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National Identity in Russia from 1961 : Traditions & Deterritorialisation







St Petersburg

The Shadows of the Past

Nestolichnaia kul'tura

Regional and National Identity 

in Post-1961 Russian Culture

Looking Back

Poetic Tradition and Gulag Memory

in St Petersburg-Leningrad

In the Shadow of War

The Soviet Union and Russia,

1941 to the Present

Displaying the Russian People

The Russian Ethnographic Museum and 

the Construction of Ethnic Identity

The Soviet Passport

History, Semiotics, Anthropology

Food Consumption in Late Soviet Culture

State-Rationed Supply and 

Ethnic Traditions

From Soviet to Russian Identity

The National Idea in Post-Soviet Cinema

A New Russian Patriotism?

Russian National Identity 

through the Eyes of Young People

Russians in Britain

Identity, Community, Representation


St Petersburg

The Shadows of the Past

There are many studies of St Petersburg as a place and much has been written on the ‘cultural mythology’ of St Petersburg (by Nikolai Antsiferov and Vladimir Toporov, to name only two of the most famous). Equally, there are many thousands of literary texts and memoirs dedicated to the subject. However, relatively little work has been concentrated on the recent history of the city and the transition from ‘Leningrad’ to ‘Petersburg’. This project, carried out by Professor Catriona Kelly (University of Oxford), will explore 'cultural memory' and more broadly, ‘living with the past’, in St Petersburg since 1961.

Long before the official renaming of the city in 1991, there had been a shift of attention to the pre-revolutionary past (which in the first decade of Soviet power had been largely ignored, except for the radical traditions of the city and a circumscribed canon of major cultural figures (above all Pushkin). Street names often commemorated writers who had a place in the Soviet canon (Chekhov, Mayakovsky), but whose Petersburg links were tenuous, rather than locals who were considered politically suspect (such as the émigré Vladimir Nabokov, or – between the 1930s and the late 1950s – Dostoevsky). During the late 1960s and early 1970s, ‘Petersburg’ as opposed to ‘Leningrad’ started to attract greater space in guidebooks and a marked shift in appreciation of pre-1917 architecture, particularly from the so-called ‘capitalist’ period (1861-1917) took place. Increasingly, the so-called ‘historic centre’ (a term that was indicative in itself, given that there had been plans to shift the centre of the city to the newly-built International Prospect, later Stalin Prospect, in the late 1930s) began to be understood as a ‘museum city’.

The planned outcome of this research will be a study with the above working title, which looks at the tensions created by, and the public resonance of, this ‘theme park’ (zapovednik) approach in a large city that now has a decaying and in many ways unviable infrastructure. It begins with an introduction, ‘Historical Panorama’, examining the ‘reversion to history’ and its effects on different areas, from memoirs to kitsch (such as postcards and souvenirs). The main discussion will be divided into two parts. ‘Making History’ looks at the institutions of communal memory, such as museums, memorials, the commemorative rituals of street naming, festivals, and the official and unofficial campaign for the ‘preservation of monuments’. ‘Living with History’ looks at the place of history and tradition in the lived experience of St Petersburgers – a city where it has often been claimed (in some respects rightly) that the primary conduit for local identity is the literary text. It considers explicitly historicising social practices such as antique collection alongside the function of nostalgia and ‘retro’ in a looser sense, and also deals with local identities as expressed in practices such as moving around the city, attachment to one’s own district or kvartal (quartier, block, quarter in a microscopic sense), the way leisure time and holidays are spent, and so on.


Nestolichnaia kul'tura

Regional and National Identity in Post-1961 Russian Culture

This subproject explores the extent to which it is possible to speak of 'regional identity' in Russian culture, using North-Western Russia as a case study. This research will be carried out by Ms Victoria Donovan (University of Oxford).

The project will focus on three historic towns: Novgorod, where tourism was heavily promoted for Russians and foreigners in the late-Soviet period, Pskov, where certain tourist facilities exist, including a hydrofoil service to Tartu in Estonia, and Vologda, where the tourist infrastructure is less developed. The project will consider how the past, local myths and symbols in these towns have featured on tourist itineraries and have been commemorated in local museums, and to what extent pride in ‘local traditions’ has influenced local identities. The project will draw on sources in the form of local history publications and archival holdings in Novgorod and Vologda. Written and published sources will be supplemented by interviewing work and by participant observation on field trips to the different cities.

The project intends to act as a bridge between the Russian discipline of kraevdenie (“local study”), which has tended to concentrate on the accumulation of empirical data about specific locations, and the focus on political and social conditions, favoured by western scholars. The adoption of such an interdisciplinary approach is intended to produce insights into the formation and development of local culture in the recent past and present. By studying the relationship between local culture in the medieval towns and their changing political and social environments, the project aims to provide a broader understanding of the volatile and static elements of local culture, the coexistence and conflict between local traditions and Soviet ideals and the reinterpretation of local identities in the post-Soviet period.

(Pictures from a recent fieldwork trip to Vologda in March 2008 are available here.)


Looking Back

Poetic Tradition and Gulag Memory in St Petersburg-Leningrad

This subproject will be carried out by Dr Josie von Zitzewitz (University of Oxford).

Part of this project will develop research undertaken for her thesis on the literature of the ‘Religious Renaissance’ of the 1970s and explore the indebtedness of the 1970s ‘unofficial’ poets to their Silver Age predecessors. The focus here will be mainly, but not exclusively, on Viktor Krivulin, one of the most outstanding figures of the unofficial scene in Leningrad. The guiding question is the tension between aesthetics and representation, evident in Krivulin’s way of adapting the surviving fragments of early twentieth century aesthetics to create a dazzling prism of images reflecting the situation of the Russian poet in the 1970s.

The other part of the project will investigate the situation of the material memory of the Gulag, drawing on the experience and visual material of the ‘Virtual Museum of the Gulag’ (www.gulagmuseum.org). This is an ongoing project carried out by the St Petersburg branch of the ‘Memorial’ society with which Josie von Zitzewitz has been involved since its inception in 2003. She will investigate how the present fragmentation of the memory of the Gulag be overcome and, in particular, how modern museum concepts can be applied to the existing material memory in order to provide a more comprehensive picture of this aspect of the Soviet past.


In the Shadow of War

The Soviet Union and Russia, 1941 to the Present

This project, carried out by Dr Stephen Lovell (King's College London), will result in a volume in a new Blackwell history of Russia. It explores the question of national identity from three main perspectives.

First, it examines the role of political structures (both Soviet and post-Soviet) in the emergence and development of Russian national identity. It considers the versions of Russian nationalism articulated, encouraged or tolerated by the party-state at its various levels, as well as scrutinising Soviet nationalities policy for its treatment of Russia’s various ‘others’ within the USSR: Jews, Chechens, Georgians, and so on.

Second, it explores the age-old Russian problem of centre-periphery relations for the light this can shed on identity formation within the RSFSR. As the history of the second half of the twentieth century demonstrates, improvements in technology and communications do not necessarily simplify the business of long-distance governance or the cultivation of hegemonic national identities: they may rather help to build new allegiances and power bases in far-flung localities. By the 1990s, the Russian state appeared to be haemorrhaging sovereignty to the regions. How, in this light, are we to assess the viability of Russia and Russianness? Is a state so large and diverse simply an anachronism? Or is a unitary Russian state compatible with a greater degree of regionalism that has been permitted hitherto? (Comparisons from elsewhere in Europe suggest that this is not wholly implausible.)

Third, the project will trace Russia’s apparent trajectory over this seventy-year period from westernisation to globalisation. As is well known, Russia’s relationship to ‘the West’ has been a vexed question for the past three centuries. But in the wake of the Great Patriotic War it entered a radically new phase. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Russian population had very little reliable knowledge, let alone direct experience, of life beyond socialism. In the mid-1940s, however, millions of Soviet people marched into central Europe, and mass population displacement permitted a much greater range of informants. The problem of Western influence did not go away over the following decades, and it increasingly took forms that were not amenable to coercive solutions. The defiant isolationism of the interwar USSR was compromised by the global rise of audiovisual mass culture. Although Soviet people received this culture in attenuated form, they were eager to learn more. And, increasingly, the Soviet regime had to meet them halfway: by, for example, attempting to package the content of developed socialism in the more engaging forms of Western-style broadcasting. In the early 1990s, the floodgates were opened to Western influence. Russia thus faced in particularly acute form the prospect so often decried in parts of non-Anglophone Western Europe: the dilution of authentic national culture in an ocean of American trash. Yet the prophecies of cultural doom have proved to be greatly exaggerated: by the early twenty-first century, Russia had a non-socialist mass culture that was recognisably its own.


Displaying the Russian People

The Russian Ethnographic Museum and the Construction of Ethnic Identity

The subject of this project is the Russian Ethnographic Museum in St Petersburg, originally created in 1902 as the Ethnographic Section of Alexander III’s Russian Museum. From the very outset, the Ethnographic Museum was envisaged as a grandiose imperial project – founded by imperial decree, fully funded by the state, and formally headed by a member of the tsar’s own family, its principal purpose was to represent ‘the vast ethnographic expanse of our fatherland – a tableau of all the peoples inhabiting Russia and its immediate neighbourhood’.

Research on this project is carried out by Dmitrii Baranov, curator of the Russian Ethnographic Museum itself, who will be examining, in particular, this museum’s representational practices – namely, the way in which the museum devises the image of ‘the Russian people’ for its visitors, and the manner in which it thereby takes part in constructions of Russian ethnic identity itself.

As a research institute, the purpose of the Ethnographic Museum is to conserve and display Russia’s ‘authentic’ cultural heritage as it manifests itself in reality. However, what actually takes place within the museum’s walls is a continuous process of forming new cultural meanings and creating new ethnographic realities, above all through constantly regrouping and renaming display items, and by perpetually assembling new collections and exhibitions. Secondary ethnographic forms and meanings produced in this way can then also be deployed beyond the work of the museum itself. Thanks to the mass media, public exhibitions, expert consultations, lectures, folk ensembles and ethnographic performances, these new ethnographic forms start to exert a remarkable influence on what is understood as ‘authentic’ Russian culture.

Research on this project will focus on two key themes:

   The semiotics of displaying a ‘people’ in an ethnographic museum (through ethnographic collections, displays, exhibitions, guides, etc.). Such a semiotic analysis of museum practices will tackle the question of how exactly the ‘fictional’ nature of cultural representation is stylised into ‘factuality’ when this culture is reflected through museum displays.

   The influence that ideological discourses exert on the museum’s display strategies. This analysis will examine, in particular, how the Soviet/Russian state changed its attitude towards the concept of ‘tradition’ in the second half of the twentieth century and what effect this has had on representations of the Russian people at the Russian Ethnographic Museum at this historical juncture.

The principal source-base for this research includes the archive of the Russian Ethnographic Museum (e.g. thematic display plans, protocols of the museum’s various boards and committees), as well as the museum’s own collections, guides and brochures.

A sample short paper in Russian is available here.  


The Soviet Passport

History, Semiotics, Anthropology

The internal passport system in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia has been the subject of many academic studies, but these have been conducted primarily from a socio-political perspective, and have concentrated on the passport’s function as a way of regulating migrancy.

The proposed study, by Professor Albert Baiburin (European University, St Petersburg), is intended as a historical anthropology of the pasport from the institution of a compulsory identity card system in 1932 through to the replacement of Soviet identity cards by Russian identity cards in 1997. While incorporating material about legislation and official regulation, it also addresses the meaning of the passport as an expression of individual and collective identity, analysing the semiotics of the passport (the passport as a total ‘sign system’, and the function of photographs, signatures, etc.) and the social practices associated with the passport in everyday life (e.g. the role of the passport in the construction of nationality, the activities of the passport inspectorate in Soviet cities’).

After a theoretical and methodological Introduction, the study is divided into four sections: 1. The history of the Russian and Soviet passport; 2. The structure of the passport (dealing with the information required in the passport, e.g. name, patronymic (the assignation of which was an instrument of Russification among non-Russian populations who did not traditionally have patronymics), date and place of birth, photograph, social position, nationality, family information etc. 3. The official life of the passport and its owner (dealing with the issuing of passports, registration etc.); 4. The unofficial life of the passport and its owner (e.g. fake passports, false information, life without a passport, and so on).

A more detailed synopsis (in Russian) of the planned study is available here.


Food Consumption in Late Soviet Culture

State-Rationed Supply and Ethnic Traditions

This project will tackle two distinct subtopics related to food distribution and consumption in late Soviet culture and society. The researcher on this project is Dr Anna Kushkova (European University, St Petersburg)

The first subtopic focuses on the everyday experience of ‘socialist distribution’, namely the Soviet system of state-rationed special ‘food orders’ (prodovol’stvennye zakazy) – centrally-organised supplies of scarce household provisions, often via the workplace or local, residence-based ‘supply desks’. This research will thus examine one of the focal points of Soviet everyday life – the distribution of products and services in a non-market-based economy. It will examine consumption practices of individuals from different social strata with different levels of access to specific products and services. In particular, it will analyse their strategies of adaptation to conditions of economic shortages, both as individuals and as groups (families, networks of acquaintances, work-based collectives, etc.). Questions addressed in this research will include:

   How did ‘ordinary’ citizens imagine the mechanisms of a socialist economy and how closely did this ‘everyday’ perception reflect actual economic processes taking place at this time?

   How exactly were ‘food orders’ distributed across different organisations and enterprises, and what were the principal forms and mechanisms of such semi-formal food supply?

   What items of food ‘rationed’ in this way were genuinely perceived as being ‘scarce’ and what symbolic aspects might have influenced the formation of the idea of ‘scarcity’?

   How was ‘fairness’ managed during distribution and what sort of interpersonal relationships and conflict situations formed in the process?

   What was the distinctive language and folklore of this practice in late Soviet culture?

   What are the current, post-Soviet memories of and attitudes towards this unique phenomenon of Soviet everyday life?

 The second subtopic of this research project will examine the role of ‘traditional’ food consumption as a marker of ethnic identity in the period of ‘developed socialism’. The focus group of this part of research will be the ethnic Jewish population in the USSR.

‘Traditional’ Jewish food culture seemed to have virtually disappeared in the Soviet Union by the 1970s and much of what was distinctive about Jewish cuisine had become, if not entirely ‘exotic’, then at least viewed as beyond the realm of the ‘everyday’. However, precisely this then created a situation where Jewish food became the marker of Jewish ethnic identity in the USSR of this era. Some of the questions addressed in this subproject include:

   How do informants define ‘authentic’ Jewish food and how do they compare this to their own culinary practices?

   When exactly would Jewish food have been prepared in the informants’ households in Soviet times (e.g. family celebrations, Soviet holidays, key dates in the Jewish calendar, etc.)?

   What was the division between private and public life in the preparation and consumption of Jewish food in the Soviet Union (e.g. whether this food would have been served only to the family or to outsiders as well)?

Crucial to this part of the project is also the correlation of the informants’ responses to the above questions with ethnographic material on traditional culinary practices collected in old Jewish settlements (mestechki) in the Ukraine. The principal reason for such correlation is that many of the informants’ ancestors originally came from this area and that the informants invariably perceive the cuisine of this locality as the model of traditional Jewish cooking, in relation to which they then interpret their own eating practices, traditions and ethnic identity more generally.

A more detailed synopsis (in Russian) of the planned research is available here.


From Soviet to Russian Identity

The National Idea in Post-Soviet Cinema

This project will examine how Russian filmmakers tried to address the theme of a lost (Soviet) identity in the 1990s and how, in the Putin era, cinema is used to project a national identity. This research is carried out by Dr Birgit Beumers (Bristol University) as part of her work on a monograph on post-Soviet cinema.

The project is focused on three areas: first, the politics of film production, with film being a major medium for the projection of ideas; second, the cinematic manifestations of national identity in the post-Soviet era; and third, folk legends and their translation/transposition into modern times (in animation).

The first part of the project will examine the politics of Russian film production in the 1990s and the new millennium, changing from a state-funded branch of culture to a fully-fledged industry under Putin. However, Lenin’s 'cinema is the most important of all the arts' still can be applied to cinema production today, even though commercial factors play an increasingly important role for the rapidly growing Russian film industry. The relationship between state and cinema will be investigated: cinema (especially film and serial production by television channels) is an area where the state privileges (sponsors) certain images of national identity. The role of cinema in the market economy of the new Russia will be examined to assess the state’s continued involvement in film production, as well as ways in which filmmakers avoid state structures in order to offer perspectives that resist the official views. This area of the project builds on research carried out by Beumers in the late 1990s on the Russian film industry in transition (‘Cinemarket, or the Russian Film Industry in “Mission Possible”’, Europe-Asia Studies 51.5 (1999): 871-896); it will draw on industry data and sociological surveys of audiences.

This section of the project investigates views on Russian national identity promulgated through film. To this end, the concept of the hero will be analysed and compared and contrasted with Soviet models. The study will also juxtapose Russia’s image of itself as a nation to the views offered in American and European films. This part of the project continues the debate begun in Beumers’s chapter entitled ‘Through the other lens? Russians on the global screen’, that will appear in Screening Intercultural Dialogue, ed. Stephen Hutchings, Palgrave, 2008. The analysis of views of the self and the other will be contextualised through the work of the Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov on self/other (Gudkov, Negativnaia identichnost’, Moscow: NLO, 2004).

Another aspect of the project is the way in which old myths of national identity (largely as expressed through fairy tales, the bylina and legends) are revived in contemporary animation. The St Petersburg studio ‘Melnitsa’ has produced three full-length animated film based on the legendary heroes Alesha Popovich, Dobrynya Nikitich and Ilya Muromets. These films will be singled out for analysis and compared to the heroic and national character traits at the heart of the original legends as well as older, Soviet-period cartoons based on the same stories to address the question of how the perception of national identity has changed. Animation is a particularly useful medium because it addresses children, thus foregrounding the educational message (and the model-function of the hero) much more than is the case in art-house or commercial cinema. This work forms part of Beumers’s Leverhulme-funded project on Russian animation.


A New Russian Patriotism?

Russian National Identity through the Eyes of Young People

The project’s historical scope is brought up to the present day through the sub-project ‘A new Russian patriotism? Russian national identity through the eyes of young people’. This project is being conducted collaboratively, led by Professor Hilary Pilkington (University of Warwick) and Dr Elena Omel’chenko (‘Region’, Ul’ianovsk State University). The research fellows (‘Region’) engaged on this project include: Dr Natal’ia Goncharova, Dr Yulia Andreeva, Ms Ol’ga Dobroshtan, Ms Evgeniia Liuk’ianova. Ms Rowenna Baldwin (University of Warwick) will also work on a doctoral thesis related to this project, provisionally entitled ‘Patriotic Education in post-Soviet Russia’.

This project brings a sociological dimension to the project as a whole and has been  designed to provide a snapshot of understandings and articulations of Russian national identity among young people in North West Russia in the first decade of the 21st century. In line with the key themes of  ‘tradition’ and ‘deterritorialisation’ this sociological study focuses not on the geo-political aspect of national identity but upon the processes and mechanisms of the reproduction of family, regional and national history. We are concerned with what young people know about these histories, where, and from whom, they learn them, and how they interpret and re-articulate them.  We are interested also in how these identities are ‘layered’ and whether, for example, regional and national identities sit comfortably together or are in tension with one another. We are interested in the degree to which those family, and individual, histories (in particular degrees of ‘rootedness’ or mobility) impact on articulations of identity. We are particularly concerned with radical or extreme articulations of ‘Russianness’ and this part of the project will gauge the level of tolerance and promotion of (ethnically) exclusive versions of Russian identity (via survey) as well as provide some glimpses into how these views fit into wider youth cultural lives (via ethnographic case studies). We will also consider here the degree to which these extreme versions of ‘Russianness’ intersect and clash with state discourses of ‘patriotism’.

While our primary focus is on popular perceptions and articulations of Russian national identity, therefore, we engage with state (federal and regional) discourses through the study of new Russian ‘patriotism’. An important part of this agenda is the study of  federal and regional programmes of ‘patriotism education’. This part of the project will be undertaken by Rowenna Baldwin via a linked AHRC PhD studentship. Rowenna will be based in the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick.

Empirical research for the project will be located in two very distinct city locations in the North West of Russia; St Petersburg and Vorkuta. These two sites provide a range of interesting contrasts pertinent to the thematic priorities of ‘tradition’ and ‘deterritorialisation inter alia: ‘stolitsa’ versus province; heritage city vs ‘new town’; hub of global communication vs territorial isolation; and site of in-migration versus rapid out-migration.

The empirical research has two core elements:

   A self-complete questionnaire on understandings of ‘Russianness’ and ‘patriotism’ will be administered to 16-20-year-olds (1000 in St Petersburg, 500 in Vorkuta) in educational settings (e.g. schools, vocational colleges, higher education institutions) using a quota sample (quotas based on sex, age, and institutional profile). Data will be analysed using SPSS.

   Follow-up individual interviews (approx. 50 in St Petersburg and 30 in Vorkuta) with respondents to the survey will be organised on a volunteer basis following questionnaire completion.

In addition ethnographic observation will be conducted with youth groups which openly profess patriotic and/or xenophobic views in each city. Alongside ethnographic observation and repeat interviews this part of the study will include the analysis of documents and texts (graffiti, publicity material, organisation rules and statutes and appropriate visual methods). 


Russians in Britain

Identity, Community, Representation

The ‘Russians in Britain’ subproject examines the re-constructions of Russian cultural identity in emigration, focusing on relatively recent migration waves, and examining, in particular, the reproduction of national culture through community and family interactions, traditions and memory of Russians currently domiciled in Britain. The principal researcher on this project is Dr Andy Byford (University of Durham).

The project examines the formation of the social and cultural identities, as well as the organisation and self-representation of associations and networks of Russian-speaking migrants currently living and working in Britain. The focus of the project is on personal, family and collective memory, migrants’ national, ethnic, generational, and other identities, problems of cultural reproduction, and the representation of migrant communities. The project is based on in-depth semi-structured interviews (thematic autobiographical narratives), the analysis of the Russian-language press and other media in the UK, and ethnographic fieldwork at Russian migrant community events and institutions. Topics of interest include: experiences of migration, the micro and macro politics of migrant community-building, renegotiations of individual and collective identity, memory, gender, and cultural transmission across generations.

Key research questions include:

   What strategies of collective remembering, community performance and discursive rhetoric do Russians based in the UK use to construct and maintain their identities as migrants?

   What sort of social and symbolic work is done, both by individuals and collectives, to forge and maintain a sense of solidarity and togetherness across national boundaries and across time, if at all?

Informants are selected from among those who were by and large brought up on the territory of the former Soviet Union, who recognise themselves as (at least in part) ‘Russian’ (even if their exact ethnic, national or cultural self-perceptions happen to be more complex) and who found themselves in the UK as permanent or relatively long term residents (regardless of formal status) at any point in time between the 1960s and the 2000s. Special attention is, of course, paid to different migration contexts and biographical backgrounds. Children of Russian migrants/émigrés, even if brought up outside the USSR/Russian Federation for most or the entirety of their lives, also qualify as legitimate subjects of enquiry.

The principal methods of research involve in-depth, semi-structured interviews (for the public advertisement website click here), ethnographic observation of home settings and diaspora cultural venues, the study of family memorabilia, photographs and archives, and, finally, an analysis of relevant printed and electronic sources, such as the Russian-language press and internet sites.

For details of output click here.


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