Melanie Ilic in Finland

Melanie has been on some very productive European visits this summer!

Here is her account of her time in Finland:

On the day after my arrival, Elena Osokina, a well-known Russian historian, gave a seminar at Helsinki’s Aleksanteri Institute about the sale of Russia’s art treasures to fund the Soviet industrialisation programme in the 1920s and 1930s. She argued that the financial gain from the sale of more than 30 ‘masterpieces’ could in no way compensate for the loss of prestige suffered by the Hermitage through this activity. The discussion, however, raised questions relating to the ethics of the original acquisition of the ‘old master’ paintings and if the material benefits of their sale for a hungry population did in fact outweigh the losses incurred by putting them on the open market.
On the following day, I travelled to Jyvaskyla for a conference on ‘East-West Cultural Exchanges and the Cold War’. This conference attracted a great deal of interest, with over 200 proposals submitted in response to the call for papers. At the three-day conference, over 80 papers were delivered by delegates from over 20 different countries. Many of the paper presenters are young scholars working on topics that simply would not have been possible to research before the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and their findings are now beginning to re-shape the historiography of the Cold War in Europe. I was a discussant on a panel with three papers: the first paper, by a young scholar from St Petersburg, was about the 1963 Women’s Congress in Moscow, sponsored by the Women’s International Democratic Federation, about which I have published recently. The other two papers were both by up-coming PhD candidates from Finland and Germany about various cultural encounters at the 1957 World Youth Festival in Moscow.
I returned to the Aleksanteri Institute in Helsinki for a series of meetings and a two-day workshop in connection with a Finnish Academy-funded, three-year project on ‘Competition in Socialist Societies’. The workshop was designed to update members of the project research team on progress with individual contributions and to elaborate the theoretical framework for the project, which is now nearing completion. My contribution to the project is a paper on the Soviet-era beauty contests, about which very little has so far been published. I will also co-edit the project publications.

In discussion with Finnish academic colleagues, it seems to be the case that Finnish higher education remains better funded than in the UK. Undergraduates do not currently pay fees, and many PhD students are funded throughout their research and have access to generous travel funds. Many are subsequently able to secure post-doctoral research funds. Academics are encouraged to apply for state funding to develop their research projects, and they too have access to travel funds to support their activities. There are, however, signs of change. Whilst there seems to be little support at the moment for charging home undergraduate or postgraduate students to study in HE, it seems likely that the costs for international students will rise in the near future. There is also discussion of introducing a research evaluation exercise, similar to the Research Excellence Framework (the measure by which British university research is evaluated). They’ve been warned!

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