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Russophonia: Towards a Transnational Conception of Russian-Language Literature

  • Author(s): Caffee, Naomi Beth
  • Advisor(s): MacFadyen, David W
  • Koropeckyj, Roman J
  • et al.

This dissertation introduces the concept of Russophonia, which refers to the widespread and variegated uses of the Russian language outside of the customary boundaries of ethnicity and nation. Using the designations of Anglophone, Francophone, and Sinophone literature as a model, I propose Russophone literature as an accurate and necessary classification for works that are too often dismissed as peripheral, or at best, awkwardly shoehorned into the existing Russian canon. I further argue that Russophone Studies, as a potential field of academic inquiry, would provide the space for understanding realities outside of an imperial center, and identities beyond a traditional understanding of nationality.

The first chapter provides an introduction to Russophonia, illustrating its major issues through an analysis of works by Chingiz Aitmatov (1928-2008), Bakhytzhan Kanap'ianov (b. 1951), and Eduard Bagirov (b. 1975). The subsequent three chapters trace the development of Russophone literature in the Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods. Chapter 2 dates the origins of Russophone literature to the Russian Empire's colonial expansion into Central Asia and the Caucasus, as the Russian language, Russian institutions, and contact with Russian intellectuals shaped the development of local literatures in the newly colonized areas. I show how early Russophone writers synthesized local literary forms with elements from Russian and West European literatures. I also discuss the processes of Soviet mythmaking by which Mirza Fatali Akhundov (1812-1878), Abai Kunanbaev(1845-1904), and Chokan Valikhanov (1835-1865) were recast as the foundational figures of national literary traditions in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

In chapter 3 I discuss the proliferation of Russophone literature as a product of the Soviet mandate for proletarian national literatures under the postwar ideology of the "friendship of peoples." I focus on the Soviet Thaw period of the late 1950s and early 60s, when postwar decolonization and the beginnings of a postcolonial consciousness in world literature and criticism coincided with Soviet attempts to exert influence over the newly independent states of the so-called Third World. With these issues in mind, I analyze the poetry of the Russophone Kazakh writer Olzhas Suleimenov (b. 1937), who enjoyed the ample privileges of a state-sanctioned writer, but eventually used his position to raise awareness of Soviet oppression and ecological violence. I cast this intersection of Soviet literature and postcolonial awareness as the catalyst for a later wave of nationally charged activism that contributed to the Soviet Union's eventual disintegration.

The concluding chapter examines contemporary literature written in Russian in the independent post-Soviet states, as well as in new "locations" online. At the center of my analysis are two schools of Russophone poetry that arose from the print culture of Soviet Central Asia, but today maintain a parallel, equally significant presence online: the Tashkent School and the Fergana School. Although many writers from these schools have emigrated either to the West or to the Russian metropole, they continue to assert a poetic distance/difference from Russia. I conclude by raising several questions for further research: how has an increasingly mobile and transnational world changed what it means to be a Russophone poet? How has technology changed the way poets engage with identity, history, language use, and the literary tradition? Is contemporary Russophone literature evidence of continuing Russian cultural and economic neo-colonialism?

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