Articles from the Institute Letter

Additional articles from new and past issues of the Institute Letter will continue to be posted over time and as they become available.

By Edyta Bojanowska

Writer Ivan Goncharov published a detailed account of his travels on the Pallada (depicted here in an 1854 Nagasaki print) in a two-volume literary travelogue, The Frigate Pallada (1855–57). The goal of the government-funded Pallada expedition was to establish trade relations with Japan. Goncharov’s cultural  documentation of the expedition reflects a particular imperial mentality that found broad resonance among contemporary Russian readers.
Writer Ivan Goncharov published a detailed account of his travels on the Pallada (depicted here in an 1854 Nagasaki print) in a two-volume literary travelogue, The Frigate Pallada (1855–57). The goal of the government-funded Pallada expedition was to establish trade relations with Japan. Goncharov’s cultural documentation of the expedition reflects a particular imperial mentality that found broad resonance among contemporary Russian readers.

A Russian writer tours the colonial world.

Multiethnic empire? Colonialism? These aren’t topics that we associate with Russian literature. And yet, a sprawling, expansionist, multiethnic empire was a determining factor of Russian history since at least the mid-sixteenth century. 

Hundreds of ethnic groups found themselves within Russia’s borders, making ethnic Russians, in the census of 1897, a minority in their own empire. Among modern times, the Russian empire rivaled the British one in size, and at various points included Finland, the Baltics, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus region, Central Asia, Siberia, the Far East, and Alaska. To this day, as a result of this process, the Russian Federation remains territorially the largest country on earth.

In recent decades, the history of Russia’s imperial expansion and management has come into greater focus. But this empire’s cultural self-image remains elusive. What were the cultural echoes of this process? With what images and ideas did Russian literary classics dress up (or dress down) the empire? What are the Russian equivalents of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness?

Contrary to its popular image, Russian literature has long grappled with questions of multiethnicity, colonization, and imperial expansion. Such issues predominated not only in Russian popular culture, but also evoked diverse engagements from all major Russian writers of the tsarist era, running the full gamut from propagandistic to anti-colonial. These writers include such major figures as Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Leskov, Chekhov, and Tolstoy. Sometimes, the imperial themes of their well-known works have been ignored. At other times, the texts that engage these themes, though popular in their own time, have been sidelined in the process of canonization—especially as commandeered by the Soviet authorities, which by and large sought to minimize both tsarist and Soviet imperialisms or to portray them as strictly benevolent. 

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By Didier Fassin

Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa
Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa

Mandela reinstated the rights of those who were oppressed and restored their dignity without perpetuating resentment or inciting retaliation.

On the eve of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, few observers thought that the day would pass without bloodshed. A smooth transition toward democracy seemed very unlikely. Having been in a state of emergency from 1985 to 1990, the country had suffered from years of civil war­–like conditions. In the early 1990s, the police force of the apartheid regime, white suprem­acists, and secessionist Zulus had massacred members of the African National Congress. The charismatic General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chris Hani, had been the recent victim of an assassination ordered by a member of the Conservative Party. And during ANC meetings the crowd would sing the combative chant “Kill the Boer.” Thus, it was an unlikely transition, even more so because South African President Frederik de Klerk was accused of supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which was implicated in the violent outbreaks.

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By Michael J. Cohen

Extracts from Churchill’s Cabinet memo, warning against implementing the Land clauses of the 1939 White Paper. Christmas Day, 1939.
Extracts from Churchill’s Cabinet memo, warning against implementing the Land clauses of the 1939 White Paper. Christmas Day, 1939.

How the first Arab-Israeli war became inevitable

The British Mandate in Palestine may be divided roughly into four distinct periods.

1. 1915–1920: In February 1915, a small Turkish force, led by German officers, managed to cross the Sinai desert and reach the Suez Canal, the imperial artery to the “jewel in the (British) Crown”—India. This shattered Britain’s previous strategic conception that no modern army could attack the canal from the North, and led her to move her defense line north, to Palestine. In November 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which offered to help the Zionists establish a Jewish national home in Palestine—provided that nothing was done to “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

At one of the most critical junctures of the war, the Declaration served many purposes, not the least of which was as a propaganda tool: it harnessed for Britain the alleged, all-powerful influence of international Jewry (the cabinet feared that the Germans were about to preempt them with a Declaration of their own). It also served British military and strategic interests. Britain’s Zionist proxies enabled the government to demand Palestine solely for itself (thereby finessing the French out of Palestine, as had been agreed in the Sykes-Picot share-out of May 1916). President Wilson was persuaded by prominent American Zionists to agree to the Declaration, in effect, to a British occupation of Palestine, even if still under Turkish rule.

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By Yve-Alain Bois

Ellsworth Kelly's Train Landscape (1952–53) refers to the colors of fields seen from a train. © Ellsworth Kelly

How things that look apparently very simple are in fact much more complex than they seem

Ellsworth Kelly is one of the very first artists whose work I liked. Perhaps he was second, just after Piet Mondrian. One of the things I asked Kelly after we finally met and became friends, close to a quarter of a century ago, was why he had not answered a fan letter that I had written to him in my teens. He remembered the letter. He had received it at a time when he felt isolated, bypassed by a new generation of artists, and he had been struck by the fact that it came from a French teenager living in the middle of nowhere—he thought he might even have kept it. Since Kelly is a demon archivist, he found the darn letter, and he gave me a copy of it, which, unlike him, I immediately misplaced. But I read it, and it was humbling. First, because I realized I had misdated it in my memory, placing it three years too early—probably because the main event it described, my first encounter with his works, at a show of his lithographs at the Galerie Adrien Maeght in Paris, dated from even earlier to 1965. Second, because it was sheer adolescent drivel. At the time of the letter, Kelly was for me the purest representative of pure abstraction, whatever that is supposed to be.

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By Dani Rodrik

Barbara Smaller/The New Yorker Collection

When economists skip over real-world complications, it’s as if physicists spoke of a world without gravity.

When the 2013 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (colloquially known as the “Economics Nobel”) was awarded to Eugene Fama and Robert Shiller, along with Lars Peter Hansen, many were puzzled by the selection. Fama and Shiller are both distinguished and highly regarded scholars, so it was not their qualifications that raised eyebrows. What seemed odd was that the committee had picked them together.

After all, the two economists seem to hold diametrically opposed views on how financial markets work. Fama, the University of Chicago economist, is the father of the “efficient market hypothesis,” the theory that asset prices reflect all publicly available information, with the implication that it is impossible to beat the market consistently. Shiller, the Yale economist, meanwhile, has spent much of his career demonstrating financial markets work poorly: they overshoot, are subject to “bubbles” (sustained rises in asset prices that cannot be explained by fundamentals), and are often driven by “behavioral” rather than rational forces. Could both these scholars be right? Was the Nobel committee simply hedging its bets?

While one cannot read the jury’s mind, its selection highlighted a central feature of economics—and a key difference between it and the natural sciences. Economics deals with human behavior, which depends on social and institutional context. That context in turn is the creation of human behavior, purposeful or not. This implies that propositions in economic science are typically context-specific, rather than universal. The best, and most useful, economic theories are those that draw clear causal links from a specific set of contextual assumptions to predicted outcomes.

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