Post-Doc Fellow from USA Studies Russian and Soviet Film and Photography
Jessica Werneke, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Iowa and her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, joined the International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences as a Research Fellow in 2016. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, she has spent a considerable amount of time living internationally – in both the UK and Latvia – and following her post-doc plans to start a new position as a Newton International Fellow of the British Academy at Loughborough University, where she will continue her research on Soviet photography clubs and amateur photographers in the RSFSR and the Baltic Republics.
Jessica recently spoke with the HSE News Service about her experience at HSE so far, her research interests, and her recommended reading (and viewing) for international audiences interested in Russia.
— You haven’t been at HSE Moscow very long. How would you assess your time here so far? Do you have any ‘lessons learned' to share?
— My experience at HSE has been overwhelmingly positive. I've been working at HSE for 1 year and four months. The university, and the Centre where I work, have been wonderful, and allow for a lot of flexibility. As a historian of Russian/Soviet Visual Culture, I have easy access to archives and libraries, and the university administration has offered a lot of support.
— Have there been any differences between your expectations and what real life has turned out to be in Moscow?
— I visited Moscow in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for my doctoral research. When I began my employment at HSE in 2016, I was no stranger to the city, having lived as central as Aeroport and as far flung as Belyaevo and Strogino. I had an established network of Russian and expat friends.
I will say that Moscow has changed substantially since 2011. The prevalence of credit card culture, as opposed to a cash based system is very noticeable. The service industry has also made noticeable changes. When my family visited me in Moscow in 2012 it was difficult to find restaurants that offered English-language menus, and museums and tours were almost exclusively Russian language based. The prevalence of the English language in Moscow now (I assume, based on the upcoming FIFA World Cup), has substantially increased, which is both positive and negative. The accessibility of services for foreign tourists is an opportunity for the Russian Federation, though I also feel as though a bit of the charm is lost in the internationalization of the city.
— How is your work going? What are you focused on?
— I am currently focused on a variety of projects. My background is in the history of Russian and Soviet photography, and I wrote my dissertation on Soviet photojournalism in the 1950s and 1960s. I am currently working on an article about Socialist Realist photography theory and criticism in the RSFSR in the 1950s and 1960s. I am also researching amateur photography and photography clubs in the RSFSR and the Baltic Republics in the late Soviet period, and finally, a criminal case filed with the Latvian KGB against a photographer who was convicted for ‘anti-Soviet activity’.
— How easy do you find communication, both with colleagues and in everyday life in the city? How do you overcome any difficulties?
Communication and difficulties...that is an interesting question. I think that living in Moscow comes with everyday challenges, but not in a way that one would expect. As I studied the Russian language as an undergraduate and graduate student, I think that my experience will probably have been different from others who may not have the same language skills. As I mentioned previously, the Centre that I work for is absolutely wonderful and has not been challenging or difficult in the least.
I will say that there are uniquely gendered aspects of living in Moscow. If I need to run to the shop in the US, or the UK, or in Latvia (all places I have lived for decent periods of time), I don't spend time thinking of how I look or what I am wearing. But, if I am in Moscow and need milk first thing in the morning, I feel obligated to take a shower, put on make-up, and dress up. To me, this feels as though it is a social obligation: If I don't I feel that I will be treated differently.
— What are some of your favourite places in the city for leisure and fun?
— One of my favourite things about Moscow is the forest parks. Gorky Park is wonderful, but Sokolniki and Bitsa are so much more interesting...for a massive metropolis Moscow offers many options for access to greenery and nature. I also love the Lumiere Brothers Gallery, and VDNKh is a must see.
— Are there any books, films or research papers that you can recommend for international newcomers to HSE Moscow?
— Hmm...Cultural references for newcomers to Moscow/Russia. Let me preference this by saying that I am a huge fan of classic Russian and Soviet cinema. Black Lightening (Черная молния) offers a modern take on the city, particularly how Moscow City changed the face of Moscow itself, but I also love Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (Москва слезам не верит). The Shurik films are easily accessible for a general audience and a good introduction to Russian film - I'm particularly a fan of Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (Иван Васильевич меняет профессию). Cheburashka is, I think, an important cultural point of reference, as is the animation work of Yuri Norshteyn. In the past, I've shown my students the Soviet version of Winnie-the-Pooh (Винни-Пух) and they loved it. Solaris is a cinematic masterpiece, but more cerebral. Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera is a given, as is Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Parts 1&2 and Protazanov's Aelita. The animated short ‘Film, film, film’ is also amazing, but for those unfamiliar with the context, it might be difficult to understand.
As for literature, Vladimir Nabokov is my favourite author, perhaps of all time, but I think Viktor Pelevin is more representative of the current socio-cultural climate.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service
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