This is Part 2 of the post about my experience of writing PhD at the University of Manchester. You can read Part 1 here.
In the mid of January 2020, when I was coming back from Moscow to Manchester, some people in Europe already knew about the coronavirus from the news. However, most of them neither worried about it nor took it seriously. As for me, I was in reading research literature for my next empirical chapter.
Spring Semester: Stay Safe, Take Care and Write Thesis
Got back from winter break, I started writing chapter 5 on living life in two industrial neighbourhoods, where I undertook ethnography. In the chapter, I tried to explain the peculiarities of the spatial imaginary of Russian workers and other neighbourhoods’ residents with the help of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘a sense of place’ and Raymond Williams’ concept of ‘structure of feeling’. It took me three weeks to draft that chapter. Later, I spent three weeks more to improve it for the annual review 2020.
In February, most people from my network still did not worry about COVID-19, apart from my friend, a PhD student from China, who told me the news about the coronavirus, when I came back to the office. In the mid of February, I received feedback from my supervisory team. And then a new UCU strike began at 74 Universities across the UK. The strike lasted until March. Needless to say that striking was a very emotional (and emotionally tiring) experience. I presented my PhD research at the Sociology teach-outs. At the same time, I was mainly focused on writing the thesis. However, even a brief experience of taking part in collective actions was intellectually insightful for me and helped me to formulate my critical arguments.
In chapter 4 on my research approach and methodology, I criticized those scholars who studied a working-class movement in Russia in the 1990s and argued that Russian workers were ‘patient’ (for example, see: Ashwin, 1999), capable only for survival and not for proactive actions. After the UCU strikes, it became clear for me that those scholars looked at Russian workers from the ‘Western’ perspective of strong trade unions with a long-standing history. While in Russia, independent trade unions began to emerge at the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. However, in Russia workers were involved in everyday struggle of different forms ranging from everyday resistance to open protests (and it also happened in the Soviet era (for example, see: Piskunov, 2017)). Probably, I will move this critique to chapter 3 about the Russian context which was written as a literature review for the annual review 2018. I spent three weeks for drafting chapter 4 and sent it to my supervisors in the mid of March. In a week, a lockdown happened in the UK.
Life under Lockdown: Stay at Home, Save Lives
It is really hard to describe my experience of living life under lockdown. Talking to friends and colleagues from the academic community via Zoom, Skype, Facebook and other messengers, I realized that University people employed three strategies of coping with lockdowns in different parts of the globe. Some academics said that they ‘just ignore it’ meaning that they did not worry about the news and death toll and continued working as usual. Some others tried dealing with their worries work-wise. The rest (and it was my case) could not be focused on work at all.
In the first weeks of lockdown, I was very stressed and could not write the next chapter supposed to be about the theoretical framework. I tried making myself to read books on theory, which I found at home. Fortunately, I borrowed some of them from the University library before its closure due to COVID-19. However, it was hard to be focused even on reading. I worried about my family and beloved ones in Russia. Also, all flights between countries were stopped. And there were some delays in delivering food at the beginning of the UK lockdown if you buy it online. These altogether added more stress. I had a feeling that I had to survive, even though it was not true. I am aware that there are a lot of people who suffered much more than me. In my case, it was more about emotional survival.
I felt that my emotional resource was close to run out and I sought professional assistance from the therapist who helped me to cope with anxiety. I was in contact with my relatives and friends, and my supervisory team was very supportive at that time. In the mid of April, I came back to writing and managed to draft theoretical chapter 2, which of course still needs to be improved. While I stayed at home, I tried to pay attention to my body, soul and health. It may sound very Foucauldian. Anyway, I established a daily routine: waking up at 6.30 am and going to bed at 10 pm, doing yoga, cooking healthy food and going out to the courtyard to breath fresh air. I aired out the rooms regularly and kept them clean. Having one walk a day near the house building I got to know my neighbours better.
At the same time, staying at home was a cultural experience for me. Here, I do not romanticize lockdown at all. In March, I subscribed to webpages of the museums, art galleries, theatres, and philharmonics opened online access to their cultural resources. Their wonderful streams helped me to cope with anxiety. I am very thankful to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Wiener Staatsoper, the Belvedere Museum Vienna, and many others for broadcasting their cultural events.
During lockdown, I finished reading The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, the final book of the Neapolitan quartet, a series of novels telling the story of a friendship between two women who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood on the edge of Naples and had absolutely different life trajectories. The Neapolitan quartet gets the reader involved in a complicated relationship between two women and their relationships with other people of different backgrounds from their neighbourhood and other parts of Italy. It has your attention from the beginning to the end. I thought that I might borrow some literary forms from Ferrante’s novel and use them in my thesis. But then I realized that I need my ethnographic style.
Returning to the question about a ‘structure of feeling’
In the 3rd year, I was too focused on my doctoral research. To take my mind off it, I bought water-mixable oil paints and started painting whatever I saw around in Manchester and its surroundings. I never painted before and viewed this activity only as a hobby. Staying at home for a long time I painted my window view representing structures of feeling of Northern England. That’s how I tried to reflect in visual arts what structure of feeling was. One of my friends said that structure of feeling was ‘that historical atmosphere of being that can’t fully be explored retroactively’. In this piece of text, I tried to grasp that historical atmosphere, in which I have been writing my PhD.