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‘It is really important for our society to understand that there are a lot of languages in Russia’

Idalia Fedotova

Earned a degree in philology from the Moscow State University Faculty of Philology. Has taught Academic English at the HSE School of Foreign Languages since 2013. Currently preparing to defend her dissertation at the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN). Publishes academic papers on the Uralic languages as part of a project by the RAN’s Institute for System Programming.

Idalia Fedotova was always interested in research, but she imagined academic society as a private club of geniuses and people descended from academics. In this interview with Young Scientists of HSE, she spoke about her journey as a researcher and mother of four young children. The HSE News Service presents a series of interviews with university researchers who discuss their work, important discoveries, and their lives outside the classroom and lab.

Why I chose a career in science

I have been interested in the humanities since childhood. After finishing high school, I enrolled in the Moscow State University Faculty of Philology. HSE University didn’t offer philology then. Seeing that my professors had actually authored the textbooks we were using gave me the impression that the world was beginning to open up.

I studied in the Russian philology department, but we also had compulsory classes in Latin, Ancient Greek, Old Church Slavonic, and the history of the Russian language. English was simply a given, but I also studied German, Sanskrit, Lithuanian and Polish. Idalia is a Polish name; I was named after my great-grandmother. So it isn’t surprising that I have always been interested in Slavonic etymology and proto-linguistic reconstruction. Ever since my school days, I wanted to know how languages develop and why they differ so much. It was very interesting to study, but I didn’t know how I could earn a living doing research after I graduated. This really bothered me.

This is how the future looked: I could do what interested me, but I was doomed to go hungry or be dependent on others. But I went to postgraduate school anyway because I wanted to see if this was really the case. After all, if you don’t try, you won’t know. My parents are practitioners, a geologist and a commodity researcher. They were very supportive of my decision and looked at earning a PhD as important and prestigious. At the same time, they had no idea what kind of life an academic leads.

Why I didn’t defend my first PhD thesis

My thesis focused on the etymological origin of the verb ‘shove’ in Russian. The topic seems ridiculous at first glance, but ‘shove’ is a very ancient Indo-European verb that has become colloquial in Russian. I studied Russian and Slavic etymology, going deep into antiquity.

For postgraduate school, I studied at the RAN Institute of the Russian Language under my same research supervisor from the university. It was an amazing opportunity to learn about academic traditions and to become deeply immersed in the origins of rare literature. Just one tea party with PhDs surrounded by bookshelves lined with dictionaries made the whole thing worthwhile! But the gloomy economic forecasts began to come true: my salary was more like a student stipend even though there were many demands placed on me. I worked there for three years and still keep in touch with many friends and acquaintances from that time. During the last year of my correspondence postgraduate studies, I moved to the HSE Faculty of Philology, which they were just in the process of creating.

Then I went on my first maternity leave before I managed to defend my PhD thesis. At the last departmental consultation, my colleagues said it needed a major reworking and required so much additional material that it would have been like writing a second dissertation.

The topic of my research was: ‘The origin of the Russian terminology of grain processing’. I gathered the names of the structures, tools, processes and grains for each stage of processing in all dialects of the Russian language. Some were original words, some were borrowed from the Finno-Ugric or Turkic languages. If I had completed this research, I could have published a monograph.

Photo: HSE University

When I was asked to add even more glossaries, I was already on maternity leave. So, I completed my postgraduate studies but didn’t defend my dissertation. When my child was one year old, I realised that even if I were to spend two hours a day trying to add the recommended materials, it would take me two years to collect everything even before I could start the analysis stage. I realised that this was impossible, and that I needed either to change everything or give up on this venture.

How I got back into science

When my third child was born, I thought that I would never finish my dissertation. It was very disappointing because I really wanted to do research, but I couldn’t fit it into my life.

And then my new research advisor unexpectedly contacted me through social networks and invited me to work on a digital project for the documentation and analysis of languages spoken in Russia. She needed someone who understood etymology and historical linguistics. But it was necessary to work with Uralic, which is a completely different family of languages. It includes Udmurt, Mari, Khanty, Mansi, Nenets and others.

My advisor said she could pay for my work by including me in the grant. My experience shows that this is the most effective way to include someone in research. Doing research gratis only works as a hobby; serious science requires concentration, organisation and certain conditions. And, of course, adequate financial compensation.

I gradually came to an understanding of which topic I should write my new dissertation on. I am researching semantic transitions, i.e. connections between the meanings of words, between unrelated languages in Siberia: Uralic, Turkic and Tungusic. I’ve already passed my qualifying exams for my new specialisation have and prepared most of the text for the dissertation.

How I started working again at HSE

After eight years of maternity leave, I returned to work at HSE in 2022. Although I was hired to the Faculty of Philology (now the School of Philological Studies), administratively, I am with the School of Foreign Languages because I am qualified to teach English. At this point, I faced the difficult task of determining what I like to do.

I chose to teach academic English. The topic of university academic writing in the English-speaking field is actively developing and advancing. It seems to me that less time is devoted to this in Russia and in the Russian language. There is a belief that you read literature and learn to write by yourself. But HSE differs from most Russian universities in that it has a separate academic writing course in both Russian and English. This year I teach it in the fourth year and in graduate school for physicists, and I teach special English for historians.

I can teach academic writing for any field. Of course, this requires knowing something about the text, but if it contains a formula, I don’t have to understand it per se. As a teacher of academic writing, I can identify the cause and effect, how ideas relate to each other, and whether the author is making a statement without supporting it with an example or argument.

HSE also has an Academic Writing Centre for staff. They conduct seminars, refresher courses on how to write in English–not only in terms of words and grammar, but also in terms of structure. If an article published in a leading Russian journal is simply translated into English and sent to an international journal, there is little chance that it will be accepted: the requirements for logical transitions between arguments, how the results are presented, and how the methods are described are different. The Centre provides guidance on this issue. I use it a lot myself. These seminars not only help me teach students, but they also teach me how to write scientific articles in Russian better.

When I felt like I was part of the scientific world

I really love teaching and wouldn’t want to do research alone. But I don’t want to simply teach; when I teach, I give something away. When I do research, I gain something that becomes part of myself.

I read source materials or write an article and I get charged up with energy and new ideas for what to talk about at the next conference or what to write an article about

After working on the Uralic languages project for four years, I felt like I had finally become part of the scientific world. It is important to publish in good journals in this field. It is important to know key specialists, to participate in conferences with them. All this has happened, even though I am still at the beginning of my scientific career. What’s more, I was on maternity leave, after my third child, a fourth was born and it was clear that I couldn’t devote much time to science–but I thought about it all the time, read articles and recorded my thoughts on the phone while walking with the children. The project on documentation of the languages of Russia continues. In addition, I was invited to take part in another Russian Science Foundation grant.

My second research advisor took me under her wing. I think this is largely what happens with young researchers who haven’t yet made a name for themselves. A mentor can be a specific person, a department, or an institute. Collective research is more common among physicists or chemists, but in the humanities, it is valued more if you are the sole author of an article. And this is basically the case with me, but even when I am the sole author, I always consult with another scholar–that is, I check the text before submitting it to the journal.

I definitely feel the need to do research and attend conferences. Zola wrote the novel L'Œuvre about an artist whose gift became a curse for him, yet he could not help painting. My preoccupation with science is the same type of inner need.

When I see something that fires me up, I feel the energy to do even more and learn something new.

I am very interested in reconstruction projects, in comparative historical research. These are very specific questions, but the fact that they are of interest not only to me, but also to various people in remote corners of the world, also confirms me in my choice to pursue research.

Academic achievements in which I take pride

Serious experts in the field of comparative historical linguistics of the Urals read and approved my articles. I recently published an article on how the dialects of the Khanty minority differ more from each other than the Slavic languages do. The major differences between them were already known, but I made quantitative and qualitative measurements and showed that these dialects can be considered three separate languages. If I can tell a wide audience about something, then it is important work. It is also important for me that people learn that more than just the Russian language exists in Russia. Some minor languages have been studied more and others less, and in general, many are on the verge of extinction.

Some people might not consider it prestigious to speak their native language and think that Russian is enough. But it seems to me that it is really important for our society to understand that there are a lot of languages in Russia. And it is important for the country to preserve and support these languages, not in the museum sense, but really to prolong their life. And for a linguist, it’s just heaven to explore little-studied languages because they have elements that don’t match our preconceived notions, such as having, say, not three kinds of nouns, but five, or not three moods of the verb, but 10.

Advice for budding scientists

The main advice is to look for an environment where it is possible to conduct research, to look for a team. It is my deep conviction that a specific topic or even a field is not as important as the people are; the project should be a living thing in which there is genuine interest.

Photo: HSE University

The Soviet era of centrally planned science has passed. Today, research contracts last for a year, or at most two or three. And you can’t just come up with a topic for yourself; it must be something that is in demand. Sometimes you have to modify your interests so you can get to where things are happening and so that journals will accept your articles.

Feel free to write to the authors of articles that interest you. Scientists are often very open, especially if you ask about their work. There is a site, academia.edu, where many people upload their publications and you can write to them directly. People respond, and new research can come from this.

Another principle is that you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. Scientists often hold down several jobs at once, not because they are greedy or unable to focus on only one thing, but to make ends meet. It’s rare to do just one thing.

How I envision my future academic career

As a mother of four small children, many people told me: ‘You probably won’t be able to do research anymore or work at the university in general’. And it’s true that there were several times in my life when it was unclear whether I’d be able to continue pursuing an academic career.

But I understood that science is what gives me an endless source of energy and, despite all the difficulties, doesn’t lead to burnout. I'm glad I was able to return. And I have a vision for my future career.

I would like to devote most of my working time to research but also be sure to teach. I communicate in one way with my co-workers and in another with students. The students are active, they force you to learn new things and grow in your job. And in general, whenever you gain new knowledge, you have to share it with someone.

I want to defend my PhD thesis and become a good researcher, develop my projects. Russia’s linguistic community is large and varied, which is not the case in all countries. Ever since I was a college student, I wanted to become a world-class scientist. Science, in principle, cannot be parochial or self-contained; it has no boundaries.