After two months of the coronavirus lockdown, Britain is slowly coming back to ‘normal’ life. In Manchester, cafés and non-essential shops reopen their doors to customers. People go out and gather together though social distancing, taking sanitary measures, and wearing facemasks. Meanwhile, I submitted my documents for the annual review 2020. It is time to look back over the 3rd year of my PhD at the University of Manchester, full of intellectual insights but also of diverse feelings and experiences against the background of big events, which will go into history.
Autumn Semester: Eat, Pray, Love Write, Teach, Strike
The autumn semester started well and did not show any sign of trouble.
On the 1st of September 2019, I was ready to begin writing the first, actually the final, empirical chapter of my thesis. I know it might sound strange but my supervisory team advised me to begin with that final chapter 7 looking at different forms of everyday struggle of workers and subordinate classes in Russia. I established a writing routine and spent two months for drafting the text. I was mainly struggling with how to formulate the arguments out of ethnographic data. For me, it turned out to be easy to write but hard to put rich ethnography in one chapter still waiting for a good summary.
After that, I decided to follow a logical sequence in telling the story and spent the following two months for drafting the next, actually the previous, empirical chapter dedicated to everyday inequalities, which workers experienced daily in Russian industrial neighbourhoods. Chapter 6 on everyday inequalities and social imaginary was more consistent. I tried to inscribe theoretical concepts into the empirical analysis. However, building bridges between Russian data and ‘Western’ theories was not an easy task for me. Alongside this, I assisted my supervisor in her course on the everyday understanding of inequalities which broadened my knowledge in inequality studies.
The final lectures of the course were planned to be on how people protest inequalities and make sense of them. Due to the UCU* eight-day strike supported by 60 Universities across the UK, those lectures were cancelled. Instead, together with the University staff and students, we were protesting against unfair pensions in academia, gender and race pay gap, short-term contracts, underpayment and workload of early career researchers and graduate teaching assistants. In parallel to the strike, I was finishing chapter 6, while some of my peers were canvassing for the Labour Party before the General Elections.
I remember the day before the elections we were drinking in a pub with PhD students and somebody said that tomorrow we would wake up in socialism. The semester finished with the loss of Jeremy Corbin. Boris Johnson became the Prime Minister. For Britain, leaving the EU became an inevitable future. Many people in academia felt disappointed and thought that Brexit was the worst thing could happen. At that time, no one had ever heard about COVID-19.
Winter Break: Be Happy and Read Novels
Packing my suitcase with Christmas presents, I managed to squeeze a novel, which I borrowed from the university library and went to Russia. I was happy to spend a winter break in Moscow with my family, meet up with friends and colleagues, and visit a couple of art exhibitions.
During the Christmas holidays, I had more time for reading for pleasure. That’s how I turned to Border Country, the novel I brought with me in the suitcase. The novel opens with the return of Matthew Price, a university lecturer in London, to the Welsh village of Glynmawr, when his father, a signalman at the railway station, has a stroke. The book impressed me deeply by the imaginative depiction of the country, its landscapes and sceneries combining rural and industrial elements in the local infrastructure. After finishing it, I began to understand better what ‘structure of feeling’ meant.
Amazingly, the book from the library, the third impression of the novel published in 1978, contained the signature on its title page. I am still thinking whether it could be that I was holding in my hands the copy of the book signed by its author, Raymond Williams.
In the mid of January, when I was leaving Moscow for 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.
To be continued…
*UCU is an abbreviation for the University and College Union, the official trade union supporting University workers across the UK.