On the history of socialism from a post-colonial perspective by Prof. Serguei Oushakine

On 29 June, the Centre for Comparative History and Political Studies hosted a workshop by Professor Sergei Oushakine, titled "A history of alienation: Of socialist post-colonial history."

The aim of the workshop was to examine the applicability of post-colonial studies for post-Soviet history. The workshop was based on two articles by Serguei Oushakine about the historical debates in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan.

Serguei Oushakine began the workshop with an overview of main trends in post-colonial theory. The professor emphasized that during two decades of post-socialism numerous attempts were made to study the complex and controversial history of the socialist experiment. New national histories, which began to appear in the former republics of the Soviet Union, were often motivated, on the one hand, by the aspiration to design a clear dividing line between the "Soviet" and the "national", and on the other, to activate retrospective sources of national authenticity, which had not been part of the Soviet discourse.

Serguei Oushakine demonstrated new post-Soviet traditions of the post-colonial discourse, taking as an example public debates related to three "memorial places" in Belarus. The first one is the memorial to the victims of World War II, which was build in Katyn’ (founded in 1960); the second one is Kurapaty, a place of mass executions from 1937 to 1941 (founded in the late 1980s); and the last one is the historical complex "Stalin’s Line", which was created on the reconstructed fortifications of the Minsk fortified area (2005). Oushakine then presented a case from Kyrgyzstan – the Kyrgyz State Historical Museum, which is the largest of its kind in Central Asia. In the professor’s opinion, it demonstrates the peculiar way of the national self-representation. Before the USSR collapse, it was the museum of Vladimir Lenin and until today it preserves an exposition about him. Focusing on these four cases, Professor Oushakine discussed two issues: metaphors and styles through which people try to create new national languages, and the representation of the nation as a collective entity that was constructed by the new discourse about past events.

According to Professor Oushakine, the Belarusian cases are directly related to the complex legacy of Stalinism. The debates about these memorial places’ meaning and its role in the Belarusians’ national memory significantly influenced the process of national identity creation. However, Oushakine noticed that these debates have not been able to produce historical narratives that would unite the emerging nation. But then, the debates created two opposing approaches, which emphasize the understanding of national history as the history of the occupation by a foreign regime. According to the professor, this kind of distancing from Soviet history leads to the formation of a new non-Soviet self-perception which is not related with fascism or Stalinism. The Kyrgyz case demonstrated a huge historical gap when it comes to representing the Soviet period. The museum exhibition is mainly devoted to the history of the Kyrgyz people. It covers the period from the Stone Age till the end of the 19th century, when Kyrgyzstan was incorporated into the Russian Empire, but then this particular exposition comes to an end. The permanent exhibition shows nothing about the Kyrgyz nation during the Soviet period. However, Kyrgyz objects from the post-Soviet period are indeed exhibited.

The discussion at the workshop was based on two questions by Oushakine: "How it is possible to create self-identification when you have to take into consideration an imperial past?" and "Is Belarusian culture post-colonial?". In search of answers, the workshop participants raised the issue of post-colonial features that are typical for the post-Soviet space, covered the problem of nostalgia for the non-existent empire and discussed the effectiveness of the victim position in the sphere of post-colonialism. The debaters compared the process of nation-building with the process of removing dust from old relics. Also, they discussed the role of historical myth and the culture of memory in the creation of nations as a great historical policy. The debaters emphasized the necessity of the existence of utopias because of their special role as a kind of "beacon" for the nation. In this case, the utopia is a kind of antithesis to  negative dystopia scenarios, which are widespread in the post-Soviet area.