Post-Soviet ≠ Post-Colonial ? / Пост-Советское ≠ Пост-Колониальное ?

This section is dedicated to our current project on the instersections of Post-Soviet and Post-Colonial theories, spaces, histories and bodies. While the project itself is still in the development phase, is publishing a short documentation of a very productive debate we had at our bodydiscourses symposium in February 2015.


“Post-Soviet ≠ Post-Colonial ? @ bodydiscourses”

Minutes by Masha Neufeld and Katharina Wiedlack (with comments from Ruth Jenrbekova) organized the Stream “Biopolitical Regulation of Bodies/Corporealities in ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ Discourses” at the Conference “Bodydiscourses” from February 4th to 7th 2015. On February 6th we co-hosted an Open Space Session together with Jonah I. Garde from the Critical Development and Post-Colonial research group “arge bodies_gender_sex”. The following text aims at giving a brief impression of some of the most pressing questions, discussions, issues, topics, and problems the participants of the Open Space session uttered. 

Post-Socialist ≠ Post-Soviet ≠ Post-Colonial?”

8_marta_2Questions that seemed relevant to the organizers and participants were: What are the differences between the post-colonial, post-socialist, post-soviet?

How can we think Central Asia within these frameworks? Can we think Russian colonialism within the Caucasus, Siberia, Central and East Asia and the Fare East with the existing concepts of colonialism (in post-colonial theory)?

Many have applied postcolonial theory to the Eastern context (Pucherová/Gáfrik 2015; Kołodziejczyk/Sandru 2012; Kovačević 2008; Thompson 2000; Kelertas 2006; Korek 2007; Bottez/Alexandru/Ştefănescu 2011; Parvulescu 2014). Larry Wolff and Iver Neuman (and many after them) used Edward Said’s concept and theory of Orientalism for the analysis of the East/West relationships, and the conceptualization of Eastern Europe in the project of Enlightenment.

How useful are these references today? What other postcolonial theories are interesting for the studies of post-socialist and post-soviet contexts?

Some contemporary studies (for e.g. Parvulescu 2014) on post-socialist and post-soviet experiences focus on specific phenomena, for e.g. sex trafficking and experiences of migration as local forms of slavery and diaspora, referring to post-colonial theory. We problematized such usages, questioning the post-colonial concepts’ gains for the post-soviet context as well as the omissions it produces.

The Sovietization is not only colonialism and trauma but also modernization and has emancipatory aspects. The Soviet period is very contradictory; leaders and rules have been changing over time as have their attitudes towards legal enforcement, punishment, privileges etc.; changes in the social strata and citizens’ compliancy need to be taken under consideration as well.

Jonah: The cold war played an immense role in the formation of the modern Western development discourse. It marks the historical beginning of international development politics as a counter ideology to the Soviet model of late industrialization that promised prosperity to non-aligned states of the Global South through an attachment to the capitalist system. Almost 70 years later we are witnessing what has been termed a ‘New Cold War’ that is also tied up with notions of ‘development’, ‘progress’ and ‘human rights’. What continuities and discontinuities can be determined in the relations of West and East and the paradigm of ‘development’? How does the paradigm of ‘development’ shift in post-socialist/post-soviet times?

What is the post-soviet world as a concept?

Russia is a special case. There is no way to avoid developmentalism within the conversation. Developmentalism and modernization imply ideas of universality. Three questions need to be accounted for: First, do we need a developmentalist approach? Second, would it follow universal values? And Third, which values do we understand as universal?

The participants from the Creoleak Centr (Almaty, Kazakhstan) introduced notions of pluriversality as a pluralistic way of sharing views and values (after Walter Mignolo, 2011) and creolization as a form of interconnectedness of all cultures and localities within the globe (after Edouard Glissant, 1997).

While pluriversality implies a certain extent of cosmopolitical thinking, resisting any form of cultural reductionism (Orientalism, Occidentalism, Eurocentrism, etc.), creolization calls into question various kinds of essentialist assumptions in our understanding of identities. The latter becomes especially important in post-soviet context of nation building, deeply rooted in the mythology of purity. Creoleak Centr’s proposition is to investigate transferability and applicability of Caribbean ‘creolization discourse’ onto postsoviet Central Asia. So we could think of the Soviet subject as of hybridized and inly contradictory one, characterized by internalization of the colonial conflict (Ilya Kukulin, 2013).

Creole cultures emerged worldwide as a result of slavery and colonialism, and in the post-soviet space as a result of Sovietization. The group also suggested to understand the Soviet Empire not as an empire in classical terms, but in terms of affirmative action (Terry Martin, 2001), taking into consideration erasure of cultural distance between ruler and ruled (Ronald Grigor Suny, 1997) and known proclamation of the internationalist doctrine. In theory, Soviet communism understood all humans as equally viable for the implementation of the communist ideology/order and all races as potentially and equally able to build the communist civilization.

8_martaOther participants of the discussion uttered that it is important to remember that there were different time-periods/times before, during and after the Soviet period; not every time was equally oppressive or in the same way oppressive, to the same part of the population etc.

What is equally important to remember is that the post-soviet and post-colonial encompass so many and very different geographies (even within Russia).

Question that we frequently came back to during the discussion were, what do we mean by saying development? Are there different developments? Is there a common ground when talking about development and human rights?

Masha: Which role does the body play within these geographies of post-socialist/post-soviet/post-colonial contexts and what is the relationship to the “North/Western” hegemonies? What are the bodily markers of “othering” within certain contexts? How do we deal with it as researchers in the field? What are the post-colonial concepts we could apply to the post-soviet context and where are their limits?

Some participants made us aware that the post-socialist and post-soviet spheres are populated by many different bodies with contradictory social stigmas and hierarchies. One example, valid for many contexts, is the stigmatization of Roma people. In many countries Roma are targeted as the racialized others and their bodies are negotiated as a public concern, especially in public places.

Within post-soviet studies, the participants agreed, the displacement of bodies – settlement and ‘takeover’ of native land/people is in pressing need of consideration and investigation.

Becoming older, your body, your situation, whatever, changes, and the body in the context of post-soviet is a process where you don’t have enough time to understand what is actually happening (because it happens so fast). So the human body has to be understood as something within governance, social experiments and social laboratory.

About National Mythology (of bodies); another hot topic of discussion was the special location of Ukraine within the research on post-soviet spheres and realities. Ukraine is often conceptualized as an unknown nowhere land with the grey chimney (trauma?) of Tschernobyl in the middle of it. But Ukraine is often deprived of its own history and agency.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict can be clearly seen as a nation building conflict; but it is too painful to talk about right now. Politicians use corporealities in nation building processes; in which way can we use the body as subject of our research? How can we avoid contributing to the nationalistic project, and still use the body as research category…?

Trauma and stigma came up very frequently in the discussion about the experiences of post-soviet people. (Maybe there might be interesting cross-overs to Hegel and his concept of the colonial trauma as a wound)

The Soviet trauma and the (promised land of) futurity: it is difficult to imagine a future / work out a futurity, because everything changes so fast.

Coping with trauma as post-soviet academics does always involve painful identities. Maybe focusing on bodies and corporealities (instead of identities) would offer new analytical approaches.

However, the validity of studying the body as a subject remains.

One important point that was brought up during the discussion was the lines of differentiation of subjectivities within the audience; not only geographical locations and heritages form differences among us; we are arguably also of different generations of researchers.

Refocusing on the intersection of post-colonial and post-socialist/post-soviet theories, methods and methodologies, Western dominance necessarily moved to the center of critique again. Questions the audience discussed were: What is the place of the post-soviet and post-socialist in western theory? Is post-colonial theory a western (hijacked) theory, because it is brought forth by western universities and academics? Many researcher strongly criticized the attitude of western research, academics and institutions towards their colleagues from post-soviet and post-socialist spaces; It seems, they uttered, as if there is a fear of the post-soviet (academic) subject… a fear of a ‘take-over.’ The reaction from western ‘friends’ is often “you are welcome to join the western theory production, but only on our [western] terms.”

The audience expressed a strong desire to work collectively as researchers and activists to counter western hegemony.

Given the limited time of the discussion, the audience and organizers left with so many more and unanswered questions that we hope to answer collectively and individually in the future:

How can we establish a new agent of studying bodies? How can the post-socialist, post-soviet subject become the agent of the study? Not just the subject or object?

Is it possible to use mixed approaches? Using our research to analyze and to redefine the past?

Can we analyze the boundaries between different streams on bodies? Which approaches can we use for that?

We thank all our wonderful participants for this intense but inspiring conversation and we really hope to continue it in the near future!

Masha & Kathi


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