Post-Soviet as Postcolonial Special issue. Part one

This special issue of New Literary Observer is dedicated to contemporary postcolonial methods and the rethinking of postcolonialism as a whole. The first section features three articles by classic authors of postcolonial studies. These works are tasked with creating a definitive context for the Russian reader. The main section of the issues focuses on questions of the relationship between postcolonial thought and the post-Soviet context.

Discursive Practices of Postcolonialism

In “Peau noire, masques blancs” (“Black Skin, White Masks”) (1952) Frantz Fanon (1925—1961) combines autobiography, case study, philosophy, and psychoanalytic theory in order to describe and analyze the experience of Black men and women in whitecontrolled societies. In Chapter 1, Fanon explores the relationship between race, language, and culture. When someone speaks French, they are taking on the French culture. But when Black people speak French, they are always reminded they can never be fully French and they do not have a civilized language of their own. In the final chapters of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon explores how people might move beyond this situation in which Black people are depicted as inferior and often develop a feeling of inferiority as well. He argues the necessity of social solutions that transform the racist society and that Black people need to be encouraged to transform society by demanding humanity from white people, asserting freedom, and building a future freedom from the subjugation of the past.

In “Of Mimicry and Man” Homi Bhabha lays out his concept of mimicry. He argues that the colonizer wants to improve the other and to make him like himself, but in a way that still maintains a clear sense of difference. At the same time, he does not successfully impart his beliefs on the colonized, and the colonized will forever be “not quite/not white.” Bhabha’s essential argument is that mimicry can become unintentionally subversive, though the colonized, in the process of mimicry, rarely realizes he is undermining the powerful systems enacted by the colonizer.

Although the era of European colonialism has long passed, misgivings about the inequality of the encounters between European and non-European languages persist in many parts of the postcolonial world. This unfinished state of affairs, this lingering historical experience of being caught among unequal languages, is the subject of Rey Chow’s book. In different riveting scenes of speaking and writing imbricated with race, pigmentation, and class demarcations, Chow suggests, postcolonial languaging becomes, de facto, an order of biopolitics. The native speaker, the fulcrum figure often accorded a transcendent status, is realigned here as the repository of illusory linguistic origins and unities. By inserting British and post-British Hong Kong (the city where she grew up) into the languaging controversies that tend to be pursued in Francophone (and occasionally Anglophone) deliberations, and by sketching the fraught situations faced by those coping with the specifics of using Chinese while negotiating with English, Chow redefines the geopolitical boundaries of postcolonial inquiry and demonstrates how such inquiry must articulate historical experience to the habits, practices, affects, and imaginaries based in sounds and scripts.

Paradoxes of Postcolonial Theory

In the Madina Tlostanova’s article “The Postcolonial Condition and the Decolonial Option: a Postsocialist Mediation” the postcolonial is regarded as a human condition of those who belong to the colonial side of modernity. Decoloniality is interpreted as a conscious choice of one’s political, ethical and epistemic position. This allows for the overcoming a lack of understanding between postcolonial studies and decolonial thought. The author considers postcolonialism and decolonial option through the mediation of post-socialist optics and formulates the possible ways of building their “deep coalitions” in the future.

In postcommunist countries such as Russia and Poland and, more specifically, in postcolonially inspired Russian- and Polish-language debates over communism as a (quasi)colonial rule, we can observe features of postcolonial nationalism. The thesis which the Dirk Uffelmann’s article “Postcolonial Theory as Post-Colonial Nationalism” seeks to defend is that some contenders in the debates hijack postcolonial theory with their overt or hidden nationalist agendas which can themselves be diagnosed as postcolonial when they challenge the postcolonial heuristics from a position inside a postcolonial and postcommunist situation. In this paper Uffelmann therefore endeavors to conceptualize postcolonial theory itself, or rather certain modes of appropriation of it, as either programmatic promotion or subcutaneous practice of postcolonial nationalism.

Science and Colonial Consciousness

In the article “Culture One and a Half” Nariman Skakov examines an intermediary stage between avant-garde and socialist realism through the prism of national form discourse. A reassessment of the political-ideological interrelationship between center and periphery played a crucial role in the cultural sphere. Defamiliarization (making strange), as a foundational principle of the avantgarde experiment, transforms into a fascination with the “strange,” exotic and, at the same time, contiguous and familiar East — Soviet Central Asia.

In 1882—1883, Merchant from the town of Mezen Alexei Kalintsov took a group of people, whom he presented as Samoyeds, around European cities and showed them for money in zoos, theaters, skating rinks, etc. Like in the majority of other such cases, everything that is known about these showings were written by their organizers with the goal of advertising them, or by researchers who wished to study exotic “types” without having to travel. The voices of those exhibited were not heard, and this limits the possibilities for interpreting such exhibitions — the Evgeniy Savitskiy’s article “How the Merchant Kalintsov in Vienna in 1882 Showed Samoyeds: Obedience and Resistance of ‘a Kind of Animals’” examines how truly humiliating and inhumane they were, or, on the contrary, how they allowed people to proudly demonstrate the unique features of their culture.

Postcolonies of Communism: Asia

Guest Editor: Serguei Oushakine

The Artemy Kalinovsky’s article “Conscripts of Socialism? The Tajik Intelligentsia and Soviet-Style Decolonization” examines the trajectories of Central Asian intellectuals who were educated in the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing on memoirs, archival sources, and oral history, it considers their response to and involvement in Soviet anti-colonial politics, and how this involvement may have shaped their attitude towards the Soviet project itself. Finally, the article considers some of the ways that postcolonial theory helps make sense of these intellectuals’ attitudes towards the nation in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras.

In the article “Speaking with clenched teeth? Shame, Power and Female Body in Contemporary Kazakhstan” Nari Shelekpayev explores the phenomenon of “uyat” in contemporary Kazakhstan. It attempts to demonstrate how the collapse of Soviet modernity has led to processes of reclaiming the forms of authenticity that were formerly located outside of its political and epistemological boundaries. One of the consequences of this process has been the crystallizing of the female body both as a site of potential transgression and as a subject of preventive control over the entire society. It also attempts to link the discussion of “uyat” with existing scholarship on morality and shaming as forms of public control suggesting that patriarchy, in a sense, is a corollary of post-Soviet postcoloniality, not a return to a “pure” (and non-existent) pre-Soviet tradition.

What is intellectual response to the idea of “postcoloniality” in post-Soviet Central Asia? Who and how responds to the ideas of prolonged periods of political, cultural and economic domination of the Soviet center to the non-Russian ‘periphery’? In the article “Ghosts, Mankurts and Alike: The “Postcolonial” Art in Central Asia,” Diana T. Kudaibergenova analyses the ways in which contemporary artists in Kazakhstan and Central Asia responded to the idea of postcolonialism and how they use this concept in their works. Contemporary art in the region has developed as a critical response to censorship and the era of socialist realism and propaganda. Many contemporary artists live on the margins of state support and through the weak market of art sales but persist with their agenda to “decolonise” at all costs. What do they mean by decolonization and what tools and themes they use in their works to achieve their goals is the focus of the following analysis? “Identity” remains one of the strongest “intellectual devices from the center” that local artists use “to construct their own critique” against what they perceive as colonial or semi-colonial time. Three themes are recurrent in these artistic discussions on identity and post-Soviet positioning: the loss and recuperation of identities, coming to terms with colonization and globalization and local identity empowerment through artistic discourses.

The Soviet-Mongol brotherly friendship was framed against the foil of the “actual” European colonialism throughout the heyday of anti-colonial movement in the 1960s. The rhetoric of friendship (and the political persecutions) made the Soviet colonial politics in Mongolia unspeakable and distant. In order to explain the lasting silence and denial of coloniality in Mongolia, the Manduhai Buyandelger’s article “Writing Oneself Out of Oppression: Biographies of Reconciliation in the Post-Soviet Mongolia” uses insights from a variety of post-colonial and decolonial theory. Albert Memmi’s argument about the identities of colonizer and colonized are not given but produced, Ann Stoller’s insights on the internal diversity among the colonizers, Walter D. Mignolo’s emphasis on modernity in colonialism, and Serguei Oushakine’s division between political and domestic socialisms for understanding diverse infiltrations of colonial politics, all prove to be necessary to understand the Mongolian situation. Through these and other theories, the article discerns previously unspoken and suppressed Soviet colonial politics during socialism and the Mongolians’ decolonizing — while little articulated — attempts during postsocialism.

Postcolonial Urbanism and Memory Spaces

In the article “Postcolonial Criticism and Urban Theory” Elena Trubina discusses changing ideas of urban theory, including the increased attention toward the unequal conditions in which it is created by intellectuals. Based upon the ideas of Ananya Roy, Jennifer Robinson, and other postcolonial urban theorists, the article poses the question of whether “non-Western” urban development is just an exotic variation of the universal model, or if it should be rethought as a fundamental dimension of historical inequality.

In the article “The Park of Culture T(h)ree: Architecture, Reality and Coloniality in Sobyanin’s Moscow” Michał Murawski examines the political economy and political aesthetics of public space in contemporary Russia, focusing on Zaryadye Park. It argues that the current transformation of public space in Russia is at the epicentre of a global Culture Tree.

In the article “Protracted ‘Sovietness’ and the Transformation of Collective Memory: Soviet and Post-Soviet Memorial Complexes in Kazakhstan” Kulshat Medeuova presents the results of a study of memorial complexes (2014—2019) that appeared in Kazakhstan after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the basis of extensive field materials, it analyses contextual conditions for the emergence of new memorial complexes and how through political/cultural emancipation from Soviet collective memory patterns, the decolonial marking of public spaces have occurred.

The Svetlana Sidorova’s article “Creators of the British Empire: Heroic Images in the Post-mortem Panegyrics” analyzes the mechanism of the creation in the 18th and 19th centuries of positive images of British colonizers and their imperial mission in India with the help of the complimentary rhetoric of postmortem inscriptions on the memorials in the Church of St. Thomas in Mumbai. The empire builders’ biographies, which had gone through the purifying filter of the epitaph and which were exhibited in a public space, were elements of state propaganda meant to whitewash dark and controversial stains in the history of the British conquest of Hindustan, which was presented to church visitors as a chain of heroic and glorious events.

An Artistic Interpretation of (Post)Colonialism

The canon of the future for the territories of Central Asia conquered by the Russian Empire and associated with the “Russian World” is examined in the Eleonora Shafranskaya’s article “On Russian Orientalism, the ‘Russian World’ in Colonial Literature and Their Rethinking in Postcolonial Literature”, using material from the literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. At the foundation of such a canon lies the work of writer Nikolay Karazin. His prose reflects the stages and nuances of the imperial civilizing project in Turkestan, the intention of which is replicated in literature, propaganda, and the mythology of everyday life. The memory of the colonial project in the East deposited itself into Russian consciousness in the form of a justificatory stereotype, which fuels the feelings of “patriots” to this day. Using examples from the 21st-century Russian literature (Andrei Volos, Vladimir Medvedev, Sukhbat Aflatuni, Sanjar Yanyshev) the rethinking of this canon, as well as the results of the colonization process itself, is considered.

In the article “Vereshchagin Without Colonialism: How Post-Soviet Russia Did Not Commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Conquest of Central Asia” Sergey Abashin examines a Vasily Vereshchagin retrospective that took place in 2018 at the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The author asks the question of why this exhibition dedicated to the history of the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the second half of the 19th century did not become a catalyst for Russian society to reflect upon its colonial past. Instead of the theme of conquest, the exhibition and the catalog suggest seeing the savagery of local customs, the heroism of Russian soldiers, and the special relationship of Russia to the East, more equal than in other empires. According to the essay’s author, such an altered view reflects prevailing current ideological and political interests in post-Soviet Russia.

In the article “The Soviet Government and the Overall Provincialization of Moscow: An Attempt at a Postcolonial Reading of Evgeny Kharitonov’s Works” Alexei Konakov offers a new approach to Evgeny Kharitonov’s literary works based on the use of several key concepts (representation, hybridity, internal colonialism) from postcolonial theory. Postcolonial optics allow one to distinguish the specific sign strategy used by Kharitonov during the creation of texts (“provincialization”), as well as consistently interpret the phenomenon of nationalistic themes and motifs in Kharitonov’s work in the late 1970s.

Using three Lithuanian documentary films — Disappearance of the Tribe (2005) by Deimantas Nakrevicius, Grandpa and Granma (2007) by Giedre Beinoriute and What We Leave Behind (2017) by sisters Jurate and Vilma Samulionyte — the Natalija Arlauskaite’s article “Joints and Ruptures: Family Photography and the Politics of Voice in Contemporary Lithuanian Documentaries on the Soviet Past” examines forms of cinematic work with family photographs and means of reworking family narratives and Soviet experience, related in part to post-World War II forced migration and deportations. Practices of dealing with the materiality of photographs, editing techniques, and strategies for the use of voice observed in these three films and other works in contemporary Lithuanian cinema and visual arts serve as a basis for attempting to apply the vocabulary of postcolonial studies to cinematic attempts at articulating the Soviet past.