Beyond the Soviet Slot

For much of its existence, the Soyuz Interest Group has been defined by the study of post-socialist experience. For almost as much time, its members have been questioning the utility and relevance of the term “post-socialism.” The 2019 Soyuz Symposium was inspired by the tenth anniversary of the publication of Sharad Chari and Katherine Verdery’s article “Thinking Between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War” and by the typical “Soviet slot” of post-socialist ethnography—studies of the state and economic systems. These ethnographies have usually focused on the transformation of political and economic systems, and their research has overwhelmingly been conducted in Eastern Europe and Russia. Evoking Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s description of anthropology’s “savage slot,” the organizers asked this year’s participants to explore categories including race, ethnicity, and indigeneity in this year’s symposium, “Beyond the Soviet Slot? Race, Indigeneity, and Identity,” held over two days at the University of Pittsburgh.

Keynote speaker Manduhai Buyandelger (associate professor of anthropology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) offered a novel lens on the study of political institutions by interrogating how Mongolian elections become part of everyday practices and the creation of electoral subjects. Using examples of the sprawling nature of political campaigns and female candidates’ self-styling, she explored what she calls “electionization,” or the ways political campaigns take over democratic institutions. Western powers have viewed independent Mongolia simultaneously as a model of democracy and as a “third-world country,” rife with economic difficulties and political corruption. By thinking through how women have gained space in politics through reinventing political roles, Buyandelger interrogated both of these designations, arguing that democratization processes are more deeply ingrained in political bodies and the everyday than the presence of elections would otherwise suggest. She urged anthropologists not to ignore structures of power such as parliament and elections, as deep examinations of these institutions can enlighten complex flows of money, ideas, and embodiments.

Several papers engaged directly with the notions of indigeneity, ethnicity, and race that prompted the symposium’s theme. Justine Buck-Quijada (Wesleyan University) considered the application of the term “indigenous” in the Soviet and post-Soviet context, arguing that definitions inspired by international bodies such as the United Nations do not necessarily leave room for the complex relationships that exist between people, land, and sovereignty. Rusana Cieply’s (UC Berkeley) paper on Arctic indigenous people’s stewardship of protected territories during the Soviet period showed that conservation policies of decades past continue to have economic implications in the contemporary moment. While presenters concluded that race and ethnic categories established in North America and Europe cannot map easily into the post-Soviet world, they remain salient ways of exploring new categories of insider and outsider generated since 1989. Indeed, as Buck-Quijada pointed out, many scholars from these communities are those most active in bridging gaps between eastern and western academic worlds.

Thirty years following the supposed end of the Cold War, what is the task of anthropologists working in the parts of the world that have lived under socialism?
If the Soviet slot largely has focused on studies of the state, economic systems, and economic destabilization, symposium participants both embraced and rejected these typical contributions of post-Soviet ethnography. Jessie Fredlund (The Graduate Center, CUNY) argued that the state socialist project of “villagization” in Tanzania brought about new lineages and property claims: by creating new institutions such as schools and hospitals and changing the way people related to the state, these policies created new forms of sociality, belonging, and community. In Russia, Svetlana Borodina (Rice University) interrogated the role of the state through discourses of “inclusion” around disability. She examined how globalized ideas of inclusion are appropriated through the education system, but the fluidity of the term allows a more nuanced engagement with inclusion in practice, outside of state bodies. Taking a different angle, Tyler Adkins (Princeton University) considered how the Russian embargo on certain food products influenced the narrative of authenticity around dairy products in the dairy producing region of Altai. Who defines what makes cheese or milk really cheese or milk can change depending on one’s positioning in time and space and on one’s proximity to power.

Through this array of ethnographic research, panelists interrogated the proliferation of various kinds of socialisms and alternative futures generated from socialist experiences around the world. As organizer Tomas Matza pointed out in the closing roundtable, the “Soviet slot” has often foreclosed such discussions, and the geographic and thematic breadth of the panels forced discussants and participants to think beyond the limits of their comfort zones. The geographic and topical breadth of the papers presented at the panel was much more diverse than what typically represents the “Soviet slot” in anthropology. Several participants drew on imaginations of alternative futures presented through music, science fiction, or nuclear ruins—but the question remains as to the nature of the future of Soyuz and post-socialist studies.

How do ways of thinking about colonialism and post-colonialism help us better understand the socialist and post-socialist worlds? Thirty years following the supposed end of the Cold War, what is the task of anthropologists working in the parts of the world that have lived under socialism? In the closing roundtable, Manduhai Buyandelger reminded the audience that historiography is generational—the generation of scholars influenced by the event of the end of socialism has thought differently about socialism than current and future generations will. Some new ways of thinking about socialism and post-socialism have already begun to circulate. Nikolay Karkov’s (SUNY Cortland) paper explored some of the South-East dialogues among scholars from Eastern Europe who are actively engaging with the intersection of post-socialism and post-colonialism. Drawing from Anibal Quijano’s notion of “coloniality of power,” Karkov argued that younger generations of scholars in Eastern Europe are considering how coloniality—the power dynamics borne out of colonialism that do not end with colonial rule—has infiltrated global capitalism and thus influences how we must think about post-socialism. The 2019 Soyuz Symposium participants began to grapple with these important intersections, and the Soyuz Interest group must actively include these global perspectives to remain relevant and resonant to anthropologists everywhere.

Emily Channell-Justice is the programming coordinator for the Soyuz Postsocialist Studies Network and the director of the Temerty Contemporary Ukraine Program at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

Deborah Jones is the contributing editor for the Soyuz Postsocialist Studies Network AN column. She welcomes fresh ethnographic takes on postsocialist life, broadly conceived.

Cite as: Channell-Justice, Emily. 2019. “Beyond the Soviet Slot.” Anthropology News website, August 28, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1250

Post a Comment

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approved. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.

Commenting Disclaimer

Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.