By Dafna Rachok, PhD student in Anthropology
It is not a secret that concepts travel through time and places and often get vernacularized and reshaped. To find out how the idea of inclusion is understood and employed in contemporary Russia, on April 16th, a panel of experts gathered to tackle the question of diversity and inclusion in Russia. During a 90-minutes long intellectually stimulating conversation, the panelists discussed how the concept of inclusion is translated and reshaped in contemporary Russia, and what it means to do “inclusion work” in Russia. The panel was co-sponsored by the Russian Studies Workshop here at IU and the International Lab for Social Integration Research at HSE-Moscow.
The panelists included Svetlana Borodina, Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies, Kira Shmyreva, a theater educator and researcher of mix-abled theater in Germany and Russia, Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova, Professor of Sociology and Head of the above-mentioned International Laboratory for Social Integration Research at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and Sasha Kurlenkova, a PhD Candidate in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. The panel was moderated by Sarah Phillips, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute at Indiana University. IU undergraduate student Isabella Castillo introduced the event and the participants.
One of the main issues discussed by the panelists was the question of differences in the meaning of “inclusion” in the U.S. and in Russia. Given the liberal origins of an idea of “inclusion,” it was both interesting and important to understand how this concept is taken up and employed in Russia. Discussing the meanings of inclusion, the panelists were attentive to point out the fact that quite often the exact meaning of the word depends on who exactly is using it. For instance, Svetlana Borodina noted that quite often inclusion in Russian means disability inclusion. She cautioned though that her perspective on inclusion comes from her engagements with the various NGOs who work with blind people, deaf people, and wheelchair users. She also noted that some NGOs see inclusion as a specific type of sociality, whereas others use the concept in a narrower and more technical way (for instance, to discuss service delivery).
Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova echoed Dr. Borodina by noting that the concept of “inclusion” in Russia is getting more and more popular not only among NGO workers but also among researchers and governmental organizations. Importantly, she reminded the panelists and the audience about an implicit hierarchy of needs and identities that is often embedded in an idea of inclusion (who gets included first? And at whose expense does inclusion of a certain group proceed?). Dr. Iarskaia-Smirnova also discussed a couple of projects that her lab has worked on. Though a lot of things are changing, there are still, unfortunately, quite a lot of negative reactions to seeing people with disabilities in public spaces, she concluded.
Sasha Kurlenkova then noted that, unfortunately, in Russia, inclusion is often based on a kind of “add-and-stir” approach. In other words, it is quite often assumed that merely adding a person with disability makes a certain group or space more inclusive. She warned against such an approach to inclusion. On a more hopeful note, Ms. Kurlenkova mentioned that inclusion is a new concept in Russia, so a lot of people are still figuring out what it means, how to engage with it, and what an inclusive approach means. She noted that in Russia, activists are slowly but surely figuring out that inclusion can be only produced collaboratively.
Kira Shmyreva extensively discussed the work of Yuliya Tsvetkova, Russian feminist artist and activist from the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur who has been charged with distributing pornographic materials for her artistic work and for administering a feminist body-positive online community. Ms. Shmyreva observed the lack of reaction from the inclusion community to Yuliya’s case. For her, this partly testifies to the fact that in Russia, a lot of movement around inclusion is happening in a top-down manner: i.e., a lot of work that is labeled as inclusion is done in a centralized fashion by people who are non-disabled and rather privileged. She also noted how Yuliya’s boundary position may have contributed to the lack of support and attention to her case. For researchers, Yuliya was too much of a blogger and an artist and not scholarly enough, whereas for artists, Yuliya was too much of a researcher and “not enough” of an artist.
Discussing the case of Yuliya Tsvetkova also led the panelists to focus on the question of politicization of inclusion in Russia. They all agreed on the importance of intersectionality for inclusion work and mentioned that Yuliya Tsvetkova’s work is crucial for promoting intersectional inclusion in Russia. However, the panelists also noted that because of the political climate, inclusion is often depoliticized in Russia. This leads to a situation when work with people with disabilities is seen as apolitical, unlike, for instance, work with LGBTQ people or with migrants. Unfortunately, projects working with the issues that are perceived to be political are less likely to receive grants and support in the country. This significantly complicates the work of many activists. To get around this problem, NGOs and activists often resort to reframing their projects in order not to sound “political” and “threatening.”
The panelists concluded the discussion on a hopeful note by remarking that in Russia the idea of inclusion is slowly getting more and more popular. For instance, businesses and museums have become more interested in inclusion and have started to develop inclusion trainings. The panelists ended the conversation by reading a manifesto by the activist theater “Merak” that Yuliya Tsvetkova helped to found in 2018.
“Promoting Inclusion and Appreciating Diversity in Today’s Russia” was a thorough, enlightening, and vibrant conversation about politics, culture, and activism in contemporary Russia.