Olena Aydarova, “Glories of the Soviet Past or Dim Visions of the Future”

Ian Lowrie writes about Olena Aydarova’s recent work on Russian teacher education:

It is probably impossible to write about postsocialism without coming to terms with nostalgia and the legacy of the past. It is a particularly sticky past, which lingers in memories, texts, and institutions. Research on post-Soviet education has been preoccupied with this weight, and rightly so: Soviet history and its recollections inevitably color the everyday practices of learning and teaching in Russian schools and universities; triumphant recapitulations of the achievements of the Soviet educational system are often written into the very documents announcing neoliberal reforms designed to sweep away the institutional legacies of that system. However, the tendency in much of this literature has been to treat the past as, well, past: a dead weight bearing down on a lively present. Olena Aydarova’s recent and refreshing article, however — “Glories of the Soviet Past or Dim Visions of the Future: Russian Teacher Education as the Site of Historical Becoming” — certainly tarries with the past, but in an ultimately more productive vein than many of its contemporaries.

Empirically, the article is an interesting contribution to the study of postsocialist educational reform in its focus on teacher education. The teachers’ college is a crucial site for both the reproduction of existing pedagogical practices and the implementation of reform, perhaps especially in postsocialism (Webster, Silova, Moyer and McAllister 2011). There has been little work on teacher education in Russia, which is unfortunate; as Aydarova argues, teaching was a uniquely politically important, high-status profession in Soviet Russia, and carries much cultural weight today. Further, she rightly points out that studying teacher education is crucial for understanding contemporary education reforms, as trainee teachers are precisely those who will determine whether and how global neoliberal educational models become locally concrete. More culturally it is also a site of dense and recursive commentary on educational values and norms, and Aydarova does a good job of fleshing out this discourse. In a nicely holographic methodological recapitulation of her theoretical interest in the intersections of past and present, she carefully surveys multiple generations of teachers and teachers of teachers to show the contested, yet inescapable, presence of the past — even for those who did not live it directly.

In so doing, she draws attention to the coexistence of both values and concrete practices, drawn from both the neoliberal and socialist frames of temporal reference. The article carefully details the actual pragmatics of grading at the school, where the older Soviet system coexists in uneven and personally idiosyncratic ways with newer models drawn from Western repertoires. It also, however, gives a thorough account of commentary on these systems, and on the very fact of their coexistence. In so doing, it charts an underlying ideological dispute between and among teachers and students about the clash between an “authentic,” Russian form of evaluation, and a mechanical, universal, neoliberal approach. Aydarova takes a similarly nuanced and bifurcated approach to her other two primary areas of empirical engagement, showing both the pragmatic and ideological coexistence of past and present in the selection of students and the performance of classroom excellence.

Theoretically, this material is framed as part of an ongoing discussion in the educational research literature on how the legacy of socialism interacts with neoliberal reforms. Aydarova suggests, I think rightly, that much of this research has unfortunately treated this legacy as an impediment, responsible primarily for “mutations” or “failures” of neoliberal reform efforts. Her own, Bakhtinian approach differs from this mainstream in its insistence on the necessary and inescapable imbrication of the past with the present. Far from an impediment to a somehow pure and universal neoliberalism, she argues that postsocialism provides an inescapable local chronotopic backdrop for the emergence of neoliberal reform projects. The present straddles local histories and potentially global futures, and temporal difference is itself a resource for configuring plans and actions in that present. Aydarova uses this framework deftly, keeping it close to the empirical ground. It lets her show quite convincingly that commentary on Soviet academic excellence serves, for some, as a constant touchstone in discussions precisely on the failure of contemporary reforms, resituating the blame from authentically local legacies to insufficiently universal global reforms. At the same time, she can argue that for others, more invested in the neoliberal reforms, this historical legacy serves primarily as a negative shadow of neoliberal excellence, orienting more progressive action in the present. In both cases, however, the local and global, the past and present, both emerge together in producing chronotopes for practical action and commentary, acting as available resources and enabling constraints for making, disputing, and enacting concrete plans.

Unfortunately, I think that Aydarova sells herself somewhat short in trying to subordinate this rich material to an overarching focus on how “the socialist past and the current neoliberal moment present a dichotomy in participants mental scapes of a better before and a lacking now” (italics original). Although this is certainly an objective ethnographic reality, it is hardly unique to teacher education. Of course, Aydarova clearly must work with a broader literature on postsocialist education that is obsessed with this dynamic, and makes an admittedly admirable effort to trouble that literature’s often literal-minded interpretations. However, I think that there is the basis, here, for a more radical troubling of the divide as such. To my mind, Aydarova’s arguments show ample room room for the ethnographer to move beyond charting such such dichotomous mental operations to understand how pasts and presents become futures together. Although the article hints at this as an ultimate horizon of a Bakhtinian analysis of temporality, it never fully achieves either an empirical characterization of talk about the future or a theoretical explanation for how that future emerges from the melange of past and present. Certainly, we catch glimpses of the future in the article, and Aydarova is clearly passionately invested in how the present and past orient processual action. In coming work on this rich vein of material, it would be interesting to see a more fleshed out analysis.

Works Cited

Webster, C., Silova, I., Moyer, A., and McAllister, S. (2011). “Leading in the age of post-socialist education transformations: Examining sustainability of teacher education reform in Latvia.” Journal of Educational Change, 12(3): 347-370.


Ian Lowrie studies higher education, data science, and computing infrastructure in Russia and the United states. He’s currently a doctoral candidate at Rice University, and the editor for Platypus. You can reach him at lowrie.ian@gmail.com and see some of his work at www.ianlowrie.us

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