Deconstructing the Constant Reshaping of Russian Identity and Memory Policy
From October 23 to 29, 2017, the Department of Public Policy at the Higher School of Economics held a weeklong Winter School dedicated to the subject of the ‘Russian historic memory: in search of identity’. Participants from four continents came together in Rostov Veliky, one of Russia’s oldest and most historical cities.
The entire week, structured as a retreat, was an intensive learning process that combined lectures by professors from the Public Policy Department with a field trip and participatory observation. Participants also enjoyed lively late evening discussions on the different facets of Russian identity, which is being shaped by a range of endogenous and exogenous factors.
The events of the week were punctuated by sumptuous meals, walks in the courtyards of centuries-old monasteries, and observations of how the city encased memories of very different times in Russian statehood and how its citizens envelop the contrast of ideas and identity seek to come to terms with it.
Following the programme, students shared their impressions of the learning process and their observations about the way the school was conducted, including the discussions on identity and memory policy in Russia that engaged them on their return trip to Moscow.
University of Groningen
The research school in Rostov and Yaroslavl was a highly valuable addition both to my personal and academic understanding of Russian culture and identity. Through the theoretical background offered by both the informative lectures and relevant readings of scholars, we obtained valuable insights into concepts such as memory policy, cultural identity, and collective memory, and we learned the true importance of a regional approach to the study of identity formation.
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, historical sites, churches and religious places, and so much more that Rostov and Yaroslavl had to offer.
A close second was the opportunity to interact and engage in fruitful discussions with peers from all over the world. With participants from Indonesia and Nigeria to Germany and the UK, the discussions proved to be the perfect opportunity to actually construct a virtual map of ideas, which were also constructed by students’ own cultural background and through their countries' memory policies.
Equally important, we learned a lot from our professors. Coming from India, Australia or Russia, they also managed to perfectly combine theory and their own vision, thus providing a rather comprehensive set of narratives to ignite valuable debates. If I could briefly explain what I took away from this school, considering the field of public policy, it is that memory policy and the question of collective identity are 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.
Huw Pascal Houssemayne Du Boulay – PhD Researcher
Oxford Brookes University
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’ 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. If you do another one I would love to be invited to participate again if possible.
University of Leipzig
First, I found it a great idea to let this Winter School take place in Rostov Veliky in the shadow of the Rostov Kremlin. The quiet and calm atmosphere in this small and historic town is the right environment to stimulate thought, which was able to get a deeper understanding of the topic of Russian identity. I think we had a very interesting group of students and lecturers this year, which was the basic foundation of the good and sometimes controversial evening discussions. I very much liked the concept of reading literature and discussing it in the evening after some lectures and excursions.
I especially liked the Wallenstein text, because it gave us some idea about the place of Russia in the capitalist world system, which has huge implications for the question of Russian identity. Additionally, Shleifer’s text was a very interesting, and controversial reading, which has some historical importance because of Shleifer’s immediate participation in the debate on how post-Soviet Russia should have structured its economic policy in the early 1990s. As far as I could tell, the question of Russian identity is a rather sophisticated one for Russian students. It seems difficult to find something that is worth identifying with and at the same time has a universal character for the entire Russian space. What I would prefer – and this indeed did take place in the last week! – is a critical discussion on 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 lives on the one hand and to political objectives on the other.
If this Winter School would keep its critical approach towards current identity politics and continue to analyse how identity is used to push certain agendas and reject others, 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 Professor Rajhans’ critical remarks concerning the question of whether Asian identities are really represented in contemporary Russia and shaping the collective identity of the country, it might be interesting to expand the title of this Winter School to ‘Russian identity and identities in Russia’.
Yulia Potapova – First-year student
HSE Public Policy Department
This was my first time experiencing a supplemental activity held by HSE, and I must say that it turned out to be absolutely incredible!
In short, exploring Rostov Veliky and Yaroslavl was really a great way to learn through the participatory observation that accompanied lectures on Russian historic memory, which in turn, were further debated with the animated discussions in our evening classes. Not to mention, I was lucky to make friends with the lovely people who joined the programme!
I would like to express many thanks to our professors who managed to organize this wonderful trip and make it unforgettable. The most crucial point is that through the entire week neither my fellow colleagues nor I ever felt bored! Keeping in touch with professors helped us to broaden our horizons and seek their point of view, which has provided ample food for thought.
Spending little less than a week in Rostov Veliky gave me an amazing opportunity not only to plunge into the unique atmosphere of Russian cultural identity, but to realize many things that I would have hardly perceived otherwise. Furthermore, this trip appeared to be a turning point for me so as to start my thesis on a topic we discussed during the programme.
So, to sum it up…it was definitely worth going!
On February 4-8 of next year, the Faculty of Mathematics is hosting a Winter School at Voronovo, a special conference centre in the Moscow region with lodging and recreational facilities.