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Boundaries of History

In this issue of The HSE Look, we would like to focus on three of the many seminar series which are held at HSE, and we are glad to present the interview with Alexander Semyonov about the seminar Boundaries of History at HSE St. Petersburg.

 Alexander Semyonov, Professor, Head of the Department of History at HSE St. Petersburg

What is the objective of the seminar series in History?

Once the Faculty of History (now the Department of History and the Center for Historical Research) was established at the HSE campus in St. Petersburg in 2012, the first thing we thought about was a research seminar, which would bring together historians with different backgrounds: political and intellectual history, environmental and technological history, social and cultural history. In addition to creating a discussion platform for different research schools, traditions and approaches, we also wanted to promote the new faculty among the academic community. We were planning to focus on the systematic reflections and advancement of global, comparative, and transnational history. Hence, we settled on Boundaries of History as the title of the seminar.

The complex metaphor in the title refers to limits and scales in comparative and global history, as well as the goal of studying historically formed diversity and, in particular, the diversity and complex arrangement of difference in historic empires. The metaphor also emphasizes the everlasting methodological problem of boundaries between history and other social sciences and humanities. Moreover, we often discuss the division between history and historical memory in all of its manifestations, in particular, fostering a dialogue between professional and public history. 

How often do you hold meetings? How are they organized?

Generally, we have about 20 single-presenter sessions per year accompanied by several major events such as multiday workshops and conferences touching on the key topics of the seminar. Larger events allow more time for the interaction and communication between different parties, while also significantly contributing both to scholarly exchange and reputation.

The seminar series includes sessions with pre-circulated research papers, both in English and Russian, as well as public lectures and roundtables. The most frequent setup for single sessions is rather traditional, i.e. a talk followed by questions and a discussion, which has proven to be the most reasonable format for both speakers and audiences. Nowadays, Boundaries of History seminar enjoys a good international reputation, and the majority of our guest speakers come from abroad, hence the events are bilingual: in Russian and English.

Is there any over-arching topic or disciplinary focus for the seminar? How do you choose topics for specific events?

I would suggest that it is not the frequency of the sessions but rather their topical, methodological, and theoretical cohesion and consistency that can make a series out of single events.

From the very onset of the seminar, we had a clear vision about the major topics we want to explore:

  • opportunities for historical research across and beyond the boundaries of national history, the analytical value of approaches to global history with respect to different fields and historical periods;
  • historical research on empires, colonialism, and nationalism in comparative and global perspectives;
  • the porous boundaries between the study of history and adjacent fields of social sciences and opportunities for cross-disciplinary research;
  •  the arbitrary nature of the boundary between past and present in contemporary historical studies, and the relevance of historical knowledge for public and expert debates in contemporary societies;
  •  the boundary between professional, public and popular history.

 We always try to stay true to this agenda, inviting or responding to the requests of prominent or distinguished scholars in these respective fields. Relevant and prominent publications and joint projects also provide a good reason and occasion for specific events. The seminar has proved to be a living organism and it evolved together with the currents of contemporary historiography. For example, a number of papers presented at the seminar addressed what we called ‘contested global history’. And this was enough to prompt a subseries within the seminar in regards to how national or regional traditions paved the way for a peculiar take by historians on the concept of the ‘global’ in history.

What have been the outcomes of the seminar series?

There are multiple and various benefits that come from this seminar series. Just to name a few, it is a significant reputational gain for both the Department of History and the Centre for Historical Research, as well as our St. Petersburg campus in general. The seminar has helped tremendously in advancing existing research and identifying new promising areas. We were also able to find new international partners, and this led to potentially long-lasting collaboration in research and education. For instance, our partnerships with the Universities of Munich, Eastern Finland, Michigan and Oslo, respectively, originated thanks to the seminar. And it also enabled the creation of the joint Summer School ‘Imperial History in a Global Age, 1870-1920’ with the Free University Berlin.

It also helped our students to see in concrete terms the fruits of historical research and helped some of them choose an academic career. And last but not the least, the seminar has kept the dialogue going between faculty members despite their crushing teaching loads and various obligations. 

What are your plans for 2018 and beyond?

‘Global history’ is a thing which intrigues us the most at the moment. Until recently, historiographies tended to develop within the auspices of nation-states, i.e. they focused primarily on political history of a state or a narrative for national identities, while transnational connections and entanglements were mostly ignored.

The global perspective, with its structures, processes and tendencies remained largely unclaimed, which negatively affected the scope and range of comparative studies. After David Armitage’s (Harvard University) talk at Boundaries of History last year, we launched a subseries ‘Contested Global History’, which we are eager to continue and expand in order to systematically compare different readings and conceptions of ‘global history’, as well as articulate the variations and divergences in teaching this type of history within different historiographical traditions.

Our other ambition is to carry on bringing historians and anthropologists closer together and look closer into the relations and interactions of professional and public history and the function of collective memory in societies undergoing modernization processes. For the time being, we are planning around 12 sessions up until July, the most prominent names among our guests include Arjun Appadurai, Dominic Lieven, Alan Barenberg, Andreas Eckert, Sebastian Conrad and others.

Read more in The HSE Look March 2018 issue