Research is difficult, daunting and, at times, enormously frustrating. Yet, it is easy to see why it is also the foundation upon which many great adventure works are written ranging from Uncharted to Indianna Jones. It is because research is a treasure hunt, and you are the adventurer. My own experience is likely a more extreme case, as I research Russia and Eurasia. In 2019, when I was accepted to my PhD programme, Russia was a soft-authoritarian state, where one should be cautious, although no one really paid much mind to a historian digging through the archives. Three years later, after a global pandemic which killed millions and shut down almost all international travel, Russia has morphed into a totalitarian police state engaged in full-scale war with one of its largest neighbours. Americans with British residency, like myself, were officially back on the detain on sight list.
Needless to say this adversely impacted my ability to carry out fieldwork in Russia. My particular field of history requires primary documents found in archives, or interviews with participants if they are still alive. Both of those became completely unavailable to me almost overnight. I actually received my Russian visa two days before Russia’s full-scale invasion. What to do then? Well after giving myself a few weeks away from my work to do my part in helping with humanitarian assistance and getting friends and colleagues out of Russia and Ukraine I set about looking for alternative resources. COVID-19 has been a curse in that the majority of libraries have been closed and most of the documents or books I wanted to review have been unavailable. But with the COVID-related restrictions lifting I started there. I found a treasure trove in one of the libraries here in London I had access to due to my status as an LSE student. The library had ample documentation and numerous books that are impossible to find elsewhere. I know they are impossible because I have looked everywhere else for them. University libraries are all well and good, but obtaining access can be a challenge. Most here in London are fairly easy, but others at prestigious institutions near London have very particular requirements that seem quite dated. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth your time to undertake the kabuki tea ceremony of gaining access as once you are in, you can find their collections are massive and evergrowing.
Libraries are a gateway to online databases – some quite comprehensive – and also to books, and those books have authors who have worked on things related to your field even if it’s not precisely in it. I found much to my delight that, although the historiography on my subject is scant, the body of work done by political scientists is much more comprehensive. I reached out to a political scientist based at a university in Kent and asked him whether he perhaps had some research notes on some of the primary documents I was looking for. I was delighted to learn that he actually had copies of the exact documents I was looking for just sitting in his office. One road trip down to Canterbury later, a pleasant chat over coffee and I had obtained half of the materials I had meant to retrieve from the archives. My treasure hunt continues as I am currently chasing down a number of other colleagues and checking on new institution libraries. My Kentish colleague informed me a library in the Netherlands has numerous law documents from Russia – so the next stop will be the Low Countries. This is what makes researching a thrill! You encounter obstacles, you have setbacks, but if you persevere you have breakthroughs with one success leading to another. Happy hunting, friends!