One day a Soviet citizen, the next day Russian. That’s what happened to Professor Madina Tlostanova when the Soviet Union collapsed. The experience came to inspire her research. Today she studies how it is to be a person in a changing world – a world where states are dissolved and re-formed without the people who live there having much to say about it.
When Madina Tlostanova was born in 1970 in Moscow, the Soviet Union was one of the world’s most powerful countries. Relations with the other superpower – the United States – were frosty. Despite the tensions between the two countries, Madina didn’t hesitate when she chose the United States for an exchange year. But when it was time for her to return home, the Soviet empire had collapsed, and suddenly her country no longer existed.
“What do you do when the only home you have no longer exists? When the passport in your hand is for a country that has ceased to be”, she asks.
Madina Tlostanova, professor of postcolonial feminism, is standing in front of the window in her office at Linköping University. Outside the rain pours down on the flat, well-mown lawn. Her pathway to a mid-sized town on the plains of Östergötland went via Russia, Spain, Germany and the United States.
She left Russia when the country felt too limited for the research fields she wanted to investigate. Her work centres on diversity, migration, indigenous cultures and colonial legacies in contemporary world, on feminist and gender struggles in the Global South, on multicultural art and art coming from the former socialist countries. Often, her research interests arise from personal experiences.Tlostanova traces how contemporary post-Soviet art mediates this human condition.
“It’s when I reflect on my own person, as an individual and as part of a collective, that I’ve found my core research questions. Every new question I investigate must bother me – in a good way, make me feel uncomfortable, if I am going to find motivation and try to understand the problem.”
“I come from nowhere”
Her experience from 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved and she was suddenly a Soviet citizen without a country, is one of the motivations for her research. Her book “What Does It Mean to Be Post-Soviet” investigates how the former Soviet countries wrestle with conflicting feelings of loss, nostalgia and trauma. The secure, happy future that the Soviet Union had presented its citizens, though never fulfilled, disappeared overnight.
“The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the corrupt systems that followed, threw the lives of my generation into disarray.”
Although the Soviet Union disintegrated 28 years ago, and new states have emerged, its former citizens still share some sensibilities and memories. These need to be critically analysed to move forward, according to Madina Tlostanova.
“A vacuum opened up – an experience that many people have today, when states dissolve and re-form.”
Madina Tlostanova’s views on life and research are characterised by changeability. Everything is in a state of flux, in the process of becoming something else. She dislikes stagnation, boundaries and inflexibility.
“Sometimes I wonder why I’m in academia. There’s so much bureaucracy, and even little things can be cumbersome.”
Art as an eye opener
In recent years her research has increasingly come to focus on “art activism” or “artivism” – which, put simply, is art that addresses or critiques various social problems. An example is the Russian punk band Pussy Riot.
“The most important part of artivism is shaking the viewers out of their comfort zone. Making them aware of social problems and getting them to act, instead of floating along like dead fish.”
Madina Tlostanova interviewed artists from a number of post-Soviet countries, to see how they work with art and activism.
“In countries where the state doesn’t let its citizens express themselves freely, art can be a way to express resistance. Art can’t change society over one night, but it can influence how people view the world, and make them aware of various issues.”
Compared to academia, the art world moves quickly. And Madina Tlostanova argues that in the realm of art, there are thoughts and critical reflections regarding politics and social issues, that are not present in some parts of academia.
Searching beyond borders – in research and in life
At the fringe of the art world, Madina Tlostanova has found a space where she feels good – perhaps even belongs. But home and belonging aren’t easy concepts to pin down:
“I see myself as a world citizen. In the Soviet Union, and later in Russia, I belonged to an ethnic minority, and never fit in or felt at home. For me, belonging is about people, not places.”
Still, there are places that trigger something inside her, such as Kjettilberget, a hill in a park in central Linköping. When she has foreign visitors she takes them there, to see the view, and in one of her novels, it’s where the main characters meet.
“I suppose that part of my fascination with that hill comes from my youth, growing up in the Caucasus Mountains. It reminds me of the mountain of my childhood, Elbrus. I don’t actually like flat landscapes.”
Outside, the rain continues. Madina Tlostanova has moved to the sofa.
“I’m always on the move, always becoming. Not being linked to walls or states gives me freedom, and a broader view of the world, and this benefits me in my research. Establishing roots isn’t for me. I’m a bird, not a tree.”
Born: Moscow, grew up in Caucasus region.
Publications: Ten books, more than 250 scientific articles and two novels.