When mentioning that my work involves dealing with several former USSR countries I often get questions on the kind of dangers my research entails. Whilst I do not see particular dangers in what I do, I have to admit that I had asked myself the same questions before my first fieldwork. I stopped worrying only after working out some automatisms, attitudes and gaining an understanding of certain realities that permit me, to a decent extent, to ‘stay safe’. This blog entry shares some experience-based reflections can be useful to minimise risks but it is also intended to discuss why dangers in some ‘exotic’ states are much less than one could think, writes Abel Polese
The former USSR is possibly the largest world area that has opened up to researchers in the past years. Visited by a few fortunate scholars during the cold war, it is now an immense live laboratory offering material for case studies and comparative research where urban studies researchers, inter alia, have been able to mingle for some time now. It is, although to different degrees and with a few exceptions, a widely accessible region and most of the permissions needed to conduct research in the past are now a fading memory.
This, however, does not mean that postsocialism lacks ‘exotic’ features or characters; the three mentioned in the title refer to: 1) the abundance of political elites – Heads of State are the most visible ones but their entourage tries hard to catch up with them – with, let’s say, unconventional habits and taste; 2) the possibility to find a ruling elite completely disjointed from reality, as in the case of the lemur chiefs of the ‘Madagascar’ animation movie and 3) the fascination of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ (Verdery 2005), this pointing at the fact that in an officially strictly controlled system there is a large margin of manoeuvre and officers will often make decisions on the basis of their personal perspective advantage, or lack thereof.
After more than ten years of fieldwork between the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, I wanted to share a reflection or two that could be useful to those visiting it for the first time or are simply curious to read about other colleagues’ experiences. I will refrain from mentioning the place where things happened for two reasons. The first is to guarantee the safety of informants, of people that have helped me, and possibly my own. The second is because most of the examples may apply to a wide range of situations and geographical locations. The difference is not the approach but the degree to which this may be used.