Steven Lee '01E Talks About Russia and Multiculturalism
Issue   |   Tue, 04/10/2018 - 22:49

Steven Lee ’01E gave a talk titled “Beyond Interference: Soviet and Russian Lessons for American Multiculturalism” on April 5. The talk was co-sponsored by the Amherst College Corliss Lamont Lectureship for a Peaceful World and the Amherst Center for Russian Culture.

Lee is an associate professor of English at University of California, Berkeley and also is an affiliated faculty member of the university’s Center for Korean Studies, the Center for Race and Gender and the Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies. He published “The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution” in 2015, which was a co-winner of the 2016 Scaglione Prize for Comparative Literary Studies from the Modern Language Association in 2016.

Associate professor of Russian Michael Kunichika gave the introduction to the talk. Lee’s work, he said, “is a powerful recuperation and reminder of how many ethnic minorities themselves thought beyond the confines of the nation and national cultural traditions in order to fashion a more capacious sense of themselves and of cultural political possibility, as well as also in their hope to author a more just world.”

Lee started the talk by defining his project as an attempt “to try to make sense of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, specifically the fact that this meddling involved attempts to highlight and heighten racial divides here.” He gave examples of Russian social media trolls, some of whom gained likes by circulating accounts of police brutality, while others fanned white nationalist sentiment.

Lee said that “what we see here is our new Cold War with Russia converging with our new culture wars.” In the United States, Lee said, culture wars refer to the “twists and turns of identity politics since the 2008 election of Barack Obama.” On the left, an initial celebration of a post-racial world gave way to disappointment after the realization that structural inequities were still very much in place. The project of the left then became to protest these inequalities, particularly their racist and sexist manifestations. Meanwhile, the right attempted to reverse the “gains of late-20th century liberal multiculturalism” and to restore the status quo of the 1950s.

Lee said that he brought up culture wars not to take sides, but rather to stress how both sides have “been manipulated by an outside party.” He then gave several precedents of Soviet and American interactions, some of which had beneficial outcomes. During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda drew attention to American racism and indirectly led to the civil rights movement, while Americans talked about Soviet anti-semitism, which led to eased immigration for Soviet Jews.

Lee continued by saying that “the Cold War wasn’t just a struggle between capitalism and communism. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. laid competing claims to global prominence by touting domestic inclusion, both assailing one another’s failures to live up to stated ideals.”

One possible response to the recent Russian interference would be to “use these external pressures to advocate for an end to systemic racism and police brutality.” And while Lee agrees with these goals, he finds this takeaway too easy. He argued that what “we should take away from Russian interference is a more layered, resilient understanding of identity and identity politics,” and that we should once again be willing to learn from Russia.

To highlight what can be learned from Russia, specifically a different approach to identity, Lee turned to a comparison of theater from Moscow and U.S. cinema. He showed clips of “Vanya on 42nd Street,” a 1944 American film adaptation of a Russian play called “Uncle Vanya.”

The performance of the American actress who plays Sonya, one of the main characters, is “marked by an emotional clarity through which the actress melds with her character.” In contrast to this, the actress in the Moscow version of the play maintains a “distance from the characters they are portraying.” The result is a “more incisive take on these characters and their context,” according to Lee.

Lee went on to say that “we should all be more like Sonya, by which I mean more like the actresses who perform Sonya in Moscow, not aiming for emotional clarity or authenticity but able to step back from the role she is performing.” He lauded the flexible, late-socialist subjectivity of the Moscow version, and said that this subjectivity is “much more nuanced than what we are accustomed to in the United States, especially in the current political climate.” Lee added, however, that he was worried that his argument would reinforce the notion of a new Cold War and that it would add to the current demonization of Russia.

He described the deportation of 1937, when almost the entire Korean population of the Russian Far East were moved to unpopulated areas in the west. While the common approach to understanding this deportation is as a spillover of the anti-Asian racism in the Pacific, which Lee compared to the internment of Japanese Americans in the U.S., he argued that this does not capture the nuanced identity of Korean Russians. The Soviet Union had considered Koreans as “a model national minority, a model Soviet minority,” and argued that the reasoning behind the deportation was “perverse but not racist.”

He then turned to singer-songwriter Viktor Tsoi, who was born in the Soviet Union to Korean and Soviet parents and whose grandparents had been affected by the 1937 deportation, as a positive model of minority identity. Before he began, Lee cautioned the audience that Tsoi should not be embraced as a new intersectional hero, as there are problems with that model.

“One of the frustrations that I have with current American notions of ‘otherness’ and intersectionality is that these tend to enshrine evermore particular and fine-grained identities. An emphasis on individual experiences and the personal as political often come at the expense of a larger view of domestic and especially international politics,” said Lee.

Lee then used Tsoi as an example for his main argument, which was that, “in the Soviet Union, one’s identity as a minority subject can be simultaneously essential yet irrelevant, eternal yet absent.”

Moving on, Lee described Tsoi as a figure that can “disrupt the binaries typically used to describe identity — for instance, self vs. other, dominant culture vs. minority culture.” Lee also added that Tsoi is compelling because of the “difficulty of ascribing any fixed identity to him.”

That did not mean that people did not try to ascribe identities onto Tsoi: Korean student activists claimed Tsoi as their hero, while American newspapers stressed Tsoi’s Soviet-Korean identity. Lee argued, however, that “it would be silly to try to ascribe ethnic or national characteristics to Tsoi’s performance, or to his music or lyrics.” For Lee, Tsoi advances the dynamic, fluid, non-binary identity of late-socialism, which is “more interesting and nuanced than the shallow, easily-triggered versions of identity that were so easily manipulated in 2016 by Russian trolls.”

Wrapping up, Lee said that Tsoi as a figure “stands at a distance from the self” and “refuses to be reduced to a single political identity.”

The talk was followed by a Q&A session, which covered a wide variety of topics such as Tsoi’s position as an outsider, racism in Russia and the Soviet Union and the difference between punk and post-punk.

Emilie Flamme ’20 said that the talk was a good opportunity to “learn about Russian identity and also Russian identity politics and Russian minority politics in the context of, in a comparative example between the U.S. and Russia, but then also all the multicultural dynamics that were going on during the Soviet Union, and how they affected the transition into a post-Soviet space.”