Blame it on a simple twist of fate

This is part one in a (probably) four-part series on language and research. Read the introduction here, and come back soon for the next instalment!

After I was offered a place at university, I ticked a box next to the word ‘Russian’ on a form. This was back in 2005, and it was one of the lightest and most far-reaching decisions I ever made. The other choices were Italian and Polish. Both seemed interesting, but I thought learning the Cyrillic alphabet would be fun, and besides, my best friend encouraged me on the grounds that one day we could have a holiday in Russia. If you think I am exaggerating how clueless I was: the first time I heard of Red Square was when I opened our language textbook. I was extremely hazy on the ‘end’ of communism. I was firmly set on the idea of majoring in French, doing an Erasmus in Paris, and studying history and philosophy at the Sorbonne. It took about 18 months for me to change my mind, decide to move to Moscow, and set in train a ten year love affair with Russian and post-Soviet culture.

When I explain this to Russian-speakers, I usually laugh and call it fate (sud’ba). It’s not that I believe in destiny, though I am generally more superstitious in Russian (I don’t mind walking under ladders, but I get twitchy whenever there’s an empty wine bottle on the table). It feels more respectful, more reassuring, towards whomever I’m talking to, hundreds of miles from home, if I attach a deeper meaning to my presence there than ‘I ticked a random box on a form’. Among English-speakers, I tend to shrug and call it a coincidence, suggesting that I am as bewildered as they are by my life choices, but really just a normal person deep down. In both cases, I downplay the difficulties of learning the language, and point out some of the extraordinary privileges I had in terms of educational opportunities.

What I really want to convey to people, but find difficult to articulate, is how learning Russian opened a whole new world to me. It wasn’t entirely enchanting. The TVs in the language lab were tuned to a channel where Russian citizens came on air to try and make contact with relatives who had been missing since the 1990s. I would look at dog-eared photos of young men in military uniforms, and then switch over to Mexican soap operas. A month long intensive course in Petrozavodsk – at the time of certain events in Kondopoga – was hardly a ringing endorsement for Russian society. I only really went along because I’d developed a slavish dedication to grammar, and was worried I’d fall behind others in my class (who were far more enthusiastic than me about visiting the former USSR).

novii arbat before parade.jpg

Novii Arbat, Moscow, March 2008

I don’t remember the point at which I felt confident enough to have a real conversation in Russian. What I remember is the feeling I had when I rounded a corner in Petersburg and saw the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. And I remember my first time at the Bolshoi – there were six of us, and we couldn’t get seats together, but we’d all caught cold on the night train and could hear each other coughing from opposite sides of the theatre. We were ripped off by the touts, had only a partial view, and none of us knew the story of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but it was wonderful. I went back there many times when I was living in Moscow, and queued up for student tickets, which were practically free – as was entry to various museums and galleries. Like many before me, I was seduced by the culture and spectacle of Moscow, and by the dizzying contrasts between days spent in languor at the obzh (as we called it), staring at snow falling in front of the streetlamps, and the nightclubs where we became momentary glitterati.

Hyperrealism was what made the spell untenable. I felt like I had stepped out of time, but real lives were going on all around me. I remember a 17 year old Chechen girl telling a teenage Muscovite about the seven years that she and her family had spent living in a tent. “That’s impossible,” he said to her. “In this life, nothing is impossible,” she replied. I remember a language teacher who became visibly distressed when questioned about Russian policy in the North Caucasus. “I know,” she said, “and yet every day on my way to work I pass a monument to those who died in the Tverskaya metro explosion.” I remember students at the dormitory causing, if not a riot, then certainly a ruckus, when corralled for a pre-election canvassing by Edinaya Rossiya. Somewhere among my many Russian souvenirs is a pamphlet I snatched off the ground at a street protest. It informed me that I had been observing/participating in the ‘Marsh Nesoglasnykh Prostitutok’ (March of the Dissenting Prostitutes).


Visit to the monastery at Suzdal, also in 2008



I developed a curiosity about the South Caucasus (more on that in my next post), hopped on a plane to Baku and headed for the hills near Shamakhi. When I returned to Russia, it was as a long-term volunteer in Perm. Both experiences brought me far closer to certain forms of poverty, violence and exclusion in the former Soviet Union. They were more formative than my time in Moscow, but they are much harder to talk about. They involve sensitive stories told to me by children and vulnerable adults, and neither they nor I (at the time) had any inclination that I would one day have the urge to write about them. However, volunteering foreshadowed my later research in important ways: it formed the basis for my confidence in simply going out into the field and listening, and created a lens through which I was able to filter many of my research findings.

The point I’m trying to make, in going into such depth about all of this, is that conducting research in a foreign language is not just about the nuts and bolts of interviewing, the joy of decoding memes, or the ability to listen in on conversations in public places. It’s about a state of mind, a process of cognitive development, and an emotional layering which revolves around the categories of passive and active resistance. It’s about my sense of self, and the urge to witness events and translate them back into English versus the desire to stay rooted in a single, monolingual reality. It’s about navigating language, culture and politics in places that start to feel like home, but never remain home for long. And it’s about the tension between the status of privileged outsider and the subjective position of language-learner, and, consequently, a matter of transnational feminist ethics. Those are the themes I plan to explore in my upcoming blog posts.


Languages and social research: a four-part reflection

I’m often asked about the role that language plays in my research. I’ve fielded these questions a lot over the years, but I still feel hesitant about offering a definitive response. It is very hard to get to the heart of what language is and what it does for us in any given context. The political and psychological aspects of language use are hard to explain, especially to people who may not have to navigate linguistic boundaries in their everyday lives. There is no easy answer, even to questions such as “why Russian?” and “was it difficult?”

On the other hand, refusing to delve into the messy reality of multilingual fieldwork reinforces the sense of mystery around it. I often look askance at people attempting to do fieldwork abroad without a relevant language, but I’m also weary and wary of the linguistic hierarchies that pertain in research communities. The mere fact of speaking a certain language does not confer blanket expertise across a region, it does not give an all-access pass, and it certainly doesn’t mean that a researcher is beyond ethical reproach.

For me, languages are rooted in our auto-biographies, and they branch out into the different stories we choose to tell about ourselves. As if that wasn’t complicated enough, those who speak a second (or third) language often feel like they develop a second personality to go along with it. When I talk about Russian, I am inevitably conjuring up a narrative about who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m trying to go. When I’m talking in Russian, it changes the parameters of the story.


Journeys: Tbilisi to Baku, June 2013

Having tried and failed to squish all of that into a thousand words, I’ve decided I need to write a series of posts on the subject, with the following tentative structure:

  • Part 1: initial travels in Russian language/culture,
  • Part 2: the politics of language in the South Caucasus,
  • Part 3: practical and affective dimensions of multilingual fieldwork,
  • Part 4: research and language from a decolonial feminist perspective.

It might take a while to get around to all four of these, but I’ll link to each of the posts on this page once they go online.

In other news, I’m now making a home for myself at the University of Limerick, and I’ve finally activated the Twitter account I set up in 2014. Please follow @SineadBhreatnac (yep, I maxed out on characters before I reached the final h) to receive research updates, and maybe the occasional humorous insight into faking it as a post-doc.

Handle with caution: empathy as a research tool

The first (properly academic) thing I’ve written since finishing the PhD has been a contribution to book about violence in research, which allowed me to explore my interest in empathy and methodology. The chapter gives a detailed account of my fieldwork, but here I’ve decided to sketch some general propositions for anyone new to these ideas. In short: I’ve come to think of empathy as an important but dangerous item in the researcher’s toolkit. With it, we can do all kinds of things we couldn’t do otherwise, but wielded improperly, it is likely to cause harm both to us and those around us.

Defining empathy

Empathy is notoriously difficult to define. It’s common to distinguish between automatic empathy (or emotional contagion – where we ‘feel’ the fear, pain, anger, sorrow or joy of other people) and cognitive empathy, a distinct neurological process where we imagine how we would feel in another person’s situation. The Greater Good Science Centre has an Continue reading

Getting there: from PhD to post-doc state of mind

A friend who recently came through her viva confessed to me that she just felt really, really tired afterwards. I told her that was normal, and I warned her that it might take a while to shake off. And then I thought, why don’t I write something about this? The result is self-indulgent, to say the least, but I think it’s worth sharing for anyone who is feeling unsettled in the days, weeks, or months after their defence, especially if that person is unsure about whether they ‘belong’ in academia.

I was tired for most of last year. Writing made me more tired. Coming to terms with that Continue reading