JHI Alumni Spotlight—Irina Sadovina

October 27, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

Irina Sadovina was a Chancellor Henry N.R. Jackman Graduate Fellow in the Humanities in 2017-2018, during the theme of Indelible Violence: Shame, Reconciliation, and the Work of Apology. After a few years of teaching at the University of Missouri, Volga State University of Technology, and the University of Tyumen, she joined the University of Sheffield as a Coordinator of Slavonic Languages and University Teacher of Russian. Find out more about Irina on her website.

JHI: Can you tell us about the project you worked on while at the JHI?

IS: I joined JHI during one of its most pessimistic themes. It was a perfect fit. I was studying psychoanalysis, critical theory, and North American and Russian culture at the Centre for Comparative Literature. My work focused on the topic of sexual violence. Well, sort of.

If I’m honest, the subject of sexual violence was for me a gateway drug into a conversation about nonsovereignty in general. When something bad happens – for example, some violation in the realm of sexuality – we are confronted with the reality of nonsovereignty. In other words, we realize that we’re not masters of our environment. We are by nature violable, penetrable, destructible. Of course, this can be fun – sexuality is about losing oneself, after all. There’s also something neutral about this condition: as humans, we are ambivalent. We are capable of both violating and being violated.

But however ordinary nonsovereignty may be, it’s not easy to live with. In my research, I was interested in different ways that people – writers like Tamara Faith Berger, theorists like Mikhail Bakhtin, influential cultural figures like Lady Gaga – articulate responses to this horrible, natural, awful, indelible thing.

JHI: What was your JHI experience like?

IS: Taking on the theme of Indelible Violence in the late 2010s, the JHI community set itself a challenging task: to delve into existential questions while trying to formulate workable political answers in a rapidly developing conversation about social justice.

We were all figuring out what it meant to be researchers within a very powerful and very rich institution, working in a cultural moment when violence was becoming ever visible.

It’s a tough task, living an individual life in such a violent world. We often find ourselves mired in a mess of privilege and disempowerment, of loss and hope. Easy answers – the T-shirt slogans, the Twitter hashtags – are tempting, but they don’t cut it. I think that this work is only worth doing if it’s done honestly.

JHI: What are you doing/working on now?

IS: I am not doing research anymore, and I kind of blame the JHI, with all the honest talk about the role of the researcher in the current cultural moment. It really made me reconsider how I engage with intellectual questions.

The conversations about Indigeneity that were taking place at JHI led me to reflect on my own background. I’m an ethnically Mari person who grew up in Russia and a little bit in the United States, and I spent most of my adult life in the West. I mean, I was used to being misunderstood – or let’s say, misclassified – by Westerners. But at JHI I started thinking more seriously about how impossible it seems to communicate where I’m from, and how diverse that part of the world is, to Western audiences, academic and otherwise.

I was also getting angrier with professional Russia whisperers in the media, who would use shockingly Orientalist language to describe ethnic minorities. For a while, I thought I’d turn this anger into a research project. But I gave that up because I realized two things: that I can’t play the cultural influencer game on that level, and also that the academy is just too broken.

So I quit research. Now I’m working on translating a novel by an Indigenous author from beyond the Arctic circle, Anna Nerkagi. It’s called White Moss and it’s really, really good. You can read a short excerpt here. I’m also writing creatively. Another thing I’m working on is living through devastating times, and grieving, and trying to be a good presence in the lives of my students.

JHI: Do you have any advice for our incoming fellows?

IS: Don’t worry too much about coming across as fancy. Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions that may sound dumb. This year is an opportunity to share your passions and burdens with others. It will sometimes be hard and sometimes really life-giving.