Interview: Victoria Donovan
Victoria Donovan, based at the University of St Andrews, is a cultural historian of Russia whose research explores local identities, heritage politics, and the cultural memory of the Soviet past in twenty-first century Russia. Her new project explores patriotic identity in Putin’s Russia. She is also working on a project that looks at the connections between mining communities in South Wales and Eastern Ukraine.
AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on the complex relationship between the USSR and its historic churches. Can you explain more about this fascinating interaction between the Soviet Union and these important religious sites and why you decided to research more about it?
VD: Sure. I think that when most of us think about the Soviet Union’s relationship with it religious heritage (if we do at all), it’s usually in terms of destruction and desecration: the demolition of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, for example, or Bolsheviks gleefully cracking open saints’ tombs to give the lie to Christian superstitions. What we don’t usually think of is communists commissioning the reconstruction of churches, investing money in the restoration of religious art and architecture, and proudly exhibiting these buildings to foreign and domestic tourists. But that’s exactly what was going on in the post-war period. In one of the historic towns that I work on, Novgorod, hundreds of thousands of roubles were spent on reconstructing medieval churches from ruins in the wake of the city’s devastating liberation from Nazi occupation. The point of this activity was to demonstrate the Soviet Union’s resilience in the face of total war, to show that its heritage, which the Nazi ‘fascists’ had tried to ‘wipe from the face of the earth’, was rising like a phoenix from the ashes.
AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to become an academic?
VD: Not so much a Eureka moment as a dawning realisation throughout my PhD of what a privilege it was to read and write for a living. That said, I recently found a scrapbook I’d made as a 10-year-old in which I’d written at indulgent length about my intentions to become a detective. I’d even illustrated it with a picture of myself hunting for clues with a magnifying glass. When you do historical research, especially when you’re sitting in a Russian archive looking at microfilm of old newspaper clippings, it can sometime feel like detective work. So maybe I knew I wanted to do this job earlier than I realise.
AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you’re working on at the moment that really excites you?
VD: I’m really excited about a new project I’m doing looking at links between mining communities in South Wales and Eastern Ukraine. As someone from South Wales who works on Russian history, I’ve had my eye on this topic for a while, but had no idea that the ties were so strong until I began researching the subject seriously this year. I was absolutely thrilled to find out that there’s an archive in Cardiff (my hometown) that contains the personal documents of Welsh mining families who migrated to the Donbas, in Eastern Ukraine (then Southern Russia), at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s just the kind of archive I love, filled with colourful domestic detail and sepia photographs. It’s really been a joy to be immersed in that world and learn about the surprising trajectories and fates that intrepid Welsh migrants had in those turbulent years.
AH: Do you have a favourite book that has inspired your passion for Russian history?
VD: The thing about Russian history is that they just keep making it. Studying contemporary Russian politics and culture, you can’t help feeling that the events taking place at the moment will be the chapter titles of future history books. This feeling has really sharpened over the past two years, since the annexation of Crimea and the Russia’s slide into popular authoritarianism. There have been some remarkably inventive literary responses to developments in contemporary Russian politics from Victor Pelevin’s Babylon to Aleksandr Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik and Oleg Kashin’s Fardwor, Russia! A Fantastical Tale of Life under Putin. As always in Russian culture, the most searing social commentary happens in literature rather rather than in newspapers or politics. That’s what’s so enjoyable about teaching Russian literature in a School of Modern Languages: you engage with the most important intellectual debates of the moment by reading works of fiction.
AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?
VD: Maybe Laika, the first dog in space? I’m the first in my family to go to university and since starting a career in academia have frequently felt like a Moscow mongrel being propelled on an unexpected mission to the moon. I do identify with Laika’s intrepid spirit, though. Living and working in Russia can be unpredictable and exciting and definitely feeds a thrill-seeking side to my personality. I hope that my scholarship is adventurous too. It’s difficult to break established conventions, but I’m getting more used to trying and failing better, as the saying goes. That’s where the parallels with Laika stop though, I hope. She came to a notoriously gruesome end, whose academic analogy I wouldn’t really like to try to imagine!
AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?
VD: It’s a fantastically easy thing to say and an almost impossible thing to do in practice, but try not to get downhearted about setbacks. Or, if that’s not possible, then know that everyone who works in academia experiences criticism and rejection on almost a day-to-day basis. There was a wonderful initiative recently that began with a Princeton professor, Johannes Haushofer, posting a ‘CV of failures’ on Twitter that listed all of the academic positions and fellowships he’d been turned down for, all of the articles he’d had rejected, and all of the scholarships he’d failed to be awarded. The post generated similar responses from academics all over the world that revealed (very briefly) the reality of rejection and bounce-back that marks academic life. It’s important to have that in mind, particularly at the beginning of an academic career, otherwise it can be easy to lose perspective.
AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?
VD: Academics have always performed these roles, albeit traditionally within the context of the university system. In the humanities, we’ve been teaching students the skills with which to engage critically with the world for centuries and, from my point of view, this is still one of the most important and enjoyable parts of the job. The more contentious question concerns the role of academics as ‘public intellectuals’, figures able and duty-bound to engage non-specialist audiences on the most important topics of the day. Personally, I think that we do have a duty to engage in this sort activity, to use our expertise to advise and challenge publically where appropriate. In periods of political crisis, such as the one we’re currently experiencing, I think that this responsibility must be taken especially seriously and we should seize the platforms we’re offered to speak to as broad a constituency as possible and try to influence opinion.
AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?
VD: It’s a bit of a cliché for someone who works on Soviet history, but I’d love to experience life in post-revolutionary Russia. Alongside the violence and instability, the revolution brought with it a creative energy and an innovative zeal that must have been staggering to behold. I just returned from Moscow where I visited a famous constructivist landmark, the Narkomfin House, which was built in the 1920s to help people ‘transition’ from families to communes. The house was formed of a private wing, containing very basic flats, and a huge, bright communal space where people were supposed to eat, exercise, study, sunbathe and socialize together. It was fascinating to see those revolutionary ideas made concrete in space. I’d love to have witnessed that first hand.
AH: Do you have any top tips about early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?
VD: One of the main challenges for academics working in the media is finding the right balance between faithfully representing carefully thought through research ideas and delivering these ideas to non-specialist audiences in an engaging and easily digestible way. It’s remarkable how many academics, when asked to present their work in 60 seconds, will ignore that instruction, warm to their subject matter, and end up talking for five minutes, or so. The disregard for discipline and brevity is most obvious at conferences where speakers will frequently refuse to conclude, even though audiences are bored and others are waiting their turn. This is a professional dysfunction that needs to be dealt with institutionally, but is particularly problematic when it comes to adapting academic ideas for radio and TV. So, in short: keep it brief.
AH: How have your found finding your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?
VD: Talking about my research on radio is like giving a conference paper with my mum in the audience. It feels a little bit like a clash of two identities. I think, like lots of people, I have a semi-distinct professional identity, which is more authoritative, pedantic, and assertive than my everyday self. The professional identity is the one that I ‘put on’ when I walk into a lecture auditorium or a conference hall. The problem with this distinction is that it doesn’t work very well for the media. On radio you have to be authoritative and witty, informed and engaging. You have to engage your dissertation supervisor and your mum. That’s tricky. I’m still working on it.
If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.