Discussions / War Against Ukraine

Thursday, May 09, 2024

There Can Be No “Vne”

As are many of us, I am reacting to Russia’s criminal and devastating war against Ukraine with tears, desperation, a sense of guilt, helplessness, disgust, and anger. But I am writing this essay with a cool head, specifically addressing the community of historians, social scientists, and students of literature and culture who are currently united under the ASEEES umbrella. Since at least the time of Mark Bloch’s The Historical Craft (1941-42) we have known that questions such as “What is history?” and “What is the role of historians in their societies?” become central to the profession at a time of war. Today this seems more obvious than ever, for Putin’s justifications for the war look irrational only if one dismisses his “coherent” historical narrative. He literally sees himself as a Great Historian correcting the “mistakes” of the past – waging war on History itself. His very real and bloody war is “historical” inside and out. The regime’s rhetoric – de-Nazification, the Big Russian Nation, Malorossia, Banderovites, Lenin, and the Bolsheviks committing crimes against the legitimate Russian empire/nation – comes from the past. If this is a “dispute” about History, let us respond as historians, as students of culture, society, and politics, not limiting ourselves to a formal statement by the ASEEES Executive Committee condemning the war and­ declaring our support for Ukraine. How can our community, formerly known as “Russian studies” – and informally called this today but including people who work on Russia and Ukraine, the Baltics and Central Asia, Poland and the Caucasus – survive if we do not initiate this conversation among ourselves?

            Putin’s national-imperial fantasies may look crazy in the proposed arrangement and as a pretext for the war, but at a structural level they correlate perfectly with the most fundamental narratives in our field, both here and in Russia. Although the latest textbooks by Ronald Grigor Suny and Valerie Kivelson, and by Nancy Shields Kollman are helpful in overcoming this dependency on the “Great Scheme of Russian history,” and my two-volume New Imperial History of Northern Eurasia offers the most consistent way out of it, the field as such continues to structure “Russian history” by the sequence of the Kievan Rus’ – Moscow Tsardom – Petersburg period. How many of us took the “decolonizing” claim as an epistemological challenge to go beyond sporadic inclusions of “imperial peripheries” in mainstream teaching and research? How many have started the  difficult epistemological work on our analytical apparatus (Russia(s); Rus’; Rous’; Lithuanian Rus’; empire beyond the formal name of the state; imperial situation/formation)? Have we really succeeded in decentering the dominant literary canon? Do we realize the danger of taking our visions of the past as justification for not taking a stance in the present? Do we indeed remain neutral and objective if we accept that the late socialist “being vne” (the inside-out position of enjoying life without being politically engaged and hence responsible) was a stance available to many then and is applicable to social and political demobilization under Putin now? Or, when we normalize and relativize Russia’s politics of memory in our studies? Or when, having been carried away by cultural and material turns, we depoliticize our scholarship by focusing on “how” things were made but ignoring the context in which they were made and the human agency that they reflect? The ongoing war exposes the falsity of such assumptions. We are reminded again that history (social sciences, cultural analysis) enables and structures social imagination. They offer not “historical lessons” but possibilities for imagining and articulating the present and future. Our community is diverse. It includes people who are currently fighting and dying in Ukraine, being arrested, protesting, and being taken hostage of the regime and sanctions in Russia, and those who attended the Valdai forum, preached “neutrality,” or promoted methodological nationalism. All of us are rethinking our positions now. I call for professional self-reflection and for real decolonization of our field.    

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