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Irina Filatova

Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor at the HSE Faculty of Humanities’ School of History, and Professor Emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Professor Filatova is also the author of six books on African history, four of which she co-wrote with Apollon Davidson. The editor and co-editor of dozens of collected works and publications, Filatova is also a member of the editorial board for Twentieth Century Communism. A Journal of International History (University of Manchester). She has published works in the Journal of Contemporary History, South African Journal of International Affairs, South African Historical Journal, Vostok, Novaya i Noveyshaya Istoria, and others.

Irina Filatova
‘HSE is an initiative by people whom I deeply respect and with whom I associate critical changes in our country’


On Choosing a Career

I graduated in 1965. The thaw had ended, and times were gloomy. Around two years before finishing school, I had randomly ended up at an African seminar at the House of Friendship with Peoples of Foreign Countries. At the time, Soviet people knew fairly well what one could and could not say. The participants of this seminar were African students who spoke openly and passionately and who discussed what they wanted. They insisted that everything be reflected in Soviet press without any censorship. I spent two years in this seminar and became its secretary. So it was certainly no accident that I chose the Institute of Asian and African Countries’ Department of African Studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University.

‘For a Pedagogue Teaching by Example is Key’

The Institute of Asian and African Countries was a multifaceted institute. It changed with the times, from the thaw to the era of stagnation. A lot depended on specific people. I was really lucky with my department because it had wonderful teachers. I studied under Apollon Davidson, who was the most beloved professor among students and also the most highly respected member of the department’s faculty. Apollon Davidson created his own school. Another marvellous instructor was Gera Potekhina, the daughter of the founder of African studies in Russia Ivan Potekhin, who was also an outstanding pedagogue and the kindest of individuals. I could name many, many more. These people taught you about not only the profession or how to work, but also how to be an academic and a person. They taught you through example, through their own lives. This lesson has stayed with me forever. For a pedagogue, teaching by example is key.

The School of Apollon Davidson

For the school of Apollon Davidson, there was a characteristic lack of conjecture. Between the 1960s and 1980s the USSR Academy of Science’s Institute for African Studies was the main organisation focusing on Africa. It studied topics that were considered modern for the time – the noncapitalistic development path, the liberation struggle, the communist movement… Apollon once said, ‘Remember, these are the topics that we will only be able to understand many years from now. Right now we need to look at sources and at the things Africans themselves are writing. [We need to] research the topics we are able to understand and topics about which we are capable of expressing our own opinion.’

The ability to talk about serious academic matters using simple language without theoretical complexities is another characteristic of the Apollon Davidson school

Apollon always wrote and spoke simply, and his books are written in good literary Russian. His critics sometimes said that these are not academic works since it is as if there is no academic language in them, but academicism is not only language, but also the problems that a researcher raises in his or her works. For example, Apollon’s second book, South Africa. The Birth of Protest, is written simply, but it is the first ever book on the subject and has unfortunately not yet been translated. The ability to talk about serious academic matters using simple language without theoretical complexities is another characteristic of the Apollon Davidson school.

Finally, Apollon and his students aimed to work using primary sources and to approach these sources professionally without trying to make adjustments in line with whatever the current conjecture was. Today Apollon is the head of the Department of African History at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of History. In the department, these traditions are continued, and interesting research is published based on new archives that have been discovered over the last several decades.

On First Publications

In 1967, when I was a junior, Apollon suggested that two of my colleagues and I write a review of the book Hieroglyphs of Fire, which features travel writing from the well known African specialist and journalist Vladimir Iordansky. We spent around three months writing the review, scrutinising every word. When the book was published, it ended up being incredibly frightening to look at our own published text. It was as if everyone was seeing the emperor naked.

My close relationship with Africa began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Gorbachev’s policies led to the resolution of the conflicts in Angola and Namibia

My first book came out in 1985, and I spent a long time writing it. At the time we were all interested in the problem of colonial society. There was a common approach towards African studies at the time: pre-colonial societies existed, the colonisers arrived and oppressed the local population, the anticolonial fight began, the colonisers left, and the local population began building socialism.

But this narrative gave rise to a lot of questions. How exactly did European colonisation affect the local population and what did these societies look like as a result of colonisation? Obviously not capitalistic? How did colonies and the home countries cooperate? Did African society impact these home countries? These are questions that two of my books, A History of Kenya and People of the Green Hills of Africa between Past and Present, address.

On Traveling through Africa

My close relationship with Africa began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Gorbachev’s policies led to the resolution of the conflicts in Angola and Namibia and impacted the conflict in South Africa. At the time it had become clear that the end of the apartheid was coming. Throughout the world, people were becoming more interested in the Soviet Union, South Africa, and all of these conflict zones. Interest was also growing in the USSR’s influence on the African National Congress, the ruling party in South Africa at the time. Endless international conferences took place, and our Africa specialists were invited everywhere. In just a short period of time, I visited America, Great Britain, Botswana, and Namibia. Before this, I had spent 16 years working in the Department of African Studies at Moscow State University and had never left the socialist camp.

There’s a special smell in the air in the hot countries of Africa. This surprising smell just hits you when you get off the plane. I can’t describe it. It’s very strong and you only smell it in places where it’s very hot

My first time in Africa was on a four-day trip to a conference in Tanzania. After returning it took me five hours to tell the department about it. The trip really made a strong impression. There’s a special smell in the air in the hot countries of Africa. This surprising smell just hits you when you get off the plane. I can’t describe it. It’s very strong and you only smell it in places where it’s very hot. The smell doesn’t exist in Cape Town, for example.

The conference took place in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam. There was a wonderful atmosphere at the event. The local students talked about anything they wanted. Lumumba Friendship University Rector Vladimir Stanis headed our small delegation. ‘Without me don’t open your mouths,’ he told us before the conference. Aside from myself, there was another person from the Committee of Youth Organisations. We sat silently and listened to African talk about anything and everything, and we watched as they criticised their own government however they wanted. We were only able to present on the last day, when Stanis left town to purchase some things. After I presented, an English historian and Africa specialist, Terence Ranger, came up to meet me. He came up right at the height of our conversation. It was really funny. Ranger and I were talking on the couch and the rector walked in front and started listening to our conversation.

On the Role of Teaching in Academia

Teaching is difficult. It’s even more difficult combining teaching with writing books and articles. I would not, however, recommend that anyone shy away from teaching. It disciplines your thinking and broadens your viewpoint. I know people who have never taught and nonetheless became wonderful researchers, but this is rare. More often than not it’s a scholar who conducts research and isolates themselves within their narrow field. Teaching allows you to broaden these horizons.

On Deciding to Come to HSE

Interest is what brought me to HSE. After 20 years, my time teaching in South Africa had come to an end. Naturally, everything ends sooner or later, and it’s bad to sit in the same place for too long. I quickly realised that I didn’t want to return to my old position at Moscow State University. HSE had a department for world and Russian history, and the department’s staff included Apollon Davidson, Leonid Vasilyev, and Alexey Ryabinin, whom I had known for a long time thanks to my Africa and Eastern studies.

Even at good South African universities, the students’ overall level is much lower than at HSE

In 2004 Apollon suggested I visit this department just to see what things were like at HSE. So I did and initially just spent a quarter of my time there. I was drawn to HSE thanks to the initiative of the people there, people whom I deeply respect and with whom I associate critical changes in our country. Great hope was put on them.

On Being a Historian at an Economics University

The atmosphere in our department was good overall. Administrative difficulties would arise at times, but there was a wonderful work climate. Everyone was interested in their work. Our idea was to give as broad a historical education as possible to students whose professional plans were not actually related to history. At that time, my students included journalism, mathematics, and philology majors, and the students were of varying levels. I would often compare – and I continue to do this – students in Russia with their African counterparts. In South Africa I taught courses not only on African history, but on Russian history as well. Even at good South African universities, the students’ overall level was much lower than at HSE. I don’t mean how well the students knew history, but their overall level of education and their view of the world. With which students was it easier to work? This is the wrong question. It’s better to ask with whom was it more interesting to work. I of course prefer HSE students.

After the department of general and Russian history, I spent two years in the public policy department. It was interesting, but difficult. I had to teach subjects that were new to me, subjects the very existence of which I didn’t have a clue before, for example regionalism or human rights in the modern world. I had to get up to speed quickly. I had five new courses over the course of a year, and they were all taught in English. It would normally take a year to prepare for each of these courses, but this wasn’t the case.

On Changes at HSE in the 2000s

Since I had never worked in administration, it was difficult to judge the changes taking place in university politics and management. But it’s obvious that the creation of the faculty of history, formerly the School of History, deepened the professional level of history instruction there. What I mean is that in the broader faculty, we weren’t professionals. There were just too few of us, and it was difficult for us to cover all of the different disciplines and fields in the historical sciences. At the same time, I think today’s programmes in the School of History focus too much on Russia and not enough on 20th century history. In the department for general history and Russian history, coverage of the regions was broader. We focused on the East, Africa, and contemporary processes in Europe, of course without forgetting about ancient history. In the School of History, not enough time is spent on the history of the East and Africa. After all, the contemporary world has become much less Eurocentric than before.

I’m currently working on a biography of the South African communist Jack Simons. He wasn’t connected to Russia, but he fascinates me because his life spans the history of South Africa over nearly the entire course of the 20th century

Another key moment was HSE’s continuous expansion. It frightens me. No organisation can go on expanding forever. Recently our own Faculty of Humanities at the Russian State University for the Humanities merged with the Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies, and I’ve heard we’ll be getting ethnographers soon as well. I understand perfectly well that academic institutions, where a lot of people come from, are currently in a very difficult position. I nonetheless believe that from a tactical perspective, the university’s uninterrupted expansion is awful because at a certain point such a huge team will simply stop being manageable. There have to be limits so that people know which direction they’re moving in and which problems they’re solving. A good example is the opening of the Faculty of History itself. When everything was just starting out, HSE got a very determined circle of specialists with distinct ideas. Today, as a result of constant expansion, these ideas are losing their form somewhat. If a team is constantly growing, at a certain point it will stop being a collective team, and this won’t end in anything good for research.

On Current Research Interests

I have been focused on South Africa professionally since the early 1990s, particularly with the nation’s ties to Russia. This is a very fruitful topic that ended up being much more interesting than the history of colonial society. Apollon and I have written four books together: The Russians and the Anglo–Boer War (published in South Africa), Russia and South Africa: Three Centuries of Relations, Russia and South Africa: Building Bridges, and The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era. In 2014 The Hidden Thread received the South African Recht Malan Prize for best academic book of the year.

My interest in Russian and African relations led me to the history of the communist movement in Africa. Thankfully the archives opened up. I worked a lot on the role communists played in the history of Africa, particularly South Africa, as well as the role they play now. This work culminated in several publications on Africans in the Communist International, as well as Communist International policy in Africa. This includes my work in South Africa and the Communist International: a Documentary History.

I’m currently working on a biography of the South African communist Jack Simons. He wasn’t connected to Russia, but he fascinates me because his life spans the history of South Africa over nearly the entire course of the 20th century. He was born in 1907 and died in 1995. It’s important for me to understand how one of the most educated individuals – a professional ethnographer who learned from Bronisław Malinowski at the London School of Economics and taught at the University of Cape Town – put aside his research to fight the apartheid and as a result paid for his beliefs. He left behind a rich archive that is currently located in Cape Town. His daughter gave me the letters he wrote her from abroad over the course of nearly three decades. This will really help me in my work.

Research at HSE: For School and for Life

If you look forward to seeing HSE’s development through the eyes of its first ever professors, and finding out how it turned into a leading Russian university from a modest institution, we would be glad to share this information on this website. Read, watch and have fun!

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