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‘Progress in Life Comes when You’re More Driven than Everyone Else’

Alexandra Mamlina

Earned a bachelor’s degree in philology from the Novosibirsk National Research State University and a master’s degree in art history from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. Research assistant at the Centre of Medieval Studies of the Faculty of Humanities of HSE University. Teaches Italian.

Alexandra Mamlina teaches HSE University students Italian, defends her dissertation on the Visconti of Milan, and dreams of writing an art history book about northern Italy. In an interview with the HSE Young Scientists project, she shared how Italian became part of her life, thoughts about the giants on the facade of the Duomo, and the fact that she could have been born on a lake, but instead was born on the Ob Sea.

Why I chose a career in science

This is a difficult question, because it’s as if I haven’t made the final decision yet. I have always liked teaching. And, as the dean of my faculty says, ‘You might not want to call yourself a scientist, but you still need a PhD.’ And this imperative also influenced me, although I had already wanted to defend my dissertation, because a teacher without a degree is somehow not comme il faut. I suppose this is about being an eternal student. When you are connected to the academy, you are always young. Even this project is called Young Scientists. It’s funny: you are a young PhD student at 30, a young PhD holder at 35, and then a young associate member. And so you stay young to the very end.

My area of research

There’s a lot. Right now, I will defend my PhD thesis in history, although I am not a historian. My first degree is in philology. But even as a philology student, I realised that I was not very interested in linguistics or literature alone, but always felt more drawn to the wilds of interdisciplinary work. And while still an undergrad, I wrote term papers on culture. But I wasn’t permitted to do my senior thesis at the Department of Cultural Studies. As a result, an academic advisor who taught the theory of literature agreed to oversee my project and that of a friend. I wrote about Gogol's local texts and my friend, Olga, wrote about his mythopoetics. After that, we had no connection with Gogol, although I chose a prophetic topic. Local texts work with urban space, and I had an image of Rome in Gogol’s works. And as it turned out, my further life was connected, in fact, with Italy.

Why I chose Italian

I studied Italian from my first year at Novosibirsk State University. Now I teach Italian at HSE University and my dissertation is on Italian art. It would be logical to assume that I have liked Italy since childhood, but no, I just missed the organisational meeting at the university where they divided students into languages, and instead of French, which I wanted to study, I was assigned to Italian. I accepted it. We had a great teacher—a native speaker who had lived in Novosibirsk for many years. It’s very cool to have six hours of language per week and a real Italian whom you can ask anything you want. At that time, I had never been to Italy, but thanks to classes with Sarah, I used to have dreams about Italy.

When I went to Rome, I was terribly disappointed. Fortunately, I liked other places, but in Rome it was hot, awful, and chaotic and the people annoyed me. I felt terrible because I had dreamed about this trip for so long. But I am persistent, and during my third year, I joined my friend, Olga and others for a semester exchange in Milan, where I had never been before either. A month later, I wanted to go home. If not for Olga, I would definitely have come back. I am a real homebody, and I just didn’t feel at home there. I was very lonely, despite having a close and understanding friend there. I wanted to hear my native language spoken. I hate pulling up roots and relocating.

Photo: HSE University

But we still stayed. I really liked one professor’s lectures on the history of medieval art. We had been studying the language for three years, but I didn’t understand half of what was said. I am a very assiduous person and during the lectures, I would fill half of the page with words that I had heard, but hadn’t understood, or didn’t completely hear and hadn’t understood, and so wrote down my best guess. And then I would spend 3-4 hours looking up those words in a dictionary. This work helped me a lot. In about a month, what had been incomprehensible words on one side of my page migrated over to familiar words in my notes on the other side of the page. The progress motivated me, and the topic fascinated me. So I decided to go to Italy for a master’s degree.

What I studied in the master’s programme

Nobody in my family ever criticised my decision. At most, they asked, ‘How will you earn a living with a philology degree?’ My parents are creative types; my mother is a photographer and my father is a director. He had a film company in Novosibirsk and shot corporate films. It would have made sense for me to go work with my dad. I helped him on shoots and sometimes did camera work or interviews myself. I liked it, but felt no spark of enthusiasm.

My father suggested that I study to become a producer and bought me a ticket to St. Petersburg for my birthday. But I had already come to the realisation that I wanted to study philology. It was the same with Italy. I just needed to go there. It seems to me that progress in life comes when you’re more driven than everyone else. I believe in this power of intention.

I won a scholarship from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and enrolled at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan where I studied with my favourite professor of medieval art. I had to write a dissertation in Italian about Italian art, specialising in archeology and art history, about which I knew nothing as a philologist and literary critic. The other students, however, knew these things because they had had an undergraduate course on Italian medieval art. So I had to read the material myself and take the exam—first the basic one, and then highly specialised ones.

As a result, I graduated from the master’s programme on schedule (in Italy, the system is different from ours: you can study even until the age of 60 as long as you pay). And I wrote my dissertation—not without the moral support of my academic adviser in Novosibirsk. The theme of the dissertation was close to what I am doing now. I wrote about the sculptural cycle of the giants—96 figures on the facade of the Milan Cathedral. They have a very unusual iconography, wonderful characters, some even semi-pagan: one is holding a lamb, another is looking at something. No one knows who created them. Apparently, it was a collective effort. This cathedral has a large archive with documents relating to the construction process. These are unique documents because they describe in great detail the day-to-day process of this enormous construction site. But almost nothing is said about the giants themselves.

I spoke with the mother of the Italian family where I lived and learned that we had similar views on death. She said that after death it will probably be possible to converse with everyone. She also thinks that, in heaven, Thomas Aquinas lectures on theology. I started thinking about it. After death, I will definitely go and ask who created the giants and why. At least I’ll get some answers; I’ll find out what I spent my life on.

Why I didn’t remain in Italy

For various reasons, mostly personal. I never really got used to it; things like the Italians’ happy-go-lucky attitude to life continued to bother me. On the one hand, it’s great. If you go there in a state of classic Russian melancholy, it heals you, has a positive effect on your thinking. I became calmer, more cheerful than I was before. On the other hand, it gives you a sense of uncertainty: you think you’re friends with someone, but maybe, in fact, you aren’t. And whether you spend the holidays there alone or with someone, you still don’t want to be there. Maybe I’m just a difficult person.

Photo: HSE University

I couldn’t find a job working with a museum, which is where I wanted to work. I interned at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. It was an amazing place where I had the best boss in the world, my theology professor, Father Francesco. I love him dearly and still keep in touch with him. He is the director of the Slavic class, a man with an incredible outlook and erudition. He knows Russian. The Italian friends call him Don Google. I worked there for four months without pay. They said they were having a tough time economically, but that situation never changed. That’s how it is with museums. It’s like the Vatican: if you're already in, you're lucky, because there’s no way in for outsiders. I really enjoyed working at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. I accompanied Father Francesco at conferences, did written translations, gave lectures to interns, and led excursions. But there were no prospects. Even the great and all-powerful Father Francesco could not come up with anything.

I decided not to get my PhD in Italy. There were people ahead of me in the queue who have been waiting for their place for six years, because they admit people only once every three years. PhD students in Italy are usually in their forties. I couldn’t wait that long. After weighing the pros and cons, I thought enough was enough. What’s more, I realised that I simply have to be near my family. I have four younger sisters. I wanted to see how they grow up, so that they know what kind of an aunt they have and what I do. At that time, the eldest child of my youngest sibling had just turned 14 years old, and she turned from a pest and my nemesis into a rather pleasant person. I moved to Moscow, and she and her mother did, too. Now I always know what to do with my free time: we meet or chat on FaceTime. I think that this is a very good exchange, because I can be an example for her, and she for me. At least I understand what my students find amusing and don’t feel like an old fogey among Zoomers.

How I ended up at HSE University

For the first couple of months in Moscow, I was looking for a job, but first I found an academic advisor. I wrote, as always, to my women mentors in Novosibirsk and they suggested I work under Oleg Voskoboynikov, a professor of medieval history at HSE University. It seemed that, before me, he didn’t have a single graduate student. Years later, I found out why they took me: it was because of Professor Voskoboynikov’s ‘secret’ love for Italy. At the same time, I got a job at a language school and worked like hell.

Professor Voskoboynikov and I came up with the topic for my PhD: The Visual Culture of the House of Visconti at the Turn of the 15th Century. The Visconti were the lords of Milan (much like the Medici in Florence) and among the patrons of the cathedral. But first I had to pass an entrance exam in history, since Voskoboynikov was a professor at the School of Historical Sciences.

I was very worried that I wouldn’t be accepted. I never had much interest in history. In fact, I was very intimidated by people who, for example, knew all the Roman emperors. So I studied for the history exam for a year. Every day I read 100 pages and almost all of the books on the list of recommended reading. I came to the entrance exam ready to shine, but they only asked about my research project and admitted me. It wasn’t easy at first. But then I got my PhD in history and made friends with other graduate students. Now, on the one hand, I feel that I have a universal education; I like to look at things from different angles—as both a philologist and a historian. On the other hand, it seems to me that I have learned everything—and nothing; I cannot consider myself a philologist, historian, or art historian.

What I am proud of

I am probably most proud of the achievements of my students. I love them very much. This is not the pride of, ‘See, I taught you this,’ but joy that I managed to convey my interests to the student, who managed to get something from me. This is communication, which means it is always a two-way process.

My dissertation is also an achievement and, for the first time, it translates into Russian several sheets from Leonardo da Vinci's Code on the Flight of Birds. Of course, specialists who work with da Vinci's texts usually read in Italian. This publication is for a broad readership.

What I dream about

I would like to write a book about the north of Italy, about the Visconti house. There are many books about Tuscany, about the Renaissance in Florence, and only a little is written about the Visconti everywhere. I think it would interest more than just professional historians.

In addition, my supervisor once lamented that HSE University, for example, does not offer a master’s degree in Italian studies. It would be interesting to create one and teach everyone Italian and talk about Italian history. Some say that German, English and French are more applied languages and that Italian is for the soul. Well, okay, let this be a master’s programme for incorrigible and enthusiastic romantics like me.

Science for me is curiosity. For many researchers, including myself, this is a way to prolong childhood a little. This is not infantilism, but an interest in the world, in the phenomena around us. You ask questions all the time. It seems to me that this is a positive quality for children, and in adults it helps to preserve the academic environment.

I do not have a pedagogical education, but I have a useful cultural background. I don’t come and say: ‘Children, open the textbook. Let’s read and translate.’ I can tell you about culture, habits, the etymology of words. Because it’s all interesting to me. This is a different quality of teaching.

What would I be doing if I hadn’t become a scientist?

I wanted to be a doctor, a clinical psychologist. Even before my sister was born with autism, I was concerned with his topic. I was interested in how people with any type of disorder live and think and how to help them.

A typical day for me

It can differ quite a bit. Sometimes I go to work in the morning. Or I work from home most of the day. In general, though, it’s like most people: I get up, drink some water, shower, eat, read the Bible, go to work and come home. Usually, after I come home from work, I have half an hour or an hour of silence. When you teach five classes in a row, as language teachers do, your head is buzzing like the loudspeaker in a train station. You need the silence to regain your composure.

Which denomination I belong to

I grew up in a religious family. For me, this is an organic part of life. I’ve had some doubts, but I think that if you are a believer and never have any doubts, then you have problems. I grew up in the Lutheran church, but recently decided to change my denomination to Catholicism. My life, my spiritual development, was largely influenced by Catholics—my friends and teachers. Therefore, I thought that if God calls you from this direction, you need to go that way. .

How I cope with burnout

I get burned out, but every time I ask myself the same question: ‘Then why am I doing this?’ And there are always two answers: ‘This is a public service’ and ‘I need to make a living somehow.’ I need to take breaks, rest, and bring less work home. I make this mistake and it contributes greatly to burnout. My favorite pastime is to tell everyone in detail how my day went, what the students said to me, how I answered them, or what terrible thing they did. It is also important to be able to share with either a coworker or relative who is willing to listen—or otherwise, with a psychologist.

What I do besides science

I go to Healthy Back workouts. I also sang in the choir for a long time—both in Novosibirsk and in Italy. In Moscow, I made three attempts to sing in choirs, but I’ll keep looking until I find a suitable one. For me, the repertoire and choir director are very important. I would like to sing spiritual music. In a university choir in Italy, we sang Monteverdi, Vivaldi and my other favorite pieces. I really miss music. I graduated from a music school, but like all normal teenagers, I resisted it, cried about it, and felt like I would never want to make music again. But sometimes now I sneak a little time on the piano and try to remember what I learned.

What I read and watch

I recently read The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. I am currently reading My Name is Red and Snow. You know, he won the Nobel Prize for literature. But I can’t say that his books are on my favourites list. I watch a lot of movies, but it’s hard to choose a favourite director or writer. I like Louis Malle, and among Italians, Marco Bellocchio.

Photo: HSE University

Advice for budding scientists

Listen more to yourself and less to everyone else. They said to me: ‘Why are you doing this? Why don’t you change jobs? You get so tired. You won’t earn anything as a scientist.’ It seems to me that someone who is just starting out needs to ask these questions of himself first of all. If you have already embarked on this course, be confident in what you are doing and don’t listen to anyone because there will always be people who try to instruct or criticise you. You have to learn to have a thick skin and know why you are doing it. You need to have a clear answer to the question of why you do what you do. It’s like living in another country.

What I will study next

I have probably already gone about as deep as I can go on the subject of the Visconti legacy. I don’t really like it when you feel a certain repulsion and, of course, this happens when you write a dissertation. My fellow students know what it’s like to work on a text for three years; they know what it’s like to write 300 pages and then have to correct and revise them.

I think that the new topic will be about Italy, but with more of a macro than micro focus. Maybe I’ll look at the whole north, or maybe another dynasty. I definitely won’t study the south. I feel as though I am half Italian, and specifically, half northern Italian.

My favourite places in Italy

With regard to nature, I like Lake Maggiore in Lombardy; it is a beautiful and peaceful place. The lake is interesting as a locus. People who were born on a lake have a fundamentally different vision of life, just as people who are born on the sea are different from those of us who were born in the city or on the plain. So people who were born on a lake have a different mentality that is interesting to observe. I have always had a good time at Lake Maggiore—as if I could be someone who was born on a lake. It’s too bad that’s not the case; I was born on a reservoir.

I also like the campus of my university. The Basilica of Saint Ambrose is nearby and it has the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, for which the University of the Sacred Heart is named. I often went there to pray and I would like to return there. First, it is beautiful. Second, it holds so many memories for me, both good and bad.

I would like everyone to see Venice. It is a city straddling earth and heaven. It seems to me a place apart, as though it does not belong to any country in the world.

But in general, in every backwater Italian town there is something that its inhabitants are terribly proud of. And sometimes they are really very interesting things. Which is not surprising when Roman ruins, Etruscan wells, monuments of human thought and nature, the Alps and plains and five seas come together in one country.

My favourite places in Moscow

I like Kolomenskoye Park. It was water and churches. If I need to think, I go to the St. Andronicus Monastery and the Marfo-Mariinsky Convent.