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Post-Doctoral Fellow Discusses Research on Soviet-Era Citizenship and Language Policy

Dr Anna Whittington is currently a Research Fellow at The International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences through the end of August 2019. She recently spoke with the HSE News Service about her work on changes in Soviet-era language policy, her thoughts on life in Moscow and how the city has changed, and much more.

— What are some of the research interests that you’re pursuing here at HSE?

— At HSE, I have several ongoing projects. In general terms, one of my major tasks is collecting the additional sources I need to turn my dissertation into a book. The book, called Repertoires of Citizenship, looks at discourses and practices of Soviet citizenship and identity, with particular focus on the evolution of the concept of the ‘Soviet people’ (sovetskii narod) and is based on research conducted all across the former Soviet Union.

I am also continuing research on my second book, which will be a study of Soviet census-taking. I haven't decided whether I want to write about the entire Soviet period, like I do in my first book, or just to concentrate on the four post-war censuses, but I'm starting with the post-war period and will move into the 1920s and 1930s if I have time.

I am also working on an article about orthographic changes across the Soviet Union, which will look at the Latinization and Cyrillization of scripts across the Soviet Union between the revolution and the early 1940s. If I have time for the research, I might also add a section on the 1917 orthographic reform of Russian as well.

— Are you facing any particular challenges?

— Most of my work this year is focused on research. Since getting a Russian visa is expensive and it can be hard to find extended periods of time to be here, I want to spend as much energy as possible on collecting the sources I need. I'm less focused on writing right now, especially because I think it will be much easier to work on my book once I have more distance from my dissertation.

One of the most difficult—but also exciting—things for me this year is that I'm more or less starting a new project. Although I have done some preliminary research on Soviet censuses in the past, the project is still in its earliest stages. Since I spent most of the last 6–7 years writing my dissertation, I've forgotten what it is like to be just beginning a project. There are so many possible directions to take my work!

— You have spent considerable time researching the Russian language in the Soviet era. What have been some of your main findings? 

— One chapter of my book looks at the Russian language from the revolution to the collapse. In the book, I'm less interested in the language itself and more interested in how it functioned, how people talked about it, and what role it played in Soviet society. One of my main arguments here is that Russian was simultaneously an instrument for promoting equality among citizens and a marker of privilege. On the one hand, being able to communicate in Russian provided Soviet citizens with unparalleled opportunities for upward mobility, participating in public life, and communicating with fellow citizens—including fellow non-Russians.

At the same time, non-Russians almost always bore the burden of integration and communication. Non-Russians often spent more hours in the school day learning Russian, often taking time away from studying their native language.

Many were spoken of disparagingly by superiors for lack of command in Russian. There was also often a sense—usually more implicit than explicit—that other languages just weren't as important or as developed or even as worthy as Russian. And though some ultimately chose to pursue education in Russian, this often came at the expense of native-language proficiency.

These burdens weren't reciprocal, since native Russian-speakers as a whole were not generally expected to master another domestic language. Some did, of course, but this was a statistical rarity. According to the 1979 census, for example, only about 3.5% of ethnic Russians across the Soviet Union reported fluency in a second Soviet language, two-thirds of whom were ethnic Russians in Ukraine who reported fluency in Ukrainian, which is much easier for Russian speakers to learn. I think this points to one of the most enduring inequalities of life in the Soviet Union.

— I like the humorous title 'Alphabet Soup' of one of your previous studies. Could you talk a little more about how that project came to be?

— The ‘Alphabet Soup’ project is a spinoff from the work I did for my chapter on the Russian language. When doing research in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, I spent a lot of time learning about Cyrillization campaigns, which I thought would fit into my chapter on the Russian language. Obviously these are related, but ultimately, it was too much a diversion from a chapter that was already covering a lot, so I decided to write an article instead. Now I'm expanding the article to also talk about Latinization campaigns.

One of the things that is most surprising is just how long orthographic questions were completely unresolved. In the Kazakh (Qazaq) language, for example, there was a major reform of the Arabic script in 1924, the adoption of Latin in 1927, the adoption of Cyrillic in 1940, and now a new process of Latinization that is ongoing. But even this only tells part of the story—even when new scripts were adopted, it took several years to work out the particularities and adjustments continued to be made in order to ensure the alphabet conformed to the current party line, and often there were several intermediate alphabets adopted in between.

And then you have to remember that there were more than 150 recognized languages in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, some of which did not even have approved written versions yet! All of them underwent similar processes of script transformation

Kazakh, in fact, had a relatively simple trajectory. Things were even more complicated in the Caucasus, where there were more historic alphabets to choose from. And in the Far East, there were also Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian scripts in use in the early period. The complexity really boggles the mind!

Even the Russian script, which we often think of as being comparatively stable, wasn't settled. One of the actions undertaken by the provisional government was a major orthographic reform, which was largely carried out by the early Soviet state. In the 1920s, there was even discussion of Latinizing Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian, since Latin was considered to be the more ‘international alphabet.’ One of the things I will write about in the article, in fact, is changing ideas of ‘internationalism.’

So, you can see why I've decided to call the article ‘Alphabet Soup’!

— How has the Russian language been changing with all recent changes in post-Soviet Russia?

— I think the biggest changes always revolve around the introduction of foreign words, something I have mixed feelings about. It seems that each time I'm in Russia, I learn that new English words have entered into the everyday lexicon. One of the ones that has struck me more recently is the popularization of both the word and concept of brunch (бранч). This isn't a super new term, but it does seem like there are new brunch places popping up all over the place in Moscow these days. I always feel awkward pronouncing these borrowed words in Russian, because part of me feels like I'm imitating a Russian accent in English.

— What do you like to read in Russian? Modern fiction? Any newspapers or social media? 

— I spend most of my days reading Russian in archive and libraries, all for work, so I can't say there's a lot of extra energy for reading for fun in Russian. But there's some Russian language media I do enjoy. Like many historians of the Soviet Union, I enjoy listening to Kino. The last time I lived in Russia, 2016, I went to a 5'nizza reunion concert in Nizhny Novgorod, which was especially fun, since the two musicians rarely perform together. I learned a lot of Russian from listening to music.

I also have a soft spot for Soviet-era films, especially the ones that aren't too serious, like Walking the Streets of Moscow (“Я шагаю по Москве”) and The Diamond Arm (“Бриллиантовая рука”). Right before I left for Moscow, I saw a production of Uncle Vanya in New York City. It was performed in English, so it's kind of cheating, but it was a really cool production. I've probably read more Chekhov in the original than any other Russian writer, and I especially love his plays.

Books to read about Russia:

  • Valerie Kivelson and Ronald Suny's Russia's Empires gives a sweeping introduction to Russia over a long period of time. I highly recommend it if you're looking for a history book. It might be long, but it reads very well, and each chapter finishes with a carefully curated set of additional readings if you want to know more.
  • Svetlana Alexievich's work, particularly Secondhand Timeis a striking portrait of life since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’d recommend it if you're more interested in cultural or artistic readings. I think I actually ended my dissertation with a quotation from the book!
  • Joseph Brodsky's 1979 essay, ‘A Guide to a Renamed City’ is another essay I love to recommend, especially to people who travel to St. Petersburg. I read it in my first year at university more than a decade ago (long before I considered myself a Soviet historian), and I still think about it every time I am in St. Petersburg. It's a hauntingly beautiful piece.

— What is your working life in Moscow like? What libraries or archives do you visit? Who are some of the colleagues you communicate with? 

— I spend most of my weeks, Monday to Friday, working in a combination of libraries and archives. Since arriving, I've mostly been working in the main reading room of the State Archive (GARF) and at the history library (‘Istorichka’). I'm also planning to do some work at the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art and at the Russian State Archive of the Economy, which houses the archives of the Central Statistical Administration. I've also been anticipating the re-opening of the State Archive for Contemporary History (RGANI), which has been closed since April 2016, when it began the process of moving to a new building.

Since I got here at the beginning of October, there haven't been any events at my own centre, so most of the colleagues I've been in touch with are other foreign historians, but that should be changing in the next few weeks.

— What are your thoughts on life in Moscow?

— The first time I lived in Moscow was for a semester abroad in 2007, and I have to confess, I hated it. I had just spent a lovely summer in St. Petersburg, where it was always daylight, and then I got to Moscow and it was just dark and cold. Of course, it would have been in St. Petersburg too! Everything felt very impersonal, it was difficult to make friends, and it was the biggest city I had ever lived in. Everything was so expensive then, too—even a bad coffee would cost 7 or 8 dollars! So, I spent most of my time that semester getting out of the city every weekend. I saw a lot of Russia! Given my first experience, it is somewhat surprising I even came back.

I started coming again in 2012. I've spent time here every year since, mostly in the summers, and lived here for most of the 2015–16 academic year. It's been crazy to see how much the city has changed in the last few years. I've really come to love the city (and now would always choose here over Petersburg).

One of the things I especially like is how nice the area around the river has gotten, especially around Gorky Park/Muzeon, which is just a different world from 2007. For Americans, prices have also gotten a lot more reasonable, which has also helped, especially since I've spent most of my adult life as a graduate student! 

I love the variety of good restaurants, and like most foreigners, I'm especially partial to Georgian food. Chito-Ra is my usual go-to, though I also like the mushroom khinkali at Khachapuri! I also love the growing craft beer scene, another thing I could have never imagined a decade ago! The coffee is great, too!

There are a few things I still find frustrating, and not just changing metro lines at rush hour. I'm vegetarian, which is way easier than it used to be, but I still wish restaurants offered more vegetarian dishes. Most places have at least one or two things and I can usually make something work, but I miss the variety of options I have at home. Here, you have to seek out specialty vegetarian places if you want to have a few choices—or wait for Lent, my favourite time of year for food in Russia! The other hard thing is just how dark it is during the winter. I don't mind the cold – I actually love it – but I find it very hard to feel normal when the only daylight occurs while I'm sitting in the archives. It also makes it very difficult to run, since I don't like to run in the dark, especially when it gets icy.

It's really great to be back here, and I'm excited for all the adventures I'll have and all the work I will do in the next year! As they say, любовь Москвы не быстрая, но верная и чистая! (love for Moscow doesn’t come fast, but when it does it’s true and pure!)


Prepared by Anna Chernyakhovskaya