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Regular version of the site

Conference Brings Together New Perspectives on the Russian Far East

Cape Lamanon, Sakhalin Island

Cape Lamanon, Sakhalin Island
© Wikimedia Commons

On March 28-31, 2021, the HSE International Laboratory ‘Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective’ held an international conference ‘The Russian Far East: Regional and Transnational Perspectives (19th -21st cent.)’. The event was jointly organized by the Laboratory with the German Historical Institute Moscow, Indiana University Bloomington (USA), and the Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East FEB RAS (Vladivostok).


Ekaterina Boltunova, Laboratory Head of the International Laboratory 'Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective' and Professor of the School of Philological Studies

Our conference is a joint project. The Laboratory ‘Russia’s Regions in Historical Perspective’ organized the event in collaboration with the German Historical Institute Moscow, Indiana University Bloomington (USA), and the Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East FEB RAS (Vladivostok).

Our conference is aimed at studying the history of the Russian Far East from the 19th century to the present. We wanted to consider the social context of the territory’s life and analyse relations with the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. We are concerned with questions related to the extent to which we can talk about a special local Far Eastern identity, what its distinctive features are, and also to what extent local self-identification affects residents of different ethnic groups. We would like to consider the history of relations between this region and the centre, as well as the prospects for their development.

The Far East is an extremely interesting region of Russia. For most inhabitants of antiquity, this was a territory on the other side of the country, unreachable to many. It was the land of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, warships and submarines, tigers and whales. But these are only images of a colossal territory with an amazing and very fascinating history. Throughout its history, the Russian Far East has taken on many guises.

At different times, for the Russian Empire, it was the country’s entry point to the Pacific Ocean, a promising centre of international partnership for post-Soviet Russia, a closed militarized border area, and a hotspot for migrants.

At the conference, we had nine panel discussions. In addition to the plenary session, which featured talks by well-known experts such as Viktor Larin (Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography, Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences), Bao Maohong (University of Beijing, China), Sergey Glebov (Smith College and Amherst College, USA) and David Wolff (Hokkaido University, Japan), there were seven panels.

The panels dealt with issues such as the intersection of geopolitics and development projects in the Far East, film and literature, local Far Eastern identities, natural resources and the environment, Russian-Chinese relations, and more.

Sandra Dahlke and Benjamin Beuerle of the German Historical Institute Moscow and Andreas Renner of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich presented their new large project ‘Russia’s North Pacific’.

Conference participants included not only our colleagues from Moscow and foreign universities, but also researchers from universities and research centres of other regions of Russia as well. Active interaction with regional intuitions and involvement of colleagues from the regions in research is one of the priority tasks for our Laboratory.

Talks by Anastasia Ignatenko (Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnology of the Peoples of the Far-East; Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladivostok), Anna Savchuk, and Tatiana Zhurvanskaia (both of Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivastok) were especially interesting. Anastasia spoke about imperial policy related to the Korean Peninsula in the late 19th - early 20th centuries, and Anna discussed the forced colonization of Sakhalin during this period. Tatyana’s talk examined the labour of the Far Easterners in South Korea.

Russell Scott Valentino, professor of Slavic and East European languages and cultures, Indiana University Bloomington

My paper for this conference explores symbolic and affective aspects of the Russian Far East and how these are conveyed (for instance, through naming, mapping, and storytelling).

Imagined geographies is a concept that is fairly well developed in other areas of the world but to my knowledge has been applied very little to the Russian Far East

My goal is to use such tools to better convey something of the uniqueness and palpability of the place that is the RFE and, where that proves difficult, try to explain why (e.g., where the RFE competes with other conceptual categories such as ‘Siberia’ or ‘Yakutia’).

I am writing a book called At Russian Extremes, which explores—figuratively and literally—contemporary Russia’s land, people, and places through history, travel, and memoir. The extremes of its title include geographic endpoints, such as Sakhalin, Vladivostok, and the Kuril Islands in the east, the Russian ‘exclave’ of Kaliningrad, and the permafrost city of Yakutsk, but also its cultural fringes and historical exceptionalisms, from state socialism to space dogs, avant-garde communal experiment to internal exile, cultural opulence to remotest wilderness.

Indiana University has a strong partner relationship with HSE (both in Moscow and in St. Petersburg), with a number of joint faculty initiatives and research projects, a faculty exchange, and an undergraduate student exchange. I served as Associate Dean for International Affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University from 2016 to 2020, and in that capacity had extensive discussions with HSE colleagues and helped to administer our ongoing programmes. I also oversaw the creation of the undergraduate student exchange with HSE St. Petersburg, which was signed in July of 2020. My last visit to HSE was in December 2019, and I am looking forward to returning when travel opportunities open up again.

Prof. Andreas Renner, Chair for Russian-Asian Studies, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

The main draw of this conference is networking—networking with colleagues who do research on Russia in the Asia-Pacific between the 18th century and the presence. The aim is to create a platform where PhD students, post-docs, professors, and independent researchers from different countries and disciplines can discuss their projects.

We want to build a frame for a diverse spectrum of topics from 18th-century environmental history to Russian-Japanese relations in the present

But hidden behind this networking plan is a bigger strategy which has to do with the profile of the German Historical Institute in Moscow and Russia’s (announced) pivot to Asia. So far, the German Historical Institute, like most historians of Russia in Germany, has focused on Russia in its relations with Western Europe, and with Germany in particular. From this perspective anything lying east of the Ural mountains looks like a backyard and the Pacific like the eastern shore of Eastern Europe.

Thus, the plan is simply to open a new perspective, an additional perspective on Russian history from the Pacific, and to encourage especially younger scholars to do so

The Munich chair of Russian-Asian studies is a co-organiser of the conference. And I personally have been a partner of the GHI since it has started to pivot to Asia, too. We decided a couple of years ago to propose a face lift for the German Historical Institute with the help of a series of conferences, a new book series, an online network, and maybe a more narrowly defined research group. As for my cooperation with HSE University, I am also working on a different project with Professor Vishlenkova on the history of medical geography in the tsarist empire.

The conference programme is available here

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