To many, Russia, and the wider Eurasia, is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. But it doesn’t have to be. The SRB Podcast dispels the stereotypes and myths about the region with lively and informative interviews on Eurasia’s complex past, present, and future. New episodes drop weekly with an eclectic mix of topics from punk rock to Putin, and everything in-between. Subscribe on your favorite podcasts app, grab your headphones, hit play, and tune in. Eurasia will never appear the same.
Gulag Criminal Subculture
Our knowledge of the Soviet penal system has substantially increased in the last 30 years. Yet, our knowledge of the camps as a lived experience remains relatively incomplete and based on either administrative documents or memoirs of mostly victims of political repression.
But Gulag life had its own culture, symbols, and rituals. And much it came from the long history of criminal subculture beginning in Imperial Russia, and the criminals who made up the majority of gulag inmates in the 1930s. Gulag criminal subculture included initiation rituals, tattoos, black market activity, card playing, and prisoner run courts, to name a few. After Stalin’s death, these cultural forms had a profound influence on Soviet culture, and continues today in the representation of the Russian mafia in films and Russian criminal folklore. For more on gulag criminal subculture, its history and meanings, I turned to Mark Vincent to talk about his book, Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps.
Mark Vincent is a historian based at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom specializing in Russian criminality and criminal culture. He’s the author of Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps published by Bloomsbury.
Dina Vierny, “Kashmary.”
Prostitution in Late Imperial Russia
From the 1840s until 1917, prostitution was legally tolerated across the Russian Empire and subject to medical and legal regulation. Medical police compiled information, conducted routine medical exams, and monitored registered prostitutes’ visibility and behavior in Russia’s rapidly changing urban spaces. The vast majority of women who sold sex hailed from the lower classes, as did their managers and clients. As Siobhan Hearne details in her new book Policing Prostitution, the world of sex work in late Imperial Russia provides a window into not just sexual practices. It paints a picture of lower-class urban society and the state’s attempts to police, surveil, and discipline it. The world of commercial sex was a contested one, as registered prostitutes, brothel madams, and others challenged local police, medial authorities, and reformists over the meanings of sex, labor, and morality.
Siobhán Hearne is a historian of gender and sexuality in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. She is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University. She’s the author of Policing Prostitution: Regulating the Lower Classes in Late Imperial Russia published by Oxford University Press.
Death Ride 69, “Sex Drive ’68,” Elvis Christ, 1989.
Blind Activism in the Cold War
This week’s podcast is a recording of a live interview I did with Maria Cristina Galmarini for the Keynote session at the Aging, Disability and Health in Socialist Europe and Beyond Workshop held in late March at the University of Pittsburgh.
Disability activism developed in the second half of the twentieth century in a world divided by the Cold War. While the history of how Western activists learned to speak in the language of civil rights is well documented and publicly celebrated, the legacies of activists from the socialist countries have been largely erased after the collapse of the communist governments in 1989-1991. This interview with Maria Cristina Galmarini gives a more complete history of the international disability movement by focusing on blind activists from the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic, their philosophies and practices, and how the socialist side shaped global disability advocacy during the Cold War.
Maria Cristina Galmarini is Associate Professor of History and Global Studies at William & Mary College where she researches the history of disability under socialism. She’s the author of The Right to Be Helped. Deviance, Entitlement, and the Soviet Moral Order. She is currently finishing a book titled Ambassadors of Social Progress. A History of International Blind Activism During the Cold War.
Morrissey, “Yes, I am Blind.”
Environmental Activism in Russia
This week’s podcast is the fifth and final event for Nature’s Revenge: Ecology, Animals, and Waste in Eurasia, the Spring 2021 Speakers’ Series at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. If you want to hear the entire series, go to here.
Like elsewhere, there’s a growing environmental movement in Russia. Activists are not only concerned about the larger issues like climate change, but local ones—the preservation and development of ecologically sustainable urban and rural space, industrial waste and carbon pollution, and the human footprint on nature. And like other political movements in Russia, activists risk arrest, repression, and marginalization. To get a picture of environmental activism its focus, goals, tactics and strategies, I talked to Konstantin Fokin and Angelina Davydova.
Angelina Davydova is an expert on international and Russian climate and environmental policies, civil society movements and media. She is a director of an St. Petersburg based NGO “Office of Environmental Information’, based in St. Petersburg, Russia. She is also an environmental and climate journalist, and regularly contributes to Russian and international media. Davydova has served an observer with the UN climate negotiations (UNFCCC) since 2008, and is a member of Global Reference Group and World Future Council.
Konstantin Fokin is an entrepreneur, the CEO of the Russian National Business Angels Association, and a climate and environmental activist with Extinction Rebellion. Since 2016, he’s led or carried out more than 150 street actions, four hunger strikes, and has been arrested nineteen times that has resulted in seven jail sentences totally 81 days.
Skinny Puppy, “Natures Revenge,” Too Dark Park, 1990
Gogol’s Town of N
I’ve long wondered why so many great works of 19th century Russian literature are set in some anonymous, drab, and non-descript provincial town of “N”. We never know where “N” is or what makes it special. They also tend to be inhabited by a variety of lesser nobles, eccentrics, charlatans, obsequious bureaucrats, and bored, angst ridden youth engaged in petty intrigues and performances. Thanks to Anne Lounsbery’s Life is Elsewhere, I now know that the literary trope of the provinces as homogeneous, static, and anonymous speaks to the location of cultural and political power in Russia. Power is in the center-Petersburg and Moscow—whereas the province is some godforsaken backwater. How space is organized in the literary imagination of writers like Gogol, Chekov, and Dostoevsky served as a meditation on Russia provinciality to Europe. So, what did the provinces mean? How were they represented? And what does that say about Russian cultural identity? Here’s Anne Lounsbery with some answers.
Anne Lounsbery is a Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. She has published numerous articles on Russian and comparative literature and is the author of Thin Culture, High Art: Gogol, Hawthorne, and Authorship in Nineteenth-Century Russia and America. Her most recent book is Life Is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800–1917 published by Cornell University Press.
Trash in (post-)Communist Eastern Europe
This week’s podcast is the fourth of five events for Nature’s Revenge: Ecology, Animals, and Waste in Eurasia, the Spring 2021 Speakers’ Series at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
Industrial commodity production has exponentially increased the number of things to be bought, sold, and consumed. But waste is left in the wake of every created and consumed thing. The problem of trash—what to do with it, where to put it, and how to process and even reuse it is one of the fundamental problems of modern society. Here’s Elana Resnick and Viktor Pal on trash and the multiple challenges in dealing with it in Eastern Europe.
Elana Resnick is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently working on a book manuscript about waste and race in Europe based on over three years of fieldwork on Bulgarian city streets, in landfills, Romani neighborhoods, executive offices, and at the Ministry of the Environment. You can get a taste of her research in a forthcoming piece in the American Anthropologist entitled “The Limits of Resilience: Managing Waste in the Racialized Anthropocene.”
Viktor Pál is a Researcher at the Department of Cultures at the University of Helsinki, Finland. He also serves as Coordinator at the Helsinki Environmental Humanities Hub. His first book Technology and the Environment in State-Socialist Hungary: An Economic History was published in 2017 by Palgrave MacMillan.
Peter Seeger, “Garbage.”
For all Russia watchers.