During his research leave at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in the spring of 2008, Eugene Avrutin by chance stumbled across a case from 1823 in the Library of Congress catalog about a ritual murder of a 3-year-old boy in a small Russian town. The case piqued his interest, and when he visited the Russian State Historical Archive in St. Petersburg several years later, he located the other twenty-four volumes of the case. Following this trip, in fall 2013, Professor Avrutin (Professor of Modern Jewish History and the Tobor Family Scholar in the Program of Jewish Culture and Society) gave a REEEC Noontime Scholars lecture on his initial findings on the ritual murder case, and this project eventually became his book The Velizh Affair: Blood Libel in a Russian Town. Published in 2018 by Oxford University Press, the book examines the aftermath of the murder which resulted in authorities charging forty-three Jews with ritual murder, theft and desecration of Russian Orthodox Church property, and the forcible conversion of three town residents, in what is the longest-running ritual murder case in world history. Professor Avrutin credits the feedback he received at the REEEC talk from his colleagues, along with the resources at our library – including the Slavic Reference Service – with allowing him to finish the project. A Russian version of the book is set to be published with Academic Studies Press in 2021.
His work on The Velizh Affair led Avrutin, together with Robert Weinberg (Swarthmore College) and Jonathan Dekel-Chen (Hebrew University), to organize an international conference on the topic of ritual murder accusations in Russia and Eastern Europe. They brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars – working in history, folklore, ethnography, and literature – to critically reassess a topic that has surprising contemporary relevance. The essays were published as a collection in 2017 entitled Ritual Murder in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Beyond: New Histories of an Old Accusation.
Avrutin, who has published articles on documentation practices, the concept of race, and religious toleration and neighborly coexistence in the east European borderlands, is currently reading several autobiographies and other first-person sources on the problem of interethnic relations and the role of race and racism in Russian and Soviet history. He is also currently working on a multi-author book project on the long history of anti-Jewish violence in eastern Europe. The book, which he is co-editing with Professor Elissa Bemporad of the City University of New York (CUNY), is intended primarily as a teaching tool for undergraduates, and he plans to use it in the courses that he teaches. Avrutin and Bemporad organized a workshop at the Center for Jewish History in New York last year with plans to publish the presentations in the tentatively titled Pogroms: A Documentary History. Each chapter will be divided between primary sources in English translation and a short essay contextualizing the sources. Other members of the UIUC community are also involved in the project: Harriet Murav (Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures) has contributed a chapter on documentary fiction and the pogroms of the Russian Civil War, and several undergraduate students have helped with the project as Research Assistants.
Professor Avrutin is currently teaching a new course called Zionism: A Global History. The course was originally designed for LAS Online, so it was unaffected by the campus-wide switch to online learning this semester. Nearly 120 students are enrolled in the class, including UIUC’s former Chancellor, Richard Herman, who is auditing. The class “encourages a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and society, the history of nationalism, and the encounters between Jews and Arabs…through an analysis of primary sources and deep contextualizing of the historical and political landscape of the 19th and 20th centuries.” Avrutin, who prerecorded the lectures last summer, says teaching the class online has been “a fantastic experience so far.” He will be teaching this course online again in the Fall.
Professor Avrutin often conducts his research abroad in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kyiv, Vilnius, Minsk, and Lviv. Among other things, Avrutin says what he loves most about Russia, eastern Europe, and Eurasia is actually a particular pastry that he is currently missing: “I miss the cheese danishes. They are really good. Usually, I get one from a street stand on my way to work at an archive or library, but unfortunately not this year.” Professor Avrutin originally hoped to go to Warsaw this summer for a workshop at the POLIN museum on Jews and prisons, as well as to St. Petersburg to conduct archival research at the Russian State Historical Archive, but unfortunately those trips are no longer possible due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. He hopes to travel to Vilnius next year for a conference and research at the historical archive.