[Marxism] Russian Studies’ Alt-Right Problem
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Mon Sep 18 09:46:15 MDT 2017
THE CHRONICLE REVIEW
Russian Studies’ Alt-Right Problem
By Sarah Valentine SEPTEMBER 17, 2017 PREMIUM
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and its viral images
of white men with torches chanting, "You will not replace us!" and "Jews
will not replace us!" have made an indelible mark on our collective
For me, a black woman and scholar of Russian literature, the growing
visibility of neo-Nazis in this country, many of whom consider Russia a
kind of white utopia, comes with chilling implications.
I fell in love with Russian history in high school: Catherine the Great,
the Romanovs, the Russian Revolution. It was a land of contradictions,
and my 18-year-old self could not resist. I began studying the language
in college, and at first, all went well.
Then, in my junior year, I studied abroad in Moscow. I had been briefed
on some cultural differences. I learned, for instance, that it’s
customary to give gifts to one’s hosts, and that Russians have different
customs for eye contact than Americans. I was not, however, warned about
the dangers of being brown and female in Russia. I was routinely groped
and stared at, and called a Chechen and a Georgian, groups considered
"black" by Russians. A friend’s mother grabbed a handful of my curly
hair and asked if she could cut it so I wouldn’t look like a Gypsy.
For those of us whose bodies are politicized no matter where we go,
there is no such thing as 'pure' or nonpolitical scholarship. I was
attacked on a train by a towering young man with a shaved head. He wore
black leather and chains, and wielded a switchblade. He cornered me in
my seat and began grabbing at my breasts and between my legs. He yelled
obscenities at me, calling me a whore and other things I didn’t
understand. I was only able to get away because he was so drunk he could
barely stand. It was 1999, a time when attacks on African and foreign
students by neo-Nazi and nationalist groups in Russia were at an
all-time high. None of my professors had mentioned this.
Midway through my studies as a doctoral student in Russian literature it
began to dawn on me that my professors’ obliviousness to the politics
and dangers I faced while studying in Russia was anything but benign.
When undergraduates I had TA’d returned one fall from their summer study
in St. Petersburg, word got around that one of them, a young Ghanaian
woman, had had a bad time on the trip.
My experiences came flooding back to me, and I imagined the worst. She
had been my student the previous year, but I didn’t know her well. I
wanted to do for her what no one had done for me, to give her an outlet
and validate her experiences, but I didn’t know how to reach out to her,
or if it was even appropriate.
Without mentioning the student directly, I went to my adviser and told
her I was feeling isolated as a black woman in Slavic studies, that it
seemed there was no room for discussions of race and discrimination. She
explained to me that the Slavic field had always been more concerned
with the political and cultural dynamics existing between the various
Slavic groups (South Slavic, East Slavic, etc.) than with "outside
concerns," and she wondered to what extent it even mattered that I was
African-American, in this context. She had written books on feminism and
women’s literature in Russia, and I asked her if it mattered to her that
she was a woman, in this context. She had no reply.
In the end, I said nothing to the Ghanaian student, not sure how to
breach the wall of silence that existed around the topics of race and
Now, over a decade later, the conversation around race and identity in
the field has made little progress — even as these subjects become more
important than ever. David Duke, Richard Spencer, and other
white-supremacist leaders have longstanding ties to Russia and Ukraine.
According to The Washington Post, Spencer has called Russia "the sole
white power in the world." (Spencer’s wife, Nina Kouprianovahas a Ph.D.
in Russian history from the University of Toronto.) Matthew Heimbach, a
white nationalist, has praised Putin’s Russia as a model for nationalism
and antiglobalism, which is code for anti-Semitism. Anti-gay legislation
and violence is common in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, and has
been praised by white nationalists in America as upholding "traditional"
values. Identity Evropa, a group focused on reclaiming the greatness of
European-American heritage, uses the Russian spelling for Europe in its
One of my graduate-school professors contacted me a few months ago, for
a report on diversity in the Slavic department. She wanted to know about
my professional achievements since leaving grad school. I wrote that I’d
had a terrible time in the department and on the job market, eventually
switching fields to English because, after eight years and numerous
accomplishments, I couldn’t find a tenure-track position. I hoped she
was truly committed to improving diversity and making the field a more
welcoming place for students and faculty of color, so that folks coming
up will have a better experience than I did.
In this political moment, silence is complicity. "Very painful," she
wrote back to me. "Hope that things go better from now on."
What she, my adviser, and others in the field fail to realize is that,
for those of us whose bodies are politicized no matter where we go,
there is no such thing as "pure" or nonpolitical scholarship. We are
always at risk simply for being who we are and studying what we study.
It is time for the leaders in the fields of Russian, Slavic, East
European and Eurasian studies to acknowledge that the region can be a
dangerous place for LGBT students, Jewish students, women and students
of color, and to put protocols in place for students to report and
recover from their experiences. To acknowledge that the field’s
longstanding disdain for scholarly discussions of gender, sexuality,
ableism, and race has made it safe for white nationalists to imbue its
subject with their Eurocentric fantasies. To acknowledge that the region
and its peoples and cultures are far more diverse than these
nationalists would have us believe, and that until recently, our
scholarship has largely failed to reflect that.
Committed scholars, including myself, have in recent years pushed back
against this scholarly deficit. New advocacy groups like the Association
for Diversity in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (Adseees)
and Q*Aseees (the association’s LGBTQ affiliate) promote visibility for
marginalized subjects and scholars. Adseees has created scholarships for
HBCU students to attend a major disciplinary conference and has
developed research awards for graduate students who engage in
diversity-focused work. This month these groups posted an open letter on
Facebook responding to "white nationalism’s appropriation of our
discipline." These actions have been critical to forcing conversations
about race and identity in the field, but such efforts are only the
beginning. They have also been taken up by younger scholars, some of
whom are still graduate students, and many of whom are still struggling
to find permanent tenure-track positions. Without hiring and
student-outreach efforts that truly reflect a commitment to diversifying
the field, the steps taken so far will remain merely symbolic.
Medievalists, Recoiling From White Supremacy, Try to Diversify the Field
In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville and the rise in white
supremacists’ visibility, scholars from classics and medieval studies
have pushed back against those who use the subjects of their study as
justification for white supremacy. They have spoken out against
whitewashing in their fields, have acknowledged the historical
marginalization of those considered "other," and have publicly advocated
for scholarship that highlights the fields’ diversity.
Senior scholars in Slavic studies should take the lead in similar
efforts. Their hesitancy to speak out on this issue, along with the
absence of cultural support for vulnerable students abroad, the dearth
of scholars of color in the field, and the token interest in
underrepresented subjects, all point to the field’s indifference toward
the welfare of its marginalized scholars. At best, this reflects an
outdated commitment to intellectual neutrality. At worst, this could be
taken as tacit agreement with the alt-right’s desire to suppress
Russia’s historical diversity. In this political moment, silence is
Sarah Valentine is the author of Witness and Transformation: The Poetics
of Gennady Aygi (Academic Studies Press, 2015). She received her
doctorate in Russian literature from Princeton University in 2007, and
lives in Minden, Nev.
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