A Tea Bowl from Chu

Danijela Lugarić Vukas (University of Zagreb) on Oxana Timofeeva’s Book “How to Love a Homeland” and the Role of Autofictionality in the Age of War

At the beginning of his more than two-hour long interview with Tucker Carlson, Vladimir Putin began defending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a thorough historical lecture about Russian history, focusing on events coming from the ninth century. Although Putin stated before his talk that he would offer a minute-long history of Russia, his lecture ended up lasting longer than thirty minutes. This is just one illustrative example of how, in today’s Russia, history and past events serve as a meticulous subject of violent politicization.

In his article “Presentism, Politicization of History, and the New Role of the Historian in Russia,” published in 2021, Ivan Kurilla writes about state-controlled historical policy in 21st century Russia, reminding that in the spring of 2014, a group of pro-Kremlin Duma deputies introduced the first “memorial law” in Russia. Moreover, than minister of culture Vladimir Medinskii repeatedly proclaimed that “useful myths” 1 are more important than facts, and that the only valid historical research is the one that acts according to the national interests of Russia.

As Nikita Petrov, in his article “The Soviet Past and the 1945 Victory Cult as Civil Religion in Contemporary Russia,” further emphasizes, “the past, complete with the notion of a sacral, all-powerful state, in particular, is making a strong comeback in Russia”. 2

In these circumstances, contemporary Russian literature (“soft memory” in Alexander Etkind’s understanding) often provides one of the major steps against political contraventions and infringements. Acts of rewriting the Russian past in literary works of authors such as Maria Stepanova, Sergey Lebedev, Liudmila Ulitskaya, or Polina Barskova (to name just a few), which are largely motivated by personal family (hi)stories and post-memorial imaginative investment from the position of displaced and marginalized individuals, are not only a way of reclaiming ownership of the nation’s past but also – by intervening in hegemonic cultural narratives – act as a kind of cultural ecology.

The Invention of Home

Traveling in personal memories, and creating narratives, becomes a way of getting under the skin of history.

Book cover “How to love a homeland” by Oxana Timofeeva. The English version was published in 2021.

In this context, autofictional writings which provide a platform to underrepresented feminist voices serve as particularly thought-provoking example of literary depictions of lived experience of displacement. Exiled philosopher Oxana Timofeeva returns, in her book “How to love a homeland” (“Rodina”), which was discussed at the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL) in Berlin on February 8, 2024, to her childhood memories in order to establish a bottom-up link between the past and the present. By going back to three “small homelands” of her childhood, the small cities of Kozhevnikovo, Chu, and Surgut, Timofeeva emphasizes the process of becoming (rather than merely being) through her childhood recollections. Emotions triggered by such temporal and spatial travels (rather than by fixed events, as in Putin’s above-mentioned interview) underlines the subjective embodied experience of history, with autofictionality serving to further emphasize that the selfhood itself is always invented, created, fictionalized.

The village of Kozhevnikovo (close to Tomsk) in Russia in 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

From the standpoint of the autofictional narrator, prioritizing the spatialization of time (being) over the annihilation of space by time (becoming) becomes an impossibility task because the latter – during the war – would draw attention to the futureless perspective of one’s experience. The annihilation of space by time occurs when the narrator repeatedly accentuates that the location itself is not self-contained: the space (a homeland) becomes loaded with meaning only when the story, or a memory, is tied to it. For example, “A priori, the innate of the memory are considered trophies (like my tea bowl from Chu) that connect us to this place, whatever it may be” (p. 72).

The philosopher’s vulnerability, as expressed in this book, is not a flaw, but rather opens an alternative system of values, while ruptures are an opportunity for progression and new creation. Timofeeva’s book is telling us that a homeland is not something to be found but – rather – to invent. Moreover, texts like this, by maintaining that trauma and triumph are mutually exclusive, allow for a future perspective. Not only that taking off (deterritorialization) is a prerequisite for reterritorialization (attaching to the new place), but the latter is inherently more temporal than spatial endeavor because “true reterritorialization is the one in utopia – the utopia of the future, as opposed to the one of the past” (p. 76).

A healing journey?

Traveling back in time and through spaces of her former homeland(s) demonstrates that memory is constantly in motion, while the sense of fragmented, fragile reality mediated through memories evokes post-Soviet reality, making obvious that there is no dialogue between history and (individual, communicative) memory in post-Soviet Russia. Moreover, journeying shifts her story into a dynamic mode, establishing an intermediate, transgressive zone in which the narrator detaches from customary coordinates and routines, reinforced by hegemonic cultural narratives of triumph, glorious past, patriotism, and nationalism.

Moving from one space (Kozhevnikovo) to another (Surgut) and concluding the journey with philosophical conceptualization of what it means to possess and love a homeland has a healing effect for exiled intellectual because turning to memories establishes a space for a possible reconciliation:

“Entering a relationship of mutual negation with the homeland, emigration recreates it through itself in the new place, reestablishing its locus – such is the dialectics of exile. Homeland does not exist without its people, but it can move freely with them around the world. The coldness of our forests, the breadth of our steppes is always with us. Unpacking on new planets, just like now, we will continue to take out and put on a prominent spot our small Chu bowls from Earth” (p. 63).

Endless forests in the Yugansky nature reserve in the Surgut Region. Picture taken in 2012. Wikimedia Commons.

Taking roots

So, what kind of homeland could be achieved for displaced and marginalized intellectuals during wartime? If it would be possible to create one homeland from three small Timofeeva’s homelands, the ideal homeland would not be a state – because borders are always an instrument of oppression –, nor would it be an anthropocentric world – because it would have to be replaced by the biocentric.

Hence, “To love means not merely to (re)territorialize like an animal but also to take root like a plant. It does not have to be our own root; we can create an artistic alliance of the animal and the vegetative and plant flowers all over the land that we love with all our soul. Across all states’ borders tying us to a certain territory by protocol, the love for homeland must be free, so that every time, coming back to a new, unprecedented place, every one of us can say: I am from here” (pp. 86-87).

By designing this specific kind of stateless citizenship, Timofeeva makes obvious that, in the age of war and displacement, gestures that transgress forbiddances of return are political actions through which one re-establish one’s sense of human agency. 

Danijela Lugarić Vukas (University of Zagreb) recieved the Leibniz-Fellowship “Value of the Past” in 2023 to visit the Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL).

Header picture: The Kazakh-Kyrgyz border in the Jambyl Region of Kazakhstan, close to Chu, in 2023. Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Kurilla, Ivan. 2021. “Presentism, Politicization of History, and the New Role of the Historian in Russia”. In: Weiss-Wendt, Anton; Adler, Nanci (eds.) The Future of the Soviet Past. The Politics of History in Putin’s Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. P. 37.[]
  2. Petrov, Nikita. 2021. “The Soviet Past and the 1945 Victory Cult as Civil Religion in Contemporary Russia”. In: Weiss-Wendt, Anton; Adler, Nanci (eds.) The Future of the Soviet Past. The Politics of History in Putin’s Russia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. P. 71.[]

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Leibniz Fellows (9. April 2024). A Tea Bowl from Chu. Value of the Past. Abgerufen am 14. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/11oe6

Autor: Leibniz Fellows

Der Leibniz-Forschungsverbund Wert der Vergangenheit vergibt jährlich Stipendien für herausragende internationale Forscher:innen und Early Career Researcher. // The Leibniz Research Association Value of the Past annually awards scholarships to outstanding international researchers and early career researchers.

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