Digital Humanities in Siberia

In November last year, I received an email from Inna Kizhner, inviting me to attend a DH conference to be held at the Siberian Federal University (SFU) in Krasnoyarsk. The first sign of Inna’s immense diplomatic and organizational skill was to mention that Melissa Terras had already been there in May 2014, and had written a blog post about her trip. I have to confess that my first reaction, born out of my ignorance of Siberia, was that this was a kind of academic spam, one of those fake conferences of which we need to be wary. But Melissa’s blog post, and the fact that I had met Inna briefly at the DH Lausanne conference, convinced me of the legitimacy of the invitation. So I accepted, and after three visits to Den Haag to arrange a visa, in late September I headed out to Krasnoyarsk – a city with more than a million people.

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It was the most extraordinary experience, and I feel enormously privileged to have had the opportunity to participate in a week of stimulating lectures, workshops, formal and informal discussions and sightseeing. The week was perfectly organized, and the full programme can be found here. The first two days had a traditional conference format – colleagues from Russian and elsewhere gave lectures to an audience of about 100 people. Simultaneous translation between English and Russian was provided. The final three days consisted of workshops on all sorts of themes, with non-simultaneous translation.

One of the first lectures was by Alan Liu from the University of California Santa Barbara (who was certainly feeling the cold). He presented the map below, which for me became a great way of navigating the other contributions, and the field as a whole. (See also the contribution by Jacky Hicks elsewhere in the eMagazine.) It’s another way of dealing with the variety of terms on offer – digital or computational; science, research or knowledge; data and infrastructure – and how they vary over time and across places. A particularly fruitful area for discussion was ‘museum studies’, with both Ross Parry, Leicester University, and Rachael Rainbow, Brilliant Noise, providing wonderful examples and insights from their work with museums, demonstrating how work in ‘digital heritage’ is post-disciplinary, is collaborative across experts and other social actors, and is realized differently around the world. Someone in the audience suggested that a ‘virtual museum of the gulag’ would be an important intervention. Ian Gregory, Lancaster University, demonstrated how to combine structured, numerical data with text to engage in place-centered reading. Claire Clivaz, recently appointed as head of Digital Enhanced Learning at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, reminded us of the importance of the humanities, of the potential of the digital, and she brought our attention to a wonderful article written by Inna and her colleagues about DH at the Siberian Federal University, published in Digital Studies/Le champ numérique earlier this year.

What was so refreshing about the contributions from our Russian colleagues was their diversity, not only focusing on the top-right corner of Alan Liu’s map, but taking in the full range. Reading the article by Kizhner and her colleagues will give you a sense of the range of activities being undertaken in Krasnoyarsk, and hearing presentations from colleagues across Russia enriched the experience – Leonid Borodkin (Moscow) on using models and simulations to understand peasant uprisings, Galina Mozhaeva (Tomsk) about the dynamics of DH as a field in Russia, Anastasia Bonch-Osmolovsky (National Research University) on preparing TEI for Tolstoy, Maxim Rumyantsev (SFU) on the challenges in equipping students with the appropriate skills to do DH, Alexander Gorban exploring how to visualize multi-dimensional data, and Andrey Volodin (Moscow) on the use of digital primary sources by historians. Vladislav Soukhovolsky (SFU) demonstrated how he is using computational techniques to determine the quality of paintings, his underlying question similar to that underlying our Riddle of Literary Quality project. Elena Bryukhanova (Altai) shared her work about using 1897 census data to understand employment in Siberia, resonating with our CEDAR project about historical censuses. Zhanna Rozhneva (National Research University) addressed important questions about the challenges of using web archives for research, and in one of the workshop sessions, about the potentials of personal digital archives. (I realise the disparity in the links but it is much harder to find meaningful links to Russian people and places, a reminder of the inequality in the digital world.)

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All of this confirms that DH in Russia is exploring very similar questions, and encountering similar problems as DH in other parts of the world. Questions of definition and dynamics of the field, of interdisciplinarity, of source and data criticism, and of diversity of representation recurred, just as they do at DH conferences in other parts of the world.
My own contribution to the first part of the programme was a lecture called, ‘A computational turn in the humanities?’, and for the second part, I offered workshops on open access to research data, and a more general workshop on participating in the international (English-language) research culture. For this second workshop, Russian colleagues were invited to contribute written abstracts or papers in advance, which formed the basis for group discussion. Alan Liu tweeted during the questions following my lecture…

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… from an audience that certainly knows it dialectics. During the discussion about open access to research data, I was particularly curious to learn about Russian OA policies. The Russian government does have an open government initiative, filtering down from central government to all other levels. Open access to research data is less prominently on the agenda, though their funding agencies are beginning to make moves. The advantage of a workshop is that there was more time for discussion, and it was wide-ranging, touching upon differences between Russian and western research ethics, scientific and archiving practices around data, and citation practices in different academic cultures, both national and disciplinary. Someone started us on a great discussion about the consequences of classification, using binary gender as an example. While I should have known to expect a question about dialectical materialism, I was surprised to enter a discussion that was basically about Michel Foucault.

Our hosts made time for the foreigners to see some of the sites, including a tour of the old city, and the house of Vassily Surikov, a late 19th century painter who was particularly good at historical scenes and snow. On our last day, as we were driven from one more amazing place to another (Orthodox chapel on a hill, Beaver Gully, a hydroelectric dam (5th largest in the world), I asked my fellow non-Russians what had surprised them most about our visit. The most common answer was the charm, patience, enthusiasm, and knowledge of our hosts, particularly the students (and we had the sense to recognize that our surprise at this reflected more on us than the people we met). Each of us had been assigned a student to help us navigate our way during the week. On the first morning, they were there at 8.30 to help us find breakfast, they always magically appeared whenever we needed help, and they patiently explained to us all sorts of things. They were required to write a report about their week – communicating in English, new things they had learned, crazy questions from foreigners. I’d love to be able to read those reports, and learn what they found surprising about us. One of the other treats for me was the local ‘Great Coffee’ shop on campus, which I had unerringly found on my own on my first afternoon when feeling jetlagged and in need of coffee. The coffee was fantastic, and the barista carefully drew a nice picture on the plastic lid – far better than the faux personalization of Starbucks.
With thanks to Inna Kizhner for her hard work and patience in organizing such a wonderful week, Alan Liu for his map, tweet and some of the pictures, and to all of our Russian and other colleagues who made this such a memorable occasion.

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I am getting older (as we all are) and I suffer occasionally from conference fatigue (listening to the same people saying the same things in different places). For me, it was an inspiration to meet with Russian colleagues and their students. Their own work is fascinating and inspiring, and their interest in their foreign guests was genuine. The visit was also a potent reminder of my luck and privilege of having been born in Canada in the second half of the 20th century. What most of us in the West know about Siberia is not good – cold, bleak place that is home to some of the worst horrors of the Soviet times – but that is not the whole story. As a Canadian, I don’t mind cold and I love the landscape that is neither bleak nor empty if you know how to look. The Siberian people we met were welcoming, generous and curious, qualities they regard as typically Siberian. They are correct. If you ever receive an invitation to Siberia, do not dismiss it. Take it seriously, and seize the opportunity to visit a fascinating part of the world.