Member of the Week: Felix Cowan

Felix Cowan

PhD Candidate

Department of History

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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

My current research is on the Russian penny press in the early twentieth century: small, accessible, hugely popular newspapers that sold for a single kopeck per issue and targeted the Russian Empire’s growing population of poor urban readers as their primary audience. My work on this topic grew out of my interest in urban history, specifically the history of urban poverty and inequality. These newspapers often focused on everyday life in urbanizing Russia with a particular interest in the lives of their poor readers, and my dissertation explores their coverage of urban experiences as well as how these newspapers reflected and contributed to changing political culture and social dynamics in the last years of the Russian Empire. I would especially highlight that these were a truly empire-wide phenomenon, integrated into the Russian-language public sphere in Russian cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Saratov but also in cities throughout the multiethnic Russian Empire: Kyiv, Odessa, Warsaw, Vilnius, Baku, Tbilisi, Harbin, and dozens more. My work shows the shared nature of urban experiences and narratives of urban journalism across the Russian Empire, something that has unfortunately seemed especially relevant to the news today, filled as it is with images of Russian troops devastating Ukrainian cities.

Describe your current public history work. How does it relate to your scholarship?

I’m not teaching this year, but I have been working on becoming more of a public historian and sharing my research beyond narrow academic circles. Most recently, I published a blog post on the All the Russias’ Blog of the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, looking at how the penny newspapers I study used images to make stories accessible and give them emotional weight. As it happens, the images I drew on for that piece were all illustrations relating to the problems of urban life: the high cost of living, deficient municipal services, and urban unemployment. I think this demonstrates how public history can help to connect different subjects, like the overlap between urban history, the history of journalism, and studies of visual culture. Nearly all our scholarship touches on multiple disciplinary interests, especially when focusing on something as dynamic and multifaceted as cities, and public history is a great way to explore those connections by framing work in a way that will connect to as broad an audience as possible.

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

I consider myself a historian of the Russian Empire as well as an urban historian, and in the field of Russian, East European, and Eurasian history we are in the early stages of a disciplinary turn towards integrating histories of race and racialization into the study of this region. From my perspective, some of the most exciting studies in this field use cities and urban life to study the importance of race and racialization. For recent scholarship, I would mention Jeff Sahadeo’s book Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow (2019), which studies the experiences of racialized populations from the USSR’s southern peripheries, in particular Central Asia and the Caucasus, in the predominantly Russian metropolises of Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). For forthcoming work, I recently saw a fascinating talk by Eileen Kane discussing the role of urban space and segregation within racializing processes directed at Russian Muslims passing through Odessa while undertaking the Hajj in the early twentieth century, and I look forward to seeing that research in print at some point in the future.

What kinds of advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?

The best advice I can give to any aspiring young historian is to work on language skills. Not everyone learns languages easily (for example, I don’t!) but the earlier you begin learning and the more time you invest, the better the result. Even if studying cities where the dominant language happens to be your native language, I think scholarship is enriched by being able to draw on the experiences of those who speak other languages. Beyond that, I strongly encourage aspiring urban historians to read widely in urban history. Although my work focuses on the Russian Empire, I have benefited greatly from reading histories of cities throughout the world, which have both deepened my theoretical understanding of the city and helped me decipher which aspects of urban life in the cities I study were common urban experiences and which were unique to the particularities of revolutionary Russia. A few examples that stand out to me: Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1988) helped me understand chaotic modern urban experiences from a theoretical perspective; Peter Fritzsche’s Reading Berlin 1900 (1996) helped me see cities as a collection of texts, which has been vital for my research on urban newspapers; and Nathaniel D. Wood’s Becoming Metropolitan: Urban Selfhood and the Making of Modern Cracow (2010) made it clear that urban residents can forge cultural connections with one another across long distances and even across national borders, based on shared urban experiences.

As a graduate student, what inspired you to join the Urban History Association?

I’m reaching the end of my PhD program at the University of Illinois. When planning my next steps and imagining what kind of scholar I would like to be, I kept thinking of myself as an urban historian and hoping that my scholarship would both reach and be informed by the research of a global community of urban historians as well as the community of scholars studying Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia. From that perspective, joining the Urban History Association just made sense as a way to position myself in this field and stay up to date with what’s happening in the world of urban history.

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