Today’s guest blogger is author Lyudmila Parts. Her new book In Search of True Russia: The Provinces in Contemporary Nationalist Discourse is published this week.
The oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines contradictory terms. It brings together (near) opposites, say, “open secret” or “new tradition,” and reveals the complexity of the thing through the layering of its meaning. It creates a paradox, and, paradoxically, makes complex things easier to understand. In working on the subject of the Russian provinces I had to address a great deal of opposites: center and periphery, Self and Other, past and future, spiritual and material. What makes this particular cultural myth so fascinating is not only how it operates by reversing the hierarchies inherent in these binaries, but also how it often collapses them into that clearly ambiguous entity, the oxymoron.
Rather than canceling each other out the opposites thus brought together create a thesis-antithesis-synthesis trajectory: by themselves the concepts of the center and periphery might mean little in today’s world, but a statement such as “the capital of the provinces” blends some of the old meanings into a new model.
As long as we imagine the map of our world in terms of the center and its opposite we live in the world defined and limited by binary thought. Elimination of the symbolic borderlines creates a new synthesized entity and moves us toward a fresh world vision. When the liberal media project Snob designates its target audience “Russian Europeans,” or the “global Russians” they create an oxymoron based on the readers’ deep-seated understanding of Russia and Europe as opposites. Were this oxymoron to cease to be perceived as such, were such thing as a global Russian to exist, it would put to rest old nationalists’ grievances and signal a more harmonious vision of the world. My book is about the kind of cultural and ideological situation that allows such paradoxical statements, the oxymorons, to become straightforward descriptions.
In the post-Soviet situation, these key concepts – Russia, the West, the center, and the periphery – enter into new configurations, both literally and rhetorically. Just like Russia and the West, the capital and the provinces always stand in opposition and can only be defined against each other: if one is the locus of meaning and goodness, the other is its reverse, the place of void or corruption. Can a place or a nation become a kind of third entity, taking only the positive connotations from the old binaries? If it ever happens that “the capital of the provinces” or “global Russians” do not sound controversial and oxymoronic, it would mean that Russian cultural imagination overcomes its reliance on opposites and binaries together with the conflicts inherent to them. The new nationalist thought might be willing to consider new versions of the Self and a new map of the world. How the new conceptual models are perceived, as oxymoronic or as straightforward, would determine Russia’s vision of itself and its relationship to the world.
is an associate professor of Russian and Slavic studies at McGill University in Montreal. She is the author of The Chekhovian Intertext: Dialogue with a Classic and the editor of The Russian Twentieth-Century Short Story: A Critical Companion