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Connecting the dots of the Soviet Union's past

By Charles Butler

One August weekend back in the summer of 1991, Serguei Oushakine, then a young doctoral student in Leningrad, decided to take a brief holiday from his studies and travel to Tallinn, a coastal city in Estonia, a few hours away. Months earlier he had begun working on his Ph.D.dissertation in politics and education. While Tallinn offered all the trappings of a summer getaway spot with its warm temperatures and scenic views, a visitor could not miss the city’s rich past, which dates back to the 11th century.

As it turned out, more contemporary history was being made throughout the Soviet Union that very weekend.

When Oushakine and his traveling partners first heard the news that old-line Communist Party members had attempted a putsch to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev’s government, they walked to Tallinn’s city center. A band was playing a cover of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It was hardly the equivalent of a revolutionary anthem, but in a way it was perfectly appropriate.

The coup d'état ultimately failed and the botched endeavor effectively broke the Communist Party’s iron grip on the bloc. After a half-century of socialism, of the Gulag, of Cold War-inspired spy games, life in the Soviet Union was about to be transformed.

But into what? At the time, few were inclined to guess, including Oushakine.

He and his contemporaries were happy with the change and the opportunity it created to discover their past. They began reading more about Stalin and Trotsky and other critical figures in the country’s history. Literature they never knew existed — works by the likes of Freud and Nietzsche — appeared in bookstores.

For a budding scholar, it was as if Oushakine had been thrust into a forest in which seminal truths about the past lay on every tree branch.

“I don’t think people were much interested in the future. Everyone was so obsessed with figuring out the past,” recalled Oushakine, an associate professor in the departments of anthropology and Slavic languages and literatures and director of the Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (REEES) at Princeton University.

He spoke in his office in East Pyne Hall on a late spring afternoon. “Soviet history was not known,” he explained. He knew little of the purges in the 1930s and, though he grew up in Siberia, he and many others there didn't know of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet novelist and historian who put a spotlight on the nation's forced-labor camps with works including The Gulag Archipelago.

In the two decades that have passed, though, Oushakine has developed a deeper relationship with his native land’s history and how it ties to its complicated present. “The work of discovering your historical past is fascinating,” he said with a widening grin. His research, he said, makes him much like a detective. “You start with the small clue and it is like the onion. You unwrap it.”

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Since 2006, when Oushakine first joined the faculty of the Slavic department, his work has focused on connecting the fragmented dots of the Soviet Union — its culture, its politics, its influence — in a manner that brings greater clarity to fellow scholars as well as a reference point to undergraduates, most of whom were born after the Soviet collapse. But for the peripatetic Oushakine — whose research took him to Siberia; Cape Town, South Africa; and Victoria, Canada, among other places this past summer — the exploration of the past is more than a reading of classic books and scholarly papers.

He imbues his classroom with a sense of life back then while concurrently drawing on life in Central Asia today. For sure, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (or parts of it) is required reading in many of his classes, but students also uncover the Russia of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky and the Soviet Union of Josef Stalin, Nikita Krushchev, Alexei Kosygin, and Leonid Brezhnev through art, photography,  and film.

“Serguei is a commentator on how a society has moved from being Soviet to being post-Soviet,” observed Michael Gordin, Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History and director of the Fung Global Fellows Program.

“He is able to look at what happens when worlds come undone and when they are transforming. He is helping to show how various republics that were a part of the Soviet Union are dealing with the transition.” Gordin, who preceded Oushakine as director of REEES, said his colleague is “making sense of the new world.”Oushakine and graduate student Natalia Klimova on the Princeton campus

In classes such as “Between Heaven and Hell: Myths and Memories of Siberia,” “Socialism with a Human Face,” and “Russia Today,” Oushakine is intent on introducing his students to situations and concepts — collectivism, peasantry, surplus value — that they may be completely unfamiliar with. Oushakine says he strives to provide context so that students “understand why people were doing things that [the students] might think are ridiculous or inappropriate and yet…seemed normal [to those people].”

“When Serguei arrived at our department, he was a cultural anthropologist among humanists,” said Caryl Emerson, A. Watson Armour III, University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and a professor of comparative literature. “We welcomed this. It turned out to be a productive wake-up call for us, helping us to expand and diversify the Slavic program.”

Oushakine leads REEES with the same kind of energy.  The certificate program’s broad mission is to influence Soviet, Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies in the United States and highlight areas that are less studied. To that end, its faculty associates are drawn from a wide range of Princeton departments — from politics to art and architecture — and share a desire to be part of an intersection of disciplines, he said.

Those multidisciplinary interests are reflected in the departmental concentrations of the undergraduates who earn certificates and in the program’s event calendar. Supported by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, REEES sponsors public lectures, workshops, and conferences on a wide variety of topics central to Soviet and post-Soviet life. In fall 2013, for instance, the lecture series, “Soviet: Modernity and Empire,” includes talks on the development of taxes in the 19th and 20th centuries and on the paradoxes of post-Soviet culture.

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Oushakine, who was born in the mid-1960s, acknowledged that there is a bit of truth to the perception many outsiders have of an austere Soviet lifestyle. “It was a pretty minimalistic life,” he said. But he speaks enthusiastically of the government’s “enlightened desire” to educate its people.

“The Soviet Union wasn’t a picnic, but there was some logic and desire to make it work.” He benefited from a system that drilled into him the fundamentals of finding information, he said. The one hitch: “You find all this information but you don’t know what to do with it.”

He chuckled as he told the following anecdote: In 1987, while researching America's New Left of the 1960s for his Master's thesis in history, he received permission to work in a special collections library in Moscow. One day, when he should have been studying the protests by American college students over the Vietnam War or the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he came upon a copy of Soviet Marxism by Herbert Marcuse, and couldn’t put it down. The work, published in 1958, essentially outlines why the Soviet system would inevitably implode.

“Marcuse explains why Lenin’s idea about building  socialism in one separate country couldn’t possibly work,” he said. “You are not building socialism because you are surrounded by capitalist countries, and you have to constantly respond to those countries by investing money in arms and other things. You are using your resources unproductively; you are not using them in a socialist way. So it is not socialism.”

He smiled. “And I’m thinking, ‘He is right.  It cannot work.’”

Astounded by his discovery, Oushakine also realized he could do little with it. “What would you do, protest?”

But as history would reveal, the Soviet system was already beginning to collapse. The perestroika of the late 1980s helped to pave the way for the 1991 putsch. When the system did fall, there was much for scholars like Oushakine to sift through.

Oushakine came to the United States in 1997 to complete a second dissertation; this one in anthropology from Columbia University. His work in that field led to the publication of his first book, Patriotism of Despair: Loss, Nation, and War in Russia (2009). He conducted much of the research for it in Barnaul, his Siberian hometown, interviewing a variety of individuals — from intellectuals to soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya —whose stories revealed a post-Soviet society in transition as well as turmoil.

“What I tried to show is that this previously homogeneous urban fabric got fragmented [after the collapse of the Soviet Union],” Oushakine said of the book. “You had more independent actors and forces and groups and people who are claiming they are part of society, but there is no unifying force or style or political system or religion. It is a doubled-edge sword. You can claim your own possibilities, but because [society] is fragmented, it takes more work.”

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While his office on campus is a long way from his homeland, Oushakine is fully immersed in the region on a daily basis.

Of late he has been researching Belarus and Kyrgyzstan for a new book project. In both countries he has talked to natives and explored areas in an attempt to show how these countries are building their independence after centuries of being ruled by outsiders. He stays on top of current events by reading Russian newspapers online daily and corresponding with leading experts on Central Asia from around the world.

Of course, the news he reads and the news he shares is often disturbing. Inflation, human rights crackdowns, and corruption overwhelm the current headlines. And, of course, leadership is a concern. “I am not a fan of [Vladimir] Putin,” Oushakine said pointedly of the Russian president.

He spoke with a tone of resignation but suddenly changed his tenor. It is spring 2013, but for the next few moments a visitor can imagine Oushakine on a summer day in 1991 in Estonia with an auspicious tune from the era playing in the background.

“I am hopeful,” he said, his voice now as bright as the sunlight outside his Princeton office window. “The younger generations in the former Soviet Union are people who have traveled a lot and have been exposed to political cultures and different lifestyles. They do not want to leave their country. They like it there.”

Oushakine tapped his desk, then looked ahead. “They just want it to work better. That gives some hope.”