Professor Lilya Kaganovsky, the new interim director of the Russian Flagship program, was born in the Soviet Union and arrived in the United States as a child during the Third Wave of Russian emigration (1960s - 1980s), and grew up in California’s Bay Area. She completed her undergraduate studies at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz, an M.A. in Slavic Languages & Literatures at Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Film Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to her recent appointment as a professor at the UCLA Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures (SEEELC), Kaganovsky held academic positions at the College of William & Mary and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her appointment at UCLA is a homecoming to the university where she completed two years of her undergraduate studies. In addition to her academic work, she is the interim director of the UCLA Russian Flagship Program
In this interview, Kaganovsky shared her insights on her academic journey and reflections on the ongoing war in Ukraine. Kaganovsky emphasized the need for decolonizing the field of Slavic studies and stressed the importance of continuing to study Russian language and culture. In current geopolitical tensions, Kaganovsky believes that such studies offer a valuable perspective that diverges from the dominant Western worldview and has the potential to stimulate the emergence of dynamic cultural movements. Sasha Razor spoke with Kaganovsky by Zoom in April 2023. The text below has been edited for clarity.
SR: You studied at UCLA from 1988 to 1990. You were an English major but took classes in the Slavic department. Could you talk about that?
LK: Yes, I took a lot of classes in the Slavic department because it had the best faculty at the time. As an undergraduate at UCLA, it was challenging to find my own space and people I felt comfortable with. Taking classes from professors like the late Michael Henry Heim and Vladimir Markov made me feel at home, and being a native speaker, I could take advanced-level classes and felt connected to the material. The smaller classes and personal attention from Slavic Department professors made me feel more at home than I did in the large undergraduate GE courses.
Which classes or professors stand out from that time?
Michael Heim taught a brilliant class called Soviet Civilization, which was an introduction to Soviet culture and the 20th century. We read Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and other texts, but what I remember the most was when he talked about the diplomatic pouch he used to carry when traveling to the USSR in the 1970s to sneak manuscripts out for translation abroad. It was fascinating to hear about his personal experiences.
And Professor Markov was an absolutely wonderful teacher. He taught upper-division courses on nineteenth-century Russian literature and twentieth-century Russian poetry (both in Russian) – I still have all the notes and handouts from those courses, I just found them again when I was moving here.
Can you talk about your immigrant background and where your parents were from? Also, how old were you when you came to the United States?
Sure, we left the Soviet Union in 1980, just after the start of the Afghan War and right before the Moscow Olympics that the West boycotted. My family consisted of my parents, grandmother, our dog, and me. We followed the traditional third-wave route through Vienna and Italy before coming to the United States. My father was a computer hardware engineer, so we were able to settle in Northern California, where my father could easily find work in his specialization in Silicon Valley. (My mother was a book editor in Russia, and later worked as a Russian language teacher at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey.)
We left as stateless refugees, with the understanding that we were leaving forever and would never see the USSR again. And that was almost true: in 1987, during perestroika, my mother and I were able to go back to Moscow for 10 days. It was an incredible experience to be back in my childhood surroundings and experience all the sights, smells, to see everyone, all of our friends. We were not allowed to stay with family, we had to stay at a hotel, and I suspect we were listened to and followed, but it didn’t matter. My father stayed behind to help get us back out in case they didn’t let us leave a second time. He joked that he would chain himself to the duty-free shop until we returned. By the time I went back to Moscow in 1994, the USSR had ceased to exist.
Going into Russian studies at UCLA and elsewhere was an effort to reclaim some of the heritage, language, and literature that I grew up with. My parents spoke Russian at home, so I never lost the language, and still speak it with my son. However, I couldn't study abroad as an undergraduate in Russia because I already spoke the language and there was no space for a heritage speaker.
There's often a lot of pressure on children of immigrants to pursue practical careers that can bring a secure income, but you chose to pursue humanities and become a professor. How did your background affect this decision?
Well, I don't think there was as much pressure for my generation as there is now, and the humanities as a whole were still thriving and not under attack as they are today. However, there was still pressure to become a doctor or a lawyer. But my parents never intervened in my choice of major. In my senior year of high school, I dropped physics to study political history, and that was pretty much the end of my STEM career in my father's eyes. So it was clear that I was more oriented toward the humanities.
And where did you work before joining UCLA?
My first job was at the College of William and Mary in Virginia in the Russian section of the modern languages department. I was there for a year and then joined the faculty at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign, where I worked for 21 years. I had a split appointment between the Slavic Department and the Program in Comparative and World Literature. I also worked in cinema studies, which is my third specialization (the others are literature and women’s studies).
I'd like to ask you about the ongoing war in Ukraine. How has it affected you personally, as well as the field of Slavic studies? What changes do you see happening right now?
Well, my son studies military history and he was following the troop movements back in December of 2021 and was talking about the possibility of a Russian invasion. The rest of us didn't want to believe it would happen. I was born in Moscow, but my father was born in Kharkiv, and my family on that side, the Jewish side, is from the Pale of Settlement, which includes Ukraine and Belarus. Additionally, about half of my mother's family lives in Ukraine. So it's a very personal issue for me, as for many others, an invasion of one side of my world by the other side. As for the field of Slavic studies, we've been talking about decolonizing the field and trying to rethink our approach for many years now, but the question has now become much more urgent: why do we teach what we teach and can we do it differently?
One possibility is moving past the notion of the “post-Soviet” which was a way of categorizing the era that followed the collapse of the USSR, and that worked well as an umbrella term until Euromaidan, the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity, and the Russian annexation of Crimea. After the Soviet Union collapsed, it was easy not to think in terms of nationalities, and the post-Soviet category offered a way to avoid declaring oneself Ukrainian or Russian, for example. This was especially true for immigrants like me who left the Soviet Union and never lived in the new, independent states. But now we see that the idea of a shared common past was yet another myth that Russia weaponized to reassert control (political, economic, ideological – and now, military) over the region and sovereign nations.
So what changes do you see happening in academia right now?
I think everybody's trying to get their mind around how to decolonize the field. And some people obviously object to that term altogether. But how do we move past the imperialist mindset that I think we all have and that we all grew up with, whether academically or otherwise? That mindset includes privileging certain ideas, writers, countries, and languages over others, as well as not noticing that we do, because it’s what we’re used to.
I realize that lately, every time I talk about Dziga Vertov or Larisa Shepitko, I point out that they're Ukrainian, that in different ways they are Ukrainian filmmakers. I've always talked about Vertov as Jewish and Soviet, but it’s important to stress that three of his best films were made with VUFKU (All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration) in Ukraine, a semi-independent studio where some of the best avant-garde films were made in the 1920s. And that the Soviet avant-garde was not just Russian, but also Ukrainian, and Georgian, etc. We know that, and yet we forget. Or we fail to teach it to our students. It is all too easy to say “Russian” and mean “Soviet” or say “Soviet” and mean “Russian.” But that kind of slippage should no longer be acceptable.
Ukrainian film scholars, of course, include Dziga Vertov in the canon of Ukrainian national cinema.
That's right. And we include Oleksandr Dovzhenko in that group as well, although that's slightly different because he was so insistent on his Ukrainian identity, he spoke Ukrainian, and made films about Ukraine, but he spent most of his life working in Moscow (he had no choice). But Vertov thought of himself as Soviet first (and probably Jewish second). And Shepitko’s trajectory is different still. She was born in Bakhmut, went to high school in Lviv, and moved to Moscow to study cinema when she was 16. Dovzhenko liked her because she was from Ukraine and she made her films everywhere: she worked in Ukraine, then in Kyrgyzstan, and in many other places. That's part of what I'm trying to do: to acknowledge that writers and directors, even when they all ended up in Moscow, were from different places and that even their names might be different from how we are used to seeing them. That there's an original language to their names that’s been forgotten or repressed.
In light of the current political climate surrounding Russia, what would you say to students who are studying Russian language and culture? Why should they do that, and what can the world offer to them if they pursue this path?
I recently read an interview with the Oleynikov brothers, who were underground filmmakers during the 1980s and 1990s in the former Soviet Union, specifically in Grozny, Chechnya, and Kazakhstan. They said that underground culture in that area converged and that many exciting and intelligent individuals were involved in these movements. There is much to be gained from studying this language and culture, which is still a densely interesting part of the world. I believe that, like before, the current political and ideological climate governing the country will eventually give rise to a parallel cinema, literature, and underground movement. Such cultural movements are often productive, varied, and exciting, and will eventually break through the regime. This is an investment in the potential of the whole “sixth part of the world.” Moreover, studying the Russian language offers an alternative way of thinking and approaching the world, beyond the dominant Western paradigms, beyond “us” and “them”; it opens up new perspectives on our world that are both productive and enriching.