Transformations Conference

  • July 7-8, 2011 (Cardiff)

I have just returned from a ‘Transformations Conference’ at Cardiff University, where I presented a paper called “Post-Soviet Transformations in East Ukraine: Literature and Identity” as part of the Narrating the Nation panel. This talk followed in the footsteps of my recently defended first year report, which had defined my focus on East Ukraine. The chair of my panel summarized it quite well when he introduced me as a PhD candidate working on post-Soviet collective/cultural memory, with an emphasis on imaginative literature.

Some of my strongest impressions from the conference, however, were gained beyond my own presentation – which is, perhaps, as it should be. I’ll summarize three of them here. First of all, because Transformations took place right after the Memory and Theory conference at Cambridge (literally within the same week), I was able to compare a theme-based event with an interdisciplinary one. Such different frameworks! While the Memory and Theory scholars dug deep into a specific area, of which we all assumed at least a basic knowledge, at Transformations I found myself having to rewind my presentation in order to outline some fundamental concepts of memory studies. This left me with a renewed 3D perspective of what we’re trying to do at MAW – which is surprisingly refreshing and useful after a year of increasing focus. In fact, it seems that quite a few students at Cambridge – at least among those I’ve talked to – tend to doubt their progress as scholars when compared with their own inner expectations. Some of the most self-displeased people I’ve ever met are located here at Oxbridge. So sometimes, despite (or perhaps due to) this crippling perfectionism, zooming out to an interdisciplinary evaluation of our own work can be a markedly healthy thing to do.

Beyond this contrast with Memory and Theory, more food for thought at Transformations came from a presentation delivered by another doctoral researcher as part of the Rethinking the Nation panel. He spoke of the development of post-colonial identity in Wales, as guided by language awareness training. Referring to the Acts of Incorporation of 1536 and 1542 (Wikipedia calls these the Laws in Wales Acts), he described the legal marginalisation of the Welsh language, as well as the reversal of this process with the Welsh Language Act of 1993. At this point I realized that the dual logo of Cardiff University, which I had ascribed simply to graphics, is actually a legally required bilingual text. Later that evening, while exploring Cardiff Bay with a group of fellow speakers and delegates, we began to register that all signs in Wales are bilingual – down to the basic ‘exit’ pointers above the doors of public transportation.

From the Laws in Wales Acts, my mind instantly drew parallels to the 1863 Valuyev Circular and the 1876 Ems Ukaz, which had outlawed printed Ukrainian language in the Russian Empire. What if, instead of trying to elevate one language over another in contemporary Ukraine – despite the vast numbers of post-Soviet bilingual speakers, who exist whether we like it or not – we were to pass an equivalent of the Welsh Language Act, with equal protection status for the two tongues? Of course, there is a number of serious inconsistencies in this comparison, the most important one being the fact that Wales is not a country, while Ukraine is. But what if there was a roughly similar path, a campaign that could address both the majority and the minority speakers, striking a recognition balance and thereby making this issue less acute in the national debate? A kind of inclusivity-guided tolerance which could effectively circumscribe the pertinent national questions and draw them slightly (and rightfully) away from languages Ukrainians choose to, or are permitted to, use or speak.

One of my findings from this year’s field trips is the fact that Ukrainians choose to identify as Ukrainians regardless of their preferred everyday language. And yet there is a parallel struggle to question this identity, instead of (or in addition to) questioning the history which had led to this situation. Isn’t this like cutting the branch on which we’re sitting? What if legalised bilingualism could release this nation-building struggle to areas where its power is really needed? Perhaps a better way to formulate this concern would be in light of the wording used in a book I’m currently reading:

Ukraine remains a country where linguistic preferences do not reflect one’s political orientation or one’s choice of national identity, although in many internal and external commentaries the Russian-speaking Ukrainian population is consistently identified as Russian and presented as a homogenous group.

(My translation of Andriy Portnov)

From this unfinished thought, I must proceed to my third main impression of the Cardiff event, before collapsing to sleep after this tiring week. Some of the most sincere memory work is done ‘behind the scenes’, away from the blinding projectors of academic powerpoint presentations. Although I already knew this, it hit me once again on the last day, when the conference ended and delegates headed for the train station. A small group of us, scheduled to leave later, went to explore the Cardiff town centre instead. Alphabetically, we were: a Belgian, a Pole, a Slovak and a Ukrainian (the latter being yours truly). But in the course of the evening, parents and grandparents emerged over Welsh cider, as, for instance, Jacub described his grandmother’s retreat from the Nazi-occupied Kraków to the Soviet-controlled Lwów. “I can’t match you East Slavs!” exclaimed Michael, and proceeded to give a wholly compelling account of his Flemish family’s generational development. This storytelling continued late into the night, long after we had put our Slovak colleague on her train.

As for me, I talked a bit as well, but mostly I listened. Between the East European and West European recounting of history – the anecdotal, narration-type of history, where threads of memory permeate and illuminate the flat plane of actual factual events, casting peculiar shadows on an otherwise bland surface – ran the regenerated lines of time, which I caught myself perceiving as the real essence of what we’re trying so hard to capture and comprehend. My colleagues seemed to feel it, too, based on how many heirloom recollections they were willing to share – perhaps the way strangers in an overnight train can perceive the transient importance of the night. Maybe this is against all academic expectations (then again, maybe it’s not), but I’m putting this spontaneous storytelling among my top three impressions from Cardiff, because its raw and unpolished discussion was like an extra panel, only unlisted in the official program. From Narrating the Nation and Rethinking the Nation, it is possible that we have gone to Being the Nation?

… to be explored.



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