A Meeting of Minds: Visiting Russian Scholars Interface with Penn Arts and Sciences Faculty

April 7, 2016

This past February the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, together with the Perry World House, hosted Russian American Relations in Historical Perspective: A Symposium. The public event, designed to examine Russian-American relationships amidst ongoing international crises, such as the violence and destabilization in Ukraine and Syria, drew on expertise from a host of historians, political scientists, legal scholars, and cultural historians. Featured at the symposium were scholars from the European University at Saint Petersburg (EUSP), eight of whom had spent the week at Penn engaged with a variety of Penn scholarly communities on an innovative exchange program made possible by a grant from the Penn Global Engagement Fund.

Penn’s collaboration with EUSP represents a unique opportunity to interface with academics from the region. EUSP is Russia’s most cosmopolitan academic institution. One of the few private higher-education universities in Russia, it was founded in the 1990s in a reflection of the unprecedented new openness to global cooperation and liberal educational values of that era. “You feel more freedom for research [at a private institution],” says Ekaterina Borozdina, a research fellow with the gender studies program at EUSP and a member of the EUSP delegation to Penn, who since 2010 has been involved in studies of midwifery care in Russia. “The freedom of topics, of your research, it’s special and relevant for gender studies. Few centers of gender studies remain in Russia today because of this politicization of gender issues. So it’s a rare place where you can actually do gender studies and where some discussions go on like [concerning] LGBT. And many students … and LGBT students can write their dissertations on these kind of issues.”

Another member of the delegation, Ilya Utekhin, head of the department of anthropology at EUSP says another distinct difference between EUSP and state universities in Russia is the fate of scholarly research. “I’m teaching both at EUSP and the state university in Saint Petersburg. State universities do have some kinds of gender studies, but you should keep in mind that at EUSP we aim to have some freely convertible scientific results that could be formulated, not only in English, but also in Russian. Whereas in state university in Saint Petersburg … much of what is done under the label of scholarly activity is only published in very local, provincial [journals].”

These journals, Utekhin says, are certified by the bodies that deliver degrees through the state. “Most of all the dissertations that are defended in Russia are imitative and some of them contain borrowed materials,” says Utekhin, an anthropologist who studies housing as an expression of Soviet values and everyday behaviors. “So in the system of state higher education, a large part of what’s being done has to do with this degree-related bureaucracy and publications are made, not so that someone reads it, but in order to get publications which are necessary to get a degree.”

The visit provided the chance for each of the Russian scholars to meet with a range of Penn counterparts in order to foster scholarly exchange and to brainstorm about future collaborations. Borozdina met with Jason Schnittker, professor of sociology, an expert on social, biological, cultural, and institutional determinants of health, and Robin Leidner, associate professor of sociology, who studies structures of employment, occupational community, gender, and identity. Borozdina was a guest lecturer in Leidner’s class, where she spoke about Russian healthcare and the professionalization of nurses and midwives in the field. Borozdina also met with and presented her work to the students and faculty of the Women’s Health Care Studies Program at Penn’s School of Nursing.

“Usually in feminist research they’re talking about this opposition between male obstetricians and female midwives,” says Borozdina. “These obstetricians, who are kind of state bureaucrats, when I interviewed them, they really reflect this state social policy. It sounds really weird when an obstetrician thinks that he or she provides better care in order to fulfill national goals and in order to increase birthrates. In Russia, hiring a midwife to attend a home birth is illegal and only well-educated middle-class women who have the financial, cultural, and social capital are able to acquire private services more suited to their idea of personal care.”

Utekhin met with John Jackson, Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology, Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, and Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice. “I appreciate what he’s doing in his scholarly work,” Utekhin says. “I told him about what we are trying to develop at my department, and particularly one of the trends is visual anthropology. And it’s very interesting that [Jackson] developed scholarly activities on the borderline with visual and digital arts and social activism. We’ve had a very fruitful discussion with them because some of our projects are similar. And I even thought about organizing a panel in a festival of documentary films at Saint Petersburg. That’s why my contacts here with visual anthropologists lead to such events like screening their work there.”

Utekhin also engaged with Asif Agha, professor of anthropology. “I learned so much from how he works with his graduate students,” Utekhin says. “There was a student about to deliver her presentation at some conference in two weeks. And I saw how in one hour and a half [her presentation] became much more structured, and that was inspiring experience.”

Utekhin lectured on his research projects, one of which studies communication with partners who are not completely competent. “When we communicate, imagine a screen between us. So that makes communication more difficult, especially when we have to perform some joint task. For example, you are explaining me what to do with pieces of Lego or something like that,” Utekhin says. “So this kind of experiment was used to study joint activities, to study conversational interactions. We employed it in my research project in a special way, where one of the participants was schizophrenic.”

Utekhin also developed contacts with Mitchell Orenstein, a political scientist in the Slavic Department and prolific commentator on issues affecting the region. “I went to Mitchell Orenstein’s communism course and delivered a lecture on my early project about Soviet housing and shared apartments … [using] a web-based multimedia museum of Soviet everyday life. And it’s completely bilingual, so I can show videos to American students.”

Kevin M. F. Platt, Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities and Penn’s lead organizer of the exchange program, remarks: “Thanks to the support of the Global Exchange Fund, we were able to host specialists from EUSP for a really innovative program of scholarly exchange. More commonly, when Russian scholars come to the US, they engage with Russia specialists. Our plan was different—to bring Russian scholars into contact with counterparts from across the university working in related problems, such as gender studies, or modern architecture. We hope that this program will be the beginning of even more robust collaborations with EUSP.”

The symposium on Russian American Relations was introduced by Steven Fluharty, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Professor of Psychology, Pharmacology, and Neuroscience. Other participants included Platt, who is Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor in the Humanities, professor in the Slavic Department and graduate chair of the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory; Rudra Sil, professor of political science and director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business; Mitchell Orenstein, professor in the Slavic Department; Benjamin Nathans, Ronald S. Lauder Endowed Term Associate Professor of History; Ilya Vinitsky, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures; William Burke-White, Richard Perry Professor, professor of law, and inaugural director of Perry World House; and Maria Bourlatskaya, lecturer in foreign languages at Penn.

The lead organizer of the exchange from EUSP was Samuel Hirst, dean of the Department of History and a graduate of Penn’s History Ph.D. Program. Other participants from EUSP included Artemy Magun, dean of the department of political science and sociology, Vadim Bass, professor of architectural history and Ivan Kurilla, director of the department development partnership program, Academic Director of the IMARES program and a former Kennan Institute fellow. Additionally, Ellie Ponomareva and Fedor Maximishin, EUSP graduate students in anthropology and history, respectively, were members of the delegation from EUSP.