University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Slavonic Studies > Sense of Place lecture series: "Sensing the Great ‘Yellow Space’ of Soviet Central Asia: Depictions of the Kara-Kum Desert in the Early 1930s"

Sense of Place lecture series: "Sensing the Great ‘Yellow Space’ of Soviet Central Asia: Depictions of the Kara-Kum Desert in the Early 1930s"

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In 1933, a road race between Moscow and the Kara-Kum Desert was held to great fanfare in the Soviet Union. Within two years, the writer Mikhail Loskutov had published two accounts of his involvement with it. The second opens with an assertion: a cartographic visualization of his journey could never give his audience a proper sense of the ‘real earth’ that he had visited. While it could designate with ‘yellow spaces’ the two deserts he had passed through, it could not represent the car engines he had heard, the bonfires he had seen, the compound scent of gasoline and sand that he had smelled. In this talk, I will discuss Loskutov’s travelogues in the context of what one critic has called the Soviet ‘cultural obsession’ with the Kara-Kum in the early 1930s. At the heart of my talk will be an investigation of how a set of literary works from this period defined the Kara-Kum as both a mappable desert (one of Loskutov’s ‘yellow spaces’) and as experienceable sands. I will explore what was at stake poetically and politically in attending to the space as a material site, tracking what kind of subjects were being invited to interact with the desert’s particles and physically transform them—along with the flora, fauna, and human inhabitants they supported—into an ‘oasis of socialism.’ My focus in this talk will be on a set of literary texts from 1930-1935, but I will contextualize my findings with reference to several Soviet films shot in Central Asia during the same period. Moreover, I will offer thoughts on how the depiction of the Kara-Kum in the early 1930s relates to the evolution of Central Asia’s place in the Russian/Soviet imaginary over the last 150 years.

Biography: A Lecturer in Russian at the University of St Andrews, Katharine Holt is currently at work on a monograph about how the deserts of Central Asia were represented in early Soviet culture.

This talk is part of the Slavonic Studies series.

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