Nicole Disser

Disser, Nicole

Nicole Disser is an M.A. candidate in the joint program for Russian & Slavic studies and Global Journalism at New York University. She completed her B.A. in Political Science and Eastern European Studies at the University of Michigan in 2011. Her academic interests include Lenin’s New Economic Policy, the Russian avant-garde, contemporary Russian politics of protest, and Nabokov. Nicole currently resides in Brooklyn with a difficult cat.
Articles by Nicole Disser

Peter Holquist Discusses New Book Project, “By Right of War”

On Friday, May 9th Peter Holquist, Writer in Residence at the Jordan Center, led academic year’s final event. Holquist is Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania and specializes in World War I and the Russian Revolution. His latest effort is a book project, By Right of War: Imperial Russia and the Discipline and Practice of the ‘Laws of War’ (1868-1917). Holquist shared his chapter, “Codifying the ‘Laws of War’: Brussels, 1874” with visitors of the Jordan Center and discussed the origins of the international conventions on warfare and specifically Russia’s experience.

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Alexander Etkind’s Russia’s “Oily Grip of Power” and the Hyper-Extractive State

On Wednesday, May 7th Alexander Etkind, Professor of History at European University Institute- Florence, joined the Jordan Center for a lecture and panel discussion of his new critical theory, which explains the nature of Russia’s political and economic system as well as its external relations as symptoms of the “hyper-extractive state.”

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Meet the Press: Insight into the publishing world from the University of Toronto Press

Richard Ratzlaff, acquisitions editor for the humanities from the University of Toronto Press, spoke to prospective authors on April 22nd about publishing, and sought to illuminate a process that might appear vague to some scholars.

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“Two Ukraines” and Euromaidan

The Jordan Center welcomed Ukrainian historian Andrii Portnov on Tuesday, April 15th for a discussion of the dominant media and political narrative which has emerged to describe the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Portnov presented his observation about “Two Ukraines,” a story that divides the country into halves, with a pro-Russian East, and European-aligned West.

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Christian Hajjis: Valentina Izmirlieva discusses her new book project

The Jordan Center welcomed historian Valentina Izmirlieva, Associate Professor at Columbia University, to lead the latest installment in our colloquium series on Friday April 11, 2014. Izmirlieva presented her paper, the beginnings of a book project with the tentative title Christian Hajjis: Mobility and Status in the Late Ottoman Empire, and discussed her research regarding the Christian Hajjis, Orthodox believers who journeyed as pilgrims to Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century.

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The Crimea Conflict: A Transatlantic Conversation

Former lawmakers from across the Atlantic and party lines, gathered on Monday, April 7th, to discuss the ongoing diplomatic crisis between the United States, Europe, Ukraine, and Russia over the annexation of Crimea. Professor Christiane Lemke, Chair of German & European Studies at NYU, moderated the panel, which was hosted by Deutsches Haus at NYU, and supported by the Jordan Center, NYU’s Russian & Slavic Studies, and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

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Panel Discusses Russia, Ukraine, and the Crimean Crisis

In light of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the Jordan Center welcomed several distinguished guests to discuss the events at Maidan, Russia’s involvement in the Crimean referendum for independence, and the ensuing international relations debacle between Russia, the United States, and Europe.

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Russia by the Numbers: symposium on the humanities + mathematics

The Jordan Center hosted a symposium on Friday March 7th, Russia by the Numbers, to discuss the relationship between mathematics and Russian-focused humanities, as well as the emergence of the “digital humanities” as a discipline. The central question dealt with the challenges posed by newer, more statistically-focused methods of inquiry, to literary studies. In what ways could our increasing reliance upon statistics and data potentially influence the analysis of phenomenon outside the traditionally number-oriented realms of science and mathematics?

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Stalin’s Dead Road: Ania Hyman discusses her expedition to the Siberian taiga

Ania Hyman recounted her incredible experiences on an expedition to the Siberian Taiga as part of a research project to document the last remaining, and largely untouched, Gulag camps.

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The Final Years of Autocracy: a discussion with Frank Wcislo

Thursday morning March 6th the Jordan Center welcomed Frank Wcislo, Professor of History and Dean of the Ingram Commons at Vanderbilt University. Director Yanni Kotsonis introduced Wcislo’s work in as an historian of late Imperial Russia. Wcislo is the author of several books including the very well reviewed work, Tales of Imperial Russia: the life and times of Sergei Witte, and his most recent work looks closely at the years 1914 to 1918, what Wcislo dubs “the last years of autocracy.”

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Colloquium Series: “Bashkiria’s Imperial World,” a discussion with Charles Steinwedel

Charles Steinwedel Associate Professor of History at Northeastern Illinois University-Chicago joined the Jordan Center to discuss his soon to be completed book, Threads of Empire: Making the Russian Empire in Bashkiria, 1552-1917.

He introduced his project as one that originated while Steinwedel was completing his dissertation at Columbia. Steinwedel explained he was initially drawn to the time period in which Russia was at the height of its imperial powers, and more specifically interested in the institutions at the core of the empire that dealt with ethnicity and multi-nationality. “As I worked, I found myself being pulled back in time,” Steinwedel said, explaining his research scope, which extends back into the 16th century. “I found sifting through 300 years of material was more than I bargained for,” he said.

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The Sochi Citrus Project: a discussion with Johanna Conterio

Friday afternoon February 7th at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Studies, Harvard PhD candidate Johanna Conterio presented her paper at an event made possible by the History of Science Working Group and the Jordan Center.

Conterio’s fascinating subject, and one that is especially timely, is the Soviet orange cultivation project in and around Sochi which began between 1928 and 1929. Conterio explained that the topic of citrus was an outgrowth of her interest in the cultural history of the sanatorium in the Soviet Union, a subject which naturally brought her to Sochi– a sub-tropical city modeled after Miami’s resort landscape.

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Petre Petrov: Colloquium Recap

Assistant Professor of Russian Petre Petrov of Princeton University presented an overview of his upcoming book to guests at the Jordan Center on November 8th. Petrov’s book examines Modernism as aesthetic, and aims to move beyond a focus on content, in favor of a consideration of form, “somehow without becoming formalist,” he said. Petrov explained his work as one that considers the Modernist device of negation and aims to pin down how this “refusal of communication” works.

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Reenactments of 1917 in Film: Conference Recap

In collaboration with NYU’s Department of Comparative Literature and the Department of Cinema Studies, the Jordan Center welcomed speakers and guests November 17-18 for “Reenactments of 1917 in Film.” As the title suggests, the conference took a comprehensive look at Soviet films that portray the October Revolution. The conference, organized by Anke Hennig of Freie Universität Berlin and NYU’s Cristina Vatulescu, opened on Sunday evening at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with discussion and screenings of the films Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh) and The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga).

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The Sources of Putin’s Support: Panel Recap

On Friday, October 25th the Jordan Center welcomed three NYU-based experts on contemporary Russian politics to participate in a panel discussion regarding the current situation of President Vladimir Putin’s regime in the aftermath of the 2012 protests. Panel members included Stephen Cohen, renowned historian of Soviet-American relations and expert on American media coverage of Russia; Mark Galeotti, professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and expert on Russian security affairs and corruption; and NYU Politics professor Joshua Tucker offered his expertise on Russian mass politics and social media. The discussants elaborated on three separate narratives informed by their unique experiences and disciplines to describe the current political scene in Russia, posing some very different answers to the panel’s central question as to the nature of Putin’s support and power.

Jordan Center Director Yanni Kotsonis introduced the panel members and emphasized the importance of “checking in on the pulse of Russian politics” and promised regular panels in the future. Kotsonis lamented the  “the limited engagement with the Russian and American publics,” which results in widespread ignorance about the other’s affairs and being able to “project almost anything you want.” In an effort to promote intelligent conversation on the subject of contemporary Russian politics and society, Kotsonis said “we brought together the most intelligent people we could find.”

Stephen Cohen, the first of the panel members to speak, began  by reminding the audience of the pitfalls of what he called “the utterly preposterous demonization” of Vladimir Putin in America, which often renders the discussion of Putin’s policies “almost impossible.” Cohen argued that as Americans we need to move past this tired Cold War narrative and open up the conversation about what’s really happening in Russia and that includes acknowledging the majority of Russians approve of their President.

Cohen offered a 4-part explanation for the sources of Putin’s power in Russia. He explained Putin’s support comes from both the general population and the political elite. Firstly, Cohen argued that the importance of the 1990s, and the suffering of the general population at the hands of Yeltsin and his elite cronies who plundered the country’s resources and left the general populace in the dust, couldn’t be overestimated in this case. A lot of Putin’s support is based in “counter-Yeltsinism,” Cohen explained. Under Putin, “most people regained what was taken from them in the 1990s: health, longevity, wages, job security, and stability.” Cohen called the public’s reaction to the improvements under the new regime “a kind of existential gratitude,” which Putin receives from a majority of the public, “regardless of whether or not they like him.”

The second explanation Cohen provided to explain the public’s support of Putin lies in the regime’s ability to control the elites to the extent that they won’t be able to harm the Russian people, as was the case in the 1990s. However, Cohen conditioned this on the reality of what he called “a contradiction built into the system,” whereby Putin both controls the political and economic elite, and protects them by working to prevent free and fair elections. The elite fear they would be “swept away” if legitimate popular elections were to take place, Cohen explained.

Thirdly, Cohen argued the popular perception is that there is no viable alternative leader “who could or would protect the people,” as effectively as Putin. The elite also seemingly have no alternative in mind, as demonstrated by the case of Medvedev who was given a chance, “and he utterly failed,” Cohen said.  However, Cohen voiced his feeling that the idea the system is rigged against the rise of another political power offers an  “inadequate” explanation as to the failure of a potential new leader to appear.

Finally, Cohen argued that Putin’s “well managed, but far from falsified” public image is also partially responsible for his widespread support. However, Cohen was quick to point out that there is “no evidence” to indicative there’s “a yearning amongst Russians for a return to greatness,” calling it “a projection of American elite commentators.” However, he explained that the political elites do care about a Russian return to power. “They desperately want financial and social respect in the West,” Cohen said.

Mark Galeotti assumed the podium and carried on the discussion with his argument that “the key basis” of Putin’s power is the Russian political and economic elite. Putin’s seemingly firm grasp on power can be explained by his shrewd management of said elite. Galeotti, like Cohen, acknowledged the importance of the Yeltsin years  in examining contemporary Russian politics. “It’s hard to overstate the catastrophic impact of the 1990s not just on Russian society, but how Russians think about life and society.”

Galeotti posited that what’s important to keep in mind about the impact of the 1990s for the purposes of providing an explanation for Putin’s power are the various assumptions instilled in the Russian public psyche by the experience of the post-Soviet decade. Firstly, the idea of what capitalism means was defined by the freewheeling, effectively lawless Yeltsin-era. People were taught that the system allowed for the making of money however possible without worrying about the consequences.

The 1990s also shaped the Russian perception of “what the purpose of power was.” Galeotti pointed out that, for example, most Russians don’t regard corruption as something indicative of  systemic decay, “they regard this more as a human failure.”

Finally, Galeotti explained that the experience of the 1990s allowed for the perception to take hold that Putin is an outsider– apart from, and above corrupt Yeltsin cronyism. Galeotti made a cautious comparison between the image Putin projects as a benevolent outsider, to the mass perception of the Tsar. “He’s the one person who can protect you from these people that are even worse,” Galeotti said. This explains why “Putin is more popular than his government and the system over which he presides.” And this is precisely because “he’s managed to distance himself from it.”

However, Galeotti argued, “Putin now is not the Putin who came to power,” calling his level of support “brittle.” The rise in quality of life has resulted in a commensurate increase in expectations amongst the population, Galeotti pointed out, and this creates a situation in which “the upward trajectory is under pressure.”

But what will really matter, if and when something occurs that threatens to destabilize the regime or the newly realized quality of life in Russia, are elite politics, which “will be absolutely crucial,” said Galeotti. When push comes to shove, Galeotti said, “I’m not quite sure how strong Putin’s support will turn out to be.” And the central question he posed was– “Can there be Putinism without Putin?”

NYU political science professor Joshua Tucker was the final panel member to lead the discussion. He began by saying he agreed with “everything about the role of the 1990s,” emphasized by Galeotti and Cohen, however, he said, “to me it sounds like we could have been having this conversation in 2007.” Tucker emphasized the series of events over the past several years that have since transformed the political scene and presented a myriad of “potential sources of instability” threatening Putin’s power.

In looking at Putin’s approval ratings and poll numbers, Tucker emphasized the importance of considering the contrast between Moscow, a city that’s become “the center of protest,” and the rest of the country, where Putin has much more support. “How relevant is Moscow to Putin’s hold on power?” Tucker asked.

Tucker also questioned the validity of Putin’s popularity. “Clearly, he’s less [popular] than he used to be,” Tucker argued. He then offered an explanation for the measurable decrease in popularity as being a result of the  increasing distance from the Yeltsin years.. “There’s a generation of people who don’t remember the 1990s.”

Tucker emphasized that the opposition movement should not be discounted. “The ‘old story’ is that they are weak, and disorganized,” said Tucker. The new story, however, is playing out in the rise of Aleksei Navalny, who didn’t have enough support to win the Moscow elections, Tucker admitted. But the fact that there is a Navalny proves “there’s a place to go.”

Though he has doubts about whether or not Navalny will continue to amass power and support as a politician, Navalny’s appearance and relative success in the Moscow mayoral elections came as a surprise for the powers that be. “The elite clearly doesn’t know what to make of Navalny,” explained Tucker. Instead, they came up with an “odd, quasi-solution” of dealing with him.

Tucker’s final focus for recent developments is the changing nature of protest, which he sees as a factor for potential destabilization of the Putin regime. Tucker argued that protest in Russia has become “increasingly varied,” in the issues they represent in comparison to protests in the past that were “primarily about material concerns.” Tucker also argued it was important to consider the possibility of the immense power of social media, though he admitted, “we don’t know the answer to this question yet.”

To conclude, Tucker summed up the possibilities presented by the evidence of voter fraud in the last election. He pointed out three potential sources of fraud including the possibility that the regime wanted “to send signals to the population about the genuine popularity of Putin,” and simply failed to be discreet. Tucker also proposed that the regime set up webcams as a genuine attempt to eliminate voter fraud, but fraud was committed anyway by local leaders. Finally, Tucker said it was possible the regime still wanted voter fraud to occur, “but they wanted it to be less obvious.”

With Tucker’s closing remarks, the panel discussion came to a conclusion and the floor was opened up for audience input. One audience member posed questions about the role of political parties in Russia, which he saw as viable and active.

Andranick Migranyan, director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, offered several challenges to the ideas presented by the panel members. Migranyan argued against the idea that Putin has control over elites, doubting that there’s a “harmonious situation with Russian elites” and the regime. Migranyan challenged the notion that 2011 and 2012 saw popular protest, he argued these demonstrations were actually an “uprising of the elites.

Migranyan also argued against the assertment that Medvedev represented a test-run for the title of Putin’s successor, instead proposing that he represented “a front attack on Putin” by the oligarchs. As to the “real source of Putin’s power,” Migranyan said this comes from the Russian people. “His real base is popular support, his real constraint is people…He’s in touch with society, he feels the pulse, he wants to be loved by them, and this is the real driver of his actions.”

Audience member Steve Holmes said, “I’d like you guys to bring out your inner futurologists.” Another guest at the event wondered if Mikhail Prokhorov is a real opposition figure.

Cohen responded to arguments about Medvedev. “From Putin’s view, this really was a tryout. And the elites didn’t want him.” Galeotti also responded to challenges made by Migranyan by arguing against the notion that institutions in Russia are working perfectly. “This is clearly a regime that has issues,” he said.

Galeotti continued on to answer Johnson’s question regarding Mikhail Prokhorov. ”Is he the real opposition? No. But nor is he a joke.” He explained that Prokhorov’s political activism is pragmatic. “He knows not to push it to a point.”  Galeotti concluded by clarifying the state of party-development in Russia. “There are almost no real political parties in Russia. Navalny is a one-man band.”

Joshua Tucker provided the final response to audience questions. “It’s clear elections are being rigged,” he said.  Much like the sources of Putin’s support however, the reasons for this are still unclear, “but it is happening.”

photofrom left, Stephen Cohen, Joshua Tucker, Mark Galeotti, and Director of the Jordan Center Yanni Kotsonis. 

Governing Religion, Mobilizing Faith: Conference Recap

Watch the video of Panel 1 here

Watch the video of Panel 2 here

Watch the video of Panel 3 here

The Jordan Center held its first all-day conference of the fall on Friday October 18th. Governing Religion, Mobilizing Faith, co-sponsored by NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, and the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, invited academics from across the country to discuss a variety of papers concerning religion in the late Russian Empire, a place that was home to a wide range of faiths. The guests were divided into three panels according to their topical focus.

Jordan Center Director Yanni Kotsonis opened up the conference by acknowledging the range of historians present, and by pointing out one aim of this particular conference to “bring people together who aren’t normally together.” Collectively the panels offered a forum for discussion of the state’s interaction with the major religions in late Imperial Russia—Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—as well as Catholicism in partitioned Poland, and Lutheranism in Estonia.

The first panel, the Beilis Case (1913), brought together papers focusing on issues raised by the trial of Menahem Mendel Beilis. The notoriously weak case was brought against Beilis, a Ukrainian Jew, alleging he murdered Andrei Yushchinsky, a young Ukrainian boy, for ritual blood sacrifice. Though Beilis was ultimately acquitted of charges, the affair brought international attention to the issue of anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire.

Gennady Estraikh, Associate Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, discussed his paper, “The Beilis Trial on the Pages of the New York Yiddish Daily Forverts.” The paper focuses on Estraikh’s research on Abraham Cahan, editor of Forverts, who emigrated from Russia due to his involved in the Socialist movement and open criticism of the Romanovs, and the paper’s coverage of the Beilis trial. Moyshe Olgin, the correspondent who covered the trial, framed it as an affront against the Jewish nation—a politically motivated blow to Russian Jews who were struggling against autocracy. Estraikh pointed out how Forverts was representational of a widespread inner conflict amongst Jews, who at once identified with Russian culture, but were critical of the Russian political system and Romanov power. For Russian Jews, Estraikh explained, most of whom lived outside the Empire, “Russia existed apart from the nation. The Russian language was something distanced from the place, but not from the people.”

Associate Professor Nadieszda Kizenko of SUNY-Albany presented her paper, “Blood accusation in Orthodox Christianity in the Russian Empire, Before and After the Beilis Case.” Kizenko presented the fascinating example of

Kizenko pointed out the difficulty the prosecution encountered in recruiting a member of the Orthodox clergy to testify against Beilis. Her paper poses the question as to why this might have been the case in a country with an enormous number of clerics– was it due to a lack of belief in the myth of ritual blood sacrifice amongst leaders of the Orthodox Church in Russia? Kizenko makes use of the example of Gavriil of Belostok, an uncanonized child Saint supposedly murdered in the “tradition” of Jewish blood sacrifice. For hundreds of years Gavrill was regarded as a very minor, local saint. He only became popular in liturgical services in the late 19th century. Kizenko argues that the increasing popularity of what was once regarded as a minor local saint “suggests that the cult [of Gavriil] both responded to and helped foster a climate conducive to Orthodox Christians being prepared to admit the possibility of ritual murder of Christian children by their Jewish neighbors.” Thus Kizenko argues that it could not have been a lack of belief in the possibility of blood libel, as asserted by the defense, that led to the inability of prosecutors to find an Orthodox clergy member to testify on their behalf.

The final paper included in the Beilis Case panel, “Connecting the Dots: Jewish Mysticism, Ritual Murder, and the Trial of Mendel Beilis,” submitted by Robert Weinberg of Swarthmore College, focused more acutely on the trial itself and specifically on the evidence presented—bizarrely astrological and even occult-like submissions. However, Weinberg pointed out that because society was more developed at this time, the prosecution could no longer simply rely upon a purely theological explanation, and so they brought in a variety of experts, including a psychiatrist “who was a firm believer in ritual murder.”

Weinberg outlined what he found in his research as a clear documentation of falsified evidence indicating, “the government was convinced it could depend upon the jury’s belief in ritual murder.” And this wasn’t too far-fetched, he argued, because there were “very educated and very sophisticated people who believed in ritual murder.” Weinberg also put forth the idea that the Imperial government’s aim in the Beilis affair was perhaps to indict the defendant as a means of appearing justified in upholding anti-Semitic policies that, among other things, forced Jews to the Pale of Settlement.

Hillel Kieval from the History Department at Washington University of St. Louis rounded out the panel discussion, summing up the previous conversations as attempting to explain the revival of blood libel accusations from the 1880s to the early 20th century throughout Eastern Europe.

After a short break the second panel, Confession and Government, opened up to review papers, starting with Emory University Professor Ellie Schainker’s piece titled “The Politics of Religious Intimidation: Conversion and Jewish Violence in Late-Imperial Russia.” This particular paper looks at what happened in late Imperial Russia “when religious conversion became a source of family strife,” as Schainker explained her research question. She found answers in the portrayal of violent reactions amongst Jewish families and community members to conversion within the press. She also looked at archival records, official conversion documents, and the proliferation of shelters for converts as evidence for the nature of resistance to conversion. Instead of drawing examples from larger cities and thus members of the elite class, Schainker looked to small towns for her research. Schainker concluded with the proposal that her findings might support the possibility that heightened “fear of Jewish confessional power” as a means of undermining Russian Orthodoxy came from these small town examples of intra-community intimidation and violence used as a means to prevent conversion.

Karen Weber of NYU discussed her dissertation research examining the history of Russian state policy toward Lutheran priests titled, “Private Practice: Lutheran Apostates after 1905.” Weber reviewed her research findings, which indicated a shifting policy toward the Lutheran Church on the part of the Russian Imperial state, despite the official policy of religious tolerance as outlined in the 1905 law of Freedom of Conscience. Lutheran pastors continued to act in accordance with their ministerial duties, even after the Orthodox conversion of Lutherans in Estonia and Latvia, at the behest of their congregants who continued private practice of Lutheranism. This was controversial because, once converted to Orthodoxy, it was illegal for subjects of the Tsar to convert to another faith. Weber portrayed a careful approach by the Lutheran Church within the Empire— they were actually quite explicit with the regime about their continuing religious practices of parishioners who had converted to Orthodoxy. At one point, Weber said, Lutheran pastors even wrote letters to the Tsarist government, requesting the outlining of a clear policy regarding private practice. The 1860s saw fairly lenient state policy in terms of allowing the continuation of Lutheran religious practice, Weber explained, however official restrictions regarding the baptism of the children of interfaith marriages, for example, remained in place. But by the 1880s, this laissez-faire attitude was reversed, and the Tsarist state began prosecuting Lutheran priests for religious practice within the bounds of existing law. In the 1890s, policy once again shifted, and while the regime continued to prosecute some pastors, the level of repression was significantly lower than that of the previous decade.

The next paper up for discussion, submitted by Robert Crews, Associate Professor of History at Stanford University, entitled “The Russian Worlds of Islam,” considers Imperial Russian institutional accommodation of Muslims. As opposed to a top-down mechanism of social and political control, Crews argued that, as subjects of the Tsar, Muslims also made claims on the state. The result was a more complex interaction than that of traditional colonial narratives, which understand the relationship between the Tsardom and its Muslim subjects as having been that of one-sided, autocratic command stemming from the regime. Crews cited Muslim presence within the Russian military and the court system as an example of what he called “institutional accommodation of integration.” He argued that, at times, “the state was pulling out all the diplomatic stops to defend these Muslim citizens of the Russian Empire,” and that “colonial language was employed to defend these Muslim subjects.”

There was a great deal of discussion amongst the conference participants about the practical meaning of “rights” within the context of late Imperial Russia. There was widespread disagreement about whether or not the rights of the Tsar’s subjects were in any way similar to the contemporary Western conception of citizen’s rights. Opinions ranged from the view that rights of Tsarist subjects were merely official affirmations that held no practical clout. Some argued it was the Tsar who had the final say, regardless of legal constraints. Others argued that the Tsar was in fact beholden to specific legal constraints and that there was a notion of rights amongst subjects.

Eric Weitz of the City College of New York, acting as discussant, closed the panel by pointing out the consensus amongst all three papers in acknowledging that the only consistency in Tsarist policy seemed to be inconsistency. Periods of repression were superseded by periods of tolerance and vice versa. Policy was never static and always in flux. Tsarist power and the extent to which it was used to repress these various religious minorities–Jews, Muslims, and Lutherans—moved back and forth, eliciting a spectrum of degrees of control. However Weitz left the question open as to why this might be. “Was it the whim of the Tsar?” he asked. As for Weitz’s opinion on whether or not the Tsar’s subjects had rights he said, “I’m hesitant to call it rights, but I think it’s an area of ‘Imperial subject-hood.’”

Following lunch, Brian Porter-Szucs from the University of Michigan opened up the third panel, Mass Politics, with the discussion of his paper, “Fighting for Faith and Fatherland (or not):  Catholic Politics in Partitioned Poland.” Porter-Szucs’ paper presented an alternative historical narrative regarding the Catholic Church’s relationship with the 19th century Polish National Movement. Instead of viewing the Church as having always been supporting of the nationalist movement, Porter-Szucs argued, “the Church was not supportive of the national movement at all up until the end of the 19th century.” His research findings indicated that the Church, as demonstrated by sermons from the era, disapproved of a political movement that sought to change the existing social order, as the Polish National movement did. Such a change was viewed as a violation of God’s will. Porter-Szucs spoke of his findings that revealed several examples of priests speaking out against the National Movement, and church periodicals that were decidedly loyalist. Impetus for the evolution of the Catholic Church’s position to one that supported the National Movement followed Russian repression of the Church. “That’s what it took,” said Porter-Szucs, characterizing the deciding factor for the Catholic Church to align itself with the Polish nationalists.

Porter-Szucs attributed his findings to a frame of inquiry that examines “the faith behind the politics” of the Church. “For a long time the only way to talk about religion was to explain it,” Porter-Szucs said, as a way “to find out what they’re really doing.” However, in examining sermons in light of the beliefs articulated, as opposed to analyzing the possible political motives behind such religious teachings, Porter-Szucs uncovered a new finding about the history of political involvement of the Catholic Church in Poland. “And it wasn’t at all what I expected to find,” he admitted.

Assistant Professor Elena Campbell of the University of Washington followed with the presentation of her paper, “The ‘Muslim Question’ in Late Imperial Russia.” Campbell asserted that Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War was the major catalyst for the increasing visibility and centrality of the ‘Muslim Question’ in Russian politics of the era. The ensuing developments forced the state to confront its conflicting responsibilities in being both the official ally of Orthodox Christianity and the defender of Islam, in light of Imperial policy of religious tolerance.

Campbell astutely brought to light a point of comparison between hers and Porter-Szucs’ paper, focusing on the similarities between the Polish and Muslim populations within the Empire. “Because in the eyes of most Russians, the two problems were related, and similar,” Campbell explained, referring to the perceived threats of Catholicism in the western borderlands and Islam in the southern regions.

The conference’s final paper, “Of Antichrist and Duma: Old Believers and Mass Politics in Late Imperial Russia,” was presented by Roy Robson of the University of Sciences. Robson posed the question as to why the Old Believers failed in their quest to mobilize a political movement. Robson offered a multi-tiered explanation including a failure to unify Old Belief texts, and botched attempts to push Old Believer interests into the Duma. But the most damning factor for the failure of the Old Believer political project was the certainty amongst some hard-liner adherents that the Tsar was literally the Anti-Christ. In accordance with this idea, a sizeable portion of Old Believers refused to have any interaction with the Tsarist state whatsoever. Robson argued that it was this opting out of engaging with the regime significantly crippled the Old Believers political project, resulting in the failure of mass mobilization.

Charles Steinwedel Associate Professor of Northeastern Illinois University closed the final panel with his thoughts on mass politics, a new kind of political engagement that emerged following the Great Reforms of the 1860s. This development, he said, transformed the Russian Empire from “relying on people to obey, to participation.” Mass politics, he said, “changed the whole game,” shifting the environment from one of passivity, to one of activity. This political shift presented a great deal of new challenges to religious adherents, while at the same time effectively transformed the ways in which the Russian Imperial state dealt with the variety of religions within its borders.

photo: from left, Robert Crews, Stanford University; Gennady Estraikh, NYU; David Engel, NYU; Elena Campbell, University of Washington; Roy Robson, University of the Sciences; Karen Weber, NYU; Nadieszda Kizenko, SUNY-Albany; Eric Weitz, City College of New York; Hillel Kieval, Washington University in St. Louis; Brian Porter-Szucs, University of Michigan; Ellie Schainker, Emory University; Charles Steinwedel, Northeastern Illinois University; Robert Weinberg, Swarthmore College.

front center, Yanni Kotsonis, Director of the Jordan Center

Islamic Engagement with the Russian Imperial State: A Conversation with Robert Crews

Robert Crews of Stanford University joined the Jordan Center on Thursday, October 17th for a discussion about his extensive research regarding Islamic engagement with the Russian Imperial state.

“Empire is never really a binary relationship,” he explained. “The story of colonialism is much more complicated.” Crews explained that the aim of his research was to go beyond what is already known about official Tsarist policy toward Islam. To achieve this, Crews focused on average people and the role of the family, because he explained, “there are also day-to-day lives that go beyond elite circles.”

“I didn’t imagine I’d be doing women’s history and gender history,” Crews explained. “But that’s what sources led me to.” He admitted there were formidable challenges to looking beyond clerical elites in order to focus on the everyday lives of average people, “because most artifacts are produced by elite men.” However, Crews uncovered a variety of other primary sources that provided a window into the world beyond the elite, such as autobiographies written by artisans, and village records.

Crews proposed one particular implication of his research as expanding Russian history to a narrative that is more open. “What is ‘Russian history’ if many of its populations are globally connected?” Crews asked. However this historiographical reassessment of Imperial Russia elicited some criticism. Crews attributed this to reluctance among some scholars to bridge existing fields. “If you read beyond a bounded area, you do make yourself vulnerable.”

Crews also acknowledged that criticism of his work might have come out of his holding back on explicating multiple examples to back up his claims. However Crews said this was a result of his aim to write something that was readable. “One of the symptoms of dissertation writing is repetition,” he explained. “Some readers will see that, their eyes will glaze over, and the thread will be lost.” Crews said that even as a PhD student he decided that his ideal reader is “not necessarily a fellow graduate student, not my advisor,” but rather an intelligent someone who wants to know more about the subject. He said this was important to him not only as a way of achieving a wider readership, but also because “we’re out to capture the humanity of our subjects” and this is something that can only be achieved “with clarity and the right kind of human touch.”

Crews also went on to discuss his new research focus, examining Afghanistan beyond the “security-based understanding of what’s happening there.” He said he wants to put forth an consideration of Afghanistan that goes beyond “the idea that their politics can only be tribal, corrupt, clientelist.”

Crews’ latest article, “Trafficking in Evil? The Global Arms Trade and the Politics of Disorder,” will appear in the upcoming book Global Muslims in the Age of Steam and Print.

photo: from left, Yanni Kotsonis, Director of the Jordan Center; Robert Crews.

A Look Back: The Long Year 2012

The year 2012 saw an unprecedented explosion of dialogue between the public and the regime in Putin’s Russia, a place that, up until then, seemed like one ruled by stagnation and home to an apolitical citizenry. On Friday the Jordan Center and the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute co-hosted the first of several conferences to be held this academic year, appropriately drawing upon the variety of headline-making events in Russia during the previous year. Eliot Borenstein, Professor of Russian Literature at NYU, introduced the topic of discussion as a year in which Russia saw “a return to politics.”

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Transnational Cinematic Contact Zone: a discussion with Masha Salazkina

Masha Salazkina, Associate Professor of Film and Research Chair of Transnational Arts and Culture from Concordia University in Montreal, spoke to guests of the Jordan Center on Friday regarding her ambitious collaborative research project of the history of the Tashkent Festival of Asian, African, (and later Latin American) Cinema.

Salazkina described the film festival, during its pinnacle years from 1968-1976, as a “transnational cinematic contact zone” between countries across the Asian, African, and South American continents. The non-competitive festival was unique in its commitment to maintaining a Utopian atmosphere of tolerance, regardless of political, cultural, or religious tensions between participants, filmmakers, and the Soviet Union. Whereas other Soviet film festivals had clear ideological and aesthetic constraints, Tashkent maintained political and cultural ambiguities. A wide variety of films were screened, both independent and commercial, and these included popular films competing at other festivals, as well as films that had no distribution beyond the Tashkent circuit.

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Presnya: a Discussion with Ilya Budraitskis

Watch the video of the event here

September 19th, 2013 the Jordan Center and NYU’s Program in Museum Studies welcomed guest lecturer Ilya Budraitskis to speak about Presnya a branch of the State Central Museum of Contemporary History of Russia, dedicated to this history of revolutionary movements, located in Moscow. Budraitskis is a well-known political activist and spokesperson for the Russian Socialist Movement, but he is also an acting curator of this unique museum.

Presnya occupies a rather interesting position in Russia, which is currently experiencing a “crisis of history,” as Budraitskis described it. Whereas most museums in Russia abide by a state-approved narrative of neutrality regarding the pre-revolutionary monarchy, conveying what Budraitskis characterized as a neoliberal rhetoric of compromise, Presnya eschews this standard. Early Soviet revolutionary museums rejected this position of compromise. In its initial conception as a museum dedicated to the Bolshevik Revolution, Presnya was no exception—the subject matter and exhibitions openly acknowledged class struggle. Budraitskis’ mission as a curator at Presnya, he said, “is to reactive the museum and bring back its original political meaning.”

It certainly appears as though Budraitskis’ efforts have been successful. In fact, the number of visitors has almost doubled since last year. Presnya’s exhibitions under his curatorial tenure have focused on highly politicized subject matter and occupy a position far left of neutral. For example this past year included 3 Days in October, which examined the events of 1993 in observance of the 20-year anniversary of the coup. The exhibition included historical artifacts and documents, as well as works by young contemporary artists depicting the events.

Budraitskis elaborated on the contemporary political situation and the role his curatorial mission at Presnya plays in the larger socio-political dialogue. He argued that Russian history has at least three competing identities, having experienced several instances of distinct ideological breaks, and regime dissolution and reconstruction throughout the 20th century—from monarchy, to socialism, and on into the contemporary situation, which Budraitskis characterized as “managed democracy.” These conflicting identities must nevertheless coexist in order to represent historical continuity and explain how the Russian state, in its current form, came to be. Not only does this result in challenging rhetorical territory for the state to navigate, but this conflict also presents a complication to Russian identity formation.

Budraitskis explained apolitical tendencies amongst Russians (take for example Putin’s preferred ideology of “pragmatic conservatism”) as a result of this identity confusion. With so many competing historical narratives, Russians fear choosing “the wrong” identity, preferring instead to opt out of the system entirely.

This “crisis of history” is also apparent in Russian museums, which Budraitskis characterized as ideological apparatuses of the state. Though Presnya is a State-funded museum, the museum has still maintained the ability to depict a history outside of the official rhetoric of compromise. Though, he admitted with a laugh, “I feel the smell of conflict in every moment of activity in this museum.”