Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute




Book Talk. Internationalist Aesthetics: China and Early Soviet Culture by Edward Tyerman

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Please join the Harriman Institute, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, and the Columbia Department of Slavic Languages for a book talk with Edward Tyerman, author of Internationalist Aesthetics: China and Early Soviet Culture (Columbia University Press, December 2021), joined by discussant Nicolai Volland, Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature at Penn State, and moderator Valentina Izmirlieva, Director of the Harriman Institute.

Following the failure of communist revolutions in Europe, in the 1920s the Soviet Union turned its attention to fostering anticolonial uprisings in Asia. China, divided politically between rival military factions and dominated economically by imperial powers, emerged as the Comintern’s prime target. At the same time, a host of prominent figures in Soviet literature, film, and theater traveled to China, met with Chinese students in Moscow, and placed contemporary China on the new Soviet stage. They sought to reimagine the relationship with China in the terms of socialist internationalism—and, in the process, determine how internationalism was supposed to look and feel in practice.

Internationalist Aesthetics offers a groundbreaking account of the crucial role that China played in the early Soviet cultural imagination. Edward Tyerman tracks how China became the key site for Soviet debates over how the political project of socialist internationalism should be mediated, represented, and produced. The central figure in this story, the avant-garde writer Sergei Tret’iakov, journeyed to Beijing in the 1920s and experimented with innovative documentary forms in an attempt to foster a new sense of connection between Chinese and Soviet citizens. Reading across genres and media from reportage and biography to ballet and documentary film, Tyerman shows how Soviet culture sought an aesthetics that could foster a sense of internationalist community. He reveals both the aspirations and the limitations of this project, illuminating a crucial chapter in Sino-Russian relations. Grounded in extensive sources in Russian and Chinese, this cultural history bridges Slavic and East Asian studies and offers new insight into the transnational dynamics that shaped socialist aesthetics and politics in both countries.


Edward Tyerman is an associate professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley. He is is a scholar of Russian culture whose work focuses on cultural interactions and exchanges between Russia and China, with research interests including early Soviet culture; Soviet internationalism; cultural connections and exchanges between Russia and China; Russian and Soviet Orientalism; theories and experiences of post-socialism; politics and aesthetics; subjectivity and self-narration. His work has been published in The Russian ReviewCross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, Slavic and East European Journal, and Ulbandus. Tyerman received his PhD in Russian and Comparative Literature from Columbia University in 2014. His dissertation, “The Search for an Internationalist Aesthetics: Soviet Images of China, 1920–1935,” won the Columbia Slavic Department’s inaugural Robert L. Belknap Dissertation Prize.

Nicolai Volland is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Comparative Literature at Penn State University. He works on modern Chinese literature, cosmopolitanism, and transnational socialism, and is the author of Socialist Cosmopolitanism: The Chinese Literary Universe, 1945-1965 (Columbia University Press). Current projects include of study of the cosmopolitan tradition in modern Chinese literature through the lens of Sino-French literary entanglements, and an attempt to rethink East and Southeast Asian literature from oceanic perspectives and maritime epistemologies.




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