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“We are witnessing an alarming revival of old-fashioned geopolitics”. An interview with Madina Tlostanova.

tlostanova pictureMadina Tlostanova is an internationally known scholar whose writing critically examines questions of epistemology, history, geography, power and identity. She has published widely and in multiple languages. She presently is a full professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. Her book Gender Epistemologies and Eurasian Borderlands (2010) is widely regarded as an important intervention in feminist studies and decolonial theory. She also co-authored with Walter Mignolo, Learning to Unlearn: Decolonial Reflections from Eurasia and the Americas (2012). Her current work-in-progress is a book tentatively entitled Unbinding the Imaginary: Post-Soviet/Post-Dependence/Post-Colonial Intersection in Contemporary Arts.

Below she responds to questions posed by Jennifer Suchland, an assistant professor at Ohio State University and whose work focuses on transnational feminist theory, critical human rights and postsocialist cultural studies. She has a forthcoming book (tentatively) entitled Economies of Violence: postsocialism and the politics of human trafficking.

JS: I recently read that in the post-Soviet period, cultural debates about Russian national identity focus on and rely on spatial metaphors of territory and geography, as opposed to temporal metaphors used during the Soviet Union. Given your work on Eurasian borderlands and the concept of the border, what are your thoughts about the current focus on spatial metaphors (center/periphery; “heartland” or “edge”) in defining Russian national identity?

MT: The idea of the post-Soviet replacement of history with geography is gaining popularity and is argued for instance quite persuasively in a recent insightful book written by an American scholar Edith Clothes Russia on the Edge. But I think that in order to thoroughly understand this problem we need to really go deeper than the Soviet rhetoric and history. Modernity as such, no matter if Soviet or Western, by definition, ignores or erases the spatial dimension, as being comes to be understood predominantly through time and not through space. Soviet modernity was after all just a branch of (Western) modernity with a different political ideology (although again, socialism and communism did not originate in Moscow or in China) but quite similar fundamental features typical for modernity as such – progressivism, developmentalism, the rhetoric of salvation, the fixity on newness, Orientalistic and Eurocentric biases and most importantly, the dichotomy of modernity and tradition itself and the colonization of space by time, the predominance of temporal, vector, teleological metaphors and images that helped shape people’s identities and imbued their lives with a certain meaning, however problematic it might be.

Today we are in a limbo, as there is no teleology and no point of arrival any more. I do not believe that people are ready any more to suffer in this world and in their life time for the sake of some abstract utopian happiness of the future generations or even of some other worldly bliss. This resource of waiting for the wonderful future in the conditions of present deprivation and humiliation is really and truly exhausted. History did not end after all, but it bypassed us. The vastness of space that almost always prevailed over time in the Russian history, except for a few swooping and mobilizing efforts to force history to jump, the preeminence of never properly cultivated or tamed Eurasian wilderness comes forward once again. The post-soviet Russia falls out of modernity, out of time, in its Western or Soviet versions, and comes to a standstill. Post-enlightenment modernity symbolically cancelled space in favor of time, but its darker side – coloniality – has always accentuated space in the dynamics of its complex and contradictory relations with modernity. Today when Soviet modernity is over, its lighter side together with its own colonial side is pigeonholed in the realm of global coloniality, which of course stresses space once again. In this case space is a way of conquering time, at least taming it. Space is a way of dealing with history, a spatial history, a way of making historical myths.

The ex-Soviet empire or rather its flotsam and jetsam needs to have some really serious impetus to revive itself, some geopolitical imperial mission which is quite hard to (re)invent for a bloodless, exhausted and plundered country. Who would be capable of rejoicing in the expanding of territories – economically non-profitable and morally dubious, and other such archaic power symbols? Those who feel resentful and long for a historical revenge – the ideal ears for today’s Russian revanchist propaganda whipped by the cynical and irresponsible politicians.

The post-Soviet has been for a long time understood in the West as time and not as space, not as people living in this vast territory. The grand socialist narrative is over and we stopped to be interesting for the world. For all our diversity we have been either taxonomized through a recycled catching up and transit progressivist model (Eastern Europe, Baltic states, Western Ukraine, etc.) or thrown out of modernity and hence out of time once again as fundamentally unreformable (largely Russia itself but also Central Asia and several Caucasus regions depending on concrete political contexts and configurations). In today’s return of geography several internal and external, contemporary and historical reasons merge and intersect. On the one hand the return of space is a general postmodernist trend found in the West and also in postcolonial countries and in the so called dewesternizing group. We encounter a revenge of space on the ruins of the failed modernity. Yet, there is no space without time. And in the global turn of the century geopolitical games the spatial and temporal world models inevitably intersected and often clash. It did not happen only in the defeated second world. After all the well known political metaphors of the American Century and Pax Americana illustrate the same tension between different forms of expansionism.

On the other hand the sense of place seems to be more acute where there is either a syndrome of post-dependence in a wider sense or a syndrome of a victory in defeat as a psychological compensation. There are many examples – from post-totalitarian, post-apartheid and post-dictatorship locales violated by history to my favorite American South with its famous sense of place, “clocks without hands” and painful quests for spiritual and ethical justifications of the “losing battles”. Finally, the Russian specific historical trajectory of spatial evolvement and a sacralization of spatial extension in the Russian history which often acquired an Orthodox Christian and at times quite aggressive (though often economically impractical) expansionist form (the imperial mission as aggregating and uniting all Orthodox Christians), are also quite important. The latter leads to a problematic imperial model that measures the ethics of Russia predominantly by spatial and quantitative criteria, by the absolute Truth and Justice as interpreted by the power and automatically lead to the justification of sanctified authoritarianism and sobornost (as a specific Russian spiritual community) whose underside was the justified neglect of human life, of the individual as such according to the simple model where lands as a symbolic expression of superiority are more important than people who live there (both Russians or the colonized).

Indeed I have been working with the concept of the border for many years now, particularly border not in a predictably temporal but in a spatial and existential sense. Not many Russian intellectuals are ready to define the Russian identity through the concept of the border thus understood. Rather we find an alarming revival of old-fashioned geopolitics with its familiar notions of lebensraum and heart-land and rim-land, and once again, an attempt to transcend the downtrodden contemporary reality of Russia as a paradoxical poor North through some sacred imperial mission or sanctified geography as in the case of the co called neo-Eurasianists. The post-Soviet subject’s revanchist longing is manipulated into one more myth of the messianic future.

JS: In much of the discussion of the crisis over Crimea, there has been a focus on an east/west understanding of power. In that vision, the conflict is between Western Europe and Russia or between the Ukrainians who want to “be with the West” versus those who want to be with Russia. Do you think there is a myopia to this simplistic vision of power? For example, there is the long history of the north/south power dynamic in Russian history, as with the expansion of empire into the Caucasus. In this north/south power dynamic, Russia and Ukraine have both ruled over indigenous populations, such as the Tartars in Crimea. What are your thoughts about the assumptions about power that circulate in current understandings and analysis of the crisis?

MT: I think that for Ukrainians it is not a choice between Russia and the West but rather an attempt to take their future in their own hands. The point is not to see this division entirely through some Cold war East-West dichotomy. We have to be very careful not to slide into the black-and-white propaganda poring into the global media from both sides now. My Western colleagues complain about Western media demonizing Russia and we are sick and tired here of Russian media that is reverting to the basest forms of propaganda shamelessly manipulating collective complexes and cultural archetypes. In my view – and I am reproducing a famous Odessa saying here – both Russia and the West are worse – a grammatically incorrect but quite accurate phrase – there is nothing to chose from here, both positions are wrong. And what matters for me in this case is once again, the destiny of Ukrainians. In fact people both in Ukraine and in Russia are forced to make a simplistic choice between the West and Russia who demonize each other in the best cold war tradition. We are forced to live once again according to the infamous saying: those who are not with us are against us. I believe that life and world are much more complex than that and there are other options in front of Ukrainians and Russians as well and one of them is a decolonial option grounded in delinking from this black-and-white logic.

Historically Ukraine indeed has been divided between different influences – the Eastern and the Western, the Northern and the Southern or in some cases, central European as a specific loosely defined identity. In the case of Ukraine we find an intersection of the interests and power games of not only first class capitalist empires of modernity but mostly the second class not quite Western, not capitalist, non-Western, non-Christian or any other combination of empires such as Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman Sultanate. So Ukrainian nationalism which many people today a re afraid of, is indeed as much a product of anticolonial struggle as anything else. The so called Western Ukraine has never been part of the Russian empire instead having its cultural links with Austria-Hungary, Poland, Romania, and tracing its genealogy to Galicia–Volhynia principality which leads to a peculiar rivalry with Russia. All of this has little to do with contemporary Ukraine but historical memories and pride once again are a very handy material for politicians which we all witness today. And the original conflict in Ukraine is not really a conflict of the West and Russia but a conflict of the Ukrainian people who were sick of the corrupt power and wanted to finally do something about it. They were not deciding between Russia and the West. They wanted to get their dignity and future back, to set it free from the oligarchic unjust regime. True, that quickly the popular protest was manipulated and (ab)used by various political forces – including the Western and the Russian ones, the local and the global, whereas the human lives remained dispensable for all these forces. When the West speaks of the violation of international law it does not look particularly persuasive as we know that the West has been doing the same for a long time and this is what Russia immediately used as its false justification. But the fact that someone violates human rights or international law and then asks you to observe them since it is Law, does not justify your own violation of human rights or law, does it? Because then we will come back to the original war of everyone against everyone. We have to find a global way of negotiating our common future on this planet. So I would not justify the invasion because of the Western double standards. It is really an immature logic of freezing your ears to spite your mom. Besides Russia’s arguments of defending the Russian population interests in Crimea is again a manipulation meant for ignoramus, for those who do not know history.

Crimea is a predominantly Russian region today (although why it is so is not a convenient fact to remember for Russia and I will come back to this in a moment). So the threat to the Russian population in Crimea is largely false and invented to mobilize the popular consent of the annexation. However, a strange double standard logic emerges once again when the Russians are forced to see and be indignant about fascism in Ukraine (presumably sponsored by the US) and remain completely blind to Russia’s own rampant fascism which only intensifies as a result of the Ukrainian events, to Russia’s own intolerance and xenophobia, now practically officially sanctioned by the state, the easily restored denunciations, cleanings, witch hunts, besieged camp mentality, etc. Ukrainian events have triggered the internal Russian divisions to come forward in two irreconcilable camps – sometimes the division goes inside one family, a group of close friends and colleagues. The effect of the injection of imperial euphoria is almost over, whereas the grim reality of the collapsing economy, the lacking bonds between the people who do not share anything except their place of birth, the lack of belief in the future – are all still with us.

Now let us turn to the Tatars for a moment. The Russian media has been pedaling that Ukraine has no rights to the Crimea as it received it in 1954 as a gift from Nikita Khrushchev. True, but the story did not start with that. The Tatar Khanate roughly from the XIII to the XVIII century had political and cultural links with the Mongol empire and later became a part of the Pax Ottomana to be annexed by the Catherinean Russia in 1783. It was a symbolically important event for the beginnings of the Russian imperial march but it was also the beginning of the Crimean Tatars tragedy. Most of them immigrated to the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century as it will happen a century later with the Cherkess people – another indigenous population of the Caucasus and Black Sea region that Russia does not like to be reminded of (a fresh example is the recent Winter Olympics). After the Bolsheviks disposed of the Crimean Tatar intelligentsia with their envisioning of an independent and egalitarian future for the Crimea – a future in which the interests of all ethnicities living there would be taken into account (a Crimean Switzerland model) the Crimean Autonomous republic  within the Russian Federative Republic was created in 1921. In May 1944 the Crimean Tatars were deported mostly to Central Asia officially for collaborationism with the Nazis and they were never officially rehabilitated and allowed to go back home until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Because even under Gorbachyev the Tatars were often given some false pretexts not to be allowed to move back home (like a strained ecological situation), the authorities refused to register them in the Crimea and they often asked the locals to buy the houses in their names so that the Tatar families could come back unofficially. So who came to Crimea to replace the deported indigenous Tatars? Mostly the Russians – as both the Russian and the Soviet empire preferred the tactic of eviction of indigenous population from its lands and then flooding the annexed territories with mostly Russian colonists. These colonists had no clue about the specificity of agricultural models of Crimea that the Tatars practiced for centuries and soon Crimea became a parched place with destroyed vineyards, dying orchids and damaged irrigations systems. It was then that Ukraine got it with no Tatars left. The future of the Crimean Tatars is uncertain and again, no one is really interested in their destiny – neither Russia, nor Ukraine or the West. They are pawns in someone else’s game. But as other Diasporic nations they have a long and powerful history of solidarity and struggle for independence, for their rights, for their future, for their culture, which I hope will continue and intensify. I really doubt that the majority of the Tatars voted for joining Russia in this infamous referendum or that they would ever trust Russia, although the Tatars were promised to be finally rehabilitated…in exchange of their vote I guess.

JS: I am situated in the United States and much of the media coverage of Russia here is not only negative, but presents negative aspects of Russian politics as representative of most of the country. There is little if any knowledge of the critical, yet nuanced, writings of authors such as yourself or Viktor Pelevin, Liudmila Ulitskaya or Mikhail Ryklin. What perspectives or voices do you wish were better known outside of Russia? In addition, given your theorizing of Russia as a subaltern empire, I wonder what voices or perspectives you think are most valuable for moving discourse beyond the old east/west (authoritarian power versus dissident) formula?

MD: This is really awful and we have a very similar hysteria here now in relation to the US which I find insane. I remember when I read in a historical book that the World War anti-German sentiment in the US at some point reached the degree of killing the dachshunds in the streets and boycotting Beethoven concerts I did not believe it. But now we witness a very similar craze with a more consumer flavor – the French restaurant refuses to serve the Russian tourists, the Russian shops proudly announce that they are closed for President Obama or the US congressmen, Zhirinovsky suggests to ban all McDonalds in Russia and the Russian audience leaves the theater en mass during the performance of a famous American dancing troupe. I was trained as an Americanist and I have gone through several waves of such demonization of the US in my lifetime. But this is truly beyond the limits of any kind. The less people know about America and Americans the more easily they agree to this demonization and homogenizing assuming that all Americans unanimously support the government decisions although we know that there is much internal criticism in the US which is again a tricky thing. For instance, I have recently read a number of honest American Slavists’s and historians’s opinions, to say nothing of the leftists, criticizing the US position on Ukraine and in some ways defending or justifying Russia. Psychologically I understand this but I think that public intellectuals have to be very careful in not crossing the line of objectivity and becoming defenders of repressive reactionary governments and regimes even if unintentionally. We can paraphrase Albert Camus’s Nobel speech and say that a responsible intellectual today “by definition cannot put himself in the service of those who make history; he should be at the service of those who suffer it”. A similar homogenizing takes place in the American case – the majority of Americans do not know anything about Russia and Russians and are not particularly interested in learning more assuming that we all share our government’s views. I encountered this many times in the US and particularly in people who were shaped by the Cold War. No matter what you did or said you were seen as a spy or a KGB agent. As with any stereotyping the best recipe is to learn more, to nourish genuine interest, to attempt to understand the diversity and multiplicity of voices and opinions. The latter is more typical of course for the educated strata, for younger people both in Russia and in the US. Those unanimous view points and hastily cooked public opinion polls that official Russian sociology produces today is really hard to believe and do not represent Russia as a whole. Because there are more and more people, groups, social strata who are not happy with the recent boom of imperial hysteria in connection  with the Crimea. These are quite different and politically diverse groups – from anarchists to neo-Marxists, from liberals to national-patriots (imagine that not all of them are pro-annexation). Among the most active critics of the recent events we find students (many of my students take part in meetings, marches and demonstrations against the annexation of the Crimea and later spend the nights in police stations), the remaining intelligentsia and particularly university professors, academic scholars, and certainly the small and weak Russian middle class. Numerically it might be yet a minority (although we do not know and have no way to know), but in this case a very important minority.

Several names that you enumerated in connection with alternative Russian positions belong to writers, philosophers, essayists – they all became known in the US because their views were translated and interpreted by the American scholars. It is still very difficult for a Russian intellectual to make his or her way through to the American audience. It is not a linguistic problem, it is a problem of coloniality of knowledge – of who has the right to produce knowledge and who serves merely as a material, as a source, but is seen as unable to theorize. This situation is slowly changing in the world today and part of the reason lies in the technological sphere – there is internet which is reacting to the changing situation faster and in a more flexible way than e.g. the printed media or other previous forms. So I would say that it is mainly the internet where you still find sites, platforms, resources with alternative opinions, voices, positions. No wonder that Russian Duma is hastily cooking up new laws that would facilitate censorship, the closing of sites, the banning of various media characterized by more nuanced and critical positions. These are sites like, certainly Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper) where recently Ulitskaya whom you mentioned was interviewed about the Crimea and gave her honest and brave account as always. Among the independent political scientists opinions that I found attractive recently precisely because they do not take sides and attempt to offer some constructive recipes of what to do globally about the emerging world (dis)order, I would like to mention Artemy Magun’s commentary on Russia and Ukraine in Telos. Critical theory of the contemporary. There are a lot of interesting events and positions beyond the old East-West divide in the sphere of contemporary art with which I have been dealing recently quite closely. For example there is a fascinating loosely anarchist (but encompassing other positions as well, such as feminist, partisaning, anti-fascist, LGBT, decolonial, etc.) festival Media Udar (Media Impact) which is an intersection of contemporary art projects and tactics, political activism, and theorizing

JS: One thing that has been overshadowed by the current tensions in Crimea is the emergence and growth of a “new left” in the former state socialist region. What are your thoughts and ideas about the various examples of new left activism across the region – from Bulgaria and Romania to Bosnia and Croatia? Do you see this as a phenomenon in Russia?

MT: The growth of the new left in the former socialist region is indeed an interesting and important phenomenon which I think can be a topic of a separate conversation. I am not really the right person to talk about this as I am more familiar with its contemporary activist art manifestations and gender and feminist movements. In Eastern and South Eastern Europe this sensibility and an interest in neo-Marxist, anarchist and various transversal discourses is linked among other things with the disillusionment with neoliberalism and the disappointment in the West. The so called new Europeans are systematically shown their place and fortress Europe prevents them from becoming the real Europeans with no prefixes while the pullback from any welfare state policies in the direction of the rampant neoliberal agendas in their own countries does not really leave the Eastern Europeans many options to chose from. However the kind of leftist discourses and practices we find in their case is often a far cry from the classical left because it incorporates other theories and experiences, it is much more nuanced, we find in these positions the postcolonial theory overtones, the eco-feminist, eco-anarchist and transgender discourses. In other words they overcome the previous problematic narrow spaces of Marxism, such as its blindness to race and gender.  This reformed new left in the post-socialist world is usually very critical to the experiences of real socialism (there is no nostalgia for that in their case) but at the same time is free from the ignorant and unreasoning fascination with the West that many Soviet dissidents expressed before precisely because they knew very little of the West.

It is crucial to divide these tendencies from the nostalgic Soviet ideologues (we still have some of those in Russia) and the remaining old fashioned post-Soviet pro-Western conservatives for whom any association with Marxism or socialism is a taboo. It is really funny how the official legitimized academic ideologies in Russia do not coincide with the rest of the world in this respect. Recently I talked with one Russian “luminary” indologist who was puzzled to learn about the existence of some suspicious postcolonial studies and when forced by the European colleagues to write an article about it, found out from some secondary source that Edward Said was a Marxist. This was enough for the luminary to stigmatize Said as a bad scholar without even attempting to read or understand him. This is what you would associate with the old dissident positioning. It is outdated of course but these people are still often determining the academic climate in Russia. At the same time there is a parallel life of younger leftist scholars, activists and artists in this country who are grounded in the Western neo-Marxist tradition rather than Russian. They mostly publish in their own journals, internet resources, travel, study, and work abroad and lack the previous Soviet isolationist tendencies. A good example is Victor Misiano’s famous Moscow Art Magazine with its very specific circle of authors of a clearly leftist stance many of whom live abroad or are better known there as representative cases of contemporary Russian leftist art like e.g. the Chto Delat group. I have been teaching for twenty years in different Moscow Universities and I have a feeling that now the students are also more and more often turning in the direction of leftist discourses which is a relatively new phenomenon for Russia. Before it was usually the lumpen strata of the youth who would be pro-Marxist, whereas the students were pro-Western and consumer oriented. Today the critically thinking educated young people turn to the new left, to various alterglobalist discourses in quest for alternative models of the future.

By Jennifer Suchland

Jennifer Suchland is an assistant professor at Ohio State University, whose work focuses on transnational feminist theory, critical human rights and postsocialist cultural studies. She has a forthcoming book (tentatively) entitled Economies of Violence: postsocialism and the politics of human trafficking.

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