By Matthew Klopfenstein, PhD candidate in History
I arrived in Moscow at the beginning of last September for a nine month Fulbright research grant. After three years of graduate studies and many months working on funding applications with the help of the Office of External Fellowships, I had finally arrived at the time for dissertation research. This would not be my first, or longest, trip to Russia. Before graduate school I taught high school history at an English-language international school in St. Petersburg, Russia for four years. Thanks to support from the History Department at Illinois, I had already conducted preliminary research in Russia the previous year. However, I had never spent this much time in Moscow before or spent so much sustained time in only Russian-speaking environments. So while I knew what to expect in many ways about living in Russia, coming here for research was going to be a different kind of experience.
The past seven months has been a period of intense immersion into the life of Moscow and the world of Russian archives. Here’s an overview of what dissertation research in Russia looks like for me:
Moscow is a massive city with an official population of 13 million people and unofficial estimates going as high as 20 million. Luckily for me, it has an excellent system of public transportation, including one of the largest metro systems in the world. Moscow is also a city of contrasts, where it is possible to see a 16th century church, Soviet-era housing developments, and gleaming glass skyscrapers in the space of a few blocks. Founded in the 1100s, the city has a deep history whose complex layers are visible in many different ways. My own apartment, which I share with another Fulbright grantee, is on the fifth floor of a thirteen story building that is part of the housing cooperative of the Workers of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Depending on the direction, a 20-30 minute walk can take me to Sparrow Hills, an iconic overlook point in front of the 1930s skyscraper that serves as the main building of Moscow State University, the Donskoi Monastery, which dates back to the 16th century, or several large shopping malls.
My research focuses on how the deaths and funerals of popular female performers provides a lens for viewing changes in Russian society in the decades before the 1917 Revolution and into the early Soviet era. I explore how the deaths of famous actresses and singers became empire-wide news stories and a way for commentators to discuss issues like gender norms, national identity, public health, and the larger state of society. While some historical projects are mostly based on a single archive or document collection, I have many types of sources scattered between a number of different archives and libraries in Moscow (and also in St. Petersburg). Some of these locations are located more than an hour’s travel time from my apartment, so what this means in practice is that my research keeps me moving around the city!
A reading room in the Russian State Library. A statue of Lenin reading a book watches over us as we work.
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Most weeks I end up working at three or more different places, with the newspaper library, Russian State Library, and the State Archive of Literature and Art serving as my most frequent destinations. On any given day I may be viewing films of funerals that were shown in Russian theaters in the 1910s, examining photographs of public memorial events, or reading government documents, personal correspondence and the records of theaters and other cultural organizations and institutions. Most likely, though, I will be reading newspapers and magazines and trying to reconstruct how and why certain celebrity deaths became nationwide news sensations. Like most research, my work is mostly cumulative: a lot of small details that add up to a larger picture. Occasionally there are surprising discoveries, though, like the day I found a small bag containing hair clippings from an opera singer who died in 1881 pasted into a photo album from the 1970s. The hair seems to have been taken by an admirer when the singer was reburied in the 1970s. Discovering this unusual souvenir of sorts was a reminder that you never really know what you will find at an archive.
Beyond the Archives
Archival research can at times be a tedious and lonely experience mostly involving quietly reading and thinking all day, so I have made sure to find time to do other things to meet people and explore the city. Moscow is home to many world-class theaters and museums, sports teams, and a seemingly endless number of craft burger restaurants so finding ways to fill my free time has not been a challenge. When in doubt there are always Georgian restaurants, as the best food in Russia is from the Caucasus region. Everyone who does not have a dairy allergy and is not a vegan really needs to try khachapuri (Georgian baked cheese bread) at some point in their lives!
I am also involved at events at my host institution, the Higher School of Economics. My adviser there, Professor Elena Vishlenkova, has helped put me in touch with other Russian scholars and invited me to share parts of my research with some of her students in the master’s program. Each week I also attend Professor Irina Savelieva’s research seminar for doctoral students, which has been a great way to get to know Russian students and better understand academic life here. As part of the seminar, I recently got to take part in a special round table discussion about teaching history in contemporary schools in Russia and other countries.
After a long winter season that saw record amounts of snow for Moscow, temperatures are finally peaking above freezing and the sun is out. That is no small triumph, given that meteorologists officially calculated that Moscow received only 7 minutes of unimpeded sunlight for the entire month of December.
This article is part of a series by our Fulbright Fellows in the field. Interested in learning more about the Fulbright Fellowship? Check out the listing in the Fellowship Finder database. Our Office of External Fellowships provides one-on-one proposal review for your fellowship proposals. Attend one of our workshops or schedule an appointment with the Office of External Fellowships today!