Transnational Conceptions of Russian-Language Literature


A review of Russophonia: Towards a Transnational Conception of Russian-Language Literature, by Naomi Caffee.

Naomi Caffee’s 2013 dissertation offers a long-demanded, yet scarcely attempted reappraisal of Russian literature via the integration of new advances in postcolonial studies.  As Caffee notes, the study of Russian philology in the West currently lags behind the study of other modern literatures in one key aspect: it has not yet adequately addressed, categorized, and theorized literature in its language written by non-nationals.  To begin thinking about non-Russian writers of Russian-language literature, Caffee proposes the concept and field of “Russophonia,” a construct based on the analogous terms Sinophonia and Francophonia offered by Shu-mei Shih (2011) and Belinda Jack (1996) respectively.  Russophonia encapsulates all speakers and writers of Russian who do not identify as Russian, and “is best defined as a linguistic field of discourse that is connected to, but not bound by, Russian political and economic power, and which is held together by a combination of social, cultural, political, economic, and spatial relationships” (pp. 29-30).  The study of “Russophone” literature, she argues, explores Russophone writers’ varying ambivalence, contestation, and acquiescence to the colonial impositions of the Russian Empire and its successor states.

Chapter 1, in addition to introducing and contextualizing Russophonia, argues for the utility of employing the postcolonial “-phonia” concept to a field long resistant to postcolonial theory.  In examining Russophonia, Caffee chooses to explore Russia’s southern peripheries, those of the Caucasus and Central Asia, because the colonization of those two areas “bears a much greater resemblance [than other areas of the Russian Empire] to the violent conquests, economic exploitations, and civilizing missions of European mercantile colonialism” (p. 47).  The literature produced by Caucasian and Central Asian Russophone writers throughout the period of Russian imperial rule, she argues, fully justifies the application of post-colonial theory.  Exploring well-known writers like Chingiz Aitmatov, she demonstrates that the questions that inhere in their texts and even in the manipulation of their personal biographies are often the very questions forwarded by theorists of postcolonialism like Homi Bhabha (1994): those of subjectivity, hybridity, the heterogeneity of language, translation, and the relationship of literature and authors to colonial power.

Caffee uses the succeeding chapters to historicize Russophonia, examining how command of or simply “carrying” the Russian language affected Russophone writers of the Russian Imperial, Soviet, and Post-Soviet periods.  Chapter 2 analyzes Russophonia’s “beginnings” in the mid-19th century through three figures of Kazakh and Azeri origin, Chokan Valikhanov, Abai Kununbaev, and Mirza Fatali Akhundov.  Using close readings of selected poems from their oeuvres, Caffee shows that these writers, enamored as they often were with the prospect of enlightening their people through Russian culture, simultaneously contested Russian imperial narratives even as they reinforced them.  From the 1880s on, as Russia and its colonized territories encountered nationalist thought, Caffee interestingly demonstrates that these authors’ Russian-language works and their interaction with Russian, rather than their works in their own languages, are invoked by non-Russian critics as foundational for their respective nations’ literary canons.  The canonization of these imperial-affiliated Russophone authors as Kazakh and Azeri national litterateurs mirrors and supports, according to Caffee, the conclusions of critics like Harsha Ram (2003), Susan Layton (1994), and Katya Hokanson (2008), who argue that Russian imperialism produced and sustained the Russian national literary canon.

Chapter 3 turns to the Soviet period with an analysis of the 1960s poetic oeuvre of Kazakhstan’s most prominent Russophone intellectual, Olzhas Suleimenov.  In this chapter, Caffee argues that Suleimenov, thanks to his involvement with Soviet efforts to influence anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia, eventually turned Soviet anticolonial rhetoric on the Union itself, launching “a sophisticated critique of Russocentric Soviet power and culture” (p. 100).  Analyzing Suleimenov’s work over the course of that decade, Caffee demonstrates that his debut poem in 1961 exhibits a Soviet “internationalist aesthetic,” or a “transcendence of geographical designations and differences” (p. 123) that prevents the author’s cognizance of Soviet imperial oppression of the non-Russian republics.  In just three years, however, that same willingness to identify with foreign struggles against colonialism opened his eyes to those suffering at home.  He turned “his attention back to the beleaguered ‘native soil’ of Kazakhstan” (p. 158), and defended that soil against Soviet nuclear testing.

Caffee’s final Chapter 4 analyzes Russophone literature in the “transnational” world of virtual publishing, asking how new advances in technology affect writers’ engagement with history, memory, identity, and one another.  She chooses to examine several schools of poetry that emerged as the Soviet Union fell apart or during its post-colonial aftermath.  The Fergana and Tashkent schools both represent what Caffee terms “virtual peripheries” as the two have neither print organs nor any physical presence in the location for which they are named.  Their alienated mode of poetic production reflects the alienation found in the content of their poetry, poetry which “stresses distance from Russia,” “distance from the context in which it is written,” “distance from the poetic object itself” (p. 169), and even “distance from his/her [the poet’s] own identity” (p. 172).  One of her most interesting pieces of analysis in this chapter concerns poets’ relationship to space in the transnational world of internet publishing.  Many of her examined poets have emigrated from the sites that defined their group, yet they still exist as a community online that interacts with the local population of those sites, a fact which, she argues, building on the conclusions of Thomas Swiss and Helen Burgess (2012) on “new media poetry,” reveals the “deep ambiguity inherent in constructions of identity and place, yet also the resonance of identity and place even in the virtual world” (p. 186).

Caffee’s dissertation, when published, will be an excellent addition to the growing field of Russian literature studies employing postcolonial theory.  It will also reinvigorate the field of non-Russian literature, which has seen few book-length studies since the end of the Cold War.  Her monograph should also be of interest to comparativists curious about how Russian space can be located within postcolonial paradigms.

Christopher Fort
Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
University of Michigan

Primary Sources
Works of Olzhas Suleimenov. Alma-ata: Kazakhskoe gos. izd-vo khudozh. literatury
Fergana Information Agency.
Various works.  Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’
Various works.  Almaty: Zhibek zholy
Ferganskii al’manakh.

Dissertation Information
University of California, Los Angeles. 2013. 207 pp. Primary Advisors: David W. MacFadyen and Roman J. Koropeckyj.

Image: Photograph by Author from Astana, Kazakhstan.

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