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READING RUSSIAN SOURCES

Reading Russian Sourcescreating a new edited collection

When I was tasked with editing the collection Reading Russian Sources for Routledge, one of the first questions that came to mind – and the spirit I will be approaching this blog post with – is, in our current research environment that privileges beefy articles and monographs, why should one even do an edited collection in the first place? After all, given the need for established scholars to secure a strong hand in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), or for those in the earliest stages of their careers to exhibit deep research skills in order to land a post in the hugely competitive and precarious job market, it might be supposed that doing or contributing to collections isn’t high on the priority list for many scholars right now. In fact, putting together a collection for the first time proved a rewarding experience: time-consuming, certainly, but what isn’t in the academy?

I would suggest there are several good motivations for editing or contributing to a collection: the opportunity for reflection and commentary on the field that they (perhaps uniquely) provide; the intellectual ballast surrounding the development of selected research questions; and, finally, a collegiate motivation that carries genuine value in both the current and future environment. For this particular collection, the primary motivation was to create a single volume that would help students think about primary material in itself as a gateway to wider study of Russian history, rather than taking an event, theme or person as the starting point. It’s interesting to consider that whilst primary materials are the mainstay of much of the serious research work in the field of Russian history, there’s surprisingly little comment on thinking about source material as a theme in itself. This was the point of origin for the collection, stimulated by my own thoughts as well as astute editorial support.   

Portrait of Sergei Witte. Only his shoulders and face are pictured. He is neatly groomed and wears late nineteenth-century attire.
Figure 1. Sergei Witte (1849-1915)

Putting together a collection or writing a chapter provides an opportunity to step back and reflect on the current state of the field. As editor you have a degree of control over both the contributions and the general make up of your collection, though this will vary according to the publisher and the prerogatives they might set. The level of editorial control varies, though your engagement with the project will always be high. Certainly, you can ask yourself useful questions about debates and controversies shaping your discipline. For my own collection, I was keen to reflect on some of the current discussions concerning the decolonisation of the curriculum taking place in higher education that have sought to recover previously wholly or partially marginalized voices in all manner of ways. This should be reflected in your choice of contributors – do they reflect a variety of ages and stages and are they sufficiently diverse – but also the choice of material and research questions that you are collectively engaging with. I was keen to reflect upon recent research pathways, including contributions from researchers who have done exciting work on marginalized voices in Russian studies: this included chapters on the experience of deafness in the USSR, and homosexuality as it appears through private sources. Other chapters considered the perspective of the researcher and their background, and issues concerning national and ethnic identity in early twentieth century Russian art. 

These certainly weren’t the only innovative readings provided; conversely, as editor I felt it important to include more ‘traditional’ (for want of a better term) readings too, or at least a clear steer on how they have influenced current debates. Whilst curating a variety of reading lists for a new special subject at my current university, both myself and my colleague working on the Habsburg Empire have been struck by the fact that sometimes, when it comes to assigning student readings, the oldies can be goodies: there are strong reasons why some work stands the test of time, usually because it is readable and engaging whilst identifying questions of enduring importance. So, established research pathways in Russian history such as debates concerning the political ramifications of the Russian Revolution of 1917 itself or why the Romanovs were executed one year later – some of which are almost as old as the events themselves! – should not be excluded from a volume aiming for broad coverage. 

Demonstration from 1917. Women and  men hold banners with Cyrillic writing. The street is crowded. There are children in the foreground.
Figure 2. Demonstration, Petrograd, February 1917

These reflections aren’t particularly field-specific: any editor or contributor can usefully ponder them, irrespective of what sort of collected volume they are aiming to create or contribute towards. On the other hand, the research questions you wish to tackle will be field-specific, though doubtless should find other engaged audiences. But there will be other issues at play too: many readers or collections could have a student audience in mind. Our collection was geared towards helping out students and early-career researchers, and I was much encouraged by early editorial correspondence that pointed out the genuine lacunae here. Routledge’s series included a number of excellent volumes – the collection on primary sources in modern history I’ve used in my own teaching – but nothing specifically on Russian history. This is a curious oversight considering its popularity with audiences at both A-level and undergraduate level, as well as the wider interest the field continues to generate.  

Figure 3. Russian bank note (1917)

So, it was clear to me from the outset that a reader pointing out how we might think through questions concerning the sources might have genuine, wide use. There was ample space to reflect upon methodological problems, various issues surrounding the availability of source material – a perennial theme in Russian studies – and to scrutinize interesting examples of sources that students and other readers would likely have not encountered before. To include a range of sources was obviously important, thinking here about texts like diaries and newspapers frequently used in our field as the backbone of many articles and monographs, as well as different types of archival sources, like police reports or perlustrated letters. A few chapters on visual materials – here, film and TV as well as art – were also crucial to include, as these provide in my own experience very ‘teachable’ sources, very dynamic in form and useful for those with little or no Russian language provided adequate captions and translations are included. In all of these chapters one can think about technology: how this changes the sources we use, how we experience them, and how diverse voices from the past find their way into a source record itself subject to change. 

Photograph of handwritten eighteenth-century letters
Figure 3. Eighteenth-century letters.

A final reason is collegiality, which should not in my view be underestimated. Whether editing or contributing you will get to work with other scholars. You can see what makes them tick to an extent, as well as potentially experience a little industrial espionage, just in terms of finding out what works (or doesn’t!) for other people. With many collections you will of course be linked by a key theme, so you can see development in the field, but you can also be guiding by similar research questions even if the contributions are quite disparate: e.g., what source scrutiny tells us about development in the field of Russian history. Therefore, working on a collection might identify some useful issues concerning your scholarly identity or indeed about where the field is headed. 

There are, therefore, all sorts of exciting reasons why one might undertake a project similar to this one and I hope this post has been encouraging as to the sorts of issues one might usefully consider if embarking on such a venture. Of course, it should be registered it will take time and any such projects need to be guided by a clear identity, as well as the research questions contributors will identify, both individually and collectively. 

Image list

Figure 1. Unknown photographer, Sergei Witte (c.1880s). This image is understood to be in the public domain, and can be found here.

Figure 2. Unknown photographer. Demonstrators in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), c.February or early March 1917. This image is located in the State Museum of Political History of Russia. It is understood to be in the public domain, and can be found here

Figure 3. Russian banknote from 1917. This image is understood to be in the public domain and can be found here.

Figure 4. Liz West, Letters. This image was suggested by the author and is understood to be in the public domain. It can be found here.

This blog was written by myself (GG) on 18 September 2020, and was originally posted on the blog for History, the official journal of the Historical Association, on 23 September 2020. The images and list of these were curated by Laura Doak. It can be found here.

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