Humanities Blog

Ksenia Shmydkaya: unexpected discoveries are the best part of a historian’s life!

This November, Ksenia Shmydkaya defended her doctoral thesis "Revolution, She Wrote: Historical Representation in the Interwar Works of Stanisława Przybyszewska, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Olga Forsh" at Tallinn University's School of Humanities.

foto Ksenia Shmydkayavast

In the interview with dr. Ksenia Shmydkaya, you can read more about her research topic and how she managed her dissertation writing.


How did you arrive at your research topic?

Prior to my doctoral studies, I worked predominantly on the social history of the French Revolution, and while it was extremely intellectually stimulating, I felt like I needed a change. Specifically, I wanted to go from the mass sources, such as police reports or accounts of grain delivery to Paris, to the more personal ones. At the same time, I could not leave revolutions as a topic completely behind me. And finally, since I have always been interested in women’s history, I hoped to integrate this interest into my new project as well.

So I took all that into account, locked myself in a library for a month, and toyed with the ideas that would connect women, revolutions, and individual intellectual trajectories. Bringing historical fiction into the mix was a spark of inspiration. Stanisława Przybyszewska – one of my thesis’s protagonists – became an important link: I have been fascinated with her works for years, so once an opportunity to actually study them opened up, I seized it and built the research project from there.

How will your research change the world?

I do not believe that it will, but I also do not think that it should. I would be very suspicious of a historian who claims to want to “change the world.” At the same time, there are accidental, indirect, non-traceable influences, and that is, in my opinion, how research in humanities should operate and bring about social change. As for my work, if three (five, ten, two dozen…) people decide to read any of the women writers that I discuss after hearing me talk about them, all of that was not in vain.

What were your secret tricks for consistently working on your doctoral thesis in order to successfully reach the end result?

From my experience, constructing your whole identity around the doctoral thesis, spending night and day thinking about it, and having no personal life or family obligations is the best way to go if you want to finish in four years. It is also the least sustainable way that requires a very particular mindset, and therefore cannot be recommended.

If I were to give actual advice, it would be very boring: make sure to have enough sleep each night (or day, if you are a late-night person) and find a physical activity that you like enough to do regularly (running worked great for me). It is much easier to figure out a suitable work style if your body and mind health is taken care of.

What was a memorable or funny thing that happened while writing the research paper?

Unexpected discoveries are the best part of a historian’s life! I was lucky enough to find Sylvia Townsend Warner’s correspondence in an archive in Moscow, and I am pretty sure no one has ever worked with these documents before. In addition, during a spontaneous visit to a small local museum in the town of Pushkin (former Tsarskoye Selo) I met Olga Forsh’s grandson. Such accidents cannot be predicted, but they really make you feel closer to your research topic and make the past more alive.

Based on your field of research, what is a "smart way of life" for you?

It would do a lot of good to the society if everyone recognised that all the phenomena of the present have their roots in the past.

A historically-minded one. Not everyone has to be a historian, of course, but it would do a lot of good to society if everyone recognized that all the phenomena of the present have their roots in the past, that nothing remains unchanged across time and space, and – maybe most importantly – that there are multiple histories (often in conflict with each other) that have to be told.

What do you appreciate most about your supervisor or supervisors?

I cannot single out only one thing. I have always been quite lucky with my supervisors, but Liisi Keedus and Julia Kuznetski are the warmest, kindest, and most encouraging people I had the privilege to work with. They are also a great inspiration as two successful women in this less-than-welcoming academic world. Last but not least, I must acknowledge their patience. As they pointed out, I was a very stubborn student, and having guidance and freedom at the same time was the key to my success as a scholar-in-the-making.

Photo author: Arno Mikkor