Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Alexander Etkind

Europäisches Hochschulinstitut, Florenz
Brixius, Dorit

Dieser Beitrag ist hervorgegangen aus der Initiative von Doktoranden des Seminars für ‚History and Civilization (HEC) am Europäischen Hochschulinstitut in Florenz. Ihr Projekt ‚Research in Dialogue – Dialogue in Research wird herausgeben von Tilmann Kulke, Dorit Brixius, Ievgen Khvalkov, Florian Wagner und James White.
geschichte.transnational veröffentlicht in loser Folge Interviews, Literaturberichte und Forschungsergebnisse aus dem Bereich transnationaler und globaler Studien.

Interview with Professor Alexander Etkind
by Ievgen A. Khvalkov and Ola Innset, 28 June 2014*

Alexander Etkind joined the EUI in 2013 as professor of the newly-created Mikhail M. Bakhtin Chair that is devoted to the history of Russia-Europe Relations. His research focuses on European intellectual history, memory studies, the cultural history of natural resources, empires and colonies in Europe, as well as Russian politics, novel and film (21st century). He received his degree in psychology in 1985 in Leningrad and habilitated in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 1998 at the University of Helsinki. He served as professor of the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the European University at St. Petersburg, and later on as professor in Russian Literature and Cultural History at the University of Cambridge, being affiliated with the King’s College. He is the author, most recently, of “Internal Colonization. Russia’s Imperial Experience” (Polity 2013) and “Warped Mourning. Stories of the Undead in the Land of the Unburied” (Stanford 2013).

Professor Etkind, could you please tell us the story of your professional formation as a scholar in Russia? Your academic background is very diverse; how were your scholarly interests evolving?
I was trained in experimental and clinical psychology, and then changed my interests for the history of these fields. It became the subject of my first book, which was a cultural history of psychoanalysis in Russia. Later I published about a dozen of books in Russian intellectual and cultural history, and built my academic career on teaching these and adjacent themes. It actually seems quite smooth to me.

You hold a PhD in psychology, and have written about the history of psychoanalysis in Russia in "Eros of the Impossible". In your latest book "Warped Mourning", it is almost as if you see the whole Russian people as an individual patient, and then analyze their cultural production through the psychoanalytical category of mourning. Iconic works of 20th century Russian culture are then seen as part of a process of mourning the horrors of Stalinism and the gulag system. In your opinion, what is the value of psychoanalytic theory to studies of the past?
No, this is a wrong reading of my book. I distinguish between cultural memory and collective memory, and I am not a big fan of the latter concept. Studies of cultural memory are very distant from what you describe as “seeing the whole people as an individual patient”. First and foremost, this scholarship relies on close readings of cultural texts of memory, from archives to monuments to novels and films.

Is there such a thing as a collective psyche, and can it be analyzed the way one would analyze an individual patient?
No, I do not believe in a collective psyche, only in exchanges between individual ones

How do you make use of psychoanalytic theory in your own research?
Psychoanalysis is a rich cultural arena, which is important to study by historical methods. If you write a history of poetry you do not use rhymes; in other words, you do not use the cultural forms that are specific for your subject when you write its history, but you rather see them in broader contexts. The same is true about a history of psychoanalysis, as well as other cultural domains.

You worked at Cambridge as professor in Slavic literature, and you have also held various positions in the US and in Russia before coming to the EUI. How different is the academic culture in Russia from that in England and the US?
There are encouraging examples of rapid progress in some Russian universities, but the whole scene does not look good. Unfortunately, the academic situation has closely followed the evolution of the political regime; I use the concept of “demodernization” to describe these developments. To some extent, an intellectual and cultural decline in contemporary Russia results from its dependency on trade in natural resources. I am working on these phenomena as a subject of comparative history.

Do you have a feeling that the history of Russia, as well as Russian academic culture and Russian scholarly community (comprising both junior and senior scholars) are underrepresented at the EUI in particular and at most of the European Union universities in general? If yes, in which ways do you think it is possible to increase its visibility?
The changing political situation will take care of these processes. The EUI is a wonderful institution, but the system of national quotas may be suboptimal for its intellectual life. I would prefer to see both students and professors interacting on the base of their intellectual interests and merits, rather than on the base of their places of origin.

Which directions of interdisciplinary cooperation at the EUI should be in your view the ‘priority’ ones?
I believe that there should be more interaction across the departments. Current political events require a closer attention to the eastern borders of the European Union, and many of us – historians, economists, political scientists, and lawyers – have important things to say in this respect. I hope that as it did happen during the Cold War, horrible political developments will lead to intellectual breakthroughs. Some of these discoveries, I also hope, will take place here in the EUI.

Thank you very much for your time and this interview.

*Ievgen A. Khvalkov is a PhD researcher at the HEC, EUI. His research is focused on the Black Sea area colonies of the maritime republic of Genova in the transnational context, thirteenth to fifteenth centuries.
Ola Innset is a PhD researcher at the HEC, EUI. His doctoral thesis project is entitled "Economic origins of totalitarianism".


Dorit Maria Nicola Brixius
PhD Researcher
Department of History and Civilization
European University Institute
Villa Schifanoia
Via Boccaccio 121
I-50133 Florence

Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Alexander Etkind, 01.06.2015 Florenz, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 03.07.2015, <>.
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