First of all, thank you for accepting this interview. Could you please remind us how you heard about EMA?
Thank you so much for the second invitation! I heard about EMA for the first time in 2019, when I was studying the Master program in Saint-Petersburg. We had lessons and seminars about the history of museology and heritage studies. One of our tasks was to read and present a book which had influenced significantly the theory and practice of museums. For this, I chose the monograph of Kenneth Hudson, “Museums of Influence”, and while preparing my presentation I found the website of EMA. Then, in summer 2021, after the successful completion of my Master Thesis and Master degree, my (previous) research adviser from Saint-Petersburg Institute of Culture – Elena Mastenitsa – shared with me the announcement of the Master Study of the Year Award organized by EMA. I was really fascinated with this opportunity and eager to take part in this competition.
You are now in Germany and you are continuing your PhD there. You won the EMA Master Study Award in January 2022. What has been your story since?
Well, in fact, I am still in Kazakhstan, and my husband and I are waiting for the visa stickers in our passports to go to Germany. The German embassy has already approved our visas, so, it is the last administrative step, I hope everything will be okay.
I can give you a little bit of context of how the last one and a half years have affected my life. After 24 January 2022, my husband and I decided that leaving Russia is just a question of time for us. However, my husband started his work in the IT area only on 1 February, so we needed some time to make savings for our relocation elsewhere. We finally left Russia after the start of mobilization in September 2022 and chose Kazakhstan for our temporary stay. My husband found here the second remote job to fulfill all requirements of the law in Kazakhstan for the long-term stay of people with Russian citizenship.
In fact, I started to think about some PhD possibilities abroad in Spring 2022 because it was already obvious that the humanitarian area of science in Russia was (and still is) going to be under more and more pressure from the state. At that time, I was still enrolled in the Saint-Petersburg State Institute of Culture as a PhD student. However, I felt that it is already not the right place if I would like to continue independent, objective, and prolific research of difficult heritage. It motivated me to look actively for a university where I will have the opportunity to grow in the quality and depth of my scientific work, and to join the international research community.
In autumn 2022, some Russian universities got the directive not to make references or letters of recommendations for their students who are applying for any programs abroad, Unfortunately, my Russian university was among them. Here I would like to thank sincerely the EMA and personally Dr. Henrik Zipsane and Prof. Massimo Negri for their references for me and my PhD proposal, which are a very significant part of all applications. It was really a great help and support without which I couldnt submit my numerous applications for PhD positions and scholarships. Finally, I got the DAAD (GSSP) award for the PhD program at the University of Bielefeld in Germany and scholarships for two universities in the UK, and left my Russian university. I have chosen Germany and the University of Bielefeld for two reasons. The first is my strong and prolonged connection with the German culture. I started to study German in my first study year of the Bachelor program in Chelyabinsk, and it was so inspiring that I passed several Goethe exams and managed my first stay in Germany as a volunteer in 2016. That visit to Germany gave my main research topic – difficult heritage – which I found in the Documentation Obersalzberg, and an enormous flash of inspiration to continue my education in a German university. For this, I spent many years applying for different scholarships, getting rejections, studying in Saint-Petersburg, and developing my research to build an impressive academic CV. To get the PhD scholarship of the DAAD was my special aspiration because it is the most prestigious scholarship foundation in Germany. Now, after seven years of working on it, I am really happy that the DAAD has finally accepted my achievements. The second reason is a bit more down-to-earth. After approximately one year of living in a foreign country and high inflation, we (my husband and I) couldnt fulfil Visa and health insurance requirements to come to the UK because these costs (as well as travelling expenses) were extremely high for us and would take all our family savings. That is why, finally, we decided that Germany is the best place for us at the moment.
Your master thesis was about contesting and conflicting exploitation and interpretation of the Second World War in museums in Germany and Russia. You will continue with this contesting and conflicting historical approach. For your thesis, you chose the topic of famine and difficult heritage of different countries such as Kazakhstan and Ireland. Could you please tell us what were your aspiration points for that subject as your research?
In the framework of the Doctoral degree program in Bielefeld, I continue the general line of my scientific work started in my Master Thesis – investigation of difficult heritage. But for my PhD thesis I tried to find some new issue (or dimension) of it – famine representation in museums exhibitions. From my personal reading experience, I noted that there are some main topics (or directions) of difficult heritage discourse: the Holocaust and Second World War (with special focus on Germany and German museums/memorials). I suppose that it is quite complicated especially for young researchers to discover and to say something new in these areas of difficult heritage because there are already libraries of literature and thousands of research/ curatorial/ digital/ pedagogical projects. My goal is to identify and to fill gaps in difficult heritage to contribute to this field, that`s why I have chosen famine as a new element of difficult heritage discussion.
My sources of aspiration became some of the latest articles and one documentary film. I am happy to about this topic because they might be a source of inspiration for someone else:
Corporaal, M., de Zwarte, I. (2022) Heritages of hunger: European famine legacies in current academic debates, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 28:1, 30-43.
de Zwarte, I., Janssen, L. (2022). Recalling the Hunger Winter: Evoking famine memory beyond the national. Memory Studies, 1-15.
Orjuela, C. (2023) Remembering/forgetting hunger: towards an understanding of famine memorialisation, Third World Quarterly, 1-18.
Here is also the link to the documentary film “Famine” created by Russian journalist and researcher Maxim Kurnikov (now he leads the Russian-speaking department and studio of Bild media in Berlin) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXi3kBXMWo8&t=4s
The original language of the film is Russian, but there is a possibility to switch off English subtitles.
What is your plan about the research process of a hard subject such as famine? Are the sources accessible?
For my comparative case studies, I have chosen two countries with experience of famine in their past – Ireland (the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1852) and Kazakhstan (the Kazakh Famine 1930-1932) and six museums. The decision to compare the museum representations of famine in Ireland and Kazakhstan comes, on the one hand, from the experience of a disastrous famine in the history of these countries, the memory of which is still alive in these societies. On the other hand, being modern democracy and authoritarian countries, Ireland and Kazakhstan have both post-colonial backgrounds which influences their curatorial and commemorative practices, memory and identity formation. Comparative study of the Irish and Kazakh famine representation in museums makes it possible to determine how the conditions of two political regimes (democratic and authoritarian) shape the interpretation of difficult heritage in a post-colonial context.
I organize the comparison of selected museums at two levels. Firstly, I compare the museums representing famine among one country (with a small exception in case of Ireland, where I also examine the collection of the Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum of Fairfield in Connecticut, the USA). Considering such factors as the types of museums, contexts of famine representations, geographical locations and communities which they are involved in, I will be able to collect a representative sample of data about famine interpretations in museums for both democratic (Ireland) and authoritarian countries (Kazakhstan). Secondly, I use the results of the national famine representation analysis for comparison of Irish and Kazakh cases at the international level to find out how modern democracy and authoritarianism affect famine interpretations in museums in post-colonial societies.
At the moment, I do not expect any difficulties in access to research sources because, on the one hand, I will rely on the variety of online materials (literature, media representations of museums-photos, videos, texts about museum exhibitions, visual guided tours, other website materials, and reviews in local media and social networks). On the other hand, I plan to organize the fieldwork trips to visit selected museums for participant observations, exhibition explorations, and interviews.
You were the winner of the 2022 Master Study of the Year Award. As the new award is coming up, do you have any recommendations for new candidates for the award?
My main piece of advice for prospective participants of the Award is – prepare your application and take part in without a shadow of a doubt. For me, it was very valuable and unforgettable experience.
I would be really happy to keep in touch with the EMA community, and hopefully, one day contribute to it. In this case, I am always open to any ideas, contacts, collaborations, and of course, questions about difficult heritage.