Thoughts on Theses: Camille Blum

Camille Blum is a history, Russian and math major. Her thesis looks at the human rights movement in 1970s Soviet Russia and considers how scholars might reframe the narrative of the Soviet dissidents in that period. Her thesis advisor is Five College Associate Professor of History Sergey Glebov.

Q: What is your thesis about?

A: It is about Soviet dissidents in the 1970s, both about their activities in the Soviet Union and how they interacted with potential allies in the West and the steps that they took to change Soviet society from within.

Q: What led you to that idea?

A: It turns out that [the college’s] Russian department has this really amazing archive in the Russian Center and they have this collection of documents from one of the dissidents named Grigorenko. His family left all of his documents to the college which was really amazing. My advisor, Professor Glebov, suggested that I use those documents to do a study of the period that I was interested in, which is the Soviet 1970s.

Q: What kinds of conclusions have you come to?

A: A lot of current scholarship on the dissidents emphasizes their role in terms of their interaction with the West, with the United States. But the most important work that they did can actually be viewed within the context of just the Soviet Union and the work that they did within it. I’m trying to sort of reframe the way we view the dissidents’ work from a Western oriented perspective to an Eastern perspective.

Q: How have you reframed it?

A: A lot of their own writings have given us some clues about the work that they were trying to do and the ways in which they interacted with Soviet society at large. They published journals, they had a lot of samizdat works in circulation, which basically means they had an entire underground press running that informed people in the Soviet Union about what their government was doing wrong and made people in the Soviet Union want change to occur.

Q: What has been your favorite part of the process so far?

A: Definitely working with other people in the history department. I got a lot of good advice from [Morgan Assistant Professor in Diplomatic History Vanessa Walker, who wasn’t my advisor, but knew a lot about the general human rights movement of the 1970s. It hasn’t been just a project between me and my advisor. I’ve been able to bring in a lot of ideas from other people in Amherst, which has been super helpful.

Q: How have the changes resulting from COVID-19 and the switch to remote learning impacted your project?

 A: I think weirdly enough, it’s made my thesis a lot less stressful because before COVID-19, it was sort of this world-ending — you know, this is the only thing that matters — situation for me. But now that the world is actually, potentially ending and, you know, everything in reality is sort of terrible, I have a better perspective about what my undergraduate thesis means in the grand scheme of things.

Q: Has it affected your research or writing processes at all?

A: Well, the history department is on a much earlier schedule than a lot of other departments. So I had actually finished my thesis basically by the time I had to get off campus. It does sort of suck that I can’t, if I wanted to, access any more resources last minute. But I think, compared to the STEM theses, the history department is actually much better off right now.

Q: Besides the coronavirus, what have the main challenges been throughout the process?

A: I think actually one of the more challenging parts is starting to write. Sometimes I felt like, “What if everything I’m going to write is stupid? I have nothing to say.” But then once I did start writing, I realized, “This is actually going fine.” And then also at the beginning of a large project, it seems very daunting. It wasn’t until I realized that I just had to take small steps day by day that the project seemed a lot less overwhelming for me.

Q: What did those small steps look like?

A: Luckily, I had an advisor who gave me a pretty clear weekly schedule. A lot of advisors do this. They say, “This is what you should be doing this week compared to historically what people have been doing at this point in time.” So I was able to get a time frame down for “This week is my outline [or] this week I need to write 10 pages.” And if I followed that schedule, things went better. 

Q: What is your relationship with your advisor like?

A: Professor Glebov is — obviously — super smart. He knows so much about the history because he lived the Soviet experience. Sometimes it’s sort of hard for me to understand Soviet mentality and what these people have been thinking. But he adds such a good perspective and he’ll say, “Oh, there’s a joke about this that I knew,” or bring in things that I might not have otherwise considered. Our meetings are super helpful.

Q: If you could give a piece of advice to a student thinking about writing a thesis right now, what would it be?

A: Don’t quit all your extracurriculars. I know a lot of people do, but having more time doesn’t necessarily mean you spend more time writing your thesis. It actually, for me at least, helps to have a certain time frame each day when I know I’ll have to get my writing done and then in the evening I still have time to be a human being. And that sort of helped me balance thesis life with the rest of my life.