National Identity in Russia from 1961: Traditions and Deterritorialisation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Medieval & Modern Languages Fac


The rise of nationalism is one of the most prominent and worrying phenomena in modem Russian culture. The proposed project moves beyond ideology, political programmes, and voting patterns in order to examine views of the nation and Russianness among ordinary Russians, and to explore how far these may be traced back to the late Soviet era. The sources include previously unexplored archival material, questionnaires, and interviewing/oral history. The central themes are 'tradition', by which we mean cultural memory, a self-consciously recognised relationship with the past, and 'deterritorialisation', which refers to the stresses placed on national and personal identity by migrancy, travel, and emigration. The period chosen for close study includes the post-Stalin and transition years, which witnessed a thoroughgoing attempt by the Party authorities to revive what were seen as 'positive' traditions, yet at the same time an officially-sponsored depopulation of the Russian village, conventionally seen as the bedrock of national identity, and the granting of mobility rights (albeit in a restricted sense) to ever larger sections of the population. Working in collaboration with Russians so that we can explore national identity from the inside, as well as writing about it from a distance, we plan to publish a number of pathbreaking studies on subjects such as the cultural history of identity documents, St Petersburg as the city of 'living history', Russian food as an expression of national identity, the role of museums in fostering cultural memory, the representation of the nation in the Russian media, patriotism and attitudes to 'foreigners' among skinheads In St Petersburg and Vorkuta, and the lives of Russians living in Britain. We are also planning to set up a broader research network that will exchange views in order to place Russian nationalism of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in national and international context Russia is often, but perhaps wrongly, considered a 'special case', so we propose to investigate similarities and differences between Russian views of the nation and those in other countries that till recently had a large peasant population and have a history of authoritarian rule, such as Ireland, Hungary, Greece, and Italy, as well as comparing the situation in the Russian Federation with that in other parts of the former Soviet Union. The structure of the project involves a network of 40 scholars, including a core group of 4 Russian and 5 British academics, each of whom will work on a particular aspect of our general theme. Anticipated output includes research monographs (Baiburin, KeIly, Omelchenko/Pilkington), sections of books (Beumers, Lovell), and articles (Baranov, Byford, Kushkova}. A discussion of theories/methodologies of research in national identify will be organised in Antropologicheskii forum/Forum for Anthropology and Culture, published by the Russian Academy of Sciences/Kunstkamera in St Petersburg. Alongside academic: books and articles, we plan to organise two workshops and a major international conference, and to create a website that will be exploitable as a research resource, with an annotated international database of research on Russian nationalism. We will also set up a searchable online database of life history interviews which will form part of the Archive of Russian Personal History and Everyday Life at the University of Oxford, and which will be accessible by other scholars researching twentieth- and twenty-first-century Russian culture. The involvement of Russian participants will smooth access to archival holdings not generally accessible to Western scholars, facilitate contact with informants, and ensure that work done for the project attains a high profile in Russia (we will be pre-publishing material from the monographs in leading Russian journals, e.g. Neprikosnovennyi zapas and NLO, as well as US/UK refereed journals).


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Byford A (2009) Poslednee sovetskoe pokolenie v Velikobritanii in Neprikosnovennyi zapas

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Byford A (2014) Razygryvaia soobshchestvo: Russkoiazychnye migranty sovremennoi Britanii in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie

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Cairns L (2014) Rethinking 'Identities'

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Josephine Von Zitzewitz (2012) Viktor Krivulin and Aleksandr Mironov: The Quest for Sacred Language in 1970s Russian Poetry in The Modern Language Review

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Kelly C (2017) The shock of the old: architectural preservation in Soviet Russia in Nations and Nationalism

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Prof Catriona Kelly (Author) (2013) Imidzh. Tekst. Eksperiment.

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Prof Catriona Kelly (Author) Sovetskoe proshloe skvoz' vospominaniya o prodovol'stvennom defiysite'. in Neprikosnovennyi zapas.

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Prof Catriona Kelly (Author) Etnograficheskii muzie i ratsionalizatsiya sistemy'. in Etnograficheskoe obozrenie.

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Prof Catriona Kelly (Author) Sovetskaya pamyat' (special number of the journal, with introduction). in Neprikosnovennyi zapas.

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Prof Catriona Kelly (Author) Sbornik v chest' S. M. Loiter'.

Title Home is Where the Bread Is (Gde khleb, tam i rodina) 
Description A play partly based on the interviewing work that was done by Victoria Donovan while she was working on our AHRC project (also supported by the Geschichtewerkstatt, Germany). Victoria Donovan and two other researchers wrote a play based on their interviews about migrancy, which depicted women's experience of migrating from rural areas and small towns to big cities. 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2010 
Impact The performance in the UK Consulate, St Petersburg was well-attended and created a lot of discussion. 
Description The key objective was to research Russian national identity at the 'grassroots' level and especially the regional elements in this. Most other research has concentrated on the nationwide picture (as seen from the country's capital). While this is certainly important (e.g. the rising cult of 'the Great Patriotic War'), there is a different and less bellicose side to Russian culture that emerges when one looks beyond Moscow. Our key area was the North-West (St Petersburg, but also the mining city of Vorkuta and the Old Russian cities of Pskov, Novgorod, and Vologda). This covers Europe's fourth largest (and Russia's second largest) city, a medium-sized industrial town, and three smaller settlements with medieval origins; the rural hinterland was also under consideration (mainly in terms of interaction on city life). Because of our emphasis on mobility, we had an ancillary project on Russians living in Britain (which has since become increasingly topical, with Russian foreign policy in 2014 emphasising repeatedly the role of the 'Russian World').
In the original report presented to the AHRC in May 2011, we had over 100 outputs of different kinds, including publications, conference presentations, conferences (we organised two international conferences, each with c. 100 participants, in 2009, which were attended by figures from public life and members of the general public as well as by academics). Most of this data has been lost from Researchfish and the publications list was badly garbled as well as truncated when the data was transferred. This represented the loss of two entire working days of the PI's time to enter the original data, plus a working day to attempt to correct at least some of the mistakes (it has not been possible to right all of them). Nevertheless, we trust that enough has been recorded to suggest the range of activities. We also gave detailed accounts in the original report of media interest etc. - for instance, the project was featured in the University of Oxford's brochure on current research (in 2010), and in the first Humanities Division research showcase in 2011.
Exploitation Route The topic of Russian national identity has become of enhanced importance in 2013-2014. It was highlighted at the Sochi Olympics (cf. the opening ceremony, which included an eclectic mixture of different symbols aimed at different audiences, home and foreign). Specific to the recent past, particularly during the crisis in Ukraine, has been the rise of political nationalism - but often of a kind that was evident at the fringes of Russian society before. Western sources (e.g. newspaper commentary) often express bewilderment about Putin's continuing popularity without understanding the underlying reasons - to do with national prestige, the sense of the country's encirclement by hostile forces, and so on. Also misunderstood is the extent to which Russia has changed since 1991; the significant level of convergence with Western norms and practices at the level of everyday life means that rhetorical emphasis on the country's specificity is ever more important. Aggressive anti-Western rhetoric is accompanied by a continuing commitment to Western standards in areas such as education, science and technology, academic practice, etc. Travel outside the country is still a fact of life (indeed, emigration on a semi-permanent basis is increasing). Our work suggests the complexity of the underlying issues and the extent to which identity is shaped by specific factors. We have also looked at the Soviet heritage in ways that go beyond the usual superficial focus on nostalgia. Future studies will build on this, though obviously, the situation in Ukraine has transformed issues of national identity in some respects (the annexation of the Crimea in particular has generated a much more aggressive phase of nationalism). The findings relating to a high level of national suprematism and national specificity that is seen as 'neutral' (i.e. regarded as inevitable in any country) remain relevant, since constituents of governing national myths have altered only superficially. So, someone researching the upsurge of hostility to Ukrainians, Poles, or Westerners could draw on our work reflecting attitudes to Central Asian migrants (a general process of stigmatising outsiders is in train). We have also amassed a considerable corpus of research data (interviews, archival transcripts, etc.), which will be logged in the Oxford Research Archive and made available to bona fide researchers upon request. (We had originally planned to put this material online, but unfortunately the increased interest of the security services in our work and the impossibility of guaranteeing the anonymity of our informants made this impracticable.)
Sectors Creative Economy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description There has been considerable impact on the academic public (e.g. Catriona Kelly's Remembering St Petersburg and article on historiography of the Soviet era are in the top 5% of downloads on Russian Cultural Anthropology since the Collapse of Communism is already in paperback, and Soviet and Post-Soviet Identities is considered by CUP to be selling well. St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past has also reached a general readership - it was Yale UP's Book of the Month for January 2014 and was presented at the Oxford Book Festival and various events for the public, e.g. a talk at Pushkin House and the Winchester Russian circle. The book has its own Facebook page also. It was shortlisted for the Pushkin Russian Book Prize in 2015 and longlisted for the Historia Nova Prize in the same year. Areas of the research have also led to outreach in a practical sense - e.g. in August 2014 Catriona Kelly wrote an expert statement for an immigration case in Scotland referring to the effects on two children of primary-school age of possible refusal of leave to remain to the parents (the children had been in the UK for five and a half years). In 2018, Catriona Kelly will present a paper on heritage preservation at the Bannye Chteniya in St Petersburg. The research has also led to contacts with young researchers in the museum world and to an invitation to write a short response in a discussion of urban issues in St Petersburg for the widely-read local business newspaper Delovoi Peterburg. This in turn led to an invitation to participate in the 2017 International Cultural Forum in St Petersburg (which had to be declined due to a previous engagement, but was a significant sign of interest, since normally official guests are professionals from outside the academic sector). In January 2020, Catriona Kelly was invited to act as consultant for a bid by urban architects on the design of a new park in St Petersburg.
First Year Of Impact 2007
Sector Creative Economy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description John Fell Fund, University of Oxford
Amount £28,032 (GBP)
Funding ID HUM Kelly 121_432 
Organisation University of Oxford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2012 
End 11/2014
Description Soviet Traditions 
Organisation European University at Saint Petersburg
Country Russian Federation 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I co-ordinated (with the help of my post-docs) several workshops under the AHRC grant, in which scholars and students from the EUSP took part. Since then, I have helped suggest themes and speakers for workshops that have been organised in St Petersburg.
Collaborator Contribution We began running this series of workshops under AHRC funding, and since then, the EUSP has taken over the series and paid for Western scholars and research students to take part (for example, in September 2014 there were three participants in Oxford). The EUSP also offers support for my annual multi-entry visa (which would cost at least 250 pounds to organise through an agency).
Impact Anthropology, history, cultural studies. As well as the workshops mentioned above, several people who took part in the AHRC collaboration continue to present papers and lectures at the EUSP, for example in the Anthropology Faculty's Urban Anthropology series. It was directly at my suggestion that this series was started, and it has been extremely successful for the last 4 years. The seminar, and our workshops, are often attended by specialists from the museum network and from cultural associations such as the Likhachev Foundation.
Start Year 2008
Description Appearance at Oxford Literary Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The talk was sold out and the audience enthusiastic and attentive. There were a lot of questions afterwards.

Increased Kindle and hard copy sales of my book on St Petersburg; interest in visiting there from those who had not been before.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description media interest (Russian national identity) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact This was a contribution to a discussion of the Pussy Riot case in September 2012. I explained the result of the case as destroying any middle ground in Russian politics. The programme was BBC World Tonight, which has large audiences, and I had some positive feedback from listeners afterwards.

I regularly get asked for media comment and advice on similar topics afterwards.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012