Brendan McGeever (University of Glasgow)
PhD project: A historical sociology of Bolshevik and Soviet government responses to antisemitism during the October Revolution and Civil War (1917-1921)
Tell me a bit about yourself- where are you from and where did you do your undergraduate?
I’m from a place called Portobello, a seaside town not too far from the centre of Edinburgh. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow, where I undertook a joint honours programme in sociology and politics, specialising in the sociology of racism and ethnicity. After graduating I spent a year working in the anti-racist voluntary sector in Edinburgh, which involved carrying out educational workshops at schools, youth clubs and adult education groups. I was lucky enough to secure a scholarship which allowed me to return to Glasgow to study for an MSc in the sociology of ‘Racism and Modernity’. It was during this period that I decided that I wanted to stay on at university and begin a PhD.
Tell me about your PhD research topic
The PhD is a historical sociology of Bolshevik and Soviet government responses to antisemitism during the October Revolution and Civil War (1917-1921). In other words, I am looking at the ways in which the early Soviet state approached, conceptualised and politicised the issue of antisemitism in Russia during the revolutionary period. Whilst we know quite a bit about the wave of pogromist violence that swept across the regions of the former Pale of Settlement during the Civil War, we know next to nothing about response to such violence from the Soviet government. I bring a Gramscian perspective to the study of this topic, looking for example at the formation of ‘hegemonic apparatuses’ within the nascent Soviet state; the various types of strategic alliances that were forged in the confrontation with antisemitism; the networks upon which such formations were based; and above all the profound degree to which the revolutionary process was structured by an articulation with antisemitism. Gramsci’s relational framework helps overcome crude and narrow understandings of political actors as ‘either’ antisemitic or anti-antisemitic, and instead opens up a more critical perspective that allows for an appreciation of the complexity of the political field, for example, the articulation between seemingly antithetical sets of ideas, in this case, antisemitism and anti-antisemitism.
Forgive me, but that seems to be a bit of a jump from your undergraduate studies- how did you come to make the transition from the sociology of racism to the history of the Russian Revolution?
Good question! I did study the Soviet Union as an undergraduate, and I’ve always had a strong interest in the politics of the region. However, upon completing my Masters I was very keen to develop the conceptual and theoretical tools that I had picked up in my sociological studies, and to try to bring them into a critical dialogue with the history of the Russian Revolution. It seemed to me then, and still does now, that this period provides an excellent case through which to explore the intersections of class, nationalism and ethnicity.
Tell us a bit about your fieldwork.
I had a fantastic year in Moscow, working in the Party and state archives. Towards the end of the year I also spent some time in Kiev and Zhitomir, which was equally enjoyable. I have to be honest though and say that it was extremely difficult at first: I did not know any Russian at all when I began the PhD, so the fieldwork was tricky at first to say the least! It has been an entirely rewarding experience though. If there are any students out there deliberating about whether to learn a new language as part of their PhD research, I’d say go for it, you won’t regret it.
In addition to being BASEES Postgraduate Representative, are you active in any other societies or research networks?
Yes, I am the co-Book Reviews Editor of the journal East European Jewish Affairs. I am also a member of the Critical Theories of Antisemitism Network, as well as being involved with the Historical Materialism book series and the International Newsletter for Communist Studies.
Lastly, how would you say BASEES has supported you so far in your PhD studies?
I have had tremendous support from BASEES as a PhD student. The BASEES annual conferences have proved to be a great space to meet fellow PhD students as well as more senior academics. I’ve also benefited enormously from attending the sessions of the Study Group for the Russian Revolution, which is part of the BASEES structure. I’ve also benefitted from the financial support. For example, all BASEES student members are eligible to apply for up to £600 funding to support conference attendance of fieldwork.