Justine Buck Quijada on her book, Buddhists, Shamans, and Soviets


Interview by Claudia Lahr

Claudia Lahr: What makes the subject of time – be it linear or recursive – so important in the context of Buryatia as opposed to other places?

Justine Buck Quijada: I think people in Buryatia are very concerned with time because time has had such political importance. On the one hand, they are post-Soviet subjects, and as people in Russia more broadly joke, when the Soviet Union ended, the past became more unstable than the future. Soviet political rhetoric relied on a Marxist linear progression of time. The Soviet state, in many ways, rested its legitimacy on the ability to produce progress, to make people feel like they were working towards a utopian future, and most urban Buryats actually succeeded on this measure. When the goal of a Soviet utopian future dissolved, it threw people’s understanding of the past into disarray. It’s like, when you’re working towards a goal, like a PhD, or tenure, and then, for whatever reason, you change course, it throws all your previous decisions into a new light. The end of the Soviet Union was like that. While this affected everyone in the Soviet Union, Buryats, like other Siberian groups, experienced this disorientation more acutely because they are an indigenous population, and indigenous people are so often put in the role of primitive in order to prove other people’s modernity. When outsiders, be they Soviet cadres or IMF reformers, are trying to make you putatively more modern, and replace your histories with theirs, you become much more self-conscious about the valences of time.

Claudia Lahr: Why did you choose to use Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope in particular as a way of looking at history building in Buryatia?

Justine Buck Quijada: To be honest, when I first started writing I was using the term ‘historical narrative’ but it seemed to be confusing to the reviewers who were reading the manuscript. The term ‘historical narrative’ lacked the rhetorical aspect that I was trying to convey – the way in which people were doing something in the present when they talked about the past.  I struggled to find a term that would be more specific. I had first read Bakhtin with Jennifer Cole in graduate school at the University of Chicago, but hadn’t thought much about the concept since. A colleague in the Russian literature department, Susanne Fusso, made the connection while I was complaining about the reviewers and reminded me of the concept.

What I found so useful about Bakhtin’s idea of the chronotope is that it’s a relationship, between not only time and space, but also the subject. As a theoretical framework, chronotopes bring people into that relationship. If you read Bakhtin carefully, what matters about a chronotope is how time and space affect the main characters, how the characters are transformed, or not, by time and space in a story. That’s one of the reasons why I think a chronotope is more compelling than, for example, Redfield’s idea of a worldview. A worldview is similar, but less relational and interactive. For me, the presence of the hero was the key element that made it such a useful concept, because these narratives aren’t about the past so much as they are about figuring out how people position themselves in the present.

The concept of a hero is what makes the framework of a chronotope map so nicely onto rituals. For this context, I think about ritual in a Durkheimian way, as Katherine Verdery does in The Political lives of Dead Bodies, as an event that produces a community. The community produced by the ritual is the hero of the chronotope, and the time and space that are indexed by the ritual are relevant to the members of that community, for as long as they are acting from that subject position. But when a person changes that subject position, they switch to other conceptions of time and space. That tripartite structure makes a chronotope so much more flexible than a worldview. So, when you’re thinking of yourself as a Christian in church on Sunday, creation and apocalypse are a meaningful framework in a way that doesn’t have to conflict with your self-conception as a scientist in a lab on Monday morning.

Furthermore, when I workshopped the introduction with colleagues in an indigenous studies group, there was some concern about imposing theory on the data from outside, but we also realized that Bakhtin, who was writing during the early years of the Soviet Union, when there was so much political reflection about time and progress, maybe wasn’t so foreign to the data after all. And then, when I started doing a literature review on the chronotope, it turns out its having quite a moment right now, so I think that also made the manuscript appealing to the press.

Claudia Lahr: To what extent, if at all, were your informants consciously aware of the different subject positions they occupied and between which they negotiated?

Justine Buck Quijada: That’s a really interesting question, and one that I struggled with a lot while I was writing, because I sometimes felt that I was defining subject positions that local people might not identify with. I tried to be very careful about how I used the data so that I wasn’t just imposing my ideas on them. I think, on a daily basis, people shift very seamlessly between subject positions. All of us, not just Buryats in Ulan-Ude, occupy multiple subject positions – we are citizens, and students or members of a profession, and members of racial and ethnic groups and political affiliations and kinship categories, – and we don’t really think about these subject positions until they come into conflict with each other, until we experience friction when we try to inhabit more than one. The more you diverge from the way a subject position is defined, the more friction you’ll experience, and so for indigenous citizens of the Russian Federation, yes, there is friction between subject positions. I think that, while most of the time people weren’t aware of their subject positions, there were moments when this friction would flare up, and then people could be very self-conscious and self-reflective. Sometimes people were insightfully humorous, and other times quite angry about the friction between subject positions. Often this self-reflection was produced by my questions. So, for example, when you learn Russian as a foreigner you learn that there is a difference between Russkii (ethnically Russian) and Rossianie (Russian by citizenship). Well, I often heard Buryats refer to themselves as Russkie, and when I asked for clarification, just to double check if I had heard them correctly, people would get very analytical about their own subject positions as Russian citizens, but not ethnic Russians, and the way these categories blur together. It’s a good example, I think, of how ethnography is a subjective process, in which the presence of the ethnographer produces a different kind of friction, that makes people aware of, and reflect on things they otherwise take for granted.

Claudia Lahr: Why did you choose to present each ritual in the particular order you did: the stupa inauguration for Etigelov; Victory Day; City Day; Maidari, the Tengeri Center inauguration, and lastly Yuri’s intiation?

Justine Buck Quijada: The order of the chapters is very deliberate. Even though each one looks at a separate ritual, they really build on each other. The introduction ended up being very long because there was so much background and theory that needed to fit in there. I was writing about a place that many people don’t know even exists (but without reifying a historical narrative for it), and I was trying to speak to multiple theoretical audiences, so I didn’t really have space to illustrate my argument in the introduction. I decided to put the discussion of the stupa inauguration as the next chapter because that ritual illustrates the way in which these chronotopes co-exist and interact. The inauguration was the only ritual where multiple chronotopes interacted, and writing about that ritual was, in fact, how I sorted out the argument, so I thought it would give the best illustration. Furthermore, I was worried that people would think these chronotopes were more separate and more solid than they really are, so I didn’t want people to read about all the different chronotopes with the idea that they are really separate.

After that, I needed to write about Victory Day and City Day because these two rituals illustrate the Soviet chronotopes that the other rituals are reacting to. Both Buddhists and shamans are producing new histories that contrast with the Soviet and Russian histories, so the contrast wouldn’t make sense unless you know the base-line that they are responding to. Anyone working in Russia probably would, but I wanted the audience to be broader, so I had to lay those out. In some ways I feel like these are the weakest chapters because I wasn’t actually planning on writing about them when I went to the field. I was focused on the religious rituals. I just attended the civic rituals out of curiosity, and I didn’t realize how important they were until I came back. If I had I would have asked more questions about how they were organized and planned and paid for. So, the moral of the story for students doing fieldwork is, take good notes about everything, because you don’t always know what’s important until later. Finally, I thought, I already introduced Buddhism with the stupa inauguration, so let’s finish that before moving into a new topic, and put the two shamanism chapters together.

Furthermore, after the stupa inauguration, the frame of the hero, the us produced by a ritual gets smaller with each chapter. Remember, a chronotope is about a relationship between time, space and the hero of the story – the community produced through the ritual. In Victory Day the hero is a Soviet us, City Day’s chronotope has a Republic-wide, Siberian us, the Maidari festival is about a Buryat national us, the Tengeri center inauguration is a smaller, urban Buryat us that doesn’t aspire to speak for the Buryat nation, and the final chapter, Yuri’s inauguration, the us in the chronotope is a single family. So the chronotopes change not only conceptions of time and space, but also the hero of the story, the community produced by the ritual, which gets smaller and more focused with each chapter.

Claudia Lahr: What is the role of regional studies/ethnographic museums (such as the Khangalov Museum of Buryat History, the Ulan-Ude Ethnographic Museum, the Museum of the History of Ulan-Ude, and so on) in constructing a narrative of Buryat history/ethnicity?

Justine Buck Quijada: That is such an insightful question. In a weird way, this whole project grew out of museums. In college, and immediately after, before I went to graduate school, I worked first at the Field Museum in Chicago, and then at the Brooklyn Museum on Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation (NAGPRA). My interest in the relationship between religion, politics and indigenous identity stems from that experience. As a result, when I went to Buryatia for my dissertation fieldwork, I actually spent some time doing archival research on how objects confiscated from religious organizations in the 1920’s and 30’s, when they were closing churches and temples, ended up in Soviet museums. The Russian Federation passed a law around the same time that the U.S. passed NAGPRA, allowing religious organizations to reclaim these objects, so I was interested in the way these processes all happened at the same time, but people there were so uninterested and un-invested in this process that I never did anything with that research.

A lot of the background knowledge about Soviet and Buryat history came from visiting local museums and some of the data came from conversations with local friends while visiting museums together. The collections and displays at these local museums often provide the context and material that people use when they produce new historical knowledge. So, for example, a friend took me to see an exhibition at the Khangalov Museum of Buryat History on Buddhist iconography, and then she lamented that she couldn’t explain the imagery we were looking at because the Soviet Union had taught Buryats to be atheist and to reject their pre-Soviet culture. The material on display would provide the raw material for value judgments and new narratives. Some of the conflict around what counts as history does show through in the book when I discuss the exhibition that Tengeri organized at the Museum of the History of Ulan-Ude in chapter five, and the conflicts between how the shamans represented their practices and how the museum employees wanted to.

Historians and curators at regional museums in Russia are in a difficult position. On the one hand, all the curators and historians I spoke to were very aware that they were uniquely positioned to help people learn histories that had been silenced by the Soviet state, and I think they take that responsibility very seriously. On the other hand, they are constrained by the disciplinary conventions of history and by their Soviet training, in ways that made it difficult for them to produce new narratives. For a shaman, if a spirit (through a shaman’s body) tells you that you’re sick because your grandfather shot a shaman in the 1930’s, that’s a fact, and you can treat it like a fact. A historian who wants to remain a legitimate historian cannot treat that statement as a fact. To treat that as a fact, they would have to find that grandfather in a census list and prove that they worked for the police, and so on and so on. When you’re working in a situation where a repressive state produced the only archives that meet the threshold of historical fact, that can be constraining. On the whole, however, local historians and local curators are doing the hard work that puts new information out there, which people then take up and make meaningful in different ways. Local historians are just as aware of anyone else that there is a difference between what meets academic publication standards, or museum display standards, and how you talk about the past at the kitchen table.

Claudia Lahr: In your conclusion you say that by “code-switching between chronotopes” Buryats can “stake claims on the future” (192). Could you elaborate on the connection between the construction of past and visions of the future?

Justine Buck Quijada: I hate writing conclusions. Almost everyone hates writing conclusions, because you feel this pressure to make some grand and meaningful general statement about a topic that you just spent a few hundred pages parsing into very careful details. I don’t mean anything grand and metaphoric by that phrase. I meant that in order to figure out what you want to work towards, you have to figure out who you are.  A lot of Buryats told me that they felt that in order to succeed as Soviet citizens, Buryats had given up their culture. During the Soviet period, that was the only choice that was really possible. The utopian Soviet future and ‘Buryatness,’ for want of a better term, seemed mutually exclusive. That’s not a dilemma that only Buryats face – modernist projects around the globe have told indigenous and colonized peoples that they can’t be who they are and also be modern. Now that a culturally Buryat future might be possible, what might such a future look like? What do you want such a future to look like? The material you draw on to answer that question is usually from the past, but it’s all about looking forward.

On the one hand, I see that as a global problem faced by lots of different groups, but in this context, it’s inflected through a very local Buryat shamanic conviction that you need to set things straight with your ancestors in order to have a future. From the perspective of Buryat shamans, if you have unfinished business with your ancestors, if you’ve ignored them, they will destroy your chances at prosperity, they will deny you offspring, they can even kill you. They will literally make sure you don’t have a future. For a lot of Buryats, for whom shamanism is still very much a living practice, the future is contingent on having a good relationship to the past.

The way I see it is that the past and the future are just different aspects of a chronotope. A chronotope defines the relationship between past and present and future. The imaginary possibilities that rituals enable, the different chronotopes, allow you to change your relationship to the past, and thereby change the subject positions from which you can imagine the future.

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