Alissa Klots - Centring "Peripheral" Narratives in Soviet History
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
For the third week of our series, we spoke to Alissa Klots, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Alissa holds a PhD in History from Rutgers University and she is currently completing her first book The Kitchen Maid That Will Rule the State: Domestic Service in the Soviet Union. She has taught numerous courses in the USA and Russia. You can find out more about her research and teaching here. You can listen to her interview on the SRB podcast here.
PH: Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests.
I am Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Before coming to Pitt, I taught at Perm State University (Russia), Rutgers University (USA) and European University at Saint Petersburg (Russia). I also spent a year at Tel Aviv University (Israel) as a postdoctoral fellow. So, as an academic I have been constantly moving between what one can define as “centres” and “peripheries” of academic knowledge production. These different academic traditions have all shaped the way I approach the fields I am working in: Soviet history, gender history and history of aging.
My first project is a history of domestic service in the Soviet Union. Most people assume that paid domestic labour in the Soviet Union was something illicit, something nobody talked about openly when in fact it was perfectly legal and widely discussed. I use domestic service as a window into the meanings of class and gender under socialism and examine how competing ideas about paid domestic labour played out in the lives of domestic workers and their employers. My second project, on which I collaborate with Maria Romashova (Perm State University), explores the meanings of old age after Stalin. We are particularly interested in the subjectivities of retirees who remain active in public life. We reconstruct the world of aging activists, using Perm – an industrial city in the Urals (and our hometown) as a case study.
PH: How do your research interests feed into your teaching? Which courses/classes have you taught or are teaching at the moment?
At the University of Pittsburgh, I am lucky to have the opportunity to teach courses that are very close to my research interests. I teach courses on Soviet history: a Soviet history survey and a course on Stalinism as well as courses in the history of sexuality, both undergraduate and graduate. In the coming academic year, I will also be teaching, in collaboration with my colleague, historian of Central Asia James Pickett, a directed study for students who would like to practice their Russian by reading historical sources. In all my classes I build on my research: for example, in my Soviet history survey students debate whether or not a communist can have a servant while in my global history of sexuality course I dedicated a full week to issues of sexuality under socialism. In other words, I bring issues of gender into my Soviet courses, and bring Eastern Europe and socialism into my gender history courses.
PH: How do you bring questions of centre and periphery, borderlands, or “peripheral” narratives into the classroom?
Let me use my Soviet history survey as an example. First, I make sure that it is not all about Moscow. For instance, most historians teaching Soviet history talk about the nationality question, but I try to move beyond concepts and policies and introduce voices of those who Soviet leadership imagined as objects of these policies: women and men in peripheries such as Uzbekistan or Ukraine. Many of my colleagues use Lev Kopelev’s The Education of a True Believer for the discussion of collectivization but it can also be a wonderful source for the study of the everyday life of multi-ethnic, multilingual Ukraine in the 1920s as it is remembered by a Ukraine-born Jewish muscovite. Even when I do talk about Moscow I strive to acknowledge the role of migrants in the Soviet social fabric, building on recent scholarship such as Jeff Sahadeo’s Voices from the Soviet Edge. I also tend to bring my hometown Perm into the classroom quite a bit. For example, I use the case of Perm-36 – a former labour camp that is now a memorial complex about four hours away from Perm – to discuss memory wars in contemporary Russia.
Second, I try to include narratives that are “peripheral” in the study of Soviet history. One such narrative is the history of disability. While issues of gender and race are at least acknowledged in most history courses, the history of disability is usually its own thing taught in special courses. It is great that such courses exist, but we can do more to integrate the issues related to disability in general history courses. Otherwise, students who are not explicitly interested in disability might never learn about it. In my Soviet history survey, I use Claire Shaw’s Deaf in the USSR to talk about Soviet approach to disability when we discuss the Soviet welfare system.
Finally, I rely on Russia's Long Twentieth Century: Voices, Memories, Contested Perspectives as the textbook for the course. Written by gender historians, it systematically interrogates the gender dimension of political, economic, and social developments.
PH: What challenges do you face when trying to teach a more diverse syllabus?
For me, the biggest challenge is the lack of sources. I prefer assigning primary sources rather than academic articles in addition to the textbook. Most of my students do not read Russian, so I need to look for unconventional sources that have already been translated or translate them myself. I also sometimes struggle to balance bigger narratives with peripheral ones because, at the end of the day, you have a finite number of hours per semester.
PH: What do you think a diverse and inclusive approach to teaching Russian Imperial/Soviet history looks like?
When it comes to diversity, the university has two functions. First, it should provide equal educational opportunities to students with different backgrounds. Second, it should prepare students for successful careers in a complex world by exposing them to different ideas and cultures. A brief diversity statement can be a good start. The goal of the statement is to let the students know that the issues of equality and inclusivity are important to me and show support to those who might feel marginalized. I strive to facilitate discussion so that every student feels included. I often use my position as an outsider to encourage students to explain contentious issues, such as welfare provisions that exist (or do not exist) in the United States, to me rather than to argue with one another. This technique helps to bring down the tension. It also empowered students who thus felt themselves to be not just receivers but producers of knowledge.
A diverse and inclusive approach to teaching Russian/Soviet history is an approach that allows every student in the classroom to relate to the course material in some way. A female student might be particularly moved by the diary written by a Soviet schoolgirl Nina Lugovskaya. A student of colour can learn something new about race by studying the life Lovett Fort-Whiteman, the only known African-American to die in the Gulag. A first-generation student may recognize the struggles of Stepan Podlubnyi, a peasant migrant who tries to reinvent himself as a worker and a student. At the same time, students who have perhaps been indifferent to the issues of gender, race or class will be challenged to think about them in new ways. Thus, by discussing Soviet history all students will learn something new about themselves and others.