The Chronicle Review

Russian Studies’ Alt-Right Problem

Pep Montserrat for The Chronicle Review

September 17, 2017 Premium

The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., and its viral images of white men with torches chanting, "You will not replace us!" and "Jews will not replace us!" have made an indelible mark on our collective consciousness.

For me, a black woman and scholar of Russian literature, the growing visibility of neo-Nazis in this country, many of whom consider Russia a kind of white utopia, comes with chilling implications.

I fell in love with Russian history in high school: Catherine the Great, the Romanovs, the Russian Revolution. It was a land of contradictions, and my 18-year-old self could not resist. I began studying the language in college, and at first, all went well.

Then, in my junior year, I studied abroad in Moscow. I had been briefed on some cultural differences. I learned, for instance, that it’s customary to give gifts to one’s hosts, and that Russians have different customs for eye contact than Americans. I was not, however, warned about the dangers of being brown and female in Russia. I was routinely groped and stared at, and called a Chechen and a Georgian, groups considered "black" by Russians. A friend’s mother grabbed a handful of my curly hair and asked if she could cut it so I wouldn’t look like a Gypsy.

For those of us whose bodies are politicized no matter where we go, there is no such thing as 'pure' or nonpolitical scholarship.
I was attacked on a train by a towering young man with a shaved head. He wore black leather and chains, and wielded a switchblade. He cornered me in my seat and began grabbing at my breasts and between my legs. He yelled obscenities at me, calling me a whore and other things I didn’t understand. I was only able to get away because he was so drunk he could barely stand. It was 1999, a time when attacks on African and foreign students by neo-Nazi and nationalist groups in Russia were at an all-time high. None of my professors had mentioned this.

Midway through my studies as a doctoral student in Russian literature it began to dawn on me that my professors’ obliviousness to the politics and dangers I faced while studying in Russia was anything but benign. When undergraduates I had TA’d returned one fall from their summer study in St. Petersburg, word got around that one of them, a young Ghanaian woman, had had a bad time on the trip.

My experiences came flooding back to me, and I imagined the worst. She had been my student the previous year, but I didn’t know her well. I wanted to do for her what no one had done for me, to give her an outlet and validate her experiences, but I didn’t know how to reach out to her, or if it was even appropriate.

Without mentioning the student directly, I went to my adviser and told her I was feeling isolated as a black woman in Slavic studies, that it seemed there was no room for discussions of race and discrimination. She explained to me that the Slavic field had always been more concerned with the political and cultural dynamics existing between the various Slavic groups (South Slavic, East Slavic, etc.) than with "outside concerns," and she wondered to what extent it even mattered that I was African-American, in this context. She had written books on feminism and women’s literature in Russia, and I asked her if it mattered to her that she was a woman, in this context. She had no reply.

In the end, I said nothing to the Ghanaian student, not sure how to breach the wall of silence that existed around the topics of race and identity.

Now, over a decade later, the conversation around race and identity in the field has made little progress — even as these subjects become more important than ever. David Duke, Richard Spencer, and other white-supremacist leaders have longstanding ties to Russia and Ukraine. According to The Washington Post, Spencer has called Russia "the sole white power in the world." (Spencer’s wife, Nina Kouprianova, has a Ph.D. in Russian history from the University of Toronto.) Matthew Heimbach, a white nationalist, has praised Putin’s Russia as a model for nationalism and antiglobalism, which is code for anti-Semitism. Anti-gay legislation and violence is common in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, and has been praised by white nationalists in America as upholding "traditional" values. Identity Evropa, a group focused on reclaiming the greatness of European-American heritage, uses the Russian spelling for Europe in its name.

One of my graduate-school professors contacted me a few months ago, for a report on diversity in the Slavic department. She wanted to know about my professional achievements since leaving grad school. I wrote that I’d had a terrible time in the department and on the job market, eventually switching fields to English because, after eight years and numerous accomplishments, I couldn’t find a tenure-track position. I hoped she was truly committed to improving diversity and making the field a more welcoming place for students and faculty of color, so that folks coming up will have a better experience than I did.

In this political moment, silence is complicity.
"Very painful," she wrote back to me. "Hope that things go better from now on."

What she, my adviser, and others in the field fail to realize is that, for those of us whose bodies are politicized no matter where we go, there is no such thing as "pure" or nonpolitical scholarship. We are always at risk simply for being who we are and studying what we study.

It is time for the leaders in the fields of Russian, Slavic, East European and Eurasian studies to acknowledge that the region can be a dangerous place for LGBT students, Jewish students, women and students of color, and to put protocols in place for students to report and recover from their experiences. To acknowledge that the field’s longstanding disdain for scholarly discussions of gender, sexuality, ableism, and race has made it safe for white nationalists to imbue its subject with their Eurocentric fantasies. To acknowledge that the region and its peoples and cultures are far more diverse than these nationalists would have us believe, and that until recently, our scholarship has largely failed to reflect that.

Committed scholars, including myself, have in recent years pushed back against this scholarly deficit. New advocacy groups like the Association for Diversity in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (Adseees) and Q*Aseees (the association’s LGBTQ affiliate) promote visibility for marginalized subjects and scholars. Adseees has created scholarships for HBCU students to attend a major disciplinary conference and has developed research awards for graduate students who engage in diversity-focused work. This month these groups posted an open letter on Facebook responding to "white nationalism’s appropriation of our discipline." These actions have been critical to forcing conversations about race and identity in the field, but such efforts are only the beginning. They have also been taken up by younger scholars, some of whom are still graduate students, and many of whom are still struggling to find permanent tenure-track positions. Without hiring and student-outreach efforts that truly reflect a commitment to diversifying the field, the steps taken so far will remain merely symbolic.

In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville and the rise in white supremacists’ visibility, scholars from classics and medieval studies have pushed back against those who use the subjects of their study as justification for white supremacy. They have spoken out against whitewashing in their fields, have acknowledged the historical marginalization of those considered "other," and have publicly advocated for scholarship that highlights the fields’ diversity.

Senior scholars in Slavic studies should take the lead in similar efforts. Their hesitancy to speak out on this issue, along with the absence of cultural support for vulnerable students abroad, the dearth of scholars of color in the field, and the token interest in underrepresented subjects, all point to the field’s indifference toward the welfare of its marginalized scholars. At best, this reflects an outdated commitment to intellectual neutrality. At worst, this could be taken as tacit agreement with the alt-right’s desire to suppress Russia’s historical diversity. In this political moment, silence is complicity.

Sarah Valentine is the author of Witness and Transformation: The Poetics of Gennady Aygi (Academic Studies Press, 2015). She received her doctorate in Russian literature from Princeton University in 2007, and lives in Minden, Nev.