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14.10.2019 12:07

Professor Stephen Hagen: How Studying at Voronezh State University Transformed my Life

Given the brief time I spent as a student at VSU in the 1970s, the impact on my career has been proportionally enormous. When I first arrived in Voronezh, it was 1975 and I was a postgraduate student studying at Durham University (UK) on an exchange programme with Russia.  It was essential that I came to Russia because I had chosen to write a thesis on the short stories of Andrei Bitov – the man who was later to become the  famous author of ‘Pushkin’s House’ – and I needed to undertake the primary research on the spot in Russia, possibly (if lucky) getting to meet Bitov himself.

I should add here it was very difficult for British students to study in the Soviet Union during this part of the 20th Century simply because of the Cold War and because of mutual suspicion that arose from it. Only a limited number of British students were selected to study on the USSR-UK exchange programme.

In truth, I had no idea how Voronezh came to be my place of study in Russia: it was selected for me by Soviet Education Ministry officials and no reason was given. I realized later that this was probably due to the connection between my research topic (Russian Short Stories) and Platonov, who is, of course, from Voronezh which is his city of birth – but the connection seemed quite vague to me, a student living in the UK, as the two writers lived in different periods of the 20th Century and under very different political and cultural circumstances. Fortunately, I am pleased to say that nowadays  the importance of Platonov and his writing have become much more widely recognized around the world, with particular importance now given rise to the International Platonov Festival, of which the City of Voronezh can rightly be proud!

In fact, my time at VSU has proved very decisive in my career development for a number of reasons, both past and present. In the past, thanks to the assistance of VSU, I got to meet the living author Andrei Bitov on a komandirovka, which enabled me to understand the author’s own interpretation of the symbolism present in his writing. I also discovered that several of his short stories were in fact chapters in a larger novel,  which completely changed my perception of his writing. At VSU  I was able to undertake all the necessary background reading from primary source material in the VSU academic library. My thesis became radically different – and much more accurate – finally adding up to an opus magnum of 90,000 words – which made a significant contribution to our, western, knowledge and awareness of a significant Russian author.

There are, however, certain opportunities which come your way which can transform your life forever – and this was the case with my study-time at VSU. One thing leads to another: without the experience of studying at VSU, I would never have been appointed to a University lectureship in Russian Studies in Newcastle upon Tyne. The University required its lecturers in Russian (understandably) to have spent time in Russia and to have first-hand knowledge of life, culture and the language. Without studying at VSU,  I just wouldn’t have had street credibility to teach Russian to  my students and the Newcastle job not only gave me an opening into a valuable academic career (which I still have) but I also married there and had my family.

What is curious about life is that some of your early experiences can turn out to be highly valuable much later in life without you even being aware of it. My experience at VSU – and particularly the knowledge of Russian Language that I acquired there – also turned out to be vital to my second career much later in life.

Due to a career change I stopped being a Russian lecturer in 1999 – 20 years ago – and became a university manager instead, first as a Pro-Rector and then a Rector. However, my British University merged with another in 2013 and my job ‘disappeared’ in a Ministerial reorganisation of Higher Education – through no fault of my own!

What do you do in these circumstances?  All was not lost. Out of the blue, I had a phone-call  from an old friend called Nikolai, who said ‘Stephen, do you fancy working in Russia? Are you free?  If so, would you like to apply for a job in St Petersburg?’.  Well, it was 20 years since I had used my Russian actively and it was a bit rusty. But I applied to be a Pro-Rector in St Petersburg and was successful: without a knowledge of Russian, I simply could not have applied  turned out to be good enough to work in Russia. Without that early foundation in Russian acquired at VSU, this opportunity for an exciting job in St Petersburg would not have come my way.

My experience has shown that all knowledge is useful, but you often don’t know at what point in your career  will become essential to your success.  In my case, my study at VSU has proved to be valuable at both ends of my career – when I started out as a young lecturer – and also, much later, near the end of my career when I became a Pro-Rector at ITMO University. This job eventually led to an invitation to me from the Rector of VSU  to join the VSU Board of Trustees. I had come full circle in my career:  from VSU and back to VSU over a period of 40+ years! I recommend all students to take full advantage of the chance to study at VSU  when the opportunity arises!


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