Unravelling the Ambivalences of the Soviet: Debates, Reflections, and Future Explorations

Conference summary

By Jennifer Frank, Ana Lolua and Tamar Qeburia

IMAGE 1: Copyright National Archive of Georgia

From June 7-9, Ilia State University hosted an academic event organized as a collaborative effort with the German and Austrian research network – ‘Ambivalences of the Soviet: Diaspora Nationalities between Collective Experiences of Discrimination and Individual Normalization, 1953-2023’. The primary objective of the event was to undertake a critical examination of the memories of Soviet pasts and their transformations over time and space, where key themes of observation included migration, spatial changes, minority belonging, and the decolonization of knowledge from peripheral perspectives. Notably, the event placed a strong emphasis on the significance of space as a primary praxis for historical analysis. As aptly stated by Karl Schlögel, “History is set not only in time but also in space. The very words we use to talk about space and time leave no doubt that they are inextricably interwoven.”[1] Given its multilayered urban space, shaped by various historical epochs including imperialism, socialism, and the ‘post-socialist’ era (a term subject to extensive debate and critical questioning regarding its analytical utility during the event), Tbilisi emerged as a fruitful entry point for testing this approach and “spacing the history.”[2]

In a departure from conventional academic formats, the event was thoughtfully organized to incorporate a diverse range of interactive discussions. These included engaging group meetings, informative panels, thought-provoking roundtable sessions, immersive walking tours, and excursions. By embracing these varied formats, the event fostered dynamic exchanges. Participants coming from various disciplinary backgrounds actively engaged in these discussions, contributing their distinctive insights and experiences to enrich the academic discourse. In addition, the overarching theme of the conference – the ambivalences of the Soviet era – encapsulated the diversity of questions, perspectives, and research approaches that unfolded throughout the event.

Reflections on the roundtable and panel discussions by Tamar Qeburia

The conference commenced by exploring diverse expressions and implications of knowledge coloniality and the ongoing decolonization process, sparking intense academic debates recently. The opening roundtable delved into the complexities of decolonial, post-colonial, and neo-colonial concepts by questioning the particularities and limitations of applying the term “colonial” (vs imperial) in context of the Soviet project. Throughout this discussion, Madina Tlostanova‘s and Walter Mignolo’s work, “Global Coloniality and the Decolonial Option,”[3] emerged as a guiding reference for the insights shared during the conference.

IMAGE 2: Copyright Ilia State University

In their seminal article, Tlostanova and Mignolo explore the colonial matrix of power by emphasizing the global and pervasive nature of colonial rule which should be studied not in isolation referring to the colonial regimes only (such as British rule in India or French rule in Algeria), but as the defining pattern of modern governmental and power structures. When scrutinizing the main aspects of this matrix, they focus on four interconnected threads of domination: economic control (appropriation of land, resources, and labor), authority control (political organizations, governance, finance, and military), public sphere control (normative sexuality and gender roles), and knowledge and subjectivity control (education and colonization of knowledge).

The discussions during the conference gravitated towards these threads of analysis, each intricately connected to the others. Notably, the panel on Soviet Memories and Instrumentalization of the Past shed light on how past knowledge, institutional frameworks, and economic structures can perpetuate contemporary agendas and memory politics, reflecting patterns of domination reminiscent of the Soviet era. For instance, the examination of Russian Memory Politics and Post-Soviet Migration in Germany exposed how diaspora groups in Germany internalize a colonial vision. Similarly, the talk on the Remembrance of the Victims of Soviet Terror in Georgia emphasized the entrenchment of memories that impede the reimagining of a more just and democratic future. Moreover, the study on Blackening Tailoring highlighted how the Soviet project revolved around a relentless struggle for economic control, particularly regarding the allocation of power over production, economic influence, and the employment of workers, ultimately shaping sources of income and prosperity.

On the other hand, the panel on Migration, Changing Spaces, and Meanings delved into diverse instances where patterns of domination manifested at a micro-community or society level. A particularly compelling presentation, Trajectories of Soviet Migration, shed light on the 1944–46 Soviet-Polish population exchange, serving as a poignant reminder of the state’s role in shaping ethnic and national identities through top-down policies enacted by the Soviet Union, collectively known as the politics of forced migration or deportation. The ensuing discussions raised captivating questions regarding the underlying influences behind these policies—whether they were driven by economic rationalism, geopolitical strategic planning, local actors’ fears and anxieties, or a combination of various factors. Conversely, the ethnographic study titled Tales of/from the “Good Neighborhood” offered an illuminating case study of Osnabrück’s Schinkel District, focusing on the agency of ordinary people amidst the ongoing War of Russia against Ukraine. This work-in-progress observation addressed the gradual yet steady transformation of mentalities and the cultural legacy of the Russian or Soviet past within Osnabrück’s Slavic community. Finally, the talk on Practicing Womanhood in Migration delved deeper into the interplay between agency and the top-down construction of cultural standards. It discussed how women in migration transcended culturally defined norms of womanhood specific to their new residence places.

The panel on Knowledge Forums and Forms addressed a myriad of individual experiences, research tactics, and approaches of researchers adapting to diverse environments through the journey of their scientific endeavor. It delved into the realm of knowledge ontology, exploring the multifaceted methods of extracting knowledge from diverse forms and materials. The panel also raised crucial questions concerning ethics, language, and terminology — circling back to the initial point of departure that prompted the critical examination of knowledge, which often not only embodies but also perpetuates the colonial power matrix.

As for the conclusion, the discussions that emerged during the conference unveiled a notable shift from analysing the Soviet experience solely through the lens of politics and discourse. Instead, the panels and talks presented during the conference contextualized the Soviet past within the broader social terrain, giving prominence to the experiences of individuals and communities. This paradigm shift, emphasizing the importance of “peopling” Soviet studies, proves indispensable for a comprehensive understanding of Soviet nationality politics, migration policies, as well as the ambivalences of the Soviet era.

Reflections on the walking tours by Ana Lolua

IMAGE 3: Copyright Ulrike Huhn

Away from the lecture halls and beyond more academic settings and together with the members of our diverse, international team, we had a chance to get a phenomenological sense of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The program also included an excursion to the Bolnisi region, to the former German settlements but I will rather reflect here on the three walking tours held in Tbilisi.

Irakli Khvadagiani from the local NGO, the Soviet Past Research Laboratory, guided us through the topography of terror in one of the historical districts of the city: Sololaki. He paired the tragic biographies of humans repressed by the communist regime with the biographies of buildings gathered in a compact space and undergoing an increasing gentrification today.           

Professor Ketevan Gurchiani led us to locations a few blocks away from where Irakli had taken us. Introducing an ethnographer’s perspective, she invited us to read the space not only as an open book, but as being sensitive to materiality aspects, lived by different generations from imperial to Soviet and, finally, to contemporary times. Moreover, Gurchiani directed our gaze to both buildings, their architecture and changing function from one era to the other, and to the landscape they are part of and different strategies of coping with the environment used by the locals.

IMAGE 4: Copyright Ulrike Huhn

The main motif of her tour was the practiced resistance of the neighbourhood, primarily from the very residents of the buildings against general city plans and city planners proposing modifications, and even against demolitions ordered from above. She also fascinatingly demonstrated how buildings themselves, as longtime witnesses of their own existence, endure and withstand the stories invented to erase historical layers. One example is the former house of Armenian industrialist and financier Mikael Aramyants and the love story related to it. Gurchiani wittingly mentioned that love stories are often the left-out stories, but they matter to the extent that they help us complicate more momentous and sterile nationalist narratives that encircle these “untameable” urban landscapes.

IMAGE 5: Copyright Alina Jašina-Schäfer

While strolling the city as a visitor, I often have new, sometimes very perplexing, impressions and feelings. Any city, in my opinion, has a complex history: some are just branded as more complex than others. What triggers an emotional reaction in me each time, however, is how distant some of these stories are to me. It always reminds me of the practices and symbolic repertoire shared with specific milieux of Tbilisi with whom I do not always identify myself with. These memories belong to the community of city dwellers whose members know how to read the silences inscribed into the space.

During these walking tours, Ketevan Gurchiani emerged as the spokesperson of a specific community, an engaged observer embodying experience transposed into an intergenerational memory. Irakli Khvadagiani, on the other hand, is a memory agent, advocating for a fresh, more accurate and just portrayal of Georgia’s recent past relying in this case on buildings, their facades and photos as compelling illustrations of the violence that still resonates today.

Lastly, we moved to the museum of Soviet Occupation, which falls into that similar paradigm of uncovering a “truer” history: Georgia being occupied by the Red Army, Georgian people, their living space, and biographies being occupied by the designers of the totalitarian regime. The storyteller here was a museum guide who was anything but enthusiastic to tell the story she is compelled to tell: the First Democratic Republic invaded by the Red Army and the imposition of the communist power as a logical continuation of the event. At the same time, the signs “do not touch” would not make things appear more authentic or even more visible. A lot of violence was depicted in the museum showing suffered faces of victims and  specific group of victims: the clerical and creative intelligentsia of the 1920’s, 1930’s. Strolling through the exhibition hall, I kept asking myself, however: Whose story is this in the end?

IMAGE 6: Copyright Alina Jašina-Schäfer


Tamar Qeburia – PhD candidate in Eastern European History, Ilia State U / U of Göttingen: Friedrich Lehmann Haupt International Doctoral Program.

Ana Lolua – PhD candidate in Eastern European History, Ilia State U/U of Göttingen: Friedrich Lehmann Haupt International Doctoral Program.  

Jennifer Frank – Chief Editor; Research assistent, U of Göttingen: Project “In Stein gemeißelt? – Digital erfahrbare Erinnerungsdiskurse im Stadtraum von Niedersachsen und Osteuropa”

[1] Karl Schlögel, In Space We Read Time: On the History of Civilization and Geopolitics, trans. Gerrit Jackson, Illustrated edition (New York City: Bard Graduate Center, 2016).

[2] Schlögel., 26

[3] Mignolo, W. D., and M. Tlostanova. Global Coloniality and the Decolonial Option. Kultur (Special Issue: Epistemologies of Transformation), 6 (September 2009): 130–47

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
jenniferfrank (2023, 13. September). Unravelling the Ambivalences of the Soviet: Debates, Reflections, and Future Explorations. Ambivalenzen des Sowjetischen. Abgerufen am 23. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/b0ty

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