ASP is pleased to present the below interview with Kati Parppei & Bulat Rakhimzianov, who edited the new book Images of Otherness in Russia, 1547-1917.
Defining the Others, “them”, in relation to one’s own reference group, “us”, has been an essential phase in the formation of collective identities in any given country or region. In the case of Russia, the formulation of these binary definitions – sometimes taking a form of enemy images – can be traced all the way to medieval texts, in which religion represented the dividing line. Further, the ongoing expansion of the empire transferred numerous “external others” into internal minorities. The chapters of this edited volume examine the development and contexts of various images, perceptions and categories of the Others in Russia from the 16th century Muscovy to the collapse of the Russian empire.
Academic Studies Press: Describe your book’s central argument in brief.
Kati Parppei & Bulat Rakhimzianov: Defining the Others, “them”, in relation to one’s own reference group, “us”, has been an essential phase in the formation of collective identities in any given country or region. In the case of Russia, the ongoing expansion of the empire transferred numerous “external others” into internal minorities while new images were created of external others to consolidate the (imagined) inner cohesion of the empire.
The book aims, for its part, to examine the complexity and fluctuating nature of this ongoing phenomenon of categorization and stereotyping while negotiating collective identities.
ASP: How did this project begin/come to you?
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: Kati had funding from the Academy of Finland for a five-year project, “Images and Attributes of Enemies in Pre-Revolutionary Russia” (2016-2021). When Bulat came to stay in Finland for a year as a visiting fellow in 2018, we started to develop an idea of an edited volume that would bring together researchers who examine not just images of enemies, but images of “others” in general in the context of the history of Russia.
Kati’s original idea was to include both those who write in English – that is, residing usually outside of Russia – and Russia-based scholars. According to the original idea, Bulat would’ve been to take care of dealings with Russia’s scholars, while Kati’s concern would’ve been “Western” scholars. As the project was developing, these original ideas were mixed up, edited, and supplemented by other suggestions.
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: As noted above, the phenomenon of representing otherness in general and in the context of Russian imperialism particularly is complex and multifaceted. Hopefully the volume will not just present interesting case studies on the theme, but will encourage our colleagues to explore it further and cover those numerous important aspects we had to leave out.
ASP: What motivated you to write this book?
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: The desire to bring forth the aforementioned intertwined issues: the complexity of the representations of otherness, and the essential multivocality behind seemingly simple narratives of history.
ASP: What in the book might surprise readers?
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: Especially in the final chapters covering the period of three Russian revolutions (1905-1917) we can see examples of how the demonization of the “other” has been propagated in order to stir up hatred and rejection. The same phenomenon can, unfortunately, be witnessed in our time, which may tell us something not so pleasant about the universal tendencies of human nature.
ASP: What surprised you most in your research for this book?
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: The same as above – the unchangeability of human nature in terms of tendencies to draw lines between “us” and “them” and to actively create (negative) stereotypes of other groups. Perhaps it did not surprise us, but rather confirmed our previous assumptions.
This realization might call forth cynicism and despair, but on the other hand, being able to recognize socio-psychological phenomena such as this is also a human feature. Becoming aware of this tendency in ourselves may be a way to tackle its negative consequences – at least on an individual level and in personal encounters with our own “others”.
ASP: Do you plan to further explore this topic?
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: We both have continued our research with similar themes, touching the questions of “otherness”, images, imperialism, collective memory, and political uses of history, so in a way we are exploring it already. In general, the usage of history – for instance, recreation and modification of historical enemy images – for political purposes via propaganda and indoctrination unfortunately continues to be as topical a theme as ever.
ASP: Can you talk about any areas of your research that you feel are particularly ripe for future investigation?
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: The nexus between history, politics, and collective memory; how the “official” narratives of history, alternative narratives, other cultural products, and visits to “places of memory”, such as museums and monuments, actually affect people’s ideas, images and understanding of the past? To what extent is it possible to control them from above? These are very interesting questions – and quite difficult to approach in practice.
ASP: Can you talk about any particular passages or arguments in your book that you are especially proud of or excited about?
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: As this is an edited volume, we believe it’s worth lies in its scope and diversity rather than any particular arguments. What is important, though, is that the book brings forth the complexity and the fluctuating nature of the questions concerning groups’ and societies’ self-identification at any given time.
ASP: To what extent do you think the images of “otherness” in Russia during this era continue to shape attitudes towards different groups in modern-day Russia?
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: Images shared within a group or society tend to be persistent once they have been formed, as they are often transferred and reproduced by, for instance, cultural products. Also, they “operate” in the subconscious, which means people should first become aware of the images they have of a certain group. So yes, even though new layers have been formed, the kernel, the old images and stereotypes potentially continue affecting attitudes in Russia as well as elsewhere.
Especially in any kind of conflict, negative attributes of the image of any given historical “other” are quickly activated and taken into full use.
ASP: Are there any particular lessons or insights from your research that you believe could be applied to contemporary issues surrounding “otherness” in other parts of the world?
Parppei & Rakhimzianov: As image-formation, stereotyping and categorizing, are universal phenomena, the same approach can be applied to any given area and – broadly speaking – to any given historical time. It can be especially useful for the examination of cases which involve cultural and social encounters intertwined with questions of power, imperialist or colonialist efforts or clashing interests between groups or societies.