Written by Sam Fajerstain, RSW graduate affiliate.
This past April, nearly thirty historians of Russia and the Soviet Union convened in Bloomington for the 2018 Midwestern Russian History Workshop. An annual staple of Midwestern Russian studies since the early 1990s, the MRHW serves as a collaborative nexus, allowing scholars to present their unpublished work for assessment and critique among a community of peers. At Indiana University, the MRHW saw its highest attendance in recent memory as participants ventured from Notre Dame, Chicago, Edmonton, Columbus, Urbana-Champaign, Iowa City, Madison, and elsewhere.
The workshop commenced with a keynote lecture from New York University’s Bruce Grant, “Satire and Anti-Satire in Caucasus Historiographies.” Grant’s talk was concentrated on the life and career of Celil Memmedquluzade, editor of the Azeri-language satirical journal Molla Nesreddin published between 1906-1931. An anthropologist of the Caucasus region, Grant approached this topic as a microcosmic analysis on the role of satire under authoritarian regimes. How does satire function in relation to state policy? What are its contents, and how do its creators perceive their work? Grant engaged these questions and others through the lens of Memmedqulazade and his journal, assessing Azeri satire in both its imperial and Soviet contexts.
Following this fascinating keynote lecture, the weekend-long MRHW continued in its traditional form. Panels of two or three authors, having already submitted their papers and chapters to participants, only briefly presented their research before engaging the audience in discussion. As a collective of historical experts on various Russian and Soviet regions, audience members provided critique, support, advice, and questions to each panel’s authors in preparation for further research, publication, or dissertation completion.
Unlike many other conferences and workshops, the MRHW does not propose a theme to which its participants must adhere: papers spanned a wide range of topics, from Kazakh horse herders to the development of Russian-language spelling standards in the nineteenth century. Too numerous to summarize each in full, contributions were universally noteworthy, and all authors approached their topics with a keen eye towards historiographical intervention and historical clarity. Professor Heather Coleman (University of Alberta) assessed Russian Orthodox cultural work in Kyiv province, specifically emphasizing the clergy’s nineteenth century activity in the context of the region’s ethno-religious diversity. Deirdre Ruscitti Hartman (University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign) approached the housing question in late-imperial and early Soviet politics, interrogating housing-control as a fundamentally modern phenomenon and stressing continuity between the pre-and-post-revolutionary eras. Professor Alex Martin (University of Notre Dame) submitted a chapter from his forthcoming monograph on the transimperial Prussian/Russian merchant, actor, and pastor J.A. Rosenstrauch, assessing this rather obscure individual’s life as a microhistorical medium through which to better navigate the subtleties of early nineteenth century Russian and Prussian history.
Of particular note was this year’s focus on Central Asia, with nearly half of the submissions concentrated on some facet of Central Asian history. Professor Marianne Kamp (Indiana University) examined the potato in Uzbek agriculture, relying on interviews with former collective farmers in order to investigate famine and collectivization in the Uzbek Soviet Republic. Doctoral candidate Jack Seitz (Iowa State University) approached the topic of locust control in the Kazakh steppe, analyzing agronomic ‘technopolitics’ as a method of settler colonialism by which the state infiltrated its peripheries. Claire Roosien (University of Chicago) presented a chapter from her dissertation, assessing failures and successes in the formation of a Soviet public sphere in Uzbekistan through the study of teahouses and teahouse culture.
Only a brief sampling of a much larger collection, these examples illuminate the diverse nature of MRHW participants and topics. These papers and others were subjected to a kind of live peer-review, stimulating the productive conversations between authors and audience that are endemic to the MRHW’s annual meetings. But this year’s organizers also diverted from the traditional workshop form, scheduling book and journal presentations throughout the weekend. Historians Ilya Gerasimov and Marina Mogilner (University of Illinois at Chicago) presented on the international journal Ab Imperio, of which they are founders and editors. In addition to her paper described above, Heather Coleman (University of Alberta) presented on recent developments in Canadian Slavonic Papers, an interdisciplinary journal of which she is editor. Presentations were also given on Patrick Michelson’s (Indiana University) new book Beyond the Monastery Walls, John Bushnell’s (Northwestern University) Peasant Women Who Would Not Marry, and Charles Steinwedel’s Threads of Empire, among others. These presentations were followed by rousing discussions between audience and authors, an innovative addition to the MRHW’s already venerable workshopping tradition.
The Midwestern Russian History Workshop is a crucial event to which some of the most significant scholars have contributed (and continue to contribute). Indiana University is lucky to have had the occasion to host the 2018 meeting, and the opportunity was certainly not squandered. A weekend of erudite discussion and productive inquiry, the 2018 Midwestern Russian History Workshop at Indiana University was an intriguing and, by any measure, successful event.