ASEEES 2018 (December, Boston) Abstracts

For the American Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies convention in 2018, I am planning to do two things:

Present the paper “Affective Infrastructures and Mobility: the Soviet Sublime, post-Soviet Concrete, and post-post-Soviet Recursion” at the panel Alexandra Simonova and I organized, Politics of Belonging for Hybrid Identities: in the Shadow of the Soviet Sublime.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

I examine the tensions in the everyday life of people who engage with the morally outdated and sometimes malfunctioning infrastructures in remote Siberian villages on the shore of the Angara River. These villages came to life in their current form as a consequence of the Bratsk dam construction in 1954-61. Although the villages emerged as the result of infrastructural development, the infrastructures locally have been lacking from the start. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, their existence has drastically changed. How do people make decisions regarding their mobility in a place where the infrastructure is failing? Making use of what I call “affective infrastructures,” I connect the theories of affect (Deleuze and Guattari, Stewart) and the theories of infrastructure (Larkin, Simone) through the analysis of the intersecting points such as network-like structures, flow, exchange, and connection. I show how infrastructure generates affects as well as affects partake in the construction or repurposing of infrastructure.

The panel’s framework is as follows (Magdalena Stawkowski took part in polishing it):

How do tensions between new and old infrastructures throughout post-Soviet space, affect the ways in which people build and perform their identities and make everyday decisions? This panel brings together scholars of anthropology and regional studies (working in Crimea, Kazakhstan, and Siberia) doing interdisciplinary research on infrastructures and material objects in their production of hybrid identities, politics of belonging, and citizenship in the context of disparate and conflicting allegiances. Considering the Soviet period as a “lingering reverberation” that creates identities, sameness, and differences, we examine how old Soviet and new post-Soviet categories of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, health, and class, as well as generational divide, express themselves in practices of working through and reconstructing the narratives of living.

Taking into account the spatio-temporal phenomenon of the Soviet collapse allows us to not only concentrate on the peculiarities of performing hybrid identities in contested socio-cultural contexts, but also to speak to broader concerns of infrastructural development, ideas of progress and modernity, mobility, and precarity. The USSR-related experiences acquire a new importance in the today’s volatile political climate worldwide. The construction of infrastructural and architectural projects brought to life the affect of the Soviet sublime connected to a grand Soviet narrative. Today’s infrastructures are in disarray. Still, they are a part of the material and environmental settings where hybrid identities emerge and are performed. How people are making the everyday decisions in these material settings are the focus of this panel’s inquiries.


For the roundtable on literature and gender, I put together the final version of this talk just now; the talk is titled “‘I am a Little Poetess with a Huge Bow:’ Female Poets in Contemporary Russia.”

In this talk, I am reciting the originals of the poems by contemporary Russian poets Dana Kurskaya, Inga Kuznetsova, Irina Ysn, Alina Vitukhnovskaya, Luba Makarevskaya, as well as by Irina Odoyevtseva (1895-1990), alongside translations of these works by me and others. It is done in order to open the space to think through emergent poetics and points of imaginary cross-references. Imaginary, because these poets are from different groups; they are not connected to one another. What connects them then? A translator and reader’s arbitrary will. But is it arbitrary? Irina Odoyevtseva is a poet who foreshadowed some of the creative practices of the contemporary Russian poets by and large, and she is not as often spoken or widely read as Tsvetaeva or Akhmatova. Other poets all present different ways and tactics of navigating the cultural and “real” world; they build different universes of meaning and affect. I will analyze their creative practices (which are very different and include, for Kurskaya, a publishing project; for Kuznetsova, prose; for Ysn, jewelry making; for Vitukhnovskaya, political self-representation, and for Makarevskaya, art) in connection to their poetry. I will look at whether they position themselves as feminists, and if not or yes, why, and what does it tell us about positionality of female writer and poet in Russia, and why this positionality matters in regard to feminism. I will use the answers by the poets to the questions that arise in connection to their creative practices. My talk will enable other participants of the roundtable and the public to talk about different ways of navigating, expressing, or denying gender-related ideologies in poetry, but that will not be the center of it. The center of my talk will be poetry itself. I will show that all these poets are working with the aesthetics positioned on the edges of the respectability; in their writings, they consistently push the boundaries and limits of acceptable.


In the photo: an interior of a house in the village of Atalanka, Siberia. The picture is taken by the author in 2013


My List of Books and Resources On How To Write

How does one write ethnographic notes? How does one write, and how does one produce a thing: an article, a book? This is what a scholar does: she writes. She writes, and, characteristically, not aimlessly, but with a clear purpose, goal, and structure in mind.

My first lessons on how to write were from the Russian books on the subject. Maxim Gorky’s fragments of letters to young writers were my first, at the age of 11, opening to the realization that writing might and must be perfected. Another book in Russian that I want to mention, I don’t think it is translated, is the Soviet journalist Valery Agranovsky’s book For the Sake of a Single Word (Radi edinogo slova).

Writing is the most potent instrument that you possess even if there are other tools at your disposal. With writing, you can do a lot. You can make people do what you want and to change immediate social reality. It may sound too good to be true, but Austin’s theory of performatives shows this. Word is an extremely powerful instrument. Moreover, it is the only instrument anyone has to make oneself understood.

I compiled a list of books and resources that will propel a writer to a greater precision and quality of their work. These are simple “how to” books. Ethnographic writing should move. It can be suspenseful, it can be creative, and it can be pretty much anything you want. Now that fiction has to compete with the web and social media, in addition to movies, it shrinks in sales and therefore, presumably, in numbers of books that people read. But nonfiction is going surprisingly strong. My guess is, it is promotional books (“how to take 10 steps in 10 steps”), and not prose-leaning narratives that seized the day. But it is also curious to observe how previously marginal genres, like memoirs and collections of short twitterlike notes, have been gaining prominence. Against this backdrop, ethnographic writing and anthropological theory of all sorts have a great opportunity to flourish. Anthropology has many things to offer to the world, particularly if it does not become esoteric but still retains its depth. There are books on how to write ethnography, but here I am going to list the books that simply teach how to write and how to publish. I have always been far less interested in the latter (perhaps not a good thing to admit), so I don’t comment on the soundness of publishing advice. Fiction, nonfiction, academic, and non-academic writing: ethnography can consume the best of all and will still remain hungry for more.

Stephen King, On Writing. A master of suspense-driven novels (not plot-driven, as you’ll learn from this book), King portrays his passion about writing though a personal story and shares the surprisingly not arcane secrets of his mastery. I found his idea of novel as a fossil that remains hidden until you write it, unearth it, compelling. The book is also invigorating because it is a story of success, and if there is something appealing to a broad audience, it is success. Stephen King could have written anything on the subject of writing and still end up with a bestseller after he wrote and sold so many bestselling novels, but he’s making a horror novel out of a how-to book, from the material of his own life. It is an autoethnography of the writer’s life, infused with reflections on writing. I found it funny that there are traces of, what do I call it, regrets or perhaps even shame that the author’s talent was spent on fast-reading, trade-literature books. There is a curious defensiveness about it. But this book is the one that positions Stephen King, if he wasn’t there already, among the classics of the American letters, makes him look very reasonable on a bookshelf somewhere between Kerouac and Joseph Heller.

William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. It is one of the books that Stephen King recommends in his On Writing, and by far The Elements is probably most popular and well-known book on how to write in the American culture. It is an acclaimed (and short, like a stub) book that has the strangest history: co-authors, a professor and his student, did not work side by side on a manuscript, but with a distance in 40 years. It is a story behind this book that I find poignant (and also questionable from the point of view of the primate of the authorship) that makes it matter in addition to the quality of advice given there. The passage on the dangling participle made me exclaim: “Yes! Please, make every American / British /Canadian / Australian etc. writer read it!”:

“Sentences violating Rule 11 are often ludicrous: 


Wandering irresolutely what to do next, the clock struck twelve.”

Les Edgerton, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go. This book makes an important argument: stories told today must accommodate to the quickness with which the reader switches attention. No one has time for lengthy introductions and background stories: throw your character (I’d add, all the more so if your character is a theoretic notion) into a density of events and see how they fare. Make them work around the clock trying to resolve an urgent conflict.

John Ciardi, Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays in the Reading, Writing, and Teaching of Poetry.  Ciardi Himself is a collection of essay on writing that will be slightly out of this “how to” list. But it is a book that does not concern itself with how to sell the writing, but rather with how to gain a metaphysical victory.

Chandler Bolt, Book Launch: How to Write, Market & Publish Your First Bestseller in Three Months or Less AND Use it to Start and Grow a Six Figure Business. The title of this book sounds shallow, and it makes no secret out of the fact that it is aimed to appeal to the widest audience of forever unsuccessful writers. But this is, surprisingly, one of the clearest and simplest books on the subject that I ever encountered.


Additionally, I want to offer you a list of resources on how to write.

Resources: – tips, in fact, a collection of instructions on how to write things of different genres. My favorite instruction is how to write a memoir, found on the website, downloaded for free, by Jerry Jenkins; – academic writing, explained by Alan Klima; – blog of Karen Kelsky, the author of the book with the same title, The Professor Is In. Karen Kelsky’s has written on a wide array of academic writing, including some of the most daunting ones, like grant proposals and research statements. A must-read for every student of academic writing out there.

The three writers mentioned above, in the Resources section, organize writing seminars providing schedule and systems of accountability, advise and support for those enrolled. These services are paid; I cannot tell if it is worth it because I do my writing on my own. I can write anywhere in any medium (and you can do it too), and I find agglomerations of writers distracting rather than helpful. But it can be a good idea to attend a writing seminar, for many reasons.

Finally, I have written on methods in socio-cultural anthropology, and should the subject be of interest to you, I invite you to read On Methods in Sociocultural Anthropology: Production of Ethnography Through Observation, Recollection, and, Occasionally, Forgetting.

In the photo: the author taking field notes on the shore of Lake Baikal in a company of fishermen in 2006

116th American Anthropological Association Meeting in Washington, D.C.

This year’s anthropological meeting was productive; I like big gatherings; usually, I receive there notes and feedbacks that I am able to incorporate in my work because they are dense, to the point, and affirmative. Anthropology and science in general, particularly social science, but also its humanitarian incarnation, the socio-cultural anthropology, tend to come to any fruition (if they do) as collaborative processes, despite their continual stressing of the role of the author. We’re still privileging the singular, sole author, as opposed to some other branches of anthropology that are more explicit in doing things collaboratively–the socio-cultural anthropology is no exception; it is also a 100% collaborative process.

I participated in the 116th AAA with two projects that are linked in ways more numerous that I will be able to articulate in this quick blog post. It will suffice to say for the time being that they should end up as parts of my dissertation. Both these projects emerge out of my Siberian explorations; my interests in the phenomenological side of the materialities of the world; my suspicion that such materialities are mutable and multiple; and also from my interest in people and from me asking and re-asking the questions: How do I tell stories? How do I convey things I saw? How do I transport this audience, this group of people, this listener, this reader, into my own world, which incidentally, at least in part, is an unequivocally Siberian world?

My first presentation came out of the episode which I had been hoping to run in a group of anthropologists for a while. I wrote it down almost entirely right after these episodes had transpired. Yet it took me two years to work through some theory pertaining to that day, to two episodes / two encounters. The theory is there to make it all make sense, as it were.

The piece is about a never-completed architectural project, the Palace of Pioneers in Bratsk, and fantasies and ideas unfolding around it and in proximity to it. Two years is not the end of thinking about one day; this piece continues to be a work in process.

The piece is titled In Proximity of Ruins: Haunted Space and the Mutant Fantasy.

Here is the link to an MP3 recording of the presentation.

(The first one minute and a half of the recording is a lovely murmur of papers and a little bit of commotion; I considered cutting this part but then decided to leave it as is for the sake of a sensorial affect of presence).

The panel where I gave this presentation, is the result of a much-cherished friendship of mine–of an intellectual partnership, a connection between my colleague, the anthropologist Rick Smith and me. The panel was titled Summoning the Past: Contestations of Matter, Space, and Time in the Reproduction of State Power. The concentration on summoning, bringing together matter, space, and time, all in a focus of how the state uses these parameters of the “reality” in view of the reproduction of state power, had allowed us to bring together scholars from different, sometimes perceived as far-flung, wings of the discipline. I find such get-togethers particularly generative in terms of ideas and in terms of acquiring the new angles on the same matters.

We were extremely lucky to have Doctor Eben Kirksey, whose presence as a discussant on our panel was very welcome. Dr. Kirksey was extremely generous in providing the much-needed feedback.

It was an honor to present alongside with Rick Smith, Magdalena Stawkowski (whose work I use in my piece), Mary J Weismantel, and also to have Joanna Radin on our panel, who regretfully could not grace us with her physical presence, but whose amazing presentation Dr. Kirksey delivered himself. I am looking forward to seeing, reading, learning always more about, as well as celebrating the works, of all the participants on our panel.


Craig Campbell took this snapshot, a photographic evidence of the (already) past. In the picture: Dr. Rick Smith and I

My second presentation at AAA 2017 was titled Life and Death in a Siberian Village, and this is one of my favorite projects.

Here is a link to an MP3 recording of this presentation.

I will not upload the visual component of this presentation as I am going to convert it into a photo essay.

This is a project of handwriting that my scientific advisor, anthropologist Craig Campbell, prompted and encouraged me to do.

The curatorial collective Writing With Light put together a two-part roundtable. A diverse group of artists, photographers, visual and multimedia scholars, and anthropologists presented their projects where text and photography, sound and image, language and… language–come together to generate a bunch of different, often complex and ripe with tensions, relationships. It is with great interest that I observed the photo-essays in progress by participants of the roundtable.

I am grateful to Kate Schneider and Camilo Leon-Quijano for their insightful comments on my essay.

Photographs Taken During the Partial Solar Eclipse 8/21/2017 in Austin, Texas

As solar eclipse approached, I was thinking about making an exit, an escape out of it, into the city, in hunt of the everydayness, the experience where the mundane collapses and coagulates with spectacular. There were gazers in Austin that did not make it into my objective; they were exchanging eclipse glasses, and one young pregnant woman stood with her swollen belly, bared, offering it to the sun obstructed by the moon, perhaps in search of some sort of connection for her unborn baby with the forces of the universe far exceeding the limits of our imagination and knowledge, with forces non-human, powerful and divine.

I was looking at the familiar space of the city that has been hosting me for the last six years, and these six years were a pinnacle in its existence: during this time Austin rapidly grew and skyrocketed to the first positions of all kinds of ratings, from most-desirable-cities-to-live in America to cities-that-offer-the-best-ratio-of-entertainment-fun-and-prices-for-rent, or so I’ve been told. Austin is continuing growing and will do so in the observable future, but it is no longer the pioneering city in terms of exchanging comfort for money or best prospects for young professionals. Austin is still one of the desirable place to live but its paradise-like attraction is nearing the end as it is gradually taken over by corporations and undergoes yet another after another wave of gentrification.

I am planning to document through photography several streets in Austin that encompass its spirit best, and I open this project with this series of photographs: Austin during the partial eclipse. The eclipse span nearly three hours, from 11:41 AM to 2:39 PM, with a pinnacle at 1:10 PM.

I enjoyed the light on this day, which seemed unusual to me–and finally I was able to free myself from the idea that I observed a partial solar eclipse before. If I observed the eclipse before, it was not during this earthly life (not that I believe in this shit).

Queering Queer Beirut

I think Sofian Merabet’s book “Queer Beirut” was the only book that I encountered so far, which had a selfie of the anthropologist included in the narrative. I think that must be a feature of the new ethnography as a genre.

“Queer Beirut” is an intricate and brilliantly written account of queer bodies and queer stories functioning and circulating in city spaces—beach, downtown, different locations, architectural fantasies, and other culturally important localities where socialities happen, like cafes demanding tight on money people enjoy intricately concocted “overpriced cappuccino” (Merabet, 2014, 30). It is an analysis of “ever-so-intricate exclusions” (13), novel in methods—as new, I’d classify two things: flânerie along the roads which are not supposed to be traveled on foot, and “ethnographic montage,” which, the author argues, serves to “assemble anew disassociated, yet very much related, elements in an effort to cover the whole panoply of the metonymies that define the complexities entailed in the practice of inhabiting socio-cultural space” (246).

I was interested in flânerie (first problematized by Benjamin drawing from Badelaire) as a method, which in Merabet’s justification is a particularly important way to engage with “urban jungle”: “It is, therefore, only as a person on foot in a city that almost makes natural locomotion virtually impossible that the observing anthropologist can start to think about distinguishing many of the urban spaces in Lebanon that bear the potential of creating alternative, and perhaps queer, discourses.” (7). I think it is fascinating in what way exactly and why only as a person on foot does anthropologist penetrate the overlapping layers of the city which are simultaneously a space weirding, space queering, space domineering, and space escaping, and a space yielding to understanding. As a connoisseur of city spaces and an untiring flâner myself, I could not fail to appreciate the take.

“Participant objectifier,” which Merabet creates by adapting Bourdieu’s  “participant objectification,” becomes a welcome alternative to an overused anthropological figure of “participant observer.” Participant objectifier emerges as a gazer, explorer of one’s own enchantment. Merabet points out the readiness to flirt of a “queer stroller” as a social scientist conducting the field research—I could add, initially in Benjamin’s work, flâner was an easy buyer of a prostitute’s services. This is not a call to gleefully engage into participant objectification that we read here, but rather a call to participant objectification, that is to say, a fair assessment of the process already happening, the process which demands to be reflected upon rather than taken for granted.

On many staggering examples Merabet shows struggles of queer Beirut in which horror stories and funny episodes alternate, not omitting the pensive use of certain aspects of what might be called auto-ethnography, something which I think makes ethnographies deeper and richer.

These struggles are shown in their complexities—“Yet, by being a potential motivator, queer space and its production also function as a frustration device, namely in the shape of a catalyst that every so often reinforces the very social normativities it wants to defy.” (247).

Beirut, with its balconies and streets, protests and fights for prestige, little worlds which coincide and contest the space, visibly emerges, in all its glimmer and spectacular misery, out of this work.



Merabet, Sofian. Queer Beirut. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2014.

The Human in People-Altered Landscapes

Talk at “The Extra-Human” 13th Annual Graduate Conference in Comparative Literature, September, 25th, 2016; University of Texas in Austin


Repertoire of Stories

I have known long and well enough some of my acquaintances to get to know the repertoire of their stories, which they repeat on different occasions with slight alterations. These modifications tell more than the stories themselves. The storytellers know I know their stories, but it by no means prevent them from repeating them, and me from listening. I forget details too, and listening to them over and over again, I am involved in a process of recollecting and re-membering. With stories polished by the author to the point that their flow is never interrupted, it is sometimes difficult to tell if they adjust the details, or I mis- and dis-remember them. Either way, into these discrepancies, inconsistencies, and gaps, something important fells. Ideally I’d like to decipher several recordings of one story and analyze them. It could make a compendium, an ideal book of one story, perhaps a story not even significant itself, but acquiring meaning through attentive reading.

In detecting the repeated stories, timing, a personal timing, becomes of substance. Kathleen Stewart in her “A Space on the Side of the Road” describes her method as follows:

“The project has itself been a process of re-membering and retelling, and the resultant account stands as an allegory of the cultural processes it is trying to represent. In began with two years of fieldwork from August 1980 to September 1982 and continued through a dozen return visits in the years that followed and through the twists and turns of field notes, tape recordings, memories, photographs, phone calls, postcards, letters, telegrams, and professional papers. One time, it has become a process of long dwelling on things re-membered and retold, forgotten and imagined.” (Stewart, 1996, 7)

As she was forced to rely on memory on a number of occasions, she fell in the gaps by re-listening to the same stories time and again. (Stewart, 1996, 8)

I had long imagined a book which would envelop all variants of “Leaves of Grass,” for example, not only the first and the final versions of it, but all the intermediate versions. (And this is, too, not the first time I speak about such an edition. My second or perhaps even the third reiteration of this next to impossible for materialization, idea, adds a metapragmatic tinge to the project of collecting a compendium of one story; a collection of stories consisting of infinite repetitions of one episode.

Why people repeat stories, might be another question to ask. Does not life in its overabundance of stories offer us infinite possibilities to create and recreate themselves through different narrations, why focus on the same plot? What is in the repetition? Why we prefer to stick to the same stories, retelling them over and over again? Perhaps by way of repetition we create a space of certainty, a reliable narration, and, in the end of it, a reliable narrator–the narrator who could be believed precisely because she deviates and digresses, and her story forks into a bunch of stories, tale bifurcates into a spectrum of tales without losing its identity.



Stewart, Kathleen. A Space on the Side of the Road. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, 1996.

Two Difficulties of My Summer Fieldwork

One of the main difficulties that I encountered during my summer fieldwork (mosquitoes aside), is the unified narrative which defeats the private accounts on all levels of information collections.

According to the Scientific and Collections Division worker E., in the museum’s collections, data that are related to the dislocation and dispossession of people living in the zone of the Bratsk dam flood, are absent because it was a matter of ideological choice. Only official propaganda documents relevant to the Bratsk dam construction, were carefully gathered; accounts of events that contradicted official narrative were avoided and excluded. It was noticeable for me throughout the museum spaces in Siberia. No complexity of events beyond the layering of the Soviet propaganda were ever introduced in the way the past was reconstructed in exhibitions and collections. Not only was the unified narrative held across different museums, but also little change is noticeable how events are narrated in regard to different dams’ constructions.

For instance, Ust-Ilimsk dam’s construction began in 1963, 9 years after the beginning of the Bratsk dam construction and two years after the first stationary generator of Bratsk dam, unit N18, started operating. Ust-Ilimsk dam, too, was magnificent in terms of amounts of energy it produced and also in numbers of the displaced and the dispossessed: 14.2 thousand of people in 61 settlements, were relocated. Nonetheless, Ust-Ilimsk dam was the product of the slightly shifted times, and people’s stories arguably received some more attention: Students of ethnographic laboratories recorded their narratives. The first piercing story of disenfranchised displacement which sounded loud and clear, was written by the writer who lived through what he, contradictorily to the established narrative, perceived as tragedy—it was the novel “Farewell to Matyora” by Valentin Rasputin, published in 1976.

There was a Science-Research Laboratory of Humanitarian Explorations (Nauchno-issledovatelskaya laboratoriya gumanitarnikh issledovaniy) in Bratsk State University, which collected oral narratives of the Bratsk relocation survivors, but according to the university official V., in connection to the crisis of 2008, the laboratory had lost the grant endorsements and ceased to exist in 2012. I tracked down the organizer of this laboratory, who now lives in Irkutsk, and also have a connection with a philologist who have been collecting stories, and I hope that both these lines would yield to results. A number of personal stories were published in the 1990s, and then some I am collecting myself in the village of Anosovo.

I sometimes think: Why do I do it? How could I make it matter, what these people felt and thought back then or are thinking now? Damage has already been done, my findings would not be incorporated by the state or private enterprises in their decision making process. Things about other dams have been written already, from the anthropological, ecological, sociological, geological, and a number of other perspectives. And that is the second of my main difficulties in the field. I feel powerless to justify this research, that has been a matter of my own inexplicable curiosity slowly fusing into the matter of… pain, I would say, if I wasn’t afraid of appearing too maudlin.

Austin Old-Timer and Newcomer

It is probably advisable that I reblog it

The End of Austin

Vasilina Orlova Austin 68 photo


Austin is the capital of the American Renaissance of the beginning of the twenty-first century. The explosive construction of bridges, ramps, roads, buildings; the flow of creative, inventive, and resourceful people from all over the world—it all creates a space like no other.

When you live in a city like Austin for five years, it still feels longer than it does elsewhere because Austin in the 2010s grows faster than it is possible to comprehend. The projects, places, ideas, and people come and go. The city rapidly devours its empty spaces (parking lots in the center are suffering) and demolishes the small old enterprises, restaurants and stores, as it constructs in their place new, mirror-like skyscrapers for offices and apartments. By no means a veteran in Austin, I still remember the shining absence of the newest multistory buildings in the downtown area; now they are ingrained in the landscape…

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