Abstracts Nov 6: Historical perspectives

16.40-17.40. Historical perspectives

Otari Gulbani (Central European University MA): Russian Imperial Orientalism in Svaneti: A Discursive Analysis

Russian imperial expansion southwards to the Caucasus in the nineteenth century was a bloody and lengthy process conditioned by, on one hand, the inaccessible mountainous terrain of the region and, on the other hand, the ‘savage’ nature of the local mountain dwellers that proved to be significantly resilient to emerging imperial rule (Jersild, 2014, p. 4). Military men, followed by social and natural scientists, colonial administrators, and regular travelers fleeing the ‘beau monde’ to seek the exotic, all contributed to the process of first comprehending and then re-creating the identities of north Caucasian denizens (and the region itself) according to imperial visions. As post-colonial theorists working on this region have shown (see Jersild, 2014; Layton, 2015), the discourse produced during the process of expansion by imperial subjects presupposed a fundamental binary of the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ or, in other words, benevolent empire and the ‘savage’. Somewhat similar to Edward Said’s understanding of the French ‘occident’ and the Arab ‘orient’ (2003).

As this research paper will demonstrate, Svaneti, a remote and mountainous region located in north-western Georgia, became an evident object of Russian orientalist imagination, although in a slightly different fashion than what is described in the seminal works on the topic that explore other north Caucasian cases. By applying discourse analysis to primary sources that date back to nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Svaneti, the paper will try to unravel the ways in which imperial language and recurring tropes were used, on the one hand, to dominate the region politically and, on the other hand, to produce difference that was so crucial for the imperial project to succeed. The discourse that exhibited itself in colonial language often ascribed gender attributes to Svan landscape, mobilized tropes on ‘backwardness’ and degeneration, as well as helped cement the ‘self’/’other’ binary. While navigating these imageries, the paper will also problematize how [imperial] Russian language was historically used to reaffirm unequal relations and render the colonies, which in this case is Svaneti, mute.

By comprehending historical complexities, context, and the range of Russian imperial domination, especially from linguistic and discursive perspectives, one becomes better equipped to conceptualize and counter contemporary expressions of colonialism in the post-Soviet region and identify the prejudices that still exist and are internalized but seem to have roots in colonial discourse.

Jersild, A. (2014). Orientalism and Empire: North Caucasus Mountain Peoples and the Georgian Frontier, 1845-1917. McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Layton, S. (2015). Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy. Cambridge University Press.

Said, E. W. (2003). Orientalism. Penguin Classics.


Sam Tarpley (Tulane University, Grad stud): Contemporary Deconstruction: Post-Soviet Monuments and the American South

This essay examines national identity asserted by language and monuments between post-Soviet states and the American South. The defeat of the Confederate army in 1865 marked the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction. This period featured efforts to rebuild the country, though in terms of national identity, the divide remained. In more recent terms, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 decentralized and disintegrated its Union Republics, leaving those countries the opportunity to reclaim their identities. As the dissolution of the Soviet regime is much more recent in history, it would be plausible to infer that the presence of the past, specifically in reference to sentiments and monuments, would be more present than those of the Confederacy, which fell over 100 years prior. Conversely, the remnants of racial oppression and supremacy still linger in the American South and are further memorialized through celebratory monuments of Confederacy-aligned individuals. Though some of these Southern structures have been removed, I argue for the comparison of the De-Russification in post-Soviet states, and how methods of removal, defacement, abandonment, and maintenance of monuments affect identity in the current political landscape. The growing resurgence of Russian imperialism must be understood to serve as an impetus for the restoration of oppression, and such places a greater emphasis on what it means to be a post-Soviet nation and citizen. The presence of the Confederacy and the Soviet Union remain in a similar structure, where monuments and racial marginalization are concerned, but the latter retains a much more significant impact on identity and the memory of identity through language. This paper aims to contribute to the discourse surrounding the transformation of post-Soviet states and how the decentralization of Russian influence can be understood and applied in the reclamation of self, both in Eastern Europe and America alike.


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