Five Questions With … Doug Rogers

Note: 2020-21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Havighurst Center.  One of the ways we will mark this occasion is through a regular “Five Questions With …” series, where we will check in with former colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, and students.  In this latest installment, Stephen Norris, Director of the Center, asked Dr. Douglas Rogers, Professor of Anthropology at Yale University, five questions. Doug was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Miami from 2004-2006 and was Assistant Professor of Anthropology here in 2006-2007 before moving to Yale.

  1. You are currently working on a book project entitled Eating Oil: Energy and Life in and after the Cold War, which you describe as “the history and present-day reverberations of petroleum science in the Soviet Union, the United States, and Europe, including oil-into-food (“petroprotein”) programs; oil- and methane-eating bacteria; hydrocarbon  microbiology and biotechnology more broadly; and debates about oil’s biogenic and/or abiogenic origins.” This is your second book related to petroleum, after 2015’s The Depths of Russia: Oil, Power, and Culture after Socialism, which examined the fascinating ways oil has reshaped postsocialist Russia.  How does the new book extend this focus and what are some of the interesting conclusions you have already reached?

This new project is going to be pretty different, I think, in good part because I want it to be more global in scope. In addition to research in Russia, I’ve been to the British Petroleum archives in the UK and a bunch of present-day biotechnology conferences in the US. I’ve even interviewed a group of fascinating scholars who worked on producing “petroprotein” in Kuwait in the 1970s and are now scattered around the world. The basic premise here is that the bacteria and yeast that “eat” (technically, metabolize) hydrocarbons have played a pretty fascinating role in the history of the 20th century and that a study of them (along with the many scientists and oil companies that became enchanted with their possibilities) can illuminate the whole era in some new ways. “Soviet biotechnology” may sound like an oxymoron, but it was a real thing and played a fascinating role in the history of Soviet biology, the development of the Soviet oil sector, in food supply, and eventually in the late Soviet environmental movement. It’s been largely forgotten that, in the West over these same years, some of the key catalysts of what we now know as the biotechnology revolution were, in fact, oil companies looking for ways to deploy those hydrocarbon-eating microbes as a new source of profit. I’m still figuring out what shape that will all take. Before COVID-19, I had to really work hard to convince people that paying lots of attention to microbes (auditing microbiology classes, reading 1920s tomes on yeast, etc., etc.,) was a good way to spend my time. That I don’t really need to convince people of this anymore is just about the only silver lining I am finding in this shattering pandemic.

2. You’re also engaged in a research project on the history and practices of the Russian corporation, having hosted a conference at Yale on the subject a couple of years ago. Why has this subject been ignored and what were some of the findings you reached at that conference? 

Scholars of Russia are obsessed with the Russian state–imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet. There’s good reason for this, of course, but as I got more and more into my study of Lukoil in the Perm region and beyond, I became convinced that we need to pay much more attention to Russian corporations–from some of the early trading companies and imperial corporations, through Soviet firms and enterprises, and on to Gazprom and the many kinds of corporations that are so influential in Russia today. Yes, it’s important to think about their relationship to the state, but there is so much more to say about corporations as economic, political, cultural, and social actors that does not reduce them to vectors for or derivatives of state power. This was one of the most generative conferences I’ve been to, and the topic of “the corporation” smashed right through the temporal and disciplinary boundaries we are accustomed to in Russian studies — we had early modernists talking to Soviet specialists, economic historians talking to anthropologists writing about corporate branding, and like six other dimensions of folks finding new conversation partners. We are working on publishing versions of many of these papers as a cluster or two of journal articles meant to collectively make this point, so stay tuned for more on that.

3. Your field work as an anthropologist has mostly taken place in the Perm region. What drew you to that region and how does your research in the Ural region help us grasp changes in Russia that we might otherwise have missed?

Undergraduates take note. In the spring semester of 1994, I was on the Middlebury College Study Abroad program at Moscow State University as a junior, and I was thinking that I might do a little research on Old Believers and then write my senior thesis on that topic. I met some MGU specialists in this area of research, and they invited me on an “expedition” to visit Old Believer communities in the Perm region that they had planned for that summer. (One of the highlights of my 2019, by the way, was sitting in a Moscow cafe reminiscing with some of those scholars I had first met a quarter century ago.) I’ve been traveling to the Perm region on and off ever since, writing two books based in the region–one was the final draft of that senior thesis, on Old Believers (published 14 years after I graduated from Middlebury), and the second one was on the Perm region as an oil region. Russia is so much more diverse than it appears from Moscow and/or St. Petersburg, and taking the perspective of a “provincial” region, or even small parts of it, really opens up the ways we think about big issues in Russian studies: government and power, natural resources, history and identity. It’s been a terrific privilege to spend so much time in the Perm region over the years—I’m often embarrassed to admit that I haven’t traveled as much in Russia as many of my colleagues, but I keep going back to this familiar and yet always changing place. Academic Studies Press is about to publish a Russian translation of my book The Depths of Russia in their “Contemporary Western Rusistika” series, and I am just delighted that the text will be available to people in the Perm region, so many of whom helped me in my research.

4. You are one of the leading scholars of the anthropology of postsocialism, a field of scholarly inquiry that emerged after 1991 and the Soviet collapse. What have been the major shifts in how it has developed and what are the questions driving it now, 30 years after the collapse?  Related: is “postsocialism” outdated as a field of study?

“Postsocialism” has always been a pretty inadequate term, and in my memory of conferences and conversations (which in scholarly matters extends back to the mid-1990s), it was always understood to be provisional, inadequate, and a placeholder. At its best in those days, the concept did three things well: (1) group together a ragtag and pretty new collection of scholars (largely but not exclusively anthropologists) and give them a label to rally around as they made up a new field; (2) gave some analytical shape to the senses of being “after” but not yet anything solidly new that were so deeply felt by many citizens of the former Soviet bloc, although of course in lots of different ways; and (3) challenged the triumphalist proclamations of a speedy “transition to capitalism and democracy” that were so influential in the West at the time and tended to ignore the ongoing relevance of the past (and their own ideological underpinnings). With changing circumstances, those three goals have become steadily less relevant and useful. A new generation of scholars, many of them based at universities in region, is generating new terms and categories, often offered as critiques of and/or efforts to “get beyond” postsocialism, and I think this is a very healthy development.

5. You now serve as Director of the Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies (REEES) at Yale. What activities are you sponsoring through this program and what sorts of events, initiatives, collaborations, etc. should Centers like ours be engaged in today?

It does seem that understandings of Russia and the former Soviet Union of the sort that colleges and universities can provide–in depth, historically, culturally, and linguistically informed understandings–are more needed than ever in the US. One of the projects that we have recently embarked on to help train a new generation of professionals is REEESNe, a network of colleges and universities in the Northeast that have different kinds of REEES or REEES-ish programs. We think there are substantial opportunities–most of them at the undergraduate and MA-student level–for sharing resources and expertise among different kinds of institutions that are often next door, but don’t talk much. We expect to join forces to offer career advice to undergraduates looking to use their majors, share tips among faculty and program administrators for increasing enrollment in REEES-focused courses, and more. We think there are lots of undergraduates out there who we need to try to keep in Russian studies–as lawyers, journalists, businesspeople, and much more–before they wander off, and we’re hoping to use a combination of virtual and in-person events to do that. In a more traditional academic vein, I’m excited about our spring 2021 series “Emerging Voices in REEES,” which is a string of short, virtual conversations with up-and-coming scholars our of field from around the world. It’s a tough job market out there at the moment, and we think we can help to make some of the best new research more widely known through the expanded international audiences made possible by our collective Zoomification.

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