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. 


Fall 2020 Select Courses in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies

Note: The courses listed below are not an exhaustive list of courses being offered on the REEE region. Please see course explorer for additional classes.

BCS 115: South Slavic Cultures
Instructor: TBD
TR 2:00 PM – 3:20 PM 166 Bevier Hall

Exploration of South Slavic cultures in the historically rich and complex region sometimes referred to as “the Balkans,” focusing particularly on those groups found within the successor states of the former Yugoslavia. Critical look at the traditional view of the region as the crossroads or the bridge between East and West, and at the term Balkanization which has become a pejorative term used to characterize fragmented, and self-defeating social systems.

HIST 259: The Cold War
Instructor: Felix Cowen
MWF: 11:00 AM – 11:50 AM

The course explores the history of the second half of the 20th century through the prism of the Cold War, a conflict between the two Super Powers- the USSR and USA — which brought the world to the threshold of mutually assured destruction.

HIST 260: Russian History from Early Times to the Present: Experience, Imagination, and Power
Instructor: Mark Steinberg
MWF: 11:00 AM – 11:50 AM

The history of “Russia” (Rus, Muscovy, Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation) from medieval times to the present. Although an introductory “survey course,” my aim is that we look beneath the surface of events to explore how individuals and groups experienced, interpreted, and made their own history. Most readings are primary texts, created at the time, so that we can listen to the past in its own voices as we try to understand, explain, and interpret. Three large (and related) interpretive questions are at the center of our exploration—experience (especially the experiences of everyday life); imagination (ways of thinking, feeling, seeing, and dreaming as expressed in ideas, ideologies, religion, and art); and power (rulers and their ideals as well as dissent and rebellion).

HIST 262: Zionism: A Global History
Instructor E. Avrutin and M. Ruiz
Online Course

Examines the history of the Zionist movement. The course is designed for students with no prior knowledge of Jewish, European, or Middle Eastern history. The goal is to survey how Zionism emerged as a widespread political movement and, in the process, helped create an independent state for the Jewish people. In addition to familiarizing students with the backstory of a globally significant movement, this class will teach students historical interpretation skills.

HIST 353: European History 1918-1939
Instructor: Peter Fritzsche
TR 9:30 AM – 10:50 AM

This course examines the political and cultural environment of Europe from the demise of the continental empires after World War I to the dawn of the thousand-year Reich at the start of World War II. This Age of Extremes saw the rise of liberal democracies, the flourishing of new artistic movements, and the birth of new technologies such as film. At the same time, this period was also marked by the ascension of dictators, crises in colonial empires, and one of the largest economic crisis in history. Perhaps more famous (or infamous) than these events are the individuals we will cover, which includes the likes of Neville Chamberlain, Francisco Franco, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin. We will explore the period through a variety of sources, including speeches, contemporary films, and a novel concerned with an even greater threat: newts.

HIST 439: The Ottoman Empire
Instructor: Maria Todorova
TR 11:00 AM – 12:20 PM 307 Gregory Hall

This course introduces the history of one of the great imperial formations of the early modern and modern period, which had long-standing repercussions on the development of Europe, the Near East, and North Africa. It covers the whole span of Ottoman history, and will pay special attention to some of the following problems: the political rise of the Ottoman state since the thirteenth century and how it became an empire, its social land administrative structure, the classical Ottoman economic system, Ottoman impact on the societies, politics, economies and cultures of Byzantium and the medieval Balkan states, the spread of Islam in Europe, the transformations of the Ottoman polity and society, aspects of what has been conventionally named as Ottoman decline, the Eastern question in international relations, the modernizing reforms of the nineteenth century, and the spread of nationalism as a prelude to the final demise of the supranational empire in the twentieth century.

HIST 502: Problems in Comparative History: Microhistory
Instructor: Maria Todorova
R 3:00 PM – 4:50 PM 318 Gregory Hall

What does it mean to change the scale of perspective in history? In science, observation through the telescope or through the microscope, in addition to the naked eye, are equally legitimate, as well as complementing. In history, there is still the tendency to prioritize certain approaches, to pronounce their scale of perspective as more “significant.” The goal of this graduate seminar is to serve as an introduction to a relatively new historical field – microhistory – which has been flourishing since the late 1970s. What paradigm did the first microhistorians challenge? What traditions did they step on? What new directions has microhistorical research taken in the past decades? How does it differ across chronological, geographical and social boundaries? The course consists of class discussions on readings, book reviews and a final historiographical or research paper. The readings draw on a variety of historical schools and aim at providing a solid introduction to the scholarly literature. They are clustered around a list of mandatory books (at Illini Bookstore), an extensive list of books on reserve, supplemented by articles and reviews that will be available during the course. We are going to read the work of the original Italian school (Carlo Ginzburg, Giovanni Levi, Guido Ruggiero, and other historians around Quaderni Storici), the antecedents to the microhistory in historical anthropology and the Annales school, the cultural approach in the work of early modernists (Natalie Zemon Davis and Robert Darnton), as well as examples of microhistorical research from different locales and from different historical eras: India, China, Latin America, the Atlantic, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Africa.

HIST 560: Problems in Russian History – Politics, Society, and Culture in Modern Russian and Soviet History, 1881-1939
Instructor: Mark Steinberg
R 1:00 PM – 2:50 PM

Major themes in the history and historiography of late imperial and early Soviet Russia and the USSR from 1880s through the 1930s. Topics to be explored include social and cultural experience, diversity and difference, power and transgression, cultural construction and interpretation, gender, empire, capitalism, socialism, and revolution. Central to the course are questions of historical methodology and theory as well as interpretation of the Russian past.

JS 320/CWL 320/ENGL 359/REL 320/YDSH 320: Lit Responses to the Holocaust
Instructor: R. Harris 

Course introduces a variety of Jewish literary responses to the Holocaust written during and after the Second World War (from 1939). The discussion of Holocaust memoirs, diaries, novels, short stories, poems, and other texts will focus on the unique contribution of literary works to our understanding of the Holocaust. In addition, the works and their authors will be situated in their Jewish cultural historical context. Taught in English translation. 

LAW 656: International Law
Instructor: Francis A. Boyle
Time: TBA

The International Law course examines the variety of roles played by law and lawyer in ordering the relations between states and the nationals of states. The course utilizes a number of specialized contexts as a basis for exploring these roles. The contexts include, among others, the status of international law in domestic courts; the efficacy of judicial review by the International Court of Justice; the effort to subsume international economic relations under the fabric of bilateral and multilateral treaties; and the application — or misapplication — of law to political controversies that entail the threat of actual use of force. The course proceeds through an examination of problems selected to illuminate the operation of law within each of these contexts.

MUS: Balkanalia (Balkan Music Ensemble)
Instructor: Donna Buchanan
T: 6:30 PM – 9:20 PM Recording Studio Music Building

Balkanalia Ensemble – course number and more details coming soon. For more info, please contact Dr. Buchanan at

MUS 418/518: Regional Studies in Musicology: Eurasian Musical Excursions 
Instructor: Donna Buchanan 
MW 3:30 PM – 4:50 PM 2334 Music Building

Startling vocal polyphonies and shimmering string ensembles. Gymnastic dancing and chivalric epics. Mythologies of musical magic and medicine. Songs of valor, love, and anguish. This interdisciplinary course explores the legacy of traditional musical life in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, and Ukraine—four contemporary Eurasian countries that are, on the one hand, nations with lengthy and complex political histories, and on the other, recently established post-Soviet states that are also the site of ongoing strife and ethnic conflict. Although the syllabus is organized by country, at least five factors will emerge as intercultural links across this complicated area: shared Christian heritage; a history of sharply delineated gender codes; a legacy of Russian and Soviet imperialism; the contemporary experience of postsocialism on the cusp of a rapidly changing Asia, Europe, and Middle East; and cultural repositories of indigenous beliefs whose folkloric, ritual, and musical manifestations intertwine fundamentally with the natural world. Course topics will survey the history, regional distribution, popularization, and social significance of vernacular musics in diverse media and venues—from the fields to the festival stage to flashmobs. Course materials will draw upon recordings, music videos, literary works, and films in addition to anthropological, area, and ethnomusicological studies. Whenever possible, students will engage first hand with representative instruments, vocal practices, and regional specialists. While the ability to hear, identify, and understand the significance of regional genres and their distinguishing features is a primary course objective, students from both within and outside the School of Music are encouraged to enroll; instructor expectations will be modified accordingly. Graduate students from outside Music who wish to register for MUS 518 should contact the instructor for permission.

*Please note that although Course Explorer currently lists this course under Topics in Opera History, the 518 course number is in the process of being reassigned to Regional Studies in Musicology for Fall 2020. 

REES 116/RUSS 115: Intro to Russian Culture
Instructor: Richard Tempest
MWF 3:00 PM – 3:50 PM

Introduction to the culture of Russia and the USSR. Course addresses two central themes. First, the very distinctiveness of Russian culture, and the functions of that notion within Russia and for outsiders; Second, Russia as a cultural space between East and West. We will explore Russian culture through the following, the language(s); foundational narratives of collective memory going back to the medieval times; the cultural impact of colonial subjugation both by and of peoples to the East, South, and West; Russian Orthodoxy’s connection with the political and cultural spheres; peak achievements in literature, music, architecture and visual arts. 

REES 200: Introduction to Russia and Eurasia
Instructor: TBA
TR 9:30 AM – 10:50 AM

Survey of the societies and states formerly constituted as the Soviet Union. Interdisciplinary and team-taught. Combines lectures, discussions, and films covering the history, political science, economics, sociology, and culture of the area.

REES 495/550: Senior Seminar/Graduate Seminar in REEE Studies
Instructor: TBA
W 3:00 PM – 4:50 PM

Interdisciplinary seminar involving faculty in a number of disciplines. The course examines Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia and the methodologies of its study through questions of identities, cultural values, and change.

RUSS 322/522: Dostoevsky
Instructor: Harriet Murav
TR 2:00 PM – 3:20 PM Online

Dostoevsky’s Russia was beset by violent terrorism, political and economic uncertainty. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881), one of the world’s greatest authors, wrote Poor Folk, The Double, Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, The Adolescent, A Writer’s Diary, and The Brothers Karamazov. He grappled with the major questions of the modern era in a boldly experimental style. Politics and religious and ethnic tension are explicit themes of his works. He was a political radical as a young man, sentenced to death for crimes against the government, but was reprieved. By the end of his life he shifted to the right politically. He suffered epileptic seizures during which he experienced mystical ecstasy. The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky’s last novel. If there is no God, is everything permitted?

*No Russian required. This course focuses on The Brothers Karamazov.

RUSS 511: Russian Literature 1800-1855
Instructor: Valeria Sobol
W 2:00 PM – 4:20 PM

Graduate-level study of major literary trends and developments in Russian literature from 1800-1855, from early romanticism to the emergence of a realist tradition, in criticism, drama, poetry, and prose. Prerequisite: Ability to read in Russian.

SLAV 117/CWL 117: Russ & Euro Science Fiction
Instructor: Richard Tempest
MWF 11:00 AM – 12:50 PM 134 Armory

Survey of the science fiction writing of Russia and the countries of Eastern Europe since 1750, with particular emphasis on the post-World War II period. The role of the Science Fiction tradition in the respective national cultures. The influence on Russian and East European Science Fiction of Anglo-American Science Fiction. All readings are in English.

SLAV 501/CWL 511/EALC 511/GER 511/TRST 501: Applied Literary Translation 1 
Instructor: Roman Ivashkiv
M 3:00 PM – 5:20 PM 3072E Foreign Languages Building

No description given.

SLAV 576/CWL 576: Methods in Slavic Grad Study
Instructor: L. Kaganovsky
M 2:00 PM – 4:50 PM 3150 Foreign Languages Building

Comparative, interdisciplinary methods and theoretical issues crucial to studies in Slavic literature, history, and culture. Theoretical bookshelf followed by specific case studies from Slavic.

TURK 270/ANTH 272/GLBL 272/SAME 272: Language and Culture in Turkey
Instructor: A. Ozcan and E. Saadah
TR 2:00 PM – 3:20 PM 2147 Gregory Hall

As a country located at the crossroads of Asia, Europe and Africa, Turkey has always been under the spotlight. In this course, we will study the dynamic relationship between language and culture in Ottoman and modern Turkey through a timely analysis of its transition from a long-lasting empire to a young “secular” nation-state. We will examine the complexities of Turkish modernity from a holistic perspective to better comprehend how central Asian and Middle Eastern cultural influences, continuities, and transformations gave birth to modern Turkish language. The course should help you not only in developing an understanding of the Turkish language within a cultural framework, but also in gaining insight into Turkey’s history, politics, literature, and media. No former knowledge of Turkey or the Turkish language is required.

New Article Published in The Russian Review by Diane Koenker and Benjamin Bamberger

Diane Koenker (former REEEC Director) and Benjamin Bamberger (recent History Ph.D. and current REEEC staff member) have co-authored a new article, “Tips, Bonuses, or Bribes: The Immoral Economy of Service Work in the Soviet 1960s” in the April 2020 edition of The Russian Review. Benjamin also created the cover image for the issue.


From the issue announcement:

“The cover image includes a collection of photographed correspondence from the Rubinov Papers located at the Library of Congress. Anatolii Zakharovich Rubinov was a prominent Soviet journalist who worked for over three decades at Literaturnaia gazeta where he assiduously collected reader responses to the newspaper’s articles, particularly those dealing with everyday life and consumption.

The letters included here illustrate the variety of reader correspondence that responded to a provocative Literaturka article, encouraging tipping in the service sector, analyzed in our article by Diane P. Koenker and Benjamin Bamberger. The ubiquitous and varied art on the envelopes likewise reflects some of the main goals of Soviet socialism in the late 1960s, from increased resources for leisure activities, to modern travel, to more plentiful consumer goods.

Most letter writers included their names and addresses (obscured here for privacy), with some even requesting an official reply. The collage was produced by Benjamin Bamberger using Adobe InDesign to portray the letters as they
might have appeared on the editor’s desk.”

The article is available here with university login credentials.

Noontime Scholars Lecture: Anna Muller – “Negotiating Motherhood and Communism: Tonia Lechtman and the World of Letters, 1937-1945”

By Diana Sacilowski

When trying to understand the political events and ideological movements that have shaped history, breadth and comprehensiveness often take precedence in order to establish the “big picture.” We look at the development of fascism, communism, and other major –isms in, for example, to come to a generalized understanding of Europe during the twentieth century, making sense of historical realities and the societies that lived through them from a zoomed out perspective. Microhistory, however, attempts to do the opposite; it zooms in and focuses on smaller units – single events, localized places, smaller individuals – to see other sides of historical realities. Microhistory does not ignore the bigger picture in some kind of myopic approach towards history, but instead tries to reveal nuances and complexities that can get lost when things are zoomed out too much. Microhistories reject an anonymizing approach towards historical knowledge and instead focus on the individual experience within larger political and social realities, on the personal in the scope of large and overwhelming historical forces.

It is precisely this kind of microhistory that Dr. Anna Muller engaged with in her Noontime Scholars Lecture, “Negotiating Motherhood and Communism: Tonia Lechtman and the World of Letters, 1937-1945,” on October 29. Muller, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, offered a penetrating analysis of the life of Tonia Lechtman (1918–1996), a Polish-Jewish woman who devoted her life to communism. Doing so, Muller did not simply provide a biographical account of an interesting woman who lived during extraordinary times, but also offered insights into the allure of communism to someone like Lechtman. As a Jewish woman in pre-war Poland, as a single mother in France during World War II, as someone imprisoned for her political activities throughout her life, communism for Lechtman was not simply a political affiliation but played an intrinsic role in her identity formation, providing her with a social space, a network of support in times of vulnerability, and a purpose in life, and giving her a way to find a sense of agency, to find her voice.

And it is her voice that was highlighted throughout Muller’s research. Muller used a rich variety of archival sources that focus on Lechtman’s own personal story and her telling of it rather than on the general historical forces that framed her life. These included letters written by her to her family, interrogation protocols from her time in prison in Poland, and interviews with her conducted later in her life. These materials, though sometimes fragmentary and one-sided (as in the case of her letters) or potentially untrustworthy (as in the case of the prison protocols), provide a view into Lechtman’s life and thought processes, pointing to her beliefs in and concerns with communism, as well as offering insights into how she presented herself, how she understood and defined herself through her commitment to this ideological force.

Using these sources, Muller carefully mapped out the trajectory of Lechtman’s life and took her audience through a journey that encompassed pre-war life in Poland and Palestine, the Spanish Civil War, wartime France and Switzerland, various internment and concentration camps, post-war communist Poland, and Israel. From the very beginning of this journey, communism played a vital role in Lechtman’s life. In Poland, Lechtman gravitated towards communism at a fairly young age – after being barred from joining Polish scout groups because of her Jewish heritage, communist youth groups became for her a way of connecting with peers. When her family moved to Palestine in 1934, she again joined up with communist groups despite her parents’ objections, building up a social space for herself, through which she would eventually meet her husband. Traveling through France as an illegal immigrant while her husband fought in the Spanish Civil War, she reached out to emigrant communist groups and found support through them. She even framed her pregnancy via her commitment to communism – when she found out that she was pregnant, her letters to her mother reveal how grateful she was that she had “comrades” to rely on. She connected her pregnancy to the communist cause, arguing that it solidified her mission of fighting for a better future. Ultimately, communism for Lechtman helped her to carve out a social space and identity for herself, allowing her to develop and articulate a sense of agency. Even when she was imprisoned for several years in post-war Poland for her associations with spy Noel Field, communism still offered her a means of expressing her identity and engaging socially and politically in the world around her.

Interestingly, Lechtman’s story does not end with her death. Muller revealed fascinating insights into her children’s relationships with their mother and their varied reactions to her dedication to communism. Devoting her life to building up a communist reality in post-war Poland, Lechtman essentially abandoned her children, putting them in the care of the state in order to focus on her task. Her actions point to fascinating dynamics between the role of motherhood, the domestic sphere, and actualization of the communist cause, as well as the effects historical forces can have on multiple generations.

Indeed, although Muller’s research concentrated on one person and her life, this microhistory revealed interesting details about greater historical forces and their influences on individuals. Besides offering a personal lens through which to analyze the appeal of communism, Lechtman’s life also provides insights into the complexities of Polish-Jewish history, the social and personal ruptures caused by World War II and the Holocaust, the intricacies of building communism in post-war Poland, as well as the nuances of multi-generational trauma. Muller focused on Lechtman’s story, on her life and times and the spaces she traversed, but more general historical realities, while placed in the background, are inextricably linked to who she was and the choices she made.

Diana Sacilowski is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include 20th & 21st century Polish and Russian literature and culture, memory and trauma studies, and representations of World War II and the Holocaust in literature and film. She is currently working on her dissertation project, Strategies of Silence: Representations of Jewish Poles in Polish Literature since the 1980s, which engages with portrayals of Jewish characters and Polish-Jewish history in Polish cultural texts since the eighties.

Noontime Scholars Lecture with Sean Pollock: “Who Spoke for Russia’s Muslims? Turkic Letters and Russian Empire in the Caucasus between the 17th and 20th Centuries”

By Felix Cowan

On 8 October 2019, REEEC welcomed Sean Pollock, Associate Professor of History at Wright State University, to give a Noontime Scholars talk titled “Who Spoke for Russia’s Muslims? Turkic Letters and Russian Empire in the Caucasus between the 17th and 20th Centuries.” Dr. Pollock, an expert on Russian empire in the Caucasus, spoke at length about the expansion of the Russian Empire into the Caucasus and about historians’ use of sources when studying Russian empire.

Dr. Pollock’s talk was based on his work with 25 Turkic-language letters generated in the North Caucasus over several centuries, a small portion of what he noted was a collection of thousands of these letters preserved in local and regional archives. These documents, he argued, can reveal much that historians are yet to realize about the complex nature of Russian imperial rule and the dynamic relationships between colonized imperial subjects and the colonizing imperial state.

Previously, Dr. Pollock noted, historians have tended to think of this relationship as a deep divide between Russian Muslims and tsarist officials, separated by barriers of language and understanding. According to Dr. Pollock, scholars have not always been adequately critical of their sources or have failed to use the full extent of documents held in local archives and written in indigenous languages, relying instead on documents written in Russian and produced by tsarist institutions. This has at times led to a focus on empire that emphasizes the Russian side of the relationship and understates the importance and the agency of indigenous populations in Russian imperial regions.

But the letters Dr. Pollock examines show this relationship in a different light. Russian Muslims could and did interact with the state in indigenous Turkic languages rather than in Russian, and spoke to tsarist officials who may have also been native Turkic speakers employed by the state. Where documents were translated into Russian, rather than the distortions and omissions other scholars have noted, Dr. Pollock argues they tended towards accurate reproductions, edited for concision but not to change the meaning of what was written. Such a dialogic relationship, adapted to local circumstances, helps explain the longevity of Russian empire in the region.

In these letters, Russia’s Muslims spoke for themselves in dialogue with Russian empire. They pursued friendly relations with the tsars and their intermediaries, offering service in exchange for Russian intervention on their behalf, and built a relationship that could promote the interests of local Muslim populations as well as Russian imperial expansion and rule. Loyalty and service facilitating the needs of empire were to be rewarded with Russian power attending to Muslims’ own needs and goals. In this dynamic, Muslims in the Caucasus recognized their status as clients of Russian patrons and acknowledged the suzerainty of Russian rulers, but expected protection and “membership in the tsarist family” in return. Russian empire was a resource for local Muslims to exploit by establishing mutually-beneficial relationships that could serve the needs of both the empire and groups of indigenous Muslim subjects. This was another way that Russia “built empire on the cheap,” compensating for a lack of resources or understaffing in imperial territories. Reciprocal relationships with local Muslims helped solidify imperial rule in peripheral regions like the Caucasus.

In the discussion following Dr. Pollock’s talk, he elaborated on certain key points. Here, Dr. Pollock once again challenged established ideas about the nature of Russian empire in the periphery. He claimed Russia’s Muslims understood this relationship as an unequal one, situating themselves as clients of Russian patrons rather than approaching them as equals. And by arguing that these letters, though filtered through literate scribes and intermediaries, were relatively authentic expressions of Caucasian Muslims’ thoughts and attitudes, Dr. Pollock suggested they may counteract postcolonial frameworks that see written sources as inherently problematic for the study of empire because of their bias towards literate administrators rather than local voices. Finally, he reiterated that his study is based on a close reading of just 25 letters out of more than 3,000 available in these repositories and encouraged the audience to make use of rich archival holdings and work by local scholars in locations like Makhachkala.

This was a thought-provoking and intellectually-challenging lecture and discussion. Dr. Pollock has uncovered an exciting, understudied side to Russian empire in the Caucasus. And his suggestions that these sources point to a new understanding of the nature of tsarist rule in the periphery more generally is an encouraging line of research for future studies of Russian empire paying close attention to how and why sources were created and making use of local sources preserved in regional archives.

Felix Cowan is a doctoral candidate in Russian history at the University of Illinois.

Julia Leikin, “Eighteen Greeks and One Armenian: Voices of Black Sea Merchants in the Early Nineteenth Century”

On June 19th, the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center hosted a talk entitled Eighteen Greeks and one Armenian: voices of Black Sea merchants in the early nineteenth century by Dr. Julia Leikin, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Exeter and the 2018 Fisher Fellow. The talk followed Dr. Leikin’s participation in the Fisher Workshop in the preceding days and centered around her current research on “Russian practices of sovereignty at sea and the legal construction of maritime space” in the early modern period and later.


Dr. Leikin began her talk by providing context for the broader field of study, tracing a narrative of Russian Imperial maritime law that begins with the 1768 Russo-Turkish war. She points to the late eighteenth century as the time in which the Russian Empire became party to international discussions of maritime norms and began adapting these norms to its own needs in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The study of historical maritime law in this case is centered around what Dr. Leikin describes as the “intersection of war and commerce as seen by imperial St. Petersburg” in her given time frame, specifically as this concerns evolving historical questions surrounding the relationship between ships of war and ships of trade as dictated from the imperial center and realized on the sea. More broadly, this study can involve looking at the ways in which military ships secured shipping lanes for their own trade vessels and commandeered enemy vessels in times of war. While this field of study is sometimes discussed as though it existed in a context of consistent international regulations, in reality each empire set its own policy as to what constituted an enemy ship and why it was liable to be captured. This created a fascinating and inconstant web of sometimes corresponding and sometimes conflicting international laws and priorities that were open to manipulation from a variety of sources.


Dr. Leikin uses the specific example of the 1809 seizure of an Ottoman-flagged ship crewed primarily by Greek merchants in order to draw her context into focus. After being boarded by sailors of the Russian navy, neither the vessel nor its prisoners offered resistance as they were brought to port in Crimea. Instead, the crew of the ship sought legal recourse through the provincial admiralty court system, arguing that the Russian Empire had not previously treated their coreligionists this way. In such cases as this, the burden fell on merchants to prove that the seizure of their ships was unjust, and so the merchants composed a petition — described by Dr. Leikin as typical of the genre — explaining the difficulties in procuring the capital to acquire a merchant vessel in the first place and detailing their future suffering and penury should the seizure of their ship be deemed legal under wartime law. Though many strategies in navigating Russian admiralty courts were surely employed by the diverse crews of confiscated vessels, the crew in this specific example appealed to notions of Christian brotherhood in search of justice; indeed, the letter goes so far as to assert that the crew supported the Russian Empire in its war against the Ottomans, casting Greeks and Armenians in Ottoman lands as natural allies to the Orthodox Russians. Dr. Leikin makes clear that this choice of narrative is not isolated. Instead, her work seeks to connect this sort of appeal — to mercy for the merchants and their families, specifically as fellow Orthodox Christians — to the image the Russian Imperial center sought to project; her narrative also seeks to bridge trends in the Black Sea with similar earlier rhetorical strategies employed by petitioners in the Eastern Mediterranean. As Russia’s 1806 Prize Law made no customary exemption for Ottoman Christian merchants in times of war, these sorts of appeals relied on precedent more than legality.

Pointing to her broader work, Dr. Leikin noted that her scholarship on this topic disrupts a narrative of Christian migration in the period as being usually highly ideological. Instead — as illustrated in this specific example of a commandeered ship and its crew’s rhetorical strategies for regaining their property — a desire to draw upon supposed connections between Christian peoples in the Black Sea region and surrounding lands was a highly practical act for merchants. Where simply appealing to Christian mercy and precedent was sometimes sufficient to have commandeered ships returned, many future merchants would also add the right to fly the Russian flag to their arsenal of tools to avoid loss of profit and property. Dr. Leikin connects these themes across decades, wars, and seas, and shows how later shifts in apparent allegiance may well be due more to practical concerns than religious ones.


Tyler Dolan is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on Russian-Jewish and Yiddish language literature of the Russian Revolution and interwar period.