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The Poverty of Cultural History: Decolonization, Race, and Politics In Post-Socialist Studies

a 1932 Soviet poster: Freedom to the Scottsboro prisoners

Every year the Association for Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) holds its annual conference. This year, between two and four thousand people attended, and there were over 200 panels, round tables, and virtual presentations that brought together international and interdisciplinary scholars from across generations covering everything from History to Anthropology, Sociology, and Literary Studies. As such, ASEEES provides a panoramic snapshot of the state-of-the-field, revealing new trends in scholarship and introducing scholars to innovative ideas. Over the years, the themes of ASEEES conferences have reflected dominant trends in the field: Belief (2019), Anxiety and Rebellion (2020), Diversity, Intersectionality, and Interdisciplinarity (2021), Precarity (2022), and finally this year’s theme, Decolonization (2023). Indeed ‘decolonization’ was chosen in light of calls to decenter Russia in the field after the Russian Federation’s escalation of its conflict with Ukraine in February 2022.

However, unlike past themes, ‘decolonization’ conveys an explicit political message at a moment when rising multipolarity and broader global shifts are stoking geopolitical tensions, in what some are calling a “new Cold War.” Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, history and memory politics have evolved in a way complementary to and been reinforced by US foreign policy interests in post-Soviet space through nationalist claims of historical continuity between a Russian-centered Soviet empire and post-soviet Russian Federation. In this context, an emphasis on narrow and even essentialist depictions of the nation, as an effort to “decolonize” the region, has taken both political and scholarly precedence over material analysis. By subjecting nation-building to a largely interpretive project, we lose sight of how nations are and seek to be materially constituted. In our view, the focus on ‘decolonization’ within the framework of cultural history ignores structural components and material incentives behind the nation-state, the study of which provides a more rigorous and impartial interpretation of Soviet history and post-Soviet politics today. Thus, the following is an invitation for scholars in our field to resuscitate material analysis as a way of analyzing history and making sense of the present.

SEEE studies is not totally bereft of material analysis. Despite decades of scholarship shaped by Cold War paradigms, institutional connections with the US state, and even anti-communist interest groups, Soviet Studies at least maintained a marginal thread of works inspired by Marxism, materialism, and a commitment to US-Soviet détente. Global social movements, anti-colonial struggles, and the reinvigoration of Marxism in the mid to late 1960s inspired historians like Gregory Freeze and Ben Eklof, who found inspiration in E. P. Thompson and practiced structural and social history. Scholars of the “revisionist school” battled the Cold War era “totalitarian thesis,” an idea which framed the Soviet Union as the autocratic antithesis of Western capitalist democracy, rejected Marxism (as a political tradition, methodology, and legitimate basis of governance) and disregarded the agency of Soviet citizens as much as the nuanced texture of Soviet life. Historical work from the revisionist school that sought to overturn this totalitarian view included Ronald Suny’s writings on nations as historical and material constructs, Lewis Siegelbaum’s studies of labor, and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s dissections of the socio-economic structure of Stalinism, among others. In the same tradition, Stephen Cohen’s long support of US-Soviet détente guided his historical scholarship and political writing through sympathetic readings of Soviet (and later Russian) politics along with critiques of US policy towards the USSR and post-Soviet Russia alike.

The dismemberment of the USSR in the early 1990s transformed Soviet Studies into SEEE studies. Cold War frameworks mutated into a wide embrace of American triumphalism.  Although there are notable exceptions, such as works by sociologists Simon Clarke, Michael Burawoy, and Boris Kagarlitsky, methodological approaches to studies of Soviet history and post-socialist states began reflecting the broader cultural turn in the field of history. Even the deluge of materials from freshly opened archives after 1992 in Russia and beyond, while crucial in producing works of history and more, could not entirely buck this political trend.

Important historiographic developments initially spearheaded and continued by revisionist historians, such as on nation-building, have not been immune to larger political shifts. The USSR’s demise along national lines encouraged the idea that, just as US victory in the Cold War ushered “the end of history,” so too had pre-Soviet nations been historically vindicated in their “return” to independence and national liberation from Soviet rule. A historian could at once accept nations as constructed, while also asserting that Soviet nationhood was an unnatural imposition upon a more authentic pre-Soviet nation or nationality. Analyzing the nation as a historically constructed “imagined community” did not on its own preclude the ability to frame culture, identity, or nationalism as phenomena separate from or even opposed to material forces, instead of being intimately intertwined with them.
It is important to note, studies of culture and by extension “cultural studies” are not inherently anti-materialist. There is a rich legacy of Marxist cultural critique rooted in the pioneering works of Raymond Williams and many others. Additionally, studies of socialist and Soviet culture have added greatly to the historiography. Yet, we enter shaky political territory when historians and political scientists approach culture, like the nation, as an essence divorced from material forces.

Indeed, today “material analysis” elicits a number of interpretations. For example, other fields of history are utilizing material objects found in everyday homes to piece together larger narratives about space and belonging. This type of scholarship is innovative and necessary, but it is not the type of material analysis we mean here, as it often runs the risk of making broad inferences about nation and identity solely from innocuous cultural objects and photographs. But nations, for instance, are not a constellation of metaphors embodied in things. Rather, objects are a gateway into historical forces that brought cultures into existence. Material culture is therefore an aspect of a nation’s historical development, not a representation of its essence. Rather than suggest borscht represents one nation or another, we should ask how the contentious place of borscht came to be, rooted as it is in, among other things, certain agricultural practices and market relations. Alternatively, one could interrogate what type of political and economic forces underwrite such post-Soviet debates of cultural particularity in the first place. This is not a call for reductive economic arguments, but a more integrative political economy of culture. Cultural phenomena and ideology alone are too often taken as a priori without context. 

The type of materialism we mean first and foremost uses political economy to analyze historical phenomena by focusing on wealth accumulation, class struggle, territorialization, financialization, capital, and natural resources. In the throes of the anthropocene, access to scarce natural resources has become the sine qua non of states seeking both legitimacy among its workers and capital accumulation for its wealthy. It is puzzling that a conference like ASEEES devoted to the post-socialist world, with the world’s second largest petrol state at the center of it, is severely lacking panels on these topics (with the notable exception of the “Socialism or Barbarism” stream). By contrast, a survey of the full conference program of the American Historical Association reveals more panels that explicitly use Marxist frameworks or at least probe the history of radical (i.e. Marxist or Anarchist) practice and thought. We propose that the cause of this difference is politically rooted in continued anti-Soviet sentiment and an assumed hostility to Russia that is instilled systemically within western culture and the field more specifically.

“But if ‘decolonization’ implies solely the political establishment of nation-states as a historical political ideal – those supposed ‘imagined communities’– then the field has disproportionately focused on the cultural ‘construction of the nation,’ (for example), as opposed to a view of the nation that looks at resource development and control, trade, and production.”

The theme of this year’s ASEEES conference, “decolonization,” was meant to bring awareness to the fact that area studies tends to disproportionately favor Russia at the expense of the non-Russian areas of the USSR and post-socialist world. Broadening the scope of analysis and discussion to include Baltic, Uzbek, Georgian, Armenian, and Ukrainian studies is a much-welcomed invitation. But if ‘decolonization’ implies solely the political establishment of nation-states as a historical political ideal – those supposed ‘imagined communities’– then the field has disproportionately focused on the cultural ‘construction of the nation’ (for example), as opposed to a view of the nation that looks at resource development and control, trade, and production. Thus, the confines of analysis become boxed within interpretations and resuscitations of national particularity as a reflection of cultural practice, rather than anything materially rooted, and this practice is reinforced by the academic discipline itself: qualifying exams, advisors, and colleagues seeped in cultural history tend to produce clones rather than deviants.

In theory, this wouldn’t be a problem if it did not often carry with it a dubious political and historical assertion – that the Soviet Union was an imperialist, colonial, or even anti-national polity. In that sense, the call to ‘decolonize’ the field is a broad invitation to interpret the meaning of “Soviet” from the position of historical anti-Soviet national narratives or post-Soviet nationalisms. The conclusion of such approaches often inverts the decolonial proposition: the distinct political and economic development of Soviet nationhood (state institutions, national cultures, industry, national rights) as a radical inversion of the imperial arrangement that preceded it is eschewed to affirm abstract, culturally inflected immaterial visions of the nation. 

On the other hand, centering the material composition and decomposition of the Soviet Union, and the political-economic basis of the states that sprang from it adds clarity. For example, it is well documented that Soviet nation-building facilitated primordialist and at times ethno-essentialist conceptions of national histories and groups. But these narratives and the national cultural production adjoined to them did not exist solely in the realm of ideas. They were connected to processes of territorialization, institution building, political mobilization, and industrialization. Soviet nations were not simply cultural constructs, the nation was a concrete means of socialist modernization. Historian Artemy Kalinovsky lucidly explores such material processes in his 2018 book Laboratory of Socialist Development: Cold War Politics and Decolonization inTajikistan. Similarly, post-Soviet nationalisms and nations have to be contextualized and explained in relation to the widespread deindustrialization, economic decline, austerity measures, and political dismemberment they emerged from. 

As another example, a question that appeared in many panels and presentations at ASEEES this year concerned the nature of Russian imperialism, which is logical given the ‘decolonial’ framework. When restricted to cultural analysis, one would be hard-pressed to find any reason why Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Thus, when it happened, western scholars quickly branded Putin as an irrational actor, the Russian government as evil, and Russians as politically complacent and thus collectively guilty by virtue of being Russian citizens alone. Aside from a few exceptions, many books have come out that quickly sought to explain the causes of the war by identifying the idiosyncratic elements of “Putinism,” and the “Z” campaign, often recalling the old tropes of Oriental Despotism. Maintaining the cultural interpretation effectively allowed a number of Cold War-era assumptions to quickly and effectively creep back into mainstream political discourse. It is a political decision to maintain that narrative insofar as branding Putin and his regime as irrational legitimizes America’s response–billions of dollars of military aid–as a defense of democratic civilization against barbarism and autocracy.

On the other hand, by analyzing the crisis materially, with skepticism towards the assumption that ethnonational hatred or ideology are the primary drivers of war, the central role of material causes of the conflict, and how they interact with political factors, becomes clearer. For one, in the current era of worsening climate catastrophe, Putin, as much as US political leadership, understands the longer-term importance of maintaining unfettered access to key transit routes and control of natural resources. Yet for both Russia and the US, geopolitical competition and security concerns animate how such access and control is negotiated.

Helen Thompson, political economist at Cambridge University, outlines the importance of such geoeconomic factors in her 2022 book Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century. Since the oil crisis in the 1970s, the US reluctantly accepted German dependence on Soviet and later Russian oil and gas imports due to America’s then-limited capacity to supply the country with either domestic or Middle Eastern oil and gas. However, Thompson notes that “during the 2010s, in a world where both American and Russian oil and gas were resurgent, this connection became a significant geopolitical faultline tied to Ukraine’s independence, NATO enlargement, and Germany’s weak military capability” (pg. 32). The severance of German-Russian oil and gas ties (with the dramatic explosion of the Nord Stream II pipeline) and the reassertion of the US as a major gas supplier in Europe in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is testament to the centrality of geoeconomic dynamics.

Indeed, a once tightly integrated political, economic, and security bloc– the Warsaw Pact and USSR– gave way to unstable, insecure, and poor post-communist states forced to navigate unprecedented crises in a new global order being aggressively shaped by the US and Western institutions.”

By 1992, the collapse of the post-WW2 European security order and the emergence of sixteen severely weakened post-Soviet states with uncertain futures (and unclear relations with each other) precluded stable political cooperation between the US and Russia. Most clearly this dynamic was expressed in terms of security, markets, and natural resources. US insistence on NATO enlargement as a precondition to European stability collided with consistent Russian anxieties about the expansion of a hostile military alliance the country could not realistically join. Western capital’s encroachment on former Soviet oil and gas reserves, infrastructure, and supply chains as well as unchecked military interventions by NATO and the US alike exacerbated these tensions. Additionally, states within the European Union, an expanding political and economic union distinct from yet largely dependent on NATO security architecture, were never unified in how to engage with post-socialist states politically or economically, most significantly Russia. Indeed, a once tightly integrated political, economic, and security bloc– the Warsaw Pact and USSR– gave way to unstable, insecure, and poor post-communist states forced to navigate unprecedented crises in a new global order being aggressively shaped by the US and Western institutions. It was never clear to either Western or Russian elites how Post-Soviet Russia, a large yet weak state armed with massive nuclear stockpiles and natural resources, would fit in this globalizing, yet unipolar world order. Despite the honest efforts of some, the political and economic ties between Russia and the US could not overcome competitive and increasingly irreconcilable tensions. Yet as Thompson notes above in the case of German imports of Russian gas, US geoeconomic limits in asserting control in certain markets were imposed by lack of capacity, not altruistic political cooperation. Because post-communist marketization unleashed domestic crises and engendered new forms of political-economic competition, local and state actors within and between post-Soviet states, Europe, and the US alike competed over how to repurpose Soviet-era economic ties, infrastructure, productive capacity, transit routes, and supply chains, manage finite natural resources, ensure market share for specific critical exports, and restructure European security architecture.

 Over time, a more stable form of post-Soviet capitalism emerged in Russia that, despite relative integration into global markets and massive foreign investment in the country, routinely clashed politically with US-led designs of post-Cold War globalization. The competitive asymmetry of the US-Russia relationship manifested itself increasingly in geopolitical terms. Ukraine, the largest post-Soviet state after Russia, was deeply affected by this complex web of forces. For decades, political crisis simmered in the fractured country, finally erupting with the Maidan uprising in 2013-14. This event and its aftermath brought to a head years of not only US-Russia geoeconomic competition in the country but cracked open fragile domestic fault lines between Ukrainian political capitalists with vested, often regionally specific interests, and increasingly irreconcilable visions of the Ukrainian nation and its history. The Russian annexation of Crimea, separatist conflict in Donbas, Ukraine’s 2014 Anti-terrorist Operation in the East of the country, the eventual Russian invasion, and the unprecedented Western military patronage of Ukraine that followed did not happen in a vacuum. Thus, approaching Russia’s February 2022 invasion with these dynamics in mind, the causes look less like the decision of an irrational madman or commitment to ideology, but rather the outcome of contingent political crises, economic incentives, concerns over natural resources, and decades of geopolitical competition. 

However, any attempt to analyze the material incentives of the Russian invasion faces stiff resistance. The concern is that locating rational or structural causes would disincentivize people from signing on to US and EU support for Ukraine’s war effort. Even more personally, some worry that claiming Russia’s actions are in any way rational on their own terms at a public conference like ASEEES, explicitly devoted to ‘decolonization’, would result in blacklisting. To the extent that ‘decolonization’ endorses a particular political message, the field manufactures consent by imposing implicit acceptance of the narrative over an entire network of publishers, scholars, institutes, students, and administrations. To push against this is by no means a claim that Russia is innocent or justified – to invade another country to seize its assets is egregious–but to view the conflict through a materialist lens with history in mind clarifies a different set of factors and complicates the dominant civilizationist narratives in the West (democracy vs. autocracy) as well as the nationalist narratives that prevail and are reinforced in the academy (whether it be the Russian claim to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine, or Ukraine’s specific narrative of national sovereignty and exclusivist nationhood). Such narratives eclipse how the layered economic, political, and territorial crises unleashed by the dismemberment of the USSR within US-led globalization shaped the conflict.

Material analysis thus moves us away from the assumptions that cultural history presents. If we assume that Putin is a rational political actor, acting within a set of historical circumstances, material forces, and contingent yet limited political choices, then a whole new range of questions emerge:  What is the long-term financial incentive of Russia’s exploits abroad? How have actions by the Russian, Ukrainian, as well as the American state, affected domestic class politics in these regions? If the world is becoming increasingly multipolar, how should finite natural resources be managed? In what way has US military adventurism incentivized militarized resource competition? Similarly, how did the contradiction between US unipolarity and globalization preclude lasting US-Russia cooperation? And how did all of this shape the interests of capitalists and political elites in the former Warsaw Pact and post-Soviet countries? And what is the exact relationship between the state and capital in Russia today? Though far from an exhaustive list, such questions are a useful starting point.

One striking aspect of this year’s ASEEES conference, given the conference theme of ‘decolonization’, was the lack of substantial engagement with anti-colonial and post-colonial theory, history, and movements from the global south, for all the rhetorical gestures in this direction. To be clear, there were panels and presentations about the Soviet Union’s relationship with the formerly colonized world in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Some even examined how the Soviet Union engaged with developmentalist, decolonizing states in Africa and beyond during the Cold War. Yet even so, the majority of SEEES scholars at the conference aspire to work out a framework of decolonization within the field without conversing directly with the theory and politics of materialist classics by Walter Rodney and Frantz Fanon, or the historical experiences these thinkers identified with. Such thinkers were actively involved or at least in conversation with 20th-century anti-colonial movements (and other struggles) that did not fight for national independence alone, but rather for developmentalist states or socialism explicitly. Social revolution and control of natural resources were thus integral for decolonization, and for scholars like Fanon, cultural particularity legitimated the materialist demands for independence. Historical precedent for how to materially overcome colonial rule existed within a successful global movement for socialism. By not engaging with this history in any broad or serious way, discussions of “decolonization” at ASEEES were overwhelmingly focused on cultural analysis to the detriment of the topic at hand.

“Historical precedent for how to materially overcome colonial rule existed within a successful global movement for socialism.”

Without materialism, ‘decolonial’ cultural analysis cannot adequately answer crucial questions scholars of SEEE studies regularly grapple with: Why was the cultural development of Uzbeks or Tajiks an important aspect of Soviet modernization? What forms of national agency and rights emerged in the USSR that did not exist previously? What did “Sovietization” mean for the national consolidation of non-Russian nationalities? And what did economic development and industrialization have to do with building Soviet nations? Was this process merely Russification and cultural-national ‘imperialism’ (increasingly impossible terms to define)? Or was it rooted in an earnest belief in Marxism of the time, that a certain level of national-cultural development was a necessary precondition to consolidate economically viable labor relations and an integrated (to the extent possible) system of production that ultimately improved union-wide material conditions and the world’s first socialist project? For that matter, was Stalinism really an ‘imperial’ culture, or was it a revolutionary and developmentalist growth culture? How did it radically and materially break with the Russian Empire that preceded it? One doesn’t have to toy with decontextualized definitions of Imperialism to settle on the fact that throughout the USSR’s existence, material interests played a decisive role in driving policy in its borderlands.

One panel worth addressing directly focused on race and the USSR. Before commenting on it, it is important to say that we respect the scholars on the panel. We think their contributions to the field are much-needed, and we admire their tenacity and work. Race is a crucial topic that needs critical exploration and study. As a paradigm of analysis, it can illuminate realities of Soviet life as much as the implications of Soviet politics domestically and globally. Thus, our criticism here is not meant to undermine their research but to suggest an alternative form of engagement with the topic of race and the USSR.

One of the panelists presented a paper that used Afro-pessimism to interrogate Soviet anti-racist policy by critiquing Soviet visual representations of blackness. Afro-pessimism is not a unified set of politics or ideology, but rather a framework of critique rooted primarily in literary and cinema studies, most comprehensively theorized by Frank B. Wilderson III, with intellectual lineages to scholars such as Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, and Orlando Patterson. The term “pessimism” refers to an explicit nihilism that eschews the potential of political solutions to the ontological condition of race. In this regard, it is decidedly anti-materialist and thus distinct from the rich tradition of Black Marxism. Afro-pessimism focuses on anti-blackness (and even race itself) less as a concrete socio-economic or class relation, than as something as personal as it is abstract, often explored through both the ontological and structural implications of cultural production, semiotics, and narrative. Such a critique is useful in navigating the sadistic and at times immaterial ways white terror has been (and continues to be) central in reproducing American life since the country’s birth and development through chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and systemic racism. However, the problem is that such an approach to understanding both the unique race dynamics in the USSR and the political outcomes of Soviet anti-racism relies on a framework rooted in the US experience, posing obvious analytical problems.

The US context of Afro-pessimism is key because, as a framework of critique, it focuses on representations of black suffering mostly in the US, and conceptualizes blackness ontologically as a condition of permanent exclusion and social death. This condition is mutually constituted by its opposite, whiteness. The point of the panelist’s critique, as we understand it, was to claim that Soviet anti-racist imagery not only disproportionately and disingenuously focused on representations of black suffering but in fact reproduced Soviet state ideology partially through the reification of dehumanized black life.

As a robust and growing historiography on the subject explains, anti-racism as Soviet state policy was primarily concerned with the conditions of black Americans and their variegated struggle for liberation from the 1920s until the USSR’s end. While the political articulation of this policy went through changes, the fundamentals were more or less consistent, and it amounted to more than lip service. In the late 1920s, Soviet policy (and direct political intervention) encouraged the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA) to not only increase black membership but to center black political struggle in its program. Historian Robin D.G. Kelly’s classic study Hammer and Hoe (1990) documents how black communists from Alabama traveled to the USSR during the Great Depression, receiving a political education and support that proved pivotal in organizing black sharecroppers at the height of segregation. The Soviet state viewed and interacted with Black Americans (as well as Africans, though the political representation had differences) not simply as oppressed but rather as political subjects at the vanguard of the revolutionary struggle in the US.

Regardless of one’s view on the intention of the Soviet state or its geopolitical calculations, Soviet anti-racism routinely articulated the black condition as the embodied testament of US inhumanity – not markedly different from the basic premise of Afropessimism. However, unlike in the US racial regime (not to mention the far smaller black population in the USSR, mostly made up of visitors, students, and professionals/experts), black suffering was not reified to reproduce whiteness within or outside of the USSR. Although ethnic and national differences existed in the Soviet Union, the political and socio-economic development of this difference was not racialized structurally as it was through enslavement and segregation in the US.

The multinational USSR developed through nation building. Soviet nations did actively attempt to assimilate other often smaller groups into bigger ones, though this complex, uneven and at times contradictory process took place within a consistently negotiated and shifting ethnonational federalism, unique to Soviet nation building. At its core, national particularisms (territory, culture, language, institutions) were constituent of a Soviet universalism. Soviet modernization relied on the economic integration and political unity of difference – what one scholar calls “domestic internationalism” – structured through national consolidation, developmentalism and territorialization. It is no surprise then that black communists in the US found inspiration in the USSR as a radical alternative to US racial apartheid, just as leaders in the third world who visited Soviet Tashkent often lauded the city as an inspiring example of anti-colonial development.

In this context, Soviet representations of blackness were communicated domestically to reinforce the idea that black struggle in the US and decolonization in Africa specifically were serious concerns of the Soviet state and communists everywhere. It is thus more accurate to frame Soviet anti-racism as a political and even material commitment to the actualization of black humanity (both in the US and Africa) through movements the USSR (or the COMINTERN) could support, celebrate, and influence, but neither controlled nor directed. Black communist Paul Robeson routinely framed his political sympathies with the USSR partially in terms of reclaiming his humanity from US racism. There are countless other interesting examples. During the Watts riot in 1965, Soviet reporters for TASS wrote about the events as a rebellion of the oppressed – consciously centering socio-economic immiseration and police terror as causes, with the revolt framed as a conscious political reaction to these conditions. Black humanity through political agency was made explicit at a time when US media, politicians, and society overwhelmingly criminalized even reformist black political activity. Even more consequential, the USSR’s open support of the “black belt thesis” in the 1930s, the idea to establish a separate black nation in the southern United States, both influenced American communism and inspired generations of radical black liberation struggles in the US from the 1930s until the present. At the same time, racism in the United States was politically intertwined with anti-communism, as a politics and means of governance, as outlined in Charisse Burden-Stelly’s 2023 study Black Scare / Red Scare: Theorizing Capitalist Racism in the United States.

Although the presenter clearly knows the above history very well, it was not engaged in any systematic way. And yet, the exceptional plight of the only black American to perish in the gulag – Lovett Fort Whiteman – was specifically mentioned. The presentation’s cultural-semiotic framework removed the positions and outcomes of Soviet-black interaction from the political and material context of the time and instead engaged with Soviet anti-racism as an essence, hollowed of critical context. Not only does this rely on questionable analysis, but it also precludes the ability to levy an honest critique of the limits and shortcomings of Soviet anti-racism on its own terms.

The presentation also argued that although US communist and black liberation militant Angela Davis became a cause célèbre in the USSR with the Free Angela Davis! campaign and even visited after her release from prison in 1972, the Soviets concertedly racialized Davis, thus undermining an earnest commitment to anti-racism. However, this argument actively ignored the fact that Davis was a proud and outspoken member of the CPUSA at the time. Instead, as an example of the poverty of cultural analysis, the presenter emphasized that because Davis was not wearing a bra, her appearance alone was a rebellion against supposedly entrenched Soviet gender mores. But more fundamentally, the presentation overlooked the long history of American Black-Soviet political interaction, in the tradition of historians such as Robin Kelly, Gerald Horne, Joy Gleason Carew, and others. As a final point of critique, it is worth concluding that the presentation rested on questionable sources analyzed through cultural interpretation that reflected the lived experience of the researcher, perhaps prohibiting the panelist from accepting that the artist in question of one of the images analyzed [the Soviet Scottsboro trial poster illustrating this article] was trying to replicate how Americans viewed black men. The vulgarity of some of the depictions was precisely the point. 

To be sure, this “lost in translation” process is not only the limitations of cultural analysis, nor is it exclusive to Americans. Historians who grew up in the Soviet Union but now live and work in the United States also seem doggedly loyal to cultural analysis. Part of the reason is their supposed saturation in Marxist theory at a young age, in which the tenets of historical materialism were drilled into their psyche as a component of their education. It is very common for post-Soviet scholars to roll their eyes at so-called “Western Marxist” scholars and dismiss them from a point of “experience.” To those raised in the 1980s, we urge them to think of the role that emergent nationalist narratives played in their framing of Marxist theory, and how the economic effects of perestroika have been conflated with the longer-term health of the Soviet system. To say that the Soviet Union was an economic hell and to cite shortages of goods and services is to recall the economic effects of transition and change, and to ignore the relatively high living standards before 1985.

Finally, we also want to remind ourselves that, as scholars, we appreciate that texts have lives of their own that take different shapes and carry different implications across time and space. Marxist theory is no different– a Soviet education in Marxist-Leninist ideology was and is by no means objective. We are not fighting Tsarism or seeking to account for the failure of 1917; we are simply trying to understand change and state policy through a materialist framework, believing that people’s actions are shaped by economic forces. That necessarily implies a level of causality, which often incurs the distaste of academics, but one wonders whether the reason we reject causality is because to accept it would lead us back to materialism.

The triumphalist American narrative is thus reinforced not only through the historiography that we are all forced to study as a right of passage into the field, but through the field itself, and it trickles down into our students, into the way they interpret the world.”

To conclude, we want to return to the point that this essay started with–that dominant scholarly frameworks and narratives have political implications. For one, it is clear that a negative valuation of the Soviet Union rests upon the preeminence of cultural analysis because it allows scholars to make broad generalizations about aesthetics and ideas. These abstractions are rooted in American anti-communism or, in the case of some ex-Soviet scholars, in the framework of nationalist narratives and post-Socialist hardships. For those of us who do identify as Marxists but are hesitant to be upfront with it, it feels as though cultural hegemony and American liberalism, as the long hangover of “the end of history,” dangles over the field like the sword of Damocles. It makes it so that scholars are discouraged from sounding too Marxist, which means that their main alternative is to make broad inferences through culture, and they fear that deviation from that risks sabotaging their dissertation project, publication process, or job prospects. The triumphalist American narrative is thus reinforced not only through the historiography that we are all forced to study as a rite of passage into the field, but through the field itself, and it trickles down into our students, into the way they interpret the world. In the United States, such a process merely replicates dominant narratives of post-Socialist history, but in the post-Soviet world, it challenges historical legacies, obscures causality, and intensifies national animosities. If we truly wanted to decolonize the field, perhaps we should start by criticizing the theoretical basis, sources of funding, and political projects that led us to colonize the field in the first place.

The image says “Freedom for Scottsboro Prisoners! Let’s snatch 8 black youths from their clutches”

Alexander Herbert is Assistant Professor of Global Environmental History at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He is working on a comparative analysis of flood control that places the history of the St. Petersburg Flood Protection complex in a global context. He has also written two books and maintains a substack
Bryan Gigantino is a historian and writer focused on the Soviet Union and post-Soviet politics with an emphasis on Georgia and the South Caucasus. He is a co-creator of the podcast Reimagining Soviet Georgia.