “cultural” production of peripheral capitalism does not have a fixed place within this framework. At a first glance, the cultural sphere seems to be inherently much freer than the sphere of economic production. While economic “breakthroughs” are invariably curbed by the international division of labor, the cultural domain would appear to have no such constrains, either formal or material. Yet upon a closer look one discovers that the cultural sphere, too, is shaped by the so-called “western standard” (i.e. western cultural/economic paradigm?). Peripheral societies either seek to adapt their cultural production to western norms and standards (for example, the Russian cinema industry that sets out to produce “Hollywood blockbusters”, that invariably come out worse) or they obsess with their own “authenticity” and “difference”, turning it into a western-style commodity all the same.
11:15 Introduction by Alexei Penzin and Jessie Labov
11:30-13:00 ROUNDTABLE I: What is Soviet about the Present?
14:30-16:00 ROUNDTABLE II: The New Subaltern?
16.30-18.00 ROUNDTABLE III: 20 Years of POSTS
 See for example David Chioni Moore’s “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique” originally published in PMLA 116.1 (2001), Special Topic: Globalizing Literary Studies.
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