“I’m interested in the movement of people with strange ideas” – 5in10 with Gregory Afinogenov

Gregory Afinogenov is an assistant professor of Imperial Russian History at Georgetown University and a Tandem Fellow in Global & Transregional History at the German Historical Institute Washington DC. He received his PhD in Russian history from Harvard University and his BA in history and philosophy from Fordham. His first book, “Spies and Scholars: Chinese Secrets and the Pursuit of World Power in Imperial Russia”, is forthcoming from Harvard University Press in Spring 2020. More broadly, Afinogenov’s research deals with the international social and political consequences of knowledge-making, from cybernetics in the Soviet Union to pastoral poetry in eighteenth-century New York.

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

I am looking at how Russia helped to shape Europe and the world in the age of the French Revolution by following all sorts of right-wing figures, from émigré aristocrats to Jesuit priests, who spent time in Russia or were otherwise influenced by it. My hope is to show that Russia played an important and underappreciated role in the revolutionary period but also that foreigners influenced the development of Russian politics and culture in unexpected ways. Finally, I want to explore the uniqueness of the 1790s, an era which is often neglected because historians don’t know what to make of the bizarre short reign of Paul I. I want to show how Paul drew on foreign influences to develop a distinct form of transnational conservative ideology.

What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?

Basically, I’m interested in the movement of people with strange ideas. These are not usually people with significant reputations or high status, but they were literate enough to leave some written records behind. I’m fascinated by the careers of people like Theodor Faber, a German who first joined the French revolutionary army but then became a counterrevolutionary Russian propagandist. Politically, I’m unsympathetic to these figures, and it’s nice to see them flail around in an era of profound conservative crisis.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

I’m an archive rat. The research I’ve done so far has mostly been in Russia, but I plan to spend a lot more time in the collections of the Library of Congress as well as in London, Paris, and Rome. Generally, I’m pretty old-fashioned. My routine is to sit down in an archive and read and transcribe as much as I can before time runs out. Whenever possible I try to avoid taking pictures of documents, since somehow it always turns out that I don’t have time to read through them, and when I do they’re too hard to read!

Which publications or academic events (workshops, conferences, lecture series…) did inspire you recently?

I thought the Political Culture and the History of Knowledge conference at the German Historical Institute Washington DC last June was absolutely fascinating, I learned a lot about new conceptual work happening across the Atlantic in this field. In 2018, the Study Group on Eighteenth-Century Russia also had a big meeting in Strasbourg, which introduced me to all kinds of new transnational work on Russian history and gave me the chance to meet a wide range of foreign colleagues, including Anna Ananieva, with whom I’m currently doing a Tandem Fellowship here at the GHI.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

I’ve been incredibly privileged to have had the kinds of research funding and time that would allow me to take regular archival trips abroad (and, I would add, other advantages like an American passport, no ongoing care responsibilities except for my cat, and language skills for research in Europe). I often worry that normalizing expectations built around a similar set of advantages is boxing scholars who don’t have them out of the field. Even as we explore transregional approaches, we should always ensure that our profession has room for all kinds of work, from the deeply local and community-embedded to the global, and that none of them is unfairly privileged at the expense of the others.


Citation: “’I’m interested in the movement of people with strange ideas’ – 5in10 with Gregory Afinogenov”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.01.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/21443.


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