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Beyond “Russia and beyond”

At oDR, we’re publishing in-depth about other post-Soviet countries like never before. Does our title reflect that?

“After 25 years, “Russia” shouldn’t be a shorthand for 15 independent states and handful of self-declared ones”. A map of the post-Soviet states (marked “Russia”) in a Novosibirsk university, 2017. Photo (c): Aleksandr Khryazhev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.Since its inception in 2008, openDemocracy’s Russia section has sought to create a space for activists, journalists and researchers to speak to a broader audience. This project was initially focused on Russia, but increasingly encompassed the post-Soviet world as a whole, and the section’s evolving title — from openDemocracy Russia to simply oDR — and strapline (“Russia and beyond”) has reflected this shift, albeit imperfectly.

As our section’s focus has expanded and deepened in the past two years, particularly with regards to Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, the name feels increasingly out of step with our broadening interests. Perhaps, under the oDR brand, the ghost of “Russia” (and the imperial assumptions associated with it) is never far away. Instead, we want to find a name that reflects our focus on marginalised subjects and points of view, as well as the interconnected nature of the region’s culture, economy and politics, just without a chauvinist hangover.

We’re considering a new title for our section of openDemocracy — one that speaks to our concerns and for our contributors. Before we do that, we’d like to air some thoughts on the old name, and some hopes for the new. Join in with your own suggestions! 

What does oDR/Russia and beyond say to you? 

Polina Aronson: To me, the current name is unfortunate as it conflates Russia as a state with the Russian language as the lingua franca of the post-Soviet space. We publish in Russian, but we don’t publish about Russia alone.

Maxim Edwards: It’s important to flag that we don’t see all post-Soviet states as just additions to Russia, or some slightly more colourful variations on a monolithic “post-Soviet” theme. Some have asked (and still do) whether the “post-Soviet space” as a concept is relevant at all anymore. Much the same could be asked about “South Caucasus” or “Central Asia” — regions on which I probably do more work than on Russia itself. You can’t understand Armenia without a knowledge of Turkey, neither Moldova without Romania, nor Azerbaijan without Iran. But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a space for a project with our geographical focus. 

I still wouldn’t completely dismiss “post-Soviet” as a concept. But it is a clumsy phrase. There are some parallels between many post-Soviet countries on fields oDR covers, such as labour rights, social inequality, the politics of memory, the heritage of the post-socialist transition and the search for alternative directions of progressive politics (whose relationship to the Soviet past is sometimes antagonistic, sometimes less so). Labour migration patterns are also pretty self-contained with in the former Soviet Union. 

Familiar uniforms, from Minsk to Dushanbe. Photo (c): Alexander Zemlianichenko AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Tom Rowley: I’d argue that the strapline “Russia and beyond” recalls that very phrase (“post-Soviet space”). It seems to essentialise the socio-economic dynamics of the region, cutting it off from broader political trends — it suggests the transition paradigm. But as we’ve tried to show at several points, illiberalism and neoliberalism have their outposts in this region, too, and are part and parcel of current trends. 

Natalia Antonova: I hate the phrase “post-Soviet space” - even though I used it often, as there’s a dearth of good alternatives. It feels too academic, and when it’s used outside that context it’s even worse somehow. Language matters, and not just in terms of history and politics, but as a tool. “Post-Soviet space” is just an ugly construction of words to me, whatever the other implications. 

Tom Rowley: To close, it’s worth mentioning a practical note: the section’s title reminds many of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia organisation, with whom we are not affiliated. Explaining that gets a bit old after a while. 

Mikhail Kaluzhsky: Likewise, it’s always confusing (and embarrassing) to explain to Ukrainian (not exclusively, but especially) colleagues and counterparts that we don’t cover first Russia and then Ukraine. There has to be a better way to reflect that. 

What might the alternative be? Perhaps a focus on “Eastern Europe” or even “Eurasia”? What would changing it mean to you, and the project’s direction in general? 

Maxim Edwards: I think it’d be positive. “East” is also possible, I guess. “New East” or, God forbid, “Brave New East”, sounds a little nineties to me and potentially rather belittling. 

Tom Rowley: That last one sounds like Michael Palin meets a US foreign policy analyst. 

Maxim Edwards: “Eurasia” really is a loaded term. Sure, its roots lie far beyond Dugin, I guess all the way to Mackinder before the First World War. But given current realities I don’t know how it would be mobilised for progressive purposes, supposing anybody wanted to. That said, it has been used in other publications to denote The Region - EurasiaNet, for example.

But how do you acknowledge Russia’s immense significance in the neighbourhood without tacitly justifying stomping grounds, cultural imperialism and so on. There is a “Russian-speaking world” beyond the Russian Federation, and its voice can’t be dominated by the Kremlin. But yes, after 25 years, “Russia” shouldn’t be a shorthand for 15 independent states and handful of self-declared ones (which also have their own, fascinating, dynamics, by the way). 

And yeah, we’re also not Open Russia. 

Mikhail Kaluzhsky: To call ourselves “oD - Eurasia” will be a good way to reclaim the very term, but I am afraid that will confuse most of readership. I have a strong feeling that we need to find something beyond geographical definitions. “Open Democracy Beyond Geography”? 

Destination Ukraine. Kharkiv, 2010. Photo CC-by-2.0: FAndrey / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Polina Aronson: I believe that the best solution would be adding just one letter to our current name: instead of openDemocracy Russia, I suggest that we call ourselves openDemocracy Russian. This term is neutral and honest. It informs the reader about the language of the message, but does not limit it supposed content to Russian Federation: it puts language as a medium above geographical and political considerations. Besides, it follows a long-standing tradition of distinguishing between local platforms of global media on the language principle: such as BBC Russian or Deutsche Welle’s Russian-language service.

Tom Rowley: Polina, I think this is a great idea. But I have three objections, sorry! Firstly, we do not publish only in Russian. Some of our materials appear in English only, but also select articles in Armenian, Georgian and Ukrainian, for example. Secondly, changing it to openDemocracy Russian gives us a presentation problem within the site’s current format. The navigation bar would then read oD-UK/oD Russian/oD 50.50/democraciaAbierta and so on, and when readers clicked through, they would find materials mostly… in English? 

Finally, as we continue to grow I think it’s important for our project name to signify our commitment to different ideas, alternatives and the community of contributors and readers it serves. I’m not sure “oD Russian” does that, but perhaps “East” does — to suggest an alternative community, and to promote our critical position? To top it off, we could then use the following strapline: “Multi-voiced Eurasia” - again, to highlight how we work with contributors across the region (and across the political spectrum) who don’t get a fair hearing in the mainstream press. (I’ll get my coat.) 

Natalia Antonova: I think “East” is overused and “Eurasia” too politicised. I would go with “openDemocracy Circus”, because writing about/analysing this part of the world automatically creates a circus-like atmosphere (because I was born in the USSR, I feel like I’m allowed to say that), but something tells me I’ll be voted down… 

Maxim Edwards: I endorse that. There’s always some faux-Cyrillic (oDЯ) for all the, erm, new Menschevik Russia-watchers out there. But to be sure, it’s a big move to make — oDR’s been around for about 10 years. So, we’ve built up a “brand recognition”, but perhaps it could also be time for a change?


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