Editor's Introduction

in Aspasia
Author:
Sharon A. Kowalsky Texas A&M University, USA

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The ongoing tragedy of Russia's war on Ukraine, already well into its second year, has sparked a fundamental reassessment in the field of Slavic Studies and calls for its decolonization. Long dominated by studies of Russia, the various disciplinary fields within Slavic Studies have engaged in numerous discussions and debates over the past year about how to decenter Slavic Studies, how to balance scholarship about the region, and how to recognize voices from the region that have been marginalized, ignored, and diminished. To this end, the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburg, in partnership with the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and with the support of a long list of co-sponsors, organized a six-part virtual speakers series in Spring 2023 that brought together a diverse collection of professionals to discuss the need for and practical means to address the “outsized role Russia has played and continues to play in the field and what could and should be done about it.”1 H-Russia, an H-Net online community, established a blog series on “Decolonizing Russian Studies” that has stimulated interesting conversations among scholars toward decentering Slavic Studies from multiple directions.2 The journal Russian History issued a call for contributions to address such problems in the study of Russian history, and the journal Kritika, in collaboration with the Harriman Institute of Columbia University, is planning a conference and special journal issue on “Eurasia Decentered” for 2024. Moreover, the major US-based professional organization for Slavic Studies, the Association for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies (ASEEES), has selected “Decolonization” as its 2023 conference theme, asking its members to engage in the “reassessment and transformation of Russo-centric relationships of power and hierarchy both in the region and in how we study it.”3 Such interest among scholars to begin to reimagine scholarship about the region reflects the profound impact that Russia's war on Ukraine has had, even far from the front lines.

The ongoing tragedy of Russia's war on Ukraine, already well into its second year, has sparked a fundamental reassessment in the field of Slavic Studies and calls for its decolonization. Long dominated by studies of Russia, the various disciplinary fields within Slavic Studies have engaged in numerous discussions and debates over the past year about how to decenter Slavic Studies, how to balance scholarship about the region, and how to recognize voices from the region that have been marginalized, ignored, and diminished. To this end, the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Pittsburg, in partnership with the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and with the support of a long list of co-sponsors, organized a six-part virtual speakers series in Spring 2023 that brought together a diverse collection of professionals to discuss the need for and practical means to address the “outsized role Russia has played and continues to play in the field and what could and should be done about it.”1 H-Russia, an H-Net online community, established a blog series on “Decolonizing Russian Studies” that has stimulated interesting conversations among scholars toward decentering Slavic Studies from multiple directions.2 The journal Russian History issued a call for contributions to address such problems in the study of Russian history, and the journal Kritika, in collaboration with the Harriman Institute of Columbia University, is planning a conference and special journal issue on “Eurasia Decentered” for 2024. Moreover, the major US-based professional organization for Slavic Studies, the Association for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies (ASEEES), has selected “Decolonization” as its 2023 conference theme, asking its members to engage in the “reassessment and transformation of Russo-centric relationships of power and hierarchy both in the region and in how we study it.”3 Such interest among scholars to begin to reimagine scholarship about the region reflects the profound impact that Russia's war on Ukraine has had, even far from the front lines.

One approach toward decolonization—to prioritize interconnections and intersections, and to acknowledge unequal power relationships—is through studies of marginalized groups, whether national, regional, or local. Aspasia leads the field in this regard—from its founding it has focused on bringing the voices of women, the dynamics of gender and power, to the forefront, while also emphasizing a transnational perspective that acknowledges the diversity of historical experiences within and throughout the Central, East European, and Southeastern European (CESEE) region. Even more fundamentally, Aspasia promotes the voices of scholars working within the region, ensuring the integration of their perspectives into broader historiographical discussions. In these ways, Aspasia offers a well-established approach to decolonization, creating a community of scholars and scholarship that values diversity and interconnectedness, and works to highlight and challenge inequalities on a multiplicity of levels.

The current issue of Aspasia reinforces the journal's leadership in efforts to decolonize Slavic Studies. We begin this issue with a tribute to Francisca de Haan, professor of Gender Studies at Central European University (CEU) and founder of this journal, on her retirement. Throughout her career, de Haan emphasized the need to incorporate the experiences of Eastern European women, including Communist women, into the broader narrative of European women's and feminist history. Her groundbreaking studies of international women's organizations and her efforts to document through biography the work of women activists have revealed not only the diversity of women's experiences but also the interconnectedness of feminist efforts, across Europe and around the world (a review of her latest book, discussed in the tribute, is also included in the book review section). As a teacher and mentor, de Haan has influenced generations of new scholars, as is evident from the tributes included here, ensuring that diverse women's voices—including those emanating from multiple political ideologies—are respected and integrated in broader historical narratives.

It is fitting, therefore, that our first research article discusses precisely the current state of the field of feminist studies in Eastern Europe. Scholars Kristen Ghodsee and Agnieszka Mrozik examine issues of determining authority and authenticity within women's history studies of the Cold War-era Communist world. Summarizing the development of the field during the Cold War, the authors situate women's history within that context and highlight the particular stereotypes and assumptions—driven by the persistence of Cold War tropes and anti-Communist attitudes—that serve to shape and limit feminist studies of the Communist era. They discuss the power structures that subtly shape scholars’ topic choices and the political priorities that privilege the “totalitarian” paradigm while undermining “revisionist” perspectives, emphasizing the need to confront such prejudices to encourage the diversity of scholarly research necessary to recover the full spectrum of the Communist experience.

The issue continues with a meticulously researched and thoroughly documented exploration of the position of women in medieval Albania by Ermal Baze. Baze discusses the legal protections for women set out in northern Albanian city charters, finding that these civic documents established rights for women that offered protection of their bodies and their property. Although he notes that such provisions reinforced patriarchal structures and hierarchies, Baze nevertheless suggests that women residing in medieval Albanian towns enjoyed significant rights and the ability to control their own property. In addition, Baze traces the dynastic leadership roles of elite Albanian women, as they forged alliances through intermarriages that integrated the Albanian nobility into larger regional networks. In the absence of their husbands and sometimes in their own right, elite Albanian women protected their territories, forged alliances, and signed treaties. These prominent women played a significant role in preserving their families and their autonomy in the face of pressures from both the Venetian Republic to the west and the Ottomans to the south. Through his reconstruction of dynastic relationships and civic processes, Baze integrates medieval Albania into European events more broadly, and reveals women as essential actors in that world.

Offering a more modern assessment of northern Albania that also emphasizes avenues for female autonomy, Lada Stevanović and Mladena Prelić examine the phenomenon of sworn virgins in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rooting their discussion in performative gender theory developed by Judith Butler, the authors argue that sworn virgins—women who become social men—represented a “third gender,” a way for communities to deal with maintaining family property and lineage that both preserved patriarchal hierarchies and offered some women greater autonomy within traditional social and communal norms. They also consider sworn virgins through the prism of archaic thought patterns theorized by Olga Freidenberg that offer alternative ways to conceptualize gender, suggesting that the phenomenon may reflect the continuation of older ways of thinking preserved in the isolated mountain communities of Albania.

Turning from the remote mountains of the Balkans to the remote expanse of Siberia, Olga Trufanova's contribution traces the development of Siberian regionalist discourses about race and miscegenation within narratives of empire in Russia during the late nineteenth century. Analyzing the writings of three Siberian regionalists, Trufanova finds that sexuality fundamentally shaped their ideas about race and empire. Although the three authors often differed in their assessments of the process of Russian colonization of Siberia, they all emphasized the central role of intermarriage and racial mixing for the creation of a new “race” of Siberians, whether positive or negative. For them, Trufanova argues, sexuality and violent expressions of sexual desire played key roles in Russia's conquest of Siberia, in the development of regionalists’ ideas about racial progress and civilization, and in their understanding of the role and nature of empire.

Anna Dżabagina's article explores another avenue for understanding empire, connecting literary traditions across Russian imperial borders. Focusing on the late- nineteenth-century literary scene in Ukraine, Poland, and Russia, Dżabagina examines ways of recovering lesbian voices marginalized in different ways because of the needs of different national literatures. Setting her discussion in the context of emerging national identities and empires, Dżabagina argues for a transnational approach that juxtaposes cultural conditions with the expressibility of female same-sex desire to expose factors shaping the development of these “hidden” literatures. She argues that examining the three examples in conjunction reveals the privileged position of Russian lesbian expression at the imperial center, and the marginalization of such expressions at the imperial peripheries. Dżabagina's approach to lesbian literature suggests the need for greater awareness of the multiple forces that can marginalize different voices, and highlights ongoing efforts to decolonize scholarship in the field.

Ioana Zamfir continues this issue's engagement with the LGBTQ+ experience, focusing on Romania after the collapse of Communism. Drawing on an archive that collected news clippings, artifacts, and personal correspondence during the 1990s, Zamfir exposes the hardships, repressions, and persecutions that LGBTQ+ individuals endured, even as Romania faced pressures to promote human rights as it prepared to join the European Union. She reconstructs the experiences of queer individuals in a country that criminalized their existence, and suggests that external supports played a key role in the formation and strengthening of the Romanian LGBTQ+ community.

The final research article in this issue, by Anna Dobrowolska, challenges assumptions about female artists and ideas about artistic nudity in state-socialist Poland during the 1970s and 1980s. Juxtaposing major nude photography exhibitions with nude performance art by three women artists, Dobrowolska contrasts acceptable visions of aesthetic sexuality with artistic expression and social criticism. While the photography exhibitions showcased a conservative vision of female beauty that privileged the male heterosexual gaze, the female artists’ works challenged the dominant narrative by embracing female sexual desire, agency, and autonomy. Despite feminist artists’ marginalization, Dobrowolska argues that the complexity of public discussions surrounding nudity and sexuality in this period undermined assumptions of moral conservatism and facilitated the emergence of a new socialist sexual morality.

The issue concludes, as always, with reviews. We include one review essay, multiple single book reviews, and three reports of recent conferences and exhibitions. These efforts reflect the continuous, deep, transnational connections forged through collaboration and promoted through the pages of this journal that result from the hard work of the editorial board and the contributors to this issue. As we continue to hope for a speedy end to Russia's destruction of Ukraine, we are heartened by the sustained efforts of and collaborations with scholars across the region to promote the diversity of perspectives and reflect the vibrancy of women's and gender studies in CESEE. We hope you enjoy this issue.

Sharon A. Kowalsky, Texas A&M University–Commerce

Senior Editor, Aspasia

Notes

1

“Decolonization in Focus,” https://www.ucis.pitt.edu/creees/decolonization-in-focus (accessed 26 May 2023).

2

See https://networks.h-net.org/node/10000/blog/Decolonizing%20percent20Russian%20percent20Studies (accessed 26 May 2023). H-Russia established the blog in November 2022.

3

“2023 ASEEES Convention Theme,” https://www.aseees.org/convention/2023-aseees-convention-theme (accessed 26 May 2023).

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Aspasia

The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women's and Gender History

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