On intellectual journeys without destinations in Russian studies


Some flats in Russia. Image by Natalya Letunova @naletu

I gave a talk at NYU Jordan Center just now, and they decided to get their money’s worth by asking me to do an interview. I hate these kind of things, as I’m a not a great ‘on-my-feet’ thinker, so I prepared a written reflection on the questions they pre-sent me. I think they are quite a fun exercise for any researcher to undertake as a way of pausing to reflect on their own practice.

Here are the questions and some of my answers. I’m not going to link to the actual interview and I hope this doesn’t come across as too self-indulgent.

  • Can you briefly describe your current research, and describe how you initially became interested in it?

My research on ordinary people and the everyday looks quite weird on the surface. My background was in literature and philosophy, not sociology or anthropology. However, a lot of my PhD study focussed on a particular ‘naturalistic’ and ethnographic form of fiction writing in the late USSR. One of the aims of that writing was to uncover a hidden reality – a ‘warts and all’ look at the dirty underbelly of urban working-class life. Most importantly though, it was also ‘sociological’ writing in the sense that it looked at things like work-relations, the black market, criminal violence, ‘organic intellectuals’, etc, – mostly taboo social ‘problems’ that mainstream literature couldn’t touch, and which dissident literature wasn’t interested in. Most importantly, this literature was interested in the ‘voices’ of the voiceless.  So in a sense I was primed by my literature study to then transfer that interest into the social science domain.  I was also primed in that I spent a time living in Russia in the 90s before my PhD, and it was striking to me when I entered traditional Russian studies faculties, how few scholars were interested in the ‘everyday life’ of people in Russia.

  • What is the major conclusion of your research to date?

It’s worth paying attention to the small things – research is increasingly beholden to media interests in Russia – which are about ‘big’ things like authoritarianism, corruption, kleptocracy, state violence, nationalism, but all these things are ‘generated’ or ‘play out’ in ordinary everyday contexts.

  • What’s one thing you’ve learned that surprised you?

How politically conscious and sophisticated and nuanced ordinary people are – an insight for political research generally and for Russia in particular. Of course, only a person working in the media or academia or policy community would make this elementary mistake.

  • How has feedback helped shape your research?

Feedback from as many disciplinary perspectives as possible, from Working-class Studies (which is located more in literature and cultural studies) on rustbelts in USA, but also feedback from people who work on postsocialist spaces but who are firmly situated in Critical Geography. It’s more important to me to get exposed to different literatures than to look for people to comment specifically on technical things like writing.  On the other hand, the more I write for academic journals, the more I doubt my ability and willingness to adhere to the sometimes rigid and narrow interpretations of what a good journal article is. So increasingly I value peer-review feedback – even when it is negative, as it forces me to think not just about academic writing, but about epistemology. What is ‘valued’ as knowledge in the academy is undergoing quite rapid change.

  • How do you make your work relevant?

This is always a loaded question because relevance is in the eye of the beholder. I think it’s a mistake for anyone but the most mainstream scholar to look at the ‘news agenda’, instead I think you need to identify communities of scholars. But of course as my work is about contemporary Russian society it’s a given that I should look at what the media is saying and what’s happening in politics. There is certainly something powerful in the trick of presenting what perhaps looks like a very ‘ivory tower’ argument, but then finding something very concrete in the media that proves your point.

  • How do you keep your personal bias out of your work?

Bias is inevitable – it can’t be avoided and anyone who says so doesn’t fully understand the history and the philosophy of science. Instead, you should try to be in touch with your biases and indeed they can intuitively lead you to some interesting places. Everyone believes that something about their research is ‘true’ – but all those truths are ideologically nested. Science should be more of a story about why you think it’s true. In a scholarly process, the body of knowledge you produce should somehow feel like it belongs to you. It’s more a process of being aware of what your own ideological positioning is, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Thomas Basbøll recently wrote that the purpose of academic writing is to ‘share our reasons for believing things, so that others may understand us or challenge us as they will.’ See https://blog.cbs.dk/inframethodology/?p=2841

  • What is your favorite aspect of your research

I enjoy all the things in my research. One of them is the feeling of learning more from people, even though I know the people in my research for more than 20 years. Coming back to them and not trying to be too clever in asking them about relevant things to my research – Being too obvious or direct often doesn’t work. For example, for this talk I just did at the Jordan Center, I went back to someone and felt like asking, ‘how are people resisting the state now, given these big political changes in the last 2 years? How are they talking about the constitution?’ This is a recipe for disaster! I would not have got any ‘good’ answers. Instead, we just fell into a conversation about cars, about utility bills, about the lack of jobs. And hey presto, a while later (that’s why patience is a good thing) I learn that a friend of mine had just ‘swapped’ out his car engine for a more powerful one and illegally neglected to update this vehicle passport registration! A big tax saving and an example of ‘ordinary resistance’ to the state.

  • Can you describe some of your experiences conducting research in Russia?

I just finished reading Kristen Ghodsee’s short book of reflections on her fieldwork in Bulgaria. She has some amazing and shocking stories – even the non-fictional ones are unbelievable! I have of course been in a lot of scrapes because of the kind of fieldwork I do. Like the time I helped a random guy on the street who was so drunk he couldn’t work out how to use the push-button ignition on his fancy new automatic car (most people are used to stick-shifts – as am I). After looking under the bonnet (hood) of the car, trying various things, I finally worked out that the car needed to be in ‘drive’ for the push button to work. He was so grateful. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was that he was the brother of the leader of a local criminal group – who insisted on providing me with some rather ‘extended’ hospitality in the next town. Another ‘experience’ is ‘by chance’ getting the opportunity to work in an underground (illegal) factory for a short time.

However, the most abiding ‘experience’ that I think is important is ‘aimlessly waiting’. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that the current moment is not relevant – waiting in a park for someone to come home from work to deliver their acquaintance subsidised medicine. The whole concept of ‘meta-occupational community’ that I develop comes from there. Listening endlessly to a person talk about their former life in Turkmenia and how they don’t feel Russian. I thought it was irrelevant, but it helped me later understand their personal philosophy of post-materialism due to this traumatic experience of leaving everything behind in Turkmenia. Another example is the revelatory feeling on going beyond the immediate field – being reluctant to go to Moscow with my small town interlocutors, but then realising when I actually go there that I would learn a whole lot about coercion, grief, exploitation, and local patriotism.

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