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Regular version of the site

Departing Cal Poly Professor Discusses Her Research Interests and Impressions of and Hopes for the HSE

Visiting Professor Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, is spending this semester teaching in the HSE’s Department of History. Professor Wirtschafter, a renowned specialist in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian social history, is the author of six books, including Structures of Society: Imperial Russia’s ‘People of Various Ranks’, which has been translated into Russian; The Play of Ideas in Russian Enlightenment Theater; Religion and Enlightenment in Catherinian Russia: The Teachings of Metropolitan Platon, as well as numerous articles. Before departing Moscow later this month, Professor Wirtschafter kindly agreed to give an interview to the HSE News Service.

— Professor Wirtschafter, how often do you come to Russia? Are any of your visits related to research for upcoming books? And, in general, where do get your ideas for new books?

— I do not come to Russia as much as I should or would like. I have three children, and for about 19 years, while they were growing up, I did not visit Russia. But I was here for extended periods in the communist era (1980-81 and 1984, in the Yeltsin era (1993), and now again in 2013. (I also made brief trips in 2012 and 2013.) So I have ‘lived’ in Russia during three distinct periods, which allows me to make comparisons and to see Russian life from different perspectives. My first three books were based on archival research that I did in the 1980s and early 1990s. My second three books were based on published sources, and now I have begun work on my seventh book, which also will have an archival component. As a foreigner, I see my role not so much in uncovering original archival information about Russian history, though I try to do that, too, but more in interpreting Russian history and culture for an Anglophone audience. I leave it to Russian scholars, who can go to the archives on a regular basis and who have a better understanding of their history and language to discover new information and establish new realities. My job is more interpretive and synthetic than ‘scientific’.

The ideas for my books come out of the process of reading and doing research: as I work on one topic I always find questions and subjects that I do not understand and want to explore. One thing leads to another in an ongoing ‘historical’ process. I usually start with a broad area of interest expressed in a few vague questions. Then I start to read, look at sources, think—and eventually I have a moment of illumination (usually more than one) as a topic takes shape in my mind and imagination. Eventually, I have to settle on a corpus of sources, and at that point the sources begin to define the questions and categories of analysis that become a book or an article. (Ongoing reading of historiography also leads to the formulation of questions and the definition of parameters.) Writing is my favorite activity, and I find that my books tend to write themselves, once I have something to say and enough documentation upon which to base it. I do not believe that historians overturn paradigms or find final answers. To me, as Marc Raeff taught, ‘interpretation always is tentative’. I think of history more as an art form than as a science, and I relate to each book the way an artist relates to a painting. One I've done what I can do with a particular topic or particular documents, it's time to move on to something different. That's why I've written on a range of topics and tried a range of genres and methods.

Vyshka appears to me as an amazing experiment that is helping Russian scholars and students to break out of the Soviet system, to think in new ways, to experiment and be creative, and to develop global relationships. I hope that the experimentation continues and that Vyshka students will carry innovative ideas into Russian society.

— Your first books were devoted to the social strata of the Russian Empire’s population. Then the focus of your research appeared to shift to the spiritual realm.  Why was that?

— My shift to cultural history can be explained in two ways. One reason was practical: I wanted to be at home with my children, and social history requires continual archival research. So I needed to think about topics that could be done using printed sources. But there also are important intellectual reasons for the change/evolution: my interest in social history was really an interest in social consciousness or mentality. I always wanted to understand how people think and what they think they are doing. So after a while, it seemed to me that social history showed over and over again that life is hard. How many ways can a scholar say that life is hard? I wanted to deal with people who told me what they were thinking—people who produced sources that expressed their ideas. So I turned to plays and then to sermons, and now to diplomacy. I also wanted to work on aspirational topics where people develop ideas and imagine new possibilities. But social history remains the foundation of my work and thinking as a historian: without social history I would not possess the technical skills, critical apparatus, analytical acumen, or understanding of evidence that I now, I hope, bring to the study of cultural and intellectual history. Social history is arguably the best place to start and to hone your skills as an historian.

— What future do you see for the Russian studies field in the United States? After all, this area is no longer being fed into by politics. Circumstances have changed—Russia is no longer viewed as a ‘potential enemy’.

— Support for Russian studies has indeed been affected by the end of the Cold War. Russia is now just another European or Eurasian country. The reduced interest in Russia is mainly, however, the result of a broader decline of interest in the humanities. Higher education in the U.S. is becoming more vocational, more technical/scientific, and less oriented toward the liberal arts. The idea that every student should receive a general education for two years before specializing is becoming a luxury that we can no longer afford. This is a shame, but it's the result of financial pressures, information technology, and the emergence of a truly global economy.

— Would you please share your impressions of the time you spent at Vyshka [the HSE] this year? Has the experience met your expectations? Do you have any hopes for the future of Vyshka?  

Vyshka appears to me as an amazing experiment that is helping Russian scholars and students to break out of the Soviet system, to think in new ways, to experiment and be creative, and to develop global relationships. I hope that the experimentation continues and that Vyshka students will carry innovative ideas into Russian society. What these ideas will be, I do not know. But because modern Russian science, scholarship, and arts always have been at the forefront of new developments, I am sure that as long as Russians are encouraged to think and be creative, benefits will accrue. I hope that Vyshka can improve its administrative/bureaucratic mechanisms, so that students and scholars can spend more time being creative and less time dealing with administration. (This is also a problem in the U.S.) Personally, I hope that the high quality of Russian historical research that has become evident since the dismantling of the Soviet Union will continue and that the contacts between Russian and foreign scholars, also difficult and extremely limited during the Soviet period, will lead to further intellectual collaboration, better knowledge, and improved understanding of Russian history. There is so much to learn, and Vyshka can play a central role in supporting the process of learning. It's exciting to get to know students and professors who believe that are working and studying to create something new.

Bulat Yakovlev, second-year student in the Faculty of History, specially for the HSE News Service

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