Moving on from Moscow

Friday, June 7, 2019

This is my last full week in Moscow. Given that I love to dish out banalities on this blog, I'll provide one more: the time here has really flown by. I've been busy--most of my time in Moscow was spent at the archive, but I also tried to catch up on other work. I finished a couple of articles that I'd been working on for a while and sent them off to journals, and I had about a million photographs on my computer--rare books that I'd found in Amsterdam, Moscow, and Istanbul, as well as archival materials from Amsterdam and Istanbul--so I've been spending a lot of time sifting through these. I'm not really in a position right now to do a lot of writing on my book, so I've been trying to take care of what I can in the meantime.   

Somehow Brezhnev seems more 
lifelike here than when he was alive.
Last weekend some friends of mine from Bozeman were in town, so I spent a lot of time with them. This was their first visit to Russia, so we did some touristy things that I hadn't done in a long time. Like visit Lenin's tomb! This is always one of my favorite things to do in Moscow, although I didn't get around to it when I was here on sabbatical a couple of years ago. The best part for me in doing this--my first time visiting the tomb was in 1993--is the part where we get to see the graves of the people buried in the Kremlin wall--folks like John Reed and Yuri Gagarin--as well as the tombs of (most) former Soviet party secretaries (excluding Khrushchev, who was forced out of power before he died, and Gorbachev, who is still alive). Seeing the tombs of Stalin and Brezhnev always give me a bit of a thrill, to be honest. 

Chez Tolstoy
My friends and I also visited Tolstoy's house, which I probably hadn't toured in 15-20 years. This, too, was something that I had made a beeline for during my first visit to Moscow in 1993. In 2015--when I was vacationing in Russia for a month following the publication of my book and receiving tenure--I traveled down to Tula, south of Moscow, to visit Tolstoy's estate Yasnaia Polania. The house in Moscow was just a winter residence, but it's still quite moving. I felt really glad to be visiting it again, especially because I was with two other people who loved Tolstoy.  

I've got mixed feelings about leaving Moscow. Up until my sabbatical a couple of years ago, I'd never really spent much time in this city. In graduate school the longest single period of time I'd had in Moscow was three weeks--usually, I just passed through for a few days en route to St. Petersburg, Kazan, and Ufa. So, I'd never really gotten much of a feel for the city. And still, frankly, to this day I don't have the sort of connection to Moscow that I do, for example, with Istanbul--where I spent my 20s--or even Kazan, where I lived for more than two years while I was in graduate school.  

Nevertheless, the city has grown on me. As I was talking about in my previous post, I've spent hours--pretty much every day--walking around town after leaving the archives. I get lost all the time checking out new neighborhoods. I get blown away by how stunningly beautiful some places are. Pretty much every day I've gone in a different direction from the archive, and on the weekends I've headed out to places on the metro and then walked back. I can't say I know every nook and cranny in town--not by a long shot--but I do feel a certain sense of belonging that was not the case when I first moved here in 2016.    

And frankly, the work in the archive has been really fascinating. I remember how excited I felt throughout the winter of 2016-2017, when I first started researching my current project. I'd get out of RGASPI (the Russian State Archive for Socio-Political History), walk across Red Square, cross the Moscow River, and head over to the Novokuznetskaia metro station. It certainly wasn't the most direct way home--there's a station just five minutes down the road from the archive--but it gave me time to think and digest. I'd feel so excited about the material I'd found that day, contemplating how I would use it in the book.  

This time, I had less to do. I started out by working on questions that had popped up over the past couple of years of writing, but then just started going deeper into the weeds. Frankly, it made me feel good about leaving Moscow after seven months during my sabbatical here and heading out to St. Petersburg to write for two months. Back then I'd left because I felt like I'd started to spin my wheels a bit in the archive--I'd started looking at material for the sake of looking at it, which is good, of course, but after a while it's important to put the rubber to the road and start writing. My research this summer hasn't yielded any earth-shaking findings--which is good. Mainly the value has come in adding more details and examples to provide texture to the writing. After all, the point of this summer's trip wasn't to dig up a brand new angle, but rather to answer questions that had come up over the past couple of years of writing. 

On my way back to Kolomenskaia--
my home station. 
The second book seems easier, at least so far. When I was first doing dissertation research, I had little idea of what I was doing. It took a while for me to learn how to listen to the archives--to stop trying to impose my research questions, but rather pay attention to what I was finding and come up with ways of using it. Because, to be honest, in enormous archives like the one where I've been working this summer it's possible to find evidence for pretty much any argument you want. And you can see this kind of approach in some monographs--when an author painfully attempts to stretch out a handful of outlying examples into a convincing argument. Over the years that I've worked in archives in Turkey and the Soviet Union, I've found that the most powerful arguments are the ones I never saw coming--only once you get into the archive and start learning the lay of the land, you start seeing patterns and repeating stories. 

In any case, I'm looking forward to taking a vacation for the next couple of weeks. Maybe I'll have a chance to post a few things here. 

Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your libarary.

Photos from this post can be found in the Borderlands Lounge in an album posted here. My previous album is here

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