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‘We Have Always Loved You, Sakhalin’: Research Expedition Studies Sociocultural Anthropology of Miners' Working Life in the USSR

Researchers from the School of Foreign Languages and the Group for Historical Research, together with students of the History programme at the HSE University campus in Perm, have come back from an expedition to Sakhalin Island, where they studied Soviet industrial culture and the working life of miners. The expedition participants shared their impressions of their ‘immersion into the past’ and the extraordinary landscapes of the island with the HSE News Service.

During the 10-day expedition called ‘The Sociocultural Anthropology of Miners' Working-Life in the USSR’, researchers and students conducted interviews with veterans of the mines in the Sakhalin Region and studied photographs and other objects of historical heritage in museums and archives.

The Sakhalin Region was chosen because it stands out in terms of working conditions in mines, mining techniques and technology, specifics of staff formation, the historical context in which companies were founded, the cultural context of nearby settlements, and ethnocultural perspective.

The expedition route ran along the border region of the country, which made it possible to collect information about the miners' culture of the Soviet mines.

The expedition project was conceived by Lilia Panteleeva (expedition leader), Ekaterina Balezina, and Aleksandra Salatova—participants of the HSE University Russian Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme.

Lilia Panteleeva, Research Fellow at the School of Foreign Languages, HSE University in Perm

The expedition focused on collecting anthropological data on the Soviet culture of miners in industrial areas with unique ethnocultural history, natural features, and organisational and technological structures. This topic logically fits in with the academic work of the School of Foreign Languages, extending the range of its projects in regional culture research.

The anthropological study of the Soviet mining industry was conducted in the Sakhalin Region to look at how the nuances of miner culture are influenced by a variety of work factors. The region is notable for its specificity in terms of working conditions in the mines, mining techniques and technology, the specificity of staff formation, the historical context in which companies were founded and, importantly, ethnocultural perspectives.

The expedition project was conceived by the HSE University Russian Postdoctoral Fellowship Programme. It took more than six months to prepare for the project, but the work goes on even after the trip—the collected material is being deciphered and systematised. The basis of a future corpus survey is being formed.

During the trip, we managed to record more than 30 interviews totalling over 40 hours in length. The interviewees were current employees of mining enterprises and veterans of the coal industry, as well as their family members. The students worked with sources in five museums and archives and visited thematic exhibitions and memorials dedicated to miners and the history of Sakhalin.

Alexandra Salatova, Research Fellow at the Group for Historical Research, the Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Empirical Studies (LINES), HSE University in Perm

The expedition to Sakhalin to study miners' culture was conceived as early as last autumn.

The entire route of our expedition was focused on the central and southern coal mining areas. The northern part of the island was not covered. Sakhalin is a honeypot for researchers. We hope it will someday be possible to cover the whole island and collect a complete anthropology of miners' working life in the region.

Ekaterina Balezina, Research Fellow at the School of Foreign Languages, HSE University in Perm

The anthropology of professions is a fairly new research area, and the culture of miners of the Sakhalin Region is an understudied phenomenon, so our expedition was exploratory in nature. The territorial specificity and historical features of Sakhalin Island, such as limited territory, the presence of intercultural and interethnic communications (in particular active interaction at workplace of representatives of Russian and Korean cultures) allowed us to ‘grasp’ a unique professional experience of miners of the Soviet and post-Soviet periods.

The data we received helped us to dive into the history of Sakhalin, to study the features of the miners’ way of life and the mining culture of this territory, and to raise methodological questions on the specificity of anthropological research of the profession. That will allow us to conduct similar research on other territories and other professions in the future.

Students of the History programme actively participated in the expedition. They learned how to analyse anthropological data and conduct anthropological interviews, study cultural phenomena using existing approaches and methods in sociocultural anthropology, work in teams, etc.

Alexander Glushkov, Academic Supervisor of the History programme, HSE University in Perm

The main aim of the expedition was to collect anthropological and documentary material about a profession that is now virtually extinct on Sakhalin. In their interviews, students identified miners' identities, 'uncovered' layers of miners' folklore, and revealed local features of the miners' working life in the island's communities.

We were able to collect quite a lot of material in a very short time, but the expedition to Sakhalin was primarily about developing skills, the ability to network and look for compromises when working in a team, and to unite for a common goal. I have a feeling that for many of the participants, the expedition will be one of the highlights of their student life. 

Maria Andriyanova, fourth-year student in the History programme

I am not going to lie to you—my decision to take part in this expedition was influenced in many ways by the prospect of flying to the other end of the country, experiencing a different culture, and seeing Sakhalin’s landscapes. The nature was truly stunning, with hills all around and the coast only a stone's throw away.

Of course, I have gained new experience of conducting interviews. We met very open and sociable people; each respondent wanted to share their story, and others were eager to help us find interviewees, create comfortable conditions for us, and provide necessary materials.

Daria Burkovskaya, fourth-year student in the History programme

I was a bit afraid at first because this was a completely unfamiliar place and I didn’t know anything about miners' culture or way of life. I didn’t have a clear idea of how our work would be organised, because, again, I’d had no such experience before. However, this fear was nothing compared to the thought that we were going to Sakhalin. I was excited about the opportunity to visit the other side of Russia.

My colleagues and I got involved very quickly, even though we were very tired after the long flight. We were actively communicating with respondents from the first day. During the expedition, I gained invaluable experience of conducting interviews and working in an unusual environment. I think this experience will definitely come in handy in my future professional activities.

I would say that the expedition was way beyond all our expectations. We got acquainted very closely with mining culture—we even learned some professional slang words—and we heard interesting stories and jokes from veterans of the coal industry.

I would love to go on another expedition with our lovely team!

Kristina Kozlova, fourth-year student in the History programme

What struck me most was Sakhalin's nature. You can see the hills from any point there. It was also interesting to talk to veteran miners. I was very surprised that they talked about accidents in the mines calmly, as if it was an ordinary part of their work.

We got a warm welcome on the island. Almost all the locals were friendly and helpful, and they all tried to help us. Before I arrived in Sakhalin, I thought the miners would be unsociable and reserved people. But they were not! They turned out to be very sociable and eager to talk about their work.

I really enjoyed the expedition. It was an unforgettable experience!

Kirill Zhigiliy, third-year student in the History programme

The trip to Sakhalin brought up a whole range of emotions and new discoveries! I joined the expedition because of the location, but learning about mining culture through personal contact (interviews) with the miners themselves, veterans of labour, allowed me to go even deeper into the life of people who chose to live and work on Sakhalin, and to discover this island from another perspective.

This kind of expedition was a new experience for me, but those 10 days helped me improve my communication and teamwork skills. Our trip is over, but the work goes on.

Anastasia Borodina, fourth-year student in the History programme

I decided to take part in the expedition because I wanted to practice my sociological research skills and travel to a faraway place I had never been to before. 

I think we have only briefly outlined the field for further study, although we have already gathered a lot of material—interviews with miners, their families, other mine workers, archival materials from local history museums and archives in the Sakhalin Oblast. This means we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Yana Khasimova, fourth-year student in the History programme

I wanted to join the expedition to Sakhalin for a number of reasons. First, working with interviews is a skill that could come in handy in the future. Second, it is interesting to explore the miners’ way of life. And third is Sakhalin Island itself. During the expedition, we learned how to work in unfamiliar conditions, communicate with a different environment, and find a way out of difficult situations. I also practiced my interviewing skills. All in all, the expedition lived up to my expectations. I’d like to thank everyone who was involved in our expedition to Sakhalin!

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