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Regular version of the site

Deconstructing the Constant Reshaping of the Russian Identity and Memory Policy

From 23rd to 29th of October 2017, Department of Public Policy, Higher School of Economics had a weeklong educational retreat in the form of the Winter school dedicated to the subject of the “Russian historic memory: in search of identity”. The school was a weeklong learning platform conjoined in the by the participants from the four continents in one of the old and historical cities of Russia - Rostov Velikiy.

The entire week was an intensive learning process that combined the lectures by the Professors of the Public Policy Department followed by the field trip and participatory observation, taking notes in the field trip, observing the Russian classics that discusses the various phases of the Russian history and in the late evening a lively discussion on the different gamut and facets of the Russian identity that is being shaped and formatted by a range of endogenous as well as exogenous curves of the history.

Of course, it was well punctuated by the sumptuous meals. The students did enjoy a lot the field work that combined taking notes and observing the varied landscape of the city discussing during the walk the theoretical lectures and trying to find the semblance of the same Walking in the historical courtyard of the centuries old monasteries and observing the statue of Lenin with a street named after Karl Marx that leads to the Church Rostov Velikiy encased the memories of very different time of the Russian statehood and its citizens enveloping the contrast of ideas and identity in its history and is trying to come to terms with it. The students did share their impression and here go some of those that tries to encapsulate their impression of the learning process, an observation about the way the school was conducted and the range of discussion that they kept themselves engaged with even while returning on their way back to Moscow with an enriched understanding and appreciation about the “identity and memory policy in Russia”


Dragalina Vranceanu
University of Groningen Holland

The Research School in Rostov and Yaroslavl was a highly valuable addition to my both personal and academic understanding of the Russian culture and Russian identity. Through the theoretical background offered to us both by the informative lectures and relevant readings of scholars, we got valuable insights into concepts such as memory policy, cultural identity, collective memory, and we learned the true importance of a regional approach to the study of Identity formation. Supplemented by the actual fieldwork we conducted and participatory observation of the local surroundings, customs and traditions, we had also constructed our own view on those same exact concepts. What I took from this research school was, foremost, the ability to make assumptions and predictions about identity formation based on brief observations of buildings, street names, infrastructure, cultural objects, historic sights, churches and religious places, and so much more that Rostov and Yaroslavl had to offer and show to the enthusiastic students and young researchers.

The close second most valuable thing was the possibility to interact and engage in fruitful discussions with peers from all over the world. From Indonesia and Nigeria to Germany and the UK, the discussion sessions proved to be the perfect opportunity to actually construct a virtual map of thoughts and ideas, which were too constructed by the students’ own cultural background and through their countries' memory policy. Such a broad spectrum of fresh ideas has the potential to generate generally applicable knowledge.

Equally important, we learned a lot from our professors. They too, coming from India, Australia or Russia, managed to perfectly combine theory and their own vision on things, thus providing a rather comprehensive set of narratives to occupy our minds with and ignite valuable debates. If I could briefly explain what I took away from this school, considering the field of public policy, It is my opinion that memory policy and the question of collective identity is highly important for a state that, after having created the necessary level of comfort and inclusiveness through economic stability and social equality, wants to keep its people united and with an intrinsic sense of belonging. Apart from the moral underpinnings of this thought, the practicality of implementing such a policy creates high levels of political approval and a healthy, happy society.


Huw Pascal Houssemayne Du Boulay
Oxford Brookes University PhD Researcher

The theme is very important for anybody studying Russia as how a state tries to portray its own identity is crucial to understanding how it will try to act/justify its actions in a wider context. So, the changing from a more "European" perspective that was mentioned in Professor Rajhans’s lecture to something more "looking east" in regard of the geopolitical situation is important.

However, these are constantly changing and I feel that one thing students failed to grasp is that there is no end to identity building. It will never end. But the discussions on what is included and what is not included in Russian identity discourse/creation were very useful and interesting. I would also think that a couple of contrasting texts for each day would be useful to spark a debate. I would also say that I would have preferred a larger proportion of Russian students at the school as what we had meant that we could not learn so easily from a local perception as one would have liked.

However, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I had and it helped me a lot to conceptualize my own ideas better. What I take away from this school is in reality how complex the ideas of identity and memory policy are and that is important. If you do another one I would love to be invited to participate again if possible.

Kristopher Pitz
University of Leipzig

First of all I found it a great idea to let this Winter School take place in Rostov Veliki in the shadow of the Rostov Kremlin. The quiet and calm atmosphere in this small and historic town is the right surrounding to create some thoughts, which was able to get a deeper understanding of the topic of Russian identity. I think we had a very interesting and heterogeneous group of students and lecturers this year, which was the basic foundation of the good and sometimes controversial evening discussions. I liked the concept of reading literature and discussing it in the evening after some lectures and some excursions very much.

 I especially liked the Wallenstein text, because it gave us some idea about the place of Russia in the capitalist world system, which has got huge implications in the question of Russian identity. Also the Shleifer’s text was a very interesting, and controversial reading, which has some historical importance because of Shleifers immediate participation in the debate how the post-Soviet Russia should structure its economic policy in the early 90's. As far as I could observe it, the question of Russian identity is a rather sophisticated and unsolved one to the Russian students. It seems difficult to find something, which is worth identifying with and has at the same time a universal character for the whole Russian space. What I would prefer - and this indeed did take place in the last week! - is the critical discussion how elements of identity and historical narratives are used by political and state powers to justify their current policies. The way those hybrid identities are constructed and assembled is always closely connected to the economic situation and people's everyday life on the one hand and to political objectives on the other hand.

 If this Winter School would keep its critical approach towards current identity politics and keeps analyzing how identity is used to push certain agendas and reject other ones, I think it will be very valuable to both the Russian and the international academic discussion on Russia. Keeping in mind that we discussed the Eurasian questions and Prof. Rajhans critical remarks concerning the question if Asian identities are really represented in current Russia and shaping the collective identity of the country, it might be an idea to expand the title of this Winter School to "Russian identity and identities in Russia".

Yulia Potapova – First year student
Public Policy Department HSE

My name is Yulia, I am a first-year student of the Master’s Program ‘Political analysis and public policy’ To start with, it is necessary to mention that this was my first time experiencing such kind of additional activities, held by HSE, which I must say, turned out to be absolutely incredible!

In short, exploring  Rostov Velikiy and Yaroslavl’ was very much of a great pursuit for learning with  ‘Participatory observation’  that were accompanied  with lectures on the Russian historic memory, which in its turn, were further debated and discussed with the animated discussionsin our evening classes. Not to mention, I was lucky to make friends with the lovely people who joined the Program! The majority of us were international students who appeared to be so thirsty to grasp ‘a mysterious Russian soul’ that I could hardly imagine…The guys’ pure enthusiasm and careful attitude to the cultural heritage were very touching as well as mutually enlightening for every single participant.

Most importantly, I would like to express many thanks to our dear professors who managed to organize this wonderful trip, make it unforgettable and definitely hilarious as not only we kept sinking in papers and facts, desperately trying to absorb a large amount of information, but still we had so much fun just being in very common situations! Take our runs not to miss the train (forth and back) or the crazy laugh we had trying to sneak into the closed! Kremlin in the middle of the night… The most crucial point is that through the whole week neither my fellow colleagues, nor I ever felt bored! Keeping in touch with professors helped us to widen our horizons, freely get their point of view with a lot of (empirically based strictly) assumptions and explanations, the extract of which became ample food for thought…and actually still is until now.

Spending little less than a week in Rostov Velikiy gave me an amazing opportunity to not only plunge into the unique atmosphere of the Russian cultural identity, but realize many things which otherwise I would have hardly perceived. Furthermore, this trip appeared to be a turning point for me so as to start my thesis under a topic which was one of the outcomes we had reached during our Research School while elaborating the paper with our conclusions and reflections of personal experience.  

So, to sum it up…that was definitely worth going!