REEEC Outreach Activities at Head Start

by Melissa Bialecki and Danielle Sekel

As a part of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center’s outreach efforts this semester, we had the pleasure of working at Champaign Head Start planning and implementing activities to teach young learners about various REEEC countries. Once per month, we planned a craft activity based on a tradition from a different regional country. We prepared a short lesson on that country, in which we introduced one aspect of its culture, taught short phrases in the local language, and sometimes even listened to traditional music and danced. Then, students would have a hands-on activity, in which they created something based on a tradition associated with that country. In our first month, we talked about wool-working in Estonia and students decorated gloves with fabric paint to match the beautiful designs made by Estonian artisans. The next month, we taught students about Bosnia and Herzegovina and the intricate woodworking practices there. Students colored their own “treasure chests” and decorated them with stick-on jewels. We also colored wooden eggs close to Easter to learn about Ukrainian pesanky, and decorated paper masks with googly eyes and feathers after we learned about Bulgarian kukeri. After each lesson, students got a sticker in their own “passports” and a postcard to bring home summarizing what the students learned about that day. Teachers received a copy of the curriculum for that day’s lesson, and a poster to put in their classroom to remind the students of the country they learned about and the activity they did during our visit.

As scholars working in REEEC regions, we both loved seeing young children get so excited to learn about these new places and their colorful culture and interesting traditions. It was wonderful to go into classes every month and have the students talk about the activities that we did the month before. Students loved asking questions and talking about similarities between their own family traditions and the practices we were learning about that day. Students were also excited to bring crafts home and share them with their families.

Champaign Head Start is a diverse community of young learners, and we loved contributing to that diversity through cultural enrichment. It was also great to work with a different age group than we would as teaching assistants at the university. Thus, the head start outreach program is one of many ways in which REEEC connects with the local community by providing educational resources for young learners.

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.

Danielle Sekel is a graduate student in the Department of Musicology. Her research interests include Balkan music festivals in diaspora and the history and continuing relevance of these festivals.

New Directions Lecture with Anna Ohanyan, “Lenin’s Revenge: Regional Fracture and Security (Dis)Order in Post-Communist Eurasia”

by Benjamin Bamberger


In this fascinating talk, Dr. Anna Ohanyan, a Richard B. Finnegan Distinguished Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Stonehill College, explored the nature of regional conflict and challenges to integration in post-communist Eurasia. In doing so, Ohanyan did not just suggest reasons for the problem of “unregioning” that occurred in the post-Soviet period, but also a promising methodology for thinking about regional conflict and fracture, as well as techniques to encourage better regional integration.

Ohanyan’s talk was largely based on her recently published edited collection, Russia Abroad: Driving Regional Fracture in Post-Communist Eurasia and Beyond, which contains contributions from scholars that focus on the South Caucasus, Ukraine, Russia, the Balkans, Central Asia, and beyond. As Ohanyan clearly argued, regional fracture is itself a political practice that imperial powers use to keep smaller regions under their control. But instead of seeing this practice as an inherently Russian one in post-Soviet Eurasia, Ohanyan illustrated how western powers also participate in such policies, if not in slightly different ways. Here, she contends that there is an American and European impulse to single out and encourage countries to align with western interests  – for instance, countries like Georgia – which also contributes to the fragmentation of regional cohesiveness. These fractures, whether Russian, American, or European, create missing links between countries within the same region, which, as Ohanyan demonstrated, ultimately produces conflict and undermines democracy.

Ohanyan likewise suggested a useful new methodology for thinking about regions, regionality, and regional integration. As she argued, it is important to theorize from the field, to try to understand regions not from the perspective of imperial powers but from the periphery itself. This local orientation allows Ohanyan to see the ways that regional stakeholders have their own agency to encourage integration or disintegration and have the ability to impact policy making in profound ways. Perhaps put another way, the framework of regional fracture incorporates the agency of the periphery in exciting new ways that decenters Russia as the key player in regional politics. But instead of ignoring the role of large state powers, Ohanyan’s methodology illustrates the mutually constitutive nature of international and domestic policies.

This methodology makes it possible to see the diversity of regional forms that exist beyond the European Union and to think about new ways to promote regional integration. As Ohanyan argues, it is necessary to build local contacts first and to understand the personal networks and social ties of local elites before attempting to solve a regional crisis. Likewise, Ohanyan sees value in engaging formal organizations and institutions that operate on a local or regional level. All of this suggests the importance of local knowledge built from the ground up not just for understanding regional fracture, but also in finding solutions to it.

Ohanyan’s talk was very well attended and involved a lively question and answer session afterward. Based on this talk, it seems certain that Russia Abroad will be a useful resource not just for political scientists or policy makers, but also for those interested in the nature of post-communist regionality.


Benjamin Bamberger recently defended his dissertation, “Mountains of Discontent: Georgian Alpinism and the Limits of Soviet Equality, 1923-1955,” in the Department of History at the University of Illinois.”

REEEC Spring Reception 2019

Members of the REEEC community celebrated the end of the school year on Friday, May 3rd, 2019 with an ice cream social at the International Studies Building. Friends and colleagues enjoyed each other’s company and shared their exciting plans for the summer. A slideshow played in the background, showing that REEEC had a busy year filled with Noontime Scholars lectures, outreach events, and more. The accomplishments of REEEC students and faculty proved there was much to celebrate. One table held several books recently published by REEEC faculty. Dr. Donna Buchanan, REEEC Acting Director, stood up to introduce the 2019 summer Foreign Language and Area Studies fellows and to congratulate Sydney Lazarus and Jesse Mikhail Wesso, who are both graduating from the REEEC MA program this year. Professor Carol Leff then announced the winner of the 2019 Yaro Skalnik Prize for Best Essay. This went to Sydney Lazarus for her work on Macedonian-Albanian relations in Macedonia. After this, Outreach and Programming Coordinator Stephanie Porter thanked the graduate student workers at REEEC for all their hard work

this year. Finally, one more person’s contributions to REEEC deserved applause. Dr. Maureen Marshall, Associate Director of REEEC, stood up to recognize the fantastic work Dr. Donna Buchanan has done this year as REEEC’s Acting Director.

From all of us at REEEC, we would like to congratulate all our students, faculty, and staff on their hard work this year, and we wish them the best of luck wherever their summer plans take them.


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Summer 2019 FLAS Fellows

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

Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowships
Summer 2019

Graduate Students:
Justin Balcor (Georgian) – Musicology
Melissa Bialecki (Ukrainian) – Musicology
Marissa Natale (Turkish) – History
Danielle Sekel (B/C/S/) – Musicology
Mark Woodcock (Estonian) – Musicology

Undergraduate Students:
Jackson Barnett (Russian) – Political Science, Slavic Studies
Jalie Merritt (Russian) – Slavic Studies

For more information about our FLAS fellows, please visit our Graduate Students and FLAS Fellows page.

To keep up to date with center events and news, please also like us on Facebook.

Review, Joint Area Centers Lecture with Jessie Labov, “The Politicization of Discipline in Central and Southeastern Europe: Humanities under Siege,” 22 April 2019

by Jesse Mikhail Wesso (MA candidate, Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies)



On 22 April 2019, Dr. Jessie Labov (Resident Fellow, Center for Media, Democracy, and Society and Coordinator of the Digital Humanities Initiative at Central European University; Director of Academic and Institutional Development at McDaniel College Budapest), in conjunction with the Joint Area Centers (JACS) at the University of Illinois, presented on the topic of the “Politicization of Discipline in Central and Southeastern Europe.”



The title of her talk, “Humanities under Siege,” belied the importance of the topic, which, in summary, included detailed discussions of collective memory, gender studies, and the political economy of the Eastern European university. She used historic examples, including the 2009 student demonstration at the University of Zagreb (where students were demonstrating for tuition-free education), to draw a parallel to current events, including the 2019 Kossuth Square occupation in Budapest, and outline a challenge to contemporary humanities as a discipline. Moreover, Dr. Labov aimed to provide potential avenues of resistance to what she characterized as an assault on the traditional disciplines of the humanities. 

The fundamental concern of her talk was access to education. By monetizing and politicizing the university, states in Eastern Europe appear, in Dr. Labov’s formulation, willing to trade a “traditional” model of education, which necessarily includes the humanistic disciplines, for American-style private education, which apparently carries more value. Dr. Labov suggested that this model may discourage students in Eastern Europe from attending these types of universities, which appeal primarily to foreign students looking to get an inexpensive “European” education.

Unfortunately for Eastern European students interested in the humanities, this trend toward “practical” education is intimately connected with political realities of the region: for example, Dr. Labov cited the decline of Gender Studies as a discipline in favor of “Family Studies.” The implication is that states in Eastern Europe, including Poland and Hungary, are allowing political ideology to influence directly the curricula in their universities. This trend, no doubt alarming to some Western observers, can, according to Dr. Labov, be challenged at the polls, by the people who are directly affected. As her talk made clear, however, this trend is not insular but global, and has important implications for global education policy. An increased attention to these matters is crucial for anyone interested in higher education, especially in the sphere of the humanities.



Jessie Labov is a Fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University, where she coordinates the Digital Humanities Initiative. She is also the Director of Academic and Institutional Development at McDaniel College Budapest. Before moving to Hungary, she was Associate Professor in the Dept. of Slavic Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Ohio State. Her book Transatlantic Central Europe: Contesting Geography and Redefining Culture Beyond the Nation was published with CEU Press earlier this year. She has written on Polish film, Yugoslav popular culture, and Central European Jewish identity, and led a variety of digital humanities projects concerned with issues of canon formation, text mining, and visualizing the receptive pathways of literary journals. This summer, July 2019, she will co-direct the CEU Summer University Course Cultures of Dissent in Eastern Europe (1945-1989): Research Approaches in the Digital Humanities.


Jesse Mikhail Wesso is an MA candidate in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and an Outreach Assistant at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center. Previously he received a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Bradley University. In addition to his work in history, Jesse has performed as a touring musician. He is also a published poet whose work has appeared in national and local literary arts journals, including Fifth Wednesday Journal, Contrary, and Bluestem.

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.