Can I see your ID?  Personhood and paperwork in and after the Soviet Union

24 September 2010 - 25 September 2010

CRASSH, 17 Mill LaneCRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge

On-line registration is now closed.


Dr Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (University of Cambridge)
Dr Madeleine Reeves
(University of Manchester)

How do papers enter the lives of those who hold them? What kinds of affective and social relations do they elicit?  What notions of person do they constitute, and, conversely, in which culturally and historically specific understandings of personhood does the ‘documented self’ come to acquire meaning? How do these documents affect and constitute geographical movement of people across the vast post-Soviet terrain and what Soviet legacies of territorial residency they reveal? And, more generally, what does the proliferation of identification documents - the fact that we are not fully a person without papers, and that that these papers are not merely texts but also certain kinds of material objects - do for contemporary theoretical debates about subjects and objects, persons and things, the blurring of the social and the material?

The conference will engage these questions by examining the intertwining of documents and persons in and after the Soviet Union. Its aims are threefold: firstly, to advance our empirical understanding of the distinct relationship that emerged within the Soviet Union between papers, broadly conceived, and the (post)Soviet subject – how the distinct (and distinctly complex) regimes for documenting mobility, temporary and permanent residence and labour that existed in and after the Soviet Union created, and continue to create, a particular kind of ‘documented subject’: how documents mediate the texture of daily life for ordinary men and women, and how attention to the materiality of documents and the intense emotions with which they become invested might enrich our understanding of Soviet and post-Soviet personhood.  Secondly, it asks what we might learn from this particular case about the modern rise of the ‘documented subject’.  Rather than taking the Soviet case as an ‘exception’ or outlier, we consider it as an exemplary instance of high modernity, one that can usefully inform debates out surveillance and identification that have tended to focus predominantly on western, ‘liberal’ societies.  Thirdly, the conference aims to bring together scholars working in different disciplines — notably, history, anthropology, geography, sociology and political science.

Relationships between persons and things, and the blurring of the social and the material, have attracted scholarly attention across disciplines, but often tended to develop in parallel rather than in inter-disciplinary conversation. Approaching these issues in an inter-disciplinary fashion and yet through a common set of regional materials will enable a discussion at once broad and focused. In turn, such an interdisciplinary forum will generate new theoretical perspectives and innovative research in Russian and Eurasian studies.

To elaborate: Influenced by the Foucauldian move to study ‘regimes of governing’ in liberal states, recent historical scholarship on the Soviet Union has sought to bring the insights of governmentality theory to bear on the study of this region: the way in which, in Kotkin’s evocative formulation, Soviet subjects learned to “speak Bolshevik”.  It has been also observed that this performative mastery continues to underscore post-socialist political and business practices and cultural identities (cf. for instance, Ledeneva, 2007 and Yurchak, 2006). However, this literature has paid relatively little attention to the material aspects of subject formation – to the way in which persons come to be constituted, not only through particular discursive practices, but through mundane, habitual interactions with the state’s concrete manifestations – with the materiality of built forms, systems of provisioning, technical infrastructure, and, particularly, documentary regimes. In exploring these interactions, our goal is not merely to incorporate recent critiques of Foucaudian perspectives that draw on Deleuze- and Latour-inspired approaches to objects and non-human agents, but also critique this critique by exploring the agency of documents and paperwork as material extensions of persons. The conference invites contributions that seek to address these theoretical debates through innovative empirical explorations of the social life and agency of paperwork in the construction and maintenance of the documented self.

We plan to organise the workshop around different aspects of interaction of person and papers, making selves and documents, and agency of paperwork. We shall start from the theme of physiognomy and interpolation — the interaction of personal appearance and forms of ID. The reverse of ‘surface’ (face and ID) is mask and pretence; thus, from appearance and passport we shall turn to the documentation of ‘depth’ — hidden self, unmasking, file and archive. Then we explore the notions of person that are created after the fact, through documenting traces of action and behaviour — tracks, fingerprints and other remnants. Finally, we shall consider what kind of paperwork and material objects are generated by persons as they actively use governance and documentary regimes. This panel will focus on complains, denunciations and gifts to state leaders and other figures of authority.




Accommodation for non-paper giving delegates

Conference delegates can find information about accommodation in Cambridge via:

Visit Cambridge or  Cambridge Rooms.

NB. CRASSH is not able to help with the booking of delegate accommodation.



The conference convenor would like to gratefully acknowledge the support of the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Sidney Sussex College and the CEELBAS Network.



Administrative assistance: Anna Malinowska (Conference Programme Manager, CRASSH)


Fri 24 September


9.30 - 10.00


10.00 - 10.30

Welcome and Introduction by Madeleine Reeves ( Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, University of Manchester) and Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge)

10.30 - 12.30

10.30 - 11.30

Session 1: Hermeneutics of suspicion
Chair: Jana Howlett ( Slavic Studies, University of Cambridge, UK)

Igal Halfin (History, Tel-Aviv University, Israel)
Notions of culpability under Stalin: how interrogations were documented and what it meant

Ivan Peshkov (History, University of Poznan, Poland)
Soviet passports for non-Soviet subjects: quasi-indigenousness, limited citizenship and double exclusion of Russians in Mongolia and China

11.30 - 12.00

Coffee break

12.00 - 12.30

Sergei Sokolovskii (Moscow Institute for Ethnology)
Luxury versus
‘normality’: shop receipts and taxable self in post-Socialist Russia

12.30 - 12.45
Discussant: Deniz Kandiyoti (Development Studies, SOAS, London, UK)
12.45 - 13.15 Discussion

13.15 - 14.15

Lunch break

14.15 - 15.15

Session 2: Health, sensation and documented self
Chair: Eeva Kesküla (Anthropology, University of London, Goldsmith’s, UK)

Golfo Alexopoulos (History, University of South Florida, USA)
Health documents and personhood in the Gulag

Alaina Lemon (Anthropology, University of Michigan, USA)
Reading through paper: sensation, extrasens and bureaucratic authority in post-socialist Moscow

15.15 - 15.30
Discussant: Christos Lynteris (Anthropology, University of St Andrews, UK)
15.30 - 16.00

16.00 - 16.30

Tea  break

16.30 - 17.30

Chair: Victor Buchli (Anthropology, University College London, UK)

Robert J. Kaiser (Geography, University of Wisconsin – Madison, USA)
Documented Alienation: Alien Passports and the Production of Statelessness in the Russian-EU Borderlands


Sat 25 September


9.30 - 10.30

Session 3: Tracks of persons
Chair: Laur Vallikivi (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK)

Malte Griesse (History, University of Bielefeld, Germany)
In the shadow of Icarus careers under Stalin: precariousness of party cards and of revolutionary past under the auspices of imposture and dissimulation

Madeleine Reeves (Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, University of Manchester, UK)
Clean fake: navigating 'legal residence' in migrant Moscow

10.30 - 10.45

Discussant: Olga Ulturgasheva (Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK)

10.45 - 11.15

11.15 - 11.45

Coffee break

11.45 - 12.45

Session 4: Texts as material objects
Chair: Tristan Platt ( Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews, UK)

Yoram Gorlizki (Politics, University of Manchester, UK)
Personal letterheads and typescripts in Soviet Communist Party correspondence from 1950s to 1970s

Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov (Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, UK)
Material object as text and text as material object during late socialism: gifts to Soviet leaders 

12.45 - 13.00
Discussant: Chris Kaplonski (Mongolian/Inner Asian Studies Unit, University of Cambridge, UK)


13.00 - 13.30 Discussion

13.30 - 14.30

Lunch break

14.30 - 15.30

Session 5: Paperwork and space
Chair: Aliaa Remtilla (Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, UK)

Mantas Kvedaravicius (Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, UK)
Purloined life: the document, the typeface and the misplaced grapheme in the counter-terror zone of the Chechen Republic

Sarah Carton de Grammont (Laboratoire d'anthropologie des institutions et des organisations sociales/École des hautes études en sciences socials, Paris, France)
Entangled personhoods in entangled places: post-socialist house-craft, district-craft and personhood-craft through paperwork in the ‘garden city’ of Sokol, Moscow 

15.30 - 15.45
Discussant: Marta de Magalhães (Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, UK)
15.45 - 16.15

16.15 - 17.00

Tea and concluding discussion