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Regular version of the site

Unfolding the Paradoxes of the Past

International Symposium '​Cold War Matters: (In)Visible Economies of Things' organized by HSE Laboratory for Environmental and Technological History was held on December 16-17, 2019 in St. Petersburg. Simo Mikkonen, Academy of Finland Research Fellow and a member of the organizing committee, and Andreas Pacher, PhD Candidate at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna and conference participant, talk about some aspects of the conference and their cooperation with HSE University.

While essentially an ideological conflict, the Cold War was always underpinned by physical objects. Some of these things were clear metaphors for the conflict, such as the Berlin Wall. However, less well-known objects also participated in the Cold War, uniting politics and material culture. A wide range of items were produced for the Cold War: from kitchen appliances to atomic bombs; buildings and built environments for ideologically inspired urban plans; and satellites that continue to circle the globe.

The symposium focused on such questions as unique networks Cold War things establish, the role of things within the Cold War, Cold War objects’ passiveness or agency, and re-mapping the Cold War considering the material side of the conflict.

Cultural Diplomacy and State Awards

Simo Mikkonen has done quite a lot of research on Soviet cultural diplomacy. More recently, he has been investigating transcultural networks between Soviet Union and the West, Finland included. The Soviet Union was particularly active in the latter part of the 1950s, but cultural connections increased throughout the 1960s and 1970s as well. However, the increase was more subtle, taking place within networks that were sponsored by the Soviet state, but were not necessarily ideological or political by their nature. ‘While foreign connections remained limited, many artists for example, were able to cooperate with their colleagues in the West in different occasions. In this respect, Finland provided an interesting ground where artists from the Soviet Union could interact fairly freely with their colleagues from the west, and not just from Finland.’

‘While I have done quite a lot of archival work that has enabled me to look at what was possible and how Soviet cultural diplomatic apparatus operated, interviews have been highly valuable in bringing insight knowledge about how artists experienced their visits, what they did and what was possible during their visits. The picture that can be drawn through the interviews is very different from the one that is available from the archival materials. The main difference concerns personal experiences and artistic networks that developed as a result of interaction.’

As Andreas Pacher sees it, ‘Diplomacy is rarely about war and peace or about 'hard' economic questions (such as oil and gas); diplomacy is more often about organizing art exhibitions, cocktail parties or exchanging gifts. In the case of state awards, 195 out of 203 states and jurisdictions around the world use these tools in their diplomatic relations with other states. Almost everyday, Heads of States and ambassadors honour foreigners with precious medals in grand ceremonies. Now, if we understand International Relations from the typical mainstreams lens – i.e., military- or trade-centered – then we cannot understand how such diplomatically deployed material objects can be instrumental.’

Diplomacy inherently involves the use of seemingly harmless objects and non-humans

‘Think of panda bears or, again, state awards. Diplomacy is a system of its own, with its particular system-internal meanings. As a consequence, the panda bear is  not a biological organism. The state award is  not an artistic-metallic artefact. No, the panda bear is a  political object, the state award is a  political object. The same with artworks, gifts, Tweets etc. The diplomatic system imbues such objects with the notion of 'sovereignty'. But if sovereignty means exclusive claim of power, then any deployment of an object from State A to State B must elicit mistrust. 'Harmless' objects are thus structurally conflictual (as illustrated by 'panda diplomacy'). For instance, there are at least 40 states which legally forbid their citizens to accept foreign state awards. This prohibition partly mirrors the structural mistrust against diplomatic objects.’

His latest publication is devoted to diplomatic relationship management, diplomatic practice and stigma rejection. Andreas Pacher explains why is this so challenging for him.

‘International politics seems full with paradoxes. For instance, violence is used to deter violence - which is paradox. Or: we acknowledge 'sovereigns', but who decides on who is sovereign – and if there is such a deciding force, would not that force be more 'sovereign' than the sovereigns?

I noticed another paradox in my latest publication. It deals with the diplomatic practices of post-Soviet de facto states. Entities like Abkhazia, Donetsk, South Ossetia, Transnistria etc. exhibit professional diplomatic behaviour. They give state awards to foreigners, they conduct routinized state visits, they organize exhibitions abroad, they send friendly diplomatic telegrams and so on. They do this not only among themselves, and not only to the few states that have recognized them (such as Nauru or Venezuela), but also to countries that have not recognized them. This seemed paradox - they are 'stigmatized', they are excluded from diplomacy, but their diplomatic practices are perfectly comme il faut. As a (institutionalized) discipline, International Relations is already 100 years old, but it seems to me that it has yet to recognize how its object of study is infested with paradoxes. These paradoxes need to be unfolded.

Cooperation with HSE University

Simo Mikkonen has been cooperating with HSE St. Petersburg for several years now. ‘We have cooperated mostly in the field of history. We have for example, organized three intensive courses that have altogether involved 120 students from both universities. I have also sent some of my students for longer exchange periods at HSE, and received students from HSE to the University of Jyväskylä. Finally, we’ve had several faculty members on teaching exchange visits, and I have personally come several times to lecture at HSE. Most of my teaching at the University of Jyväskylä is related either to the theory of history, 20th Century European history, or Russian history. Most of the scholarly collaboration with HSE takes place in the area of Cold War studies and post-1945 history.’

Andreas Pacher confessed that he recently fell in love with Modern Systems Theory (especially with Niklas Luhmann's theorization of social systems). His wish is to gradually apply this theory onto diplomacy so as to finally understand many of the mechanisms behind everyday diplomatic practices. While he enjoys theory-building, he has difficulty with generating empirical illustrations. This could be a good starting point for any collaborations. ‘HSE is particularly interesting for potential joint projects,’ he says, ‘for I have always been empirically drawn to Russia and the post-Soviet area for 'real-world' applications of theoretically deduced assumptions. I would be more than open for any such research projects together.’