Ab Imperio (2013), 1

Ab Imperio (2013), 1
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How Do We Understand Freedom Today? Free Interpretations and Predetermined Models

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Kazan', Russland 2013: Selbstverlag des Herausgebers
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Organization name
Ab Imperio. Studies of New Imperial History and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space
Russian Federation
Postanschrift: P.O. Box 157, Kazan' 420015. Tel./Fax: 7-8432-644-018
Kaplunovskiy, Alexander

Dear friends and colleagues,

the Editorial Board of Ab Imperio is pleased to present the new issue of our journal: 1/2013. The first issue of the journal in 2013 is devoted to the exploration of “How Do We Understand Freedom Today? Free Interpretations and Predetermined Models”.

“Ab Imperio” is a bilingual (English and Russian) international scholarly journal dedicated to the study of empire and nationalism in the post Soviet space.

The language of each publication (Russian or English) is indicated by a letter in brackets.


The Alien Origins of Freedom

Attempts to offer a rigid definition of the phenomenon of freedom are like an academic treatise on the nature of humor: the very approach seems to be drastically at odds with the inner character of the object of contemplation. That is why the editors decided to open issue 1/2013 of Ab Imperio “How Do We Understand Freedom Today? Free Interpretations and Predetermined Models” with a text written in a most interactive format of academic discourse: a public lecture delivered by eminent intellectual historian, Quentin Skinner, in August 2012 at the University of New South Wales (Australia). The Russian translation of his lecture “So, What Does Freedom Mean to Us? (A Genealogy of Liberty)” offers a dynamic map of the main ways of conceptualizing the phenomenon of freedom from early modernity to today. The Q&A session that followed the lecture, also published in the issue, explicates Skinner’s position and the main problem areas associated with it in an even more informal and free manner. Skinner’s central task is to outline the conceptual foundation for elaborating a positive concept of freedom – as opposed to a more obvious and popular negative definition (“freedom is the absence of restrictions,” that is, eventually, of nonfreedom).

Characteristically, freedom as a “category of practice” (political, economic, or gender) wholly reproduces the dilemma of conceptualizing freedom as an analytical category (negative vs. positive). The most common and popular perception of freedom as a state of immediately experienced existence (individual or collective) is negative: freedom requires curbing everything deemed “unfree.” The twentieth century became an ideal embodiment of all possible aspects of the negative reification of freedom: be it the nation state, a social group, a political idea, an ethnocultural community, gender, a demographic cohort, an economic system, and so on. In all of these instances, it is expected that true freedom is initially located somewhere outside, that it comes forward only with the annihilation (humiliation) of all things and people that constrain the subject of the “fight for freedom.” Thus, freedom appears to be fundamentally alien to regular life and social order. According to Skinner’s “map,” this “negative” approach to freedom sees as its necessary precondition the liquidation of any external interference and (or) the unhindered self-realization of political, spiritual, or any other inner self.

The preponderance of this negative concept of freedom is confirmed by the articles published in the “History” section of the issue, all dedicated to attempts at fashioning the Soviet revolutionary (meaning: emancipatory) regime. The Soviet project presented itself as the realization of a new stage in the historical development of freedom – “true” freedom, based on the liquidation of social classes and hence of the structural situation responsible for the reproduction of “false consciousness.” In this sense, freedom, of course, became a key element of self-legitimation of one of the most unfree (in terms of liberal theories of freedom) regimes of the twentieth century.

In the section’s opening article, Benjamin W. Sawyer tells the story of the mass migration in the early 1920s of several thousand workers from the United States and Canada to the Soviet Union, where they would found labor communes. Resettlers from North America (only some of whom were originally immigrants from the former Russian Empire) were drawn by the dream of greater economic and political freedom, while Soviet organizers of their resettlement were driven by the hope of receiving the immediate, high-quality human and financial capital they needed to realize their plans. Both sides would soon experience disillusionment, but was this not predetermined from the very beginning, by the very idea of reaching one’s ideal through conceiving the desired result “negatively,” as something that could not be found at home?

The theme is further developed in the article by Martin Beisswenger, dedicated to the contacts between a founder of the Eurasianist movement, Petr Savitskii, and the Soviet nonconformist geographer and ethnologist, Lev Gumilev. Beisswenger argues that it is wrong to identify both Savitskii, after World War II, and Gumilev with classic Eurasianism, that they represented some new stage in the evolution of the doctrine (“trans-Eurasianism”). However, there was a paradox in their efforts: while bringing in new ideas to the legacy of Eurasianism and demonstrating skepticism toward the official holistic (communist) doctrine, Savitskii and Gumilev themselves sought a new holistic and anti-Western model of the region united by the borders of the USSR. From a formal point of view, the understanding of the historical fortunes of Eurasia as an essentialized entity of its ethnicities and cultures that they advanced contradicted the Soviet ideology of historicism. Yet, on some basic level, they espoused a very similar understanding of the nature of groupness, and the drive toward a profoundly local, non-Western “modernity” that was expected to liberate Eurasia from the yoke of Westernism and Enlightenment, thus providing true emancipation and freedom.

The theme of the subject of freedom and historical change in the Soviet project of modernity is developed in the third contribution to the section, by Mark Lipovetsky. He traces the genealogy of an alternative discourse of the social order and cultural communication that became prominent with the Soviet educated public during the post–World War II period. The complex of ideas, aesthetic choices, and social relations, which was mainly espoused, according to Lipovetsky, by the broad stratum of engineer/technical employees (ITR), can be briefly characterized as the cult of “progressors” (to borrow the concept from the science-fiction novel by the Strugatsky brothers Hard to Be a God). Lipovetsky notes that Soviet intellectuals did not partake in the Western “postmodern revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, and did not acquire the conceptual apparatus of deconstruction and critique of the relationships of authority that permeates the modern social sciences. As a result, the significantly depoliticized legacy of Russian revolutionary tradition coupled with the new technocratic thinking in the context of the post-Stalinist “thaw” brought about the rise of a new discourse of emancipation as a sequence of well-calculated individual (“technical”) solutions carried out by social engineering. This discourse took hold over different layers of Soviet society, and became, essentially, the dominant mode of thinking for several generations of the educated class in the USSR. According to Lipovetsky, it was this archetype of progressors that shaped the modern neoliberal hegemonic public discourse in Russia (just as, we shall add, the “trans-Eurasianism” of Savitskii and Gumilev gave rise to modern holistic and fascist projects). Accordingly, analysis of this discourse opens new possibilities for grasping the achievements and failures of the democratic transformation in the post-communist era.

The topic of Lipovetsky’s article that connects the political and social practice of emancipation with different conceptualizations of freedom as a category of analysis is so important that the AI editors decided to invite representatives of various disciplines (historians, political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists) to discuss the concept of “ITR culture.” This idea resulted in the thematic forum Technologies of Bringing a “True” Freedom to the One-Sixth of the World: On Soviet Modernity, Progressivism, and Beyond (Discussing Mark Lipovetsky’s “The Poetics of ITR Discourse”). Implicitly, this forum also touches upon the topics of other articles in the section: both the project of the direct “import” of people and ideas from America/“the West,” and the opposite scenario based on anti-Americanism/anti-Westernism and Eurasianism (whatever the latter means). Accepting or criticizing Lipovetsky’s argument, forum participants depart from the usual institutional analysis and approaches of old political history centered on the dichotomy of dissidents and nonconformists on the one side, and the repressive regime – on the other. Soviet technocratic progressivism, which can also be regarded as a local variation of the generic Western technocratic trend, essentially became hostage to Soviet isolationist unfreedom. It is this missing of the “critical turn” of the late 1960s that explains the specificity of the understanding of freedom formed within the ITR discourse. Contributions by forum participants cause us to see in a new light the seemingly familiar “antitotalitarian” discourses of freedom and liberty (both individual and collective), and to notice the discrepancy between the fairly simple social map and the quite complex and overlapping discursive communities during late socialism. This is also another good occasion to contemplate the formative role of cultural language and social imagination in the ideological and political history of the USSR and post-Soviet Russia.

But what about the positive conceptualization (and practical acquisition) of freedom? According to Skinner’s scheme, the key precondition here is the absence of dependence (once again, a negative quality!). In other words, positively defined, freedom is nonmembership in social groups liable to manipulations: slaves or colonists, women or illegal immigrants, and so on. It is important that most of these groups do not carry a stigma by themselves. Therefore, acquiring freedom is possible without losing one’s former membership in one of the groups, and also without the forcible liquidation of “unfreedom.” A unique story of this kind is told by Sevil Huseinova and Sergey Rumiantsev in the “Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science” section of the issue. At the beginning of the Karabakh crisis and the escalation of the Armenian–Azerbaijani confrontation, an Azerbaijani village on the territory of the Armenian Republic managed to retain its subjectivity and specificity (that is, freedom) without violating the interests and ways of life of the others. Inhabitants of the village Kyzyl-Shafag negotiated a “village exchange” with an Armenian village located on the territory of Azerbaijan. While relocation was forced upon these people, thanks to their high self-organization and cooperation (both within the village and with their Armenian neighbors who did not participate in the escalation of politicization of ethnicity), they managed to escape the general scenario of ethnic cleansing. Moreover, in fact, they reversed the very meaning of the events. From the beginning, placed in the situation of structural dependence, and facing overpowering interference into their lives from the outside, the residents of Kyzyl-Shafag managed to exercise free choice and to avoid unleashing violence upon the others (unlike so many forced refugees).

Still, the many faces of freedom and dependence, and their dialectical interconnectedness often results in emancipation in one sphere that leads to increased dependence in another. Thus, Alexander Pershái, in the “Historiography” section, shows how feminism has become a resource for the national movement in Belarus, and the emancipation of the Belarusian language has turned into increased control over women’s subjectivity. As Pershái properly acknowledges, this situation is typical in the postcolonial discourse. Moreover, we suggest that the situational and contextual experience of freedom and dependence characterizes the imperial situation in general, since it is defined by the coexistence of different coordinate systems and frames of reference. For example, strict party discipline granted broader national cultural autonomy in the late Soviet Union, while restrictions upon free economic activity, strangely enough, coexisted with significant freedom of labor migration.

And yet, there are situations when the very notion of freedom as such loses any sense – both as a category of analysis and a category of practice. In the “Newest Mythologies” section, Serguei Alex. Oushakine analyzes the changing character of references to the memory of the Great Patriotic War in official and commercial public events (parades, TV shows, media campaigns) in Russia during the past decade. Oushakine demonstrates how the main reason for war commemorations has become the actualization of a particular emotional state of bonding and political mobilization, supposedly typical of Soviet society during the war period. This emotional charge is needed to compensate for the growing indifference and weakening social ties in modern Russian society, no longer capable of generating not only new meanings of its own (thus becoming aphasic by definition), but even unconscious emotions of solidarity and unity. Therefore, it is the wrong context in which to seek a negative definition of freedom by means of overcoming external barriers or internal “insufficiencies” – be it borrowings from America or, on the contrary, from the inner Eurasian “self.” Likewise, there is no place for achieving the desirable result through a proper, engineered future (the progressors scenario). The sole relevant and real content is found in history, where “treasures of the soil” in the form of emotions and meanings are exploited just as are oil supplies (the transformed deposits of biological organisms of the remote past). In this situation, we cannot speak of freedom in any sense: still, the first precondition for the possibility of freedom (or unfreedom) is the presence of an autonomous subject, whose particularity can be further realized or, on the contrary, restricted. Manipulations of “emotional regimes” aimed at achieving a particular collective sentiment do not need a free agent of emotional activity, which turns the mass industry of feelings into a simulacrum of political mobilization. In their turn, those existing subjects – free or unfree – cannot perceive the contemporary Russian society as anything but a redundant and virtual environment in most of its manifestations. The “exterritoriality” of freedom (from the perspective of its “negative” conceptualization, as the absence of restrictions) gains new meaning here, which still complies with the model offered by Quentin Skinner. After all, the condition of freedom is not the absence of restrictions themselves (every organized society is based on restrictions), but the refusal to accept the predetermined nature of one’s acts or decisions. When the only positive content of public life is borrowed from the past (as in Russia today), the only path of emancipation becomes not the overcoming of restrictions, but the production of new meanings and emotional bonds of our own in society.

Editors of Ab Imperio:
I. Gerasimov
S. Glebov
A. Kaplunovski
M. Mogilner
A. Semyonov

Table of contents


Methodology and Theory

From the Editors The Alien Origins of Freedom (E)

Quentin Skinner So, What Does Freedom Mean to Us? (A Genealogy of Liberty) Lecture at the University of New South Wales, August 30, 2012 (R)

Q&A Session after the Public Lecture of Quentin Skinner (E)

Postscriptum: An Exchange with the Editors (E)


Benjamin W. Sawyer Shedding the White and Blue: American Migration and Soviet Dreams in the Era of the New Economic Policy (E)

Martin Beisswenger Was Lev Gumilev a “Eurasianist?” A New Look at His Postwar Contacts with Petr Savitskii (E)

Mark Lipovetsky The Poetics of ITR Discourse: In the 1960s and Today (E)

Forum AI: Technologies of Bringing a “True” Freedom to the One-Sixth of the World: On Soviet Modernity, Progressivism, and Beyond (Discussing Mark Lipovetsky’s “The Poetics of ITR Discourse”)

Vladislav Zubok Humanism of “Zhivago’s Children” versus Progressivism of the ITRs (E)

Maxim Waldstein On the “Liberal Mainstream” and Cultural Conservatism (R)

Zinaida Vasilyeva The 1960s and the Development of Mass Culture: Notes on the Soviet Variant of Modernity (R)

Benjamin Nathans Coming to Terms with Late Soviet Liberalism (E)

Artemy Magun They Were Genuinely Liberal, Liberals of the Right (E)

Pal Tamas Was the Soviet Engineer so Unique? (E)

Jan Kubik On Variations of Soviet-Type Modernity: Why Poland Did Not Have Its Own ITR Progressives (E)

Alaina Lemon Soviet Modernity in a Global Conversation: The Universe of Elite Progressors (E)

Mark Lipovetsky Clarifying Positions (E)

Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science

Sevil Huseinova and Sergey Rumiantsev Due to a Change of Residence: Collective Interethnic Cooperation in the Situation of the Karabakh Conflict (R)

Newest Mythologies

Serguei Alex. Oushakine Remembering in Public: On the Affective Management of History (E)

Book Reviews


Alexander Pershái Feminist Linguistic Reform as a Resource of Belarusian Nationalism: The Case of “Feminization of the Belarusian Language” (R)


Serhii Plokhy, The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Ages of Empires (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012). 402 рp., ills., maps. Index. ISBN: 978-1-107-02210-2.
Aleksand Osipian (R)

Johanna Lilndbladh (Ed.), The Poetics of Memory in Post-Totalitarian Narration (=CFE Conference Papers Series No. 3) (Lund: The Centre for European Studies at Lund University, 2008). 201 pp. ISSN: 1654–2185.
Mikhail Nemcev (R)

Thomas Sherlock, Historical Narratives in the Soviet Union And Post-Soviet Russia: Destroying the Settled Past, Creating an Uncertain Future (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). 280 pp. Bibliography. Index. ISBN: 978-1-4039-7450-1.
Marina Shabasova (R)

Zenonas Norkus, Nepasiskelbusioji imperija. Lietuvos Didžioji Kunigaikštija lyginamosios istorinės imperijų sociologijos požiūriu (Vilnius: Aidai, 2009). 476 pp. ISBN: 978-9955-656-73-9.
Lidia Korczak (E)

O. V. Bunickii. Dengi russkoi emigracii: koltchakovskoe zoloto. 1918−1957. Moskva: NOvoe literturnoe obozrenie, 2008. 512 s. ISBN: 978-5-86793-639-6.
Sergei Iarov (R)

Paul R. Gregory and Norman Naimark (Eds.), The Lost Politburo Transcripts. From Collective Rule to Stalin’s Dictatorship (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008). vii+ 271 pp. Bibliography. Index. [The Yale-Hoover Series on Stalin, Stalinism, and the Cold War]. ISBN: 978-0-300-13424-7.
Elidor Mehilli (E)

Aftandil S. Erkinov, The Andijan Uprising of 1898 and Its Leader Dukchi Ishan Described by Contemporary Poets. Foreword by Bakhtiyar M. Babajanov (=Tokyo Islamic Area Studies Central Eurasian Research Series No. 3). (Tokyo: Department of Islamic Area Studies, 2009). 118 pp., ills., English, Russian, and Turki text. ISBN: 978-4-904039-15-1.
Alexander Morrison (E)

Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology of Historical Sources. Edited by Scott C. Levi and Ron Sela (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009). 316+xvi pp. Index. ISBN: 978-0-253-35385-6.
Nathan Spannaus (E)

A. Nilov. Cekhoviki. Rozhdenie tenevoi ekonomiki. Zapiski podpolnogo millionera / Seriia "Sdelano v SSSR". Sankt-Peterburg: “Vektor”, 2006. 114 s. ISBN: 5-9684-0549-X;
D Vasiliev. Farcovshchiki. Kak delalis sostoiania. Ispoved liudei iz "teni" / Серия “Сделано в СССР”. Seriia "Sdelano v SSSR". Sankt-Peterburg: “Vektor”, 2007. 158 s. ISBN: 5-9684-0610-0.
Tatiana Basina (R)

Aleksei Isaev. Vmeste so vremenem: k 65-oi godovshchine Pobedy. Bishkek: Altyn Tamga, 2010. 568 s. ISBN: 978-9967-08-168-0; Feliks Kulov. Na perevale. Moskva: Vremia, 2008. 248 s., ill. ISBN: 978-5-9691-0417-4;
Kuluipa / Sostavlenie i literaturnaia zapis E. S. Luzanovoi. Bishkek: Manasartdizain, 2010. 204 s. ISBN: 978-9967-25-983-6; Zhumagul Saadanbekov. Moia zhizn. Bishkekк: Altyn print, 2010. 639 s., ill.;
Tursunbek Tchygyshev. Vospominaniia: sobytiia, liudi. Bishkek: Bijiktik, 2008. 294 s. ISBN: 978-9967-13-441-6.
Pavel Diatlenko (R)

Barbara Evans Clements, A History of Women in Russia: From Earliest Times to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012). 386 pp. Bibliography. Index. ISBN: 978-0-253-00097-2.
Danielle Morrissette (E)

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