- Across and BeyondRethinking Transnational History
Every moment gives rise to its own “keywords,” the words “we share with others, often imperfectly, when we wish to discuss many of the central processes of our common life.”1 For historians today one of these is surely “transnational.” As Michael David-Fox noted in these pages in 2011, while the term is imprecise and not necessarily the novel idea for Russianists that it is for specialists in other fields, it nonetheless became “ubiquitous” in historical writing in the West in the early 2000s and now, some five years later, if anything, seems still more everywhere than before.2 We are all, it appears, transnational now, Russian specialists included.3
Yet it is precisely today, when the word has established itself as such a powerful signifier in our field, that it seems useful to ask ourselves why we are drawn to it so much. On the one hand, in an age of profound globalization, one cannot help but think differently about the recent past of empires and [End Page 715] nation-states. The transnational turn, which emerged out of the broader revolution of world historical scholarship in the postwar and postcolonial decades, has given us the tools to do this, and the dividends for the Russian historical field have been considerable, both in terms of adding new topics to our historical register and in expanding the spatial reach of the Russian past.4 But as we contemplate the contents of this issue of the journal, we are struck by something more. While the transnational turn has prioritized the study of connections, borrowings, exchanges, and influences across borders as a way to challenge the staid narratives of national history, this is not the only frame for exploring these phenomena or, for that matter, the only purpose.
Indeed, if we are ready to think more broadly, it is possible to see the articles we are publishing here as useful examples of the various ways in which historians are answering what might be called the overarching challenge of the prefix “trans,” which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, evokes the meaning of moving “across, through, over, to or on the other side of, beyond, outside of, from one place, person, thing, or state to another.”5 From this broader perspective, we might consider how the transmission and translation of the experiences of different individuals, peoples, and cultures shape historical developments, whether those contacts occur within or across national or imperial political borders, whether they involve the movement of bodies or texts, or whether they evoke less literal exchanges, such as religious conversion. Our field’s current fascination with all things transnational has created an emphasis on studying these processes in expressly transnational contexts, but it is clear that we can follow their workings in other frames as well.
The articles by Wim Coudenys and by Grégory Dufaud and Lara Rzesnitzek are reminders of the good things that can come from taking an explicitly transnational view. While it is hardly news that Russia’s 18th century was an age of profound engagement with European culture, Coudenys’s contribution to the field is to draw attention to linguistic translation—in this case, the translation of historical sources and scholarship—as “an intricate and invasive activity” that was integral to the country’s “modernization” (722). Yet those translations were far from the tidy, unidirectional “transfer of knowledge” so often assumed in traditional studies of the period. Indeed, [End Page 716] even the term “circulation,” which Coudenys adopts as better suited to the process than “transfer,” seems too tame a descriptor for the messy swirl of backs-and-forths and roundabout loops that he follows among Russians, foreigners, and various non-Russian peoples of the empire, as well as across a multiplicity of tongues, including “dead” but still lively languages, such as Latin and Old Russian.
Dufaud and Rzesnitzek, for their part, follow a similarly complex chain of connections between Soviet and international psychiatrists in the interwar years that reinforces a growing view in the field today that the USSR, even in the seemingly closed-off 1930s, hardly stood as a world apart.6 As the two...