Forum Articles Reviews Materials Museum Personalia Conferences


Forum for Anthropology and Culture. 2016. No. 12. Summaries and keywords

Forum 28: What is the Role of ‘Regional Studies’ in Contemporary Anthropology? — Exploring the Case of Central Asia

The fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent development of new nation-states in the post-Soviet space, along with the increasing momentum of social, political, and cultural reorganisation globally, have challenged the field of anthropology and ethnography to restructure how knowledge is acquired and systematised. One of the issues that has come up during the course of these changes is how to restructure regional studies: are regional studies possible as such, or should the concept be abandoned as the division between research interests becomes more ‘problematic’? If regionality is maintained, then how should researchers perceive these ‘regions’ and their borders? This question is particularly relevant for Russian anthropology and ethnography, which has long developed and institutionalised as a complex of clear-cut regional subdivisions. There is concern that without regional expertise, the profession of anthropology and ethnography will lose its disciplinary identity, continuity, existing schools of thought, and professionalism. At the same time, there is an awareness that prioritising regionality and maintaining the regional boundaries of the past is inconsistent with contemporary scholarly methods and the realities of a globalising and rapidly transforming world order. Another issue is the stake that governments and political elite have in the way regional studies are restructured, and the competition between various political interests to name a given region and define its borders. In this context, anthropologists and ethnographers need to self-reflect on their personal reasons for participating in political projects, and whether or not they will become neo-colonialist actors in the new ‘great game’. In this Forum researchers discuss these issues in the context of Central Asia, or Central Asian Studies.

Keywords: Regional Studies, Area Studies, Central Asia, Central Asian Studies.



Parenting at a Distance: Transnational Practices in Migrant Families from Tajikistan

Elena Borisova

European University at St Petersburg, 3 Gagarinskaya str., St Petersburg, Russia

In this paper, I consider some transnational practices in performing parental care at a distance in the families of labour migrants from northern Tajikistan. My research is based on fieldwork conducted in several villages in the Kanibadam region of the Republic of Tajikistan. There are a number of aspects to take into account when researching transnational parenting. This paper is limited to a consideration of transnational practices that link migrant parents and the children they leave behind, e.g. regular home visits, phone calls, and photo and gift exchanges. Parental experience is highly gendered: a mother’s departure, as a rule, is not so much stigmatised in the sending community, as it is legitimised by parental obligations. However, financial support is insufficient, and mothers do not withdraw from the upbringing process, but provide emotional support for their children using modern means of communication. There are different modes of involvement in care at a distance, not just an intensive one, but researchers should avoid normative judgements about the quality of such parenting. Instead more emphasis should be placed on how transnational families overcome distance and negotiate family contexts, and how a sense of familial unity and proximity is constructed.

Keywords: migration, transnationalism, care at a distance, Central Asia.


The Spread of Folkloric Motifs as Information Exchange, or, Where East Meets West

Yuri Berezkin

European University at St Petersburg, 3 Gagarinskaya str. St Petersburg, Russia
Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) Russian Academy of Sciences, 3 Universitetskaya emb., St Petersburg, Russia

The author describes the results of statistical processing of data on the distribution of 548 motifs corresponding to episodes of adventure and tricks according to 309 traditions of the Old World. Factor analysis has been applied. The totality of traditions can be understood as a cloud of dots with uneven density. Traditions which contain similar sets of motifs are located close to each other and those that share a minimum number of common motifs are the most distant from each other. The program finds such assemblies of dots in pairs and confers every dot a conditional number which is positive for one group and negative for the opposite one. Every pair of assemblies of dots corresponds to a principal component of which the first two provide information on the most important tendencies. The intensity of the exchange of the motifs between traditions can be taken as a proxy for exchange of information between people in the pre-industrial epoch. The results of the analysis demonstrate that besides the Americas, Australia and Oceania, the islands of South-East Asia and Northern and Northeast Siberia were the most isolated regions from nuclear Eurasia (the latter encompasses the Mediterraneum, Europe, Southwest, Central, South and East Asia). The nuclear Eurasian contacts of Sub-Saharan Africa were significantly more intensive. The Chinese tradition contains much less typically Nuclear Eurasian motifs than the Korean and the Japanese ones. Inside nuclear Eurasia itself, the Eastern and the Western interaction spheres can be selected, the borderline between them going across Eastern Europe and then separating the Turkic and Iranian traditions from the Arabian ones. Traditions of the Baltic peoples, Belarusians and Ukrainians are in the western cluster, those of the peoples of the Caucasus, the Bashkir and the Volga Tatars in the eastern one. The Russians, the Setu (south-east Estonians) and the Mordvinians have a slight preponderance of the western motifs while the Gagauz and the Crimea Tatars have a slight preponderance of the eastern motifs. An increase of the share of the eastern motifs in the southern Balkans and Central Mediterraneum can be a consequence of the Osman onslaught. Though the described tendencies accumulate only 18 % of all the information that the factor analysis is able to extract from the data, just this information reflects the most significant regularities in the areal distribution of the motifs in continental scale.

Keywords: folklore databases, folklore indexes, folktales, cultural borders, Nuclear Eurasia, Eastern Europe.


Conspiracy Theory in Today’s Russia

Introduction: Anthropology and Conspiracy Theory

Alexander A. Panchenko

Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkinskiy Dom), Russian Academy of Science, 4 Makarova emb., St Petersburg, Russia
St Petersburg State University, 7–9 Universitetskaya emb., St Petersburg, Russia
European University at St Petersburg, 3 Gagarinskaya st., St Petersburg, Russia

This introductory essay deals with problems and prospects in the study of conspiracy theories by anthropologists and other social scientists. Epistemologically, conspiracy theories do not in fact differ from any other theories. However, conspiratorial narratives are notable for their particular emotional suggestibility that makes them efficacious tools of socialisation.

Keywords: conspiracy theories, collective imagination, knowledge and power, emotional communities.


The Plot Device of Conspiracy in Nikolay Burlyaev’s film Lermontov and A Director’s Diary: on the ‘Ethnography of the Emotions’ of the National-Conservative Community

Anna Razuvalova

Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkinskiy Dom), Russian Academy of Science, 4 Makarova emb., St Petersburg, Russia

This article focuses on the film director Nikolay Burlyaev’s handling of the plot ‘death of a poet’ presented, on the one hand, in his film Lermontov (1986) and on the other hand, in his Filmmaker’s Diary. The author traces the director’s apprehension of conspiracy schemes as a way to explain why part of the cinematographic community did not accept the message of the movie. The author states that the motifs of Masonic conspiracy against Russian classical literature, which circulated within the milieu of conservative nationalists, clearly reveal the affective background of conspiracy theories. These motifs also reveal the late-Soviet nationalists as an ‘emotional community’ (B. Rosenwein), united not only by commonly shared ideological views, but also by emotional experiences (in particular, the feeling of deprivation, caused by the activity of what was called ‘the Jewish lobby’, which was said to occupy political and cultural spheres of the Soviet state). Burlyaev perceived the sharp criticism of his film, dedicated to the ‘authentic’ reasons for Lermontov’s death, as further evidence of the secret masonic organization’s activity. Later in debates with opponents, he identified himself with Lermontov, who perished in the hands of Russia’s enemies more than a hundred years ago, and attempted to describe his own position in terms of open resistance to a secret enemy. Finally, Burlyaev’s public effort to unmask the mechanisms of conspiracy, an effort supported by the rhetoric of his proponents, clearly demonstrated how in times of social and political changes, traumatic emotions of disadvantage and resentment worked as ‘instruments of sociability’ (Rosenwein), creating a public non-conformist reputation for the patriotic community and becoming an important source for political action.

Keywords: conspiracy theory, masonic plot, emotional community, deprivation, late-Soviet nationalists.


The Computer Called The Beast: Eschatology and Conspiracy Theory in Modern Religious Cultures

Alexander A. Panchenko

Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkinskiy Dom), Russian Academy of Science, 4 Makarova emb., St Petersburg, Russia
St Petersburg State University, 7–9 Universitetskaya emb., St Petersburg, Russia
European University at St Petersburg, 3 Gagarinskaya st., St Petersburg, Russia

Conspiracy theory is a powerful explanatory model that infl uences many cultural forms and social processes throughout the contemporary world. Mutual relations between conspiracy theories and religious imagination require further discussions and investigations by social scientists. However, it seems that certain social phenomena and ideological tendencies that we usually label as ‘religious’ demonstrate, so to speak, the specifi c ‘valency’ of conspiratorial explanatory models. Christian eschatology gives a lot of obvious examples in this context, especially in relation to present day apocalyptic thinking. This article deals with a particular group of conspiratorial / eschatological themes of popular imagination that has a certain impact on religious cultures in present day Russia, Ukraine, and some other post-Soviet states, namely the stories about ‘the Beast computer of Brussels’. The legend about this apocalyptic computer emerged among ‘the New Christian Right’ in the USA in the mid 1970s. This paper focuses on its cultural, political and historical contexts as well its migration from the US to Eastern Europe. The legend appeared to serve as a sort of ‘narrative foundation’, or even a trigger, for the moral panic that influenced theological and ideological discussions in many post-Soviet religious communities. The Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate had to consider the ‘problem’ of individual taxpayer and social security numbers as well as passports with electronic chips at the highest levels of its hierarchy. 

The study of this particular legend facilitates the discussion of certain theoretical aspects of present day ‘conspiratorial eschatology’. First, we are dealing with a narrative that does not in fact essentially differ from what is known as contemporary legend. Its international transmission as well as de- or recontextualisation provides one more example of what is known in present day folkloristics and anthropology as ‘memetic’ or ‘viral’ spread of ‘cultural replicators’. Second, the legend seems to be a part of a more broad conspiratorial (meta)narrative that appeared to be equally valid for quite different religious ideologies and cultures. It seems that studies of present day conspiratorial cultures and narratives could take into account the concept of emotional communities formulated recently by the American historian Barbara Rosenwein. This constructionist idea that, in turn, proceeds from the theory of ‘textual communities’ by another American historian, Brian Stock, implies that we should pay more attention to emotions that are ‘expected’ by a particular community and thus are especially valued by its members. I would not argue that the ‘conspiratorial communities’ that we are dealing with in the present day world should be recognised as purely emotional. By and large, conspiracy theories try to make problematic not only socially shared values, but the status of conventional or offi cial knowledge as well. I think, however, that conspiracy theories and practices of ‘conspiratorial hermeneutics’ are inspired by particular combinations of emotional, moral and epistemological expectations. These shared expectations provide ‘conspiratorial communities’ with particular narratives and practices and, on the other hand, they enable combining traditional religious ideas with newly invented conspiratorial ones.

Keywords: conspiracy theories, present day eschatology, evangelical Christianity, surveillance society, computers, the Beast of Revelation, emotional communities.


Killer Yeast: Gastronomic Conspiracy Theories and the Culture of Mistrust in Modern Russia

Jeanne Kormina

National Research University ‘Higher School of Economics’, 4 Soyuza Pechatnikov str., St Petersburg, Russia

This article focuses on gastronomic fears that have spread in contemporary Russia within last decade, or more specifically, fears associated with the consumption of yeast bread. Shared by various social groups, from Orthodox fundamentalists to new age sympathisers and secular middle class people, these social fears reveal the existence of a new culture of distrust in post-Soviet society. The object of distrust is represented by the State along with its institutions responsible for the production and control of knowledge, including science, medicine, education and the mass media. At the same time, the main object of fear is a loss of personal freedom, which is articulated as quality of life, health issues, and opportunities for self-improvement. This article argues that the culture of distrust is a by-product of an information society where instead of having limited access to information from mass-media, people question its accuracy, and have to define or re-define the criteria of its accuracy in their everyday routine. At the same time, the proliferation of the culture of distrust is a reaction to ‘risk situations’ (U. Beck) where the concept of risk is connected with the diversification of knowledge in modern society which leaves customers incapable of estimating the level of threat that invisible and omnipresent enemies, like GMOs or yeasts, present. This article elaborates on the role of so called ‘new intellectuals’ in this culture of distrust.

Keywords: food, consumption, risk society, new intellectuals, culture of distrust, post-Soviet Russia.


‘The Fight between Ases and Devas Runs Through Our Whole Existence’: The Conspirological Imaginary of North Ossetian Intellectuals and the Search for Meaning in National History

Sergei Shtyrkov

European University at St Petersburg, 3 Gagarinskaya str., St Petersburg, Russia
Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Sciences, 3 University emb., St Petersburg, Russia

In the contemporary Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, just as in other segments of Russian society, inter-confessional arguments often take the form of conspirological accusations against opponents. Every party — Orthodox activists, the Muslim community, and Ossetian ethnic religious revival projects — has its own conspiracy theories. The main ‘ideal types’ proposed in this context can be understood as a conspiracy of dishonest, politically motivated academicians (‘the historians’ plot’), a conspiracy of a sacerdotal corporation (‘the priests’ plot’) and ‘the plot of (Western) intelligence services’. The popularity of these narratives can be explained by the fact that in the communication sphere of North Ossetia, every phenomenon of social life is often explained by answering the question ‘who needs this?’ while overlooking any objective explanations based on general economic or political regularities, or a combination of them. In addition, in the Soviet tradition social life is interpreted as an overt series of consequences of the secret struggle between intelligence services and ‘our party’, who is not just a victim of the foreign enemy but also an active participant in the strife. These narratives and cognitive schemes can help to explain why such conspiracy theories appear, in which the hope for victory over secret enemies is not only presented as the triumph of revealed truth, but as a result of the effective work of ‘our’ secret societies and organizations.

However, in contemporary Russia there are other informational communities that have their own interpretative practices that form specific conspiracy narratives. Thus the mental habits of some conservative Christians (Orthodox believers as well as certain evangelicals) enable them to find building blocks for their conspirological eschatology. In their narratives, there is no hope for the wisdom of good secret societies, but there is alarming inner readiness for the last trial prepared for the faithful at the Last Things.

Keywords: conspiracy theory, North Ossetia, Orthodoxy, religious traditionalism.



A Review of Sophie Hohmann, Claire Mouradian, Silvia Serrano, Julien Thorez (eds.). Development in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Migration, Democratisation and Inequality in the Post-Soviet Era. L.; N.Y.: IB Tauris, 2014, 399 pp.

Denis Letnyakov

The Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, 82/9 Verdandskogo av., Moscow, Russia

This review is devoted to the book Development in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Migration, Democratisation and Inequality in the Post-Soviet Era. It is the product of an international research project by historians, anthropologists, political scientists, demographers, and some other scholars. The key point of the book that connects all the authors is the analysis of the Post-Soviet Caucasus and Central Asia as a ‘new Global South’. From this perspective, the problems of poverty, migration, social inequality, and state and nation-building are considered in the monograph.

Keywords: the post-Soviet space, ‘new South’, Central Asia, Caucasus, postcolonial studies, migration, poverty, inequality.


A Review of Stephanie Cronin (ed.).Anti-Veiling Campaigns in the Muslim World: Gender, Modernism and the Politics of Dress. L.; N.Y.: Routledge, 2014, 288 pp.

Guzel Yusupova

Kazan (Volga region) Federal University, 18 Kremlevskaya str., Kazan, Russia
Institute for Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, 12 Rozhdestvenka str., Moscow, Russia

This book examines the state-sponsored anti-veiling campaigns that swept in the period between the two world wars in the Balkans and Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The publication is the result of a conference held in September 2011 at the St Anthony’s College University of Oxford and represents a collection of articles. All of the papers also contribute to the understanding of contemporary debates about gender, Islam, and modernity by raising a number of questions about the relationship between Muslim woman dressing discourse and the real politics derived from it.

Keywords: gender studies, history of Islam, Islam and modernism, history of the hijab, woman in Islam, politics of dress.


A Review of Svetlana Peshkova. WomenIslam, and IdentityPublic Life in Private Spaces in Uzbekistan. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2014, 352 pp.

Anna Cieślewska

Jagiellonian University, 24 Gołębia str., Krakow, Poland

This review discusses Women, Islam, and Identity, Public Life in Private Spaces in Uzbekistan by Svetlana Peshkova, who analyses the status and role of female informal religious practitioners called bibi otın / otın-oy / otınça, in Uzbekistan. These spiritual female leaders deal with a variety of issues related to spiritual life, teaching children, and women religion, as well as performing rituals and prayers for the female part of the community in some parts of Central Asia. Peshkova analyses the sphere of influence of female religious leaders in the context of religion and everyday life. The material reflects the political, social, and economic issues of Uzbekistan by exploring the personal narratives of three female personages. The book is based on a field research conducted by the author in 2001, 2002–2003, and 2011 in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley.

Keywords: female religious leaders, Islam, a religious policy, Uzbekistan.


A Review of Stéphane A. Dudoignon, Christian Noack (eds.). Allah’s Kolkhozes: Migration, De-Stalinisation, Privatisation and the New Muslim Congregations in the Soviet Realm (1950s — 2000s). B.: Klaus Schwartz Verlag, 2014, 541 pp., maps, photographs, indices, bibliographies

Alfrid Bustanov

European University at St Petersburg, 3 Gagarinskaya str., St Petersburg, Russia

This review covers important research, based on rich archival and field work, on the history of the Muslim communities of the former Soviet Union. The main message of the authors is a connection between the economic development of rural communities and the processes of re-Islamisation. The reviewer draws attention to possibilities for further study in the field.

Keywords: Islam in the Soviet Union, kolkhozes, re-Islamisation, political Islam.

ISSN 1815-8927
"Forum for Anthropology and Culture"
© 2010-2016. All rights reserved