Elena Osokina
Europe, Russia & Eurasia, Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, Munk School

Visiting Professor Elena Osokina Meets with CERES Students

On November 14th, CERES Visiting Professor Elena Osokina met with students to discuss her previous, current, and conceived academic work. After hearing about attendees’ Masters and PhD projects, she provided us with a broad overview of her academic journey from a quantitative to a social and economic historian. One consistent idea that has influenced her work is the view of Stalinism not simply as a political or ideological system, but as a socio-economic system as well, one that served to promote the goal of industrialization by any means necessary. Professor Osokina’s research challenges the widespread idea of earlier academics who saw politics and ideology as the main elements of Stalinism. She points out instead that Stalinism was much more than a mere ideological system because those in charge sacrificed political goals when needed to achieve their grand vision for an industrialized USSR.

During the meeting, Professor Osokina also discussed the impact of the political and cultural climate in Russia on academia and research. In her case, she chose the topic for her first dissertation on the peasant economy in Imperial Russia in part due to the lack of resources and access to sources regarding Stalinism. She discussed in greater detail the many challenges that students in Russia back then as well as students today may face when conducting research on certain topics, particularly in Eastern Europe. She stated that until the 1990s, students were restricted to more obscure areas of research from the distant past for their study. Later, classified documents became increasingly more available, and she was able to access resources that had previously been inaccessible. She attributes a change in her research focus to a shift in circumstances following her first dissertation: academic research in official Russian archives went from a system of “control” and “censorship” to one of absolute “anarchy” through the declassification of a variety of sources.

Professor Osokina’s first book A Hierarchy of Consumption: Industrialization and Rationing in the USSR, 1930s even aided in declassifying certain sources. Before her novel, the Stalinist distribution system had only ever been evaluated by economists rather than social historians. Her analysis therefore allowed for new and innovative conclusions to be drawn about the social hierarchy of the USSR at the time—the social hierarchy based around the State’s priorities rather than a homogenous Marx-inspired working class. Professor Osokina’s latest book, Stalin's Quest for Gold: The Torgsin Hard-Currency Shops and Soviet Industrialization, evaluates the central policy and regional differences of the “Torgsin” stores and plays a central role in this archival revolution that has redefined our understanding of Stalinism.

In terms of future research projects, Professor Osokina acknowledged that undertaking research in Russia or Ukraine given the current crisis will be challenging and that new research interests may be defined according to where archives are available. In her conclusion, she provided the students with some valuable advice for their own research projects and academic careers: meet with scholars who open new doors for you, take opportunities when they present themselves, and above all—appreciate criticism.