Mart Kuldkepp - Teaching the transnational history of the Baltic region
For week four of our teaching series, we hear from Mart Kuldkepp, an Associate Professor of Scandinavian History and Politics at University College London. Mart is an expert in twentieth-century Scandinavian and Baltic political history, with a particular interest in Baltic-Scandinavian contacts and the transnational history of the Baltic Sea Region. He is the author of Estonia Gravitates Towards Sweden: Nordic Identity and Activist Regionalism in World War I, as well as numerous articles and chapters published in English, Estonian, and Swedish. You can find out more about his research interests and teaching on his website.
PH: Tell us a little about yourself and your research interests
Although I’m a historian, I have never formally studied history. Instead, all my degrees are in Scandinavian Studies from University of Tartu, most recently my PhD which I took in 2014. I gave my first lectures in 2007 and worked as an assistant lecturer at the Scandinavian department at Tartu alongside with my PhD studies. In 2015, I joined UCL where I’m now Associate Professor in Scandinavian history and politics.
My main field of scholarly interest is the overlap between Scandinavian and Baltic history in the first decades of the 20th century, particularly during the First World War and in its immediate aftermath. I have written about the plans to get Sweden to join Germany in the war and to liberate Finland and Estonia, about Swedish attitudes towards Baltic independence at various points in time, about Estonian deserters from the Imperial Russian Army who made their way to Sweden during the First World War, about the Estonian Swedish minority in the early 20th century, about Swedish volunteers in the Estonian War of Independence and so on. As a side interest, I have published in the field of Old Norse studies and translated a number of sagas and poetry from Old Norse-Icelandic into Estonian.
PH: How do your research interests feed into your teaching? Which courses/classes have you taught or are teaching at the moment?
Intentionally or not, I have a habit of challenging myself through my teaching. Most subjects I have taught and teach are therefore only tangentially related to my research interests. Working at the University of Tartu, I taught a huge variety of courses which (alongside with Scandinavian history and culture modules) included Old Norse Literature, Swedish Language History and even Icelandic for Beginners. The main courses I have been teaching over the last few years at UCL include one on contemporary Scandinavian politics and society, another on regions and regionalism in Europe, and a third on neutrality and neutral states in the twentieth century. With exception of the last one, they’re not even really history modules. Having said that, I do teach the history part of a module on Baltic Politics and Society together with my colleague Allan Sikk. My job is to cover most of the Baltic history in the first three weeks and takes care of everything from the end of the Cold War onwards down to the present day.
PH: How do you bring questions of centre and periphery, borderlands, or “peripheral” narratives into the classroom?
I often feel that I’m somewhat between two fields (Baltic and Scandinavian studies), but a major reason why I’ve ended up there is how interesting transnational history is for me. I’m always interested in obscure political connections across state borders, in fluid personalities moving between different national spheres, and in unexpected cultural and intellectual influences raising their head in unexpected ways. I have tried to convey this sense of fascination also to my students, and to make them see the broader, regional context.
In Scandinavian studies, most students have never even considered that Scandinavia could also be considered a part of the Baltic region or that Russia has played such a major, historical and contemporary role in Scandinavian foreign policy. The students in the Baltic module I mentioned above are different and tend to have a background in Eastern European and Slavonic Studies, so my approach there is normally to focus on the similarities and differences of the Baltic countries vis-à-vis both Russia and the CIS region and Eastern Europe more generally. I’ve found that engagement with primary sources and life narratives is often a great way to make students interested in important historical turning points, but sources like that almost always also contain some form of “marginal” content or detail, which might appear unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but could just as well lead to further fascinating discoveries. PH: What challenges do you face when trying to teach a more diverse syllabus?
I think it’s sometimes difficult to keep students interested, or to convince them that it’s worth their time to engage with something that’s admittedly rather marginal – such as the experiences of neutral countries in major wars of the 20th century, or various regionalist projects ranging from EU-led partnerships to barely known cross-border cooperation initiatives, or even Baltic and Scandinavian history as a whole. At a big international university like UCL, the atmosphere is often hyper-competitive and students are very worried about their future, so diversity can be a hard sell. I don’t know how successful I’ve been conveying the value of broader perspectives, but judging by the feedback, most students have found my courses at least interesting. PH: What do you think a diverse and inclusive approach to teaching Russian Imperial/Soviet history looks like?
I think that firstly, we need to do away with the notion that Russian or Soviet history is only about Russia or Russians in a narrow sense. The experiences of other regions and nationalities need to be given much more time and attention in the syllabus. Today, it would be impossible to teach British imperial history without taking into account the views, experiences and voices of the many subject peoples of the British Empire. The same needs to happen to the way that Russian and Soviet history are taught, not least on the university level.
Secondly, the introduction of more diversity in no way invalidates the Russian experience, which is still a central factor in Russian and Soviet history. But doing that puts Russian experiences in a different context, and that is in my opinion crucial to understand what we are even talking about. Neither Russia nor the Soviet Union was ever a nation state, and not talking about the multitude of internal divisions that existed in these states and how they were (mis)managed leaves a very important part of the story untold.
Finally, and perhaps most concretely, I think it would often be useful to focus more on the local and the concrete, not on grand narratives and high politics. Social history can be very helpful in this respect. What did life look like for an ordinary person, how were they affected by the ongoing events? What if they weren’t Russian and didn’t speak a word of the language? What if they belonged to a different religion? A different race?