When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the world marveled at how quickly a superpower could unravel. But for Serguei Oushakine, all it took to knock down Communist Russia was a good book.
He came across Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man in the 80s, under a special dispensation to read Western intellectuals while he studied the New Left. By the time he finished it, he’d never managed to look the Soviet project in the eye again.
It would be convenient to say he became disillusioned and never looked back. But Oushakine, a connoisseur and analyst of culture, does little else. Now an assistant professor in the Slavic department, he works—somewhat out of the ordinary for an anthropologist—on his home country.
Born in Tomsk—a town perhaps best known for getting dissed in Chekov’s diary—while his parents finished their engineering degrees, Oushakine would spend the rest of his young life in Siberia. After his parents’ graduation, the family moved to Barnaul, on the Mongolian border, where his father worked in the production of nuclear submarines.
It was in Barnaul that he endured the vagaries of Soviet education, finding his way through the “ideological component”: distribution requirements on Political Economy, Communist Party History, Marxist-Leninist Philosophy, Scientific Communism. He remembers being the only one in his class to make it through all three volumes of Capital. Originally a German student, he soon gave it up for English. A caprice, but a useful one in the geopolitical landscape that would soon unfold.
Then began the long journey West. The Soviet Union collapsing around his ears, Oushakine swapped cities and accumulated degrees: Barnaul, Petersburg, Budapest, New York. Anthropology became his permanent intellectual home—a discovery at Columbia.
At first glance, Oushakine has what you’d hope for in your new Siberian friend: dramatic face, fierce eyes. His dress tends towards the austere, the monochromatic, and the form-fitting. His second-floor office, overlooking the courtyard of East Pyne, is spacious and uncluttered. Dostoevsky, Marx, and a dour, multivolume Istoria Rossii huddle together for warmth on the sparsely-stocked bookshelves.
Oushakine’s courses at Princeton cater to the intellectually omnivorous. Theoretical texts mingle with field reports from the front lines of pop culture. Lacan and Žižek go up against Vogue and music videos. Though an anthropologist of a post-modern, developed nation, he still approaches his species of study like Levi-Strauss creeping up on some Amazonian tribe. The novye russkie—the famously infamous nouveaux-riches of Yeltsin’s Russia—are a pet interest; he’s published on them. But he also collects their artifacts: a garish piece of flatware gets passed around class like some fibula dug out of Herculaneum; a mid-90s “lifestyle” mag is perused like the Madrid Codex. Oushakine speaks an erudite and accented English. He will deliver a paragraph of dense prose, and then pause to confirm the appropriateness of a preposition. He punctuates his conversation with Russian idioms, which he will whisper to himself, musing on possible renderings. And he’s always willing to explain a fine point of English vocabulary to his American students.
Even when pressed, Oushakine keeps his politics close to the vest. He dismisses the question when I ask for predictions on the Russian presidential election, already looming on next year’s calendar: “I’m not a political scientist,” he says. Perhaps, but it’s a diplomatic answer—the skeptical prudence of those who come of age at the end of an empire. He knows the volatility of Kremlin politics, but says he sees no reason to doubt Putin’s promises to step down when his term expires. In the end, he’s too well-versed a student of Russian history to make confident predictions.
I try a different angle. After studies at George Soros’s university in Budapest, and lecturing in Bishkek for his Open Society Institute, does Oushakine still count himself a fan of the polarizing financier? Again I come up against careful courtesy: of course Soros made an impact by funding cultural institutions during the tough transitional years, but it might have been healthier to let go and allow a cycle of regeneration, after all.
Like all good academics, Oushakine finds himself in the midst of a dozen projects at once. Though “New Russians” and the bright lights of Moscow beckon, he discovers he’s drawn back to the Asian interior of his youth. Plans for field work in Kyrgyzstan are in the works—the beginnings of a study of social scientists in their fifties. The question is academic, but practical: what do you do with a generation of indoctrinated Marxist-Leninist professionals, too old for remolding, but decades from retirement?
Patriotism of Despair, his next book, should appear in a year. Taking suffering as its subject, it focuses on the conversion of trauma after the fall of the U.S.S.R.. Probing the symbiosis of high and low culture, as usual, he has talked with mothers of Chechnya and Afghanistan veterans, interviewed disturbed soldiers, and probed romantic nationalist sects.
Oushakine seems to have taken the advice to “go West, young man” to heart, so I wonder if wanderlust won’t push him away from us. To Michigan State, then Stanford—why not the East-West Center at Manoa? And ultimately a return to Russia? It might be easier to live in the country you study.
But not for now, at least. These are good days for expatriates. With globalization working in his favor, he can publish abroad, and also get Russian news on TV in his living room. His wife works here; he has an office over one of the more enchanting Princetonian archways. And who doesn’t love New Jersey?