Ambassadors for Interdisciplinary and Applied History
Samrat Sil is a recent graduate of the English-taught Master's programme in Applied and Interdisciplinary History ‘Usable Pasts’ at HSE St. Petersburg. He first learned about the programme from H-NET.org, a database and portal for the social sciences and humanities that advertises a wide range of calls for conference papers, summer schools, as well as Master’s and PhD programmes at various universities around the world. After learning more, Samrat didn’t hesitate to apply to HSE. David Datmar, a native of Ghana, decided to join the programme to help him prepare for eventual study at the PhD level, which he plans to undertake soon at the University of Oxford. Both gentlemen were recently awarded certificates of recognition for their role as ambassadors contributing to the university’s internationalization agenda. Samrat and David were eager to speak with the HSE News Service about their experience in the programme.
Could you tell us a little about your background and what brought you to HSE St. Petersburg, specifically to the programme in interdisciplinary and applied history?
Samrat: I was on the verge of completing my bachelor’s studies in history at Presidency University in Kolkata (India) and was looking for a tailor-made programme that would suit my needs. The new HSE programme in applied and interdisciplinary history was different from other programmes as it was practical, innovative and research based. The programme offered interesting internships at different museums, institutions and tourist companies in and around St. Petersburg, which helped us learn a great deal. It was a perfect blend of theory and practice. Along with internships, there were several interesting academic courses based on technological history, heritage management, cultural studies, Eurasia, the Cold War and Imperial Russia.
We also took elective courses on Coursera and on Soviet films, which brought us closer to Russian visual culture. One of the most important advantages of this course is its versatility. We had students from various backgrounds, such as tourism, international relations, philosophy, media studies and sociology, which enabled an interdisciplinary academic exchange during our seminars. Learning was constant and was not restricted to the four walls of the classroom but progressed beyond it.
The new HSE programme in applied and interdisciplinary history was different from other programmes as it was practical, innovative and research based
What were some of the difficulties you encountered, and how did you overcome them?
David: The programme is very broad and so challenges students in covering everything it deals with. That made it appear exhausting sometimes. Another challenge is that is does not focus on a single sub-field; it cuts across fields within the humanities and social sciences in its bid to make the past as usable as possible. Such an interdisciplinary character challenged me to read more widely and explore different sub-disciplines. It was therefore very tough, but with hard work and commitment, I was able to get through.
Samrat: My first semester was a bit hard. We had regular assignments, readings, presentations and essays for every course, and sometimes the deadlines would fall on the same day. Furthermore, each course was different, so we had to skip between different historical periods and topics while preparing. I’ve found that the most important thing to ease the workload is proper scheduling and time management. After my first semester, which also required some of my time to adjust to a new country, I dedicated a fixed amount time for each course and their respective assignments. Things became a lot easier for me in the following semesters. I think time management and making a routine is crucial for efficient learning.
I would say that the two years in St. Petersburg were perhaps the best two years of my life so far. The academic environment is rich and welcoming. The university and dormitory are filled with international students and exchange students from across the globe, which promotes intercultural exchange
What about the support you received during your studies?
Samrat: Everyone in the faculty inspired and encouraged me in my academic career. Professor Evgeny Khvalkov, who was my academic supervisor, encouraged me extensively on my independent research on Byzantium. He made me aware of the various international academic opportunities that are available in the field. I also worked as a teaching assistant for his course in HSE’s undergraduate programme. It was a rewarding experience for me because I was able to impart my knowledge to young students and receive their feedback.
I would also like to mention Professor Julia Lajus, who supported me throughout my time at HSE. She encouraged us to actively participate in international conferences and summer schools and to present our research in forums. This was important as we received helpful feedback regarding our work. I would also like to mention Professor Marina Loskutova and Professor Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov, who taught us about memory studies, textual criticism and cultural studies. This was a new area for me and it was really interesting to understand how these concepts functioned and their application in present day scenarios.
David: All professors in the Department of History were inspiring and interesting to me. They push you to do better, which is one thing I found in common among them.
For newcomers, I would like to say make the most of your time in Russia. Explore the country, actively participate in academic discussions, learn the Russian culture and pursue your own research
How would you describe what it’s like to live and study in St. Petersburg to other international students? What advice would you share with them?
Samrat: I would say that the two years in St. Petersburg were perhaps the best two years of my life so far. The academic environment is rich and welcoming. The university and dormitory are filled with international students and exchange students from across the globe, which promotes intercultural exchange.
More than anything, the city has been an important factor for my whole experience. This beautiful city and its warm people accept you with open arms. The city itself can it teach you a lot about Russian culture and its rich history. For example, I had a unique opportunity to work at Peterhof and the Hermitage, which is a dream come true for a history student.
For newcomers, I would like to say make the most of your time in Russia. Explore the country, actively participate in academic discussions, learn the Russian culture and pursue your own research.
What was the strangest thing that ever happened to you in Russia? What do you like most about being here?
Samrat: I wouldn’t say it’s strange, but the most brilliant thing that ever happened to me during my stay is the amazing people that I got to meet. I had the opportunity to travel high up in the Russian tundra with my friend from HSE Moscow. We were visiting Murmansk and Kirovsk with the intention of seeing the northern lights. We were hosted by a Russian man who told us about the history of the city and war. The people there were open and welcoming, even when our Russian language skills were not up to the mark. They were curious about our culture and happily shared their own. They left an everlasting impression in my mind.
What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?
David: I had hoped to continue at the PhD level within my area of research interest even before my Master’s at HSE. Fortunately, I will be furthering in the DPhil in Area Studies (Africa) programme at the University of Oxford soon. This is a dream come true for me.
Samrat: I’m in a mixed state of emotions. I am sad and already feeling nostalgic that I am leaving behind this wonderful city and its people; I will be cherishing the beautiful memories forever. But I am happy and grateful for all the experiences I had during my stay here as it helped me to become a better individual.
I have been accepted for a one-year Medieval studies Master’s programme at Central European University in Budapest, which I plan on joining in September. This comes after getting advice from my departmental professors who are alumni of that institution. This would enable me to continue my research on medieval history that I started here at HSE. After completing that course, I plan to move on with my PhD and apply for jobs in academia and the museum sector. Perhaps that would even allow me to come back to HSE or the Hermitage as an employee!
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service
International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences, Higher School of Economics and The Friedrich Ebert Foundation held 'A Memory Revolution’: Soviet History Through the Lens of Personal Documents' in Moscow on 7-8 June, 2017. The conference brought together distinguished historians and sociologists from across the globe. Michael David-Fox, Professor of History, Georgetown University, and Academic Advisor of HSE International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences shares his reflections and considerations on the main topic and discussions at the conference and his own research
On May 31, Valerie Kivelson, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, will be delivering a seminar entitled ‘Visualizing Empire: Muscovite Images of Race’. Professor Kivelson is an expert in Medieval and early modern Russia, history of cartography, history of witchcraft, religion, and political culture, among other topics. She is the author of 'Desperate Magic: The Moral Economy of Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Russia' and a guest editor of 'Witchcraft Casebook: Magic in Russia, Poland and Ukraine. 15-21st Centuries'.
A group of 20 undergraduates from the United States visited St. Petersburg, 'the northern Venice', this January, taking part in a programme that blended the history, society and culture of the Russian Empire’s capital. Participants arrived from Mount Holyoke College and Smith College, opting to spend two weeks of their winter holidays here (6 – 22 January) learning about this city. Participants were diverse in their fields of studies, Russian knowledge, and travel experience, some even choosing this trip as their first chance to travel outside the borders of the United States.
On Monday, October 3, two professors of anthropology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Heather Paxson and Stefan Helmreich – delivered a seminar for students of HSE St. Petersburg Master's programme in Applied and Interdisciplinary History. A presentation by Professor Paxson focused on how the microbiopolitics of cheese making in the U.S. presupposed and promoted industrial methods and standards and how in recent decades interest in producing and consuming artisanally made, raw-milk cheese has risen dramatically.
Yanina Karpenkina won the 2016 annual contest for HSE students, which is organized by the International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences. Thanks to the contest, she went on a six-week internship as a research assistant with the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This April, Microhistory Days took place at HSE. The event coincided with the visit to the School of History of Prof. Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon (Reykjavík Academy in Iceland) and Dr. István Szijártó (Loránd Eötvös University, Budapest), renowned experts in microhistory, founders of the Microhistory Network, and authors of What is Microhistory? Theory and Practice, a comprehensive analytical monograph.
An international school of young historians, ‘Russian – Polish Entangled History: Scientific Reconstruction and Reflection in the Collective Memory’, took place in April at the School of History (HSE Moscow). Undergraduate and master’s students from HSE and the University of Warsaw took place in the event. Alexander Kamensky, Andrey Iserov, Dariusz Klechowski, Director of the Polish Cultural Centre in Moscow, and Leonid Gorizontov, who lead the organization of the Russian-Polish meeting.
On March 11, Seth Bernstein gave a presentation — ‘Burying the Alliance: Interment, Repatriation and the Politics of the Sacred in Occupied Germany’ — at the scholarly seminar of the HSE International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences where he works as a postdoctoral research fellow.
On 22 January, 2016 Judd Kinzley, Assistant Professor at the Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA gave a presentation, ‘Wartime Atrocities and the Historical Legacies of World War II in China’at the academic seminar of the HSE International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences.
In December 2015, leading international academic Ronald Suny chaired a seminar at HSE St Petersburg on Imperial Transformations – Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet History, which was part of the international research project Comparative Historical Studies of Empire and Nationalism.