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This special issue of New Literary Observer is dedicated to the problem of slavery and its many social and cultural legacies. This is a continuation of a long-running study of the anthropology of closed societies, which has included special issues like “1990: An Experiment in Studying Recent History (2007, № 83/84),” “The Anthropology of Closed Societies (2009, № 100),” “The Semiotics of August in the 20th Century (2012, №116/117),” and “Anthropology of Diaspora: Cultural Mechanisms for Identity Construction (2014, № 127).” The current issue examines the problems surrounding slavery in broad theoretical perspective and through a large range of comparative materials, including both Russian serfdom and black Atlantic slavery.

The articles here focus less on the history of various forms of slavery than on the cultural and social consequences of slavery in various different societies. This special issue seeks to trace the way slavery, a phenomenon of the Early Modern Period, even after being relegated to history still continues to latently influence the formation and development of various areas in contemporary social life:

  • philosophical, political and artistic ideas and concepts;
  • value systems;
  • personal and corporate relationships;
  • institutional structures;
  • everyday practices;
  • laws and legal norms;
  • group and individual identities.

New Literary Observer has been featuring studies of modern societies and communities and the problem of closed-ness for quite some time now. In light of this, the anthropological perspective of the current study is particularly important: this approach supports the replacement of the generalizing “big paradigms” typical of twentieth-century social sciences and humanities with a complex network of interconnected scholarly practices oriented on the study of the individual in its various manifestations: in everyday practices, emotions and affects, memory and trauma, corporeality, personal history and intersubjective interactions. This is the kind of research into slavery presented in this issue of NLO.


The contributors to this issue sought to answer the following questions:

- How does an archaic institution of slavery interact with the concept of modernity?

- How does slavery/human trafficking in modern societies shape the habitus of communities and societies? How is it reflected in the collective consciousness, everyday practices, individual and communal lifestyles?

- How does it influence the formation of ethical and moral norms, religious ideas, ritual and behavioral  codes, emotional connections and affects?

- What role do commemorative practices play in the transfer of the intellectual legacy of slavery?

- How is a past slavery experience represented across various art forms and in mass media?

- How does slavery affect gender roles? What are the consequences of slavery for body and sexual practices, inter-ethnic and inter-racial relationships?

- What are the contemporary economic and legal consequences of slavery in countries where it was an institution?  


The issue opens with a preface from NLO’s editor-inc-chief, Irina Prokhorova, which traces the primary trends in the field of slavery studies and the standing of this discipline in the Russian humanities, as well as lays out the main questions that slavery as an anthropological problem poses to the humanities today.

The next piece is an interview with Ron Eyerman, “The Cultural Aftermath of Slavery”. In this interview piece, Ron Eyerman sketches out the conceptual framework for the concept of slavery in the era of modernity. He responds to the question of how slavery correlates with the basic postulates of modernity, which, it would seem, should directly contradict and even prevent human oppression and segregation. He also addresses how slavery is manifested in collective memory: in creating cultural trauma, it lays the foundation for collective identity. Even when slavery has formally been long since abolished, its consequences continue to be manifest in this identity and will do so for some time to come. 



The first section opens with three classic articles by major figures in slavery studies – Peter Kolchin, Orlando Patterson and Ron Eyerman. These articles appear here for the first time in Russian and are meant to create at least a partial context for the Russian reader of the anthropological study of slavery. This section’s articles conduct both a comparison of American slavery and Russian serfdom (Peter Kolchin) and an examination of slavery in the context of central anthropological categories like trauma (Ron Eyerman) and social death (Orlando Patterson). 

Peter Kolchin’s article opens the section: “Comparative Perspectives on Emancipation in the U.S. South: Reconstruction, Radicalism, and Russia.” In this article, Kolchin conducts a comparative analysis of the abolition of slavery in the US and of serfdom in Russia. Presuming that essentially all significant historical judgments are implicitly comparative, he constructs an interpretive model which compares the events of the American Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction period to the abolition of serfdom in the Russian Empire, indeed, uses the latter events as background for the former. At base level, this comparison helps to reconstruct the context of the event (making the obscure obvious) and to arrive at more measured judgments. Comparing the abolition of slavery in the US to Russia's Great Reforms reveals certain particulars of the American abolition and allotment of citizenship to former slaves; these aspects were previously overlooked or interpreted in a biased way.

In his “The Two Conceptions of Social Death”, Orlando Patterson looks at slavery as a special kind of social relationship – as various forms of social death. He highlights two types of this relationship: intrusive and extrusive. In the intrusive version of social death, the slave is the ritualized embodiment of an internal enemy, a ‘domestic enemy,’ an other taken captive. In the extrusive version, the slave is ‘one of us,’ a member of the collective who has lost status and is excluded from it, since it is thought that s/he is no longer capable of adhering to the minimal legal or socio-economic behavioral norms. With intrusive social death, the slave was never thought of as ‘one of us,’ because s/he was an outsider from the outset; with the extrusive type, the slave is an outsider because s/he is no longer one of us. In the first case, correspondingly, the slave is subject to external proscription, invasion of a foreign society, while in the second case we are dealing with internal proscription, whereby the slave loses his/her status as a member of the community.  

The section closes with a translation of the first chapter from Ron Eyerman’s classic book, Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African-American Identity, in which African-American identity is studied through the lens of cultural trauma theory. In this chapter, Eyerman examines slavery not as an institution or individual experience, but as cultural/collective trauma reflected in collective memory – i.e., as a form of recollection that lies at the foundation of human identity. Meanwhile, the concept of cultural trauma conjectures that immediate experience of an event is not necessary for this event to be included in trauma. Collective trauma is experienced after the fact and through recollection, and representation plays a crucial role in this process. The specific way an event is remembered is closely intertwined with how it is represented. This is why the means and methods of representation are so important, since they blur the boundary between individuals and liquidate the rift between what happened and how it is recalled, creating a social foundation for the emergence of cultural trauma. Eyerman provides a conceptual framework for analyzing the intellectual consequences of slavery as a form of cultural trauma and illustrates this analysis with examples from the history of African-American identity.



The articles in this section address the place of slavery studies in contemporary historiography and the questions that slavery poses to scholars. The contributors examine various aspects of this problem: Alessandro Stanziani offers a broad perspective on research into the Great Reforms in Russia in comparison to the emancipation of the slaves in the US; Piotr Koryś’s article addresses the consequences of serfdom in Poland; William Palmer focuses on the British abolitionist movement, Polina Kuzmicheva on the study of slavery in France, and Boris Tarasov (Kerzhentsev) on research on serfdom in Russia from the late twentieth to the earlier twenty-first century. The section closes with selected interviews with scholars working in Slavic studies.

Alessandro Stanziani’s “The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia: A Global Perspective”  focuses on the problem of the repeal of serfdom in nineteenth-century Russia, through a comparative approach incorporating similar processes of liberation in Europe, Africa and the two Americas. Against this broad comparative background, Stanziani seeks to reveal the patterns and changes in the long-running process of liberation, and to examine the interaction of various concepts and practices connected with the category of “freedom.” During the second half of the nineteenth century, the repeal of serfdom in Russia, the abolition of slavery in the US and of enslavement laws in the British and French colonies, etc. led many contemporaries to think that these interrelated changes spoke to an irrevocable worldwide movement toward freedom. Stanziani gives a detailed description of the social, political, legal and economic premises of these abolitions and of the emergence of this viewpoint. He also demonstrates how ideas about the progressive liberation of humanity did not bear fruit and how slavery was replaced by other forms of human dependency.

In “Dependence on Serfdom, Feudal Land Tenure and Their Legacy in Poland”, Piotr Koryś seeks to highlight the fundamental ideas in the polemics around serfdom in the Polish intellectual tradition, with a view to contemporary discussions of the same. He notes that neither feudal land tenure [panshchina] nor dependence on serf labor have been preserved in society’s historical memory, although memory of the poverty of the peasantry and of the peasants’ transformation into “Poles” can be traced. Korys finds that it is difficult to solve the problem of the influence of serf-dependence and panshchina on modern-day social institutions. The scholars and journalists who have claimed the existence of this influence (dubbed “post-folwark syndrome”) are not actually able to track the process in long-term perspective using analytic tools and thus accept it as an initial fact, directing their efforts toward collecting empirical material that would confirm this hypothesis.

The section continues with an article from William Palmer, “Historical Writing on British Abolition.” The first part of this article shows how abolitionism developed in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain, and which rhetorical strategies abolitionists employed to achieve their main goal – the prohibition of slavery. Palmer shows how the abolitionists did not represent a unified movement with a single ideology; instead, they attacked the institution of slavery from various different angles, including both the legal point of view and the position of the universal equality of all men before God. Palmer analyzes the main texts of the different genres in which abolitionists argued their viewpoints. In the second part of the article, he surveys the scholarly literature on British abolitionism, looking at how representatives of different scholarly approaches variously interpret the topic.

Polina Kuzmicheva’s “The Abolition of Slavery as Part of the French National Idea: Debates in Contemporary Historiography” is the next contribution to the discussion. Contemporary French historiography on slavery views the process of the liberation of former slaves in its colonies as a time of protracted evolution of its national and civic idea, within which 1794 and 1848 represented mere revolutionary turning-points, speeding up the movement toward full integration of this category of the population. This rejection of the “Franco-French” approach to national history, and the opening of French archival holdings abroad, led to a shift in the analytic paradigm and the appearance of a new wave of research focused on studying the influence of the ideas of the French revolution on former slaves. Today, French historians are trying to debunk the myth of France as the homeland of human rights and as a culturally homogenous country by conducting research on slavery and on the complexity and ambiguity of revolutionary debates over its abolition.

In his “Serfdom in Scholarly and Artistic Discourse – From Historical Myth to Objective Reality”, Boris Tarasov (Kerzhentsev) examines the presentation of serfdom in Russia through history textbooks from the nineteenth to the early twenty-first century, popular science publications, works of literature and journalism. He concludes that an objective description of serfdom was not useful for any of the political forces in power, either in the imperial or Soviet periods. A critical view of the period of serfdom has also proved not useful for post-Soviet governments, since such a view would obviously violate the politics of “historical continuity” and state patriotism promoted since the late 1990s and particularly the early 2000s, for both liberal journalism and ideologues of the right. In Tarasov’s view, telling the truth about the era of serfdom, the reasons for its emergence and development and the circumstances of its abolition would lead to a reevaluation of the meaning of the whole imperial period in Russian history, and would be reflected in attitudes toward many contemporary phenomena and problems as well.

The section closes with a series of nineteen interviews with Russian historians, philologists and philosophers and with foreign Slavicists, touching on questions about the inclusion (or non-inclusion) of studies of serfdom in international ‘slavery studies.’ The interviewees discuss the historiographical and conceptual difficulties connected with the interpretation of serfdom as a form of slavery, as well as the methods that have been most successfully applied in studies of Russian serfdom. Essentially, these interviews examine two basic and interrelated questions: 1) can serfdom in the Russian Empire be considered a form of slavery and 2) what do the social institutions of slavery and serfdom mean from the point of view of modernity?



This section’s articles address questions about the philosophical foundations of slavery and, vice versa, about the influence of slavery on ways of thinking in the modern era. The main protagonist in this section is Hegel, for whom the relationship between the master and slave became a central metaphor.

In his “Slave: Insider and Other”, Mikhail Yampolski examines the phenomenon of Russian slavery (which is radically different from slavery in other cultures), especially the fact that the individuals enslaved were not strangers or adherents to a different creed, but rather belonged to the same ethnic group and religion of their masters. This feature of Russian serfdom/slavery can be considered the reason for why the Russian nation lacks coherent differentiation in terms of identity, the lack of a stable opposition between what is considered one’s own/alien. It may also have caused the weakening of what Gilbert Simondon called individuation.

Oxana Timofeeva’s “Freedom is Slavery” presents an original interpretation of Hegel’s master and slave dialectics as it relates to the human/non-human distinction and the category of the undead. It analyzes various social and cultural phenomena, from Haitian zombies to the contemporary “black market” of slaves (human trafficking, etc.), and reflects upon the paradoxically emancipatory force of non-human forms and conditions of labor.

Aage Hansen-Löve’s “From Master and Man to Man Without a Master” deals with the relations between master and servant (slave) in Tolstoi’s story “Master and Man” and in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit. The main difference between them consists in the principle of duality (master/slave) in Hegel and triality (master/servant/horse) in Tolstoi. Here the horse takes the place of nature, whereas the master that of culture (or civilisation, economics). The servant or slave mediates between culture and nature. The Russian-French philosopher Alexander Kojeve develops Hegel’s ideas toward the sense that at the end of the historical process, the slave takes the place of the master.



This section surveys various rhetorical strategies used for both a critique of slavery and in order to justify its existence. Most of the work in this section study Russian history and the dramatic intersections between the status of “slave” and that of “serf” that can be observed therein.

Elena Marasinova’s “‘I can be a subject, even a slave – but I will never be a serf, even for the heavenly tsar’: Authority and Personality in Eighteenth-century Russia” discusses changes in official ideas about social hierarchy that were reflected in changes to the language of messages addressed to the monarch. In 1702, the country’s population was unified under the designation ‘slave’ in relation to the supreme leader; this was a terminological confirmation of the rise in autocratic power and further supported the perception of the monarch’s personality as sacred in the Russian popular consciousness. In 1786 the standard signature ‘loyal subject-slave’ in messages to the imperial ruler was transformed into ‘loyal subject-citizen.’ This terminological preference on the part of the authorities subsequently promoted the development of the institution of citizenship/subjecthood [poddanstvo] in Russian society, as well as ideas related to the concept. The concept of a citizen [grazhdanin] was not a symbol of opposition to absolutism. This term merely emphasized the presence of horizontal relations between inhabitants of the empire, who in this case were known as ‘co-citizens’ [sograzhdane].

The section continues with A. I. Reitblat’s “Rhetorical Strategies for Justifying Serfdom in Russia, 1800-1850.” Regardless of the fact that the Russian authorities did not encourage public discussion of serfdom, the first half of the nineteenth century saw the appearance of several notable works that advanced both economic and moral arguments in favor of serfdom. The argumentation in all these works adhered to two strategies: one of them was ‘universalist’ and the other argued for Russia’s ‘special path.’ Reitblat’s article offers a detailed examination of the arguments made by representatives of both rhetorical strategies.

Konstantin Bugrov’s “An Abyss of Inequality: The ‘Language of Civic Consciousness’ in Russia from the Eighteenth Century to the Eighteenth Party Congress” addresses descriptions of ‘slavery’ rendered in the peculiar ‘language of civic consciousness’ that took shape among Russian elites in the eighteenth century, under the influence of cultural transfer from the West. This ‘civic language’ led to a rethinking of the relationship between landowners – free citizens – and peasants, seen as slaves in need of direction. The differences between free individuals and slaves in eighteenth-century Russia remained theoretical, since Russian writers were working with sociological and historical arguments. In their opinion, noblemen were endowed with free status according to the ruling of a monarch-‘umpire’ who had decided that the nobility had achieved the necessary level of consciousness. When the peasantry overcame its backwardness, its turn too would come – but that moment was always receding into the future. Thus despite its ties to the process of Westernization, the ‘language of civic consciousness’ turned out to be a tool for the conservation of serfdom, insofar as it described Russian society as split by ‘an abyss of inequality.’

Konstantin A. Bogdanov’s “Atavisms of Freedom, Reflexes of Slavery and the ‘Russian National Character’: The History of an Ethno-psychological Hypothesis” examines the circumstances and contexts that have accompanied the ideas about “national character” overall, and particularly “Russian national character,” as affirmed by social anthropology. Special attention is paid to the theory of physiological evolution and reflexology that played a significant role in the formation of ideas about the psychological tendencies of this or that ethnic group to “slavery” and “freedom.” Bogdanov asserts that the essentialist postulates about the inborn nature of ethno-psychological characteristics deserve to be evaluated from the point of view of linguistic pragmatics — as rhetoric and moral demagoguery, as yet another example of the fact that character is the result of characterization, and characterizations are not only given to people — they are also formulated by people.



The following two sections examine slavery and serfdom from the point of view of literature, painting and film. The contributors trace how the idea of the slave and the serf changed over the course of time in various forms of art, what provoked these shifts and what kind of influence they had on the development of the art itself.

In his “‘Unknown World’: Russian and European Aesthetics and the Problem of Representing Peasants in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Literature,” which uses a wide range of materials from European and Russian aesthetics and criticism of the 1830s-50s, Aleksey Vdovin examines the history and genealogy of the idea that literature was unable to adequately depict peasant consciousness and experience. In his discussion of P.V. Annenkov’s article “Regarding Stories and Novels from the Life of Common People” (1854) and its European sources and contexts, Vdovin demonstrates that the presumption of ‘inadequacy’ – which hails back to Rousseau’s ideas about the ‘natural man’s’ undeveloped consciousness – was theoretically founded in Hegelian aesthetics (the absence of reflection in slaves) and transformed in the criticism and prose of George Sand, who tried to suggest a new, ‘normalized’ theory of representation of peasant consciousness. In conclusion, Vdovin touches on the Russian reception of Hegelian and Sandian ideas through an examination of Turgenev’s story “Khor’ and Kalinych,” seen as an experimental attempt to renew the means of describing peasant consciousness with the help of philosophical language.

John Richardson’s “Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest: Its Context and Attitudes toward Slavery” examines Alexander Pope’s relationship to the slave trade in his long poem “Windsor Forest” as a reflection of social opinion (or its absence) regarding this problem in early eighteenth-century Britain, in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Treaty of Utrecht and the politics of the Whigs and Tories. Richardson suggests that the muted character of Pope’s protest against the trade in humans was not due to his approval of the status quo, but rather to social pressure and a difficult financial situation. He also traces parallels with the work of other writers and poets of the same time period: Tickell, Parnell, Gay and Swift.

The section continues with Calvin Schermerhorn’s “Chained Sentiment: United States Slavery and the Emerging African American Novel, 1850—1862”. In the United States in the 1850s, Americans created a narrative of slavery composed of conflicting scripts. African American autobiographers insisted slavery was violent, immoral, and destructive of families. White southern regional writers disagreed, arguing that slavery was benevolent, moral, and part of an organic society, in contrast to the capitalist North. Proslavery novelists contended that slavery benefited inferior African-descended people. White antislavery novelists took elements of both scripts, arguing that African-descended people were unfairly taken advantage of and yet slavery was morally reprehensible. The literary contests over public understandings of slavery between 1850 and the onset of civil war set ablaze smoldering social tensions over the meaning and future of the United States republic. That discourse involved a dynamic hybridization of genres, a literary process that had developed over the previous quarter century in which ex-slave autobiographers appropriated elements of southern regionalism and antislavery novelists seized features of ex-slave autobiographies to frame their sentimental appeals. Because of such borrowings, African-descended writers found themselves in the ironic position of having to argue against what amounts to white ventriloquism of black voices, sometimes even their own. African American writers responded by culminating a process of hybridization, sentimentalizing and fictionalizing their autobiographies. As black authors increasingly argued slavery’s narrative on the discursive ground of their adversaries’ choosing they gave birth to the African American novel.

In Writing the ‘Soviet South’: Inflections of Post-Slavery America in Langston Hughes’ Ethnography of Central Asia,” Jennifer Wilson addresses a little-known episode in the history of American-Soviet literary ties. The African-American poet Langston Hughes spent several months traveling throughout Soviet Central Asia collecting material on what he called “the colored people of the Soviet Union.” His entire understanding of Central Asia and its place within the Soviet Empire show clear signs of being influenced by U.S. race relations and the history of American slavery. From his study of sexual bondage in pre-Soviet Uzbekistan, “In an Emir’s Harem” (1934), to his concerns that under Soviet rule, Central Asians would lose their history and indigenous culture (just as African-Americans had lost theirs during the “Middle Passage” from Africa to the Americas), Hughes offers a uniquely African-American perspective on the psychological effects of “emancipation,” and the inherent contradiction between the historically-driven korenizatsiya and the onward and forward ethos of Soviet communism. As such, this article explores how Hughes superimposes the racial politics of post-slavery America onto his study of Central Asia with an emphasis on his descriptions of sexual slavery in the pre-Soviet harems and his point-of-view on attempts to salvage minority folk art in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

An article from Catriona Kelly, “‘Man-Footed Beast’ versus ‘Beast-Footed Man’: Animals as Slaves, Servants, and Companions in Post-Enlightenment European Culture,” focuses on an apparent side-story in the field of slavery studies, one that, however, turns out to be central: the likening of animals to slaves. Since classical times, the analogy between slaves and working animals has been persistently accepted, but seldom addressed. It is ignored also in the modern philosophy of animal rights, which has paid prime attention to issues such as the avoidance of meat-eating. Not surprisingly, in societies where the labour of animals was seen as essential to economic survival, advocacy of the liberation of animals seldom invoked liberation from work — exceptional are the writings of the eccentric inventor L. Gompertz. This article looks in detail at two more typical texts, Tolstoy’s “Kholstomer” and Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” (1877), which invoke the animal/slave analogy in detail.

The section closes with a survey from Vlad Tretyakov, “The Representation of Slavery in Western Literature,” in which Tretyakov looks at several recent monographs in order to trace the different ways the idea of the slave in literature has changed and the different methods artists have used to depict them.



In his “Until the Bosses Get Back: The Problem of Domination and Subjugation in late 1980s-early 1990s ‘Lenfilm’ Production,” Yan Levchenko examines the problem of domination and subjugation in the specific way it manifested in films about Stalinism and its consequences as shot by the Lenfilm studio, which enjoyed a period of creative blossoming in the 1980s. These examples of working with totalitarian experience demonstrate the expected adherence to contemporary norms, but also systematic attempts to overcome the fixed boundaries of Soviet cinematic language, including by questioning the workings of the mechanisms of memory and forgetting in post-Soviet culture.

Liubov Bugaeva’s “Emancipation and the Burden of the Past: Serfs and Slaves Onscreen in Russian Film” discusses questions of the visualization of serfs and slaves in Soviet and Russian cinema. She focuses on the visual codes of oppression and protest and the recognizable symbolic images of serfdom: the meek crowd of peasants in early Soviet cinema; the quiet protest of the offended peasant and the expressive protest of the serf actress in Soviet cinema; the idyllic peasants in late Soviet and post-Soviet films. In contemporary Russian cinema slavery, which had been relegated to the historical past in Soviet films, is experienced as a relevant present phenomenon. The image of the slave in these films is many-sided, episodic and still far from being fully established.      

Rizvana Bradley’s “Close-Up: Fugitivity and the Filmic Imagination: Reinventing Capacity: Black Femininity’s Lyrical Surplus, and the Cinematic Limits of 12 Years a Slave” concerns an analysis of Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave. Specifically, it considers how McQueen’s cinema can be said to actively rely upon tropes of mastery and domination, pain and trauma, in order to construct what Saidiya Hartman has referred to as a “spectacle of sufferance”, while visually qualifying “an embrace of pain” that engenders pleasure in the viewer. Patsey crystallizes a set of questions about the ontological status of black femininity in the film. Patsey’s constant defiance of Master Epps through the production of a radical surplus labor is paradoxically a performance of disentanglement from the optics of McQueen’s film, which draws heavily from mainstream cinema’s tropes of racial suffering that specifically coalesce around the black body in pain. Patsey points to something latent in the structure of black womanhood, a remainder that initiates a set of oppositions that run through this violent history of subjection. She prefigures a representational aporia, a mode of cinematic blackness, that challenges the prescribed limits of personhood, identity, and humanity on the one hand, and labor, resistance, and anti-humanity on the other.

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