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‘I come from what you could call the last generation of the Cold War’: Professor Catriona Kelly reflects

Professor Catriona Kelly is Senior Research Fellow at Trinity and Honorary Professor of Russian at Cambridge. In the latest Q&A with a Trinity Fellow, she shares her 50-year fascination with Russia, the similarities with another country she knows well, and the value of studying languages.

Professor Catriona Kelly. Photo: John Cairns
Professor Catriona Kelly. Photo: John Cairns

To what extent is Russia misunderstood in western countries today?

Right now, Russian troops are massing on the Russian border, and newspapers in Britain (most of which usually take no interest in Ukraine) are agitating about the possibility of an invasion. It’s possible that the situation really does resemble the spring and summer of 1968, when troop manoeuvres culminated in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on 20 August, bringing to a brutal end the ‘Prague Spring’ and ‘Communism with a human face’.

When this happened, I was just eight years old, and I remember the sense of desolation when the tanks went in, and also the shock when Jan Palach burnt himself to death on 19 January 1969. But now, as a Russian friend put it, the situation ‘likely won’t go beyond grotesque political bluff’. The way in which the West is talking up the crisis risks pushing the Russians into exactly the kind of extreme response everyone wants to avoid.

Western, including British, media commentary about Russia is now relentlessly negative. I don’t have a warm affection for the current leadership either, but there is far more to the country than that. Russia is an infinitely more dynamic and interesting place than the USSR was before the late 1980s. Despite the crackdown on political dissent in the past few years, there is at least limited space for diversity, and you can have close contact with people working in your field, even given the legislation relating to ‘foreign agents’.

In any case, I’m not sure that Russia’s problems, as an imperial power that is past its peak, are so different from Britain’s own. Both countries have big difficulties defining themselves in relation to Europe, for instance. That intrinsic similarity may be one reason why we are so hard on Russia.

Why do you find the history and culture of Russia so compelling?

I’ve been interested in Russia one way or another for more than 50 years (the BBC radio adaptation of War and Peace in 1969 was a precipitating factor). My involvement began with literature, music, and art, and continued with the attempt to understand the context in which they were created.

I come from what you could call the last generation of the Cold War. In the 1970s and 1980s, people talked about ‘the Soviets’, and that sort of ‘othering’ was equally characteristic of the Russian émigré community in London where I learned Russian. When I went to the Soviet Union in 1980, as a third-year undergraduate on my year abroad, to spend a year in the provincial city of Voronezh, I had the sense of being parachuted into enemy territory.

In fact people were far more welcoming than they had been when I was in Vienna for six months two years earlier. I still have good friends that I met then. Human contacts mattered, back in the Brezhnev days, and they transcended incidental political factors. That is still true. In fact, I’ve found that Russians generally are now more welcoming than they were before the geopolitical situation worsened; they seem to appreciate the effort to get there, particularly since COVID, and see it as a gesture of solidarity.

Catriona with friends in No. 2 Voronezh State University hostel. Photo: Chris Cambray
Catriona with friends in No. 2 Voronezh State University hostel. Photo: Chris Cambray

Russia is, as Catherine II put it, ‘a European state’, but also an atypical one. Time spend in the West of Ireland as a child and since may have helped me to understand Russia. Despite the obvious differences of scale, geopolitical significance, and so on, Ireland is rather like Russia in some ways. Both are intensely creative places, argumentative, highly politicised, with huge reverence for the arts.

Social relations aren’t neutral (English ‘negative politeness’ such as not wanting to impose yourself on others can sometimes seem rather cold by comparison). But I do find England restful after visits to Russia. Challenges can be exhilarating, but they can also wear you out. And we do have remarkable traditions of democratic participation and the rule of law. We should just take care not to lose them.

Catriona's childhood home in the West of Ireland
Catriona’s childhood home in the West of Ireland. Photo: Catriona Kelly

You have written many books and received awards and accolades. What for you is your most significant achievement?

There are various possible answers. Going off on my own as a rather sheltered 18 year old to spend six months working in Vienna. A year in a then very dull Soviet provincial town, at a stage of the Brezhnev era accurately described as the ‘era of stagnation.’

I think that most of your real achievements come before the age of 25 because you don’t have the financial or emotional resources that you develop later.

So far as academic achievements are concerned, every book is one, in terms of overcoming your own trepidation. I’m also proud of my year as President of the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, a major international professional organization, at a time when a massive row took place. You can’t please everyone, but we did manage to reach a point of reconciliation, and I claim part of the credit for that. It took a lot of listening, but you also had to be tough.

Can you describe an ‘ah ha’ or lightbulb moment?

There have been a few. Writing my most recent book, Soviet Art House: Lenfilm Studio under Brezhnev, I realized that there was a whole history of Soviet film that doesn’t usually get told, about the mechanics of getting the film on the screen. A big piece of luck at an earlier stage was getting into the Central Archive of the FSB (formerly the KGB) in 2003 to see the file on the murder of Pavlik Morozov, the Soviet boy hero who is supposed to have denounced his father to the authorities during the collectivization campaign. I doubt whether the FSB would have let me in if I’d tried more recently.

How are you spending your time at Trinity?

I’m enjoying the peace and quiet, away from the hurly-burly of teaching and admin that has been a major part of my life for decades. I can’t imagine better conditions for research and writing. At the moment, I’m working on a history of Russian food since 1800 for the Bloomsbury ‘Russian Shorts’ series, and finishing a collection of essays, Out of Focus: Russia at the Margins.

My big project is on historical film in the post-Stalin era, including (I hope) film from the Caucasus, Central Asia, Ukraine, and the Baltic, as well as Russia. It will involve some travel (COVID allowing!) – but there is lots of material in Cambridge too, and I’m grateful to my new colleagues in Russian and Slavonic studies, and Mel Bach, the wonderful Slavonic librarian at the UL, for the warm welcome they have given me. And to the Master and Fellows here, for their support, and for the many interesting conversations that I’ve had in College.

What are the benefits of studying languages at university, for students and for wider society?

Travel may not broaden the mind, but learning languages certainly does. I get very angry when people lazily say, ‘but they all know English now’. Outside big cities, that really isn’t true, and also, you see a very different side of people when you talk to them in their own language.

I taught Russian in London and Oxford for close on 40 years, and my ex-students have been taken by their language studies to all kinds of places: journalism, government service, international fashion photography, documentary films, creative writing, translation, IT, acting, folk jazz, human rights law, banking, marketing, picture restoration… you name it.

The ability not just to speak a language but to analyse texts in it and to comprehend other cultures can take you anywhere you want, and people who know other languages and cultures from the inside rarely fall into the trap of assuming that the Anglophone world does everything better. Society benefits from having bilingual or multilingual people, particularly at the moment, when Britain (or England, anyway) seems rather obsessed with its own concerns.

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