Around this time last year, as some of you may be aware, I enrolled in a Masters program at Birkbeck College in London. For some years now I had nurtured this plan of going back to college and learning something entirely new—maybe History or Design or some such. But mostly history. And then last summer I was spurred into actually taking my applications seriously after running into a Twitter acquaintance who has since become a good friend. This doctoral student at Warwick University told me to stop wasting my time and immediately email professors all over London.
One thing led to another and by August 2015 I had admissions to the MA History course at UCL and the MA Historical Research course at Birkbeck. Both, obviously, as a part-time student. (Not that the full-time course was impossible. It is just that I didn’t want to take a risk. I am an Indian journalist you see. It has been years since I did any actual work. So I decided to complete my MA over a less hectic 24-month period.)
I finally chose Birkbeck and have had the time of my life ever since. It has been very challenging. The average class requires some 200 pages of reading and plenty of thinking. And this is if you just restrict yourself to the compulsory readings. Optional readings often run into hundreds of pages more. Per lecture. Crazy. There are no examinations to pass, thankfully, as each module is evaluated via the submission of a 5000-word essay.
Which is what I wanted to blog about in the first place.
For my first module, on the theories and methods of historical research, I submitted an essay on the declassifications of Soviet archives on the Space Program and the Nazi-Soviet Pact. How did these declassifications take place? How did Russians receive these declassifications? How did they react afterwards?
(Why did I choose this topic? Two reasons. There was an excellent exhibition on the Soviet Space Program taking place at the Science Museum when I was choosing topics. And secondly the Netaji Bose files were being debated at the time. Click. Click.)
You can download and read the essay PDF here. I am happy to report that essay was marked well and I passed the module.
But ever since the essay I have been fascinated by a particular aspect of post-Soviet life in Russia: public memory and collective memory. How do Russians, old and young, process their past history?
No-one, I think, has asked this question better than Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich. Her latest book is Secondhand Time. Lithub ran an excerpt from the book this week:
“So here it is, freedom! Is it everything we had hoped it would be? We were prepared to die for our ideals. To prove ourselves in battle. Instead, we ushered in a Chekhovian life. Without any history. Without any values except for the value of human life—life in general. Now we have new dreams: building a house, buying a decent car, planting gooseberries… Freedom turned out to mean the rehabilitation of bourgeois existence, which has traditionally been suppressed in Russia. The freedom of Her Highness Consumption. Darkness exalted. The darkness of desire and instinct—the mysterious human life, of which we only ever had approximate notions. For our entire history, we’d been surviving instead of living.”
I cannot wait to read Secondhand Time.
Anyway… more on the MA and my experiences going back to university in future posts. Cheers chaps.