Alisha Kirchoff: Is there a place for Big Data in Area Studies?

Alisha Kirchoff (Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Indiana University-Bloomington; formerly REEEC Associate Director, 2010-2015), recently penned a post entitled “Is there a place for Big Data in Area Studies?”. The post, published on Indiana University-Bloomington’s Russian Studies Workshop Blog, offers a timely conversation on the use of big data as researchers face difficulties regarding data collection due to COVID-19.

Through her experience as a sociologist and law and society scholar, Kirchoff highlights the advantages and challenges that accompany the utilization of big data. More specifically, Kirchoff expounds on her own work on Russian notaries and the computation methods she employs as a case for the necessary reinforcement for the need to sustain investments in area studies research. We invite you to read this important rumination on the future and continuation of area studies research on Indiana University-Bloomington’s Russian Studies Workshop Blog.


Marina Filipovic, “The Digestive Tract of the Universe: Andrei Platonov’s ‘Antropo-tekhnika’”

Ph.D. candidate Marina Filipovic

Ph.D. candidate Marina Filipovic

On October 20th, 2015, Marina Filipovic, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, gave a lecture entitled “The Digestive Tract of the Universe: Andrei Platonov’s ‘Antropo-tekhnika.’”  Filipovic began by situating her lecture in the 1920s, a period when “Soviet Russia embarked on the project of creating a super-science with the ultimate goal of achieving immortality.”  The revolutionary fervor of establishing a new order took hold of scientists, who believed that technology would allow them to “fulfill the dreams of human destiny.”  To illustrate this, Filipovic showed an image of Sergei Brukhonenko’s “autojektor,” a heart and lung machine he invented which (allegedly) enabled him to keep the severed head of a dog alive for several hours.

According to Filipovic, rejuvenation was also a driving force in literature – such biotechnological research inspired authors like Andrei Platonov, who engaged in this state-sponsored venture by way of “antropo-tekhnika,’ a literary project of immortality.

She first discussed Platonov’s 1927 novella Efirnyi trakt, in which several of the protagonists work on the project of extending human life.  One character posits that electrons are “no different from biological cells,” and speculates on the relationship of electrons to ether (the material that was once believed to fill outer space, making it possible for light to travel in a vacuum): “If an electron is a microbe, that is a biological phenomenon, then the ether… represents an electron cemetery… On the other hand, the ether is not only an electron cemetery, but also the mother of their existence, as dead electrons serve a unique food [pishcha] to the living electrons. Electrons eat corpses of their ancestors [ediat trupy svoikh predkov].”  In this conception, ether is an “intelligent organism that functions as a machine.”

Filipovic remarked that 19th-century scientists looked at ether as an “elastic jelly” stretching through the universe and filled with “cog-wheels” – it was envisioned like a machine or factory, representing a mechanistic worldview.  Physicists hoped that ether would provide a “theory of everything,” through which they would be able to link together all the processes of the universe.  In the scientific world, the concept of ether was largely abandoned after Einstein’s theory of general relativity, but it continued to serve as an inspiration for writers like Platonov.  For him, ether was “vitalistic” (a life-bearing organism) as well as mechanistic, which “opens a space for the merging together of disparate ideas” – hence it can be both the source of life and a graveyard for dead electrons.  Filipovic argues that ether becomes a “merger signifier” for Platonov, where biology and philosophy connect.

According to Filipovic, Platonov envisioned the “ethereal tract” as a sort of “cosmic brain in development.”  She connected this to his concept of the “socialist biological brain,” developed in a 1927 novel in which one of his characters argues that the “new socialist man” is formed by physical changes in the brain.  This strong biological bent receives support from the view of the electron as biological – in Platonov’s writing, Filipovic contends, all “living cells” (including the ethereal tract and the human brain) behave according to a biological model of existence.  Filipovic argues that he also saw the October Revolution in biological terms, as a consequence of evolutionary struggle and development.

The biological theme is expanded upon in Platonov’s 1923 story “Rasskaz o mnogikh interesnikh veshchak,” in which one of his characters presents a eugenic project.  This character, a scientist who believes the essence of humanity is chastity, declares that “[t]he time of an utterly chaste man has arrived; he creates a great civilization, he assumes [obretaet] the Earth and all other planets, he connects with himself all the visible and the invisible, he will finally turn time and eternity into a force and will outlive both Earth and time. For that reason I founded the science called Antropo-tekhnika.”  The scientist has a two-step plan for achieving immortality: after the creation of “durable flesh,” which “converts sexual energy into productive energy,” the second phase of the experiment is conducted in the workshop of “immortal flesh,” where a chaste body is transformed into an immortal body by means of ethereal electromagnetic waves.  Filipovic remarked that this story contains a notable strain of germophobia: “this newly immortal human needs an entirely germ-free environment in order to live.”

Platonov writes that “[l]ife is forwarded to us through ethereal space from other planets.”  In his view, Filipovic contends, the structure of the universe operates by the same bio-mechanical principles as the digestive tract.  According to him, “[t]he most ancient and genuine God in the world is the belly [puzo], and [it is] not a frail divine spirit… [t]he entire Earth is roused by the stomach.”  He compares the stomach to a temple (khram) to communicate the stomach’s mystery and its status as the source of life on earth.  Filipovic asserts that in Platonov’s writing, “abdominal imagery penetrates spiritual discourse and acquires new meaning”—“the ‘navel of the world’ (axis mundi) is the center of the universe.”

In his novel Schastlivaia Moskva (1933-1936), Platonov dives further into abdominal imagery: his characters and setting (Moscow) are both regularly described as having tubular bodies and as being part of a larger system.  A physicist named Sambikin, whose research is devoted to the study of the human body (which he believes holds the key to immortality), claims that the soul is located in a particular part of the intestine.  Moskva, the female protagonist, develops an emotional connection with her own digestive tract: “[she] was amazed by nature’s chemistry that transformed ordinary scant food… into a rosy purity [chistota] and the blossoming expanses of her body.”  Eventually, she becomes a worker in the metro system (i.e. “the bowels of the earth”), and when her leg is crushed in an accident, she is squeezed into a “dead end” (slepoi prokhod), which Filipovic compares to the large intestine – she literally becomes human waste, an unproductive part of society.

In her analysis of this imagery, which came out of a process of close reading, Filipovic shows that Platonov uses ether as a metaphor for a new existence, one which is “simultaneously biological, technological, and spiritual.”  Her framework also demonstrates his extensive use of gastrointestinal imagery, finally suggesting that in his depiction of the ethereal digestive tract of the universe, he abolishes death.  Platonov’s literary project thus complemented the goals of contemporary Soviet science.

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2015-16 academic year for the study of Russian.

Endangered Species

This is a re-posting of an article published on April 30, 2014, in Inside Higher Ed by REEEC affiliate Mark Schrad, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University. From 2007 to 2010, he was Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Illinois. To view the original article, please see

Mark Schrad - RussianFlagWith Russia’s annexation of Crimea, U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point in decades. Consequently, after two decades on the sidelines, America’s senior experts on Russia — many of whom came of age during the Cold War — are suddenly in demand again. They are sounding alarms not only about Kremlin aggression, but also the lack of young Russia experts who’ll take their places once they retire.

“It is certainly harder for the White House, State Department and intelligence community to find up-and-coming regional experts,” admitted Strobe Talbott, President Clinton’s top Russia adviser and head of the Brookings Institution. “It’s a shorter bench,” said Stanford University Professor Michael McFaul — who recently returned from serving as America’s ambassador to Russia. “The expertise with the government is not as robust as it was 20 or 30 years ago, and the same in the academy.”

In explaining “Why America Doesn’t Understand Putin,” a Georgetown University professor, Angela Stent, faults foundations’ declining funding of area-studies research and academe itself. “Instead of embracing a deep understanding of the culture and history of Russia and its neighbors, political science has been taken over by number-crunching and abstract models that bear little relationship to real-world politics and foreign policy. Only a very brave or dedicated doctoral student would today become a Russia expert if she or he wants to find academic employment.”

As one of only a small number of junior (i.e., “assistant”) professors in political science departments across the country who specialize in Russia, I am in a unique position to give an insider’s assessment of just how dire the situation has become.
By the time I began to study Russian politics, language, and culture in college, it was 1993 and the Soviet Union had already collapsed peacefully. I enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa, partly for its robust and well-funded Russian program, which regularly sent students to the intensive, summerlong Russian Language Institute at Bryn Mawr College — twice, in my case. Thanks to these programs, I already had five years worth of college-level Russian language instruction under my belt before I even stepped on to Russian soil. Between 1996 and 1998, I’d spent more than a year living, exploring, and studying Russia at Moscow State University. Unforgettable experiences from meeting Mikhail Gorbachev and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, to getting a public dressing-down from Communist Party head Gennady Zyuganov on the eve of the roisterous 1996 presidential elections only furthered my passion for Russian politics.

As a student, I never asked where money for these programs came from, but as it turns out they were federally funded Title VIII programs for foreign language training. I later learned that — desperate to justify their existence amid flagging interest after the Cold War — these programs needed our numbers to show continued student demand just as much as we needed the funding they provided.

After graduating from Northern Iowa, I enrolled in the master’s program in Russian and East-European Studies at Georgetown University, one of the 17 Title VI Comprehensive National Resource Centers for Russia and East Central Europe dedicated to intensive scholarship and language study of the former Soviet Union. The depth of scholarship was incredible: entire courses dedicated to understanding webs of post-Soviet barter transactions, or the domestic politics of Central Asian autocracies or the ecological devastation left by state socialism — all taught by the top experts in the field. While I decided to continue my education with a Ph.D. program in political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (home to another Title VI center), much of my research interest on the political challenges of Russia’s health and demographic maladies — the cornerstone to my recent Vodka Politics book — began with the experts at Georgetown over a decade ago.

Armed with similar Russian expertise, most of my Georgetown colleagues went to work for the government or the private sector. But by choosing to get a Ph.D. instead, my career path lay in academe, where professional success is defined by whether — after six years of nonstop studying, researching and teaching — you land a tenure-track professorship that pays $60,000 a year — if that.

As grad students, we knew that there were fewer jobs for Russia specialists than for those studying “hotter” regions such as China or the Middle East, but we warmed ourselves with the plausible, yet ultimately unfounded, belief that the entire generation of Sovietologists hired in the ‘70s would be reaching retirement age just as we’d be hitting the market. Still, no self-respecting political science program trains students as just an expert on a particular country or region: your regional focus always takes a back seat to your concentration, often within the subfields of international relations or comparative politics. So, no one on the job market says “I’m an expert on Russian politics.” More likely they’ll say “I’m an expert on nationalism, social movements and revolutions in the context of the former Soviet Union.”

In that regard, I thought my dissertation — examining how the ideas of international activists are filtered through national policy-making institutions by comparing how temperance activism influenced alcohol prohibition in Russia, Sweden, and the United States — was perfect. Not only did I maintain my passion for Russian politics and history, but also developed marketable expertise in a broad range of subfields of international relations and comparative politics. Add to that a few minor publications, a raft of teaching experience and a dash of naive overconfidence, I hit the market.

For those not familiar with it, the academic job market — especially in political science — is a byzantine system. In the summertime, colleges and universities post listings for positions for the following academic year that will round out their departments’ particular teaching needs and research profile. In the fall, search committees winnow through hundreds of applicants to narrow their search down to three, who then get the pleasure of a campus visit. By “pleasure,” I mean an exhausting three days of nonstop interviews, teaching, and research presentations, with no guarantee that the committee won’t fail to be impressed with any of the candidates and just decide not to hire anyone at all. In the spring, a few one-year “visiting” or “adjunct” positions appear, as departments desperately scramble to fill the teaching holes in their schedules, and out-of-luck applicants desperately scramble to fill the holes in their tattered career dreams. Those who don’t land a postdoc or one of these temporary teaching positions have to figure out something else to do until the process starts all over again the following year. Many exemplary — though unlucky — scholars simply drop out.

The spreadsheet on my computer where I’ve chronicled my job market experience is labeled simply “failure.” According to it, in my first foray onto the market in the fall of 2006, I applied to 59 listings for tenure-track jobs in the various topics of international relations and comparative politics that I could reasonably justify some degree of expertise. Of those 59 positions, only two were explicitly looking for experts in the politics of Russia or the former Soviet states: the University of Kansas (another Title VI National Resource Center for Russia), and the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. Of these two — two — Russia jobs across the entire country (and Canada), both wanted experts on security or terrorism in the region. Neither gave me a call.

The only place that did call was the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which in the spring offered me a one-year “visiting” assistant professorship, which I eagerly accepted as an opportunity to expand my teaching portfolio, turn my dissertation into a book manuscript, and prepare to give the market another go.

The following year (2007-8), I embarked on the market once again, this time armed with undergraduate teaching awards from the popular courses I’d developed on the politics of the former Soviet states and Russian foreign policy. I’d also landed a contract from Oxford University Press to publish my revised dissertation as The Political Power of Bad Ideas — a golden ticket to a job, or so I thought. I applied for 67 assistant professor positions, 11 visiting positions, 5 postdocs and 3 non-academic positions — an untold number of which were withdrawn as the global financial crisis smashed state budgets and university endowments invested in the stock market. Still, of those 81 listings, only one was explicitly looking for an expert on Russia: the University of Washington — yet another Title VI center. Like every other place I applied, they didn’t call me (though it is worth noting that the scholar that they did hire, Scott Radnitz, has been quite busy publicly contributing insights into the current crisis). Thankfully, even as hiring freezes and furloughs loomed, somehow the Illinois political science department found a way to keep me on for another year.

The great recession saw far fewer academic jobs advertised in year three (2008-9): I applied to 51 assistant professor positions, as well as 8 visiting gigs. The number of departments searching for an expert in Russian politics was one: Villanova University. I obsessed over the ad: a broadly trained expert able to offer a wide variety of courses while maintaining a specialty in Russian politics and foreign policy, at a university that puts a premium on both teaching and scholarship? It seemed too good to be true.

As it turns out, it was: like so many job listings at the time, the search was canceled amid the persistent financial uncertainty. Still, I was encouraged that finally, after three full years, my phone actually rang with a campus interview. But that department wasn’t interested in Russia. It was far more interested in my (now extensive) teaching portfolio in international relations, and my research into transnational activism and comparative public policy. In the ensuing battery of interviews, we barely ever talked about Russia. That department passed. Thankfully — largely thanks to another raft of positive student evaluations and teaching awards, Illinois extended me for another year.

No less difficult than years of professional uncertainty are the accompanying personal struggles: nagging doubts about your career choice, your self-worth, and moments of deep depression, which are only amplified as the sole breadwinner for a family that had grown to five. My wife and I decided that if year four didn’t land me a tenure-track position, we’d close up shop on the academic career — no regrets. Still, I lamented abandoning the academy without ever writing the book about the politics of alcohol and demography in Russia that had motivated my research from the beginning. So, armed with a prospectus and a draft chapter, I shopped the Vodka Politics project around the Midwest Political Science Association conference in Chicago, and left with interest from a half-dozen academic and commercial publishers. With a second book contract in hand, I had a C.V. that would merit tenure at many colleges, yet given the near-complete lack of openings for Russian scholars, I still couldn’t find a job.

In year four (2009-10), I applied for 91 assistant professor positions, 6 postdocs, and 8 non-academic jobs. Of them, there was again only one specifically looking for a Russian-politics expert: my dream job at Villanova had been re-listed. Finally, in year four — having developed seven unique course offerings, and having taught them 25 times — did I start getting interest from search committees, including interviews at Johns Hopkins, Wyoming, and — yes — Villanova. The only offer — thankfully — was the Villanova position that I still consider my “dream job,” which I took without hesitation.

From 2006 through 2010, I spent four years on the academic job market, mailed 309 job applications, landed four campus interviews and one job offer. They say about hitting in baseball, that if you fail 7 out of 10 times (.300), you’re a success. That’s little consolation when you’re batting .013 in job interviews on the market, and .003 in actual job offers. Even within political science, many recognize that employment prospects for regional experts are bad — though I doubt any realize just how bad they are.

Whether my tale is one of tenacity or stupidity is certainly up for debate. Still, it suggests that the present lack of junior Russia scholars in academia is attributable more to the near-complete absence of academic employment opportunities than a lack of qualified scholars. If anything, the situation is even worse outside of political science, with few jobs for historians and scholars leaving the field. These are losses not only to academia, but potentially to our collective understanding of future political developments in Eurasia, at a time when such expertise is needed more than ever.

As in the past, when U.S.-Russian relations run cold, employment opportunities for experts on Russia should expand. Unfortunately however, thanks to government austerity measures and cutbacks in higher education, there will be far fewer qualified experts to meet demand.

For instance, the program in Russian/East European Studies that was one of my majors at Northern Iowa does not exist anymore. Moreover — reflecting a national trend in higher education—the Russian language program was liquidated, along with German, French and other programs, leaving a modern languages department that teaches only English and Spanish. What’s more, the long-running study abroad program that ferried me to Russia three times in the 1990s is in dire straits as well. Amid deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia just this month, Russia’s Ministry of Justice ordered American Councils — the nonprofit organization that administers numerous professional, research, and study abroad programs throughout the former Soviet Union — to cease its operations in Russia indefinitely.

While the Kremlin has dealt this devastating blow to the promotion of East-West scholarship and understanding just recently, Capitol Hill has been undercutting international programs for far longer, with even more damaging results. Russian studies have been particularly victimized by politicians on Capitol Hill. Funding for Title VI National Research Centers — like those where I was trained and where the very few academic jobs on Russia arose — has been under assault by “fiscal conservatives” for the past few years. The prestigious Fulbright-Hays award for dissertation research abroad was canceled in 2011, before a limited reinstatement. In 2013, House Republicans defunded research in political science supported by the National Science Foundation, unless researchers can show that their research will promote American security or economic interests. Finally, in 2013 the federal government cut its Title VIII programs, which had funded my study abroad opportunities, as well as those of America’s top Russia researchers and diplomats.

The lesson is tragic but clear: just when America finds itself in need of new experts and new expertise on Russia and Eurasia, Capitol Hill has effectively castrated most every nonmilitary program that promotes language acquisition, cultural proficiency, and research into the region. This bleak situation is only made worse by the new barriers to international education erected by the Russian side as bilateral relations deteriorate.

If present trends continue, the ability to develop in-depth expertise on the languages, cultures, and politics of the former Soviet Union may soon be limited to heritage speakers with roots in the region, those with a specialized area-studies training in the military, or the narrow stratum of individuals wealthy enough to fund their own language training. For the development of robust expertise into regions that are of strategic national concern — now and for the foreseeable future — none of these are palatable outcomes.

Mark Schrad is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University and the author of Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State (Oxford University Press, 2014).

American Councils Alumni Spotlight – Alisha Kirchoff

REEEC Associate Director Alisha Kirchoff was interviewed by American Councils about her study abroad experience in Vladimir, Russia (2004-2005). This is a re-posting of the original interview, which can be found at


Alisha Kirchoff, Associate Director of REEEC

Alisha Kirchoff, Associate Director of REEEC

Alumna Alisha Kirchoff was interviewed by American Councils. She reflects on how she became interested in Russian, her time abroad with American Councils, and how her experience abroad led to meaningful work in the field of Russian and Eurasian Studies.

AC: Tell us how you originally became interested in Russian language and culture?

AK: There were a collection of things that piqued my interest in Russian during my childhood and teen years. For example, I read A LOT of Dostoevsky after being introduced to Crime and Punishment in my AP European Literature course. Thankfully, I learned that there is more to Russian literature than Notes from the Underground. When I was in high school my family participated in a Kiwanis Club short-term exchange program for banking professionals from Russia and we had two gentlemen stay with us for a couple of weeks. One was from St. Petersburg and the other from Sochi. It was a great experience for me because I got to learn about Russia from real Russians, who taught me a few words and a bit about customs, humor, etc. When I got to college, I decided to give Russian language classes a try. Thanks to the fantastic instruction I received at the University of Wisconsin and the guidance from Prof. Ben Rifkin, I had declared a major in Russian by the end of my first semester. Prof. Rifkin also helped inform my choice to study abroad with American Councils, which would come a bit later.

AC: Why did you choose to study abroad?

AK: In hindsight, there were a lot of reasons to study abroad. There is something to be said for having a personal connection to a place, language and civilization that one is studying. There are some incredible educational resources at American universities, but nothing can compare with being there. At the time, however, I think that my main motivation was professional. I wanted a good job in a field that would allow me to use my area studies and language expertise. At the time, I thought I would go to work for the government, so I applied for a NSEP Boren scholarship, which I saw as another building block for my professional profile. I had a hard time seeing myself as a professional using Russian without having been there for myself.

AC: What was your experience like in Vladimir that year?

AK: Going to Vladimir was probably the best thing that could have happened for me. The instructors at CORA were so invested in our progress and success, and they have all been highly trained to deliver quality instruction to their students. My primary objective for studying abroad was to improve my language skills as much as possible in the time I had. My expectations were exceeded in Vladimir. People study abroad for lots of reasons, but if someone’s foremost interest is in improving their language skills, they should absolutely choose the Vladimir option.

AC: Tell us a bit about your expectations going in to the program versus the realities you experienced abroad.

AK: It’s difficult to remember what my expectations were going in to the program. I do remember it being more challenging than I thought. I entered the program with 3 years of college level Russian and a lot of literature/history/area studies courses under my belt, but I still found the coursework to be rigorous, and there were days when simple interactions (like the kind we practice hundreds of times in class!) were so confusing. Taking a Russian language or culture class is one thing, but being there to live the language and the culture is far more challenging to adapt to than I fully appreciated before I went. I also thought that culture shock wouldn’t affect me as much as it did. I had this idea that, even though I expected to miss home and feel something like culture shock, that I really knew what I was in for. I had read all these books and learned everything I possibly could before I went to try and avoid those classic symptoms of culture shock, but I still struggled with it in a very real way.

AC: What was the most valuable aspect of your time abroad?

AK: At the risk of being too abstract, the most valuable aspect about my time abroad was the person I became through the process. The other two people in Vladimir with me for the academic year are still among my circle of good friends–we have experienced other important life events with and through one another (weddings, graduate programs, military service). I also learned how to stick up for myself and developed a great deal of maturity during my year abroad. I was a more passive person when I arrived in Russia than when I left. I guess someone cut the line at the Vokzal in front of me one too many times!

AC: How was life with a host family?

AK: I had a great host family. I lived with a mother and daughter–they were both teachers in town. They had a nice apartment on the SW side of town. I felt especially lucky because there was a TV in my room and I think some of my Russian skills improved by watching American movies on the movie channel dubbed into Russian. I already knew the storyline for some of the films and it really helped to be able to carefully listen to the dialogue. I have lots of fond memories of knitting and sipping tea with my host mother and watching movies together on the brutal winter evenings. Both my hosts and I are avid knitters, and I learned so many interesting techniques from them. They taught me a lot of “life skills” — it was a warm and nurturing environment for me.

AC: Outside of class, what type of relationships and activities did you pursue that were most meaningful?

AK: I made a good friend through the tutoring (kurator) program. I was well-matched and not only developed a long-term friendship with my tutor, but also got to know his family and keep in touch with them as well. I also did some volunteer work at a center for women and children in town during the fall term. This was an interesting experience in a number of ways, but not the least of which was learning more about organizational and professional culture in Russia, using office and computer applications in a different context. There is an entirely separate set of computer-related vocabulary that I would not have been introduced to otherwise. In the spring, I worked with a professor from the local university to develop and write my own research paper. He helped me learn how to use the library and write a massive paper (I think it was close to 20 pages) on the reasons for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In hindsight, I realize that this was a Herculean task, and I can’t believe anyone let me do it. It was so ambitious and difficult; it really prepared me for writing a Master’s thesis…

AC: When you think back on your experience, what was the one most memorable moment that sticks with you?

AK: Taking a late fall trip to Sochi/Adler and standing on the shores of the Black Sea for the first time. I remember thinking that it was so beautiful that it was almost overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine any other place that could be so vast, yet so intimate. It was also that trip (and 48 hours on a train each way) that revealed the vastness and diversity of Russia in real, lasting terms to me. The Black Sea region was so different from what had become familiar to me in Vladimir and Moscow at that point; I finally began to realize how exceptional Russia is.

AC: What did the program enable you to do upon your return? How did it change you?

AK: Russia made me a stronger person, a more aware person, and it opened my eyes to how life can be so different in another place, but that people can still find many things in common. On my train trip to Sochi, I met a couple on the train who were vacationing from Voronezh. We got to talking about American politics, President Bush, and the Iraq war, which was in the middle of its second controversial year. When the topic came up, I was preparing myself for a contentious discussion about the ills of American intervention abroad, but instead that conversation became one of great sympathy from my new friends towards the American families sending their children to go abroad to fight in a war that had such a seemingly unclear purpose. I remember the woman with whom I was speaking saying something to the effect of “no one knows better than us how people can be victims of their government.” That conversation really stuck with me. It was a good example of how people can disagree with policy decisions without losing their compassion for the human cost. That lesson has been particularly useful for me as I think about some of the violent and unfortunate events in Russia and involving Russia in the region as of late. People and their government are not always the same thing. The current situation in Ukraine is a very good example of this. My time in Russia helped me to learn that there is a way to dislike a collective action without judging or hating the individual actors.

AC: How did the experience abroad affect your career path?

AK: After returning from a year abroad, I knew that I wanted to enroll in an area studies MA program, and went on from Wisconsin to the University of Toronto program in European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. From there, I was hired as the Program Coordinator for the Eurasia Program at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). After I was hired at SSRC, I was told that one of the standout items on my resume was the fact that I had spent an entire academic year in Russia. Because of this, they were confident in my abilities to work on projects that took place in Russia, and engage with Russian scholars and students. I would say that my study abroad experience was a very important factor in my hire at SSRC, and my position at SSRC led me to a job that I love now working at a University where I get to work with scholars and students interested in the region every day. I feel so fortunate to have had these opportunities that led me to a job I truly enjoy.

AC: Would you recommend the American Councils program to others? Any words of advice for those who may be unsure about studying in Russia?

AK: I would and I do. I have the great pleasure of working with college students in my current position (Associate Director of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois). There are always hundreds of reasons not to do something. If you are interested in it at all, you should go. You will never know the ways in which it can and will enrich your life. You are more likely to regret not going than you are to regret making the attempt.

Reflections on the Founding of REEEC

This is a re-posting of an article published in the Illinois International Review. International Programs and Studies (IPS) commissioned the article in honor of Ralph Fisher’s recognition in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) Centennial Gallery of Excellence for establishing the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC), and creating a wonderful legacy for international studies and area studies centers at the University of Illinois. To view the original article, please see


Ralph Fisher and Larry Miller in the Slavic Library celebrating Fisher's 90th birthday, April 5, 2010. Photographed by Alisa Kolodizner.

Ralph Fisher and Larry Miller in the Slavic Library celebrating Fisher’s 90th birthday, April 5, 2010. Photographed by Alisa Kolodizner.

When Ralph Fisher, the founder of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center (REEEC), first came to the University of Illinois in 1958, Illinois was not a major center for Russian and East European Studies.  In his memoir, Swimming with the Current (1992), Fisher remarks that in a 1956 U.S. State Department publication identifying the country’s academic centers on the region, “Illinois had not even been listed among the also-rans.”  In fact, other Midwestern institutions like the University of Chicago, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin were “far ahead.”  According to Fisher, “there was no obvious, altruistic-sounding sales pitch for adding a Russian center in east-central Illinois.” From these humble beginnings, Fisher built Illinois into one of the most important academic and research centers for Russia, Eastern Europe, and Eurasia, not only in the U.S., but around the world.

Larry Miller, the Senior Slavic Bibliographer and Collection Development Officer at the University of Illinois Libraries, affirms the significance of Ralph Fisher’s legacy. He was the first Slavic librarian at Illinois, who came to Champaign-Urbana in 1959, fresh out of the Indiana University library school, where he received a degree that combined library science and Slavic Studies.  One of the main reasons why Miller came was that Fisher needed a Slavic librarian to catalog all the Russian books he had purchased, a build-up of the Russian collections that was completely his initiative and enthusiastically supported by the University Library.  At his job interview, Miller was impressed with the people and the staff, which resulted in him accepting the position.  He began his Illinois career as the Slavic cataloger in the cataloging department.  During his two years as a cataloger, Miller cataloged books from Russian libraries.  In his third year, he became the acting head of Slavic acquisitions, which meant that he was also a member of the Center’s executive committee.  At that time, the head of acquisitions was also a part of the executive committee.1960-1961 was the first academic year for the Russian and East European Center.  From its inception, it emphasized an interdisciplinary curriculum.  It offered an undergraduate major and a graduate certificate.  The Russian Department, which worked closely with the Center, was able to offer a master’s degree.  Additionally, the Center ensured that the Library became a world-class institution.  The Library budget and staff of Slavic specialists continued to grow.  Dmytro Shtohryn, a specialist in Ukrainian Studies who continues to contribute to the field today, was hired in January 1960.  The allowance for Russian acquisitions increased to $34,000, which resulted in the ability to purchase more texts and add to the Library’s collection.

Dr. Ralph Fisher was honored as one of 25 prominent people in the College of LAS Centennial Gallery of Excellence.

Dr. Ralph Fisher was honored as one of 25 prominent people in the College of LAS Centennial Gallery of Excellence. Photos courtesy of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center.

From 1959 to 1987, Fisher was director of the Russian and East European Center.  In Swimming with the Current, he humbly states that he “might more precisely have been called ‘facilitator’ or ‘promoter.’”  He describes his role as “that of helping others to do what they wanted to do and responding to their encouragement and appreciation.”  Nevertheless, his leadership was crucial to the Center’s growth.  “Our Center had smooth sailing with our university administration,” he mentions in his memoir.  He points out the helpfulness of administrators like President David Henry, Provost Lyle Lanier, and Deans Jack Peltason and Bob Rogers.  “From my standpoint, they were near-perfect bosses: They understood what our Center needed; they encouraged and supported us within their means, and at the same time they gave us a long leash.”

Throughout his career, Fisher knew the importance of an outstanding library for research and scholarship.  He was a huge supporter for the Library and knew how important a wealth of academic resources was for the Center.  He persuaded the Center’s executive committee to champion the Library. Miller remembers that Fisher could be very convincing and firm in his passion for the Library.  Robert Downs, the dean of the University Library at that time, was amazed at the level of support among the faculty.  He was very happy to support Fisher’s efforts to grow the reputations of both the Center and the Library.  In his interactions with Dean Downs, Fisher had a solid commitment from the University Library to build major collections in order to attract students and faculty, collections that would rival Columbia, Berkeley, and Harvard.  He wrote hundreds of proposals and reports to seek funds for both the Center and the Library.  He would discuss with Miller, who was responsible for writing the Library portion, what should go into the proposals in terms of the Library’s needs.  He constantly urged Miller to take advantage of special opportunities that would come up to buy books and add to the Library’s already impressive collection.  According to Miller, having Fisher’s enthusiastic support was a “dream come true.”  Fisher’s good professional relationship with Dean Downs and his active fund-raising led to the University of Illinois hosting the Midwest Slavic Library Conference in 1964.  By that year, Illinois already had the largest Slavic collection in the Midwest, a feat accomplished in less than 6 years.

Fisher smiles for the camera with Department of History Chair Diane Koenker and history Professor Mark Steinberg.

Fisher smiles for the camera with Department of History Chair Diane Koenker and history Professor Mark Steinberg.

In Larry Miller’s words, the relationship between the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center and the Library is an “ideal relationship, for sure.”  In 1966-1967, the Center’s executive committee asked Miller to organize a course in Slavic bibliography because students were unsure of how to use the Library’s amazing collection.  The first course took place in 1967 in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) and was a success.  The course indicated how much the Center appreciated the Library’s collection and the importance of students knowing how to use such a remarkable resource.

However, the Center did not only have strong connections to the Library, but also to other departments around campus.  Starting in 1963, it sponsored undergraduate majors in Russian language and area studies, and East European and Russian Studies, along with a graduate certificate in Russian language and area studies with the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.  From 1961 to 1971, the Center and its affiliated departments graduated 586 undergraduate students, 206 master’s students, and 49 doctoral students.  The Center’s wealth of scholarly resources helped its different departmental affiliates to attract and retain top faculty.  By 1971, the Center had around 38 faculty members whose teaching concentrated on or incorporated Russia and Eastern Europe.  Some of them are still teaching at Illinois today, including Keith Hitchins (history) and Peter Maggs (law).

Fisher, Steinberg, and Prof. Donna Buchanan.

Fisher, Steinberg, and Prof. Donna Buchanan.

Real cooperation between the Library and the Center began in 1970.  The Slavic Division was formerly part of the Special Languages Department of the University Library.  In 1970, the Slavic collections moved into room 225 of the Main Library, which became the Slavic and East European Library.  In his memoir, Fisher calls it the “most momentous single event of the early stage of our Center.”  For the first time, all the staff working on the region was combined in one room.  There was a circulating collection and a display of current periodicals.  The Library became a gathering place, leading to a closer relationship between the librarians and the faculty.  1970 was also the year that the Library conducted its first major outreach activity: a government-funded 6-week course to train Slavic librarians.  There were 15 librarians in that inaugural class. Furthermore, 1970 was the first year that the Library gave full service to scholars studying the region.  It developed a reputation for being very helpful.  The University of Illinois had a better, more accessible setting for visiting scholars than other research libraries, an essential component being the friendly and knowledgeable library staff.  The renowned Slavic Reference Service (SRS), founded by Marianna Tax Choldin in 1975, developed from this close relationship between the librarians and scholars worldwide.

One of the most fruitful and long-lasting partnerships between the REEEC and the Library was the Summer Research Laboratory (SRL), which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013.  Miller calls it a “highly successful program” that has expanded rapidly.  From its beginning in 1973, it was open to what Fisher describes as “any qualified professional with a reasonable-looking research project, up to the limit of the funds we could find for housing.”  In particular, Fisher sought out “those many people who, although well trained, were teaching in small institutions or had heavy teaching loads or had been out of academic life for a while.”  One of SRL’s goals was to create a “relaxed, non-exclusive atmosphere where dissertation-stage students and young scholars could mingle easily with experienced scholars.” During the lab’s first year, 44 scholars attended.  Last year, more than a hundred attended.  Scholars receive intensive individualized help from the librarians, who are in contact with them not only for the duration of the lab, but throughout the year.  Research undertaken at SRL has appeared in many prestigious scholarly journals.  Many authors have and continue to acknowledge SRL in their publications.  To provide even more resources for scholars from all over the world, the SRS developed as a broad reference service for anyone who needed help in finding books or citations.  “It became the centerpiece of everything,” Miller said.  The SRS was able to attain materials that were missing from North American libraries.  It could obtain microfilms of books for free from major Russian libraries.  Visiting scholars would form discussion groups, where librarians would give them background information.  The focus on the individual scholar, who could be a graduate student or a senior faculty member, was truly what distinguished SRL and SRS from other programs and services, not only in the United States, but worldwide. Even 40 years later, Larry remarked that the program remains “very unique.”  It has only added to the Center’s stellar reputation.

In conclusion, Larry Miller noted the strengths of the very close relationship between the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center, and the Library, which began under Ralph Fisher.  Together, they collaborate for the Title VI application to the U.S. Department of Education to continue funding the excellent services and programs the two organizations offer.  The expanding SRL, the outstanding SRS, and the expansion of the International Reference Service to other areas are a testament to the strong ties between the Center and the Library.  The recently formed International and Area Studies Library works with all the area studies centers to arrange special programs, outreach, and cultural events.  However, Miller praised the immense degree of cooperation between REEEC and the Library.  REEEC has “by far the most productive Library-Center partnership,” fueled by “much more intense connections.”  A highlight of the 2013-2014 academic year was the visit of Zeljko Komsic, the Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The International and Area Studies Library served as the reception location, where members of the Illinois community had the opportunity to meet with President Komsic.  According to Larry Miller, the connection between REEEC and the Library is a “model for other centers to follow.”

In fall 2013, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences honored Ralph Fisher for establishing and developing REEEC, an exemplary area studies center praised both on campus and around the country.  His legacy lives on in the Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum, a colloquium bringing world-renowned scholars to the Illinois campus during the summer, as well as all the programming that REEEC supports.  In the conclusion of Swimming with the Current, Ralph Fisher notes his amazement at the success of REEEC.  “I see most of all the role of good people and luck.  We had no grand design.  We depended heavily on the good will of others.”  That good will has continued to this day.

Stephanie Chung, Ph.D. Student, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

What Can Afghanistan, Kosova, and Poland Tell Us About American Universities?

On Thursday, September 19, REEEC welcomed Professor Michael D. Kennedy who gave a fascinating lecture titled “What Can Afghanistan, Kosova, and Poland Tell Us About American Universities? Or How Area Studies Can Anchor Cosmopolitan Intellectuality and Consequential Solidarity.”  Michael D. Kennedy is a Professor of Sociology and International Studies at Brown University.  His research interests focus on both intellectuals and professionals in Eastern Europe as well as cultural politics, global transformations, and knowledge networks.  Most recently, he has been exploring social movements and universities. His recently finished manuscript “Articulations of Globalizing Knowledge” provided the basis for much of his lecture.

Professor Kennedy’s talk considered the importance and difficulties of understanding and conceptualizing difference across the world. Through an examination of Afghanistan, Kosova, and Poland, he also discussed the features that unite us.  He began by looking at the issue of where we choose to internationalize and why and he assessed the significance of linking together local and global networks. In particular,  he explored why we look at some locations as possessing a certain intellectual value that other locations lack.

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Professor Kennedy stressed that we need to explain why we perceive some locations to be more important than others.  His lecture focused on being able to recognize the value in locations across the world and forge international collaborations.  He explored these issues through a study of Afghanistan, Solidarność in Poland, Vetёvendosje in Kosova, and Afghanistan in light of its reception of international aid over the last several years.  He examined how Poland became a place that was “recognizable” and seen as a location of value because the Solidarity movement  had become a phenomena of interest to scholars and intellectuals.

Kennedy demonstrated that world events have a major impact on the level of importance scholars assign to a country.  He showed that sociological journals became heavily focused on Poland in the 1980s, during the time of the Solidarity movement.  In contrast, leading anthropological journals did not see a comparable spike in interest in the country.  I began to consider how different fields of study weigh the value of events and locations very differently.  As Professor Kennedy stated, Poland in the sociological scholarship of the 1980s was an “exemplary place to make a theoretical point.”

The lecture then shifted to a discussion of how the intellectual community does not see Kosova as possessing the same value as Poland, despite Vetёvendosje, a radical nationalistic political movement for self-determination.  The reason, he mentioned, is that Kosova is “not part of the global imagination” and does not possess, among others, the substantial knowledge networks that had elevated Poland’s position in American sociology.  Another discussion point of the lecture was Afghanistan.  Like Kosova, Afghanistan does not have strong knowledge networks, but Professor Kennedy highlighted that Afghanistan is “seen as a problem not a source of intellectual elevation.”

Within this context, he examined how these issues impacted policy implementation at the administrative level in higher education.  Additionally, he underscored the need to foster greater intellectual responsibility both at the local and global level.  According to Professor Kennedy, we need “to get systematic about the challenge of difference across the world” and “inspire image and gravitate to places that challenge our cosmopolitanism.”

After this lecture, I now have a greater understanding of how challenging the issue of difference is, and that value is a very relative term when speaking about different nations.  While I see improvements within the scholarly and intellectual community, more work clearly needs to be done to construct better international ties and global awareness.  More than ever, I believe that improved area studies programs at American universities and greater ties between these different programs within a university can help facilitate positive changes.

Ryan Eavenson is a second year MA student.  He is particularly interested in democratization, human rights, and European integration in the post-Soviet world.  His additional interests include Imperial and Soviet Russian history.  He received a AB in History/Russian and East European Studies from Lafayette College in 2010.  After graduation, he hopes to find employment focusing on international affairs or continue his education.