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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Anna Whittington - Provincializing Moscow & deepening understandings of diversity in Soviet history

In the sixth week of our teaching series, we interviewed Anna Whittington, a historian of citizenship and inequality across Soviet Eurasia. Anna is currently a Mellon fellow at the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. She has published chapters on nationalities policy and identity in the post-Stalin Soviet Union and the origins of the concept of the Sovetskii narod. You can find out more about her research and teaching interests here.

PH: Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests

I’m currently working on two book-length projects. The first, Repertoires of Citizenship: Inclusion, Inequality, and the Making of the Soviet People, based on my 2018 dissertation, looks at the discourses and practices of Soviet citizenship, from the revolution to the collapse. In particular, I look at the evolving concept of the Soviet people (sovetskii narod), and the various practices and institutions through which people identified as Soviet (like letter writing, wedding rituals, speaking Russian, and the like). My interest in citizenship takes a quantitative turn in my second project, tentatively titled A Mirror for Society: Censuses in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. In this project, I consider how censuses in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union evolved as a key tool of population knowledge production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Both projects draw extensively on multilingual sources from across the former Soviet Union, a synoptic approach that elucidates how the Soviet Union (and the Russian Empire before it) operated as a coherent whole. To date, I’ve researched in eight countries, and I’ve also travelled extensively in all the former Soviet republics, with the exception of Turkmenistan. This offers a more nuanced approach to understanding Russian and Soviet history than would be possible in research in Russia alone. In my work, I always emphasize that these seemingly far-flung research sites were ordinary and integral parts of the Soviet Union. PH: How do your research interests feed into your teaching? Which courses/classes have you taught or are teaching at the moment?

To date, most of teaching has been thematic and transnational: a first-year seminar on borders, walls, and frontiers; an advanced theory seminar on notions of “equality”; and an interdisciplinary seminar on citizenship. This fall, I am finally delving back into my regional specialties with a course on Central Asian history, beginning with Genghis Khan’s thirteenth century conquests and going up to the present day, which I’m really excited about. I’ve also designed a wide range of courses in Russian, East European, and Soviet history, which, inspired by my research, attempt to portray the diversity of the societies and histories we study.

Besides the specific insights I’ve gained from research and travel, I would say my teaching reflects my research in two major ways. First, like my work more broadly, my courses also tend to think in big terms. A course on the “end of communism,” for example, reads Soviet and East European history side-by-side, rather than cordoning them off into separate classes, using sources from every country behind the proverbial Iron Curtain. My classes in Soviet history—should I get an opportunity to teach them—draw on sources from across the country, from Lviv to Vladivostok. Secondly, my own extensive travel across the former Soviet Union has always left me feeling that there is a wide gap between how scholars write about Soviet history and how people in the region remember it. Inspired by this insight, I try to ensure that students get a good sense of everyday life. This includes, for example, having students page through old textbooks to get a sense of what they looked like (even if they can’t read them!); assigning popular films seen by most people, rather than art-house films who found audiences primarily abroad (less Tarkovsky; more Gaidai!); and incorporating published oral histories, in which people describe their lives on their own terms.

PH: How do you bring questions of centre and periphery, borderlands, or “peripheral” narratives into the classroom?

A variety of ways! Specifically, the lectures and readings I envision for my courses regularly feature insights gathered from peripheries. I especially like to draw on “peripheral” voices to talk about larger phenomena: for example, when teaching on World War II, I’d love to assign excerpts from a Kazakh soldier’s memoir or an Uzbek woman’s diary. Oral history accounts from residents of the Baltic republics can offer interesting insight into the postwar period. A movie like Mimino can showcase landscapes of the Caucasus while providing a dose of Soviet-era humour. Lectures can just as easily include images from Tashkent as from Moscow (or better yet: both!). This approach means a lot of the work in syllabus planning goes into identifying interesting or unusual sources, which is, of course, a bit harder than relying on existing published document collections, but I think the effort is worth it (even if I end up needing to translate some things myself!) My dream would be to have a good sourcebook for imperial Russian and/or Soviet history that would bring together the kind of documents I’d like to use in teaching, with forays into different regional experiences, and with important state-produced documents alongside sources “from below”—but I fear I’d need to help put one together if I wanted such a thing to exist.

PH: What challenges do you face when trying to teach a more diverse syllabus?

The single biggest challenge is identifying good material to assign for students, which, by definition, must be available in English translation and obtainable at a reasonable cost. My ideal syllabus for an introductory lecture course assigns almost exclusively primary sources, and I value sources that represent the diversity of the places we study, including materials derived from both elite and non-elite actors. Existing primary document collections, as a rule, tend to take a much less expansive approach than I like to use in the classroom, so most of the work in course design has been in scanning existing collections and identifying workable documents. For Soviet history, for example, my ideal syllabus would include, beyond the classic range of texts, materials from the Baltic region, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, not to mention Russia beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. Although I’ve had luck in some regions (Central Asia has a particularly wide swath of available materials!), I’ve been unsuccessful in others: the Caucasus, for example, is especially difficult to include in any robust way, at least based on what I’ve been able to find (I’d love to be wrong!). As a general rule, too, the earlier the period, the greater the difficulty in identifying appropriate sources, particularly from preliterate communities, requiring that we help students both recognize these absences and, when possible, read documents sideways, to at least consider the perspectives of the otherwise voiceless (at least as far as sources are concerned).

Beyond the challenge of materials, the other major challenge I’d highlight is simply student misperceptions of the region. Although I hope all students leave my classroom with a deeper understanding of historical diversity, getting there is a challenge that requires unravelling the misconceptions that they bring to the classroom. The (typically innocent) conflation of “Russian” and “Soviet,” for example, is a deeply learned simplification that erases a lot of existing complexity. Dismantling these misconceptions is often the work of a whole semester—and even then, sometimes without success.

PH: What do you think a diverse and inclusive approach to teaching Russian Imperial/Soviet history looks like?

A truly diverse and inclusive approach will, by definition, not only include the voices of women, the preliterate, ethnic minorities, and other underrepresented groups, but also treat these as an ordinary part of the societies we study. One problematic correction to lack of diversity in sources is to spend a week or two discussing specific topics: a week on the “woman question” or “nationalities policy,” for example, and for that to be the designated space to talk about non-Russian peoples or other underrepresented groups. This often conveys a sense that these experiences were aberrations from a more “typical” experience. A more integrative approach would systematically include these perspectives, and treat non-Russian experiences (as well as those of women, of peasants, the illiterate, sexual minorities, etc) as integral and ordinary. In many cases, this requires cutting back on Moscow-(or Petersburg-)centered narratives, and putting more focus on everyday life across the country. Such an approach starts by spending more time outside Moscow and Petersburg ourselves, and, ideally, delving into non-Russian languages, as part of a broader effort to (if I may) provincialize Moscow.

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