Doctoral Research in Russian and East European Studies – conference paper presented by Gregory Walker at the annual COSEELIS conference in 2017


 Gregory Walker (Editor, UTREES)

 It’s fifty years since the late John Simmons, Librarian of All Souls, Oxford, published his first list of British theses in Russian and East European studies in Oxford Slavonic Papers.  

UTREES: Origins and Development

  1. John Simmons publishes the first list of theses in REES awarded higher degrees by British universities in Oxford Slavonic Papers, vol. 13. It contains 313 entries dated from 1907 to 1966, and includes all degrees above BA level, as do the next six quinquennial supplements. The final quinquennial supplement omits all MAs.
  2. 1st supplement, by JS, 1967-71 (161 entries), OSP, n.s. vol.6.
  3. 2nd supplement, by JS, 1972-76 (238 entries), OSP, n.s. vol. 10.
  4. 3rd supplement, by JS, 1977-81 (223 entries), OSP, n.s. vol. 15.
  5. 4th supplement, by Gregory Walker, 1981-86 (267 entries), OSP, n.s. vol. 20.
  6. 5th supplement, by GW, 1986-91 (330 entries), OSP, n.s. vol. 27.
  7. 6th supplement, by GW, 1992-96 (614 entries), OSP, n.s. vol. 31.
  8. 7th supplement, by GW, 1997-2001 (668 entries), SEER, vol. 82(1).
  9. The Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) publishes in book form University Theses in Russian, Soviet and East European Studies 1907-2006, listing 3317 theses. It cumulates and updates the eight preceding lists (omitting all 1-year masters’ and bachelors’ dissertations) and adds full subject and author indexes.
  10. The MHRA launches UTREES (University Theses in Russian and East European Studies) as an online database, based on the published bibliography, with multiple search options and an annual updating cycle.
  11. Annual updates take the total number of entries beyond 4000.
  12. From this year additions are limited to doctoral theses only.
  13. By the end of this year UTREES lists 5166 theses, 4459 of them doctoral.

How Complete? How Representative?

These are the principal factors which have affected the level of coverage achieved by UTREES, and which in turn have determined how comprehensive it can be as a record of postgraduate research in REES carried out in the UK and the Irish Republic.


  • Compilation uses a set of over 100 search terms (countries, areas, subjects) to trace relevant theses in institutions’ online catalogues, the BL’s EThOS database and the ProQuest Dissertations and Theses UK and Ireland.
  • Searching the abstracts contained in the EThOS database (from 2007, some earlier) and the ProQuest database (from 1986, some earlier) regularly shows up theses which are relevant to REES but have uninformative titles which would escape a simple title search.
  • By continuing its geographical coverage of all areas of the former USSR, UTREES is de facto a record of research on Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as of the Russian Federation and the former European Soviet republics.


  • Until the update of 2012, UTREES attempted to list two-year masters’ theses and their earlier equivalents (mostly BLitts). There are 707 of these on the database (just under 14% of the total), but coverage was always patchy: institutions’ library catalogues don’t always include masters’ theses; it’s often difficult to distinguish two-year from one-year theses; and masters’ dissertations have never been recorded by EThOS.
  • Some institutions have in the past been slow and/or unsystematic in the recording of their theses, and a few still are. Long-term retrospective searching to trace possibly relevant theses can only be selective.
  • The lack of searchable abstracts for older theses (see above) will certainly have resulted in some relevant theses with uninformative or misleading titles being missed over the years.

Overall, I would say that we’ve achieved the inclusion of doctoral theses, certainly over the last twenty years, to within ten or fewer percentage points of completeness, but we were never able to track down two-year masters’ theses to the same extent, for the reasons given above, and in 2012 we restricted additions to doctoral theses only. Even so, UTREES is, as far as I know, the longest current thesis bibliography in any field of area studies, and that in two respects: firstly in its 5000-plus entries, and secondly in the period of 110 years over which it now extends from 1907, when Mr T.P. Themelis gained a BLitt at Oxford for his thesis entitled ‘The relation of the Eastern Church to the Western Churches from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century’.

The crucial point here is that UTREES shows only research that has actually been done, whatever university policies and government initiatives may have been in play at the time. The decision to write a thesis, rather than spend several years of one’s life doing something else, depends on a combination of attractions and deterrents. These include the interests of departments; any government-inspired incentives; the availability of funding; the topicality of particular themes; and – not least – the ambitions and the cultural and linguistic equipment to be found in the pool of potential applicants for postgraduate research. The database documents the total net result of those decisions.

So UTREES does offer us a substantial fund of data as the basis for some reasonably reliable statements about research in REES in the British Isles. It can help to trace the development of scholarship over time, and identify topics and modes of treatment which have gained and lost attention. It can show the institutional framework within which postgraduate research in REES has been carried on, and tell us something about the scale, the geography and the preoccupations of that research. And it can even offer a few clues about the researchers themselves.

Numbers, Dates and Institutions

Research degrees as we recognise them today were introduced into British universities later than we tend to assume. The BLitt was adopted from around 1895, but the PhD/DPhil only made its appearance from 1917 onwards, as a belated response to the status which the title offered to researchers in Germany and the USA. Once PhDs became available in Britain, the number of awards went up rapidly, rising from a total of two (in all subjects) in 1919/20 to more than 1800 in 1960/61. The expansion hasn’t abated: this year the Quality Assurance Agency estimated that about 100,000 students in the UK were working for doctoral degrees.

Table 1 gives an overview of the extent to which this growth has been reflected in REES. As I mentioned, the first research degree in a REES-related subject was a BLitt awarded by Oxford in 1907. The first doctorate was for a Cambridge DLitt thesis in 1920, before we begin to see PhDs from London in 1922, followed by Birmingham in 1928 and the LSE in 1929. Oxford didn’t give its first DPhil in the field until 1943. The number of theses per year (doctors’ and masters’ together) recorded by UTREES remained in single figures until 1953, when it reached 12. After that the annual count didn’t pass 20 until 1967.

Table 1. REES postgraduate research: theses listed in UTREES 1907-2016

Year No. Docs Year No. Docs Year No. Docs Year No. Docs
1907 1 1942 2 2 1967 22 17 1992 68 52
1914 1 1943 5 5 1968 25 19 1993 72 49
1919 2 1944 1 1 1969 32 23 1994 76 56
1920 1 1 1945 3 2 1970 30 20 1995 82 65
1921 1 1946 1971 30 23 1996 100 79
1922 2 1 1947 3 1 1972 39 30 1997 111 94
1923 2 1 1948 3 2 1973 38 31 1998 128 105
1924 2 1949 9 8 1974 40 34 1999 171 142
1925 3 2 1950 7 6 1975 43 32 2000 171 147
1926 5 3 1951 7 5 1976 53 45 2001 161 133
1927 5 3 1952 4 4 1977 35 27 2002 199 165
1928 4 2 1953 12 11 1978 55 42 2003 169 138
1929 2 2 1954 16 15 1979 39 35 2004 149 130
1930 2 2 1955 12 9 1980 47 34 2005 172 164
1931 4 3 1956 8 6 1981 55 40 2006 196 183
1932 2 1 1957 7 6 1982 49 40 2007 169 151
1933 1 1 1958 13 10 1983 48 37 2008 167 154
1934 3 2 1959 11 10 1984 50 37 2009 203 194
1935 2 2 1960 10 5 1985 40 30 2010 177 162
1936 2 2 1961 10 8 1986 60 40 2011 205 204
1937 1 1962 5 4 1987 65 47 2012 185 185
1938 4 3 1963 6 6 1988 47 33 2013 168 168
1939 1964 8 8 1989 50 37 2014 192 192
1940 4 3 1965 14 13 1990 45 30 2015 206 206
1941 1 1 1966 14 13 1991 68 45 2016 105* 105*


Then, in the decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, there’s a marked increase in the count of doctoral theses. This most probably stemmed from a combination of university expansion (21 institutions appeared in UTREES for the first time between 1965 and 1975) as well as a heightened vogue for REES, and targeted government funding. Doctoral thesis numbers soon reached a level which would remain fairly constant until the end of the 1980s. They passed 50 in 1992, then the number of PhDs in REES shot up at breakneck speed, almost tripling between 1993 and 2000. The rate of increase has since been slower and somewhat irregular, passing 180 in 2006, but then fluctuating before hitting 204 in 2011 and a record 206 in 2015. As a result, over half the theses in the UTREES database are now dated 2002 or later.

 Table 2. Number of institutions awarding degrees listed in UTREES

1907-1945 12 1995 36
1950 3 2000 55
1960 5 2005 52
1970 12 2010 63
1980 18 2015 67
1990 15

Table 2 shows that the number of contributing institutions also remained very low well into the 1960s, with many producing a relevant thesis only occasionally. Three universities contributed the seven theses listed in 1950, and five produced ten theses in 1960. By 1970 there were 12; 18 in 1980, and still only 15 as late as 1990. After that the yearly count of institutions represented accelerated rapidly from 36 in 1995 to 55 in 2000. Since then it has remained in the 50s and 60s (with no masters’ theses added after 2011), and reached a high point of 67 institutions listed for 2015.

Table 3. Institutions contributing a first thesis to UTREES, 1965-2016

1965-1975 21 1976-1989 26 1990-1999 27 2000-2016 52

But as Table 3 indicates, many of these will have been contributing for the first time. Of the 67 institutions appearing for 2015, just eight (UCL, Oxford, Manchester, Birmingham, Cambridge, Sheffield, Kent and LSE) accounted for 80 theses out of 206 (nearly 40%). On the other hand, 39 institutions in 2015 provided either two entries or only one, with an average of 1.4 each.

In 2006 two institutional partnerships (CEELBAS and CRCEES) were set up to promote and sustain postgraduate work in REES, with funding from the AHRC, the British Academy and other sources. Table 4 suggests that the institutions with the longest history of postgraduate research, combined with the highest output of doctoral theses, are nearly all partners in one or other of the groups, and remain active as research centres.

Table 4. Institutions with 50 or more doctoral theses listed in UTREES (to 2016)

Showing affiliation to the two language-based area studies partnerships for REES

Oxford (1943- ) CEELBAS 576 Sheffield (1976- ) CEELBAS 86
SSEES + UCL (1925- ) CEELBAS 429 Essex (1969- ) neither 76
Cambridge (1920-  ) CEELBAS 362 Nottingham (1955- ) CRCEES 72
LSE (1929- ) neither 345 KCL (1928- ) neither 66
Birmingham (1928- ) CEELBAS 207 St Andrews (1972- ) CRCEES 64
Glasgow (1954- ) CRCEES 169 Kent (1973- ) CEELBAS 59
Manchester (1959- ) CEELBAS 135 Exeter (1974- ) neither 57
Sussex (1969- ) neither 104 Bristol (1959- ) neither 53
Edinburgh (1940- ) CRCEES 93 Warwick (1984- ) CEELBAS 52
Leeds (1961- ) neither 89 Staffordshire (1997- ) neither 50

Other partners in CEELBAS: Bath (28) and SOAS (31).

Other partners in CRCEES:  Aberdeen (37), Durham (42), Newcastle (27) and Strathclyde (28).

 Countries, Areas and Nations

Every entry in UTREES is indexed by up to three out of 93 country/area/nation codings, which make it possible to determine which parts of our catchment area were attracting the attention of thesis writers over time. Until the early 1960s, the small number of theses

appearing each year (rarely more than ten) dealt roughly equally with Russia and the USSR on the one hand and with the rest of Eastern Europe on the other. Table 5 shows how, over the next few years, the proportion treating Russia, and the Soviet Union specifically, grew very markedly as academic attention began to focus more heavily on multiple aspects of the contemporary USSR. In 1970, 26 out of 30 theses dealt exclusively or in part with the Soviet Union or Russia, and only six with countries outside.

Table 5. Theses dealing with Russia/USSR and with other countries/areas, 1970-2015

PhDs and Masters – in 2015 PhDs only. Some theses have 2 or 3 country/area index entries.



Russia/SU Other Year Russia/SU Other
1970 26 6 2000 85 160
1980 35 21 2005 92 147
1985 32 16 2010 75 183
1990 43 20 2015 73 220
1995 60 67

The table shows how this preponderance persisted as the total thesis output gradually grew larger up to the beginning of the 1990s. Then, as the sharp rise in overall numbers becomes apparent in the next few years, we can also see a major shift in the proportions. By 1995, countries outside Russia and the RSFSR were in the majority – although not by much – and by 2000 the proportion had risen to nearly 2:1. Since then the trend has continued, albeit quite gradually, with the proportion reaching 3: 1 in 2015.

Several factors have affected these changes in emphasis towards countries that had previously attracted little or no attention from thesis writers. One of the most prominent has been the work devoted from the late 1990s onwards to areas of conflict within the UTREES catchment area, very notably in Bosnia and Kosovo. Here the numbers have been swelled by treatments not only of military and security topics, but also by theses looking at the legal, criminal, medical, social and other consequences in those countries.

Then, beginning around 2000, we find an upsurge in theses treating aspects of former communist countries’ adhesion to the European Union and NATO and their transition to market economies (though the latter admittedly includes Russia as well). A little later still, as the effects of free movement within the EU became apparent, there’s a striking rise in theses dealing with migration to the UK and Ireland – especially from Poland and Romania – from virtually nil throughout the period of communist rule to form a substantial element within the total output. As a final example, Albania – a country which was formerly a great rarity in thesis lists – has appeared regularly in every year since 2001, primarily due to a postgraduate research programme on emerging economies at the University of Staffordshire, concentrating on South-East Europe and supported by the Open Society Foundation.


The UTREES database also carries up to three subject codings for each thesis, using a list of 34 subject terms. REES are deeply Interdisciplinary, so it isn’t surprising that over 80% of the entries have either two or three subject codings, making it possible to trace over time (as it does for countries and areas) how subjects rose and fell in their attraction for researchers.

Until well after the Second World War the only subjects appearing with any regularity as thesis topics were History, International Relations, Literature and Language, and Politics and Government.

Table 6. Number of UTREES thesis entries indexed in selected subjects, 1970-2015

PhDs and Masters – in 2015 PhDs only. Most theses have 2 or 3 subject index entries.


(Total thesis number)



















History 6 20 21 16 34 67 39 29 52
International Relations 2 9 11 11 24 42 38 41 34
Literature & Language 12 11 8 14 6 20 22 19 26
Politics & Government 3 9 2 14 33 47 40 57 48
Econ/Finance/Manag’t 8 7 5 5 21 36 38 43 38
Society 1 9 3 4 14 43 37 29 35
Law & Crime 5 1 4 6 13 14 16 14
Health & Psychology 1 1 2 9 7 8 18
Migration & Minorities 1 1 2 4 18 17 32 61

From Table 6 we can trace the standing of these subjects over the decades that followed. History has maintained a strong showing up to the present, roughly proportionate to the overall growth in thesis numbers – though the variety of historical themes and treatments has broadened out enormously from the concentration on diplomatic and political history of earlier years. Many theses have had to be indexed under International Relations and/or Politics as well as under History, and you’ll see from the table that the growth in the numbers of all three subjects has moved broadly in parallel. In all three cases, too, the proportion of theses with an application to countries other than the USSR and Russia has risen markedly since the 1990s.

Literature and Language, on the other hand, while they have kept up a presence in the listings since the 1920s, have registered a steady decline in their proportion of the total output. The table shows that that proportion fell from 40% in 1970 to 20 % in 1985, and then to a mere 7% in 1995. It remains to be seen whether the more recent slight rise in their presence will be maintained.

However, by far the most conspicuous recent change in the subject makeup of theses in UTREES has been the surfacing of topics in so many other disciplines which had attracted little attention until the events of 1989/90. First, as we might expect from the appearance of the ‘transition economies’, Economics, Finance and Management have shown a significant growth in both proportion and absolute numbers. The study of Society in its various manifestations was only an occasional presence until the 1980s, but rapidly became a major component of the output from the 1990s onwards. At a somewhat lower level we can trace an increase in theses on Law and Crime, probably due – among other factors – to the work of the International Criminal Tribunals, the attention given to human rights, and the growing importance of commercial law and corruption in the transition economies. A feature since the early 2000s has been the study of the psychological effects of conflict and displacement, as well as the investigation of a wide variety of health issues in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Finally on the matter of subject coverage in UTREES, the most evident growth point emerged as a result of our decision to include ‘Migration and Minorities’ as an index term. As you can see from the table, no theses at all from 1985 were indexed under that term, but over the last 20 years the upswing has been remarkable. Very noticeable within this body of theses has been a strong and growing subgroup looking at the situation of migrants to the UK and Ireland coming from countries in Eastern Europe and the former USSR.


In one final drilling-down into the UTREES data, I suggest that it allows us to track (with some reservations) the extent to which participation by foreign postgraduates in doctoral research in REES has risen from the 1990s onwards. The figures in Table 7 rely on the appearance (and only the appearance) of what seem to be indigenous surnames as thesis authors. Of course the possession of a name that looks Russian or Hungarian doesn’t mean that the author hasn’t been born in the UK or taken the name of a foreign spouse; but the steep increase in the number and proportion of such names over the last 20-odd years does seem much too persistent to be dismissed as sheer chance.

Table 7. Thesis authors with apparently indigenous surnames 1970-2015

PhDs and Masters – in 2015 PhDs only.

Year Total Indig. Year Total Indig.
1970 30 3 (10%) 2000 171 41 (24%)
1980 47 3 (6%) 2005 172 54 (31%)
(1985 40 3 (7.5%) 2010 177 80 (45%)
1990 45 6 (13%) 2015 206 90 (44%)
1995 82 19 (23%)

Provisional Interpretations

Since 1991, completed doctoral research in Britain and Ireland relating to Russia, Eastern Europe and the area of the former Soviet Union has more than quadrupled in volume. Over the same period, the number of institutions awarding doctorates in the field has nearly tripled. Research is now taking place in many institutions beyond the established centres for REES.  These are typically institutions which don’t reckon themselves to be REES ‘centres’, but which are home to departments, small groups or individual academics who take on doctoral students – in whatever discipline – to write theses that happen to have a geographical focus on Russia, Eastern Europe or the FSU. One powerful element in this trend has been the rapid increase in the number of students from our catchment area who are able to relate their research – whatever its subject – to their own country. This allows them to benefit from intimate local knowledge, mastery of one or more local languages, and often from local contacts and data sources which would be less easily accessible to UK-based researchers.

The events of 1989-90 and subsequently had a huge effect on REES research in many ways. Academic interest in the area percolated into quite unlikely disciplines; opportunities arose for more exciting fieldwork; access to formerly closed archives was granted; new funding sources appeared; and student mobility improved. I’ve listed a sample of recent titles to illustrate a few of these outcomes. The benefits of all these developments are in some measure still with us, even though they’re being encroached on – for example – by the reimposition of restrictions on access to Russian archives, and the likely negative effects of Brexit on the movement of researchers. In whatever direction the trends move, UTREES will – I hope – be there to document the written record of future research.

Specimens of recent theses listed in UTREES

Theodosiou, Authentic performances and ambiguous identities: gypsy musicians on the Greek-Albanian border. Manchester, PhD, 2003.
Hayes, Bosnian women’s experience of war, loss and resettlement. Leicester, DClinPsy, 2005.
Lang, Cancer in Estonia. London (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine), PhD, 2005.
M.J. Kempny, Crossing boundaries of cultures and identities: Polish migrants in Belfast. Queen’s University Belfast, PhD, 2010.
Kupatadze, ‘Transitions after transition’: coloured revolutions and organized crime in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. St Andrews, PhD, 2010.
Cerović, Questions and questioning in Montenegrin police interviews. York, PhD, 2010.
Disney, Between care and control? Orphan geographies in the Russian Federation. Birmingham, PhD, 2015.
Tsocheva, An explanation of anxiety and depression among adults and adolescents in Bulgaria. Roehampton, PhD, 2015.
Botoeva, The local drug economy: the case of hashish production in a post-Soviet Kyrgyz village. Essex, PhD, 2015.
Howley, The acquisition of Manchester dialect variants by adolescent Roma migrants. Salford, PhD, 2016.

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