Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 7.3 (2006) 633-649
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Historical Anthropology Meets Soviet History
164 Upham Hall
Oxford, OH 45056 USA
Some five decades into the sustained and sometimes fraught conversation between anthropology and history, it no longer makes the sense it once did to identify distinctive anthropological or historical approaches and plot their various intersections.1 Many anthropologists now wade through archives, [End Page 633] and more than a few historians tote tape recorders. Narrative and historical memory—to give but two examples—are pressing topics of interest in both disciplines. On an analytic level, scholars situating themselves in and between these fields frequently engage a common pool of amorphous and often explicitly anti-disciplinary "cultural studies." Disjunctures, of course, remain. For all that some historians' embrace of Michel Foucault resonates with the still-growing body of literature on governmentality and modern subjectivities in anthropology, other historians remain far more enamored of unvarnished Geertzian interpretivism or Turner's ritual theory than most anthropologists writing today.2 But to understand this conversation through a language of disciplinarity, or even the much-vaunted interdisciplinarity, no longer seems the most promising way to move forward.
I want to suggest in this essay that a more pressing set of conjunctures and disjunctures arises from the resilience of Cold War area studies in the structuring of intellectual production, both within and far beyond the study of Russia and Eurasia. In this framing, historians and anthropologists of the former Soviet bloc appear together on the net importing side of a global-scale trade imbalance in the circulation of historical, social, and cultural theories and methodologies.3 Twenty years ago, Arjun Appadurai commented that, "the dialogue of history with anthropology is very different, depending on whether one eavesdrops on it in Indonesia, India, Africa, Mesoamerica, or Europe, for reasons that have as much to do with the history of anthropology as with what Marshall Sahlins calls the anthropology of history."4 Although the spectacular growth of historical anthropology and its engagement with theories of globalization, transnationalism, and postcoloniality have chipped away at this claim substantially, I would contend that it retains a troubling degree of accuracy. We in Russian and Eurasian studies do not as yet have a guiding set of questions and programmatic statements on what historical anthropology might look like in the former Soviet bloc, or an idea of how such an enterprise might be interesting to scholars working in other times [End Page 634] and places. We have mountains of new archival documents (and numerous meta-commentaries on what to do with them), vast new opportunities for fieldwork (and various statements about what the "ethnography of postsocialism" might be), and terrific new research partners in the historians and ethnographers of the region.5 The intersection of these elements, however, remains to be charted and mined for elements that might be of interest to scholars working outside the region.
As a first step, I want to suggest, we might attend more closely and explicitly to the ways in which the movement of theories and kinds of knowledge across regional contexts is potentially transformative of both knowledge and region. We might ask: should a history (or historical ethnography) of Nizhnii Novgorod be content with transposing or adapting approaches originally developed to understand colonial Kenya, postcolonial Pakistan, or Western Europe? Might Russian, East European, and...