Department of Anthropology

Graduate Student Spotlight: Vasilina Orlova

Thu, February 8, 2018
Graduate Student Spotlight: Vasilina Orlova

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Vasilina Orlova, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

Your work in Siberia focuses on the lives of people living in settlements that you refer to as “stranded communities.” Can you tell us a little about these settlements, and the people who inhabit these places? Why call them “stranded communities?”

The term “stranded communities” is not mine, and I do not refer to the communities of my study as “stranded.” But this is a term in circulation; that is why I brought it up. The Economist discussed “stranded communities” in Scranton, Pennsylvania. I used this term, because it is illustrative of the “chronocentrism” that is a part of the discourse on territories of daily struggle. What I call “chronocentrism” is something that works in parallel with ethnocentrism- a notion that some places live in the present whereas others fall behind and maintain some version of the past. That there are countries, regions, and zones left behind as progress advances elsewhere. This is deeply embedded in the discourse of what progress means and its perception as an ultimate good. The term “stranded communities” demonstrates that in the U.S., not only are some foreign nations perceived to be some sort of backwater place left behind in the process of modernization, but also that within certain political imaginaries, portions of the U.S. are seen as left behind. These political imaginaries are imbued with all kinds of class-based feelings and resentments that are expressed in both subtle and obvious “othering” practices, or to put it another way, there is an idea that “we” are directed into the future, whereas “they” are stuck in the past and should be helped or taken into the future by force. My research works against these ideas and notions, against the brutal social evolutionism and fast-discourse approaches. My research draws parallels between the U.S. and certain Siberian communities, where in both cases, individuals lost their livelihood when places ceased to be economically productive. In the capitalist and post-Socialist worlds, the processes that result in community hardships are different. I refer to these differences as “developed-capitalism processes” that are characteristic of the U.S., and “restarted-after-the-Socialist-period-capitalist processes” that are unique to Russia.

For example, the villages along the Angara River lost a significant portion of the state-provided support that they received during the Soviet period. They also lost or are on the brink of losing the natural resources that provided a way of life for a much longer period than the Soviet Era. The Siberian villages in my study are situated in the taiga, a dense pine forest. Russian settlements began there in the seventeenth century. Whether settlers from Russia had a state-building task or not, they worked towards the establishment of the Russian Empire. The taiga was an endless source of productive resources that provided for the livelihoods of a diverse population. These resources included animals for furs and meat, medicinal plants and edible mushrooms, the wood that can be used in the development of the timber industry and for the construction of homes. But these resources were not endless, and in 2008 the lespromkhoz (a timber enterprise) in the village of Anosovo was disbanded. By that time the forest as people knew it was also gone, although for my eye, as a city dweller, the forest is still dense. An old hunter described to me that the realization of the change came when he realized that the birds that once inhabited the taiga were no longer waking him up at the early morning when he was away from the village for hunting and sleeping in his hut.

The places that I am working are the places of hard living. Right now, two of the three diesel generators in the village of Anosovo are out of order. And yet, life goes on. This illustrates how what would typically be considered an emergency situation is actually an ordinary occurrence within these places. So, my question is how- how does life go on? What directions and forms does it take?

This research is interesting because it uses the day-to-day lives and decisions made by individuals living in these settlements as a lens to try and understand how attachments to place make people stay. How are you conducting your fieldwork, and what have you learned or encountered thus far?

My project explores the fates of the people who continue to live in settlements devoid of state support, industrial settlements in Siberia. I ask how people navigate the disrupted infrastructures of the Soviet period, and how the material world and environment facilitate making decisions, particularly the decisions regarding mobility-moving in and out of places. My methodology employs participant observation, open-ended interviews, and documenting oral histories. My research uses visual anthropology methods such as photo-aided elicitation of narratives. My interest in this topic really began when I first visited the village of Anosovo in the Irkutsk District in 2006, but I did not know at the time that it would become the focus of my research. Historically, Anosovo emerged in its present form with the construction of the Bratsk hydroelectric dam. The Bratsk dam was the most powerful dam in the world at the time of its construction in 1954-1961. Its construction displaced villages, which were relocated but left without electricity. My father was born in one of these villages, and he lived in Anosovo as a child. He and his mother, my grandmother, moved away after the death of her husband. So I have this intimate family connection to Anosovo, it was a Siberian place that would not let me go. In 2013 I revisited and found that the children I met in 2006 had become young adults, that some people stayed, but many had left or died. During the 2016 and 2017 summers I again returned to Anosovo to conduct fieldwork supported by the McWilliams Fellowship and several professional development awards from the Center for Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies, and the Department of Anthropology.

What I expected to hear in the narratives was a strong nostalgic sense of the Soviet past. Its history during the Soviet era is complex, where prosperity and relocation are felt as layers of nostalgia for the lost world. What I have found is somewhat expected, but I also learned through the stories I heard in Anosovo and what I witnessed is that people reflect a lot on their prospects, on the future, on their plans. And a lot of these plans were connected to moving somewhere, but occasionally there were vows of never leaving this land- an expression of attachment. To me, Anosovo is a place of freedom. In all the hardships that people face, a remote Siberian village is also an image of a green future, of self-sustainability that people have been talking about for so long. People find their ways of belonging, of relating; they create, inhabit, and switch identities. One of the arguments that I am making in my work is that we need to quit thinking about the collapse of the USSR as an event that took place, and begin to take it as a dynamic process that goes on. This collapse will take about as much time as we can imagine. For the next hundred years we are going to be talking about it, returning to it. But it does not mean that we are going to be stuck with all the paradigms and beliefs that we now entertain. So, the question is: what is really going on? Where is the language to talk about it and name things?

Under the Global Research Fellowship, my goal for the 2018 summer is to collect narratives of mobility that I can then summarize and analyze. To get to Anosovo I will fly from Austin to Moscow, then fly to Irkutsk, which is a four-hour journey. From there I will travel for eight hours on a minibus and a river tram to Anosovo. This journey will take 24 hours, taking me to the opposite end of the world from Austin, when I fall asleep in Anosovo, Austin will be waking up. What I have learned from these travels is that some people go to Anosovo and to abandoned villages, like the village of Karda near Anosovo, to escape the relative comfort of city life. This is put into perspective when you realize that Karda formally ceased to exist in 2008, it is no longer shown on maps. But some people choose to live there, in the officially-non-existent village in the taiga.

One of your many interests as an anthropologist is digital self-representation through selfies. Have you noticed differences or patterns in the ways people present themselves? Are there specific forms of digital self-representation that are unique to one culture, but not others?

I think this is one of the advantages of the anthropological tool kit: once you have it, you can use it for many things. Some of the fieldwork that I am doing is also in the U.S. I have been living in the U.S. for 7 years, but everything is still strange for me here, as opposed to Siberia, where many things are intimately familiar even though I was born in the Russian Far East and grew up in Moscow. The anthropologist is in a position to occupy a space in two or more cultures and be socially fluent in every world they inhabit while retaining an inner distance from each. Selfie-taking practice is very gendered and is subjected to gendered critique. It is a global practice that, I believe, has more similarities across cultures than differences. A lot of content on social media is in the form of selfies, and a lot of selfies are taken in a way where you cannot even tell where the shot was snapped. It could be Irkutsk, or Moscow, or San Francisco. What becomes important is the body, telling of gender, race, age, sometimes, often pointedly, class and the ways the body signals many ways of belonging, affiliation, or affinity. But there are cultural differences for sure, Dress, hair, clothing- it is all important. Surroundings, as much as they are in the selfie, a landscape or an interior, become a context to read a person. A gym signals “I work out,” or a car says “look, I am mobile,” or a pet weaponized as a means of building trust on a dating site- “I have a dog, therefore, I am a nice guy.” The media theorist Theresa M. Senft offered the term “microcelebrity” describing such a phenomenon as the “instafamous”- people becoming famous for being known. Famous for being famous. Fame is an achievement in its own right and merits no further confirmations; fame could, in the “attention economy” exist on its own. You don’t have to write books to become famous or create music, or be a movie star. To take selfies is enough. While not everyone achieves this status, those who efficiently emulate celebrities, have a chance.

In Anosovo you would not be surprised to learn that there is no such infrastructure for a universally accessible Internet connection. There is one spot that gives Wi-Fi away for free, and in the evening around the spot, on a bench, you see people staring into their smartphones, as you would observe them any other place in the world. But the selfie-taking practice does not make sense in the absence of the environment that affords for an intermittent and ubiquitous interconnectedness. People do take selfies though. What I have learned is that essentially is you give a human a photo camera, they are going to snap a self portrait. Therefore, the cultural critique that is built around selfie practices as being superficial, vain- that Millennials indulge in because of their self-conceit, is in fact rather superficial and indulgent. On another note, but one that is relevant to make my point, I have a memorial of selfies from one girl who died in Anosovo at the age of 14. Her page on a Russian social media site is the only document she shared throughout her short life, and she shared it with the rest of the world. How is that not worthy of appreciation?

Part of your work in Siberia explores how people’s networks of social relations extend past their town. What are these social networks- are they made up of friends, family, employers? How are these relationships maintained, and is there any conflict?

One thing that I realized in thinking through this project and research is that remoteness does not mean the absence of mobility. On the contrary, people can live a sedentary life should they so desire, but there is a lot of travel and moving around. For everything, like buying wallpaper for your new home, or seeing a dentist, you have to travel- and in this case, travel becomes an adventure in its own right. For example, there is a mooring in Anosovo where people gather to meet their friends and relatives, or during their own departure and arrival. It is one of the most important places for community gatherings and exchange of news, greetings, rumors- things that need to be passed to someone, good, and so on. That Anosovo keeps diminishing in population means that the network of those who stayed has actually expanded. Some of the human connections are fleeting, and some are strong and are maintained over great distances for decades. The older generation tends to rely on paper correspondence, but this is also difficult. I learned that it is impossible to send a post card from Anosovo. The old building that was the post office burned down, so the post is now in a banya, and there are no post cards. It may seem trivial, and probably it has been awhile since you have sent or received one, but imagine a world where you are deprived of this simple possibility. So there is this clear divide between generations, and in the way that they maintain their connections, but the ability to communicate in either way is still difficult.

From what you have seen in your fieldwork, do forms of digital self-representation play a role in maintaining these networks of social relations?

Digital activities in Anosovo do not play as much of a role as they play in Austin or in Moscow. You’re definitely not going to be excluded from some events there if you don’t have a Facebook account. In Russia, the most popular social networks are Odoklassniki and Vkontakte. I am in connection with many of my younger interlocutors in the field through Vkontakte. They are all absent from Facebook, remarkably. But my Moscow friends are overwhelmingly using Facebook. There is a certain divide between how Russian villages, small towns, and big cities are represented on this social-network map. But you know how places like Anosovo may skip a moment of everyone’s connection via telephone. Technology is visceral and worked into a body, it is also an embodied practice. For example, the first thing that I and people who used spiral-cord telephone receivers do is press it to my ear, lift my shoulder and hold the receiver squeezed between my shoulder and head. It is a gesture that I do automatically. It allows you to free your hands and do something while you’re still talking on the phone. People who did not spend as much time as I did with this form of telephone that now belong to the past do not do this gesture automatically. Anosovo did not have a central telephony. They have satellite phones here and there, but not in every household. And because of the remittent Internet connection, where not everyone is initiated into it, you have to agree on things in person. I have found this to be strangely invigorating- you begin to suddenly plan your time, and you know you don’t have an option to drop out at the last second. The Internet made even short-term contracts impossible. But I have found that you have to learn and re-learn how to navigate these different ways of communication.

I imagine there is a tension between old and new (technologically, generationally, socially) in these towns. Is this true? How does this tension challenge an individual’s decision to remain or leave, and what are the effects it has on individual and community identity?

What constitutes such a big decision as whether to leave or stay (and the “stay” decision is also a decision which is reaffirmed every day) is a complex factoring out of many things. And these things are not easy to separate from one another.

I see two main tensions between generations in post-Soviet spaces in general: one of them is along the time divide related to the Soviet era. Those who were alive during the Soviet Era, who participated and were active in practices specific to that time, have a different set of bodily experiences. Those who were born in 1988 or later did not experience that world at an age when they could account for themselves. From one side the disruption of continuity was dramatic, with borders emerging all over the place- not only state borders, but social borders as well, no less policed or more penetrable. It was a process lived through by active individuals. It reverberated through their family relations and their relationships with their loved ones. It resulted in friendships ruined and new social circles acquired. Sets of beliefs collapsed, and new ideas emerged. But on the other side, it is not that the next day suddenly all the daycares in the Soviet Union had different people caring for the same children. A trajectory continued through multiple disruptions: ethic conflicts, family dramas, parents losing jobs, committing suicide, and so on. Life goes on. The shift in the state governance happened alongside the technological revolution. And in this case revolution is not too strong a word to call the advent of personal computers and mobile phones coming into almost everyone’s possession. We are talking about dramatic changes here. In fact, in 2012, the historian Donald Raleigh published a wonderful book titled The Soviet Baby Boomers: An Oral History of Russia’s Cold War Generation. Geographically, Moscow and Saratov “baby boomers” who were the subjects of Raleigh’s book do not represent the Soviet baby boomers as an entity (the USSR consisted of 15 Republics). But I wonder if there should be a book on The Post-Soviet Millennials- this would be a charming hybrid. Precisely because of this hybridity it makes perfect sense. We speak about social categories in the language that we think we understand, even if in the process of speaking many things are lost in translation not only cross-culturally, but also within the language. The translation is impossible, but it also happens all the time. Misunderstanding is a potentially productive way of understanding.

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