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Regular version of the site

Exploring Eurasian Sovereignty through the Lens of Kazan

On Monday, March 19, Jane Burbank, Professor of History and Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, delivered a lecture entitled ‘Eurasian Sovereignty: The Case of Kazan’ at the Department of History and the Centre for Historical Research at HSE St. Petersburg.



Jane Burbank

Delivered as part of the ‘Boundaries of History’ research seminar chaired by Professor Alexander Semyonov, Professor Burbank’s lecture focused on how from 1917 through the present, sovereignty has repeatedly been recovered and reconfigured in Kazan and its hinterlands as the area was transferred from one complex polity to another. The frequent renegotiation of authority over multiple and redefinable units of political and economic control, rather than stability of institutions, has kept the political class engaged in the reproduction of both the state and Eurasian sovereignty regime.

Professor Burbank has been teaching Russian history since she received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1981. In addition to her professorship at New York University, during her career, she has also served as a visiting professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

‘My interest in Russia began at my university where I studied Russian literature’, she said in an interview with the HSE News Service following her lecture. ‘Later, I enrolled in a Master’s programme at Harvard in “Soviet studies” and discovered that I loved doing research on real although dead people — that is, history!’

Her books include Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (2010), co-authored with Frederick Cooper, and Russian Peasants Go to Court: Legal Culture in the Countryside, 1905-1917 (2004). The latter publication focuses on one of the most striking things Professor Burbank has found in her research, which is that Russian peasants used the imperial courts massively, which ran counter to the notion that they existed ‘outside the law’. 

‘The lowest level courts were used voluntarily by Russian subjects; hence, there was indeed “Russian law” at work, even if the elites thought that the peasants did not understand what law was’, she said. As for the relationship between law and citizenship in the Russian Empire, which has also been the focus of Professor Burbank’s research, she says that the main difference with western Europe is that sovereignty in Russia has not been vested in the ‘people’; rather, it has belonged to the rulers.  

Her visit to HSE St. Petersburg is the latest in a long working relationship with scholars from HSE, including Alexander Semyonov, whom she has known for many years, and Tatiana Borisova, with whom she has worked for the past three years.

Professor Burbank’s ability to read and speak Russian has enabled her conduct primary research in Russian archives and libraries over the course of her career, although she remains modest about her language abilities.

‘I speak and read Russian, although certainly not perfectly. I had to study in the US; when I went to the university it was impossible for students to study language in the USSR’, she said, noting that she reads Russian fiction to keep her language skills up. ‘Of recent literature, I like Lyudmila Ulitskaya; students might like her Sonechka’.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service

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