The Yogis of the Arbat

In August 1918, Andrei Bely wrote a short story called “The Yogi.” I recall this fact when, one early morning exactly one hundred years later, I find myself outside a business center on Moscow’s famous Arbat Street contemplating how to get in.

Continue reading...

Entirely Different: When Feminist, LGBTQIA+, Inclusive, and Environmental Activism Meets Science Fiction

In spite of its rich history, emerging from nineteenth-century utopian narratives, Russian-language science fiction has long resisted discussion of women’s issues and non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality. It was not until 2018 that a full-fledged collection of feminist and queer-themed science fiction appeared in Russian. Titled “Entirely Different,” the book includes short stories, Wikipedia- and encyclopedia-style entries, fictionalized interviews, and illustrations by feminist, LGBTQIA+, inclusive, and environmental activists from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States.

Continue reading...

Re-Imagining Women at War: Kantemir Balagov’s “Beanpole” (2019)

Inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War” (1985), an oral history of women who served in the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War, Kantemir Balagov’s arresting 2019 film, “Beanpole [Dylda]”, challenges the patriarchal images of womanhood and motherhood as peddled by the Soviet regime and, today, by Vladimir Putin’s politics of neo-traditionalism. 

Continue reading...

War and Pestilence: The Epidemiological Motif in L. N. Tolstoy’s Historical Epic

In the motivic structure of “War and Peace,” the “mythical” French “grippe” of Anna Petrovna Scherer occupies a unique position. It is a simultaneously socio-linguistic, satirical, historical, moral, and providential detail that, beneath the mask of fashionable high-society argot, foreshadows a glorious and terrible epoch, in which Tolstoy’s heroes must live, perish, act, endure, and overcome.

Continue reading...

Announcing: Working Group on 19th-century Russian Culture and Literature

Dostoevsky + 11 time zones: it’s why Russian studies is never going away. Or at least that’s what I was taught in graduate school—and indeed the brilliant cultural production of the nineteenth century has long drawn students and scholars to the Russia field. But as the literature of this period grows more distant from our own moment (is the nineteenth century the new eighteenth century?), we encounter both framing challenges and intellectual opportunities. What does nineteenth-century culture mean for us today?

Continue reading...

Why We Should be Paying Attention to Russian Economic Statecraft

The rise of corruption and kleptocracy associated with right-wing populism only gives Moscow further opportunities to use economic levers to pursue foreign policy goals. As new tools of financial globalization make it easier for states, firms, and powerful individuals to obfuscate the scope of their activities, Russia has begun to reap the rewards of its investments in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and beyond.

Continue reading...

All the “Pravda” about International Women’s Day

Examining March-8th dispatches in Pravda between 1920 and 1991 reveals a gradual shift in the official feminine ideal: at first, women were glorified as fellow workers and builders of socialism; in time, however, Pravda began promoting first female patriots and peace advocates, then figures representing motherly love and care.

Continue reading...

Gesamtkunstwerk Putin?

In today’s Russia, can we really speak of a new official art, constructed on the model of “Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin [Total Art of Stalinism],” whose legacy was still influential at the end of the Soviet period? This is the question at issue in “Phantasie an der Macht. Literarische und politische Autorschaft im heutigen Russland [Fantasy in Power. Literary and Political Authorship in Contemporary Russia],” forthcoming in 2020 with Matthes & Seitz.

Continue reading...

Soft Power Within – State Socialism and the Modern Everyday

The consumerism of modern everyday life as it developed in post-1956 communist Hungary is not merely the story of the Kádárian “carrot” gradually replacing Mátyás Rákosi’s “stick.” It is also the story of an emerging vision of the “good life,” shared and pursued by rulers and ruled alike. This was the soft power within — an embarrassing fact for Viktor Orbán and his court historians, who are trying to reduce the history of communist rule to a tale of oppression and resistance.

Continue reading...

Why the US Should Normalize Relations with Syria

US challenges in the Middle East are complex and years in the making. They will require equally complex and protracted solutions, for which success is by no means assured. But allowing Russia to continue to take advantage of a rapprochement with Syria would be a mistake from the perspective of US foreign policy. 

Continue reading...

The Creation of Soviet National Consciousness, or Why Nadezhda Krupskaya Matters

Locating the female subject in early Soviet history has been a broader impetus for my investigation of the relationship between gender and nationalism in the formation of the Soviet state. In her Gender and Nation, Mrinalini Sinha observes that, while studies on the formation of national identity have typically elided the subject of gender, “feminist scholarship is equally guilty of neglecting the study of the nation or nationalism.” Speaking about the women of the Global South, Sinha locates women’s emancipation movements within anti-colonial nationalist struggles. Krupskaya may be the link needed to apply this perspective to Bolshevik Russia. 

Continue reading...

Regulating Everything: Businesspeople and Paperwork in Provincial Russia

According to the Regulatory Quality Indicator compiled by the World Bank, Russia occupies one of the lowest positions among Eastern European states. The unlimited power concentrated within Russian state agencies increases the vulnerability of small entrepreneurs, who suffer from a lack of financial, social, and human resources as compared to larger businesses. Under these circumstances, the political affiliation of entrepreneurs elected to regional parliaments and local councils becomes highly significant. Political status has the potential to reconstruct spaces of communication, modify sets of relations with regulatory agencies, and provide knowledge crucial for navigating the ocean of state regulation.

Continue reading...

A Synthesis of Ephemeral Forms: Soviet Camera Enthusiasm on the Margins of the Performing Arts

During the renaissance that was the post-Stalin Thaw period, camera enthusiasm became a notable aspect of Soviet sixties culture. The film clubs opening in various parts of the country were both evidence of and catalyst for a growing cinephilia. At the same time, new domestic production of 16- and 8mm equipment produced growing numbers of people wishing to try their hand at making films.

Continue reading...

All the Russias: A Transnational Approach

, and

A new approach underpins “Transnational Russian Studies,” edited by Andy Byford, Connor Doak, and Stephen Hutchings, just published by Liverpool University Press. Our book opens up the map of Russian Studies beyond Russia, treating Russian culture as an expanding and contested field that extends in not always predictable ways across multiple national borders.

Continue reading...

Commercializing 1917: The Russian Revolution in Finnish Popular Songs

Sami Suodenjoki is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence in the History of Experiences (HEX) at Tampere University and a visiting scholar at the Centre for Political History at the University of Antwerp. The text below builds on his article “Popular Songs as Vehicles for Political Imagination: The Russian Revolutions and the Finnish Civil War in Finnish Song Pamphlets, 1917-1918,” published in Ab Imperio 2/2019.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 left a deep imprint on popular culture across and beyond the collapsing empire. Popular songs, circulated in printed form, were among the first media to tackle the transfers of power as well as the characters of revolutionaries and tsarist authorities.

In the Grand Duchy of Finland, one of the empire’s Western borderlands, the February Revolution was a particular inspiration for songwriters. Just a few weeks following Nicholas II’s abdication, the first song pamphlets addressing revolutionary events hit the market. These pamphlets continued the long European tradition of broadsides, cheap ephemera typically produced by and for lower-class people.

Three reasons made the February Revolution an especially fruitful topic for song pamphleteers. First, the revolution ended tsarist censorship in Finland, allowing songwriters to freely discuss political affairs and mock the authorities. Second, the dramatic surge of revolutionary events offered ideal material for topical verses that relied on melodrama and sensation. Third, the revolutionary situation produced an explosion in the number of public events, which in turn provided an extensive market for selling song pamphlets, as well as venues for performing the songs themselves.

The revolutionary atmosphere was reflected in the frequent mention of public figures in popular songs published in 1917 and 1918. Nicholas II, the Empress Alexandra, and Rasputin featured as dominant anti-heroes in these songs, just as they did in contemporary Russian popular culture. 

The song pamphlets also demonstrate good knowledge of top imperial officials, who were depicted as ruthless oppressors deserving their own downfall and as well as prosecution at the hands of the revolutionary regime. Of the new revolutionary Russian government, the songs highlight only Alexander Kerensky, who tended to be demonized because of his decision to dissolve the Finnish parliament in the summer of 1917.

The front and back covers of the song pamphlet “Freedom Songs: Joyful and Ironic,” 1917. The pamphlet was distributed by the bookshop Viertola, located in a working-class district of Helsinki.

Compared to their enthusiasm for the February Revolution, Finnish popular songs devoted far less attention to the Bolshevik Revolution in October. In the fall of 2017, Russian political dynamics were affecting songwriters’ imaginations only indirectly, through the radicalization of political rhetoric within the Finnish socialist leadership and press. These effects, in turn, translated into more militant texts distributed by song pamphleteers.

The events of the Finnish Civil War, a byproduct of the October Revolution, became a key inspiration for popular songwriters in early 1918. Some songs from the Civil War period sympathized with Finnish Red revolutionaries. Others tapped into the mainline of White propaganda, emphasizing the close connections among Finnish Reds, Russian soldiers, and the Bolshevik leadership.

After the Red revolutionaries had lost the Civil War in late spring 1918, Finnish authorities stemmed the tide of political song pamphlets. This action attended the return of censorship and new obstacles to working-class cultural activity. Some of the most active song pamphleteers ended up in prison camps, suspected of aiding and abetting treason.

Regardless, in the ensuing years, the Russian Revolution continued to inspire Finnish popular songwriters. Unlike the ephemeral songs popularized in 1917-18, several of the later numbers went on to become trans-generational hits. 

One Russian-Revolution-themed song that remains well-known in Finland today is “Kerenski,” which borrows its tune from the popular Russian two-step dance “Karapet.” “Kerenski” became a dance-floor hit across Finland in 1919, and was recorded numerous times in the decades that followed. The song’s popularity derives from its caustic mockery of Alexander Kerensky as a “cook” who tried to “bake” a new Russia by using various nationalities as ingredients — all before fleeing abroad at the end of 1917.

Piano sheet music for “Kerenski,” 1922.

Another example of the Russian Revolution’s longstanding appeal in Finnish popular music is “Vapaa Venäjä” or “Free Russia.” This song may have originated among Finnish Red refugees, who fled to Soviet Russia in the aftermath of the Finnish Civil War. “Free Russia”‘s melody was based on the famous Russian patriotic march Farewell of Slavianka, but the Finnish lyrics addressed the end of an oppressive era and the creation of a new Workers’ Russia. 

“Free Russia’s” transformation into a popular music hit was distinctively transnational and would have been impossible without the rise of the international recording industry. Migration brought the song to North America, where Finnish immigrant tenor Otto Pyykkönen recorded it (with alternative Finnish lyrics) for Columbia Records in 1924. In the years that followed, the march also achieved fame in Finland as a fixture at workers’ meetings and demonstrations.  

In newly independent Finland, bourgeois and even Social-Democratic newspapers labelled “Free Russia” an unpatriotic rhapsody of the Soviet regime. However, Finnish Communists embraced the march as offering a counter-image to both Imperial Russia and the oppressive nation-state in which they currently lived. What made “Free Russia” different from many song pamphlets of 1917 was that it located an imaginary workers’ paradise not in Finland, but in Russia.

The imaginary “Free Russia” eventually became a reality for thousands of Finnish and Finnish-American Communists, who fled political discrimination and depression to the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These expatriates included Emil Rautiainen, author of the first recorded version of “Free Russia,” and Jukka Ahti, who performed the more famous version of 1929. Ultimately, however, the reality of a “Free Russia” did not live up to its image in song: both Rautiainen and Ahti later fell victim to Stalinist purges.