Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Mooching in Maynooth, or the Irish Slavic Studies Conference

Despite spending my undergraduate years splashing in the prehistoric swamps of Trinity College Dublin, I had never attended a meeting of IARCEES, the Irish Association for Russian, Central and East European Studies - or An Cumann Éireannach um Staidéar ar an Rúis agus ar Thíortha na hEorpa Láir agus Thoir as it is known in the old country - until earlier this month, when I finally made it to the organisation's 2016 annual conference in the ancient royal city of Maynooth.

The Maynooth SCR can get boisterous.
The older part of Maynooth University, St Patrick's College, used to be a major Catholic theological college and includes a working farm - making the average on-campus stay more eventful than the bland American Marriott experience enjoyed by most academics attending ASEEES. The newer half of campus hosts its own Centre for European and Eurasian Studies, hence the presence of IARCEES this year.

Moreover, 2016 marks the organisation's forty-first year, celebrated with an engrossing talk on its history by TCD's Dr Sarah Smyth. The small but dedicated conference audience learned about the earliest university lecturer in Russian in Ireland, the often-tragic Maighréad Ni Mhaicín. She remained a member of the Irish-Soviet Friendship Society despite losing her husband to Stalin's terror, and she taught Russian at TCD for almost ten years before (as Sarah told us) losing her job on the grounds that she lacked a degree in the language. She was also a significant translator into Irish from both Russian (including Chekhov, Pushkin, and Turgenev) and French; you haven't read Erckmann-Chatrian until you've read them in Ni Mhaicín's translation: Le juif polonais as An tIúdach Pólach. All this was particularly fascinating to me because I am evolving, at my usual Jurassic pace,  a study of Ni Mhaicín's life, and contribution to translation studies. In generally good news for scholars, Sarah Smyth also shared the organisation's hope of imminently relaunching regular publication of its peer-reviewed journal, Irish Slavonic Studies.

The small but dedicated audience 
Czech children helping to unmask a traitor (image copyright Mark Cornwall)
Even better was to come: a stirring talk on 'Hunting for Traitors' by keynote speaker Professor Mark Cornwall of the University of Southampton, which presented his research on the changing interpretations of the word 'treason' at different points in Austro-Hungarian and Czech culture. The lecture was fascinating in itself, but it also demonstrated that the Eastern European end of Slavic Studies functions perfectly well without the ubiquitous Russian bear. Cornwall's discussion of show trials deliberately all but excluded Stalin's purges, as there were plenty of Czech examples of how trials were rigged to scare and to scandalize both domestic and international audiences, and to inculcate in the wider population the need for vigilance and conformity; even children were trained to recognize and report traitors. He invited parallels and contrasts with modern  (as well as specifically Irish) conceptions of treason, mentioning Edward Snowden, the 2013 execution of Kim Jong-un's uncle and former mentor Jang Song-thaek, and (inevitably in Ireland in 2016) the fate of Roger Casement and others involved with the 1916 Easter Rising. The Dreyfus case appeared almost  passé beside some of the trials discussed in detail. Cornwall shared a rare photograph of the jurors at the famous (to specialists) 1915 "Czech traitors' trial" of Alois Rašín and Karel Kramář. While Czech patriot and member of the first postwar parliament, Milada Horáková, went to her death in 1950, after a protracted show trial, with the brave words "I have lost the fight, but I depart with honour". Cornwall's essential message was that the nature of treason is transient, if not cyclical; he concluded with a citation from German journalist Margret Boveri, "The meaning of treason changes as the wheel of history turns".

The conference panels revealed strong emphasis on history and social sciences, almost ironically so, since forty-one years ago, the fledgling IARCEES was dominated by philologists. The Maynooth event also displayed an extraordinary diversity of Eastern European topics; as in the keynote lecture, the Russian element felt decidedly secondary. Paper topics included the life of Mika Skaberne, co-founder of the Slovenian Society for the Blind; the political identity of Habsburg Romanian military chaplians; the Irish-Hungarian friendship tour of 1937; and Romanian collective farms. I particularly enjoyed the Jewish Memory and Culture panel, where Radek Przedpelski explained the concept of 'virtual Jewishness' or 'Jewish culture minus the Jews', whereby a gentile pub in Warsaw might trade on sentimental pictures of pre-war Orthodox Jews, or the jazz guitar player Raphael Roginski might syncretize the blues with traditional Jewish music in modern Poland. The panel ended with an unusual paper by Ewa Stanczyk, comparing the curatorship of early twentieth-century photographs of Jews (from family snaps to Gestapo identity shots) in the Jewish museums in Lublin and Prague respectively. In both museums, a constant process of identification is ongoing; some of the subjects are still alive. Stanczyk's study probed the differences in collection development and display agenda between the Jewish-owned and Jewish-run Prague museum, and the gentile-run, partially EU-funded Lublin collection. Even more emotionally testing than these poignant, gradually degrading photos was Galway Slavist Ludmila Snigireva's paper on Sergei Ursuliak's twelve-part 2012 Russian television miniseries of Grossman's Life and Fate; she showed us the tearjerking scene where Viktor Shtrum reads a letter from his mother, who has already perished in the course of the Nazi invasion. (Touching as this scene is, one must note that Ursuliak compresses the Holocaust element - a huge preoccupation of the book - to this brief if harrowing scene in his film, which suggests an uneasy amnesia still operates in Russia's relationship to the Shoah). Like conferences, history is cyclical; and as WB Yeats almost said, there's always some rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born - although that's hardly a polite way to talk about dinosaurs.
Maynooth University