The Transnational Turn in Russian Studies

Connor Doak is a Lecturer and Director of Teaching for the Department of Russian and Czech at the University of Bristol.

Kevin M.F. Platt is Professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Vlad Strukov is an Associate Professor in Film and Digital Cultures at the University of Leeds

While Russianists have long recognized the need to situate Russia—its language, its culture, and its history—in a broad, comparative context, it is only in recent years that scholars have begun to develop a new critical vocabulary and research methodologies in response to the transnational turn that has swept the humanities since the beginning of the twenty-first century. This editorial brings together three scholars in Russian Studies, each of whom has recently produced a book that seeks to contribute to this realignment of our field. Connor Doak is co-editor, with Andy Byford and Stephen Hutchings, of Transnational Russian Studies (2020), Kevin M.F. Platt is the editor of Global Russian Cultures (2019), and Vlad Strukov is co-editor, with Sarah Hudspith, of Russian Culture in the Age of Globalization (2018). Our three volumes differ in their critical vocabulary, methodological approaches and conclusions, but we share a common vision of a Russian Studies that opens up the map of our field beyond the Russian Federation. Yet our aim is not simply to extend the existing methodologies of Russian Studies to a larger canvas; rather, we are also calling for an epistemological shift that requires us to look critically at the foundational assumptions of our field as they intersect with political histories and realities, to interrogate our own positionality as researchers, and to re-assess our curricula at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Our intervention comes at a historical moment that is “both global and anti-global”, as Padraic Kenney put it in his Presidential Address at the 2016 ASEEES Convention. Kenney’s keynote came at the end of a year that saw a wave of nationalist populism that, curiously enough, was global in its reach: 2016 witnessed the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, the purges in Turkey after a failed coup, and Hungary’s attempt to reject EU quotas on refugees. In this climate, Kenney offered an admirable defense of area studies, highlighting the value of deep knowledge of languages, histories, and cultures of particular regions to comprehend a fractured world. Yet he juxtaposed his praise for area studies with a critique of “transnational studies,” which he deems suitable only for more “exuberant times,” citing the enthusiasm of 1989 when walls tumbled and the star of democracy shone bright. Today, however, Kenney warns: “There is no transnational story to tell; the dance of democracy runs out of music at this point. But area studies, by contrast, does have much more to say.”

This polemic against transnational studies reprises the agon between area studies and comparative transitology from the 1990s. Area studies scholars criticized the transitologists’ universalism, their dismissal of language, culture, and history, and their assumption, in line with Francis Fukuyama, that the global spread of capitalism and liberal democracy would result in the end of history. Here, however, we make the case for a very different kind of transnational studies. As Ian Tyrrell has argued, the term transnational signals a distance from the “deterministic and unidirectional juggernaut of globalization”; it does not presuppose the inevitable convergence of economies, political systems, or cultures.7 Moreover, the prefix transsuggests both an emphasis on movement between nations, as well as a gesturing beyond the nation as an epistemological paradigm, though it does not assume—as some predicted in the 1990s8 —the demise of the nation as an empirical phenomenon. Indeed, the twenty-first century has seen a resurgence of nationalism, and new walls and borders have sprung up between states. Yet these new divisions only render the critical study of nations and borders a more urgent task. Moreover, whereas globalization theory assumed the traffic of ideas would flow from West to East, as developed countries exported liberal democracy to the post-socialist world, the past twenty years have proved that multidirectional verbs of motion are needed to describe the direction of travel. In our region, we might cite Russia’s alleged interference in the elections of Western countries, or, in the realm of culture, the spectacular global success of twentyfirst-century Romanian cinema. Pussy Riot provides an intriguing example of multidirectional travel that intertwines politics and culture: initially influenced by the American riot grrrl scene, they were later able to exert their own influences on Western modes of protest.

When Kenney writes that there is “no transnational story to tell,” he is correct that there is no single linear narrative in our region that follows a predictable plot. There are, however, multiple transnational stories of how people, cultural artefacts, and ideas move across geographical and political borders, stories of governments and other institutions who have tried to reinforce those borders, as well as stories of failed, partial, or interrupted crossings. Indeed, the contemporary world offers few stories that do not carry a transnational inflection, as we are all participants in global political, cultural, and economic systems, even as some people—or countries—may wish to withdraw from them. Our three volumes attempt to tell those stories, and to provide analytical frameworks that will capture both the multiplicity and the commonalities of transnational flows.

Transnational Russian Studies

Byford, Doak, and Hutchings begin Transnational Russian Studies with a call for a new approach to Russian Studies. Rather than seeing Russian Studies simply as the acquisition of mastery of the language, history, and culture of a bounded space (“Russia”) over time, they argue that Russian Studies should historicize and deconstruct notions such as Russia, Russianness, and Russian language, looking critically at the boundary-work that has sustained these categories. A transnationallyinflected Russian Studies, then, would involve mapping “the ongoing complex and diverse construction of ‘the national’ through particular forms of boundary-making that goes on around languages and cultures; and the continuous parallel processes of crossing or transgressing, relativizing or reconfiguring, breaching or transcending the boundaries thus constructed.” The book forms part of a larger project, Transnational Modern Languages, which seeks to give a distinct identity to modern languages as an “expert mode of enquiry whose founding research question is how languages and cultures operate and interact across diverse axes of connection.” Transnational Russian Studies is the first in a book series that will eventually include volumes on transnationalizing French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, as well as a handbook to anchor the series.

Transnational Russian Studies is divided into four sections, each of which contains four research-based case studies. The first, “Nation, Empire, and Beyond,” brings together critical perspectives on the multi-ethnic space that constituted the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and where the Russian Federation still seeks to retain influence. Contributors not only consider the discourse that Russia used in its claims to power in this region, but also explore how culture circulates transnationally within the region. The second, “Between and Beyond Languages,” highlights the role that language, especially in the domain of literature, plays in the transnational flow of culture, addressing questions of translation and (trans)national canon formation. Paradoxically, language is both the means of cross-cultural communication and an obstacle to it. The third section, “Cultures Crossing Borders,” concentrates on how Russian culture has travelled and been received and refashioned, including case studies from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa, China, and North America. Finally, “Russia Going Global” examines the place of Russia in the twenty-first-century world, showing how Russia has responded to globalization and attempted to become a major player in what Putin likes to call a “multipolar” world.

Russian Culture in the Age of Globalization

Russian Culture in the Age of Globalization starts with a critique of transitology as a conceptual framework that imposes a singular— and often Western-centric— evaluation of other countries visà-vis their projects of democratic development. Through this critique, the editors and contributors free the discussion from familiar paradigms such as “the West versus Russia” and “the West versus the rest,” instead adopting a polycentric approach to the study of globalization as a cultural phenomenon. Through a series of detailed case-studies, the contributors explore how contemporary Russian culture has become a site of exchange among many actors: regional and national, Russian and international, Kremlinfocused and grassroots, Russophone and “other-phone.” As a result, Russian culture emerges as a realm of global interactions requiring a different conceptualization of “area studies” and “cultural studies” as disciplines. In place of the tired approach that looks at Russian culture as a form of political opposition to the government, the contributors instead consider Russian culture in the context of global concerns such as the changing role of gender, or the spread of neoliberal economics and politics.

The contributors interrogate cultural flows using a wide range of theoretical concepts such as patriotism, nationalism, canon, and tradition. Yet no single concept can fully account for the complex network of political, social, and cultural developments, nor for the speed of cultural exchange in Russia and beyond. Strukov and Hudspith conceive the transnational paradigm not only as an exploration of how meaning crosses national borders, but also how it moves between different forms of communication, and travels between the global and the local. In some discourses, this approach has been labelled as “de-westernizing the field.” On one level, Strukov and Hudspith subscribe to this paradigm because, for them, to de-westernize means to acknowledge how research is shaped by the researcher’s own preconceptions and biases. On another level, they propose to read Russian culture through a polycentric lens, not solely through a non-Western lens. The notion of “the transnational” becomes useful because it points to the porousness of borders and divisions in the modern world.

Finally, the volume investigates Russia’s own experiences, and visions of globalization, or what the editors call “alternative globalities.” The contributors aim “not to trace how globalization is bestowed on Russia but to investigate alternative notions of globality and how these globalities compete for leadership on the world stage.” Of the three volumes, this is the one that deals most directly with contemporary Russia in the “post-national era of globality” that the editors date to 2014. Strukov and Hudspith situate the culture of today’s Russia in its proper global and geopolitical contexts, while also exploring how classical Russian literature and high culture continue Finally, the volume investigates Russia’s own experiences, and visions of globalization, or what the editors call “alternative globalities.” The contributors aim “not to trace how globalization is bestowed on Russia but to investigate alternative notions of globality and how these globalities compete for leadership on the world stage.”11 Of the three volumes, this is the one that deals most directly with contemporary Russia in the “post-national era of globality” that the editors date to 2014. Strukov and Hudspith situate the culture of today’s Russia in its proper global and geopolitical contexts, while also exploring how classical Russian literature and high culture continue 

Global Russian Cultures

The title of Platt’s volume, Global Russian Cultures, signals an aim to decenter Russian culture from the Russian Federation and to challenge conceptions of it as bounded and singular. As Platt writes in the introduction, “both within and without the Russian Federation, Russian culture is fragmented and multiple, and everywhere it is the object of diverse and contradictory institutional, political, and economic forces that seek to define and constrain it.” Global Russian Cultures highlights the distinct cultural articulations of Russianness that flourish outside of the Russian Federation, from Ukraine, the Baltic states and Central Asia to Israel and the United States. As one chapter argues, even within the Russian Federation, conceptions of a singular Russian culture compete with the fragmented and multi-ethnic imaginaries that are the legacy of super-national Russian Imperial and Soviet eras. Other chapters propose that “Russian cultures” need not be in Russian, in this light investigating: Russian-American writers such as David Bezmozgis, Gary Shteyngart, and Lara Vapnyar, who write in English but acknowledge (yet also parody and challenge) their Russianness; song-settings of Russian poetry by British composers; global nonRussian authors who write “Russian Novels”; and the poets of the Orbita multimedia and poetry collective, based in Riga, whose works bridge the Latvian and Russian languages.

Although a number of chapters place the present into longer historical perspective, Platt’s volume is organized around the contemporary moment, like that of Strukov and Hudspith. Yet Global Russian Cultures is concerned primarily with alternative Russian cultures that have emerged outside the Russian Federation among diasporic and heritage communities that challenge and redefine the boundaries of “Russianness,” as well as with their political and social contestation. A separate chapter examines the official project of the “Russian World,” while others detail the responses of representatives of other “Russian cultures” to this project. Platt offers his book as standing “in opposition to the bounded and unitary conceptions of culture and identity that are most often associated with national projects in and around Russia.” As he contends, because “diverse conceptions of the geography of Russian culture are all, and all to the same degree, historically and politically contingent projects … there is no hierarchy of authenticity that makes ‘national culture within its boundaries’ more authentic or just than diasporic or migrant culture.”


The disciplinary and institutional frameworks of our field, traditionally circumscribed by national, linguistic or area boundaries (Russian history, Slavic languages and literatures, Polish Studies), emerged from an implicit assumption, rooted in Herderian romantic nationalism, that cultures are best examined as discrete ethnolinguistic blocs. Such an approach has many benefits, and none of us would deny the value of linguistic expertise, thick cultural descriptions, and deep historical knowledge. It is not our intention to call for an end to institutions such as Slavic Departments, journals, and the scholarly associations that sustain our field. However, we should recognize that these institutional frameworks make us vulnerable to a certain kind of methodological nationalism, an epistemological stance which naturalizes the division of humanity in broadly “national” terms. While we must avoid tacit essentializations of nationally-circumscribed cultures, we must also avoid falling victim to the risk of turning all cultural flows into a single all-subsuming global process. A transnational approach help us to navigate between the Scylla of exceptionalism (the fetishization of nations as “unique”) and the Charybdis of globalism (the idea that language and culture are sheer ephemera in a highly globalized world). 

The strength of our field lies in the value we give to a critical understanding of place, a concept that has gained a new importance in both the humanities and social sciences in recent years. As one geographer quipped, globalization has not meant “the end of geography” any more than it has the “end of history”; rather, it has meant “questions of locality, sense of place, and of identity in place matter now more than ever.” Similarly, nationally-defined languages and cultures have proved their tenacity in the twenty-first century, yet to comprehend their resilience, a deep knowledge of individual languages, cultures, and regions must be coupled with a transnational understanding of how they interact with, and are shaped by, the wider world. The translocal paradigm provides one way to examine embodied experience in specific places that does not ignore national boundaries, but is not constrained by them epistemologically. In our geographic area, anthropologists have blazed a trail, such as Madeleine Reeves’s studies of border work in Central Asia, or Hariz Halilovich’s examination of displacement and memory in war-torn Bosnia. As three scholars based in Slavic Studies or Modern Languages, we would argue that language and culture must now be critically scrutinized in the same way as people and place have been, with greater attention both to how they are used to erect boundaries and consolidate identities, and to the transgression and contestation of boundaries and identities. In order to achieve these aims, we not only require dialogue within institutions such as ASEEES that reaches across disciplinary and spatial divides, but we also need to think about how we might transnationalize our undergraduate programs and graduate training.