ANTH 425 B: Anthropology Of The Post-Soviet States

Meeting Time: 
MW 1:30pm - 3:20pm
MEB 250
Joint Sections: 
JSIS A 427 A
Laada Bilaniuk
Laada Bilaniuk

Syllabus Description:

Post-Sov collage-L.png

1:30-3:20 pm, Mon. & Wed. in MEB 250

Professor Laada Bilaniuk
Office: Denny Hall M244
Office tel.:  543-5393
Office hours: by appointment

Course Description 
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an enormous social experiment.  Its goal was to bring into being a classless society, with a new type of person, one who would be hardworking, altruistic, and rational. How did the Soviet system attempt to manage bodies and minds to achieve the envisioned goal?  How did people experience being Soviet?  And now, what does it mean to be “post-Soviet”?  What has unified and divided the vast territory of the former USSR, which covered one-sixth of the world’s inhabited land, stretching across eleven time zones (now administratively condensed into nine)?  How did the USSR—and now the fifteen independent successor states—take part in the global flows of cultural and economic practices?

In this course we will explore the USSR and the successor states through a wide array of anthropological studies, situated from Eastern Europe to the Russian Far East and from northern Siberia to the Caucasus region in the south. We will pay particular attention to health and medical practices, as the management of labor was a central part of the Soviet project, with hygiene and reproduction key foci of state policies. We will also explore the intersection of materiality and ideology, in how places and spaces have been managed and created, and how material conditions and economic practices have shaped interpersonal relations and social power.  We will consider how history has been variously reinterpreted and used to define and justify the present; how politics impinge on people's sense of culture, language, identity, and well-being.  We will explore how people experience and participate in the construction of social divisions such as class, gender, ethnicity, race, and citizenship, and how these have been transformed with the formation and demise of the Soviet system in global context.

Throughout the course, we will consider critically the anthropological methods that we encounter.  The course readings will present an array of methods: participant observation, interviews, surveys, discourse analysis, analysis of material culture, archival research, and others.  We will read works by Westerners as well as post-Soviet insiders analyzing their own cultures (and scholars whose identities lie between these poles), and explore the implications of anthropological work.  Students will conduct their own research using material available on the internet, to analyze a website of their choosing.  The course will be conducted in seminar format, centering mainly on critical discussion of readings, with occasional lectures and films. 


Course Requirements

Reading highlights and class participation.  Students are expected to complete the assigned readings before each class for which they are listed, and to participate actively in class discussions.  For each class that has assigned readings, students should post a “reading highlight” (explained below) in the online discussion for that day.  Occasionally this assignment may be modified to a different brief homework related to the readings.  Participation may also include brief in-class writing.  If you have an excused absence, I will accept the write-up late, before the day you are next in class.

**Reading highlight discussion posts: For each of the readings assigned for a given day, identify a passage or key point, which you would like to discuss more, either to understand it better or to criticize it (or both).  Explain in a sentence or two what you find interesting, problematic, or warranting further discussion. Some things to consider include: what underlying assumptions does the author make?  What methods were used to gather the information that is the basis for the assertions in the reading?

Website review (write-up and presentation).  Choose a website related to the Post-Soviet area.  It may be presenting or marketing something from the region, or it can be an official government site or the site of a non-governmental organization.  Write a 4-5 page (typed, double-spaced) review of the website, examining how the site aims to construct particular identities or value systems, and what ideologies (of rights, health, value) are implicit in the form and content of the site. Provide the web-address in your paper.  In addition to the written analysis, you will be asked to do a brief oral presentation to the class (you will be able to project the website for the class, and you may use Powerpoint or Prezi as well).  Graduate students should conduct a more extensive internet research project, with a 10-page write-up.

Quizzes.  There will be quizzes given in class every two weeks, based on readings, films, and discussion.  The quizzes will vary in format, including short answers and essays.  The first quiz will have a map component.


40%   Class participation and reading highlights
10%   Website review, presentation
50%   Quizzes


The books listed below are required class reading and are available for purchase at the University Bookstore.  The additional required articles listed in the syllabus are available through the class website.

  • Rivkin-Fish, Michele. 2005. Women's Health in Post-Soviet Russia: The Politics of Intervention. Indiana University Press.
  • Grant, Bruce. 1995. In the Soviet House of Culture: A Century of Perestroikas. Princeton University Press.


COURSE SCHEDULE: This syllabus provides a overview of the topics covered each week. You will also find the reading assignments listed by date in the "Assignments" section of the website. *Readings should be completed for the day under which they are listed.  
Changes to this syllabus will be announced in class and posted on the website. 

Wed. Jan. 4:  Introduction: the challenges of post-Soviet anthropology; geography               


WEEK 2: 
Mon. Jan. 9: The ideological foundations of the USSR, and situating Sovietness in global context  This week includes an overview of the tenets of Marxism-Leninism as the basis for the establishment of the USSR.  The Verdery chapter explains how the centralized command economy was supposed to work, versus the ideologies and practices that actually emerged, such as hoarding and the second economy.  The Moore article places the USSR in broader context by asking why the Soviet region has largely been absent from colonial/post-colonial studies, and delving into an examination of colonialism and its parallels in the Soviet system.

Verdery, Katherine.  1996.  What was socialism, and why did it fall?  Ch. 1 of What Was Socialism and What Comes Next?  Princeton Univ. Press.  Pp.19-38.

Moore, D. C. 2001. Is the post- in postcolonial the post- in post-Soviet? Toward a global postcolonial critique. PMLA 116(1): 111-128.

And for fun: Marxists' Apartment a Microcosm of Why Marxism Doesn't Work. 2002. The Onion.,1382/

FILM:  Communism. (1996, 48 min. DVD FFH 326) This film traces the history of the USSR through original newsreel footage, from the end of Russian empire through the dissolution of the USSR, with comparison to the ascendancy of Communism in China.

Wed. Jan. 11 Soviet ideology & the cultural engineering of everyday life, health & hygiene
How did the effort to build Communism affect people’s daily lives and bodies?  These readings focus on the Stalinist period efforts to mold the “new Soviet person” by managing bodies (fitness, health, hygiene) and public performance of national identities.
Hoffmann, David L.  2003.  Introduction & Chapter 1: Acculturating the masses.  Stalinist Values: the Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity (1917-1941).  Cornell Univ. Press. Pp. 1-56.

Petrone, Karen.  1996.  Parading the nation: physical culture celebrations and the construction of Soviet identities in the 1930s. Post-Soviet Eurasia: Michigan Discussions in Anthropology 12: 25-37.

***Quiz 1 (with map)


WEEK 3: To the heart of the periphery: Tradition and modernity in the Soviet Far East
Constructed and re-constructed identities of the Sakhalin Nivkhi
While many people erroneously equate the USSR with Russia, ignoring the 14 other countries that comprised this union, it is important to recognize that Russia itself encompasses much cultural and linguistic diversity.  This week’s topic is the ethnic diversity within the Russian federation, with particular focus on the Nivkhi, the indigenous people of Sakhalin Island. In his ethnography, Bruce Grant traces the changing policies and practices of the Soviet government in relation to the Nivkhi. He shows how successive shifts in ideology repositioned indigenous non-Russian peoples such as the Nivkhi, oscillating between viewing them as primitives to be uplifted, model Soviet citizens, untrustworthy retrograde traditionalists, and generic Soviet people, ultimately leading to disruption of all of these identity narratives when the USSR fell apart.

Mon. Jan. 16:  MLK day-no class
Wed. Jan. 18: Grant, Bruce. 1995. In the Soviet House of Culture: A Century of Perestroikas.  chs. 1-6-pp. 1-143.

Video: The Last Nivkh Chieftain, 2016, 26 min.


WEEK 4:  Managing the bodies that labor: Birthing from socialism to capitalism in Russia
Rivkin-Fish’s ethnography examines the issues facing people in a medical system shifting from socialism to capitalism. She reveals the mismatch between WHO efforts and Russian doctors’ needs, and traces the challenges doctors and patients face in navigating the ideologies and practices that that go along with state-sponsored health care and the emerging privatized health care systems.

Mon. Jan. 23: 
READING:  Rivkin-Fish, Michele. 2005.  Women's Health in Post-Soviet Russia: The Politics of Intervention. (Introduction & Part 1, pp. 1-119)

Wed. Jan. 25:
READING:  Rivkin-Fish, Michele. 2005.  Women's Health in Post-Soviet Russia: The Politics of Intervention. (Part 2, pp. 123-222)
***Quiz 2  today
Optional readings:
Article by John Bell "Giving Birth to the New Soviet Man: Politics and Obstetrics in the USSR" which provides historical context to the issue of childbirth in Russia. It covers the history of the initial development of the psychoprophylaxis method (which was popularized in the west by Fernand Lamaze) and the politics that the method and its advocates and critics faced. It also touches on the paternal nature of Soviet science and medicine, especially concerning treatment of women.

Excerpt from Francis Spufford, Red Plenty. (Historical fiction account of communal apartment life and childbirth experience.)


WEEK 5:  Constructing Sovietness and Nation in places & spaces
Everyone in the USSR was guaranteed people a place to live by the state, and homelessness was illegal. This week’s readings examine how the Soviet state managed living spaces, and how this impinged on people’s lives.  How did social ideologies affect architecture, during and after the Soviet period?  How do spaces, and how people use them, tie into particular ideologies of tradition, modernity, personhood, and relationships in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan?  How is “public” and “private constructed?

Mon. Jan. 30:  
Buchli, Viktor.  2002.  Architecture and the domestic sphere; Khrushchev, modernism, and the fight against petit-bourgeois consciousness in the Soviet home.  In, The Material Culture Reader, edited by V. Buchli.  Pp. 207-236.

Grant, Bruce.  2014.  The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku. Public Culture 26(3):501-528.

Wed. Feb. 1:
Liu, Morgan.  2007.  A Central Asian tale of two cities: locating lives and aspirations in a shifting post-Soviet landscape.[Kyrgyzstan]. In, Everyday Life in central Asia: Past and Present.  Indiana University Press.  Pp. 66-83. 


WEEK 6: Ukraine: nationbuilding, identity, language & revolutions
Ukraine, the second largest Soviet state after Russia, has recently undergone drastic changes.  Human rights abuses by a corrupt government led to major protests in 2014, known as the Euromaidan, which ended with a massacre of protesters and the fleeing of the corrupt President. Russia took advantage of the turmoil to annex the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and to support separatism in other Ukrainian regions, which continues in an ongoing war.  What do these events reveal about construction of national identities and international relations among the former Soviet states?  How are ideologies of Europeanness, Ukrainianness, the “Russian world,” and Sovietness articulated and negotiated, and what is at stake for the region, and the world more broadly?

Mon. Feb. 6: UW closed due to weather conditions.

Wed. Feb. 8: Euromaidan and the Revolution of Dignity

Snyder, Timothy.  2015.  Integration and Disintegration: Europe, Ukraine, and the World.  Slavic Review 74(4): 695-707.

Snyder, Timothy. 2014 Ukraine: The Haze of Propaganda. New York Review of Books, March 1.

Horbyk, Roman. 2015.  Seeing Ukraine through colonial eyes.  The Clarion, Oct. 25., accessed Nov. 28. 2015.

FILM: Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom. 2015, Director: Evgeny Afineevsky (98min)


WEEK 7: Globalization & migration: Racial discourses in popular culture
While the main focus of identity discourses in the USSR revolved around “nationality”—race also played a significant role in Soviet official ideologies and practices.  In the increased global flows of the post-Soviet period, racial discourses continue to change.  This week we delve into the history of visible minorities, particularly Africans, in the USSR.  Then we focus on the changing roles of visible minorities in post-Soviet media, and what they reveal about social ideologies.  

Mon. Feb. 13:

***Quiz 3 (will cover weeks 5 & 6, not today's reading topics)

Matusevich, Maxim. 2009. Black in the U.S.S.R.: Africans, African Americans, and the Soviet Society. Transition 100: 56-75.

Matusevich, Maxim. 2012. Expanding the Boundaries of the Black Atlantic: African Students as Soviet Moderns. Ab Imperio 2: 325-350

Wed. Feb. 15:
Fedyuk, O. 2006.  Exporting Ukraine West and East: Ruslana vs. Serduchka.  Kakanien Revisited,

Bilaniuk, Laada. 2016.  Race, media, and postcoloniality: Ukraine between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. City & Society.

(Optional: Helbig, Adriana N. 2014. Selection from Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race, and African Migration.  Indiana University Press. Pp. 86-97.)


WEEK 8:  Biological citizenship, contamination, and addiction in Ukraine
A critical event that helped topple the USSR was the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in 1986. How did the government manage this disaster, and what have been the repercussions on people’s lives?  How have governmental procedures for managing health and illness relating to radiation exposure redefined personhood and people’s relationship to the state?

Mon. Feb. 20:  Presidents’ day Holiday—no class
Wed. Feb. 22: Chernobyl
Petryna, Adriana.  2002.  Ch. 1: Life politics after Chernobyl.  Life Exposed.

Phillips, Sarah D. 2011.  Chernobyl Forever.  Somatosphere: Science, Medicine, and Anthropology

Beck, Ulrich.  1987. The Anthropological Shock: Chernobyl And The Contours Of The Risk Society.  Berkeley Journal of Sociology, Vol. 32 (1987), pp. 153-165.

Film: Battle of Chernobyl  (DVD FRIP 032)

Phillips, Sarah D. 2002. Half-Lives and Healthy Bodies: Discourses on ‘Contaminated’ Foods and Healing in Post-Chernobyl Ukraine," Food and Foodways 10(1-2):27-53


WEEK 9:  Media, representation, and power in Russia and Georgia
What we learn about contemporary events in the post-Soviet region are often heavily influenced by The Russian government’s efforts to spin information in a certain way, or even to undermine certainty in the possibility of truth altogether.  What is the evidence and impetus for this, and how does this so-called “information war” compare to other efforts to spin information?  What role can ethnography play in the context of an “information war”?

Mon. Feb. 27:
Pomerantsev, Peter. 2015. Inside Putin’s Information War.

Pomerantsev, Peter. 2015. The Kremlin’s Information War.  Journal of Democracy, 26(4): 40-50

Umland, Andreas. 2016, Russia's Social Media vs. the Kremlin's Domestic Information War. World Affairs.

Excerpts from Film “Russian lessons” [DVD SLA 652] on Georgian-Russian-Ossetian conflict
***Quiz 4  

 Wed. Mar. 1: Student web-research-project presentations begin


WEEK 10:
Mon. Mar. 6  Web-research-project presentations
Wed. Mar. 8:  Web- research-project presentations


Monday Mar. 13 by 10am: Web-project write-up is due in the online dropbox

***Quiz 5: take-home quiz due March. 10


Catalog Description: 
Analysis of Soviet and post-Soviet culture and identity. Historical transformations in Soviet approaches to ethnicity and nationality; contemporary processes of nation building and interethnic conflict. Examination of culture through the intersection of social ritual, government policies, language, economic practices, and daily life. Regional focus varies. Offered: jointly with JSIS A 427.
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Last updated: 
August 4, 2017 - 9:10pm