Soviet Writers Between Center and Periphery, or How I Discovered My Dissertation Topic in a Village
In a 1980 article comparing the disciplines of history and anthropology, Bernard Cohn wrote, with a bit of a wink, that “Historians and anthropologists have a common subject matter, ‘otherness;’ one field constructs and studies ‘otherness’ in space, the other in time.” Traditionally, anthropologists have conducted “field research” in villages far from urban academic centers; historians, meanwhile, have their own version of the anthropologist’s “field”—archives. In the 40 years since Cohn wrote his article, both history and anthropology have diversified their methods considerably, but there remains a kernel of truth in his description. In Soviet history, certainly, many historians still view their “field” as the central state archives in Moscow. Research trips to places outside Moscow and St. Petersburg are increasingly common, but certainly not a must for many, if not most, Russian and Soviet historians.
Perhaps the reason that I have long been sympathetic to the discipline of anthropology was that in my early twenties I spent a fair amount of time chasing otherness in space as well as time. Studying history as an undergraduate at Arizona State University, I was drawn to places on the “periphery” of the former Soviet Union, spending a year studying in Yerevan, Armenia, and then another year teaching in Comrat, Moldova, after graduation. These sorts of travel destinations were actually quite common among my friends who studied Russian at ASU, where students like me had the opportunity to study many languages of the former USSR at the summer Critical Languages Institute. It was only when I started meeting people from Russian language programs at other universities that I found out that this was “weird.”
Figure 1: Comrat, Moldova, Google Maps
These early encounters with the region deeply impacted my perspective as a historian. One of my primary goals has been to show that a great deal can be learned about the Soviet Union when we study people who live far from Moscow. The idea that one can study important social and cultural processes in places distant from any capital city is hardly a revelation to anthropologists, whose entire discipline was founded on this idea. Still, I have found that many historians are still quite skeptical of the idea that there is much to be learned about Soviet history from studying a place like Armenia or Moldova. My own research journey has convinced me otherwise, however.
The seed of the idea of my dissertation was planted in the summer of 2012, when I returned to Comrat, Moldova, to conduct research for my master’s thesis. That summer, I had the great pleasure of living with a wonderful host family who loved to talk around the kitchen table. One day, I mentioned that I was going to visit the Gagauz ethnographic museum in the village of Beşalma. I had already been before, the first time I lived in Moldova, but looked forward to visiting the small, quirky museum again, with its many displays of farm tools and handicrafts made by Gagauz peasants. The father of my host family, it turned out, happened to be from Beșalma (although he grew up far from there after his family was dekulakized in the late 1940s). He regaled me with stories about the museum’s founder, Dmitri Kara Çoban, who was also a native of Beșalma. Kara Çoban had managed to graduate from Moscow’s Gorky Literary Institute, the training ground of the Soviet Union’s future writers and critics, but instead of taking a job in Moscow or the Moldovan capital of Chișinău, he had returned to Beșalma to write poetry. (He was apparently fond of riding his bicycle around town, occasionally pausing to jot down a stanza.) Eventually Kara Çoban threw himself into the project of organizing a Gagauz ethnographic museum—the first of its kind anywhere in the world—and set about gathering materials from villages across southern Moldova. He set out to convince other Gagauz people that the material culture and folk traditions of the Gagauz village were the priceless national heritage of the Gagauz people.
Figure 2: Village of Beșalma, photo by author
Figure 3: Exhibit in Dmitri Kara Çoban's Gagauz ethnographic museum, photo by author
Figure 4: Exhibit of a plow in Dmitri Kara Çoban's Gagauz ethnographic museum, photo by author
When I did a bit more research into Kara Çoban (full disclosure: I read his Russian Wikipedia article), I was amazed that someone from his background had attended the Gorky Literary Institute in the first place. Growing up in Beșalma in the 1940s, he had lived through occupation by Axis powers, a postwar famine that claimed the lives of half of his fellow villagers, and the trauma of collectivization. Moreover, Kara Çoban was an ethnic minority from a village on the edge of the Soviet Union. Surely he was an anomaly! I made a mental note to look into the history of the Gorky Literary Institute in the future.
Figure 5: The graves of Dmitri Kara Çoban and his wife Zinaida, not far from the museum, photo by author
A few years later, when I was conducting preliminary research for my dissertation as a PhD student at Harvard, I started reading works by other Soviet authors who shared Kara Çoban’s hardscrabble peasant background, including the Azerbaijani author Akram Aylisli and the Armenian author Hrant Matevosyan. It turned out that they, too, studied in Moscow. Aylisli attended the Higher Literary Courses at the Gorky Literary Institute, while Matevosyan studied at the Higher Screenwriting Courses organized by the USSR Union of Filmmakers. I then discovered, somewhat belatedly, that there was an entire group of Russian writers who came from villages as well, the so-called Village Prose writers or derevenshchiki. Many of them had also studied at the Gorky Literary Institute. Kara Çoban’s path from a village to the Soviet Union’s most prestigious institution for aspiring writers turned out to be quite a common one.
I ended up writing my dissertation, “The Cultural Politics of the Nation in the Soviet Union after Stalin,” on the contributions of rural-born intellectuals to the development of Soviet thought about national identity and culture. I discovered that shortly after Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet literary elites founded the Higher Literary Courses at the Gorky Literary Institute, welcoming writers from the non-Russian republics and the Russian regions to Moscow to study for two years. The former peasants who enrolled in the Courses joined the ranks of the former peasants who were already studying in Gorky Literary Institute’s regular program, having benefitted from affirmative action for veterans in the late 1940s. The Gorky Literary Institute, it turned out, vacuumed up peasant youths from villages all over the Soviet Union and turned them into Soviet writers. As I describe in my dissertation, the writers who studied in these programs injected a different perspective on Soviet life into official Soviet literature. They had survived the difficult conditions in the post-collectivization village, conditions that only worsened after the outbreak of the Second World War. After migrating to cities and joining elite intellectual circles, however, they rejected the dominant Soviet notion that villages and peasants were inherently backwards. Rather, they argued, the values of the village ought to be the guiding lights of their respective national groups—and the Soviet Union as a whole. The circulation of intellectuals from the Soviet periphery to the center had a major impact on Soviet ideology in the post-Stalin era. Scholars of Russian Village Prose had noticed this development before, but my dissertation shows that it was a pan-Soviet phenomenon.
Figure 6: Inside the Gorky Literary Institute (2016), photo by author
Dmitri Kara Çoban, it seems, was hardly an anomaly. His life, rather, was emblematic of much larger trends in Soviet culture and society. And, although they left traces in the central Moscow archives, they are trends that I never would have discovered if I had not traveled to the village of Beșalma on the Budjak steppe in southern Moldova.
Erin Hutchinson is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. During the academic year 2020-2021, she is working on her book manuscript as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She defended her dissertation and graduated with a PhD in History from Harvard University in May 2020. For more see her faculty page or personal website.
 Bernard S. Cohn, “History and Anthropology: The State of Play,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, no. 2 (1980): 198–221.