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’Speaking Russian helps me to interact with colleagues and students’

Dr. Martin Beisswenger, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of History, shares his experience of being a newcomer at HSE in an interview for The HSE LooK.

Martin Beisswengerwas born in Southwest Germany. He received his MA from Humboldt University, Berlin in 2001 and his PhD from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana (USA) in 2009. His areas of specialisation are modern European and Russian history with a particular focus on intellectual history and the history of Russian emigration. He has published widely on Eurasianism and is currently revising his dissertation on Pyotr Savitsky into a book manuscript. Since September 2013 Dr. Beisswenger has been an Assistant Professor at the HSE Faculty of History. Besides his work he enjoys hiking, spending time with his family and watching the German detective series Tatort.


− Why did you choose the HSE as a place to work?

− After I started studying Russian history and language in the early 1990s I visited Moscow at least once a year to practice my Russian. Russian culture and Moscow as a city have always fascinated me. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn about the  international recruitment programme at the HSE. As a relatively young university, it is a very attractive place for me. Working here you can contribute to the development of this institution and have a real impact. Last but not least, the HSE’s Faculty of History is one of the best history departments in Russia. There are many prominent and well-respected historians working here and having them as my colleagues is a great thing.

− What are your impressions from working here so far?

− I joined the HSE only a few months ago so my experience here is still rather limited. Nevertheless, I can say that my impressions so far have been very positive. There is a very welcoming, open-minded atmosphere here. This is a rare thing, and not only in Russia. You can feel the difference, for example, when you enter the HSE and see more smiling people than elsewhere in the city.

As far as my research is concerned, I have been very impressed by the excellent online access (even from home) to electronic resources – books, but even more importantly, journals. This is definitely on a par with any American university, and it is better than it would be in many European countries. This allows me to work in Moscow yet at the same time be integrated into the Western and global academic environment.

− How do you feel at your department? Do you already feel an integral part of the team?

− I feel very comfortable at the department and with my colleagues. I am teaching three lecture courses in the BA programme, all of them in English. Besides that I am participating in the efforts to re-design the English version of the Faculty’s internet presentation. I also gave a lecture in the Faculty’s PhD programme. Finally, I am advising on three student research papers and co-advising on one diploma. So, I am participating in as many events  at the department as any of my Russian colleagues would do. From this perspective I feel really integrated and it surely helps a lot that I speak Russian. Knowledge of Russian language facilitates interaction with my colleagues but also with my students. Although I teach in English only, it’s good to know that if there is any serious communication problem we can always use Russian to clarify things.

− What are your impressions from working with Russian students?

− My students are really excellent. They are curious, talented and ambitious. That is how students should be. They show real enthusiasm and a profound interest in what they are studying. It often happens that even after class some students come up to me and ask additional questions. For a teacher that’s a very good sign. Also, at the end of November they organised  a Historian’s Day, a wonderful party for students and teachers. This shows that the students have a strong sense of community and an interest in history that goes beyond the classroom.

− You came to Moscow in the 90s. What are the most striking changes?

− Moscow is developing very dynamically and in this respect the HSE as an institution is reflecting the changes taking place in the city. Moscow is becoming more globalised, so is Russia, so is the world. All in all, in many aspects the city has become a much easier place to live and work.

However there are several things about life in Moscow that are difficult for me and my family. One of them is the natural environment. It is great to see Moscow developing, but there are too many cars and the air isn’t as clean as it should be. There is also a serious lack of ecological consciousness: as a German who grew up with recycling it always breaks my heart to see all those bottles, newspapers and other recyclable materials simply been thrown away without any recycling at all. Another problem of course is dealing with bureaucracy, where sometimes even knowledge of Russian doesn’t help. This is where the HSE is really making things much easier by assisting very professionally in dealing with this challenge.  The postal service is also one of the problems I am trying to solve. As a historian I need books from abroad, but the Russian postal service is slow and sometimes books may even get lost.

The full text of this interview can be found in The HSE LooK #7, Dec. 19, 2013

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