I was quite busy with committee business during the BASEES conference, but did manage to attend a few panels, and want to pick out a few highlights from what everyone I spoke to agreed was a very stimulating and enjoyable weekend.
A Monday morning panel on Gulag literature may not be everybody’s idea of fun, but it was very lively. Josephine von Zitzewitz’s paper on the nature poetry of Shalamov and Zabolotsky was particularly interesting for me, not least in terms of her discussion of his use of classical forms and the absence of formal experimentation. It seems to me that Shalamov was consciously splitting off the ‘positive’ sides of his experience into his poetry in order to use his stories to develop his ideas about the negative side of the camps – the side that nobody should ever have to see or experience – and Josie’s analysis made me realize that happens on a formal and stylistic level as well as in the content.
There was also an inevitably inconclusive discussion of what counts as ‘Gulag literature’ and whether we should even use the terms. One of the problems is that there are so many different experiences of the camps – Andrea Gullotta’s paper on the literature produced in the Solovki camps in the 1920s being a case in point – that defining it according to a single set of common tropes, in the way that has been attempted by certain critics, is extremely problematic. Do we include literature about the repressions more generally, such as Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna or Akhmatova’s Requiem, as one contributor suggested? Are these really ‘Gulag literature’? If they are, then there’s an argument for saying that for a significant proportion of the twentieth century, Gulag literature and Russian literature are practically identical. And what about the term ‘Gulag literature’ itself? It defines the genre (if we can so describe it) in Solzhenitsyn’s terms, and therefore already suggests a particular interpretation (Shalamov, for example, rarely used the term ‘Gulag’, and conceived of his writing in a very different way). Partly because of my work on Shalamov, and partly because I also work on nineteenth century works, I’ve started avoiding ‘Gulag’ and often refer to ‘labour camp’ instead, but this perhaps risks a loss of recognition, as ‘Gulag’ has become so ubiquitous.
In a panel on late Soviet and post-Soviet culture, Katia Shulga discussed the uncanny imagery of dead brides in Dombrovsky’s novels The Keeper of Antiquities and The Faculty of Useless Knowledge. An interesting comparison between the Stalinist context and the Roman empire was briefly discussed, which started me thinking about the idea of empires in the novel. Also, given the recurring references to snakes and skulls that Katia also identified, I wonder whether there is an allusion to Oleg Veshchii, or Pushkin’s version of this story, and the foundations of Rus’. It really made me realize how richly textured Dombrovsky’s works are – I really wish I had time to re-read those books to explore this further. Sarah Hudspith’s paper on the same panel on women writers’ depictions of Moscow in the 1990s generated a lot of interest. I didn’t know all of the texts (but obviously now need to read them too…), but was fascinated by the transition from Moscow as a hostile space to becoming a more welcoming milieu, and the fact that this was also accompanied by a sense of the city becoming less mappable. I would have expected the opposite to be the case, so this raises a question about the connection between the readability of the city in de Certeau’s terms, and its liveability.
Lots to think about there, and some parallels emerging with my own topic – I gave a paper on street theatre and Petrushka motifs in Crime and Punishment and Nekrasov’s Physiology of Petersburg, a topic that arose out of the spatial analysis I undertook for the pilot for Mapping St Petersburg. I got a really good response from the audience, and some great suggestions to follow up – forays into German and French literature beckon. I was thinking about an article on this material, but it’s already looking bigger than that.
I also learned a lot from a very entertaining panel I chaired on the image of the scientist in east European socialist fiction, which featured lots of life (and death) rays. Once again I’ve vowed to put the Strugatsky brothers on my reading list – one day I will get round to reading them! Finally, the following panels all looked really interesting, but I didn’t manage to get to any of them, because of clashes or other duties: Russia’s 2011-12 electoral cycle: first reflections; the politics of deviance in Socialist states; the Soviet past in the Post-Soviet present; Stalinism and its legacy (particularly sad to miss the paper about the Road to Magadan); Memory, Identity and the writing of History; For a National Cause? Hapsburg, Ottoman and Russian Urban Tourism in the 19th and early 20th centuries; Russian presence in Britain: Historicising the Recent Past; Russian Geopolitics, History and National Identity; Literature and Culture: Russia and the West.
Next year’s BASEES conference is a larger scale European congress, to be held from 5 to 8 April 2013.