How does an academic cope with the collapse or disappearance of a subject? After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, this is a question that Heather Hogan, professor of Russian history at Oberlin College, had to ask herself. "Clearly, one response is panic..." she began, as laughter broke out in the audience, a group of Oberlin alumni she was addressing last January at The College Club in Boston.
Among the challenges Hogan had to face was the prospect of dwindling government support in her area of specialization. Across the U.S., departments were shrinking and faculty positions for historians with a Russian emphasis were diminishing, and there was "an almost breathless struggle to keep on top," to stay abreast of the political changes occurring at breakneck speed in the former U.S.S.R.
Hogan reacted to this stream of events by applying for a fellowship that would allow the opportunity to reread and rethink Russian history from the beginning. She received a grant from the college, shifted her focus from current events to history, threw out her previous course notes, and reorganized the courses she was teaching.
From the chaos emerged new perspectives, new classes, and a happier Heather Hogan. She now teaches classes on early modern Russian history and the history of Russian women, and will collaborate with a professor in politics on a course dealing with the contemporary period in the former Soviet Union.
How has the study of Russian history changed? Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, history departments in the U.S., colored by concerns of the Cold War, dealt primarily with Russian history from 1850 to the present. American historians focused on security studies, foreign policy issues, ideology, and studies of elites. Considerably less information was available about earlier periods, or about society, gender, and ethnic problems. American teaching of Russian history tended to make generalizations about the past that were influenced by concerns of the present, especially about autocratic or totalitarian policies. Historians now, however, are discovering that "behind the facade of autocracy" in Muscovy there was a much more complex political system. Many similarities to Western European monarchies in the Muscovite state were previously ignored, Hogan explained. Having more information about Muscovy also helps historians identify distinctive Russian characteristics and mentalities, and sheds light on the current situation in Russia. For instance, the early history of the region reveals problems most Russian governments have faced--governing a huge land mass, issues of regionalism, and a complex system of patron-client relations. Taking off her glasses in the question and answer session following her lecture, Hogan explained to a member of the audience, "Where I used to focus on change, now I focus on continuity."
Hogan's research has exciting applications. She has written a book published by Indiana University Press about the labor history of early 20th century Russia, and, while it's not exactly a best-seller, the work she has done in her discipline and the projects she has done for Oberlin are promising and invaluable. With the momentum gained from cross-disciplinary research, Hogan and her colleagues will develop a Center for Post-Soviet Studies at Oberlin. Students with solid languages training will be able to gain once-in-a-lifetime experience working as activists in Russia and the newly independent states, addressing environmental, health, and gender issues. They could participate in positive change, helping to alleviate the worsening social situation in Russia today. A smiling Hogan stated, "I have dreamy notions of well-trained Obies working at the grassroots level."
Hogan is a history professor with a vision of the future. Having served as a member of the Strategic Planning Group on Sports in Oberlin's future, she noted, "It's strange how academic careers evolve. My next book may be called Red Steroids."
Corinne Pierce studied Russian at Oberlin, and, during her senior year, researched the state of Russian feminist activism. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, and works as a proofreader at a Boston book publishing company.