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  • Circulation, Transfers, Isolation
  • Alain Blum (bio)
    Translated by Vasilis Vourkoutiotis

How does knowledge circulate and information spread? Should we think of science as universal and global or as national? These issues lie at the heart of the debates over science and colonialism, over the nature and character of the social sciences in general, and over their place in the worlds of culture, politics, and society.1 We have come a long way from the sort of intellectual history that is content to treat the influences and dynamics of ideas in isolation. Instead, we now tend to integrate the circulation of the social sciences into its wider political context and pay attention to the carriers of the circulation of knowledge, concepts, and methods.2

The discussion becomes more specific and interesting when we apply this approach to the history of the social sciences in the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. The country started out as a colonial empire—indeed, one that outlasted all its rivals—yet after 1917 it tried to graft the logic of nationality onto its colonial heritage by proclaiming the various Soviet peoples' right to their own national science even as it affirmed the fundamental universality of ideas. In a history profoundly affected by politics, the relationship between national and international science in Russia was the subject [End Page 231] of frequent official dictates (both prohibitions and mandates) even while it was also driven by the major currents of thought that shaped the country's scientific and intellectual communities.

The focus of the present issue of Kritika is on the people who were the bearers of intellectual transformation in Russian history. The authors situate them in a localized space of scholarship and the professions, a social space that gave primacy to real-life concerns, and a political space that was shaped by signals, information, commands, repression, and censorship. Although circulation can be apprehended within a social and political space that is national, it is examined here within an imperial (Russian and Soviet) and international space as well. What we find are two levels of openness or spheres of circulation, each with its own circuits of exchange, modes of communication, ways of sharing knowledge, and relations of power. In one sphere we see a formally unified political entity—the empire, later the Soviet Union—but also emerging national movements whose leaders included key actors in the social sciences: ethnologists, historians, geographers, linguists, and so on. The other sphere—Russia's openness to foreign countries—would appear to be more traditional, yet it remained closely tied to the first because it was superimposed on it and reacted to the interstices in the first sphere, interstices created by the need for legimacy and the search for renewal or for openness in response to domestic constraints.

Circulation is examined here through the physical movements of its bearers, whose education took them to a variety of European universities and who formed part of multiple international exchange networks. Naturally, these exchanges were not unidirectional, and without, of course, ignoring Europe's influence on the Russians, the research presented here also examines their mutual interactions and how the Russians or Soviets influenced the outside world.

This approach does not lead our authors to try to correlate cultural changes directly with major events in Russian and Soviet history, for this would not help us understand the transformations we observe. Nevertheless, the great shifts in Russian history—the transformation of the elites at the turn of the 18th and the 19th centuries, the Bolshevik revolution, the violence of Stalinism, perestroika, or the events of the turn of the 21st century—are of fundamental importance in our context because these were often turning points where those who produced and transformed the disciplines and approaches of social science changed their strategies, whether by abruptly reaching out to foreign scholarship or, on the contrary, turning inward and rejecting Western science, cosmopolitanism, or bourgeois scholarship.3 [End Page 232]

The present issue of Kritika pays particular attention to history—which dealt with a space whose boundaries kept shifting—and to a discipline closely connected to colonialism, ethnology. A focus on these two disciplines was unavoidable, because they epitomize the complex...


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pp. 231-242
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