«Russia has a very complicated history, sometimes very dark, but also full of many triumphs» - interview with Professor Sahadeo


Professor Jeff Sahadeo, Carleton University, visited SUSU to give an open lecture on the history of migration. We talked with him about his scientific interest in Russia, his planned field research in Troitsk, and the future of the SUSU Laboratory for Migration Studies.

– You head the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian studies at Carleton University and you are one of the most well-known researchers in the field of migration. Why do you focus your research on Russia, what’s the reason?

– Well, the Institute is 50 years old. It started as a better way to understand the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This was a time when there were tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Canada believed its role was to help establish the dialogue between the two states. So this was the origin; we really wanted to make sure that the public as well as the scholarly world understood how the Soviet Union had functioned during the Cold War and that the idea that it was the enemy was not correct. Russia has always had a big place in Canada’s imagination. Hockey is probably the main thing Canadians think about when they think about Russia. But we’ve always maintained a very close relationship. We have in Canada about a million Ukrainians and they are always very interested in our Institute. We also have a very strong relationship with the Russian Embassy. Obviously, Russia remains very powerful country, but for most of my students the history is fascinating. Russia has a very complicated history, sometimes very dark, but also full of many triumphs too.

– Today the issue of migration is widely debated. Do you believe that scientists should control the process of migration?

– I think it is very difficult to control the process of migration. But I think definitely scholars need to inform the public and try and make people understand that this is a very natural process. We’ve always had migration. You’re absolutely right that migration is right now especially challenging both in terms of the number of people migrating from the Middle East and also the cultural challenges and the reaction that we see with Trump and Brexit with its political developments. I think there is a very important role for scientific community to try and help people understand these processes. North America, for example, is a continent of immigration. There is that idea of ethnic cultural difference that is very strong. Our country, as well as Russia, has developed through different migrations and contacts between different people. I think we also need to be forward-looking too as migration becomes even more challenging with things like climate change now. There would be more people moving and scholars have to be ready to understand the potential consequences.

– In 2016, you headed the SUSU Laboratory for Migration Studies. What do you think should be the research direction for this Laboratory?

– Obviously different researches have to follow their own particular interest so I don’t want to direct the Institute in any way. It might be surprising for North America but Russia is the second largest receiving country in terms of migrants. Russia is really a diverse country. And it’s easy to see in a place like Chelyabinsk. The types of migration in Russia are different to migrations happening in the West from Moldova, Ukraine, Central Asia, Kazakhstan, and in the Far East. So, I think it’s important to have a special research laboratory that can understand the relationship between different types of migration. There’s a strong local aspect to it as well. It takes very intensive research to really understand why one migrant family goes to Chelyabinsk, another one goes to Samara, and someone else can go to Moscow. There are so many different global and regional challenges to migration. No matter what the Laboratory’s studies are, I want to make sure that the work gets publicized and I think my main goal is to ensure that we can have effective cooperation and that the research that the scholars do here at the University becomes known not just in Russia but in Europe and North America as well.

– You held a lecture for SUSU students and they asked you different questions. Which question surprised you the most? What do you think about SUSU students?

–I was happy with the questions I received from the students. I’d say first that the level of English was very strong. I was surprised at how many students chose to speak English even though they could ask their questions in Russian. It was easy to understand them. What surprised me the most was the awareness of the global situation of migration. I talked more about the Russian case but there were really interesting questions on different types of migration. We talked about anything from Canadians planning to go to Russia to the global patterns of movement and what the forecast was. And I also had one historical question about the difference between migration of ethnic Russians from the provinces to Moscow versus migration of Uzbeks or Kirgiz. And that was the question I struggled with. There’s this idea that no matter what ethnicity you are, if you are from Moscow, you are special and if you are from a province, whether you are Russian or Uzbek, you are very different. It was a lot of fun for me to talk to students; they have their own generational aspect and I could see that the students here are thinking beyond Chelyabinsk, beyond their university life; they’re thinking about where their careers might take them. I hope that this is part of broader student internationalization. I hope that I can have students from your University coming to Canada and Canadian students coming here.

– You are planning to do some field research in Troitsk. Why did you choose this city?

–The border cities interest me the most. I’ve worked primarily with the cities that have different kinds of borders. The first city that I worked with was Tashkent, Uzbekistan. And there was a border between the old city of Tashkent and the new city of Tashkent, that was built by the Russians in the 19th century. Then I studied Moscow, and the border of propiska, those who had propiska and those who didn’t. Troitsk is on the border with Kazakhstan. Not the EU is coming into place; there are some parts of the border that are challenging the freedom of movement in some cases but not in all. I want to understand how people move across the border and their identity. Is it a totally different feeling when you live in a border town. I grew up on the border between Canada and the USA, just 5 miles away from the USA border. And there is a different feeling that you have, because people come and go all the time; you feel like you are part of broader international identity. In the case of Troitsk, it’s an international border but the ethnicity is maybe not so different. There are ethnic Russians who live on the Kazakh side. What does it mean to be a Russian on the Kazakh side versus a Russian on the Russian side? That’s really interesting to me.

On April 27, Professor Sahadeo held a workshop for SUSU students at the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities. It was called "Nostalgia for oral histories of Soviet migration – what does it tell us about the past and the present?". On April 29, Professor Sahadeo and SUSU students are to conduct field research in the city of Troitsk, once an important point of migration flow from Asia to Europe, a city that carefully preserves architectural traces of multiculturalism.



Ekaterina Kuznetsova, photo by Oleg Igoshin
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