Presentations by Stream
Revisiting Room 101: Understanding State Violence in Early Soviet Literature
On 24 February 2022, Russia launched a horrifying invasion of Ukraine. The consequences of that invasion for the academic community of Slavists and Eurasianists are of secondary importance to the human cost. However, as in all moments of crisis and caesura, Russia’s war has demanded fundamental reappraisal of how we define Slavic Studies, including a necessary re-evaluation of how contemporary approaches to the field have been shaped and dominated by the Russian state: a dominance enforced by both physical and symbolic violence. Many contemporary scholars struggle to find words to describe Russia’s current politics. However, some of the lexis reclaimed for today’s events explicitly recalls the Soviet past of totalitarian state violence: arbitrary and destructive, exerted over many decades, its legacies unresolved. But whereas Anglophone scholars of the former Eastern bloc have long struggled to accommodate the nuance and indeterminacy of the Soviet and Imperial Russian past, they now face a resurgent temptation to read Russian behaviour as a direct product of those eras. Russian literature has not been spared accusations of complicity, if not culpability, in Putin’s brutal tactics. In a controversial article published in the Times Literary Supplement (April 22, 2022), the Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko suggested that Russian literature, even the classics, is modelled around a template that normalizes and enables evil, thus shaping the cultural formation of a nation intrinsically murderous and rapacious.
Thus, it could not be more timely to revisit how state violence was simultaneously constructed and depicted in the literature of the nascent Soviet regime. The four cross-disciplinary papers in this panel track back a century to the decades following the ‘Russian’ Revolution, a period marked by extraordinary human suffering justified by the widely accepted perception of individuals as mere ‘wood-chips’ to be consumed on the bonfire of insurrection. Drawing upon literary studies as well as social, cultural, and intellectual history, all four papers excavate the significance and symbolism of state violence within a selection of fictional works from Russia and Ukraine, all by writers struggling to process the extraordinarily violent historical transition through which they were living. In the process the panellists interrogate the very meaning of violence itself, its cultural encoding, and its consequences.