Working at the Center for Historical Research in the pandemic: Nadezhda Tikhonova and Xenia Cherkaev share their experience
Research fellows Nadezhda Tikhonova, Candidate of Sciences in History of Asian and African countries, and Xenia Cherkaev, PhD in Anthropology, who have been recruited for postdoctoral positions in framework of the postdoctoral programs of HSE, will continue their work at the Center for Historical Research in the 2021/2022 academic year. Xenia and Nadezhda shared their experience after the first work year at HSE – St. Petersburg.
Nadezhda Tikhonova and Xenia Cherkaev have been working at the Center for Historical Research since September 2020. They decided to develop their academic track at HSE – St. Petersburg and successfully passed the competition for the second year in framework of the postdoctoral programs of HSE. Xenia and Nadezhda are sharing their impressions after the first work year at HSE – St. Petersburg.
Центр исторических исследований: Научный сотрудник
I joined the Centre for Historical Research in September 2020 as a part of HSE University Russian postdoctoral fellowship programme, which has been implementing since 2018. This program is a brand-new career opportunity for young Russian scholars, so I commonly face the questions about postdoctoral fellowship and its features. Actually, I am an ordinary research fellow, and my working tasks are relevant to this position. At the same time, being a postdoc allows me to focus primarily on research activities.
After defending my PhD thesis "The Crimean Tatar ‘Perevodchik-Terjiman’ newspaper and its role in Russia’s political and ethnocultural discourse in the 1880s-1910s" in November 2019, I supposed to delve into this topic, prepare a monograph and collect materials for further research. Fortunately, a position of postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Historical Research granted me with the opportunity to sufficiently enrich my research base. In addition, as a postdoc, I can take advantage of advanced training programs for HSE staff. For instance, I passed the courses in English and academic writing in English.
As a part of the program I was involved in a research project "Post-imperial diversities: majority-minority relations in the transition from empire to nation-states", in which I deal with the internal dynamics within Muslim community in late imperial Russia, primarily basing on the materials of influential Muslim newspaper "Perevodchik-Terjiman".
Currently under the research supervision of Alexander M. Semyonov I am working on the article "We will live as a particular nation and live freely in a free Russia”: complementary political projects in late-imperial Russia from the perspective of the Russian Muslim press", which examines one of the key political projects of Russian Muslims in terms of its relevance to the regime of imperial citizenship. In addition, during this year, I’ve already published an article in a foreign magazine, while another one is in print.
Working at the Centre provides me with the opportunity to participate in a regular international research seminars – Era.net and "Boundaries of History". Under the current epidemiological situation these seminars are implementing online, still this is a great opportunity to communicate with Russian and foreign colleagues, including leading experts in their subject area.
The pandemic, however, affected the work of the Higher School of Economics and other universities, which shifted employees to remote work in the 2020-2021 academic year. Despite primarily remote work, interaction with the colleagues at the Centre was not interrupted – we systematically have meetings at online seminars, discuss upcoming articles, etc. Thanks to such a format of collective discussions I’ve learned a lot during this year. After all, I’m sure that the postdoctoral position at the HSE is a great opportunity for young Russian scholars.
Most of 2020/2021 academic year was spent online. I participated in local and international conferences, attended workshops and seminars organized by a myriad of academic institutions, taught classes and advised students – all without leaving my house. At the end of the school year, one student was surprised to see me in St. Petersburg: he had gotten the impression that I was teaching the class by Zoom from the US!
I joined the Higher School of Economics’ Center for Historical Research during a globally terrible time. Hundreds of thousands of people had died in the COVID-19 pandemic, countless more were made sick and lost loved ones, lost jobs, became destitute and increasingly socially isolated. Global and local lockdowns were implemented to curb the infection’s spread, and social ties severed: borders, businesses, universities and offices closed, schools went online and people stopped traveling. Deprived of live communication in terrible times, people the world over sought explanation online, where they instead often found alarming information laced with persistent rumor and swirling conspiracy theories. International agencies sounded alarm of a “global infodemic.”
In these terrible tumultuous times when so many social worlds shattered, I am lucky to have found an intellectual community of friends and colleagues in St. Petersburg, at the Center for Historical Research. Thought develops in conversation, and social collectives make academic work possible. The lock down foreclosed much of the face-to-face communication we had all grown accustomed to, but my past year at the Center for Historical Research was spent in new types of collectives, classes and seminars, made possible by digital media platforms. I am tremendously grateful to my colleagues at HSE for fostering an intellectual community through new forms of scholarly communication and teaching. The skills that we all had to pick up at the spur of the moment have become invaluable to me.
I am particularly grateful to the "Boundaries of History" research seminar curated by Alexander M. Semyonov; to the "Anthropological Kruzhok" workshop curated by Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov; and to the informal book-writing seminar organized by Tatiana Borisova, Kirill Chunikhin and Elena Kochetkova. Restrictions on face-to-face meetings did not stall the work of these seminars! Quite the opposite, the online format availed new possibilities of international collaboration with colleagues hailing from Europe and the United States – and even from such inconveniently different time zones as Japan and South Korea. I spent much of the past academic year finishing work on my book manuscript – Gleaning for the Common Good: the Theory, History and Afterlife of the Soviet Socialist Household Economy – and these conversations were a great help. I am very grateful for the friendly community I found here.
The position of international post-doc includes the possibility of teaching, and classes moved online too. In 2020-21, I co-taught two classes: Kirill Chunikhin, an upper undergraduate course titled “English Academic Writing,” and with Lidia Rakhmanova, a research project titled “Visual and Literary Languages in Anthropology.” In the former, my classes have centered on the gritty mechanics of rhetoric: on how to write strong abstracts and elegant transition sentences, how to compile clean bibliographies and to gracefully delineate one’s own thoughts and words from those of others. In the latter, our discussions have explored various forms of storytelling and film, and have focused especially on why certain forms are more or less replicable, dialogic, and embedded in a particular social context.
Looking back at the past academic year, I see how important it was for us to not to have been dumbfounded by our impelled shift to the new virtual order. In this moment of radical social change, I found great opportunities to test emergent educational techniques and technologies at the HSE St. Petersburg. I cannot in good conscience say that I wholly support the digital format: it did allow me to easily invite international guest lecturers, but it also made it much harder to build a sense of collective rapport with the students. But despite these challenges, I found the students at HSE to be superbly engaged and interested young scholars, and I found working with them a great pleasure. I look forward to teaching again at the HSE next year – hopefully, albeit, offline.
The warm intellectual community I discovered at the HSE was hewn through with a steady rhythm of academic work, which I found most supportive of my own independent creative endeavors. 2020-21 saw the publication of my article in the American Historical Review (2020) and my essay in the “Fieldsights” section of the Cultural Anthropology webpage (2021). And I am especially grateful to the HSE for the opportunity to live and work in St. Petersburg for an extended time for one more reason. In the spring of 2020, as the harshest lock-down regulations were enforced, my oft-coauthor Elena Tipikina and I embarked on a new project that has just culminated, happily, with the publication of a tangible (not digital!) paper book. The Möbius Band’s Mysterious Capers ~ A One-sided Chronicle of Leningrad, Moscow, St. Petersburg is an originally illustrated pop-science guide to topological riddles and to one-sided surfaces in the history of Russian contemporary art. It is co-published by St. Petersburg’s Borey Art Center and the Museum of Organic Culture in Kolomna.