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Studying History and Nation-Building in Borderlands

Alexandr Voronovici,a second year postdoctoral research fellow at the International Centre for the History and Sociology of World War II and Its Consequences, shared his experience of teaching transnational perspective on Soviet history to HSE students.

— What are your research interests in general and what are the projects that you are working on right now?

— More generally I am interested in nation-building, and more generally ‘the national question’ and the history of this issue in the borderlands, particularly in the contested territories in Eastern and Central Europe. Currently I am doing two projects. One is more historical - on Soviet and Bolshevik approach to and instrumentalization of the national question on the western border. Another project is more interdisciplinary - on memory politics in separatist republics of Donbas and Transnistria. I am looking at how separatist regimes are trying to use history in their policies and discourses to legitimize themselves externally and internally, and in political struggles. In Transnistria it has been already going on for thirty years and in Donbas for the last 5 years. I am trying to compare these two cases, and, in my opinion, they have an interesting phenomenon in common. For that I am analyzing speeches, official documents, history textbooks and historical publications to see how they instrumentalize history for political goals; also visual data, monuments - which monuments are being erected, preserved or removed.

— How do you work with history textbooks?

— We take history textbooks from schools and universities and try to understand what kind of narrative they are building: which periods of history and features of the region they are emphasizing and in which way, what part of the population they are elevating or downgrading or hiding. 

It is interesting to trace how textbooks are constructing the historical account as a separate entity in relation to the parent state (i.e. the state from which the region is trying to secede) and what role they ascribe to the separatist state in the larger context

Some of these things are changing over time in history textbooks because internal and international circumstances change, different people are coming to power, different ideas become popular on international or local scale. There can be contesting viewpoints among politicians and historians alike even in a supposedly quite small region like Transnistria, for instance, providing the researchers with competing narratives in publications, public speeches or interviews to study.

— Is this what you teach this semester?

— The course I am teaching is titled “The Soviet Union and the World: Comparative and Transnational Perspectives on Soviet History”. With this course I am trying to give a broader international perspective on Soviet history to demonstrate how Soviet Union was - even though we have this general perception that Soviet Union was an internationally quite isolated state - was very much interconnected with the outside world. And this is what historical studies in the last couple of decades very much contributed to and developed on. The course was designed to give the students a more international view on Soviet history; how Soviet Union and Soviet actors were interacting with the outside world all the time- sometimes through people, sometimes through ideas. Another element of this course was to give international history of communism outside of the Soviet Union as, of course, it is very much interconnected with it.

— What are your general impressions of the course and what are some challenges that you have encountered?

— There were many historians in my class so they know enough things about the Soviet Union, some even more than me, but the background knowledge across the class really varies and some do not know very basic things. So it is a very large and diverse classroom, and I have both Russian and international students as well, including some from the former socialist countries. International students are very interested in the region and they know Russian and Soviet history quite well. They are often quite fluent in English, too. I have also noticed that some of HSE students have a decent level of English in written papers but find it challenging to respond quickly in classroom or engage into discussions. But I think it is a good experience and practice for them.

It was actually good that the group was so diverse. It is an opportunity for HSE students to hear other people not from their region, share different perspectives and get into discussion with them, see how the same text can be approached in a variety of ways. Even simply communicating is good, as this experience of being in an international community is enriching.

You start questioning a lot of things which you have taken for granted, especially when you have not travelled a lot before. And you start to understand what has been taken for granted in your culture and at home - and that it is not necessarily true in other places

 

In that sense your horizon is widening. It is wonderful that HSE students have an opportunity here - with a lot of international students coming in, international faculty coming in, and also HSE students have a chance to travel abroad through various programs. It is a unique opportunity for them not just professionally but personally.

— What are the opportunities you are gaining from HSE that help you to develop your research?

— There are many benefits. First of all, geographical location. Moscow is great for me because central Soviet archives are here. Since I am also studying Ukrainian and Moldovan history – Soviet republican and regional archives are also important, but Moscow holds the archives of the central Soviet bodies. For instance, many of my colleagues in the West have to travel once a year or every two years for several weeks in archives. And I basically stay here all the time and can use the documents from archives any time I want to when I am not writing articles or teaching.

The other great moment is that my center - the International Center for History and Sociology of WWII and Its Consequences - has some of the leading specialists in Russia and the world on Soviet history. Oleg Khlevnyuk, for example, is one of the leading specialists on Stalin and Stalinism. He basically knows everything we know about Stalin. Also the director of the center Oleg Budnitsky is a specialist on World War I, Revolution, Interwar period, and World War II. We really have a group of people who are very close to my research and amazing specialists in the field in general and internationally.

In addition, we have external international members who are fellows at our center and come from time to time, such as Michael David-Fox or Lynne Viola. They are globally recognized specialists on Soviet history, and they come for conferences or to give a short course at HSE. In addition to that, almost all major specialists on Soviet and Russian history are passing by Moscow often and give a talk at our Center. In that sense it is an amazing opportunity to communicate with some of the best specialists in the field who are arriving for their research in the archives or some other events and take the time to visit HSE as well.

If we look through the HSE mailbox, there are always some great researchers giving a talk, as well as opportunities to find events in Moscow offered by other platforms, universities and institutes.

Moscow is a global city, and academically it gives a lot of opportunities, especially for those who study the region

Another great opportunity here is to meet your international colleagues, other postdocs like me. I made friends with several people from other fields with whom we are discussing various issues, from string theory to economic development. I enjoy the opportunities to meet people from other places both to discuss academic issues and also to make friends.

— Is there anything you think you could recommend to new international faculty members who just joined HSE?

— I would say first of all one has to ask coordinators what opportunities are available. Sometimes we realize too late there were calls to get funding for a conference or something like that. One should also take bureaucratic procedures into consideration when planning how to use funds or business trips. Sometimes it takes a bit of time to make it happen, and it is normal, we just need to not assume our previous experience from other universities applies precisely. So I would advise to ask your coordinators or international faculty support center who are here to help us with such things. It is also important to start early discussing the possibilities of collaboration with your colleagues at HSE. Historians especially tend to stick to their own research and sometimes they feel comfortable like that, but it is possible to push things a bit further and explore more opportunities together.