REEEC-Affiliated Graduate Students Receive ASEEES Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Fellowships

Elizabeth Abosch (Ph.D. candidate, History) and Matthew Klopfenstein (Ph.D. candidate, History) have received Stephen F. Cohen- Robert C. Tucker Dissertation Fellowships for 2020-2021. The fellowships are awarded by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), and support doctoral research in Russia. Elizabeth received a dissertation research fellowship, and Matthew received a dissertation completion fellowship.

thumbnail_ImageElizabeth’s dissertation is titled “The ‘Outcry from the Criminal Soul:’ The Social Imaginary of Song, Popular Culture, and State Power in the Soviet Union, 1920-1980.” Her dissertation explores the history of the genre of criminal song, or “blatnaia pesnia” as it evolved in the Soviet Union. This history reveals conflicts between ideology and the popular; high and low culture; and between the new soviet man and his “shadow,” the figure of the singing criminal that is made of representations of criminal culture and the Soviet cultural and social underworld.

48384639_583342608778066_7933175032346312704_nMatthew’s dissertation, “Performing Death, Embodying Modernity: Media Spectacle, Public Emotion, and Modern Selves in the Celebrity Funerals of Russian Female Performers, 1859-1919,” examines the public funerals of famous women opera stars, actors of the stage and screen, and popular singers as a social phenomenon in late imperial Russia. He analyzes the empire-wide press coverage of the deaths and funerals of five celebrity performers to argue that emotion, gender, and mass media were interrelated elements central to the history of the Russian public sphere in the tumultuous period before the 1917 Revolution.

The complete list of this year’s Cohen-Tucker Fellows can be found here. 


Summer 2020 FLAS Fellows

We at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center are pleased to announce the awardees for this summer’s Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship, funded by the U. S. Department of Education. This year six students from five different departments will be studying four different REEES languages and related area studies scholarship. We would like to extend our congratulations to the following students for the national recognition of their studies:


Graduate Students:

Justin Balcor (Musicology) – Georgian

Alex Karsavin (Slavic Languages and Literature) – Russian

Murad Jalilov (Slavic Languages and Literature) – Turkish

Quinn O’Dowd (Sociology) – Czech

Cassidy Ward (REEES/LIS) – Russian


Undergraduate Students:

Kameron Gausling (Astronomy) – Russian


Learning Online During a Pandemic

By Jamie Hendrickson

It’s safe to say that going into 2020, no one expected that our regular journeys through campus and casual conversations with colleagues and classmates would suddenly come to a halt through a mass campus email that affected students, instructors, and university employees in one fell swoop. My non-local friends, both undergraduate and graduate students, were forced to leave behind most of their belongings, routines, and friends on short notice. My friends who were studying abroad had to send frantic late-night texts to their families and friends explaining that the university had only given them 24 hours to pack and get on a flight back to the United States. Over the following weeks, the friends who were poised to graduate had to accept the reality that the event they had been waiting and planning for was no longer happening the way that they had always expected. Not only that, but their time with the friends they had made over the years was suddenly cut short by months, and a proper goodbye to both the friends and the campus they had come to love might never happen. Many of those friends were now suddenly living at home with their families again, in places as far away as California and South Korea. Being back at home during this unusual time presented additional complications for many— time zone issues being a special one for those who were international students.

But classes had to go on, and they did, whether or not people were ready for such drastic changes.

If one thing became abundantly clear from the beginning of our university’s switch to online learning, it would be the Herculean amount of effort that my instructors put into redesigning their classes. Holding students’ attention, keeping the class’s progress on track, and adjusting the syllabus to fit the new situation were all tasks that instructors had to face during their spring break and maintain once their classes started again. The level of work that I’ve seen from one of my instructors this semester, Dr. Judith Pintar, in completely redesigning what was supposed to be an in-class role-play game into an interactive online world and social media platform [we can insert a link to Ben’s blog post about Judith’s talk on the text “completely redesigning”] is truly commendable.

But for some students, adjusting to Zoom classes wasn’t easy— my friends and classmates struggled with internet issues that affected their learning experience. One friend was forced to stay alone on campus for weeks because her family’s rural home had no access to the internet. Those who could log into Zoom without any problems have expressed to me their difficulties with paying attention in class due to family members, pets, and/or the online format in general. I myself repeatedly had to mute my microphone in class due to my cats’ shenanigans. Sleep also turned into a real issue for many, myself included. Without the usual external structure that attending classes or work provided, maintaining a regular sleep schedule became nearly impossible. Motivation, another key factor in academic success, was diminished for the many who had to spend almost all their time at home. Only being able to see their instructors through a screen gave some students the feeling of being removed from the reality of deadlines and coursework; in other words, the course of time began to lose meaning in tandem with their obligations and grades.

This spring semester was unlike anything we’ve ever before experienced as a university. Not only has this time been extremely difficult for all involved, but sadly, it has also been heartbreaking for some. The loss and pain that the world has been going through are tragic by all accounts, but I hope that we can soon begin to look forward to a future where we are all safe and together once more.


Jamie Hendrickson is a Master’s Student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Illinois.

REEEC Staff Profile: Danielle Sekel

Picture1Danielle Sekel is a third-year M.M. student in Ethnomusicology and a REEEC FLAS fellow for 2020-2021. Before coming to the University of Illinois, she received her bachelor’s degree in music and literary studies at Roanoke College and subsequently taught middle and high school music and English for two years in South Carolina. She aims to find a career in academia upon earning her degrees. Her M.M. paper focuses on the musical contributions of the Bosnian band Dubioza Kolektiv, and the ways in which they reference cultural artifacts, criticize the current state of the Balkans, and address individuals now living in diaspora.

As a REEEC FLAS fellow, Danielle has been able to study introductory Bosnian at the University of Pittsburgh during the summer of 2018 and advanced Bosnian in Sarajevo the following summer. She says that these language study opportunities have given her the ability to interact more comfortably with the musical texts and existing literature about this musical group and have also opened the door to many new research interests and new contacts in the field.

Currently a FLAS fellow with the European Union Center studying Bulgarian, Danielle will continue to study advanced Bulgarian as a REEEC FLAS fellow in the fall. Looking towards her doctoral research, Danielle hopes to work towards a multi-sited project focusing on LGBTQ vocal artists in Bosnia and Bulgaria. She says she is incredibly thankful for the plethora of language-learning opportunities and courses available through REEEC, as they have been instrumental in shaping and tuning her own research interests.

As a graduate assistant for REEEC, Danielle is also in charge of the outreach initiatives with the Champaign County Head Start, where she visits a group of 150 children ranging in ages from three to five years old monthly to teach them about countries in the REEE region. This academic year, children have been introduced to countries such as Turkey, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Romania. Danielle says that “this is easily one of things I have enjoyed doing most during my time at UIUC thus far!”

New Forthcoming Book by REEEC-Affiliated Faculty Zsuzsa Gille and UIUC Alumni Cristofer Scarboro and Diana Mincyte

9780253047762The Socialist Good Life: Desire, Development, and Standards of Living in Eastern Europe, a new book edited by Zsuszsa Gille (Professor of Sociology), Cristofer Scarboro (Ph.D., History), and Diana Mincyte (Ph.D., Sociology), is set to be published this June by Indiana University Press.

From the publisher’s website:

What does the good life mean in a “backward” place?

As communist regimes denigrated widespread unemployment and consumer excess in Western countries, socialist Eastern European states simultaneously legitimized their power through their apparent ability to satisfy consumers’ needs. Moving beyond binaries of production and consumption, the essays collected here examine the lessons consumption studies can offer about ethnic and national identity and the role of economic expertise in shaping consumer behavior. From Polish VCRs to Ukrainian fashion boutiques, tropical fruits in the GDR to cinemas in Belgrade, The Socialist Good Life explores what consumption means in a worker state where communist ideology emphasizes collective needs over individual pleasures.

More information about the book can be found here.

Alumni and current students meet online to discuss the job market

University of Illinois graduate students recently took part in online informational interviews with nine alumni working in a diversity of fields in local public programs, the government, museums, NGOs, the private sector, and universities. Students and alumni discussed everything from job searches and interviews to developing careers in particular fields. “I benefited from my interviewee’s suggestions in terms of networking, general knowledge of UIUC’s ongoing programs, and potential research opportunities,” said Cassie Pontone, a first-year graduate student in Italian Studies.

Thirteen graduate students and recent alumni from eleven departments including Linguistics, Educational Psychology, and Computer Science, took up the opportunity to talk with alumni. Some students selected alumni with particular interests in order to learn more about specific fields. One recent graduate, with a Master’s degree in Economics, chose to interview with both Annie Contractor (Executive Director of Africa’s Tomorrow) and Noriyasu Li (Program Manager for Alexa International at Amazon) because they had a similar work experience background and areas of academic interest. Dealing with the job market during the pandemic was also an important discussion topic for students. “I appreciated the advice to network during quarantine by reaching out to others in my field and asking for informational conferences,” said a student in the M.A. Law program.

The interviews were originally scheduled to take place in-person as part of the Illinois Global Institute Career Day on March 27. The first IGI Career Day, the event was designed to highlight using foreign languages, area studies expertise, and thematic studies skills on the job market and to connect current graduate students and alumni. REEEC-affiliated alumni participating in the event included Elana Jakel (Ph.D. 2014, History), who is the Program Manager of the Initiative for the Study of the Ukrainian Jewry at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; Nellie Manis (M.A. 2013, Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies), who is the Program Manager for the Critical Language Scholarship Program at American Councils for International Education; and Matt Rosenstein (Ph.D. 2002, Slavic Languages and Literatures), who is the Director of Global Education and Training (GET) at the University of Illinois. “When we had to cancel their visits due to COVID-19, our alumni immediately volunteered to conduct the interviews online,” said Maureen Marshall, Associate Director at REEEC. “Our alumni are fabulous! Not only do they have amazing careers, but they are enthusiastic to share their knowledge and give back to the international and area studies community at Illinois.”

“Although we had to postpone the full career day, we thought it was important to go ahead and offer the informational interviews for those who are graduating or on the job market now,” said Sydney Lazarus, Outreach and Programming Coordinator at the EU Center. For students the online informational interviews led to additional networking contacts and provided them with insights into how to approach the job market outside of academia

An in-person Career Diversity Day event is tentatively scheduled to take place in the Fall. In addition to informational interviews, the full program will include alumni panel discussions, a resume workshop organized by the Graduate College, and a networking reception.

National Security Implications of the COVID-19 Crisis: The Urgent Need to Build State Capacity

The following is a repost of an article recently published on the Minerva Research Initiative’s blog, Owl in the Olive by REEEC faculty affiliate Cynthia Buckley (Professor of Sociology, University of Illinois), Ralph Clem (Emeritus Professor of Geography and Senior Fellow at the Stephen J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, Florida International University), and Erik Herron (Eberly Family Professor of Political Science, West Virginia University). The original article and the associated readings can be found here.

Beyond the devastating and widely discussed humanitarian and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the current global crisis also exposes the dangers inherent in governmental shortcomings to provide for their citizens’ welfare adequately. In other words: the downside is almost universally a failure of state capacity. In its broadest sense, state capacity refers to the ability of a government to control its territory and extract the means for survival from the population. However, we emphasize the third aspect of state capacity that is more relevant to the subject at hand: the ability to deliver services that provide well-being and how the populace perceives that delivery. Failure in this regard, which unfortunately is an option, will likely manifest ultimately in a growing lack of confidence among citizens in their governments, which in turn portends an erosion of legitimacy and, if left unchecked, may lead to political and geopolitical instability.

Our Minerva research focuses on this state capacity-legitimacy-stability linkage and the geopolitical dynamic between/among states. Our particular interest is in the post-Soviet space and how inequalities in the provision of social welfare services (such as healthcare) lead to vulnerabilities that can be exploited by aggressor states (notably Russia in our case) through malign influence campaigns (Buckley, Clem, and Herron 2019). The concept, however, is generalizable to other actors (notably China) and other regions.

The White Zone Fight
It is a mistake, in our opinion, to think of national security without considering human security, the latter a product of a state’s capacity to provide its population with the essential elements of well-being such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, and freedom-from-want. The recent focus in the national security community discourse on “gray zone” conflict, including non-kinetic means (Barno and Bensahel 2015) largely ignores state capacity/human security per se. If one imagines a continuum from peace at the left and multi-domain warfare at the right with the gray zone somewhere in the middle, we envision a “white zone” at the “far left of boom” (Buckley, Clem, and Herron 2020), and see that as an arena within which strategic competition also occurs.

Within this white zone, the crucial factor in assessing threats to state resilience is the degree of socioeconomic inequality. Research extant establishes these inequalities as precursors of intra-state conflict (Østby 2008; Taydas and Peksen 2012; Tikuisis, Carment, and Samy 2013). We suggest here that if socioeconomic inequalities persist, then the white zone is particularly vulnerable to disinformation campaigns—“the purposeful dissemination of information intended to mislead or harm” (Nemr and Gangware 2019, emphasis original)—directed against elements of state capacity by external state actors as well, either directly or via proxies. The widespread use of disinformation in the internet/digital age is by now well established (Singer and Brooking 2019), as is the fact that false news spreads more rapidly through the infosphere than true information (Vosoughi, Roy, and Aral 2018). Further, we concur with research in the field of conflict studies that points to the salience of regional versus national-level studies because the latter disguise important internal spatial inequalities (especially in border regions) and have, partially as a result, been ineffective in predicting the outbreak of violence (Raleigh, Linke, Hegre, and Karlsen 2010; Ward, Greenhill, and Bakke 2010; Paasi 2009).

As regards inequalities in state capacity delivery, current scholarship on third-party disinformation suggests that public health is a particularly vulnerable white zone target, with widespread activities across platforms and national contexts directed against that sector well before the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Highlighting the type of issues, regional characteristics, and individual risk factors associated with the acceptance of disinformation, Wang and colleagues (2019) stress the urgency of countering public health disinformation. That imperative derives especially because people will die as a consequence of being mis/disinformed, but such malign untruths also contribute to a “failed state” narrative and, ultimately, instability (Grävingholt, Ziaja, and Kreibaum, 2012).

Russian Disinformation
Russia entered the white zone disinformation fight early and now dominates it. Social media is the primary vector through which Russia directs offensive disinformation against neighboring states in the white zone. But broadcast media has also played a major role, particularly in areas or among social groups with low Internet penetration that typically receive information from television. Russian actions intended to influence “values and identities” to undermine the confidence of citizens in neighboring countries’ institutions have been investigated (Atran, Davis, and Davulcu 2020). Indeed, Driscoll and Steinert-Threlkeld (2020) suggest that, with appropriate cautions, social media analysis can be used to judge the efficacy of Russian information operations in the Ukraine conflict, even, possibly, to some extent guiding the scope of military intervention.

Russia, frequently through its RT (formerly Russia Today) television network, has been very active in propagating disinformation regarding viral epidemics, often depicting the US as the source of contagions, including COVID-19 (Broad 2020; RT 2020). But Russian malign influence operations directed specifically against elements of state capacity have also occurred but are not as well documented (Hurska 2020) nor necessarily seen in a national security context. A case in point is the Twitter bot and troll messaging activity from Russian sources relating “unverified and erroneous information about vaccines” (Broniatowski et al 2018). This specific campaign had a major impact, among other causes, on the prevalence of measles in Ukraine, which became a serious public health crisis in that country (Wadman 2019). That type of crisis, overtly seen as “merely” a contentious debate on the merits of vaccination, readily morphs into a deepening lack of trust in the country’s public health system that, in Ukraine, is abysmally low to begin with (Gallup Wellcome Global Monitor 2019).

Likewise, as a BBC investigation revealed, Russia launched a sophisticated state-sponsored broadcast media campaign in Georgia to malign the US-funded Richard Lugar Center for Public Health Research (BBC 2018; Lentzos 2018). Through a public opinion survey, the authors and a colleague, in a recent working paper, find that a significant proportion of respondents in Georgia report the belief that the Lugar Center is used for US-directed biological weapons research or are undecided on the subject (Buckley, Clem, Herron, and Tepnadze 2020). The irony of this particular Russian government disinformation effort, vectored through the Russian media in Georgia, is notable inasmuch as the Lugar Center is that country’s main testing facility for COVID-19, yet it is portrayed as a source of the virus (Cockerell 2020).

Recognizing and Countering White Zone Threats
Not surprisingly, as discussed previously in this forum, Russian non-kinetic disinformation warfare is a persistent threat and therefore requires persistent engagement if its effects are to be mitigated (Atran, Davis, and Davulcu 2020). Additionally, understanding that all societies have inherent weaknesses—although clearly some more than others– it follows that states must in the first instance be prepared to recognize malign influence attacks against elements of state capacity (Buckley, Clem, and Herron 2020). The European Union has assumed a leading role in identifying and reporting Russian disinformation operations through its European External Action Service (EEAS). That agency recently reported the breadth of disinformation content directed at European audiences from Russian “state and state-backed actors [seeking] to exploit the [COVID-19] public health crisis to advance geopolitical interests, often by challenging the credibility of the European Union and its partners” (EEAS 2020). Disruptive narratives included the “man made” virus conspiracy theory and providing false “advice” as to how the disease might be avoided. According to this same report, Russian disinformation messaging to Ukraine included the portrayal of that country “as a failed state that was abandoned by its European allies”.

Recognizing that white zone disinformation attacks proliferate, the question of how to counter them remains largely unanswered, although fact-checking and counter-narratives must be undertaken (Nemr and Gangware 2018) and, certainly, deeper “social science research on psychological vulnerabilities and cultural preferences” (Atran, Davis, and Davulcu 2020) that might predispose individuals to be accepting of false narratives are in order. That said, if socioeconomic inequalities are the baseline vulnerability in the white zone, then it follows that in order to bolster security states must place a higher priority on addressing those weaknesses through more robust capacity and enhanced levels of human security. That the state is the dominant, if not exclusive, actor in providing capacity is not a novel idea; the seminal work dates back to 1985 (Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol) and has been enhanced since (Geddes 1994, Corbridge et al 2005). We understand that the political will and economic wherewithal to execute policies to ameliorate these problems is quite another matter, not to mention the quality of governance and issues with corruption in effecting real change. But absent an understanding that state capacity is the bedrock on which national security is constructed, the ground will remain fertile for disinformation from Russia, China, or other malefactors.


Cynthia Buckley is Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on population dynamics in Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia.

Ralph Clem is Emeritus Professor of Geography and Senior Fellow at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He specializes in the geopolitics of post-Soviet states.

Erik Herron is the Eberly Family Professor of Political Science at West Virginia University. His research deals mainly with electoral systems and election administration in post-Soviet countries, in particular Ukraine.