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Neither London nor Moscow: Decolonial Dialogues

Guest post by Dr James Rann, Lecturer in Russian at the University of Glasgow. In this post, James reflects on a recent event held in April 2024.

‘I wake up every morning and I am angry.’ This is an unusual response to the timeworn academic icebreaker ‘tell us a little bit about your research’, but it is a good one, especially from a scholar with an interest in Russia at a workshop about decolonisation. There is certainly plenty to be angry about – the slaughter of innocents in Ukraine and in Gaza, universities refusing to divest from arms companies, employers institutionalising precarity – but I also like this response because it does something we academics rarely do: it recognises that, although ideas are our trade, we are first of all human. Just creatures constantly waking, sleeping, failing to sleep; always feeling as well as thinking, and thinking through our feelings, whether we admit it or not.

The idea of trying to take something positive out of acknowledging negative emotions was central to this workshop, held on Friday 19 April, which was part of a series ‘From the Ground Up: Reframing Russian Studies in Scotland and Beyond’, funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which aims to bring together researchers in Scotland with an interest in Russia to consider how we might remake our discipline(s) for the better.

These efforts represent one of many examples of western academics currently trying to remake their relationship with Russia (see, for instance, The Russia Program). It must be admitted that most of these initiatives would not have come about if it were not for Russia’s grotesque escalation of its long war against Ukraine in 2022. The imperialist underpinnings of post-Soviet Russian foreign policy were hardly well concealed, as neocolonial wars in Chechnya and Georgia should have made clear, but it was not until the ‘mask off’ moment of February 2022 – when all pretence at recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty was abandoned in favour of total commitment to the familiar colonial practices of occupation, extraction and extermination – that there came a sea-change in the conversation about Russia in western universities. Those of us with a professional interest in Russia had to confront our failings, biases and blind spots; to acknowledge that, even if we consciously opposed narratives of Russian ‘greatness’, we contributed to them by being insufficiently attentive to the victims of Russian colonial violence, in the past and in the present.

On the one hand, it is easy – and sensible – to be cynical about the flurry of activity in western universities now devoted to the question of decolonising the study of Russia: the financial logics of academia incentivise buzzwords and empty gestures. On the other, as a belated bandwagon-jumper myself, I can confirm that it is driven by two sincere impulses: first, most scholars of Russia genuinely want to do a better job of reckoning with imperialism; second, we have learned from the experience of solitary soul-searching that we cannot do that as individuals.

The purpose of this series, therefore, was to provide a space in which to share our anger, our grief, shame and bewilderment, and to discuss how we might benefit by reconsidering not only what we are looking at but where we are looking from – our shared Scottish home. That commitment to interrogating one’s positionality is a well-established component of avowedly ‘decolonial’ approaches. The goal of the most recent workshop in that series ‘Neither London Nor Moscow: Decolonial Dialogues’ was to make those decolonising-adjacent instincts explicit and available for further exploration. To do this, the call for collective contemplation was extended beyond Russian studies: scholars with an interest in decolonisation but little or no experience of Russia were invited to participate in conversations about the future of Russian studies in the hope that we could learn from each other – and unlearn with each other.

The premise was that, on the one hand, those of us in Russian studies with scant grounding in decolonial theory would benefit from colleagues’ experience and insight; on the other, the example of Russia might help enrich thinking about colonial legacies among UK-based scholars who, naturally enough, tend to view them through the prism of western European and American empires. Most importantly, those who are at the forefront of challenging the toxic effects of Russia’s colonial legacy, that is, those who have seen it first-hand in Ukraine, Central Asia and elsewhere, see their efforts as part of a global struggle (see, for instance, this letter of solidarity from Ukrainians to Palestinians). Fostering dialogue between researchers oriented towards different geographies is a way of strengthening that interconnectedness.

This diversity of perspectives meant that the conversations on the day were often more suggestive than substantive and too wide-ranging to be adequately summarised here. (You can see some of the questions we discussed here, and also a list of the participants.) Nevertheless, certain themes seemed to me to recur and, as such, to point to the future direction of this conversation and others.

When participants were given the opportunity to choose a topic for discussion the overwhelming favourite was ‘the body’ and its potential role in decolonisation. There are several possible explanations for this. Perhaps we students of Russia were influenced by the fact that, even more than in western Europe, the discourse of Russian culture has sidelined embodied experience and materiality in favour of a focus on the soul (spirituality) and the mind (ideology). More immediately, experiences like ‘waking up angry every day’ have made us more aware that we cannot write our bodies out of our analysis and actions. When asked what piece of advice they might give to others, one participant said ‘consider all your emotions epistemic’. This means paying attention not only to feelings like exhaustion and nausea, but also to the bodily discomfort that can come when we are confronted with our privilege in relation to categories like race, gender and position, with what they have afforded us and at whose expense. That said, the ability to choose to be interested in the body might itself be understood as a product of a certain privilege, one derived from of the fact that, unlike colleagues in Ukraine, we are intact, unthreatened observers thousands of miles away from shells, guns and hunger. (A powerful account of the role of the body in research in this region, and of its interconnection with language, is given in Darya Tsymbalyuk’s article ‘What my body taught me about being a scholar of Ukraine and from Ukraine in times of Russia’s war of aggression’.)

The question of lived experience is closely related to another theme that came up again and again, that of authority, of who gets to speak and to whom we should listen. Some things were easy to agree on. We must not defer to the familiar hierarchies of titles, experience and prestige. We must not replace old canons with new, ‘decolonial’ ones. We must resist academia’s tendency to competitiveness and one-upmanship. We must use our privilege to amplify marginalised voices, especially scholars and activists with more direct experience of Russian colonialism (to that end, I’ve given some reading suggestions below).

But there were limits to this clarity. For instance, in a situation of institutional prohibition and, often, personal misgivings, how can we engage with people on the ground in Russia – be they victims of oppression, likeminded activists, or the vast majority who would consider themselves neither, but who should not be ignored for that reason? Is there a risk that embracing the rhetoric and vocabularies of decolonial thinking just becomes another way for western academics to vaunt their superiority over peers with different backgrounds and different priorities? 

Another common touchstone was the university as an institution, and our role within it. What to make of the fact that, while pretty much everyone you meet is enthusiastic about decolonisation in theory, that soon runs aground against the usual institutional priorities when it comes to, for instance, support for less widely taught languages or radically redefining subject areas or engaging with openly political activist groups? This is not an exercise in shifting the blame, however: the university is what we make it and, what is more, any academic advocating for a thorough undoing of hierarchies has to recognise that that might mean taking away their privilege, not just in an abstract sense of levelling playing fields and promoting new epistemologies, but in the very real form of lost salaries and pensions. As one participant pondered, ‘How can we decolonise Russian Studies while also keeping our jobs?’

That issue has not come to a crux yet, and perhaps never will, but it is worth bearing in mind. Indeed, the fact that many of the questions posed on the day were left unanswered should be embraced as a good thing. We started our final session with Darya Tsymbalyuk’s words of warning against short-term, self-satisfied solutions:

any academic event you will go to will be on decolonisation

everyone will be decolonising

yet the soldiers in trenches will continue to die daily

[…]

turn the page

decolonisation over  

return to the status quo

until the next massacre

From ‘Do Not Despair’

Keeping questions open, keeping conversations going can be a way of refusing to slip back to that unjust status quo. If you would like to be part of that ongoing conversation, please do get in touch with me at james.rann@glasgow.ac.uk. In the meantime, if you are interested in recent debates on the question of decolonising the study of Russia and of the regions it is part of, please take a look at some of the resources below, which represent a small slice of recent work.

Further reading

The links below are to organisations, academic journals and papers, open-access articles and other online projects that are of relevance to question decoloniality / decolonising in the relation to Russia and the regions it is part of. Although not exclusively, they primarily respond to the urgent context of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine; they represent only a fraction of the material available. 

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