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Discovering Russia from the Inside and Out

At the end of February, the HSE IGITI Research Centre for Contemporary Culture hosted a roundtable entitled ‘Field Studies in Russia: A Country Familiar and Foreign’. Roundtable participants talked about field work methods and standards, research challenges, and ways to solve them. The participants also discussed the extent to which it is possible to apply international experiences and approaches to field work in Russia as well as ways to study Russia from within and without.

The round table was initiated by Varvara Kobyshcha, Research Fellow of the Vysokovsky Graduate School of Urbanism, and moderated by Alisa Maximova, Junior Research Fellow at HSE’s Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities, who was one of the co-organizers of the event along with Jeremy Morris, Associate Professor at Aarhus University, Denmark.

As Alisa Maximova emphasized, it has been important to bring together researchers from different disciplines and with different topics of research, such as labour, migration, public administration, and religion. Round table participants included Artemy Pozanenko from HSE School of Politics and Governance, Ksenia Romanenko of HSE Laboratory for University Development, Mark Simon from the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, Julia Lajus of the HSE St Petersburg Laboratory for Environmental and Technological History, Anna Novikova of the HSE School of Media, and Olga Zeveleva of the Helsinki University.

Alisa Maximova, Junior Research Fellow at HSE’s Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities

‘I’m not keen on promoting the Russian researcher/ foreign researcher opposition,’ says Alisa Maximova. ‘I believe, when you conduct a field study, it’s easy to feel like a stranger in your own country or even in your own city, and, on the other hand, as you work, you might achieve an understanding and become closer with people with whom you previously had had nothing in common. For example, I have noticed many times that my language barrier is an obstacle in communication with the respondents: while I speak Russian, it requires time and effort to start using common and understandable words in field communication, instead of some sophisticated vocabulary.’

Sometimes, it seems like the closest contact happens not in talks or interviews, but when you experience something together with the informants

In her research, Alisa focuses on culture and memory. ‘In expeditions, for example, I’m interested in who implements projects across Russia related to history or heritage preservation and how. I am also interested in how local historians and museums work, and what the context and social consequences of their activities are.

Alisa has been going on expeditions to small Russian towns since 2010, first as a student, and then as an organizer and leader. Over the last several years, these expeditions have been organized as part of HSE University’s “Rediscovering Russia” project. In addition to these trips, Alisa also has conducted several specific studies that required data collection in different towns, both big and small. Each field study and each field is its own complicated and interesting story.

As Alisa Maximova sees it, ‘It is important to discuss the practices of field work, to discuss how a researcher’s personal trajectory might impact the formulation of their question as well as their relationships with informants, and how entering the field and certain actions might lead to certain results.’

Jeremy Morris, Associate Professor at Aarhus University

Jeremy Morris, who has been collaborating with HSE University since 2012, is particularly interested in monotowns (single-industry cities or towns) in Russia. He joked at the round table that his signature research method is ‘the classic sociologists’ technique of playing an ignorant fool, to whom you want to explain everything.’

The main message of my work at the roundtable was to challenge a dominant narrative in social research that says that ordinary Russian people are reactive or passive when it comes to responding to the challenges of social and economic life

‘I reject this position and try to show how even the most economically vulnerable people are able to exercise agency, even if it is quite meagre. I try to show how they actively shape their lives for the better, despite difficulties and challenges. I do this by using a broad anthropological lens: looking at mundane things like creativity in craft and provisioning, but also economic practices like engagement with the informal economy, and labour migration,’ says Jeremy Morris.

Jeremy Morris used to live and teach English in Moscow in the 1990s, and speaks excellent Russian. When asked about how he became interested in studying Russia from an anthropological perspective, Jeremy says, ‘I decided in the mid-1990s to focus my research on Russia. There is a special relationship between the UK and Russia that goes back over a hundred years—there is a deep and abiding love of Russian culture in Britain, and that was where my research started. However, quickly after earning my PhD in Russian literature I realised I wanted to study society more than culture, so I transitioned to social science research. Over time what was appealing to me was the idea of working on everyday life as an aspect of understanding society.

Too much scholarship is focused on “big politics” or international relations, and there is too little attention paid to “ordinary” people

Over the years, his interest in the problem of Russian identity has only grown. At the moment he is working on a follow-up to his previous book, Everyday Postsocialism, which came out in 2016. This new project will be a book about Russia’s everyday political economy.

Andrian Vlakhov, Research Fellow at the HSE Laboratory of Linguistic Conflict Resolution Studies and Contemporary Communicative Practices

For anthropologist Andrian Vlakhov, Research Fellow at the HSE Laboratory of Linguistic Conflict Resolution Studies and Contemporary Communicative Practices, field studies are the basis of his research work. He works in social anthropology, where it is key for a researcher to carry out research personally and directly.

Andrian believes that there is no one recipe for how to do a field anthropological study, since the diversity of human cultures and social organization forms is huge, and each of them is unique, which means that the strategies suitable for one culture may not be applicable for others, even if they seem similar. ‘This is particularly clear in the example of contemporary Russia, which, despite the stereotypes, is not homogeneous, but varied, unique in each of its parts and in all aspects—from linguistic to social,’ he says.

According to Andrian, ‘This variety, however strange this may sound, is usually left beyond the framework of our stereotypical perspective. Most Russian residents, including researchers, do not know the country and have no idea of the scope of its variety. This is an issue I deal with working with HSE students as well (and here, I praise the “Rediscovering Russia” expedition support programme, which keeps working to bridge this gap).

The level of general knowledge about the geography, ethnic and language landscape, and ethnical cultures of people living in Russia is generally quite low

 Andrian Vlakhov believes that describing and analysing this diversity is what social science researchers do in their field studies, and this is largely the goal of contemporary anthropology as a science. The Russian context provides almost endless grounds in this regard. ‘I specialize in anthropology of the North and Arctic (more specifically, I study industrial settlements in the Arctic and the process of communities’ transition to post-industrial development), and by this example, it’s easier for me to demonstrate the complexity of the social landscape.’

‘In our stereotypical view, the North is an endless and deserted space filled with snow and ice with deer and polar bears occasionally running by. Local peoples often remain beyond the purview of researchers of the North. Meanwhile, the Arctic is home to hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, many of whom have lived here for thousands of years, even before the European civilization turned its head to the North and started its ‘development’, or, simply put, colonization. Indigenous peoples of the Arctic (and not only the Russian Arctic, by the way) have spent centuries learning to live in the severe Northern conditions, and their cultures fully reflect the region’s complexity. But, if we look at them from above, from capital ministries and physics and geography research institutes, we risk seeing only ‘drunken dirty aboriginals’, and this is where anthropologists and sociologists should come in.

We need specialists who know how to carry out a field study and understand the complexity and variety of local cultures, as well as to demonstrate their importance for the region and the country at large. To fully understand the life in the region, we need to work with all demographics of its population

 

 

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