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Technology Historians from HSE St. Petersburg Take Part in International Network Projects

In July, an international network project involving the Centre for Historical Research Laboratory for Environmental and Technological History was granted the support of two international research funds. Julia Lajus, Head of the Laboratory, told HSE News Service what environmental and technology history is all about, and what role HSE researchers play in the Tensions of Europe international research network.

— Could you explain what environmental and technology history means?

— Environmental history is the history of the relations between humans and nature, while technology history is the history of technology. We believe that these two areas should develop together, and that’s why we teach them simultaneously and study them as part of one research centre.

Human beings have always interacted with nature with the use of technology. Even when primitive people hunted for mammoths, they needed spears and other tools- this was their technology. So, when we talk about the history of interaction between humans and nature, technology is always going to be present.

— What research do you carry out?

— We have several big projects. The first is funded as part of the HSE Basic Research programme and looks at Russia’s industrial, cultural and natural historical heritage. Every year, we recruit research interns who are students at the university.

Our biggest project is the study of Russia’s natural resources’ history. We look at the history of institutions, expertise, and infrastructure related to natural resources. We are referring not only to mineral resources, but also biological resources, such as forests and fish. Two years ago, we received a Russian Science Foundation grant for this research, and we are currently completing the project.

We also study the sustainable development of the European Arctic Region, together with KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

The problems related to the North, as well as the Baltic Sea and Neva River, are very important in our work. We study nature not only outside cities, but also within them. We look at the relations between the city and the river. For example, a virtual exhibition ‘History of relations between St. Petersburg/the Neva and Vienna/the Danube’ will soon be launched on the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society website. This is a result of our international project that was completed a long time ago.

— Could you tell us about your participation in the Tensions of Europe network?

— Tensions of Europe is a European research network which was created almost 20 years ago with the aim of supporting technology history research. The participants look at how Europe has been united not only politically, but by means of infrastructure development: railroads, electric mains, and communications. Europe is not only a political structure, but also a geographical and cultural one. This is why the technology history of Russia, which is our subject, is also interesting in this context.

We’ve participated in Tensions of Europe conferences for a long time. But our close cooperation began relatively recently: two years ago, we held the first workshop with our peers from the network at HSE in St. Petersburg.

Tensions of Europe is a big network. We work as part of a Research Group on Technologies, Environment and Resources. This group is part of a broader project dedicated to the history of society and technology during crises. One of the coordinators of this project is Elena Kochetkova, my former student and now my colleague. She is also a coordinator of the early career scholars network, which is part of Tensions of Europe.

In the group on Technologies, Environment and Resources, we work together with researchers from Aarhus University, Eindhoven University of Technology, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, EHESS in Paris, the University of Athens, and Nova University of Lisbon. Recently, together with our international peers, we received funding from two national research funds – one in Denmark and the other in the Netherlands.

— What will you spend this money on?

— First of all, we’ll spend it on developing the network cooperation. This funding will allow us to meet more often: to organize workshops and conferences, and to discuss our research in person, rather than via Skype. We’ve already decided on the date of the next HSE-based workshop. It will take place in October 2019.

We organize regular workshops on environmental and technology history that attract Russian and international scholars. I encourage anyone who is interested to attend: the most recent information is available on the laboratory website.