NewsNet May 2024

Spotlight on Academic Blogs

An Interview with Blog Editors at H-Russia, H-Ukraine, The Jordan Center Blog, and Peripheral Histories?

Emily Elliott | May 17, 2024

Emily Elliott
Associate Director of Research and Publications at H-Net

Academic blogs have grown in numbers, reach, and importance over the last decade, covering almost every thematic and geographic subfield. These blogs serve as places not only to share summaries of new research, but also to foster conversation among academics, students, policymakers, organizations, and the public. In the field of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, blogs have become ever more important following Russia’s war in Ukraine. The scholars who run these blogs play an important role in bringing diverse perspectives on important topics, but running an academic blog is a time-consuming task that requires a host of scholarly, editorial, and technical skills that often go unnoticed. More often than not, contingent and early career scholars are the individuals overseeing these critical resources. Today, we pull back the curtain and speak to the scholars behind four blogs in the field to understand and appreciate this work.

Oleksa Drachewych
H-Russia’s Decolonizing Russian Studies

John Vsetecka
H-Ukraine’s Spotlight Interview Series

Maya Vinokour
The Jordan Center Blog

Susan Grunewald
Peripheral Histories?

What motivated you to start this blog? What content were you hoping to develop? What questions were you hoping to answer?

H-Russia: The discussions that I noticed happening both on social media and in public-facing online publications about decolonizing Russian studies led me to start the H-Russia Decolonizing Russian Studies blog. The discourse around the subject was happening on different planes with little direct debate and discussion. People conflated decolonizing Russian studies with calls to decolonize Russia, two different issues, even if there may be overlap. Plus, social media is not always conducive to deep conversations about important academic discussions. The blog therefore became my way of using the strength of H-Net’s moderated platform to offer a place for this important dialogue to happen in a meaningful way. I had hoped to see contributors speak on their experiences looking at Russian or Soviet history topics from different perspectives, highlight existing works that could be used as models for decolonizing Russian studies, and reflect upon what assumptions underwrite the field. Additionally, I wanted to include a forum for those who disagreed with the approach or who did not feel it useful to allow genuine conversation about the topic. It would allow scholars to share their skepticism and the opportunity to highlight what the field has already done, while also allowing scholars to debate, discuss, and learn from one another, especially as there are many different generations of scholars and a variety of viewpoints on what I feel is an important question in our field.

H-Ukraine: The emergence of the H-Ukraine Spotlight Interview Series corresponded with the official launch of H-Ukraine on H-Net in 2019. Our simple but significant goal was to give Ukrainian studies a more visible platform in digital humanities spaces. In thinking through how to utilize H-Ukraine’s platform to the fullest, I decided that an interview series with authors working on various Ukraine-related topics would be a great way for scholars and others to get to know those working in the field of Ukrainian studies more comprehensively. The content that I was interested in developing were short, digestible interviews that highlighted the respective scholar’s work, introduced their current research, and allowed others to get to know them in a more personal way. I was not seeking to answer questions so much as I was hoping for these interviews to elevate the voices of those working on Ukrainian topics that had been overlooked, unheard, or ignored.

Jordan Center Blog: This is an easy one, since I did not found the Jordan Center Blog. Instead, I had greatness thrust upon me. I began as Editor in 2018, at which point the Blog had already existed for several years. Its purpose was to publicize the affairs of the NYU Jordan Center (e.g., panels, conferences, and talks) and to attract further attention to the REEES field as practiced at NYU and beyond through fun, interesting content. My colleague, Eliot Borenstein, singlehandedly authored many of the early posts, which was delightful but couldn’t go on forever due to the finite nature of time.

Peripheral Histories?: The idea for the Peripheral Histories? blog came from a conference held at the University of Manchester in April 2015. The conference aimed to bring together graduate students and early career scholars to share their works in progress and to emphasize research on the regions and peoples of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that have been viewed as geographically, politically, or culturally “peripheral,” as opposed to those anchored in the often overstudied and overemphasized “center.” The conference attracted a large and internationally-based contingent of participants, who often felt isolated in their departments due to their marginalized topics of study. After the conference, a small group of attendees felt it was necessary to find a new format to continue these fruitful conversations and to build networks for these topics of study. They chose to establish themselves as the editorial board of the Peripheral Histories? blog and began to solicit contributions.

Who was your intended audience for this blog, and how did they receive the blog? How has your audience changed or grown over time?

HR: Academics of Russian, Slavic, Soviet, and Eurasian studies are the main audience. The blog has gotten some good attention, particularly from junior scholars who are grappling with these ideas, and from scholars who often feel they are outside of Soviet or Russian history. Especially early on, the first couple of posts generated an important dialogue that highlighted a lot of the fault lines regarding this topic. Other blogs have reached out either to jointly publish blogs important to both our audiences, and journals have agreed to reproduce some of the discussion, ensuring it will continue to find new audiences.

HU: There have always been a few intended audiences for the H-Ukraine Spotlight Interview series. The first audience was, obviously, H-Ukraine subscribers. I wanted to create content that subscribers would find interesting and fresh and highlight new work going on in their field(s) that they may have otherwise not known about. The second audience that I had in mind was the broader scholarly community in the United States, to whom I wanted to demonstrate that those working on Ukraine have produced fascinating new research and used innovative methodologies to tackle important questions. The third intended audience I wanted to serve was academics in Ukraine. Part of our initiative at H-Ukraine is to build academic communities across borders, and it was important to us to help build more bridges between scholars in Ukraine and scholars in North America. The interviews I have done so far have been well received, and now authors regularly reach out to me and ask to be featured. The audiences mentioned above still represent the majority of our readership, but Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 helped bring our work to new audiences. Now, journalists, NGOs, think tanks, government workers, and members of the public all read our content.

JCB: At the beginning, our intended audience consisted of scholars in the field from an array of SEEES-related disciplines: not only cultural or literary scholars like Eliot and me, but also historians, anthropologists, political scientists, art historians, sociologists, media theorists, and so on. Over time, the mission has evolved to include educated laypeople, and my vision for the future is that the blog become an academic-focused but highly publicly accessible resource for anyone interested in better understanding Eastern Europe and Eurasia, from nearly any angle.

PH: The initial audience was graduate students and early career researchers. At first, the editorial board solicited contributions from contacts. Through word-of-mouth, and some initial funding from Sheffield Hallam University for the website domain, the blog grew in popularity and readership, which allowed the editors to transition to open calls for submissions on a rolling basis. Through blog posts, publicity on social media, shorter publications in journals such as Ab Imperio, and presentations at conferences such as ASEEES and BASEES, the Peripheral Histories? blog has grown into a substantial repository of posts, author interviews, teaching tips, and guides for online research and digital humanities projects. The site now includes over 100 posts by more than 90 different authors located in 22 countries. We have also continued to offer online events over Zoom, bringing together academics and non-academics from around the world.

Scholars most often think of the contents of a blog they read, but there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that scholars might not realize. Can you share a bit about how you chose your content management system, recruiting authors, and publicizing your blog? You might choose to address the unseen aspect that you found most challenging.

HR: Most of the submissions came from volunteers, but I did attempt to directly solicit pieces from some scholars. This is a topic many in the field are grappling with and some may not know where they stand or be unwilling to share their still developing thoughts. Additionally, with the Russian war in Ukraine taking place, I am aware of, including from my own personal experience, the emotional labor many in the field are going through as we are following this war often with a very personal connection. Many scholars are overextended and while there has been interest in contributing, their limited time and other commitments make it hard to firmly determine a potential deadline. Some of these individuals I will be circling back to this summer, while I will be continuing more significant promotion through H-Russia’s listserv, social media, and other platforms.

The “Blog” section on H-Russia and H-Ukraine, part of the larger H-Net network.

HU: It’s true, running any kind of blog requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work that is invisible labor. At H-Ukraine, we have a few blogs that are each managed by different editors. As the managing editor of the Spotlight Interview series, I have the privilege of choosing who I want to feature in each interview. I do my best to feature a range of voices, including women, LGBTQ+ scholars, BIPOC scholars, and those working in precarious academic employment or in academic-adjacent/non-academic sectors. Representing the diverse nature of Ukrainian studies is something I work hard to do, and it is, perhaps, not something always immediately visible to those who read the interviews. I often reach out to scholars after reading something of theirs that I think deserves more attention, and we organize interviews from there. Everyone is busy, so it can be difficult to get some scholars to follow through with their interviews due to their schedules. However, I have no deadlines for these, so I do my best to be as flexible as possible. Once the author sends me their written responses, I spend time editing, formatting, and then publishing them on H-Ukraine. I then promote them on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other relevant social media platforms. Running the whole operation requires one to be a scholar, editor, manager, and publicist! Wearing many hats is worth it, though.

JCB: Posting content with high disciplinary diversity three times a week requires about 10-15 hours of weekly input from me. Until a couple of years in, I worked entirely alone, but since then, I’ve been fortunate to have the assistance of a Managing Editor. The bulk of that person’s time is spent recruiting content by reaching out to scholars, who are doing interesting work. Often these are people who have already published or presented on something interesting, and we’re asking them to do a short and public-facing version of their article or conference talk for the Blog. Academics tend to be very busy and are more willing to adapt an existing piece of work than to write something totally new. So, the strategy of soliciting contributions based on existing work has worked well so far, in terms of both getting “yeses” and platforming exciting new research across SEEES subfields. Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, we’ve also made an effort to publish timely contributions. We’ve had eyewitness reports from Kyiv, open letters on behalf of Zhenya Berkovich and the DOXA editors, translations of articles from Meduza, and of-the-moment analysis on topics like Lavrov’s antisemitic comments about Zelenskyy, Prigozhin’s death, and more. Even with help, my biggest challenge is finding the time to work with authors from submission to publication. But at the end of the day, I love the Blog and wouldn’t have it any other way.

PH: In terms of editorial work, submissions are reviewed by two members of the editorial board for approval, revisions, or rejection. We recruit authors through a mixture of open calls on social media, networking at conferences, and direct solicitations. As the social media landscape changes, we are receptive to adapting our publicity plans in the future. A larger challenge is the debate over the dichotomy between “center s” and “ peripher ies” of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union model in the field . Many fail to notice the question mark in the official title of the blog, Peripheral Histories?, which emphasizes that the mission of the blog is the very idea that the “periphery” was never peripheral to Russian imperial and Soviet history. Our goal has always been to shift academic focus away from the metropoles of Moscow and St. Petersburg, largely in response to the context of British academia, where the initial editorial team was based, and where much of the research focused on the imperial centers or on the policies and practices which radiated out from them. The project seeks to challenge the idea that the “big story” could only be told in Moscow and St. Petersburg and show how important and diverse events , ideas, and peoples shape the overall evolution of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union from Kaliningrad and Kyiv to Kamchatka. These cases are indeed not peripheral; rather, engaging with the default model allows us to better emphasize the importance of these diverse peoples and regions in shaping the overall trajectory of imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet history.