Intersectional and Transnational: reviewing Russia in World History7 min read
Russia in World History: A Transnational Approach by Choi Chatterjee is a seminal work that I am optimistically hoping represents the current era of the academy on Russian studies. The insight into how an author’s intersectional identity opens up a field of unforeseen parallels is an inspired, exhilarating take on reading and interpreting the past. Ultimately, it is humanistic in its approach and inserts the human experience and life back into political theory.
Choi Chatterjee is a Professor of History at California State University, Los Angeles. This is Chatterjee’s seventh work on Russian history and arguably her most personal and bravest.
Family as academic mentors
Deeply intimate, Russia in World History weaves vignettes from important figures in Chatterjee’s own life with the objective research of key historical figures in Russian and worldwide political movements. She opens up with a timely anecdote made possible by her sweet relationship with her mother, a self-critical Indian nationalist, who first brought her on the trip to The Cellular Jail. Later on, she mentions her great-great-grandfather, editor of an influential English news journal in India with indirect connections to some of the thinkers and activists she writes about in her book. People in her own life are unlikely mentors in shaping her perception of Russian history, politics, and culture.
Connections in Russian history
In the introduction, Chatterjee reflects on her surprise upon visiting The Cellular Jail in Port Blair, an ocean-based gulag of the British Empire that housed and killed many political prisoners from British India. She notices parallels in the architecture and history with the infamous Trubetskoi Bastion Prison in the Peter-Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. This got her thinking about the numerous connections in ideology that led to the construction of the international carceral state as a whole. However, scholarship about worldwide incarceration is typically centered on gulags in Soviet Russia.
“The idea of Russia as the pathological outlier in the evolution of European nations from monarchy to representative government not only dominates the entire field of Slavic Studies in the West but has also been voiced by many generations of Russian intellectuals,” Chatterjee puts into words the feeling of a growing section of Russian studies, “if the Siberian prison and exile system, which we had long believed to be a uniquely Russian phenomenon, was but a variation on imperial prison systems developed by other European Empires, could the same be true of other episodes of Russian history?”
Russia in World History does a brilliant job of uncovering answers to the aforementioned question. Chaterjee applies a two-pronged historical approach: structural and biographical. She compares writings of Leo Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore; Ekaterine Breshko-Breshkovskaia and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar; Vasily Klychevski and G. M. Trevelyan; Emma Goldman and M. N. Roy; Mukhamet Shayakhmetov and Wangari Maathail Zainab Al-Ghazali and Urszula Dudziak; Arundhati Roy, Anna Politkovskaya, and Lisa Kirschenbaum – by magnifying their individual impacts in imperial and modernizing systems. These comparisons cover a range of different movements in each icon’s respective countries where they lived and had an impact. Rarely have these individuals met their counterpart, but the philosophical connections Chaterjee draws between them is unquestionable.
Academic, yet personal
Why does Chatterjee take this unconventional approach of centering on biographies? She writes, “the field of world history excels in uncovering global processes, networks, and connections, but individuals are sometimes ignored in the vast abstractions used in this field.” This is not unlike the strategy of Barbara Martin in Dissident Histories in the Soviet Union: From De-Stalinization to Perestroika and Roger Moorehouse in Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II.
“Instead of thinking about the nation and the world in binary terms, we are better served when we think about these interrelated concepts in an intellectual continuum,” are the fighting words Chatterjee uses in her introduction to the next seven chapters.
More similarities than differences
Leo Tolstoy and Rabindranath Tagore never developed a personal relationship but intellectually reached “similar conclusions about politics and statecraft, self and universality, and nature and modernity,” both arguing that politics must transcend rigid categories to include our connection to self, the community, and ecology in a single continuum.
Vasily Klyuchevsky and G. M. Trevelyan came to similar conclusions weaving the natural earth with geopolitical identity, also having never crossed paths. Their deep love for the nature of their respective homelands, whether the visceral intimacy of Northumberland or the “lazy rivers” of Russia impacted their respective histories. Both hoped their political theory would elicit critical inquiry, inculcate a sense of belonging, and inspire an emotional and physical attachment to the land and its people for their followers.
Emma Goldman and M. N. Roy take a similar approach to political theory, creating “a compelling vision of a sovereign individual, who would neither rule nor consent to being ruled, and who aspired to build a society based on a framework of radical equality.”
Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaia and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar were both repressed dissident writers, spearheading movements in regimes that were not unique in the way they oppressed the populace, reflective of a common imperial practice used widely by colonizers in the modern world. The writings of these influential figures are spiritually aligned with many of the thinkers before and after and Chaterjee makes a convincing argument that the Russian and British imperial experiences are more similar than previously acknowledged.
While historical memories often seem “plotted on a recognizable storyline,” Chatterjee writes that nation-making is more a “process of internal state formation as it offers an identity, a position, and a mode by which one could interact with each other as well as with the outer world.” This is the key point why her perspective is so important in that it opens previously unopened doors.
Identity at the intersection
Russia in World History is the product of a writer who has spent years studying the Russian Empire while living in the United States, with a background in British imperialism in India. Chatterjee captures her existence eloquently: “When you have lived your life at the intersection of three empires and have traveled on many, many sub-imperial roads, it engenders a certain kind of perspective, a certain approach to history.”
As a reader, I first met Dr. Chatterjee in a Zoom event put together by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies through their two-year pilot program, the ASEEES Initiative for Diversity, and Inclusion. As another scholar of color continually asked to think about my own identity and what this means to the research I conduct, Chatterjee’s words are a spiritual compass. It’s a charted waters for someone who feels like an imposter to this work as I often do. I was excited to be some of the first people to read this work.
Centering the scholar
Scholars of color (within the context of “color” in the UK and US) who study Russian history are faced with immediate surprise at best and outright discrimination at worst. Scholars with Russian ancestry and white scholars aren’t pressed with the proverbial why from outsiders. This reflects only surface-level attitudes about who should study Russian history and whose narratives are valued, but play into the innate white supremacy, imperialist, and Western Euro-centric in what voices are valued in the act of studying and writing history.
However, I do no service in highlighting Chatterjee’s identity in a review of Russia in World History, as many critics often cause harm by focusing solely on identity when it comes to media created by artists and scholars of color. I struggle to separate my ethnic identity from my academic pursuits. Chatterjee shows me that I don’t have to and that my interpretation can be valued.
Book details: Chatterjee, Choi. Russia in World History: A Transnational Approach, 2022. Bloomsbury Academic. It is available to buy here.