ANTH 425 B: Anthropology of the Post-Soviet States

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
SAV 136
Joint Sections: 
JSIS A 427 A
Laada Bilaniuk
Laada Bilaniuk

Syllabus Description:

10:30-12:20 pm, Tues. & Thurs. in Savery 136

Professor Laada Bilaniuk
Office: Denny Hall M244
Office tel.:  206-543-5393
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, either analyzing a website of their choosing, or interviewing someone from the (post)USSR. 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 that 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?


Research project: two options.

Option 1: Website review (write-up and presentation).  Choose a website tied 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 (colors, fonts, layout) and content (images, text) of the site. Provide the web-address in your paper.

Option 2: Sovietness/post-sovietness interview (write-up and presentation).  Find someone who has lived in a Soviet or Post-Soviet country for at least 15 years, who is willing to be interviewed about their life and attitudes. This could be a temporary visitor (such as a student or researcher) or someone who has immigrated to the US. Depending on your interviewee, you can focus your interview in various ways. For example, with someone who experienced both Soviet and post-Soviet life, you could find out how they experienced the transition. With someone who emigrated during Soviet/Cold War times, you could ask about their reasons for, and experiences of, emigration. With someone who grew up in post-Soviet times, you could find out how they understand the Soviet era, what and how they learned about it, and to what extent Sovietness is still present in their country. You may choose to focus your interview on one of the subtopics we explore in class, such as health care, living arrangements, or racial and national identities. Write a 4-5 page (typed, double-spaced) summary of your findings.

For both options: In addition to the written paper, you will be asked to do a brief oral presentation of your website or interview to the class (with the option of projection of visuals).

Graduate students should conduct a more extensive 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 book listed below is required class reading and is available for purchase at the University Bookstore. The additional required articles listed in the syllabus are available through the class website or online through the UW library.

  • Rivkin-Fish, Michele. 2005. Women's Health in Post-Soviet Russia: The Politics of Intervention. Indiana 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. 



Tues. Jan. 8:  Introduction: situating Sovietness in global context; geography of the region.
-Overview of the course structure and requirements.
-Examination of the concepts “post-Soviet” and “post-colonial,” placing the USSR in global context. The reading associated with today’s topic (to be read by the next class on Jan. 10) is an article by David Chioni Moore, which delves into an examination of colonialism and its parallels in the Soviet system, and asks why the Soviet region has largely been absent from colonial/post-colonial studies.

Thurs. Jan. 10 The ideological foundations of the USSR
Today’s lecture, film, and readings provide 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 resource hoarding and the second economy.

READINGS (post your reading highlights for both the Moore and Verdery pieces):

* Moore, D. C. 2001. Is the post- in postcolonial the post- in post-Soviet? Toward a global postcolonial critique. PMLA116(1): 111-128.

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

And for fun (no need for reading highlight):Marxists' Apartment a Microcosm of Why Marxism Doesn't Work. 2002.The Onion.,1382/

FILM (in class):  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.


WEEK 2:  The cultural engineering of everyday life in the USSR: collectivization, health, hygiene, and identity

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 fitness, health, hygiene and the public performance of national identities, from the Russian urban core to the non-Russian regions. Thursday’s readings turn the focus onto the peripheries, examining how the indigenous peoples of Siberia were viewed and treated, and what Sovietization meant in terms of forcing changed livelihoods and gender roles. In the class lectures we will also consider the contemporary situation of ethnic minorities of the Russian Federation.

Tues. Jan. 15. READINGS: 
* 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. Michigan Discussions in Anthropology. 12: 25-37. 

Thurs. Jan. 17. READINGS: 
* Balzer, Marjorie Mandelstam.  1999.  Sovietization: Hearts, minds, and collective bodies.  Ch. 5 of The Tenacity of Ethnicity:  A Siberian Saga in Global Perspective. Princeton Univ. Press. Pp.120-145.

* Slezkine, Yuri. 1992. From Savages to Citizens: The Cultural Revolution in the Soviet Far North, 1928-1938.  Slavic Review51(1):52-76.

***Quiz 1 (with map)


WEEK 3: Catastrophe and contamination: Biological citizenship and consumption after Chernobyl

A critical event that helped topple the USSR was the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in 1986. These readings explore how the government managed this disaster and how governmental procedures for managing health and illness relating to radiation exposure redefined personhood and people’s relationship to the state. Thursday’s readings .

Tues. Jan. 22  READINGS:
* 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)

Thurs. Jan. 24  READINGS:
* Phillips, Sarah D. 2002. Half-Lives and Healthy Bodies: Discourses on ‘Contaminated’ Foods and Healing in Post-Chernobyl Ukraine," Food and Foodways10(1-2):27-53

* Klumbyte, Neringa.  2010. The Soviet Sausage Renaissance.  American Anthropologist, 112(1): p 22-37.  (Lithuania)


WEEK 4:  From socialism to capitalism: Pregnancy and birth 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.

Tues. Jan. 29  READING: 
* Rivkin-Fish, Michele. 2005.  Women's Health in Post-Soviet Russia: The Politics of Intervention. (Introduction & Part 1, pp. 1-119)

Thurs. Jan. 31 READING: 
* Rivkin-Fish, Michele. 2005.  Women's Health in Post-Soviet Russia: The Politics of Intervention. (Part 2, pp. 123-222)

***Quiz 2  today


WEEK 5:  Tradition, modernity, and agency in post-Soviet healing practices

These readings turn the focus to the ways that faith, tradition, and science intersect in some of the diverse cultures of the former USSR, looking at healing practices in Buryatia (RSFSR) and Kazakhstan.   

Tues. Feb.5  READINGS: 
*Quijada, Justine Buck. 2012. Soviet science and post-Soviet faith: Etigelov’s imperishable body. American Ethnologist, Vol. 39, No. 1, pp. 138–154.

* McGuire, Gabriel. 2017. Cultural histories of kumiss: tuberculosis, heritage and national health in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, Central Asian Survey, 36:4, 493-510. Link:

Thursday's readings focus on marginalized populations in Georgia and Ukraine, investigating how people manage tuberculosis, AIDS, and addiction in prisons and war zones.
Thurs. Feb. 7  READINGS:
*Koch, Erin. 2006. Beyond suspicion: Evidence, (un)certainty, and tuberculosis in Georgian prisons. American Ethnologist, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 50–62.

* Pinkham, Sophie. 2017. Ukraine’s Underground AIDS-Treatment Railroad.

Film: Balka: Women, Drug use, and HIV in Ukraine (in class we watched the first 8 minutes. Below is the link to watch the rest of the film on your own.)

BALKA - Women, Drugs, and HIV in Ukraine 


WEEK 6: Constructing ideologies in places & spaces: from Sovietness to Nationalism

How did social ideologies affect architecture during and after the Soviet period? Homelessness was illegal in the USSR, and the state guaranteed everyone a place to live, which meant communal apartments, dormitories, and other efforts at efficient housing. The reading by Buchli examines how the Soviet state managed living spaces and how this impinged on people’s lives. The readings by Grant and Liu show how spaces and buildings have been intertwined in national politics in the Soviet to post-Soviet transition in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan in particular. We consider how spaces tie into particular ideologies of tradition, modernity, personhood, and relationships, and how the ideas of “public” and “private” are constructed.

Tues. Feb. 12: READINGS: 
* 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.

* Boym, Svetlana.  1994.  Ch. 2, Living in common places:  the communal apartment.  Common Places:  Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. (pp. 121-167).

Thurs. Feb. 14:  READINGS:
* Grant, Bruce.  2014. The Edifice Complex: Architecture and the Political Life of Surplus in the New Baku. Public Culture26(3):501-528.

* 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. 

***Quiz 3 today


WEEK 7: The throes of Post-Soviet change: revolutions and war in Ukraine

Ukraine, the second largest post-Soviet country after Russia in terms of population, 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 the 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?

Tues. Feb. 19: The Orange Revolution and Euromaidan—the Revolution of Dignity
* Snyder, Timothy.  2015. Integration and Disintegration: Europe, Ukraine, and the World.  Slavic Review74(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.

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

Thurs. Feb. 21:
* Applebaum, Anne. Putin’s war is transforming Ukraine. Washington Post, September 23, 2018.

* Ragozin, Leonid. 2017. “Ukraine Fighting Its Own Cold War.” This article focuses on the Southeastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, and touches on many topics we have been discussing: living conditions in post-Soviet apartments, the medical profession and “extra payments,” and the challenges of reforming the economy and combatting corruption in Ukraine. (Links to an external site.)

Continue discussion of readings & film from Monday.


WEEK 8:  Globalization & migration: Race in the USSR and post-Soviet countries

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. 

Tues. Feb. 26: READINGS:
* Matusevich, Maxim. 2009. Black in the U.S.S.R.: Africans, African Americans, and the Soviet Society. Transition100: 56-75.

* Matusevich, Maxim. 2012. Expanding the Boundaries of the Black Atlantic: African Students as Soviet Moderns. Ab Imperio2: 325-350 

Thurs. Feb. 28  READING:
* 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. 28(3): 341-364. DOI:10.1111/ciso.12096

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

***Quiz 4  


WEEK 9:  Shifting understandings: New media and the information war

What we learn about contemporary events in the post-Soviet region is 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”? How is ethnographic research evolving in the era of new media?

Tues. Mar. 5:
* Pomerantsev, Peter. 2015. Inside Putin’s Information War.

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

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

Kara Fox, Kara, Mary Ilyushina & Nathan Hodge. 2018. Putin's war on rap unites Russia's hip hop artists. CNN. December 18. (site includes brief news video) 

Thurs. Mar. 7:
* Sienkiewicz, Matt. 2015. Open BUK: Digital Labor, Media Investigation and the Downing of MH17. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 32(3): 208–223.

* Applebaum, Anne. Once again, Putin gives us a lesson on the usefulness of the blatant lie. Washington Post, September 14, 2018.

*Walker, Shaun. 2015. The Russian troll factory at the heart of the meddling allegations. The Guardian. 

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


WEEK 10:

Tues. Mar. 12 Research-project presentations by:
Derrick, Anginette, Dana, Amna, Caylyn, Tayla, Rob, Gharett, Lena, Léa

Thurs. Mar. 14: Research-project presentations
Zach, Will, Ben, Katharine, Holly, Leeanna, Julia J., Julia S., Hannah, Jessica, Amanda

Fri. Mar. 15 by 11pm: Web-project write-up is due in the online dropbox


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: 
October 8, 2019 - 9:00pm