Noontime Scholars Lecture with Stefan Peychev, “The Nature of the Ottoman City: Water, Space, and Place in Sofia, 1380s-1910s”


In his April 16th presentation “Water and the City: Ottoman Sofia in the Early Modern Period,” Stefan Peychev discussed the main ideas from his recently deposited dissertation, “The Nature of the Ottoman City: Water Management and Urban Space in Sofia, 1380s-1910s.” An article featuring these central concepts is soon to be published in an edited volume entitled Living with Nature and Things: Contributions to a New Social History of the Middle Islamic Periods.

Most broadly, Peychev’s work seeks to fill a gap in scholarship on the urban environmental history of the Ottoman Empire, which he attributes to the disciplinary isolation of Ottoman historians and to the emphasis on nation over nature in histories of Southeastern Europe. Further, by examining what he calls the “culture of water” in Sofia (today Bulgaria’s capital city and formerly the provincial capital of the Ottoman Empire), Peychev challenges the contemporary Bulgarian historical narrative, which downplays and even rejects contributions of the Ottoman period. While Bulgarian historiography deprives the Ottomans of the ability to conceive of urban development and, more specifically, of effective use of water as a natural resource, Peychev argues that the Ottoman contribution to Sofia’s foundation was in fact rich and that the obliteration of Ottoman legacy from Sofia’s urban fabric not only has unfortunate consequences for the modern city’s relationship with nature but creates a rift in our understanding of its history.

Sofia’s culture of water, and in fact its very location and construction, hinge on two important water sources: constant running water from the nearby Vitosha Mountain and hot thermal springs at the center of the city. To understand the shaping of these resources into the Ottoman water supply system, as well as the financial and logistical arrangements between city and village (what Peychev calls a “system of economic interdependence”) in the region surrounding Sofia, Peychev draws on Ottoman military commander Yahya Pasha’s vakfiye (pious foundation deed) and refers also to sixteenth century cadastral registers. Travel writings and records from visitors to Ottoman Sofia further elucidate the historical importance of water in the construction of urban space and place and its role in the “built fabric” and daily life of the city. The technicalities of Ottoman Sofia’s water infrastructure and its translation into a culture of water merge in Peychev’s discussion of Sofia’s public baths, particularly Banabashi, the largest and most central, both geographically and economically, of the five thermal baths. Not only were the sacredness and healing properties of the water celebrated, but the population of Sofia developed a taste for the water, making it an iconic method of place identification for locals and visitors alike and a central component of Sofia’s social and economic life. Perhaps most importantly, this culture of water was but one apparatus in the greater machine of Ottoman urban community and Peychev’s study plays an important role in exposing the functionality, dynamism, and efficacy of Ottoman society and urban development.

Today, Peychev claims, Sofia’s unique culture of water has deteriorated and modern residents do not relate to water as did previous generations. The thermal baths are all but gone, allowed to crumble or converted into Western style architectural structures with functions unrelated to thermal water. Streets and neighborhoods formerly named for natural resources including rivers and fountains are renamed to recognize national heroes. This drastically different approach to the construction of urban space can be attributed to Bulgaria’s aggressively anti-Ottoman nation-building following their liberation from the Ottomans in 1878, also evident in the continued desire to wipe the Ottoman imprint from Bulgarian history and in the prevalent notion that Ottoman presence destroyed Sofia’s urbanistic tradition. Peychev suggests, at least in the case of Sofia’s relationship with what is arguably its paramount natural resource, that actually the reverse is true. Ultimately, however, national concerns aside, Peychev believes that modernity is responsible for the destruction of Sofia’s culture of water, and, further, that without greater knowledge of early modern Ottoman Sofia, today’s residents will not understand the “defining imprint” left on the city’s urban design by the Ottoman water infrastructure.


Danielle Nutting is a DMA candidate in Flute Performance and Literature, minoring in ethnomusicology and Balkan studies. Her doctoral research concerns the intersection of traditional and art music and the classical flute in Bulgaria.

Slavic Story Time: Spring 2019

On 20 April 2019, Stephanie Chung Porter, Outreach Coordinator at REEEC, and Jesse Mikhail Wesso, MA student and Outreach Assistant at REEEC, hosted Slavic Story Time at the Urbana Free Library. They first read a story At the Wish of a Fish, by J. Patrick Lewis and Katya Krenina, and then they made pike fish of their own. Please see the pictures below for a look at how they turned out!




Stephanie Chung Porter read At the Wish of a Fish to an attentive audience


After story time Jesse Mikhail Wesso and the kids made their own colorful pike fish with tissue paper, foil, glue, and eyeballs


Everyone enjoyed making their fish stand out



This recurring event encourages anyone to come and explore Slavic tradition with stories, songs, and a craft. It is free and open to the public, and there is no registration required. We hope to see you there next time!

For a full calendar of events see our REEEC Master Calendar.

REEEC Affiliated Faculty Drs. Kaganovsky and Pinkert Named Center for Advanced Study (CAS) Associates, 2019-2020

REEEC Affiliated Faculty Drs. Lilya Kaganovsky (Comparative & World Literature, Slavic Languages and Literatures) and Anke Pinkert (Germanic Languages) have been named Center for Advanced Study (CAS) Associates for 2019-2020. We at REEEC would like to extend our congratulations to Drs. Kaganovsky and Pinkert for this achievement!


Profile picture for Anke Pinkert

Anke Pinkert

 Lilya Kaganovsky

Lilya Kaganovsky

Please see the official announcement for the full list of CAS Associates and Fellows.


“OzdinART: A New Form of EBRU (Turkish Art of Marbling),” with Hande Ozdinler

On 16 April 2019, Less Commonly Taught Languages and the Turkish Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (in addition to the European Union Center and the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center) welcomed Dr. Hande Ozdinler for a marbling workshop. Please see the gallery below for some of the results!

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Noontime Scholars Lecture with Alexander Markovic, “Performing Power: Romani Music and Affective Labor in Postsocialist Vranje, Serbia”

by Matthew Klopfenstein


On April 23, Alexander Markovic (Visiting Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Illinois at Chicago) presented “Performing Power: Romani Music and Affective Labor in Postsocialist Vranje, Serbia,” a lecture related to his current book project, “Ethnic Affects: Performance Politics and Romani Musical Labor in Serbia.” Drawing on his recent fieldwork with Romani brass musicians in Serbia, Markovic dissected the interethnic power dynamics at work in the performances of Romani musicians at celebrations. Weddings and community events in the region are occasions for demonstrative emotional displays in which celebrants perform the experience of ćef, an emotionally-heightened state of pleasure often associated with music and dance. Markovic drew attention to the place of Romani musicians in these ritualized moments of emotional celebration, underscoring that these events are places for the display of status that, particularly in interethnic situations, reinforces the marginal social and economic position of Romani people in Serbia.

Markovic argued for a link between affective labor and ethnic inequality, offering a careful analysis of the embodied behaviors of musicians and their patrons. Members of the Roma people, a historically marginalized group, virtually monopolize the world of brass bands, a legacy of Ottoman-era associations of performers as lower class and of dubious moral standing. These brass bands play a crucial role in the cultural and social life of communities in many parts of Serbia. Status at weddings and other important social events is conveyed by attention from musicians, who draw attention to patrons through demonstrative body language like bowing and pointing instruments towards a person. Patrons actively cultivate this attention by offering tips to performers, often rendered in a highly conspicuous manner. Attention from musicians and ostentatious tipping provide a means of displaying status and wealth.

Seemingly spontaneous emotional displays actually reflect important social dynamics and mark such events with “intense identity politics.” In situations in which patrons are Serbs these stylized interactions take on a particularly charged ethnic dimension, in which markedly more servile behavior is expected from musicians and tips are dispensed in demeaning ways. For instance, money is thrown on the ground in front of performers, forcing them to repeatedly bend to the ground to receive compensation, or physically attached to the bodies of musicians with aggressive gestures. Markovic vividly relayed the account of one musician who recalled being aggressively slapped on the forehead by a patron seeking to attach a bill with his own spit. Such behavior was often done in an ostensibly joyful and festive manner, amounting to, in the words of one Serb describing his actions, “playful harassment.” Markovic compellingly argued that such actions, while ostensibly an expression of emotional exuberance or local customs, reflect a clear power dynamic and make displays of power and status in these situations contingent on the control of Romani bodies. Tellingly, such aggressive and domineering forms of tipping do not occur when musicians and patrons are of the same ethnicity.

Markovic stressed that Romani performers, despite their unequal social and economic position, are not without agency and use their skill as performers and knowledge of rituals to subtly shape situations, even if their ability to act in such ways is contingent upon power dynamics and stereotypes that ultimately marginalize them. Emotions are serious social matters, and Markovic compellingly highlighted the ways in which “affect [serves as] a medium for, and result of, performances of power.” The affective dimension of these rituals is crucial to their ability to reinforce power structures: by rooting domineering behaviors in supposedly exuberant displays of emotion, acts of ethnic marginalization appear as natural results of bodily states, masking the cultural and historical dynamics that shape stereotypes and prejudices and the economic and social realities that perpetuate Romani marginalization. Markovic convincingly shows that the creation and experience of ćef in celebrations is not neutral but is in fact deeply entwined in larger structures of power and identity in Serbia.

Matthew Klopfenstein is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Illinois. His dissertation, “Performing Death, Embodying Modernity: Media Spectacle, Public Emotion, and Modern Selves in the Celebrity Funerals of Russian Female Performers, 1859-1919,” explores the interrelated worlds of the public sphere, celebrity culture, gender, and the performance of emotions in late imperial Russia.

The Youth Literature Festival Community Day Celebration

by Melissa Bialecki


On March 30th, a particularly rainy Saturday, children and adults of all ages gathered in the iHotel and Conference Center to explore literature as part of a Community Day Celebration. The event hosted a wide variety of authors who came to talk about their works, answer questions, and sign books for young readers. REEEC was excited to bring in graphic novelist, Julia Alekseyeva, whose Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution tells the story of life in the Soviet Union through the eyes of her great-grandmother.

In Alekseyeva’s talk, she described how she came across her great-grandmother’s memoirs, and how reading them inspired her to turn those memoirs into a graphic novel that immersed the reader in the Soviet experience. The resulting work illustrates moments in Soviet history through the eyes of a brave, Soviet Jewish woman. What most fascinates me about this comic is the author’s approach to tackling concepts of truth and memory in history. Alekseyeva pointed out in her talk that her goal was not to offer a factually accurate historical account of Soviet life, but to explore moments in history in a way that was true to her grandmother’s memory. The author eschewed fact-checking in favor of exploring the Soviet Union as it was remembered in her ancestor’s diaries. Layered into this narrative are mini-chapters set in the present day, which illustrate the author looking back on her grandmother’s life, thus creating a comparison between the Soviet Jewish experience outlined in her grandmother’s memoirs, and the American Jewish experience looking back on those memories from across space and time.

Memory is also emphasized through artistic style and method. Alekseyeva expressed that she wanted each image in the book to feel like an old photograph, something fragile and fading. This look was accomplished through inkwash, a method that utilized only ink and water to create a fuzzy, faded effect that mimics the sepia-toned look of an old photograph. The author also immersed herself in a wide variety of media from the periods described in the book—film, music, literature, etc.—in order to get a sense of life in each period, and to recreate that atmosphere in her comic. Alekseyeva’s graphic novel offers young readers (roughly of middle school age) a unique way to engage in Soviet history with this beautifully illustrated graphic novel.

In addition to Alekseyeva’s talk, the festival hosted a number of literature-themed activities and crafts for participants. I had a wonderful time helping festival-goers make firebird masks at the REEEC table, while other tables had supplies to design your own bookmark, or have your picture drawn by a caricature artist. There was also live music by groups such as the Papashoy Klezmer Band and the Edison Middle School Jazz band, and even a Punch and Judy puppet show! What I loved most about volunteering at this event was seeing so many young people engaging enthusiastically with literature. I saw young readers asking authors questions about the writing and publishing process, and just generally being excited about writing and reading books. The Youth Literature festival was a wonderful way for families to spend their Saturday afternoon learning about, engaging with, and just generally geeking out about literature of all kinds.

Melissa Bialecki is a PhD student of ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is interested in how affective musical performance shapes political thought on the Ukrainian conflict and Russian-Ukrainian relations. Her research focuses primarily on the Ukrainian folk revival as well as ethno-punk and pop bands in Ukraine and the North American diaspora. She is a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellow through the Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois, and will receive a Title VIII fellowship from Arizona State University to study Ukrainian in Kyiv this summer.

“Public Life through Public Death: Civic Activism, Media Spectacle, and Contested Spaces in the Funeral of Vera Kommissarzhevskaia”


by Jacob Bell

Over a decade before Vladimir Lenin’s body began its vigil beneath Red Square, the death of another beloved figure captured and enthused the Russian imagination: Vera Kommissarzhevskaia. Matthew Klopfenstein’s lecture entitled “Public Life through Public Death,” traced the outpourings of civic grief and commemoration following the death of Kommissarzhevskaia in Tashkent in February 1910, an event which sparked more public mourning than the deaths of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, and Tchaikovsky. Klopfenstein argued that the demonstration of civic demonstrations of grief enabled late imperial Russians to exercise new forms of civic power, rooted in the press and mass spectacle.

The actress Vera Feodorovna Kommissarzhevskaia (1864-1910), was the archetypal new, independent woman. She was a new person for new times: amidst growing sentiment that time was out of joint, she offered a new model of personhood to overcome the uncertainty of the present. Her life spoke to the accelerating cultural transformations of the late imperial era, as she represented wholeness and a shameless sense of self amid concerns of the inauthentic public and press. Popularly viewed as an independent spirit who sought to chart her own path, she became a bit of a youth idol in her day. When smallpox cut her life short in Tashkent, it sparked a national period of mourning, for many felt her death reflected the modern state of Russia. From Ashkabad to Yalta, encompassing the Baltic, the western borderlands, the Caucasus, Siberia, and Central Asia, commemorations for Kommissarzhevskaia were a truly empire-wide phenomenon.

Beginning in Tashkent and ending in St. Petersburg, the funeral procession for Kommissarzhevskaia became a contested space between civic actors. On the ground, performances near the coffin developed into a popular competition among people producing protestations of mourning and wild gesticulations. Regions and towns claimed Kommissarzhevskaia as their own, with Tashkent especially donating public funds for wreaths, creating scholarships to women’s gymnasiums, renaming streets in the city, and responding to press coverage of her death if they inferred a slight against their city. Further, the mass protestations of grief became a site of contention, pitting Conservative Orthodoxy and Reactionaries against the public displays of affection and mourning. In one instance, the Bishop of Saratov inquired into Kommissarzhevskaia’s faith when deciding whether or not to hold a requiem in the cathedral, which ignited a firestorm in the press across the empire. Municipal authorities, the Russian Orthodox Church, conservatives, liberals, reactionaries, anti-Semites, and ordinary people competed to be heard around the body of Kommissarzhevskaia, her procession becoming a microcosm for the anxieties of late-imperial society.

Klopfenstein asserted that ordinary people transformed mourning into a massive expression of civic life. Acts of mourning reflected intimacy with the deceased, transforming a national figure into someone intimately familiar and knowable. Thus, the press, which emerged as a key civic space with the flow of information enabled by the significant development of reading culture in late imperial Russia, paid special attention to weeping because it reflected sincere emotion.

Klopfenstein suggested that a need for sincerity in the face of perceived uncertainty and falsehood in the state and press justified a change of tradition to create new forms of public mourning and commemoration: ordinary peoples desired to commemorate Kommissarzhevskaia and challenged the powers-that-be through new acts of public grief.

By the time Kommissarzhevskaia’s body reached Moscow and later St. Petersburg, her death was already a national event imbued with controversy and debate. New commemorative ritual evoked sincerity of grief as justification for the public mourning and legitimized the acts the mourners undertook. Klopfenstein ended with the argument that ideas of the self, created by popular culture, did affect public action in late imperial Russia, with the death of Kommissarzhevskaia ushering in the notion that both church and state should stand out of the way of authentic emotion and “Let us be ourselves (byt’ samimi soboi).”

Jacob Bell is a PhD student in History at the University of Illinois.