Victoria Donovan – Chronicles in Stone

Describe your book

Chronicles in Stone is a study of architectural preservation and patriotic identity in three Old Russian towns (Novgorod, Pskov, and Vologda) from the end of the Second World War to the mid-2010s. It tells the story of how the atheist Soviet regime engaged in the reconstruction the country’s war-damaged architectural monuments (including hundreds of Orthodox churches) in a bid to assert a Russocentric state-building myth that could bind the country together after 1945. In addition to policy issuing from the centre, the book draws attention to the local implications of post-war Soviet heritage politics. From the formation of local knowledge communities around issues related to heritage preservation to the role played by historic monuments in socializing different generations of Soviet and post-Soviet Russians, the book tracks the everyday experience of community life in a landscape dominated by the architectural relics of a remote and remembered past. 

Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?

The book builds on my DPhil (PhD) research at the University of Oxford and is, as a consequence, written primarily for an academic audience. As a PhD student, you agonise over the positionality of your research and the ways in which the topic you are writing on contributes to knowledge and widens the horizons of your chosen field(s). This is not necessarily a conversation that engages a broader audience, but is one that is vital for advancing academic frontiers and scoping out new research agendas and directions for the future.

I was attracted to Northern Illinois University Press because of their impressive record of publishing Slavic Studies research that showcased marginalised experiences, voices, and subjectivities. My book is also concerned with the regional subjectivities that have typically been overlooked by capital-centric studies of Soviet and post-Soviet society and culture, so the press seemed like an excellent fit. When NIUP became an imprint of Cornell University Press, I was, of course, delighted, given the CUP’s reputation and reach. 

Do you enjoy the writing process?

I get very excited at the beginning of projects when everything seems possible and the synapses are firing. I also love archival research, which feels like detective work and can genuinely give rise to a kind of intellectual feverishness as you imagine yourself on the precipice of some new discovery. First drafts are likewise passion projects, written in a rush of energy and enthusiasm. It’s the meticulous process of re-writing, re-re-writing, and ultimately over-writing that can sometimes get you down. It occasionally feels that you are draining the interest out of your research as you rake over an argument, strengthening its premises and conclusions. It’s at these moments that kind and supportive readers are crucial. It can be so restorative to see an exclamation such as “fascinating stuff!” in track changes as you struggle to recover the enthusiasm you had for a project at its outset. 

What is your favourite book? Why?

I don’t have a constant favourite. I recently read Paul Beattie’s The Sellout which blew my socks off, both in terms of its challenging content and its remarkable linguistic dexterity.

In my field of research and teaching, I also recently encountered Yelena Moskovich’s Virtuoso, which I found extraordinary in its treatment of queer desire, intersectionality, and migrant translingualism. That was a fantastic book to discuss with a group of engaged and entirely un-prudish twenty-somethings as part of our MA course on “New Approaches to the Russian Literary Canon” at the University of St Andrews.  

What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you?

Prof. Edith Clowes, who was a valuable mentor on this project, made me realise how important it is to have honest, critical, but also supportive readers provide feedback on your work. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is something that is perhaps worth underlining for first-time authors, particularly those fresh out of their PhDs. For me, the process of turning the DPhil thesis into a viable academic book was incredibly challenging. Following four years of DPhil supervision, I took it upon myself to carry out the changes to the book independently, without putting in place the necessary peer-support network, and almost sank the whole project as a result. It was only once I started sending my work out to colleagues and mentors that I was able to get some perspective on the project and define its boundaries and limitations. The takeaway message for me was that no academic work can be carried out in isolation, it is always a collaborative project.  

What piece of advice might you give to young academics looking to follow in your footsteps?

As above, but also don’t let imposter syndrome ever get the better of you. When I came to my DPhil at the University of Oxford’s Department of Russian, I felt like a bit of a fraud, having not studied Russian as an undergraduate and with only a couple of years of language learning under my belt. I remained feeling this way even after graduating, when intense competition for highly coveted Junior Research Fellowships and academic posts resulted in a string of rejection letters. It was only really after being appointed to my current post in a department of extraordinarily supportive and open colleagues that I realised that this feeling of insecurity was rife in the sector and was the product of internalised gender and socio-economic prejudice as well as institutional precarity. My advice would therefore be not to undervalue the contribution you are able to make as someone who doesn’t have the obvious CV or profile; unexpected perspectives can sometimes be the most valuable! 

Who inspires you?

My former DPhil supervisor, Prof. Catriona Kelly, has always been an inspiration. Her ability to pay scrupulous attention to archival detail while at the same time mapping broad cultural trends across borders and time is really astonishing. Like everyone else, I am also in awe of how incredibly prolific she is while at the same time managing to be a present, engaged and responsive supervisor to her many graduate students. Recognising my need for additional support when I was starting out as a DPhil student at Oxford, Catriona accompanied me to the archives in Volodga, a region between St Petersburg and Moscow, and showed me how to work with opisi (archival inventories) in the most time efficient and productive way. This was an incredible privilege and something that stood me in excellent stead for the rest of the research project. Catriona has inspired me to go the extra mile in my support for post-graduate students and junior research colleagues who are emerging voices in our field.  

What’s next?

My new project is a study of the visual heritage of industrialization in the Ukrainian East. It explores how industrial regions have been constructed through visual media and how this process has impacted on community identity. From the first decades of communist rule, the heavily industrialized Donbas region was celebrated in Soviet propaganda as a flagship of socialist construction and a model of proletarian labour. The dominant mode of the region’s representation was always visual: from the production portraits of the Soviet avant-garde artists of the 1920s to the bleak depictions of failing Donbas monotowns in the cinema of the perestroika era, the landscapes and communities of Donbas have been repeatedly depicted as exotic abstractions, to be wondered at, emulated, or feared or by the rest of the nation. My project examines the practices and traditions of visualizing industry in Donbas, from the late-Imperial period to the present day. Rather than fetishize Donbas as a unique case, however, I want to position it in a comparative research frame, highlighting common challenges and experiences in (post-)industrial regions and communities across the UK. The project will thus have an important collaborative dimension, including workshops, projects with schools, exhibitions, and other public-facing events. Working with museum practitioners, artists and local communities from the UK it will explore the cultural potential of existing industrial heritage collections and stimulate new forms of creative engagement with industrial themes.   

Victoria Donovan is a Senior Lecturer in Russian and Director of the Centre for Russian, Soviet, Central and East European Studies at the University of St Andrews. She is the author of research articles in Antropologicheskii forumSlavic ReviewSlavonica and Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie. She is a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker and British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award holder.