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On the Second World, for the Last Time

Issue 4/2011, The Second World Between Comparative and Global Histories, takes the discussion that dominated the issues of Ab Imperio published in 2011 to a new level: what, if any, is the importance of “Second World studies” for the research of other regions and epochs? Alternatively, is there a way to conceptualize the world as an entity, omitting not just the concept of the Second World, but also that of the First and Third Worlds? What do we learn about the “subjectivity” of the Secord World through comparison and what should the elements of such a comparison be to make it meaningful?

Almost eighty years ago, one of the founding fathers of Slavic Studies in the West, Roman Jakobson, envisioned the “Second World” – Eurasia – as a space of modernist experimentation and scholarly innovation. Unlike his Eurasianist colleagues, Jakobson was not interested in the utopian political visions of a state-dominated “brotherhood of peoples.” Rather, he saw the very process of studying Eurasia as potentially unsettling “old categories of race or caste” with the help of “new ideas of nationality and class.” For Jakobson, this vision of Eurasia entailed the coming of the era of constructivism, and the arrival of new scholarly paradigms such as the budding structuralism.1 In Jakobson’s vision we already witness a tension between the imaginary and discursive nature of the phenomenon of the Second [End Page 10] World and the space of historical experience of the twentieth century that is conventionally associated with this term.

Getting straight to the core of this tradition of thinking, the “Methodology and Theory” section of the issue opens with the Russian translation of the Presidential Address delivered by Bruce Grant at the annual convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies that took place in November 2011 in Washington, DC. It has become a tradition for Ab Imperio to publish programmatic statements of presidents of the world’s largest professional association of experts in the former Second World countries. Incidentally, the organization recently changed its name (from the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies) in order to more adequately reflect the object of the studies of its members. With the demise of the notion of the Second World, no other concept appeared to be able to explain what specialists in Mongolia, Hungary, Central Asia, Ukraine, and Russia have in common to the extent of joining the same professional association. In his passionate new Eurasian “manifesto” (“We Are All Eurasian”), Grant suggests a whole new raison d’être for its existence: instead of a clear territorial specialization he speaks about a specific “Eurasian” perception of the world. In his interpretation, “Eurasia” is a metaphor for a condition characterized by fundamental hybridity and interconnectedness, of self-assumed universal otherness and openness to other experiences, of rejection of any rigid schemes of provincialization, marginalization, discursive subjugation, and so on. Grant’s “Eurasia” allows a kind of global and comparative approach that seems to be congenial with the one developed by contributors to this year AI who employ the metaphor of the Second World – the space whose identity is defined by its complex and simultaneous relationships with the normative First and Third Worlds and with the whole range of clear-cut ideological, cultural, economic, and political dichotomies associated with them. Grant’s address resonates with their and our own vision of the Second World as a complex – “imperial” – world, where identities and identifications resist one-dimensional descriptions, opening the way for a historical exploration more attuned to the past experiences of diversity beyond the boundaries of the Second World itself.

As if answering Grant’s call, a provocative and productive essay by Alessandro Stanziani, “Mutual Comparison and History: Some Proposals Suggested by the Russian Case,” takes this discussion to the level of methodology of historical comparison. Exemplifying “Eurasianism” in its best meaning as proposed by Grant, this prolific Italian historian of Russia working in France and specializing in the fields of Russian, European, and [End Page 11] now also world history, proposes a model of reciprocal comparison that does not privilege any experience as being normative. Rather than attempting to “rehabilitate” Russian and Soviet history by revealing parallels with mainstream “normal” historical processes in “the West,” Stanziani does the opposite: he demonstrates how “peculiarities” and “specificities” of Russian society and economy in the past help us to discover and understand the actual complexity and diversity of European history. In other words, Stanziani problematizes the very idea of the existence of a single and uniform First World by taking seriously and critically the specificity of the Second World. Paradoxically, the emerging understanding of the “singularity” of world history emerges through the relativization and problematization of the idea of some single, teleological historical path. The proposed approach also suggests that the conventional identification of the Second World with the Soviet experiment is misleading for it fundamentally ignores the preceding experience of variegated trajectories of modern economic and social development in Eurasia.

The “History” section develops this idea through distinctive yet very telling case studies. The article by Chia Yin Hsu, “Railroad Technocracy, Extra-territoriality, and Imperial Lieux de Mémoire in Russian Émigrés’Manchuria, 1920–1930s,” presents Northern Manchuria in the first decades of the twentieth century as a site of competing and equally “nonwestern” scenarios of modernity: the imperial Russian, the nationalist Chinese, and the colonialist Japanese projects. Their mutual projections and rivalry became central to the turbulent history of the region.

Hsu’s essay is followed by three articles that discuss the problem of multifaceted intercultural dialogue between the Soviet “Second World” and the Middle East: “‘Sons of Muslims in Moscow’: Soviet Central Asian Mediators to the Foreign East, 1955−1962,” by Masha Kirasirova; “Getting Reacquainted with the ‘Muslims of the USSR’: Staging Soviet Islam in the Muslim World, 1978−1982,” by Timothy Nunan; and “The Local and the Global: The Iraqi Revolution of 1958 Between Western and Soviet Modernities,” by Elizabeth Bishop. These articles characterize the dynamics of the Soviet attempts to appeal to the part of the world that was the traditional place-holder of the West’s “Other.” Although the Soviet vision of modernity was at times appealing to Arab and Muslim intellectuals (and, as Nunan shows, a substantial effort was made to showcase the Soviet ability to accommodate the Third World’s problems), these studies demonstrate that the Soviet game in the Middle East was no simple replica of the relationship between the First and the Third Worlds. The Soviet model was mediated [End Page 12] and manipulated by the USSR’s own Muslim mediators, while even Iraqi communists found it hard to emulate Soviet practices and ideas.

Another thematic subsection is represented by the articles of Dietrich Beyrau (“Grown in the Soviet Incubator: Soviet Hegemony and the Socialist System in East Central Europe”) and Olga Smoliak (“DIY: A Few Thoughts About Comfort and Inventiveness of a Soviet Man in the 1960s”). While Beyrau demonstrates a certain rationality behind the repressive and accommodative mechanisms of Soviet domination by explicating local logics and multiple factors that allowed for the successful realization of the “Second world” project of Soviet modernity in East Central Europe, Smoliak complicates our understanding of the very Soviet modernity in a manner suggested by Alessandro Stanziani, that is, by relativizing the notion of comfort as a key concept of the distinctly First World modernity, and analyzing Soviet practices of attaining a comfortable life within this open analytical framework.

At this point it should be absolutely clear that it is not the period (cc. 1945−1989) and the location (east of the Elbe River, north of the Himalayas) that set a society apart as the Second World. It is the social system – or at least the social imagery – that presents itself as an alternative subject of production of knowledge and public discourses about human historical processes, challenging the hegemony of the composite and multifaceted “Western” cultural and political model. Elements of this social system (or social imagery) can be located both before and after the conventional chronological boundaries of the Second World. The former is illustrated by Mikhail Suslov in his article “Beyond Empire: Spatial Configurations of Identities in Russian Literary Utopias of the Turn of the Twentieth Century” (in the “Newest Mythologies” section), the latter – by Elena Gapova’s article, “National Knowledge and International Recognition: Post-Soviet Academia Fighting for Symbolic Markets” (in the “Sociology, Anthropology, and Political Science” section). Both of these very different articles demonstrate that, as with the history of the Second World “proper,” attempts to juxtapose some local idiosyncratic tradition to the global world of modernity are futile even if typical. The reason, as in all other cases, is not the inherited weakness of various projects of the Second World, but the absence of any homogeneous “First World.”

Patryk Babiracki’s article, “Interfacing the Soviet Bloc: Recent Literature and New Paradigms” (in the “Historiography” section), grounds this thesis in the current works of historians and sociologists who try to reconsider the experience of the Second World in a comparative or even transnational perspective. Problematizing the paradigm of the Sovietization of Eastern [End Page 13] Europe, Babiracki suggests that thinking of the Second World as a space of contestation of different models offers a chance to discern and take into account the actual historical experiences of the movement of people, ideas, and objects. Another contribution to this section, Hennadii Korolev’s article “The Ukrainian Revolution 1917–1921: Myths by Contemporaries, Imagery and Concepts of Historiography,” shows how constructing a historical event in opposition to the normative First World (the “Second World” revolution) can be a conscious strategy of exclusiveness and thus serve a clear political purpose.

Both contributions to the “Methodology and Theory” section of this issue and articles in the other sections seem to complicate the idea of “alternative modernities.” Looking from a new “Eurasian” research perspective or applying the method of reciprocal comparison, we arrive at the same criteria of social-political change: greater prosperity, comfort, justice, creativity, and so on. And these criteria cannot be achieved through “alternatives” such as forced labor or state-enforced brainwashing. However, no one holds a monopoly on the exact recipe for how to reach this ideal state. Although history proves that the Second World is a utopian project that is unable to sustain its existence and is inefficient in reaching even its initial goals, both practitioners and scholars need an elaborated analytical model and a language for describing the Second World, in order to be capable of analyzing, describing, and identifying different historical strategies and experiences that, when analyzed together or compared, produce not hierarchies but more complex developmental models – in the past, in the present and in the future. And it seems that these questions will remain topical as many human societies struggle with the global forces of modernity. [End Page 14]

A. Semyonov

Ilya GERASIMOV, Ph.D. in History, Candidate of Sciences in History, Executive Editor, Ab Imperio, Kazan, Russia. office@abimperio.net

Илья ГЕРАСИМОВ, Ph.D. in History, к.и.н., ответственный редактор журнала Ab Imperio, Казань, Россия. office@abimperio.net

Footnotes

1. Roman Jakobson. Über die heutigen Voraussetzungen der russischen Slavistik // Slavische Rundschau. 1929. No. 1. S. 629–646; Ibid. K kharakteristike evraziiskogo iazykovogo soiuza. Prague, 1930. Pp. 3–5.