Grantee Story: Christianna Bonin

Christianna Bonin is an alumna of the Fulbright U.S. Student program 2016-2017 and a PhD candidate in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA). She recently held an Alfa Fellowship at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow (2018-19) and is now a fellow at the Clark Art Institute (Williamstown, MA), where she is completing her dissertation. Overall, Christianna has been based in Russia since the fall of 2016. She studies visual art and design practices from the late nineteenth century to the present, with a focus on interactions between Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. Her research interests revolve around cultural politics and critical distinctions of art and craft, copy and original, and conceptual and manual labor. Her dissertation is titled “Radical in the Making: Art, Craft, and Politics in the Soviet Union, 1905-75.”

The Moscow Fulbright office spoke with Christianna in a recent interview.

Tell us about your research. What is different about it now, on this Alfa Fellowship, compared to your Fulbright research?
My current dissertation project is a direct outgrowth of my Fulbright research. When I began the Fulbright program, I was fascinated by the problem of excess in socialist thought. Is there a place for luxury in a society premised at least in theory on the equitable distribution of resources? In the Soviet context, what would be done with elite art collections or entire industries used to produce luxury goods for the upper classes, such as the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory in St. Petersburg?
For example, there is a tea service from the early 1930s, made by Eva Zeisel for the IPM. It is first known prototype designed for mass production at the manufactory. It’s robust: thick handles, stackable, wide spout, unlike any of the delicate porcelain prototypes from centuries prior. Sounds appropriate for use by the ‘masses’—and yet, this tea service was repeatedly hand-painted and ornately gilded. It struck me that this object revealed a very different story about modernization during the Soviet period from that which I had read in the literature. Scholarship on Soviet culture generally has drawn from the Soviets’ own broad dogma which suggested that industrialization yields the modern working class and stamps out hand-making, which is inevitably mechanized. But here I was holding an affordable object made into a luxury good. So what’s the theory embedded in this object? What does it reveal about the social, economic, and cultural desires and realities of the period? My larger dissertation project about the importance of handmaking to art, social practice, and the realization the Communist Party’s ambitions developed from there.

Where does your interest for this topic come from?
It all connects to an experience I had right after college. I spent two years working as an architectural guide and curatorial assistant in the theater department of Bauhaus (art school operational from 1919 to 1930s, now a cultural foundation) in Dessau, Germany. Dessau is located in former East Germany. Simply by living there, I became intrigued by how present-day Germany was dealing with its history of being “two Germanies.” My interest in Soviet and post-Soviet history grew from this experience. The more I traveled through and learned about countries with Soviet pasts, the more I realized that the Soviet Union’s collapse has affected each country in distinct ways. They shared the loss of a supposed overarching ‘Soviet’ identity, but each country has responded differently to question of what ‘post-Soviet’ identity would look like. Like identity relations anywhere in world, this process is complex and ongoing. When I begin my dissertation, I realized that I needed to learn more about the relationship between these cultures and Russia itself. I came to Moscow for the first time in 2013 and have returned every year since.

When you started doing your research what resources did you use?
Part of the challenge of writing a dissertation is figuring out not only the questions you want to ask, but also the places where you might find answers. When I began research a few years ago, several, more advanced scholars gave me invaluable advice about the structure of Russian archives and whom to contact. Gaining access to collections can be tricky. There are many ladders to climb and hoops to jump through. In one Kazakh archive, I was instructed that on no uncertain terms would they accept my itemized order slip that I’d just written in black ink, that I must rewrite it in blue ink. Though my research inquiries have been met with skepticism, even suspicion, I’m also grateful to have interacted with many friendly and knowledgeable archivists. You can sense that they treasure their collections and believe that those materials will survive only as long as younger generations of scholars see their relevance.
Research also happens organically. This means that certain ideas dead-end, while in other cases, a document or conversation or painting may spark a question and lead you in a more fruitful, but different direction. The Fulbright program was especially useful because it gave me time to test my intuitions.

Have you been to other places, other than the capitals?
For anyone researching imperial or Soviet history, long periods in Moscow or St. Petersburg are inevitable because all the major state archives and collections are located in either of those two metropolitan centers. But I have been fortunate that my research has also required me to go further afield, to places where the artists I’m writing about lived and traveled, or where particular industries developed. I’ve been to Ivanovo to research the development of the Soviet textile industry and fashion. My research has also taken me a few times to Almaty and Kiev. Most recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Irkutsk and the Baikal region. It was refreshing to be in a part of Russia still shaped by Shamanistic and Buddhist belief systems. It also then made sense to hear that Siberians call going to Moscow going to Russia!

Has your perception of Russia changed since you first visited Russia?
In general, I always try to let my perceptions of a place be shaped first by personal interactions rather than second-hand information. The best way to challenge gross generalizations is with particular experience. I have to admit that I understood very little about Russia—and even less of the Russian language—before visiting for the first time. This was a blessing because each interaction was a learning activity. I still vividly recall my first experience at a grocery store in Moscow seven years ago. It was a small produkty, where all the food was encased in a glass vitrine or stored behind the counter. You had to tell the saleswoman what and how much of something you wanted. I think I managed to buy three yogurts because that word is a cognate. I also vividly recall my relief when I discovered that the produkty was not the only type of grocery store in Moscow.
There is a stereotype in the U.S. that Russians are unfriendly, at least before you get acquainted with them… and, to be honest, there is some truth to this in Moscow. The city’s metro system is remarkably clean, spacious, and efficient. The escalators whisk you below ground; the trains come every minute or two. Yet I still marvel at the shoving to enter a car, as if it’s the last train of the day. On the other hand, I also experience the polar opposite. I’ve been lucky enough to build close friendships with Russians and deeply value their trust, generosity, and honesty.

Do you have a favorite between Moscow and St. Petersburg?
The perennial question! I go back and forth on this almost weekly. I thrive on the energy and options of Moscow, but also appreciate the slower pace and youthful vibe of St. Petersburg.

How do you think Russian architecture and art represent its history?
Speaking of Moscow and St. Petersburg—I think both of these cities wear their histories on their sleeves. That is to say, you can grasp two very different aspects of Russian history in these places without much digging. Moscow celebrates its ancient roots and was the Soviet’s prestige site of construction. You can feel the power by contrasting yourself with the city’s enormous scale. Even today, it absorbs much of Russia’s human and financial capital. I also enjoy the contrast of wandering the narrow streets of Zamoskvorechye, which was the area where Tatar merchants settled in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. St. Petersburg, on the other hand, remains as much Europe’s window onto Russia as Russia’s window onto Europe.

Do you think there’s an interest in the U.S. for the outcome of your research, beyond the academic sphere? Especially, regarding what the Americans know about Russia?
Well, first of all, I find that Americans are curious about Russia but know very little about it beyond politics, so the learning curve would be steep. I think Russia is one of the most misunderstood countries by Americans, just because it’s so clouded by historical biases. This is unfortunate because, actually, Russia and the US have a lot of things in common. There’s no lack of space in either country, various expansionist goals, a lot of natural resources – we both have that.

What do you think of the value of the Fulbright program, both personally as an alumna and on a global scale?
For me, Fulbright was an invaluable opportunity to do focused research over an extended period of time in Russia. It was also a period of discovery and building relations with Russian scholars who are working in my areas of interest. I think that’s one of the nice things about Fulbright – the international network that you can become a part of, the encouragement of intercultural connections. Actually, coming back to your question of what changed in my perception of Russia, I can say that back in 2013, when I just arrived in Russia, I preferred not to tell anyone I was from the U.S. When asked, I would say I was Canadian or avoid answering that question altogether. Now, and in no small part because I’ve learned the language, I am more open about being American and the response has most often been surprise and curiosity. The desire to share my American background does not necessarily come from a place of pride—I believe time spent living abroad exposes as much of the vices of home as it does the virtues. But I now feel more able to represent my views and comfortable discussing the nuances of politics, social life, and culture. The role that programs like the Fulbright play in creating conversations and exchange cannot be overstated.

Photos by Christianna Bonin & European University in St. Petersburg

The Fulbright Program in Russia. Institute of International Education.
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