Working with Like-minded People
‘HSE is a new generation university which offers many opportunities to historians in Russia. I’m very happy to be here and I feel that I’m working with like-minded people.’ Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Historical Research Gayle Lonergan talked about her research interests and why she decided to work with HSE St Petersburg.
— Tell us about your earlier academic work.
— My first degree is from Cambridge and then I went to Oxford where I defended my PhD dissertation and started on an academic career path as a junior researcher. That’s the position I have at HSE too. My work is in history, predominantly Russian history.
— What was your dissertation about?
— I wrote about ‘paper communists’, the people who joined the Bolshevik party in 1918 without any ideas of its policies or aims. A large part of the dissertation was about the relations between peasants and the Bolshevik party in Siberia and the Urals during the Civil War of 1918-1921.
—Tell us more about your research interests.
— At the moment I’m studying the identification of citizens, practices of registration and things like that. My latest project is about Bulgarian history and the first census in the New Kingdom at the end of the 19th century. I’ve been looking particularly at the shift in the concepts of narodnost’ and natsional’nost’ - folk or national character and nationality or ethnicity. There are several nuances between these terms in the slavonic language.
— Why did you decide to come to Russia for your research?
— I simply wanted to submerge myself in the history of this country again. Now I’m studying registration and the way houses are numbered. It sounds quite strange, I know (laughs - ed.). In general I’m studying the history of the St Petersburg city administration and the police. I’m curious about to what extent the state, in the 19th century, understood the scale of the city. How it was built with all its streets, how they went about numbering the houses, how the local government kept an eye on the citizens etc, etc. I’m learning about the first project of modernization connected to city administration and identifying citizens at the turn of the 18th to 19th century. So I spend all my time in the city archives.
— Why did you chose the HSE in St Petersburg?
— When I was still working at Oxford, I kept coming across HSE people. I got the impression that we had a similar view of the world. Russian historians used to see things differently, to put it mildly (laughs — ed.). But HSE is a new generation university which offers historians many opportunities in Russia. I’m very happy to be here and I feel I’m working with like-minded people.
And St Petersburg is like a fascinating research object for me. After all it is one of the first purpose-built cities in the world. It is a new type of city. Not many people investigate its structure. There are plenty of studies of other cities but none about St Petersburg. Few people realise just how much you can find in the archives here!
HSE is a new generation university which offers many opportunities to historians in Russia. I’m very happy to be here and I feel that I’m working with like-minded people.
The city really was built on purpose with specially projected plans. Take London for example, or Paris — they grew gradually into cities but Petersburg was built to be one. Not all at once, perhaps but from the start there was a plan and it can be considered the first project ever to modernise a city and its administration.
Of course, we can compare Petersburg with other cities at a later stage, but right now I’m looking at its structure and the interactions between the administration and the inhabitants. In fact, without surnames and numbering houses, there’s nothing. Without them you can’t even have the concept of a city’s population. They create it. And actually, how could the city Duma and the police know of the existence of citizens and whether they belonged to the city? Through the house numbering system and lists of surnames of tenants! We could say that it was the old version of information technology. And so the house numbers and tenant lists were the first steps towards developing the concept of ‘citizenship’.
— What are your academic plans for the near future?
— Right now I want to make a more detailed study of the GIS — Geographical Information System. I want to use similar new technology to study the urban structures from that time. That can help me look through a new prism at how urban dwellers perceived their city, how they used urban spaces and their scale in the 18th and 19th centuries, and lots of other things too.
— What are your impressions of your first months working at HSE St Petersburg?
— I’m very pleased about working at HSE. I’ve been familiar with Russia before — I worked in Moscow and lived in Omsk but now my academic work has brought me to Petersburg and here on the HSE St Petersburg campus I have the chance to realise my research interests. I have all the necessary materials, high levels of support from my bosses...In short, everything I need is here!
Prepared by Kseniya Burko