I was invited to attend an international conference on ‘Women and Their Culture’ hosted by EWHA Woman’s University in Seoul, South Korea, at the end of January 2016. This was a great honour for me and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The papers covered a broad range of topics from the early modern period through to the twentieth century, covering both Asian and European history. Some of the papers provided an interesting and unexpected opportunity for me to make comparisons between different aspects of Soviet and Korean social and economic development.
My paper was entitled ‘Looking for Love’ and is an early outcome of my extensive reading of a range of Soviet women’s narratives with the intention of making a book-length study of Soviet women’s everyday lives. This paper focuses on women’s attitudes to personal relationships and sexual morality and questions the often repeated statement that ‘there’s no sex in the USSR’. The discussant for my paper, Ka Young Ko (Seoul National University), completed her PhD at Moscow State University, where I also spent some time as a research student. Given my non-existent Korean, it was good to be able to converse a little in Russian. The conference also provided the opportunity for me to meet several Korean academics who are interested in Soviet women’s history.
EWHA Woman’s University was founded in 1886 by American missionary Mary F. Scranton and it now has an extensive and rather stunning campus, including this flight of steps designed by Dominique Perrault. Actually, Seoul itself has a great many stunning buildings and is worth visiting for the architecture alone.
I was fortunate to be aided during my visit by one of my former PhD students, Junbae Jo. Our visits to many sites of historical and cultural interest served to improve greatly my knowledge of Korean history and to place what little I do know into much broader context. For Junbae, this was an opportunity to revisit places he had not been to since he was at school. I was introduced to Korean cuisine and managed to persuade Junbae that he should also try to the delights of vegetarian and vegan Seoul (my pocket guidebook listed only a few places, but there are many more still to be tried out). By some stroke of luck, my first evening in the city ended in one of Seoul’s cat cafes, which Junbae didn’t even know existed!