I enjoyed getting to know historian Georgiy Kasianov of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (and his lovely wife Oksana) when he came to Cambridge in early December this year to give a lecture on the Great Famine of 1932-33 at one of our regular CRASSH events. On the following day, the three of us went punting on river Cam in absolutely freezing weather. The wrapped-up girl at the boat counter was honest enough to admit she thinks we’re crazy. Nevertheless, she gave us a punt, and off we went, accompanied by speeding ducks and floating leaves.
What’s ironic is that I’ve never been out on river Cam before. Most of my classmates (freshers, as they’re called in the UK – those in their first year at a university, regardless of age or degree level) went punting in the warm days of early October, when we all arrived to Cambridge. It was almost obligatory, in an unofficial way. I simply never managed to do it. Could it be because my Freshers’ Week schedule looked like this?
Yet, two months later, here I was, happily freezing and feeding ducks from a wet boat while famous sights rolled by, and while a historian whose work I would normally read at a library wielded the huge punting pole (and wouldn’t share!). Yes. That’s Cambridge.
What I wanted to mention in this post, though, was a conversation we had the following day – my 30th birthday – in the famous Eagle pub, where the structure of DNA was first announced. One of the things we talked about (over traditional fish and chips, and, of course, pints of ale) was the concept of identity. It wasn’t a serious discussion – more of a relaxed, even humorous chat – yet it gave me some food for thought. Dr Kasianov proposed a theoretical character called дядя Петя, a simple village man, and was a bit ironic about the idea of this character having any national identity per se, or even caring to have one. That is, of course, until someone appears and informs him: “You are Ukrainian”, or “You are Russian”. This ‘someone’ could have easily referred to anyone working on the former USSR . Dr Kasianov wanted to convey, I think, that “identity” is a constructed idea, almost artificial in some ways. He was thus somewhat skeptical about studying it. The conversation left me wondering about the fact that, indeed, most people who do serious work on national identity seem to be, more or less, in various ways, outsiders to what they study. Is this not so?
My advisor*, Dr. Rory Finnin, was at the Eagle that night as well. And I know that we have similar research interests – the first sentence of his staff profile on our website sounds like this: “Rory Finnin’s primary research interest is the interplay of literature and national identity in Ukraine.” So I couldn’t help secretly hoping to hear him take up the argument. But I think he was mindfully giving the floor to me. And now I still have that floor somewhere in the back of my mind, even though the evening has passed. What is most confusing is that I can see and appreciate both sides of the coin. I can see why a scholar – or any person, for that matter – would be skeptical about someone’s attempt to study or define her. And yet I can also see and sense the fascinating, nearly-infinite field of identity interplay in the former USSR, which rages on so many different levels: political, social, individual, artistic, etc. If, like Dr Kasianov suggested, national identity does not pre-exist any attempts to address it, then are we actually constructing it in the process of studying it? And, then, we are scholars of our own making? In this case, what is our value-added?
… still thinking.
* A PhD candidate at Cambridge has both a supervisor and an advisor. A supervisor is most directly involved with a student’s doctoral work; an advisor is a specialist whose knowledge can further enrich this work. If a student is lucky, she gets to learn continuously from both. My supervisor is Dr. Alexander Etkind (who works on Russian culture); my advisor is Dr. Rory Finnin (who works on Ukrainian culture). Yet another reflection of the cultural ying-yang I’m facing on this project.