Expect the Unexpected When Learning the Scholar’s Craft

Part of an essay series on Learning the Scholar’s Craft: Reflections of Historians and International Relations Scholars

I was supposed to be a lawyer. That’s what my parents had told me; I was good at arguing, I liked school, and I was really interested in politics. But something went terribly wrong (or right, depending on your perspective) and my professional life took another path into political science and specifically the study of the Soviet Union and then Russia. Try as I might, by my sophomore year at the University of Toronto, I couldn’t get my mind off of the changes happening in the Soviet Union at the time (in the mid-1980s). In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev had become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and was a Soviet leader of a very different sort. He popped out of limousines to shake hands with people lining the streets of the European cities he visited, he spoke of reconstructing the Soviet system in a program he called perestroika, and he threw the doors open to Soviet society, politics, and history in the ensuing years under “glasnost” or openness. Suddenly, the Soviets seemed human, maybe even friendly, and to me as a Canadian, their weather, sports, and outdoors were familiar. No longer would we need to drill for a nuclear attack by hiding under our desks in school (true story), as Gorbachev proceeded to sign arms control and then reduction agreements with presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.