Out of the USSR: Travelling Women, Travelling Memories -Conference

February 2–3, 2023, University of Turku

The Russian attack on Ukraine has been going on for over a year now. Over the past year, the increasingly tense political situation between Russia and the so-called West has led to declining investment in expertise on Russian language, culture, and history around the world. At a time when there is a special need for knowledge and understanding of the Russian language and of Eastern European cultures and political situations, the related teaching and research have been further curtailed for various reasons. This worrying trend is visible in Turku: at the University of Turku, it has not been possible to study Russian as a major for years, and in the spring of 2023, the decision was made to discontinue teaching and research of the Russian language entirely.

This situation makes it especially important to organize events like the two-day closing conference of the project Texts on the Move entitled “Out of the USSR: Travelling Women, Travelling Memories” (February 2–3, 2023). The wonderful conference brought together dozens of researchers on language, literature, culture, and history, that are interested in Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. The participants came from many countries, including Romania, Austria, Germany, the United States, Sweden, and Finland.

The conference focused on the question of how the Soviet Union and Russia are remembered in literature written by women in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Over the course of two days, eighteen seminar presentations were held. The presentations focused on themes of literature and writing, as well as memory, mobility, and gender issues.

The conference was opened by Simona Mitroiu (Alexandru Ioan Cuza University). In her keynote lecture, “Generations of Memory in Women’s Narratives: Literary (re)workings of Transnational Disruptions, Intersections, and Transformations,” Mitrou introduced the participants to issues of memory, generation, and identity by examining the literature of American-Russian-Jewish women writers Julia Alekseyeva and Lara Vapnyar.

The concepts of memory and postmemory were also key to the presentations of Ulla Savolainen (University of Helsinki) and Anna Helle (University of Turku). Both discussed women’s narratives about Ingrian Finns. Savolainen examined the work of award-winning journalist Lea Pakkanen, while Helle analyzed Anita Konka’s autobiographical novel Musta passi (2001).

In her presentation, Arja Rosenholm (University of Tampere) introduced her and Natalia Mihailova’s analysison the essays that were submitted as entries in a competition to the LiteraruS literary journal for the “Pamjat migratsii – Migratsija pamjati” (“Migration of Memory – Memory of Migration”). Rosenholm and Mihailova made an interesting observation on how autobiographical essays about migration often repeat the same ways of recounting memories, in which episodic and semantic descriptions of memory are imbalanced. Episodic modes of remembering, which make narratives personal and anchored in time and place, are replaced in these essays by culturally shared discourses that make the remembering individual’s actions and memories appear abstract and ahistorical.

Tora Lane (Södertörn University) and Jenniliisa Salminen (University of Turku) discussed multilingual literature. Lane examined the tensions between languages in Katia Kapovich’s bilingual poetry, while Salminen looked at ways in which Finnish-Russian young adult author Dess Terentjeva negotiates linguistic and generic hybridities in her works, in media interviews, and on social media.

Ona Renner-Fahey (University of Montana) discussed the complex construction of identity in Anya Ulinich’s Petropolis, focusing on the concept of “diasporic identity.” Marina Sivak (Free University of Berlin) addressed memory and generational issues in Maria Stepanova’s novel Memory of Memory (2017). Fatemeh Shayan (University of Isfahan) examined the same novel in an online presentation, focusing on the concept of postmemory.

The first day of the conference concluded with Viola Parente-Čapková and Riitta Jytilä (University of Turku) presenting on the concept of postmemory in Sofi Oksanen’s works, and their reception in Estonia and Ukraine.

The second day of the conference began with a keynote lecture by Eva Hausbacher (University of Salzburg), entitled “Close distances: Narratives of the Soviet Past in Russian-German Women’s Writings.” Hausbacher’s lecture focused on contemporary literature written by Russian-German women, in which the Soviet past is remembered from the distance of migration. She presented ways in which different narratives of remembering are constructed in these works.

Marja Sorvari (University of Eastern Finland) approached the debut works of two Russian-born authors living in Finland, Katharina Martin-Virolainen and Anna Soudakova, which deal with their traumatic family histories, through the concept of postmemory. Withold Bonner (University of Tampere) examined the narrative structure of the work Im Menschen muss alles herrlich sein by Russian-German author Sasha Marianna Salzmann. Bonner noted how the book portrays memory – and ruptures in the memory – of the chain of generations of women.

Sabine Egger (University of Limerick) presented ways in which Ukrainian women writers living in exile influence the German literary and media field. Egger sees the writers’ relatively high media visibility as affecting the ongoing “Eastern European turn” in German media and increasing discussions on international politics within field of literature. Ukrainian women writers bring new questions to the German literary conversation regarding, for example, ways of remembering the Soviet Union and gender.

Kristen Welsh (Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York) presented on the identities and female embodiment depicted in the Russian-language works of Russian-American women writers Olga Grushin, Anya Ulinich, and Yelena Akhtiorskaya, using the concept of geocorporeality. Asiya Bulatova (Södertörn University) examined the bodily aspects of memory in Irina Odoevtseva’s memoirs, focusing on experiences of hunger and eating as key components of remembrance.

In her presentation, Inna Sukhenko (University of Helsinki) explored the Chernobyl experience in Alla Shapiro’s autobiographical book on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Doctor on Call: Chernobyl Responder, Jewish Refugee, Radiation Expert. Maria Yelenevskaya (Technion – Israel Institute of Technology) and Ekaterina Protassova (University of Helsinki) discussed ordinary Russian-speaking women’s narratives of life and their relationships with the past and future. The women in question live in various parts of Europe, including the UK, Greece, Israel, Norway, and Switzerland.

The conference concluded with a panel discussion featuring Russian-speaking writers based in Finland, Polina Kopylova, Zinaida Lindén, and Anna Soudakova. The authors discussed their writing and works, moderated by Arja Rosenholm. Following the panel discussion, lively conversations continued over dinner at the restaurant Tiirikkala in central Turku.

The participants in the “Out of the USSR: Travelling Women, Travelling Memories”conference shared a concern for the future of expertise in Russian language and culture. They also demonstrated a deep and inspiring understanding of the central importance of this expertise in understanding not only history but also the current political and cultural climate. The Texts on the Move project warmly thanks all conference participants for their fascinating presentations, and looks forward to seeing what future collaborations will grow from the connections made at the conference.

Ennaliina Leiwo

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