Member of the Week: Dakota Irvin

Irvin HS1Dakota Irvin

Doctoral Candidate in History

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

@ddirvin1

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I’m currently writing my dissertation on the history of the city of Ekaterinburg, Russia, during the Russian Revolution, Civil War, and first years of Soviet power (1917-1922). My research traces the experience and activities of institutions of municipal government during a time of state collapse and war, and how different regimes utilized local government to transform the urban landscape and shape the lives of its citizens. Essential components of urban life, such as general law and order, public works and construction, food provision, waste removal, and a multitude of others broke down, transformed, and were prioritized by different political factions seeking to build a new administrative state on the shattered foundations of the Russian Empire. I became interested in the topic of the Russian Civil War after I read Mikhail Sholokhov’s classic novel And Quiet Flows the Don. After spending time in the Urals cities of Cheliabinsk and Ekaterinburg for work and study, I decided I wanted to write a dissertation about this area, which is often neglected in the larger scholarship of the revolutionary time period.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

This spring I will be a teaching assistant for a course on how Russia became an empire, from pre-medieval times to the Crimean War of 1853-1856. As well, I am hoping to teach my own course this summer on world history since 1945, where I will emphasize the urban dimension of the time period by assigning books like Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums and Designing Tito’s Capital by Brigitte Le Normand. Cities have been a major driver of the economic, social, and political transformations of the second half of the twentieth century, and I plan to focus on the development of cities such as Shenzhen, Mumbai, Lagos, and many others to help tell the larger story of their countries and global history in general. Admittedly, until now I have been mostly engaged with the historiography of Russia and theoretical writings on the state and state building for my dissertation, but I am looking to expand both my research and teaching horizons by incorporating more concepts from urban history and theory.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

The centennial of the Russian Revolution last year led to an explosion of books, articles, special issues, and conferences, giving me plenty to read. However, most of all I have been looking forward to reading Yuri Slezkine’s 1,000-page epic The House of Government, a kind-of urban history of a major residential building in Moscow during Stalinism. The second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin is also at the top of my list, but I would recommend his earlier work Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, which is one of the finest urban histories of a Russian city. For the history of the Revolution it seems to me that Laura Engelstein’s Russia in Flames is the most interesting new survey/comprehensive account. Outside of Russian history, I’m intrigued by Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities and Alice Weinreb’s Modern Hungers: Food and Power in Twentieth-Century Germany.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?

For me, one of the most important aspects of researching my dissertation was spending time in the city I was writing about. Walking the streets of Ekaterinburg not only helped me choose my dissertation topic, but also allowed me to go to the exact location of the events I researched in the archives. My advice would be to select a city or space that you connect with and want to spend time in, as physical presence can help you understand people and events that would not be as clear from afar. Also, I would recommend thinking about cities comparatively and drawing on scholarship from other thematic fields and disciplines. While Russia has often been seen as the “other” compared to the Western world, reading histories of European cities demonstrated that there were nonetheless many universal components of the urban experience.

When you started working on your research topic, did you ever expect Russia would become so central to US political news? Has your approach to your topic shifted at all in the past year? And have noticed a change in how people react when you describe your topic?

This is a great question, and one I have been getting a lot lately since I returned from 16 months of dissertation research in Russia last month. When I first began studying Russia, one of my biggest complaints was that the country was largely ignored by the US media overall, and they were missing out on fascinating developments. However, in hindsight, it seems I got much more than I bargained for, and people are constantly asking me what I think of Vladimir Putin and the 2016 US elections. My approach to the dissertation hasn’t necessarily shifted since this newfound interest began, but I have begun following contemporary Russian politics more closely. I think studying local government and politics from 100 years ago in Russia allows me to better understand the complex inner workings of Russian politics and governance today, and highlights the often-superficial nature of US reporting on the topic. People have always been surprised or skeptical when I tell them I study Russia, but now when anyone asks the conversation immediately shifts to discussion of US politics, which I don’t always appreciate. All that being said, I’m cautiously glad that more people are becoming interested in Russia.

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