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I'm planning a PhD in Russian history at an Australian University in the next few years. However, there's a strong chance I won't have access to the Russian archives due to the War in Ukraine, visa complications (there are stories of British Doctoral students being deported due to using a tourist visa - a humanitarian / scientific visa sounds impossible and long to get) upon absolutely no Australian companies offering travel insurance, and the possibilities of breaching my scholarship due to sanction law. Grim.

However, there's a company based in (I think?) Armenia or Uzbekistan where someone will visit the archives on your behalf and take photocopies. Would this be okay? I'm happy to visit archives in Turkey, Serbia, Greece or the United States (these are relevant to my thesis) but there may be documents crucial in St. Petersburg. Would supervisors be okay with this?

Thanks for any feedback.

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    Who is going to pay for the service provided by the companies? Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 4:41
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    Your suggestion sounds reasonable to me, but my opinion does not count. To know if a supervisor is OK with that, you'll need to talk to that supervisor. If I (a random sociologist on the internet) tell you that it is OK, you get a supervisor who says it is not OK, then whose opinion will count in the end? Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 7:35
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    Your PhD will be self-funded, as far as I understand. Why don't you enroll for a PhD in a university more open towards the topic? maybe a Turkish university? or in Serbia, or in Bulgaria, who knows. Then you can always arrange to be a visiting scholar at the Australian university of your preference.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 7:50
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    Actually, I plan to apply for scholarships (Stipend) at my Australian university and I believe I have a good chance. The problem is using grant money in a heavily sanctioned country... not impossible, but hard. There is, to my knowledge, no problem in using stipend money towards photocopying / archive fees in Russia. Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 8:05
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    I'm not a historian, but wouldn't this be a problem for many people in the field -- what do others do? Also, if you have potential supervisors you intend to apply to, I don't see a problem with reaching out now and asking about the archives issue and whether your solution would be OK.
    – Robin
    Commented Mar 1, 2023 at 14:39

4 Answers 4

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Ethically there is no problem with this. It is part of research process to have some paid assistance for some tasks. It is pretty ubiquitous in some science research, for example. Whether a supervisor would agree, however, is up to them, and I can't predict.

But if you give a "service" close supervision and you are able to see and judge the actual results yourself, there is no fundamental reason that there should be any problem.

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Ask your university's legal department.

It's possible that this might constitute violating sanctions on Russia, since you're paying someone to visit Russia, and they might well wind up needing to pay for access to the things you want them to research for you. As such, I would recommend talking to your university's legal department to ensure both you personally and university as a whole won't get in legal trouble for violating sanctions if you engage in this scheme.

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  • Actually, I think the sanctions on Russia imposed by several countries are tailored to specific things, and I doubt this would be one of them. But you can ask, of course.
    – Buffy
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 15:35
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That's a tricky question with hard-to-predict risks. For instance, currently, Russian citizens even with most innocent dealings with foreigners can be designated "foreign agents" and prosecuted. Depending on your topic, access to archives can be restricted by the Russian government. Sanctions could limit payment options; foreigners from neighbouring countries may avoid travel to Russia and so on.

One possibility could be for you to contact a Russian historian (eg a recent emigre) or similar based at an Australian or another western university for advice. Also, there could be digitized archives available outside Russia if these are sufficient for you.

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Ask your advisor about university policy, their comfort with the proposal and discuss the optics. The news headlines could be quite detrimental to the department if it looks like you're paying people from poor countries to go do research for you in a place deemed unsafe for you to travel.

I don't see an ethical issue with having third parties collect data for you in general, especially if that is their business. And Russia needs to remain a topic of study. But I am concerned by the "it's not safe for me, so I'll send a poor person instead". Now these specific might not be poor - but the countries, in comparison to Australia, definitely are by considerable margins.

Your work will definitely require a foreign interference evaluation by your university - this will also provide oversight for you.

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  • Thanks - and this is a good point. I could always tweak my proposed research (there are many approaches I could take) Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 1:28

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