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On Urban Ethnography and “Kaleidoscopic Odessa”: An Interview with Tanya Richardson

“Kaleidoscopic Odessa”, в переводе на русский язык “Калейдоскопичесая Одесса” – необычное и интересное исследование женщины-антрополога из Канады Тани Ричардсон. Эту книгу можно определить как “антропологию места”, сочетающую локальную историю, этнографию городского пространства и культурную семантику города Одесса. Книга вышла в 2008 г., однако ее автор продолжает рефлексировать над событиями, происходящими в Одессе в 2014 г. Журнал “The Bridge-MOCT” попросил рассказать Таню Ричардсон о том, как складывалась ее работа над этой монографией.


3 Richardson photoAlexander Pershai: What are your main areas of studies and research interests?

Tanya Richardson: I have two main areas of interest. One revolves around urban place-making practices and identities in the Black Sea port of Odessa. The second addresses the politics of biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration around Ukraine’s Danube Delta.

A.P.: When did you develop an interest in Ukraine and Eastern Europe?

T.R.: My decision to conduct research about Ukraine emerged while I was working in Kyiv in the late 1990s on projects dealing with media, gender equality, and higher education reform. But it was the divergent interpretations of historical events that captivated me and led me to pursue a master’s and then a PhD. However, I have been curious about Ukraine since my childhood in British Columbia because my maternal grandparents were Ukrainian immigrants.

A.P.: Why did you decide to conduct your study in Odessa? Why did you choose this city over other places in Ukraine?

T.R.: My dissertation project was initially framed as an ethnographic study of the transmission of historical memory and the tensions this created in forming a Ukrainian national identity. At the time, these tensions had been explored most fully in the eastern and western parts of the country. However, relatively little had been written in English about these processes in southern Ukraine (with the exception of Crimea). The tendency until then had also been to focus on regional rather than local identities. I had visited Odessa a few times while working in Ukraine between 1995 and 1999. I was enchanted by the look and feel of the city, and intrigued by stories about its internationalism and multiculturalism. I thought situating my study there would deepen understanding of the significance of different histories – including urban histories – to Ukrainian citizens in different parts of the country.

3 Richardson CoverA.P.: Your monograph “Kaleidoscopic Odessa” offers a complex and multi-layered analysis that simultaneously addresses the notions of space, place, history, memory, nationality, and identity. How did you achieve such conceptual complexity?

T.R.: The analysis I developed in my book grew first and foremost out of the people, stories, practices, and places I encountered during fieldwork in Odessa in 2001-2002. In moving among schools, homes, streets, markets, museums, and historic neighbourhoods, I experienced how the narration of history in different settings simultaneously revealed and concealed Odessa’s past and present connections with Ukraine and Russia. What predominated then (and what has changed radically this year) was a sense of the city as distinct and separate from Ukraine. Reading different theorists of space and place helped in analysing these dynamics and in tying together disparate practices and divergent points of view. Several of my fellow graduate students were also wrestling with similar issues and so I was fortunate to be able to share readings and discuss my work with them. In my case, Foucault’s concept of heterotopia was particularly helpful in thinking about the juxtaposition of different perspectives and spaces in the city and in conceiving of how to craft my own narrative. What was important to me was to write in a way that allowed different versions of Odessan history to co-exist in the text, versions of history that often negated or erased each other, and to make visible their spatial and cultural politics.

A.P.: Could you describe the research methods you used in this project? Did they change as your study evolved?

T.R.: Most of the methods I drew on in doing my research are standard fare in anthropology – participant observation, structured and semi-structured interviews, oral history, and reading secondary historical and historiographical literatures. However, for me, walking in the city turned out to be the key to my project. I did not consciously plan to use walking as a method. My involvement in walking emerged halfway through my fieldwork as I began to focus more on how Odessans come to know urban history and myths. In other words, I walked because people interested in local history spent lots of time walking the city. More and more scholars now explicitly use walking as a method. In my case, I recognized walking as a method only after I returned from fieldwork.

A.P.: What was your biggest challenge while working on this research?

T.R.: I would say that the biggest challenge was the sheer number of things that I could be doing at any one time to further my research: joining a walking group, attending a market, visiting a museum, visiting special exhibitions. At the same time, I was also plagued by a sense that my material was scattered, thin, and insufficient for writing a dissertation. I think these are challenges faced by many urban ethnographers and ethnographers who undertake multi-sited fieldwork.

A.P.: In 2010 during your talk at Trent University you mentioned that sometimes you struggled with “pre-set” perceptions of Odessa instead of letting Odessa tell you what to “see”. How important is it for a scholar to be open to their research environment? At the same time, is it possible to let go of all expectations of how things are “supposed to be”?

T.R.: If I remember correctly, I was describing the challenges of trying to capture the tensions involved in switching between the perspectives of urban, national, and imperial narratives about Odessa’s relationship to the territory around it. Each narrative locates Odessa differently in time and space and thus naturalizes particular political geographies. It was a challenge to avoid becoming completely drawn into one of them. The Odessa Myth is particularly persuasive and seductive. However, only viewing the city through the prism of the city’s mythico-history would obscure the connections between the Odessa and Ukraine that city enthusiasts tended to downplay. The graduate training I received in anthropology encouraged an openness to having one’s initial assumptions challenged. Of course, going to conduct fieldwork without any assumptions is probably as unproductive as holding too rigidly to one’s original commitments. The art of ethnographic research, I suppose, is keeping a productive tension between the two positions. This is of course easier said than done.

A.P.: What is your current project about?

T.R.: My new research examines the ways in which different groups’ relationships with water, silt, reeds, fish, and plants in the wetland environments of Ukraine’s Danube Delta and Black Sea Coast have been impacted by a variety of different factors: new environmental regulation, infrastructure projects, changing property regimes, a predatory state, and the changing hydrology of these water bodies themselves. I’m interested in issues such as how the matters and beings of these environments play an active part in making possible and subverting state-sponsored infrastructure and management projects, and in activists’ and residents’ attempts to challenge them.


Tanya Richardson is the Associate Professor of Anthropology and Global Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada.

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