Andrii Portnov: Winter Academy ‘Beyond History and Identity’. New Perspectives on Aesthetics, Politics, and Society in Eastern Europe (December 2-12, Berlin) – A Report
The primary goal of our Winter Academy ‘Beyond History and Identity’. New Perspectives on Aesthetics, Politics, and Society in Eastern Europe was to reflect on the current state and perspectives of studying Eastern Europe and to face the domination of essentialized ‘identity’-centered interpretations of the violent conflicts on post-communist space: from the war in ex-Yugoslavia to the war in eastern Ukraine. In our view, the case of Ukraine poses an inspiring research challenge in the context of the reconsideration of borderlands as contact zones and sys¬tems of communication that generate hybrid identities and create political, economic, and cul¬tural practices that combine different, sometimes mutually exclusive attitudes and values.
Our hope was to try out a more dynamic approach to the field of East European and Slavic studies, to move beyond the limits of the intellectual temptation to explain the current conflicts as the re-incarnation of old ones, and to help replacing reductive historicization with responsible contextualization. We decided to approach the issue with a presumption that transnational research on topics such as the sociocultural hybridity of societies in transition, or peaceful coex-istence and violence in diversified societies and border regions, could also bring important in¬sights into the ongoing debate about Europe, its borders, and its future in the global context.
We proposed to look for answers to the following questions: What perspectives and insights could a transregional approach bring to research on Eastern Europe? Why do we need the transregional perspective to understand the situation in Ukraine, Russia, or Serbia better? How could Ukrainian and Eastern European studies be redefined in a more inclusive way? How could topics and examples from Eastern Europe enrich transregional studies and global history?
We decided to discuss the problems of aesthetics and politics, translation and untranslatability, the comparative and entangled research of violence, identifications, hybridity, economic infrastructure, situational nationalism and situational bilingualism with a group of scholars from different countries and academic disciplines.
The Winter Academy was chaired by a steering committee that included Rory Finnin (University of Cambridge), Susi K. Frank (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Ilia Gerasimov (Ab Imperio), Olena Haleta (Ivan Franko Lviv University), Anna Colin-Lebedev (Sciences Po Paris), Magdalena Marszałek (Universität Potsdam), Annette Werberger (Europa- Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder), and me.
In our ‘Concept Note’ we outlined: ‘Rather than simply discussing the role of history and identity, we would like to reflect upon the complexity and ambiguous nature of entanglements in historically grown condensed spaces of multinational (post-)imperial border regions and search for new vocabularies and insights to grasp trajectories of their political and cultural developments’.
Our call for applications was distributed broadly and we received more than 100 proposals.
Twenty-one participants were selected. They were PhD students and post-docs in literary theory, socio-cultural anthropology, history of theater, history of nationalism and national identity, contemporary art, psychology and human geography, political sciences and government, Balkans Studies, philosophy, sociology, contemporary history of Eastern Europe, social anthropology, and linguistics. They are affiliated to the universities or research institutions in Belarus, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and the United States of America. The group of participants included scholars who already teach at the university or participate in administrative or non-governmental work in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
The main structural elements of our Winter Academy were project presentations and thematic sessions. Every participant presented her/his project and the presentation was followed by discussion. At the thematic sessions participants (and some members of the steering committee) presented readings suggested by them. For both activities participants were divided into three thematic groups, that convened in parallel sessions.
The Roundtable ‘The politics of Memory, History and Identity in Eastern Europe’ moderated by Anna Colin Lebedev was designed as pne of the common events where all the participants participated. In the same way a meeting with Ukrainian poets Liubov Yakymchuk, Aleksandr Kabanov and Marianna Kijanowska was designed as a common event. It was organized and moderated by Susi K. Frank with the support of two participants, Meg Jackson and Tania Bulakh, who helped with simultaneous translation and reading the English versions of the poems.
Another type of Winter Academy`s activities was a project visit to the Centre Marc Bloch where the research project ‘Phantom Borders in East Central Europe’ was introduced by Béatrice von Hirschhausen and Sabine von Löwis. One day of the Winter Academy was devoted to a visit to the European University Viadrina at Frankfurt-Oder. The Viadrina-Day consisted of: A roundtable on ‘Understanding Violence in Post-Socialist Europe’ (with the participation of Claudia Weber and Andrii Portnov, and moderated by Alexander Wöll), a presentation of the project ‘B/Orders in Motion: Cultural Competence in the Entangled History of Central and Eastern Europe’ (introduced by Annette Werberger), and an introduction to the Collegium Polonicum situated on the Polish side of the border, in the town of Słubice.
Several public events were part of the Winter Academy as well. The poetry reading and discussion ‘Fragmentation and Translation. Language and Poetry in Ukraine’ was held in German at the Literarisches Colloquim Berlin. The discussion with four writers from Ukraine who write in Russian and Ukranian, Aleksandr Kabanov, Liubov Yakymchuk, Marianna Kijanowska, Serhii Zhadan was moderated by Susi K. Frank and translated by Khrystyna Nazarkevych. Jane Burbank from New York University (currently Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin) gave an open lecture ‘How Space becomes Place: Russia`s Eurasian Trajectories’ at the Osteuropa-Institut of the Freie Universität Berlin. It was introduced by Getrud Pickhan and moderated by Andreas Eckert. Finally, the Berliner Seminar of the research program Europe in the Middle East-The Middle East in Europe (EUME) on the theme ‘EuroMaidanTahrir: Trajectories of Revolution and Violence in Eastern Europe and the Arab World’ took place at the Forum Transregionale Studien. The enlightened discussion with Mayssun Succarie(King’s College / EUME Fellow 2015-16) and a special guest of the Winter Academy and the first fellow of Berlin-Brandenburg Ukrainian Initiative Nataliya Gumenyuk was moderated by Cilja Harders.
An additional, spontaneous visit of the Winter Academy to the ‘Osteuropa’ journal was suggested by the participants and immediately organized. We were warmly welcomed by Manfred Sapper who shared valuable comments on the historical development and current state of the Slavic studies in Germany.
The research topics presented by the participants included inquiries into the role of theater in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia, and Ukraine in the context of historical conflict and reconciliation; Polish and Jewish ‘visual nationalisation’ in 1848–1918; art and politics in modern dictatorship (from Eastern Europe to South America).
Post-Soviet Ukraine historiography of the Second World War, contemporary Belarusian nationalism, ‘destalinization’ in Russia, perceptions of Ukrainians in communist Czechoslovakia in 1945–1989, Soviet violence in Lithuania, ‘post-communist perspectives on postcolonial studies’, and the trajectories of Croatia and Serbia (‘from Balkanization to Europeanization’) were discussed in a broader frame of local, regional and transnational politics of memory.
A set of topics related to the issues of citizenship and identity contained presentations on ‘consumer citizenship in Ukraine’; ethnicization on the Polish-Belarusian border; the social relevance of history in Poland, Russia and Ukraine; ‘linguistic and semiotic landscapes of the Maidan’; nostalgia, political negotiation and ‘disneyfication’ of the socialist memorial sites.
During our discussions a number of very important questions were raised: How to analyze such mass movements as Tahrir, Bolotnaya, or Maidan? Could any outbreak of violence be proper interpreted with the ideological motives? What does ‘colonial’ mean in regards to the communist era? Why some post-communist political actors tend to see the past in colonial terms? Could such perspective help to understand the present-day relationships between Russia and Ukraine, or Serbia and Croatia? How historical traumas are translated into another context, and how to deal with phenomena of untranslatability in theater, poetry, or even historiography? Is it possible not to perform and to keep borders between ‘private’ and ‘public’? To what extent are we defined by what we ignore? (the question by Rory Finnin from his introductory lecture).
Conclusions and suggestions
The biggest achievement of the Winter Academy was the atmosphere of open exchange of opinions and intellectual debates without academic hierarchies. All of us faced the challenge how to make our case study understandable and relevant for the audience that included people from different disciplines and different areas of research. It was fascinating to observe how the same words (like ‘nationality’ or ‘identity’) are used as different categories of analysis and are differently applied to particular cases.
During our discussions two big problems were also raised: The interrelation between cultural belonging and political commitment, and inequalities inside academia (from visa restrictions to the free access to international databases that vary from country to country and from university to university).
For the future Winter or Summer Academies I would also suggest some additional forms of activities: field trips (for instance, visiting the former Stasi prison, the Soviet memorial in Treptower Park or some play performed at the theater) followed by a common discussion of the commemorative practices, cultural strategies, forms of perception; film discussion (watching and reviewing a film relevant for the thematic focus of the Academy), perhaps a special panel on academic careers possibilities. In some cases the option of a joint publication project could also make sense (for instance, in a issue of special thematic forum in one of ‘Osteuropa’ journals) or in one of the publication channels provided by the Forum Transregionale Studien.
February 29, 2016.