Russian and history double major Raymond DeLuca originally planned to write his senior thesis about a failed anarchist uprising against the Soviet government. But after researching an English version of the group’s daily newspaper, he discovered that a group of Russian émigrés in Prague had done the translating and dissemination of the paper, and he was moved instead to write “Refugees, Immigrants and Émigrés: A Reinterpretation of the Russian ‘Émigré’ Community in Prague, 1919-1939.”
“I was inspired to look more closely at these Russians in Prague, who were translating this anti-Bolshevik text,” says DeLuca, who studied abroad in St. Petersburg and spent two weeks over last winter break conducting thesis research in the Czech Republic thanks to funding from the CPGC. “My thesis grew from there. … I felt like I was some sort of detective trying to crack a mystery about where this text came from.”
How did your thesis advisor help guide your work?
I had two readers for my thesis: Professor of History Lisa Jane Graham and Professor of History Linda Gerstein. Each of these professors improved my thesis in very different ways. Professor Graham really helped me develop a conceptual framework within which I could situate my thesis. She really pushed me to think critically about why my thesis topic matters—that is, what does my argument suggest about the discipline of history as a whole? Why might someone who has no background in Russian or 20th century history find my thesis a worthwhile read? Professor Gerstein really helped transform me into a clearer and more persuasive writer. She helped me nail down the historical nitty-gritty of the period that I was examining, and she helped me express me ideas as thoughtfully and as articulately as I could.
What are the implications for your thesis research?
While specifically concerning itself with the Russian community in Prague, my thesis is more broadly about the relationship between language and identity. I did a thought experiment with my mom recently. I asked her what are the first words she thought of when she heard the term “refugee.” She said,“War-torn, impoverishment, and Afghanistan.” I asked her then to say the first thing that came to mind when she heard the term “immigrant.” She told me a story about her great-grandfather who left Poland to come to the United States to find work and a better life for himself. I then asked her what came to mind when she heard the term “émigré.” She said, “France, aristocrats, and writers.” Her answers reveal the fact that when we use different migratory classifications we suggest different things about the nature of both the experience and the identity of the displaced. Simply, a refugee, an immigrant, and an émigré [are not the same thing], even though they all experience transnational displacement. My thesis deconstructs these terms to reveal language’s relationship to identity. It also demonstrates how the writing of history is affected by these different classifications. Historians are more likely to write about the educated, literate and literary of the world. Therefore, if a group is classified as an “émigré” community, scholarship will privilege them and their experiences, whereas it will devalue the group classified as “refugee.”
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of members of the Class of 2014.