Featured Scholar - September 2020
What are you watching/streaming?
During quarantine, I have mostly been watching old favorites like "Parks and Recreation," "The Office," and "The Simpsons." It's comforting. Since it relates to my discipline, I did try watching the recent Hulu series "The Great," an absurdist comedy about the life of Catherine II of Russia. While I'm all for making fun of the Romanovs, this one was a bit too over the top for my taste. For example, the decision to make Peter III a sex-crazed bon vivant was a bit bizarre – all historical reports suggest that he was truly awful, but for completely opposite reasons!
What games are you playing?
A lot of fetch with my dogs, Ringo and Benny!
Other than that, mostly just "Words With Friends" with faraway family members. My mother and I always have two games on the go, and it's a great way to keep in touch and waste a little time. My mother and I are pretty well matched as players, but when I really want to feel humbled I play with my partner's cousin who is a staff writer for the New Yorker. What a vocabulary!
What are you listening to?
Like many people, I've been listening to recent quarantine records like Fiona Apple's "Fetch the Boltcutters." I don't really listen to a lot of podcasts, though I do support the Sean's Russia Blog Podcast (srbpodcast.org) and send my students there whenever possible. It's a fantastic way to learn about new research in the field and also to get to know the scholars who practice it.
What are you reading?
I try to have a scholarly book and a "fun" book on the go at all times.
For my scholarly read, I just finished the first book by my history colleague Richard Lutjens, Submerged on the Surface: The Not-So-Hidden Jews of Nazi Berlin,1941-1945, which is available as an open access e-book. It tells the story of the thousands of Jews who hid "in plain sight" in Berlin during the Second World War rather than fleeing the Nazis. It's an impressive book in many ways. Not only is the research exhaustive, it offers a very sophisticated exploration of Jewish agency during the Holocaust. And it's written in a remarkably jargon-free way that really draws the reader into the stories of individual Jews in a way that's profoundly humanizing. It's given me a lot to think about how I approach telling the stories of Gulag survivors in my own work.
For "fun" I often read about baseball and popular music. In a departure from usual practices, however, I just finished reading the three books that my daughter was assigned for a project between ninth and tenth grades: Chaim Potok's The Chosen, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, and Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake. I hadn't read any of them before, and it was great fun – especially because I got to discuss them with my daughter afterwards. It's a great list of books, each of which relates a coming-of-age story, though from very different perspectives. It was an opportunity for me to reflect on these diverse American stories, and also a chance to reflect on different aspects of my own identity: as a Jew, as a resident of Llano Estacado, and as an immigrant who also happens to be the child of an immigrant.
What are you writing/thinking about?
I'm finishing up an edited collection of new work on the Gulag with Emily Johnson (University of Oklahoma). It's been a fascinating process from beginning to end. Collaborating with another scholar from a neighboring discipline (Johnson is in Russian language and culture) on all stages of the book -- to formulate the book project, select and work with authors on their individual pieces, and then co-write an introduction – has been a lot of fun. I'm very lucky that my co-editor has a lot of experience doing edited volumes, and it's helped avoid many potential pitfalls. The end result, Rethinking the Gulag: Sources, Identities, Legacies (Indiana UP), will hopefully be coming out in 2021!
In terms of new writing, I've recently started working on a work that presents the history of the Soviet Gulag to a more general audience: The Gulag: A Very Short Introduction. Basically, I have to boil down the history and legacy of the Gulag into a 35,000 word book that is pitched for the general educated public. I'm finding that writing this book presents me with many challenges, particularly in trying to fold as many angles and perspectives into a coherent narrative as possible. Reading Rick Lutjens' recent book on Jews who hid "in plain sight" (see above) has really driven home one of the big challenges of trying to synthesize the experiences of many people – how does one present the "big picture" while through a narrative that is as rich in human examples as possible? This, I think, is one of the biggest challenges of short, synthetic works – how do you boil narratives down to their essentials but also keep them person and dynamic?