Assistant Professor, Ryerson University
Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I’m currently working on a book project about urban planning and urban life in Moscow in the 1930s-1950s, tentatively titled Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life under High Stalinism. This research focuses on a city-wide skyscraper construction project begun in Moscow in 1947. Seven out of eight skyscrapers called for (by state decree) in 1947 were built to completion in the waning years of the Stalin era and what drew my interest to this project initially was the buildings themselves. Anyone who has visited Moscow knows these skyscrapers well: they are distinctive features of the Moscow cityscape even today, they share a similar “wedding-cake”-like silhouette, and they continue to serve as important institutional sites in the city (one is Moscow State University, another the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). But if the buildings themselves drew me in, it was the rich trove of archival documents that their construction produced that held my attention. I was excited to find documents in the archives that have allowed me to write a history that stretches beyond design decisions made by top officials and architects.
For example, the plots chosen for skyscraper development in Moscow in 1947 were not empty parcels of land; construction would require the eviction and resettlement of tens of thousands of Muscovites who lived on those plots. I trace this process through the bureaucratic offices involved in resettlement, but also through hundreds of letters of complaint that remain in the archives written by the people who were evicted and resettled on the outskirts of the city. Still more archival files provide a glimpse into the lives of construction workers (both “free” laborers and Gulag laborers) who built the skyscrapers. How these various individuals understood their lives in relation to Moscow’s Stalin-era skyscraper project is a key element that I explore in the book.
Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I’m currently preparing to teach a Global Studies course in my first semester at Ryerson University this fall, followed by courses next spring on The City in History and a seminar on Stalinism. A few years ago, I taught a freshman seminar at Berkeley on The Socialist City and this course related more closely than anything I’ve taught since to my research. But even in the broader courses that I teach, like a World History survey I taught last year, I regularly use cities as a route into the past. Exploring city plans, maps, and photographs (if available) with students and walking them through city spaces while introducing them to broader themes works to make history more tangible and relatable and to make the past come alive in the classroom. I’m especially excited to begin teaching urban history in Toronto—the possibilities for using the city as a laboratory for learning are endless!
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
One of the books on my reading list that I am most excited to turn to this summer is Rosemary Wakeman’s Practicing Utopia: An Intellectual History of the New Town Movement, which looks at the history of the New Town movement in the twentieth century from a global perspective. Now that I’m living in Toronto, I’ve also got some Toronto-related fiction on my list too, including Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and Mordecai Richler’s The Incomparable Atuk.
What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?
I would encourage young scholars to reach out early on to communities of scholars working on urban-related themes, both within and outside their home institutions. Ideally, the networks you build will include people who work on topics similar to yours, as well as people who work in different disciplines and on totally different regions and periods than you do. Both the UHA conferences and region-specific conferences are great places make these kinds of connections, but even within your own department or program, forming an urban-themed reading group is a good place to start building up a network.
What was the Soviet equivalent of the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower, and what interesting urban details would a historian see when looking down from the top of it?
Soviet architects of the Stalin period that I study would not have been content with the notion that their buildings were “equivalent” to American structures—they were keen on surpassing American achievements. One building that aimed to do just this, with an eye to the Empire State Building, was the Palace of Soviets. This neoclassical tower topped by an enormous statue of Lenin was begun in the 1930s, but was never completed. Had it been completed and had it survived to the present day (hard to imagine!), a historian would be able to ascend to the top of this structure and look down straight into Moscow’s Kremlin.