Photo Courtesy of Anna Balysheva

A Life in Exile: Rediscovering Mikhail Bakhtin

Nearly sixty years after he first gained global prominence, Anna Balysheva seeks to rediscover a period of Bakhtin’s life to further understand his work

Mar 24, 2018

It was in the fall semester of her freshman year that Anna Balysheva, Class of 2018, first encountered the work of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. As she dove deeper into his work and began to research his life as a scholar, she stumbled across a curious piece of information: Bakhtin spent more than six years of his life in exile mandated by the Soviet regime in Kostanay, Kazakhstan, Balysheva's hometown.
But Kostanay, it seems, does not remember Bakhtin.
“Back home, we do not have any memorial desks — we don’t have any statues, we hardly have any memory of Bakhtin,” said Balysheva. “Recently his photo was placed in a regional museum in Kazakhstan … but that’s it. The fact that this part of his life was so poorly investigated and researched inspired me to read his works, purchase his only biography written in English, contact scholars and go to the [United] States and interview them personally, go to Moscow, go to France, go to Kazakhstan. And the project is still going on.”
The worldwide route that Balysheva has tread in pursuit of Bakhtin’s history can be seen as a representation of his influence in global academia today. Bakhtin’s work, ranging from literary theory to linguistics to philosophy, is widely studied by literature scholars and anthropologists alike. Bakhtin’s academic career has always depended on the serendipity of discovery: although he was active in Soviet intellectual society in the 1920s, his theories did not gain global credence until he was rediscovered by Russian scholars working on Dostoevsky in the 1960s. Now, nearly 90 years after his exile, Balysheva seeks to rediscover a period of his life with her exhibition, Philosopher and Hunger.
Bakhtin’s connection with Kazakhstan, and Kostanay in particular, began in 1928 with his unlawful arrest by the Soviet secret police unit for his involvement with a philosophical and religious circle in Leningrad. In 1930, he was sentenced to five years of exile in Kazakhstan.
So Bakhtin moved to Kostanay, where he worked as an accountant at the District Consumers Union — a fact that Balysheva’s exhibition returns to over and over again, showing us the stark contrast in his life before and during the exile. What is commonly known about this period of his life is that the ideas for one of his most important works, Rabelais and His World, crystallized in Kostanay.
What is less known about this period, and what has captivated Balysheva’s academic interest for the last three years, is that, in his six years in Kostanay, Bakhtin witnessed and suffered unspeakable horrors. In the 1930s, the people of North Kazakhstan lived in paranoia because of the Soviet’s steady repression of anybody accused of anti-Soviet activity. There was widespread religious persecution as practicing religion was banned and churches and mosques all over the region were vandalized.
Beyond Soviet repression, Kostanay at the time of Bakhtin’s exile was also going through a massive famine caused by the collectivization policy of the Soviet regime. The famine was so massive and so fearsome, Balysheva said, that there were cases of cannibalism in the region. A few reports and letters in the Soviet archives cited incidents where children were kidnapped and eaten by starving families. Balysheva herself has a family connection with the horrific famine.
“In 2007, when I was only 12 years old, my great grandmother at the age of 92 told me for the first time about her life in the city of Kostanay,” said Balysheva. “She said that there was nothing to eat, the potatoes were frozen. It was very hard to live in the 1930s … As she was remembering those days, she started crying and saying, a lot of people died, especially Kazakhs. People were lying on the streets and dying of hunger.”
Balysheva also found, both from her archival research and Bakhtin’s biography, that Bakhtin had lived with physical and emotional trauma throughout his life. He suffered from a condition called osteomyelitis, which eventually led to the amputation of one of his legs. Before his exile, he had already lived through the Russian Revolution of 1917, civil war, massive destruction and separation from his family members.
The more Balysheva dug into Bakhtin’s personal history, the more she found herself surprised by his ideas. She pointed to a quote by Bakhtin on one of the walls of the Cube, an exhibition space in the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center.
“This is my favorite quote by Bakhtin,” she told me. “What fascinates me is how people, specifically Bakhtin, stayed so hopeful and looked to the future with so much faith.”
Even before we enter the exhibition, the Cube is framed with evidence of the horrors of North Kazakhstan in the 1930s. The leftmost wall of the exhibition space is plastered with excerpts from paranoid letters that the people of Kazakhstan wrote to the Soviet authorities, detailing their struggles and writing incriminating complaints about their neighbors. Many of these letters are from archives in Kazakhstan, large parts of which are still prohibited from public view, and Balysheva reasons that this difficulty in access lies in a political fear of the past — without careful analysis, she says, this material could be dangerous.
But Balysheva refuses to make a political statement. She is more interested in Bakhtin the man, Bakhtin the scholar and what such a political climate could have done to or for him. Once inside the Cube, the title of Balysheva’s exhibition, Philosopher and Hunger, begins to make sense.
Hunger is the grounding metaphor of Balysheva’s exhibition. The design is clear: there is a distinct division between the four corners, each representing a different kind of hunger. In the first and second corner, Balysheva contrasts a hunger for freedom with the literal hunger brought about by the famine in Kostanay. In the third, a pile of cascading official documents indicates Bakhtin’s hunger for creativity. The last corner is a representation of Bakhtin’s work desk, symbolizing his hunger for an intellectual life.
A deep commitment to detail characterizes the exhibition. Upon entering the Cube, a haunting soundtrack designed by Leo Sax, Class of 2018, accompanies a video of the snowy steppes of Kostanay to evoke the full impact of the famine. An abacus, placed carefully atop the pile of official documents, has a tie around it — an image that looks oddly like a hanging, and one that Balysheva uses to symbolize the stifling of Bakhtin’s creativity. Particularly striking are the photocopies of reports filed by the Soviets keeping track of people like Bakhtin, chilling in their intense level of scrutiny of their subjects. Balysheva also takes care to get Bakhtin’s work desk exactly right; his favorite black tea sits next to copies of his actual handwritten work, surrounded by the tobacco that he reportedly loved to smoke. In a curious way, Balysheva’s keen eye for detail makes a statement about the Soviet administration’s obsession with detailing the lives of its subjects, always present and watching.
Judith Miller, Professor of French and Balysheva’s mentor for the past three years, has watched this project evolve from a spark of interest to a three-year-long research journey that has taken Balysheva around the world. What strikes her as special about Balysheva’s project is that it is as much of an aesthetic statement as it is a historical one.
“Sometimes, these kinds of projects that are conceptual in a lot of ways are not necessarily aesthetically satisfying ... nothing about the placement of object tells a story, particularly," she said. "And in Anna’s case, it’s very full, it’s very rich. I think the idea of taking the four corners of the Cube and using them the way she has done, the care she has taken [in] looking for authentic materials, and particularly the corner with the facsimiles of Bakhtin's work ... I think it's a wonderful project.”
Someday, Balysheva hopes to draw a connection between what Bakhtin saw during his exile to his theories and philosophies. For now, however, she looks forward to diving deeper into Bakhtin’s life.
Shreya Shreeraman is Senior Features Editor. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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