Nikolay Erofeev

DPhil History from 2016-17 to 2018-19 at Oxford University

Can you tell me a bit about your biography before coming to Oxford?
I have a background of an art historian. I have graduated from the Moscow State University, department of Art History in 2014 and worked for several years in the sphere of contemporary art in National Centre for Contemporary Art and Garage Museum in Moscow. It was through the art community that I realised growing interest to the Soviet architecture and urbanism of 1960-80s. During these years a new urban environment was produced, evidently present in on post-soviet landscape, but very badly understood. It raised many questions – how to deal with it in both practical and aesthetical sides, is it a heritage and how can it be preserved? So I decided to switch to the history of Soviet architecture and urbanism. Actually, my final dissertation at Moscow State University was already on one of the protagonists of Soviet Modernism – an architect Leonid Pavlov. And I was lucky enough to work with a brilliant scholar Dr. Anna Bronovitskaia, who published a monograph on Leonid Pavlov and gave me an opportunity to contribute to it with the piece from my dissertation.

For how many years after finishing your studies did you work in Moscow?
I have been studying for two years after my graduation. A decisive moment for me was participation in an international conference ‘A Long, Happy Life. Building and Thinking the Soviet City: 1956 to Now’ in 2015 – which I think is a common way to find out about international educational programmes and possibilities to study abroad. I met scholars from international architecture scene, such important figures as Prof.Jean-Louis Cohen, Prof.Steven E. Harris, Dr.Richard Anderson. I had a unique chance to discuss my topic with them and made several long-lasting contacts. This event was crucial to get know new literature, to understand how to modify my subject of research so that it could address the problem better and how to proceed with studies further. Actually, for me it meant starting my research from the very beginning.

So did you decide to interrupt your PhD studies in Russia and to apply for PhD studies in Europe? Did you have a wide range of options and Oxford was only one of them? Or if you applied only to Oxford, how did you find out about it and scholarships available here?
Yes, I felt that it was much more difficult to do a PhD in Russia and I started to search for places where to apply. My cherished desire was to try application at Oxford and I was lucky enough to meet Elena Minina, an Oxford alumnus and an ex-Hill Scholar who just came from Oxford, after she spend 7 years here, as she received a job in Higher School of Economics. She told me very amusing stories of Oxford and she advised me to apply for Hill Foundation Scholarship.

Was it difficult for you to gather all the documents and to fill in this application?
Well, it was difficult to understand how best to fill in application forms, and I think that you need some external help and advice from people who are used to it.

Can you describe your feelings at the moment when you got the news that you were admitted to Oxford and received Hill Foundation Scholarships to financially support your studies?
It was really very surprising because I didn’t expect it at all. I was thinking of my application as a draft, which could be developed the next year so that I could re-apply. But I was extremely happy to receive it. I only believed that it was for real when I receive a letter from my scientific advisor. The only thing that I needed for my entrance to Oxford was to brush up my academic English and to take an official TOEFL exam to submit it results to Oxford, as they allow students to postpone such tests until the spring of the year of entrance. I quit my job and started to prepare hard to sit it, studied more than 8 hours a day. So I seriously prepared for my arrival to Oxford and to the start of my new course.

Could you describe which course you are doing in Oxford and what is your academic specialization here?
I write a PhD on Soviet mass produced architecture, particularly housing. I am exploring typologies of Soviet post-war housing and see how mass production architecture can be studied in the framework of history of architecture. But this field of research is very multidisciplinary and I seek to approach it from the side of history also. I explore how the job of architects changed in the 1960s, as research-oriented practices and scientific expertise were introduced in the architectural sphere. These practices are still relevant today, as well, as standardised developments of my research that were replicated throughout the country still affecting the shape of post-Soviet cities.

Do your academic ambitions consist in contributing to the Russian history of architecture or to the Western one, or both?
Surely, to both. The link with Russian culture and with Russian archival materials is very strong. I try to keep in touch with what is happening in Russia and always seeking chances to participate in Russian projects and conferences. For example, just a week ago president Putin supported a project to destroy all the mass housing built during the Khrushchov period – it is impossible not to react to such news.

You also mentioned that you contribute to various Russian publications and internet sites. Could you speak in more detail about this? This is quite impressive – you working for Russian readers, while being here.
Yes, I do that, although not as frequently as I would have liked to. At the moment Russia has a very vibrant scene for art criticism and architectural journalism. I participate in different site projects, and I think it is very beneficial for my field not to be focused only on academic work. Comparing to pure history, there are many more ways in our discipline to be engaged with wider audiences – through exhibitions, for example. I have been participating in Transit Academy – an international project (based in Austria) for studying urbanism and Soviet spaces, and I also contribute to mass media. I like this sphere, as I can see the impact of my writing, as there is much feedback from Russian readers. But interestingly enough, I feel that I am in a better position to write about Soviet heritage while staying in Oxford, as there are amazing tools for research and for producing analytical material here.

Could you describe your academic life in Oxford and present your social activities here? How is your daily life structured?
I didn’t mention any preference for College in my application, but was lucky to be allocated to one of the oldest Colleges in Oxford – Oriel, founded in 1324. It is a huge history and along the way they got many interesting events and rituals. This is one of the most formal colleges, there is a Formal Hall every evening, you are supposed to wear a suit with a tie while dining there, and for me it is like being in a movie. Speaking about my seminars, there is a lot of attention to Russian studies here, the Russian department is one of the biggest and most influential in Europe. Normally we have one or two weekly seminars on Russian history, and I also attend lectures on architecture in the Department of Art History. But most of all, I was surprised how much time my supervisors Dan Healey and William Whyte spend with me to lead me to productive avenues in my writing. I am very thankful for them.

Do you manage to fit all the things that interest you in your schedule or do you have to prioritize and choose only some of them?
It is totally impossible to attend all of them, as there are many events and lectures happening at the same time in Oxford, you always have to choose. Also, writing takes a lot of time, and it is very frustrating to know about an important lecture and know that you can’t attend it due to the pressures on your time. I surely try my best to fit all interesting things into my schedule, but writing my own research is a priority. I adore the Oxford libraries, you can get every possible book, quickly ordering them online, with no paperwork and they have wide collection of Russian books.

And what are your social activities which are not part of your academic life?
One of the very Oxford things to do is rowing, and I was very keen to participate in it from the very start. I have been doing it for the second term now, and I think everybody should try it while being in Oxford. It is a very good sport, and it also involves social activities, and boat club traditions which date back to the 19th century. Oxford is a great place to explore different sports, languages, unusual or traditional activities.

Apart from being in Oxford, have you tried to discover Britain in general?
Yes, I have visited London frequently, as it is very convenient to go there by train, which I do. I explore the city’s cultural events, art exhibitions, opera, theatre. When I go from Oxford, I am aware that for some people living in Greater London commuting to the city centre from the suburbs takes longer than the time I reach central London. Apart from that I’ve been invited to give a paper in Manchester and a chance to see this city.

What could be possible options of application of your Oxford experience to your future life?
I am considering the continuation of my academic career, but the options for an academic career might be still limited in Russia, that is why I am also thinking of practical application in Russia of the expertise gained in Oxford. There are definitely options to work in Russia in some practical issues: in the field of architectural heritage or urban planning. I would certainly consider all opportunities in Russia thoroughly, because I will also have the benefit of having done research abroad. For example, I have a very positive experience of working as a scientific adviser for an architectural firm earlier, when I was researching adaptation of Soviet buildings to new functions. I am thinking such application of my knowledge for making something useful for Moscow city would be very productive in future. But of course first of all I am aiming to work at some University, to continue with my research.

What defines Oxford for you as a University and as a city for you?
If we speak about the University, my time here can be very productive, as there are amazing opportunities for doing research, meeting people belonging to the academic community in my field. If we speak of Oxford as a city, it is a calm and comfortable place to live and study, and the system of Colleges is very nice for your social enrichment, as you meet people from different departments, nationalities and ways of life.

What would you advise to someone who was thinking of applying to study at Oxford University?
I think that it is really important to search for different options and not to be afraid of getting in touch with people from academic community even if you don’t know them personally. Academic community is often open and ready to help, and the advice you might receive from its members might be decisive for your future.

How do you keep in touch with your family and friends?
Members of my family live in various places of the world, so I had to discover ways of keeping in touch with them even before coming to Oxford. But we are used to meet annually in Moscow to celebrate the New Year. I have friends both in Moscow and abroad, as many of my Russian friends have also found opportunities to live abroad. I rarely skype or write long emails, but we sometimes arrange meetings when there are interesting events that everyone wants to attend.

April 2017