Ab Imperio (2013), 3

Ab Imperio (2013), 3
Other title information 
Freedom as an Object of Intellectual Import and Export: Lost in Translation, Found in Translation

Published on
Kazan', Russland 2013: Selbstverlag des Herausgebers
124 € Jahresabo, 31 € Einzelhelheft



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
Kaplunovski, Alexander

Dear friends and colleagues,

the Editorial Board of Ab Imperio is pleased to present the new issue of our journal: 3/2013. The third issue of the journal in 2013 is devoted to the exploration of “FREEDOM AS AN OBJECT OF INTELLECTUAL IMPORT AND EXPORT: LOST IN TRANSLATION, FOUND IN TRANSLATION”.

“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 Liberty of Translating Freedom

A single and all-embracing definition of freedom is possible only when approached from within an isolated cultural and political space characterized by a clear differentiation between “us” and “them.” Freedom then means overcoming any restraints experienced by “us.” As soon as one gets outside such a “closed system” with its artificially imposed homogeneity and monologism, freedom acquires a whole range of interpretations, even mutually contradicting ones. In a composite and multicultural society freedom can stand for transcending the isolationism and parochialism of a group (as in the case of Jewish emancipation from the Pale of Settlement) or, on the contrary, for reinforcing the barriers protecting the indigenous way of life (for example, in the case of peoples of Siberia or nomads). Emancipation from economic dependence and inequality can be achieved through a massive onslaught on political freedom. Gender equality comes at the cost of eroding the social order and culture based on the semiotics of the sexes. The political self-determination of a national group on the basis of territorial sovereignty produces “national minorities” and thus amplifies the problem of inequality and discrimination. Eventually, “freedom” emerges not as a universal category but as a practice of self-expression and self-realization of an individual or a group. Thus, in the heterogeneous cultural and political space, achieving freedom becomes a problem of the mutual translation of diverse subjectivities, that is, of the interpretation and coordination of their interests and aspirations. The “technical” question of translation comes to the fore: who translates the Other and how (in what language)?

The problem of the interconnection of freedom and translation (between different languages, in the broadest sense) is vividly and insightfully formulated in the essay “Escaping Intelligibility: Translation and the Politics of Knowledge” published in the “Methodology and Theory “section. Its author, Nivedita Menon, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, essentially describes the predicament of translating between local circuits of knowledge within the imperial situation, which is characterized by irregular and multidimensional diversity. This diversity is always situational and contextual,[ Ilya Gerasimov, Sergey Glebov, Marina Mogilner. The Postimperial Meets the Postcolonial: Russian Historical Experience and the Postcolonial Moment // Ab Imperio. 2013. No. 2. Pp. 97-135] and it is therefore impossible in principle to compose a universal “dictionary” of unequivocal translations between the phenomena and concepts of different clusters of a large open system. Nivedita Menon warns against the temptation of direct translation “of the unfamiliar into the familiar” at any cost, and the belief in the achievability of complete mutual transparency and intelligibility by local systems of knowledge. Duly registering the centrality of the situation of “a radical heterogeneity of voices in public spaces, with which we cannot help colliding, and cannot hope to contain,” she leaves open the question of how exactly a universal communicative space of “incomplete transparency” and partial translation should be sustained. Will the rejection of the normative and universalist common language of modernity alleviate the very threat of establishing asymmetrical relationships between “partly intelligible” cultures and social groups, and the hegemony of one against the other? Is there not a contradiction between the perception of the structure of the multicultural society as an open-ended system (“imperial situation”) and the one-dimensional reading of communicative processes in it (rendered as either parity, or domination)? Obviously, these questions go beyond the scope of Menon’s essay, but it is useful to keep them in mind while reading other contributions to this issue of Ab Imperio dealing with various aspects of the problem of “mutual intelligibility,” freedom, and hegemony.

Opening the “History” section, the article by Michael D. Gordin on the priority dispute over who discovered the periodic system of chemical elements reveals the central role of the translator in establishing and sustaining the hierarchy of academic authority: it was the inaccuracy of the translation of a Russian-language article by Dmitrii I. Mendeleev into German that predetermined the initial perception of his research by the world community of chemists as nonoriginal. But the story of Mendeleev also shows that the hegemony of the universal language of modern knowledge (in this case, of the German language dominating chemistry) was not total, even though mastering that language was a sine qua non for representatives of peripheral academies. As Gordin argues, in the mid-nineteenth century, Russian did not enjoy the status of a universal language of “big science,” and it was only when Mendeleev succeeded in attaining the reputation of a leading world chemist that the Russian language became recognized as one of the international languages of the science of chemistry. Thus, the problem of hegemony of a normative (German) universalist language was resolved not through a direct “uprising” against its domination, but as the result of a victory in the contested “politics of translation.” By proving the universal value of his “local” knowledge, Mendeleev had elevated its status to the level of a new universal language – apparently, now making it hegemonic over many other languages.

In his article on the project of developing a special Eurasianist legal theory during the interwar period, Bulat Nazmutdinov reviews the opposite case of an unsuccessful attempt by a marginal system of knowledge to gain the status of a universal scholarly language. It should be emphasized that Eurasianism in general succeeded in receiving broad recognition by transcending the scope of a small circle of émigré intellectuals and developing a sustained popular political and even academic holistic discourse of a composite society. The general success of Eurasianism, just as its partial failure discussed by Nazmutdinov, owe to the same key factors: the ability to produce a truly original intellectual product and success in its global “marketing.” The latter involves the efficient politics of translation aimed at convincing potential “customers” of the value and necessity of that product. Here, success means turning hitherto marginal local knowledge into an essential element of the universal worldview; failure would be explained by the interested party as a result of the unfavorable asymmetry of power–knowledge relationships, and the discriminatory hegemony of mainstream knowledge (specifically, of the Western legal tradition) over unique and original “local knowledge.” Incidentally, at least in the case of the attempt to produce a special Eurasian legal theory, the main problem was that this theory was not particularly valued even by the “locals” themselves.

The next three articles in the section neatly interplay with each other in discussing different episodes of the same process of creating a supranational Soviet literature through the complex practice of translation. Construing the concept of unified “world literature” proceeded in parallel with creating the intertextual and international Soviet literature or even preceded it, as shown by Maria Khotimsky in an article about the World Literature publishing house. The very project of integrating numerous local cultures (heirs to unique local literary traditions formed within specific historical and cultural conditions) into some single universal canon was revolutionary by itself. “World literature” served as the model for the similarly syncretic “Soviet literature” that was viewed as an organic part of it. The main “political technology” of translation was the podstrochnik (an interlinear trot), whose microhistory is presented by Susanna Witt. Claiming for itself the purely technical and neutral role of merely communicating the meaning of original text, and being viewed as a temporary and compromise solution (under the deficit of qualified professional translators from many local languages), the podstrochnik created the very illusion of “complete intelligibility” so forcefully criticized by Nivedita Menon. Obviously, this practice was fraught with “violent appropriation” of meanings as discussed by Menon, and yet it cannot be reduced solely to one-sided manipulations by the hegemonic universalist subject−translator. (For one, the project of inventing a universal canon of “world literature” in the USSR was as much manipulative as it was emancipatory in nature, since it imposed a local vision upon the formally dominating global phenomenon.) The individual case of “appropriation” of the Dagestan Ashik (folk bard) Suleiman Stal’skii by the “big” Soviet literature in the 1930s is reconstructed in the article by Evgeny Dobrenko as a two-way process. On the one hand, the role of the illiterate old man from an aul in the Caucasus in literature (which is literacy-based by definition) was totally passive: he was “discovered” (first, by nationally minded folklorists, and then by apparatchiks of the emerging Soviet literature), “recorded,” “translated,” and “interpreted” – not to mention the fact that he produced his verses upon the direct request of the authorities, on topics of the day. Yet, not everything is “translatable” or even “inventible,” and the article by Dobrenko reminds us that even discursive reality has its “materiality” and “physics” (including la résistance des matériaux). Stal’skii owed his fame to the specificity of Stalinist Soviet literature as a paradoxical project of ascribing hegemonic status to the plebeian culture (in the understanding of E. P. Thompson, as structurally dependent on the creativity and authority of the high “patrician” culture that was outlawed in the course of the Cultural Revolution). Suleiman Stal’skii not only fitted ideally into the context of Stalinist mass culture as “authored folklore” but also essentially shaped its canon. He can be regarded as a victim of violent appropriation by the hegemonic cultural sphere only if one believes that texts by Stal’skii as known from translations into Russian and other languages are commensurate with his initial artistic intention (and that this intention was artistic in the sense upheld by modern literatary processes). To be sure, the act of symbolic violence is central to this story, it is just unclear, who exactly were the subjects and the objects of that violence: the Dagestan poet writing upon political request, Russian-language readers made to believe they were dealing with belles lettres in the form of “translations” of Stal’skii, or the translators−coauthors of the “Stal’skii phenomenon” (manipulators and victims at the same time)?

A less paradoxical but no less characteristic story of the interconnectedness of translation, domination, and emancipation is told in the “Archive” section. Olha Martynyuk publishes an assortment of documents depicting a series of political rallies of progressive candidates to the Fourth State Duma from Kiev in 1912. The disposition is typical for the Duma epoch: the state authorities (first of all, the police) censor and close the meetings of opposition candidates, while supporting loyalist nationalists; nationalists engage in provocations to ruin the meetings of Progressivists and Constitutional Democrats; oppositionists try to overcome the pressure of censorship to hail political freedom and criticize the agrarian policy of the government. Actually, the familiarity of this picture is itself a product of an earlier inadequate “translation” that made us believe we completely understood the heterogeneous reality before us. A variety of documents collected and commented on by Martynyuk reveal the critical inconsistency of the universally accepted interpretation. Leaders of the Russian nationalists in Kiev turn out to be ethnic Ukrainians in their majority and patriots of Ukrainian culture; opposition candidates – supporters of federalization of empire and autonomy of Ukraine – were ethnic Russians or Germans, born and raised away from Ukrainian lands; finally, activists of the Ukrainian national movement who support political opposition to the autocracy deep in their hearts suspect oppositionists of being as prone to centralism as the imperial authorities. The conventional narrative ignores the ambiguity of loyalties and the potential for a conflict of interests that would fully reveal themselves after 1917. The accuracy of conventional interpretations of intentions and “role distribution” now seems questionable and begs for new conceptualization (and thus, “translation”): is it true that Ukrainianness by default implies an oppositional and anti-imperial stance? How natural is it to expect monarchism and loyalty to the empire from Russian nationalists? Are federalism and the protection of national groups really embedded in the liberal worldview?

An interesting instance of emancipation through arbitrary “translation” is presented in the “ABC” section. As famously formulated by L. P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” so the interpretation of one’s own history is but a special case of the translation process, with all its above-discussed implications. The article by Kåre Johan Mjør analyzes the historiography of Russian philosophy as it appears in post-Soviet Russian university textbooks. The article by Mikhail Suslov deals with contemporary Russian textbooks on geopolitics. And a short essay by Andriy Portnov discusses the recently published prospectus of the new Russian mandatory history textbook. The fundamental condition common to all three cases is the striking dearth of subjectivity in contemporary Russian public discourse. The absence of any positive social vision (or even a sense of social cohesion) leads to an inferiority complex of cultural unoriginality and intellectual dependence, for which the authors of textbooks try to compensate by means of projecting on the past fantastic explanations and interpretations of facts. Alas, the translator lacking any distinctive subjectivity, is incapable of the act of emancipation (and even more so of hegemony), no matter how colorfully he or she presents the domestic tradition and its glorious triumph over foreign adversaries. It is possible to compromise the achievements of one’s own culture through bad translation (as Alla Zeide claims in the “Historiography” section when commenting, along with Alexander Etkind, on the Russian publication of lectures by the Harvard historian Michael Karpovich). But nobody can substitute actual achievements with bombastic interpretations, without actually producing an original creative product in the course of “translation.”

This is one of the conclusions that can be drawn from the present thematic issue of Ab Imperio: a claim for the profound understanding of the Other and thus for the complete translation can bring about significant consequences (emancipation or attaining hegemonic status) only inasmuch as some original and meaningful cultural content is produced along the way. Untalented, dull, unconvincing “translations” threaten nobody’s freedom and indigeneity, and can enhance no one’s status. In the open-ended system (for example, in the “imperial situation”) communication is conducted in several registers at the same time, with a possibility of changing roles along the way (or functioning simultaneously in hegemonic and dependent roles). It is unclear however, how to achieve the parity of all the participants in communication and translation within this system as envisioned by Nivedita Menon, and what hegemonic regime would guarantee sustaining this politically correct status quo – these questions require additional exploration. Positing equality and an identical degree of (incomplete) mutual translatability for all communicants within the imperial situation, one necessarily assumes the right to judge and categorize on behalf of some new hegemonic universalism. It seems that the problem of the dialectic of universal and local in empire studies becomes central to an understanding of complex processes of information exchange in composite societies.

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

Table of contents


I. Methodology and Theory

From the Editors: The Liberty of Translating Freedom (R&E)

Nivedita Menon: Escaping Intelligibility: Translation and the Politics of Knowledge (E)

II. History

Michael D. Gordin: The Table and the Word: Translation, Priority, and the Periodic System of Chemical Elements (E)

Bulat Nazmutdinov: Illegal Eurasia: Reasons for the Unsustainability of Eurasianist Legal Theory (R)

Maria Khotimsky: World Literature, Soviet Style: A Forgotten Episode in the History of the Idea (E)

Susanna Witt: The Shorthand of Empire: Podstrochnik Practices and the Making of Soviet Literature (E)

Evgeny Dobrenko: The Homer of Stalinism: Suleiman Stal’skii and Soviet Multinational Literature (R)

III. Archive

Olha Martynyuk: Sanctioned but Closed Down Meetings of Kiev Progressives before the Elections to the State Duma in 1912 (R)
Documents (R)

V. ABC: Empire & Nationalism Studies

Kåre Johan Mjør: A Past of One’s Own: The Post-Soviet Historiography of Russian Philosophy (E)

Mikhail Suslov: “Urania Is Older than Sister Clio”: Discursive Strategies in Contemporary Russian Textbooks on Geopolitics (E)
Andriy Portnov: History Textbook by State Order (R)


1. Historiography


Alexander Etkind: Triple Nostalgia (R)

Alla Zeide: Intellectual History without a Context (E)

2. Reviews

A. N. Biktasheva. Antropologiia vlasti. Kazanskie gubernatory pervoj poloviny XIX veka. Moskva: Novyj khronograf, 2012. 480 s., ill. ISBN: 978-5-94881-199-4.
Moritz Deutschmann (E)

David Blackbourn and James Retallack (Eds.), Localism, Landscape, and the Ambiguities of Place: German-Speaking Central Europe, 1860−1930 (Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2007). 278 pp. Select Bibliography. Index. ISBN: 978-0-8020-9318-934;
L. V. Koshman. Gorod i gorodskaia zhizn’ v Rossii XIX stoletiia: Sotsial’nye i kul’turnye aspekty. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2008. 448 pp., ills. ISBN: 978-5-8243-0936-2.
Susan Smith-Peter (E)

Ingrid A. Kleespies, A Nation Astray: Nomadism and National Identity in Russian Literature (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012). 265 pp. Bibliography. Index. ISBN: 978-0-87580-461-3.
Aleksei Vdovin (R)

Paul Manning, Strangers in a Strange Land: Occidentalist Publics and Orientalist Geographies in Nineteenth-Century Georgian Imaginaries (Cultural Revolutions: Russia in the Twentieth Century) (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2012). 315 pp., ills. Bibliography. Index. ISBN: 978-1-936235-76-6.
Rebecca Gould (E)

Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization. Russia’s Imperial Experience (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011) ix + 289 pp., ill. Index. ISBN: 978-0-7456-5130-9.
Alexander Morrison (E)

Dmitrij Churakov. Revoliuciia, gosudarstvo, rabochii protest: formy, dinamika i priroda massovykh vystuplenii rabochikh v Sovetskoi Rossii, 1917−1918 gody. Moskva: Rossiiskaia Politicheskaia Enciklopediia (ROSSPEN), 2004. 366 с. ISBN: 5-8243-0423-8.
Krista Sigler (E)

Malte Rolf, Soviet Mass Festivals, 1917–1991, Translated by Cynthia Klohr (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). 324 pp. Bibliography, Index. ISBN: 978-0-8229-6239-7.
Aleksei Golubev (R)

Alena Marková. Sovětská bělorusizace jako cesta k národu: iluze nebo realita? Praha: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 2012. 261 s. Bibliografie. Jmenný rejstřík. Věcný rejstřík. ISBN: 978-80-7422-230-6.
Miroslav Hroch (R)

Stephen Brain, Song of the Forest. Russian Forestry and Stalinist Environmentalism, 1905−1953 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). 240 pp., ills. Bibliography, Index. ISBN: 978-0-8229-6165-9.
Etienne Forestier-Peyrat (E)

Vladislav Zubok, Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009). 453 pp. Index. ISBN: 978-0-674-03344-3.
Michael Rouland (E)

Michael Moser, Language Policy and the Discourse on Languages in Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych (25 February 2010–28 October 2012) (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2013). 506 pp. Bibliography. ISBN: 978-3-8382-0497-0.
Volodymyr Kulyk (E)

Tatiana Zhurzhenko, Borderlands into Bordered Lands. Geopolitics of Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2010). 334 pp., ills. ISBN: 978-3-8382-0042-2.
Olena Fimyar (E)

Suchasna ukrainska politika. Analitichny dopovidi Institutu politichnikh I etnonacionalnikh doslidzhen im. I.F. Kurasa NAN Ukranini / Redakcionaaia kolegiia Iu. A. Levenec ta in. Kiiv: IPiEND im. I.F. Kurasa NAN Ukraini, 2009. 447 с. ISBN: 978-966-02-5312-4.
Larisa Leshchenko (R)

John Hiden and Martyn Housden, Neighbours or Enemies? Germans, the Baltic and Beyond (On the Boundary of Two Worlds: Identity, Freedom, and Moral Imagination in the Baltics. No. 12) (Amsterdam and New York, NY: Rodopi, 2008). 154 pp. Index. ISSN: 978-90-420-2349-9.
Svetlana Konstantinova (R)

List of Contributors

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