National Identity in Russia from 1961 : Traditions and Deterritorialisation

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National Identity in Russia from 1961 : Traditions and Deterritorialisation

Newsletter No. 1

(June 2008)


Editorial Note

Catriona Kelly & Andy Byford Welcome to Newsletter No. 1 p. 2

Research Reports

Victoria Donovan & Catriona Kelly Cultural Memory in Old Russian Cities p. 2

of the North West

Hilary Pilkington & Elena Omelchenko A New Russian Patriotism? Russian National Identity p. 6

through the Eyes of Young People

Andy Byford Interviewing ‘Russians in Britain’ p. 7

Research Note

Albert Baiburin Iazyk padonkaff p. 9

Conference Report

Catriona Kelly & Andy Byford ‘Remembering the Soviet Union’ p. 11

(European University, St Petersburg, 11 April 2008)

Stephen Lovell ‘Core-Group Project Meeting’ p. 13

(European University, St Petersburg, 13 April 2008)

Announcements p. 13


Welcome to Newsletter No. 1

Catriona Kelly & Andy Byford

Dear newsletter subscribers and network members,

We are pleased to announce the publication of our Newsletter No. 1. Our original plan was for this newsletter to be published more frequently and at regular intervals. However, it soon became clear that its drafting had to follow and reflect the tempo and dynamics of our concrete research endeavours, which is why we eventually decided to postpone the publication of the first issue till after our first research group meeting at the workshop in St Petersburg on 11-13 April this year (see report below).

The structure of the newsletter should be clear enough from its contents. Future issues are likely to contain similar reports on our ongoing research efforts, short research notes, announcements of events and publications associated with our project, and so forth. At the same time, we wish to stress that we welcome relevant materials not just from our core research group but also from all newsletter subscribers and members of the network. If you have any suggestions or specific proposals please contact us at: The next newsletter is planned for the autumn of this year.


Cultural Memory in Old Russian Cities

of the North West

Victoria Donovan & Catriona Kelly

In March-April 2008, two short preliminary city visits were made as part of work on this project. From 26 March to 30 April, Victoria Donovan (accompanied by Catriona Kelly and the latter’s husband Ian Thompson) visited Vologda, travelling overnight from St Petersburg’s Ladoga station on the ‘White Nights’ express (the pride of the Vologda railway service). The journey is only around 600 km., but takes well over twelve hours, partly because of lengthy halts at intermediate stations, including Cheropovets, the main commercial and industrial centre of Vologda province. (We were told by our host in Vologda, Elena Vinogradova, the head curator of the Vologda Kremlin city museum-reservation (muzei-zapovednik) that tourism to the main attractions of the province, such as the Kirillovo-Belozersk monastery, is now largely organised by cruise ship direct from Cherepovets, so that Vologda has little status as a tourist centre. 80 per cent of visitors to the Vologda city museum are in fact local schoolchildren. Hotels in Vologda are few, and mainly used by visitors to the city’s trade fairs (perhaps with this public in mind, one of the larger hotels, the Spasskaya, is now putting up a spanking new building, complete with shopping centre, at a location between the city centre and the railway station.)

On the first day after arrival, we visited the city archives and inspected opisi (document inventories) there, collecting information about holdings on local festivals and the preservation of monuments. The fact that our remit covered both subjects created some consternation in the archive directorate, where we were assured that the topic ‘Vozobnovlenie traditsii v Vologde s 1961 g.’ could not possibly be held to embrace historical architecture and attitudes towards this, as well as local festivals. We had avoided referring to kul’turnaya pamyat’ or istoricheskaya pamyat’, feeling the terms would need extensive explanation, but will phrase the subject in this way in future, at least in Vologda. (It should be said that in St Petersburg and in Novgorod – see below – there has been no problem with using vozobnovlenie traditsii to invoke quite a large spectrum of different areas, so we were maybe dealing with an individual case of unhelpfulness.) Whichever way, the supervisor of the reading room itself had no objections to showing us opisi on the activities of VOOPiK (the society for the preservation of monuments, founded in 1965) as well as those of the city culture directorate (upravlenie kul’tury) and so on.

Church in Vologda

Because of the limited time, we left the Party archive for another occasion and spent the rest of the working day in the city museum archive. Here we noted holdings of visitors’ books, expedition records, and general plans for museum displays and museum work. The entire rationale for the museum was reworked in the early 1990s, leading to abandonment of the ‘Soviet history’ section. Alongside the more or less unchanged (so far as we could gather) natural history section, there are now sections on ethnography (with dozens of examples of beautifully-painted local distaffs embroidered clothes, furniture, ceramics, etc.) and on icon painting (with a strong representation of the local school, which is quite heavily indebted to Moscow and Suzdal’ conventions and hence out of phase with that of other Northern cities such as Novgorod).

The St Sophia Cathedral in the Kremlin (administered by the museum) – which was built in the sixteenth century but decorated only in the seventeenth, by legend because Ivan the Terrible, who had commissioned the building, disliked whet he saw – is closed to visitors during the winter. This is because of serious problems with damp (which have only partly been ameliorated by dehumidifying measures such as under-floor heating). These in turn make the wall paintings discolour. Thanks to the kindness of Elena Vinogradova, however, we were able to see inside the building, complete with an expert disquisition on the subjects of the wall paintings (she is herself a specialist on icon-painting of the period).

Church on Zarechye bank, Vologda

St Sophia’s church is an interesting instance of a ‘contested space’ of the kind familiar in other cities as well (e.g. the Church of the Mother of God at Fili in Moscow). The local Orthodox hierarchy is trying to increase access, despite the conservation problems. This generates considerable tension, especially since the museum is under pressure to relocate to a building just outside the Kremlin (a move that some feel threatens the security of the museum stores, currently in the Kremlin walls). There have been numerous tussles between church representatives, who have been known to fix services on days when the church is closed and to invite local dignitaries to these in order to legitimate their actions, and the museum staff.

On the second day of the visit, we caught an early bus to Kirillovo-Belozersk, a trip taking around three hours each way. The bus on the way out had originally seen service in the Moselle, but was still handling life fairly staunchly, if not at a high speed. The villages on the highway run an entertaining gamut from Maisky ([sovkhoz]) close to Vologda through such generic terms as ‘Pokrovskoe’ (midway) to positively outlandish titles such as ‘Pervukhye’ and ‘Zakozye’. (We were told on Saturday 29 in Vologda that the residents of one village much like everywhere else had suddenly decided to set up their own zemlyachestvo, despite the protests on grounds of accuracy: they have refused to listen to explanations of the term as quintessentially meaning a locality group in a city.) All of these factors, and indeed our eventual destination, probably made little difference to the few incidental travellers on the bus, as opposed to those making work or family visits. Most of these incidental travellers, apart from us, were kitted up for ice-fishing – while sunny, it was still cold, around zero, and the weather, though not very severe, was a lot harsher than in St Petersburg.

Kirillovo-Belozersk itself, it turns out, is nearly deserted so early in the year. Several sections of the museum (e.g. the monks’ cells) were closed up till the tourist season. However, we did see a display showing the history of the monastery (but dwelling more on the centuries of its use as a place of detention); a private collection of blue-and-white Gzhel’ pottery recently donated to the museum; and a magnificent display of icons. The churches themselves are now more or less empty, and are not on view, with the exception of the one working church, the decorations of which are late. More or less the only former public space in the monastery that is on show is the enormous and imposing refectory. The result of this, and the vestigial character of the official history of the monastery on show, not to speak of the extensive display of pompous and over-priced souvenirs in the shop (there is, however, no café), is to make the place seem a little sterile, rather like some of the heavily visited chateaux of the Loire. However, the architectural and spatial values – the enormous empty fortified courtyard, offset by the smaller walled court of the Kirillov monastery itself, the huge bastions above the lake – create some sense of the past.

Ferapontov monastery not far away, which we actually visited first, having been told in St Petersburg that it was more interesting than the Kirillovo-Belozersk site, is quite different, partly because it served for a long time as a parish church, and the locals still treasure the place. Once again, only a marginal building (the gate church) is actually in use for worship, but the place seems lively and welcoming, partly because of the sheer beauty of the frescos by Dionysus and his sons, and partly because the staff are so proud of the buildings. The small space has several interesting displays, including an ethnographical museum (more distaffs etc.) and a display linked to the Dionysus frescoes themselves. (This last is very interesting, including an exchange of letters between Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev and the monastery’s restorers where Likhachev says that he would always trust scientific opinion above aesthetic judgements when it comes to restoration.)

Ferapontovo has a hotel (a very small one!) and even a diskoteka, but it is not accessible by bus from Kirillovo (or to be more accurate, a bus plies the route twice a week). We took local advice and hired a taxi, whose driver told us he had been brought up in the Urals, but had a grandmother from Arkhangelsk, and had lived locally to his marriage to a girl from round here. He was curious that we had decided to visit in winter, but it seemed to make sense when CK explained that in summer long queues would build up in summer, and that, as only fifteen people are allowed to see the frescos at one time, and so waits are long. It is no surprise that Ferapontovo does not have a souvenir shop, but all that side of things is very sparsely developed in Kirillovo too: however, there is one izba-type structure by the monastery outer walls that sells local ceramics and other such things. The speciality is a type of dark-brown pot glazed with milk that, after firing, is colour-fast and non-toxic, and darkens to roughly the colour of coffee. Otherwise the town lives more or less for itself, a huddle of low nineteenth-century houses, with a single hotel where traditional dishes are the speciality, but garnishes include Korean carrot salad. A party of local policemen with their female companions was just finishing off lunch when we arrived, in pride of place at a long table on the raised platform at one end of the vast dining-room. Other patrons all seemed local as well. The impression of a byway was emphasised by the bus journey back, since quite a number of the passengers were lads from local collective farms out for an evening ‘in town’. The boldest of these was having a long attention-seeking conversation on his mobile phone with some girlfriend he was treating with humorous contempt sharpened by eagerness to make an impression on his mates; about fifteen minutes out of Kirillovo, he and the others disembarked and trudged off up a long dirt road to an invisible settlement.

Vologda itself seems not just urban, but urbane, compared with this. It has numerous cafes and restaurants, including a ‘traditional’ place, ‘Ogorod’ (The Market Garden), where you can help yourself to beetroot salads, roast chicken, beakers of mors (cranberry drink), and so on. At the same time, the centre has a strong sense of the past. From the Kremlin itself looking over to Zarechye quarter on the other side, almost nothing can be seen that was built after 1917. A trip up the bell-tower soon undeceives you – the city outskirts are a relentless ribbon of grey concrete – and many of the old wooden houses in the centre are at the point of collapse and beyond. But some new building of houses in the traditional style by local businessmen is going on, if not restoration of old ones.

On the final day, we visited the School of Traditional Folk Culture, housed in a late nineteenth-century merchant’s mansion, which aims to teach children local crafts, folklore, and so on. The director of the school, a real enthusiast for the place, told us it had been founded in the late 1980s under the aegis of the local House of Pioneers, but had gained autonomy when the Pioneers collapsed and had since then functioned as an independent institution. Now there are groups doing weaving, lace-making (a traditional craft of the city), painting furniture, domestic objects, and ornaments, and doing folk song and dance. As well as learning these crafts and taking part in festivals and competitions, the children also go on expeditions to villages and even carry out their own publications of folklore. The discussion of this took so long that a planned visit to a studio of folk traditions for adults had to be postponed.

Vologda seems, so far as one can tell from a short visit, well suited to a city-based study of cultural memory. For example, street names are intriguing – ulitsa Lenina is quite a small and rather peripheral street (though in the centre); ulitsa Marii Ul’yanovoi, dedicated to Lenin’s sister, is considerably more imposing. The central street is called not prospekt Revolyutsii, but ulitsa Mira. Neither the revolution nor the war caused much damage, and there has been little renaming since the collapse of Communism. At the same time, there is a strong sense of local pride. The extent to which all this goes beyond leisure activities and consolidates actual social and political developments would take more time to work out; there were hints that the portrayal of ‘Russianness’ can stir up undercurrents, not just in the stories about the museum’s conflicts with the Orthodox Church, but also in a comment by the director of the School of Traditional Folk Culture: ‘Of course, back in the 1990s, no-one asked what we meant by “traditional folk culture”’ – thus indicating that now there sometimes were enquiries about whether this meant ‘Russian’ or what. It is interesting to what extent the resonance of official Vologdan culture in the late Soviet period (when the town was the site of an explicitly nationalist group in the Union of Writers) has or has not survived. CK was told by a prominent Moscow intellectual that Vologda was notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for having the cruellest guards in the Soviet prison camp system, and that this was a sign of the place’s hostility to outsiders. But if that was ever true, these days seem less simple. One came across incomprehension (the staff in the bus station were reduced to bewilderment by visitors who didn’t know how to find the stops for local buses) and a certain dour reluctance to commit time or effort to effusion, but this seemed more ‘Soviet’ than anything else; and our own local contacts could not have been more welcoming. We look forward to returning to the town for a longer stay.

From the 9 to the 10 April, Victoria Donovan (accompanied by a doctoral student from the European University, St Petersburg, and former employee of the Russian Ethnography Museum in St Petersburg, Evgenia Guliaeva) visited Novgorod, arriving by an excruciatingly slow elektrichka from Ladoga station in St. Petersburg. Despite the fact that just 180km separate the two towns, our journey extended over three and a half hours, exposing us to the most uninspiring of landscapes made up, for the most part, of large expanses of uncultivated land punctuated by the occasional eruption of village life. The early (7:40) train turned out to be extremely popular, delivering its numerous travellers, many of whom appeared to be familiar with each other from years of mutual carriage-inhabitation, to their various en route destinations. The emergence of an insistent group of Roma asking for money at one point in our journey provoked a flurry of outraged glances and clipped comments from our fellow-passengers, who were particularly disgruntled by the fact that the foreigner (outed at an earlier stage in the journey) and her companion had been singled out for particular attention by the plaintive women.

Judging by the number and range of hotels in the town, Novgorod’s tourism industry would appear to be thriving. While the Volkov hotel (the point of orientation when giving directions in the town) and the Beresta-Palace hotel, both owned by the NovTurInvest company, head up the more luxurious end of the hotelling spectrum, such traditionally epitheted lodgings as the “Novgorodskaya” and “Sadko” hotels offer significantly cheaper, if less slickly renovated, alternatives. After being turned away by the poker-faced receptionist at the Rosa Vetrov hotel on the somewhat dubious grounds that the establishment didn’t enjoy the right to register foreigners in the town (a slight that appeared even less justified once we had noticed the sign boasting the absence of hot water in the window of the hotel), we settled on the middle-of-the-range Akron hotel conveniently located on the Frolovskaya street, just one street back from the main Sofiskaya square, formerly Lenin square.

Given our tight schedule, we decided to prioritise an investigation of the museum archive and defer explorations of the historical complex to a later date. Thanks to the generosity of the museum director, Irina Stepanova, who has worked in the museum for the last twenty years, we were able to inspect the museum’s opisi and read individual reports of field trips for the collection of artefacts to be incorporated into the museum exhibitions. The opisi offered up a wealth of materials, which included correspondence about the organisation of school trips, response books for museum excursions, and plans for excursions and local folk festivals. The structure of the museum appears to have been revised several times in the 1980s to include new departments for architectural monuments and monumental works of art (1980) and the history of the Sophia Cathedral (1981). From 1993, all departments, including the department for the history of soviet period, were replaced by one general department for the completion, study, and popularisation of the museum collection.

Unfortunately, following our afternoon’s work in the archive, we were unable to visit the exhibitions of the local museums, most of which had closed at 6pm. We could nevertheless determine the logic of the main museum’s structure from the external advertisements; these promised permanent showings of engraved gold and silver artefacts, a collection of traditional wood carvings, and a selection of every-day items from the Neolithic period until the 17th century uncovered during an archaeological dig in the city. An employee of the Novgorod Regional Folk Arts Centre (est. 1945), itself located within the 14th century St. Nicolas Belsky Monastery, also informed us that classes in the traditional techniques of birch-bark weaving and embroidery, lace tatting and beading were being organised by the Folk Art Centre for both children and adults on a regular basis. In addition, occasional performances of traditional music and dance by local children would be arranged for events such as the “Sadko” festival of folk arts and crafts, the seventh rendition of which was due to take place in May-June 2008.

Despite the bracing weather and the advanced hour, the central museum complex was teaming with visitors, pooling their efforts to divine the identity of the sculpted literary figures on the Monument to the Millennium of Russia, or pondering the enormous, “tongueless” bells that stand outside the St. Sophia belfry. Outside the Kremlin walls on the bank of the river Volkhov, several flâneurs were enjoying the brisk air and delightful tinkle of ice-shards colliding as the floating islands jostled for space on the river, while a nearby group of sportswomen were employing the Kremlin walls and its stone steps as makeshift exercise aids, to stretch against, hop and leap over. As for souvenirs, one medium-sized shop inside the Kremlin walls (also, unfortunately, closed at the time we passed through) appeared to be selling such traditional Novgorodian, and more generally Russian wares as birch-bark boxes and baskets, linen embroidered with brightly coloured cross-stitch, and painted kitchenware and dolls. In addition to this, nestling within the complex of astonishingly varied cultural monuments that makes up Yaroslav’s Courtyard, a second building provided an outlet for traditional, local souvenirs, as well as boasting a picture gallery for the exhibition of local landscapes and sketches of architectural monuments.

Several stands in the “trade quarter” selling what they declared to be locally-produced confectionary and refreshments appeared to indicate some instrumental employment of local symbols for commercial promotion. Written on awnings in letters approximating Old Church Slavonic, these kiosks declared themselves distributors of “traditional Novgorodian products”, accompanying their claim with illustrations of such recognisable local landmarks as the Kremlin walls and the St Sophia cathedral. While the line of people waiting for the overworked and evidently unenthused kioskersha across the counter to give them their daily Novgorodian bread appeared to certify the high quality of the produce, the effectiveness of the branding strategy for forming stereotyped ideas of place and local identity would certainly require a more thorough investigation of people’s motives for purchasing their goods and their interpretations of these, somewhat obvious marketing techniques.

The second and last day of our visit was dedicated to an investigation of the opisi in the Novgorod oblast archive. We were quickly disabused of the idea that we might also have time to visit the departmental archive by the sheer volume of material made available to us by the munificent archivists. In stark contrast to our experience in Vologda (detailed above), the topic “Vozobnovlenie traditsii v Vologde [sic.] s 1961 g.” raised no eyebrow among the staff at the Novgorod oblast archive, indeed the topic even inspired one archivist to locate several opisi, in particular those of the “Oblast House of the People’s Creative Work”, which had not been originally requested but turned out to be extremely relevant to our theme. Of particular interest were the opisi of the Novgorod department of VOOPiK, which detailed the classification of architectural monuments after 1965, and those of the Novgorod cultural directorate, which included exchanges with the House of People’s Creative Work about the state of Russian cultural creativity, letters and complaints from workers in the cultural sector and local residents, and numerous documents about the development of the town’s tourism industry. Indeed, the amount of information we were offered was so vast that we only had time to give a cursory glance to the opisi of the Special Scientific-Restoration Production Workshops from 1948-1992. These documents will certainly be given the more careful attention they deserve on our next, more extended visit to the town.

Having decided to return to St Petersburg by bus, we left the archive and fed ourselves into the already over-burdened tram only to proceed at slightly slower than walking pace to the station as a result of the peak-hour traffic. The pulsing bus station offered another contrast to provincial life in Vologda. Here some of the more necessary directions, to the information point and ticket counter (although not to the toilets), were translated into English, and at least one cashier, as we witnessed from a humorous lost-in-translation exchange taking place between the said employee and a pair of south-European back-packers, was ostensibly capable of providing a service in English. The buses run regularly to St. Petersburg, about three an hour until 8pm, and actually shave an hour off the elektrichka journey if one alights at the peripheral Kupchino metro station. Our return journey provided significantly more visual stimuli, skirting village after village of brightly-coloured wooden houses with decorated window sills and gables, each of which incorporated several edifices that had been reduced to charred ruins by fire or had simply slumped ungracefully to one side on their boggy foundations as if tired of keeping up appearances. Several of our co-passengers descended in these villages, or in the concrete concentration of life at Tosno, which, situated just 53 km from St Petersburg, stands in sharp aesthetical juxtaposition to its neo-classical neighbour.

As far as it is possible to suggest from such a short visit, Novgorod would appear to provide some interesting points of comparison with the provincial town of Vologda in the context of a study of cultural memory. The instrumental use of local names and images and, indeed, the recognition of local traditions as a valid object of academic study might indicate a certain self-consciousness with regard to the formation of local identities and stereotypes. The significantly more developed tourist industry in Novgorod, including its museums, “traditional” restaurants and hotels, and numerous souvenir outlets would certainly have contributed to the development of a public, made-for-export image of the town, which might in turn be the source of local pride and/ or cynicism. To determine the extent to which “branding” of the Novgorod image has impacted on local identities will require more detailed research of the town’s cultural policies and local reactions to them. We look forward to this prospect in the coming academic year.

A full gallery of pictures from this fieldtrip is now available at: russian/nationalism/donovan.htm

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