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  • Circulation of Knowledge and the Russian Locale
  • Susan Gross Solomon (bio)

On 26 May 2006, at the Centre d'études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre-européen in Paris, a symposium titled "Circulation of Knowledge and the History of the Human Sciences in Russia and the USSR" opened with a frisson of excitement. This was the first public attempt by scholars interested in the development of humanities and social sciences in (Soviet) Russia to engage the research agenda on the "circulation of knowledge."1 Although the circulation of knowledge has been, as one authority put it, a "recurrent concept" in the history of science,2 with one notable exception the concept had yet to be applied to the study of Russian/Soviet knowledge.3 As befits a first foray, the call for papers by the organizers of the symposium was open-ended: "We wish to examine in detail the processes by which knowledge circulated, as well as the changes in meaning that particular concepts or approaches underwent as a result of being translated or, more broadly, reinterpreted in a national interpretive context different from the environment in which these concepts were originally developed."4

Like all "firsts," the encounter had not only the advantages of priority but also its perils. Could a conceptual approach developed for study of "Western" knowledge/science be fruitfully extended to the study of the movement of [End Page 9] Russian and Soviet ideas across borders? How might study of the Russian case inform our understanding of the process of circulation itself?5

The English-language field of Russian studies has been no stranger to scholarship on the movement of scientific and technological ideas across geographic, political, and disciplinary borders. The last half of the 20th century saw excellent work on the comparison of Russian and "Western" ideas,6 the diffusion and reception of Western ideas in Russia and Russian ideas in the West,7 and the interaction between Russian scientists and their colleagues abroad.8 In conceiving the movement of ideas as a diffusion from "center" to "periphery," the research on Russian science and technology fell squarely within the reigning paradigm in the field of history of science. Far less attention has been devoted to the movement of ideas in Soviet/Russian social sciences9 —a function both of Western disinterest in (dismissal of) Soviet [End Page 10] social science and of the relative underdevelopment of the history of social science as a field of research. The large and fascinating literature on the development of ideas in Russian/Soviet humanities remains beyond the purview of this article.

Given the strength of Western scholarship on the history of scientific ideas, how might we understand the appeal to Western students of Russia of engaging with the "circulation of knowledge"? While the inherent attraction of novelty can never be underestimated, the evidence suggests that there is more here than the simple craving for unscaled mountains. In my view, for Russianists, engagement with the "circulation of knowledge" was what I term a "project of inclusion" with real potential to bring Russia into the family of cases covered by an approach honed in the study of "Western" societies. To be sure, this is hardly the first brush of the field of Russian studies with a project of this type. In the last 30 years alone, we have seen efforts to introduce into Soviet/Russian studies a series of concepts and research frameworks: pluralism,10 civil society,11 and most recently, multiple modernities.12 [End Page 11] These projects of inclusion are particularly appealing because, in addition to their political valence, they have real scientific "legs."

While the projects of inclusion to which I have referred differ in the professional profile of the specialists who advanced them and in their impact on the thinking of non-specialists in the broader fields of political science and history, they appear to follow a roughly similar life course: an initial enthusiastic embrace by Western students of Russia; the application of that approach to a wide range of empirical material on Russia; the emergence of hyphenated or modified versions of the original concept to accommodate the specifics of the Russian case; and the acknowledgment...


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