Looking Eastward: US-Identity, Western Values, and Russian Vulnerable Bodies

The intersectional discourse analysis investigates US-American discourses around Russia, its citizens and the construction of (national) cultural values, cultural representations, and identities. In recent years, public media in the United States, especially the daily news genre, frequently focused on the vulnerability of Russian women, LGBTs, and people with disabilities vis-à-vis the Russian state, the Orthodox Church, and mainstream society. Mainstream popular culture discovered Russian feminists, queers, and people with disabilities as worthy of its attention: popular figures like singer Madonna spoke out in solidarity with Russian LGBTs and the group Pussy Riot, and TV series (The Americans 2013-) and Hollywood films (Salt 2010) started featuring Russian protagonists.

The proposed project asks for the reasons, cultural significance and goals of the increasing interest in Russian subjects and bodies. Building on work on embodiment and vulnerability (Butler, Grosz etc.), it interrogates into the place of Russian vulnerable bodies and citizens against the background of the increasing disassociation of Russia from the US as well as Europe within media reports, tabloids, TV-shows, and popular culture, as well as countercultural discourses. The key hypothesis is that within US-mainstream as well as countercultural discourses Russia serves as paragon for intolerance and authoritarianism that allows for a construction of the USA as the most tolerant and progressive country in the world. The points or figures of reference for this binary co-construction are the regime’s victims—sexual and gender minorities, women and people with disabilities. With the US, the whole global West becomes signified as a positive role model, against the anti-modern, backward and orthodox Russian Federacy. Moreover, the ideas of what makes modernity or postmodernity modern, as well as its core concepts of freedom, tolerance and progress become reframed along and against the image of Russia. Inner-Russian (counterhegemonic) discourses contribute to the construction of Westerness as progressive and tolerant.

The project builds on the massive corpus of work on the Cold War (Whitfield, Lipsitz, Nadel, Fousek etc.), and takes crucial contributions on (western) perspectives on gender and sexuality in Russia during the 1990s and early 2000s into account (Bernstein, Williams). Moreover, it builds on previous works examining the position of Russia and Eastern Europe within the framework of Enlightenment (Wolff, Neumann). It connects this works with the crucial contributions of recent American Studies scholars investigating into the production of notions of modernity against the backdrop of the racialized ‘other’ by using postcolonial, gender and queer theory (Puar, Reddy, Ferguson and Hong). Including works that specifically analyze homosexuality, ablebodiedness and gender-based violence within Russia (Essig, Healey, Baer etc.) and contributions on East/West discourses (Kulpa, Mizielińska etc.), the project aims at a thorough analysis of the construction and purpose of vulnerable Russian bodies in US-national, Russian as well as international media contexts.