In our latest instalment, Dr. Elizabeth Teague discusses challenging one’s preconceptions, reading Chekhov for preparatory work — and bringing along plenty of Scottish shortbread; in other words, how to adjust to life as an employee at a foreign embassy in Russia.
Dr. Elizabeth Teague is Senior Research Analyst for the Eastern Research Group, Eastern Europe and Central Asia Directorate at the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Earlier in 2010, she spent six months working in the British Embassy in Moscow. We asked her about some of her experiences.
What were the pros and cons for you to go on fieldwork/abroad?
When one goes on fieldwork or (as in my case) serves in an Embassy overseas, one gets to meet people one would never normally meet and to hear their perspectives from a completely different angle. The experience challenges one’s assumptions and prejudices and enables one to test and falsify the theories one has gathered from reading the press (which, in my case, generally reflects the views of the liberal intelligentsia, but not that of the majority of ordinary people). In other words, one gets a whole new perspective from which to look at the country/region/society one is interested in.
How did you prepare for your fieldwork, both in terms of your research and general living arrangements?
As a government employee, I am very spoiled. When I go to a foreign country, I get support from colleagues in the Embassy. Scholars would have quite a different, and probably much tougher, experience, I suspect. I arrive in a foreign country to find a whole team of people ready to help me. Others don’t have this comfort blanket and the experience can be a lot harder.
What was the last thing you did before you left the UK?
Make a list of all the people I could contact once I arrived in the new country — emails, telephone numbers, even some presents to take to give to new contacts such as Scottish shortbread!
What was the first thing you did when you arrived in Moscow?
I am not typical. As I said, I am a spoiled government servant since someone comes to meet me at the airport and I can stay with friends when I arrive. In more normal circumstances, the first thing to do is to change some money and find out how most safely to travel from the airport to the city centre.
What was the main challenge for you abroad?
Building trust so that one can talk to one’s interlocutors in an open and constructive manner. This takes time and requires effort.
How, would you say, will the results from your fieldwork contribute to the broader debate on ethnicity and nationalism?
This isn’t the primary task of my current job, but it is something that never fails to fascinate me. If, when you go to a new country, you treat the people you meet with respect, and if you genuinely want to learn their perspective on issues of common concern, they will, in my experience, respond in the same vein. People like to tell other people about their concerns and preoccupations and, while it takes time and effort to win their trust, it is always worth the effort in the long run. The further one ventures outside one’s own comfort zone, the more (in my experience) one finds opportunities for exchanging experience with people who can teach one a great deal about life. I’m sorry — that sounds very pompous!
Methodologically speaking, what would you say are the main challenges in doing fieldwork on a topic related to ethnicity and nationalism? Do you think these challenges are inherent to any type of fieldwork, no matter what the topic is?
Language is a major problem. Sometimes one simply doesn’t understand the language well enough to pick up the nuances of what people are trying to tell one. One has to work hard at it.
Do you think there are any specific challenges in Russia in terms of receiving relevant information/researching ethnicity and nationalism?
Russian society is, if not unique, very different from society in the UK. Russians are at the same time less trusting of outsiders and yet more willing to be generous to those with whom they feel an affinity. I think I have more often been embarrassed by the generosity and enthusiasm with which Russians have greeted me than I have been disconnected by their lack of trust. What I most love about Russians, after their generosity of spirit, is their sense of humour.
If you could give one piece of advice to someone preparing for fieldwork in the Russian Federation right now, what would it be?
Read up on Russian literature. Gogol, Ilf and Petrov, Chekhov. The list is endless. The Russian soul has not changed much in a hundred years.