Senior Thesis Explores the Politics of Memory in Belfast

The Belfast Cenotaph next to City Hall.

In order to graduate with a degree in history, every student in the major must devise and complete an original research project during his or her senior year. Many take advantage of the wealth of local archives and resources located in the Washington, D.C. area. But some cast their net much wider. Such was the case with Katie Kerekes, who graduated from AU this past spring with a dual degree in History and International Studies. For her senior thesis, Kerekes conducted research on the Belfast Cenotaph in Northern Ireland. Erected in 1929 to commemorate those who had fought and died for the United Kingdom during World War I, the Belfast Cenotaph, located right next to City Hall, quickly became a contested site of competing local agendas and identity politics.

Kerekes visiting the ruins of Inch Abbey in County Down, Northern Ireland.

In order to explore these issues further, Kerekes embarked on two separate extended trips to Belfast. The first was in the summer of 2018, when as a study abroad student at Queen’s University Belfast she met with local experts to discuss the politics of commemoration and memory in Northern Ireland. She found that the Belfast Cenotaph was viewed as a flash point between those who wanted to remain loyal to the UK—mostly politically powerful Protestants—and the often disempowered Catholics who didn’t. With the rise of “the Troubles” in the 1960s, the cenotaph became the target of activists who were born long after World War I and wished to use it as a symbol of their own struggles. In order to make use of local archives, Kerekes returned to Belfast in January 2020 with the financial support of the department’s Valerie French and Robert Beisner History Education Fund award. “I’m incredibly indebted to the History Department for providing the funds for my research trip to Belfast,” Kerekes said. “It enabled me to consult public records in Northern Ireland, including the minutes of the war memorial committee from the 1920s.”

Since graduating from AU, Kerekes has been working as a visitor services assistant at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall. She sees direct parallels between her research on the Belfast Cenotaph and the contested public narratives represented in museums such as the one she now helps to facilitate access to. “Especially right now, people are very interested in the stories that this museum has to tell,” Kerekes said. “I’m glad this museum is open again to continue the dialogue on the history of racism in the United States.” Looking ahead, Kerekes intends to pursue a career in academia or the non-profit sector, where she can continue to apply her research and writing skills first honed in the classroom and field. “I really want my career to be focused on the questions of why we remember the things that we do, and what the implications of that remembering are for peace and social justice.”

History Thesis Forged over a Russian Winter

Folsom in Red Square, Moscow.

Many students hope to spend their holiday breaks on a warm and sunny beach rather than the middle of a frigid Russian winter, but Gabriella Folsom had a less than typical winter break experience. This January, Folsom went on a two week, all-expenses-paid research trip to Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Petrozavodsk in order to continue her senior thesis on Kizhi Island. Folsom’s relationship with Russian history and culture began her freshman year when she started studying the Russian language. During the summer of 2018, she traveled to Russia with Dr. Anton Fedyashin’s Carmel Institute summer class to walk history, practice the language, and experience the culture firsthand. “It was my first time out of the country,” says Folsom, “and those two weeks turned out to be one of the most formative experiences I’ve had at AU.” That trip lit a passion for Russian history, and the next spring she spent her semester abroad at the Smolny faculty of Saint Petersburg State University. That summer, she received her second Carmel Institute scholarship, which funded her summer studies at Moscow State University. This research trip marks her fourth time in Russia, and her third trip taken thanks to the generosity of the Carmel Institute and the support of the History Department.

Folsom in the Reading Room of the Russian State Library in Moscow.

Folsom’s thesis explores Kizhi Island, which lies in Lake Onega not far from Finland, and its complex history under Soviet rule. Its chief claim to fame is the stunning complex of centuries-old churches which dominate the landscape. During the late Stalinist period, the Soviet Union—an atheist state—had to reinterpret Kizhi’s legacy as a religious monument into that of a secular historic and architectural marvel. This trip allowed her to conduct original research at the Russian State Library, Russian National Library, the National Archive of the Republic of Karelia, and the Kizhi Museum itself.

Over the span of two weeks, Folsom travelled from city to city, culminating with a stop on Kizhi Island itself. “It was quite a time,” Folsom recalled with a laugh. “I had to take a hovercraft across the frozen lake, only to find all of the churches padlocked when I got to the island. It’s an open-air museum and it’s in the north, so it makes sense that in the winter they lock stuff up when they don’t think tourists are there.” She eventually caught the eye of a few guards—named Oleg, Oleg, Misha, and Maxim—who took her around the island. “They basically gave me my own private tour. I think they were bored of just standing around in the cold, so they pseudo-adopted me for a few hours. At one point I fell on the ice and Oleg II just fireman-carried me for half a mile. I told him it was unnecessary, but he just found it funny. I’m a big fan.”

Folsom in front of Kizhi Island’s Church of the Transfiguration, which has twenty-two domes. The church dates back to 1714.

As for her academics, Folsom says the History Department at AU has always supported her learning and research interests, and that “the opportunities it has offered [her] have been truly second to none.” Folsom plans to spend the summer after her graduation this spring in Moscow once more, as she has received another scholarship from the Carmel Institute to fund her summer studies. “Very few students are able to experience history the way I have, let alone undergraduates. It really reaffirms that I made the right choice coming to AU,” says Folsom.

Inaugural Postdoctoral Fellow Brings New Perspective to the Vietnam War

Nguyet Nguyen, who received her Ph.D. in History in 2019, is now the inaugural recipient of the Janet Oppenheim Postdoctoral Fellowship at AU. 

When Nguyet Nguyen first came to the United States from Vietnam, the culture shock was profound. Having won a Fulbright scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in Communications at the University of Oregon in 2007, Nguyen struggled to adapt to even the most trivial aspects of daily life in America. “The cultural shock was astounding,” she recalled. “I didn’t know American slang or customs and I was very naïve. I didn’t even know how to use doorknobs or bathrooms, or how to ride the bus.” Her refuge was in the classroom, where Nguyen gained a reputation for “asking the sort of questions that American students are too embarrassed to ask.” After obtaining an M.A. in Communications in 2009, Nguyen was admitted to the doctoral program in history at American University, where she wrote a dissertation on the Vietnam War under the supervision of Max Paul Friedman.

With the completion of her Ph.D. in 2019, Nguyen was awarded the Janet Oppenheim Postdoctoral Fellow. This fellowship provides her with the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course on the Vietnam War, conduct additional research, and revise her dissertation into a book manuscript. Her class on the Vietnam War strives to introduce new perspectives that are often overlooked or ignored in conventional American narratives. “Most people think of the war as a noble anti-communist cause that went wrong,” she said. “If only we had done this right or that right, or if we had understood the Vietnamese better, it all would have ended differently.” By contrast, Nguyen draws attention to the many other areas of geopolitical self-interest across Southeast Asia that encouraged growing U.S. involvement in the war, regardless of Cold War ideologies. “Even if our methods had been right,” she adds, “the intention still was not right. The intention was always to divide the country into two. This means that war would have continued regardless.”

In 2013, Nguyet Nguyen accepted a grant from the Cosmos Foundation for a research trip to France.

Nguyen believes that there is still a lot of healing that needs to be done with regard to the war. But in order to facilitate such healing, we first need to let go of our cherished myths concerning the origin of the conflict. Ken Burns’s ten-part documentary series on the Vietnam War, which first aired on PBS in 2017, was a step in the right direction, Nguyen said. She was impressed to see that it included Vietnamese perspectives as well as those of the Americans. “But what it didn’t say is just as important as what it did say,” Nguyen observed. “It still hammered home the idea that the spread of communism was the chief motivating factor in the American decision to join the war, and reinforced the idea that U.S. leaders were simply naïve and overly optimistic. It avoided discussing all the other areas of self-interest that the U.S. had in Southeast Asia at the time—interests that ensured U.S. involvement in Vietnam sooner or later.”

Once she completes her postdoctoral fellowship at AU, Nguyen hopes to publish her book and find a job as a professor of history at a university in the United States. “I could never talk this openly about the Vietnam War if I taught this subject back in Vietnam,” she noted. Her dream, she said, “is to become a professor in a department just like this one—the AU History Department is the best!”

History Grad Student Bridges Policy and Academic Worlds

Reza H. Akbari was only 16 years old when he first came to the United States. Having just emigrated from Iran with his family, Akbari spoke only Persian. In order to complete his high school degree in Buffalo, New York, he would need to learn English—fast. “I spoke no meaningful English when we first arrived here,” Akbari said. “It took about a year and half before I felt comfortable getting around.” The tragic events of September 11, which occurred not long after his arrival, only made things more difficult.

Reza at the Mosque of Ibn Tulun overlooking Cairo in 2011

Since then, Akbari has developed a keen interest in contributing to a better understanding of political developments in the Middle East. “I have always been interested in history,” Akbari said. After obtaining a B.A. in political science from SUNY-Fredonia, Akbari came to Washington, D.C. for what was supposed to be a three-month internship at the Wilson Center. But the opportunity to conduct research alongside accomplished scholars in the nation’s capital convinced him to stay. “I saw firsthand how scholars utilize history to contextualize present times and inform their work,” Akbari recalled. “Without that context, you can misread current events.” Akbari’s internship was so stimulating that he ended up pursuing a full-time career in the D.C. policy world. Akbari has served as a Research Associate for the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute and a Research Associate at The Stimson Center. He also found time to complete an M.A. from The George Washington’s Elliot School of International Affairs, writing a thesis on the potential for political reconciliation in Bahrain.

Reza at the Baths of Carthage, Tunisia in June 2019

At AU, Akbari is advised by Pedram Partovi. Under Prof. Partovi’s guidance, Akbari now hopes to study the formation, evolution, and impact of political parties in semi-authoritarian states like Iran. “Are political parties in Iran today meaningful or are they just window dressing?” Akbari wonders. “Even if they do not have much of an electoral role, they still maintain close relationships with various members of society, and vice versa. It is much more complicated than we think.” According to Akbari, the AU History Department provides an excellent environment to pursue research on this subject. “It has been such a welcoming department right from the get-go,” he says. “I love the approach to history here. The professors treat history as a very present concept, something that is still alive and informs our opinions of events today. That resonated with me right away.”

Pamela Nadell Discusses “American Jewish Women”

AU History professor and director of the Jewish Studies Program Pamela Nadell sits down with Justin Jacobs to discuss her new book, America’s Jewish Women: A History from Colonial Times to Today (Norton, 2019). In this interview, Prof. Nadell reveals what inspired her to write this book, how she managed to trace a common thread of Jewish identity across time and space, and which of the many stories she tells resonated with her the most.

 

 

History Prof Helps Redefine an American Icon

Back in the early 1980s, the Statue of Liberty, one of the country’s most prominent icons, was in urgent need of repair. In 1982, Lee Iacocca, chair of the Chrysler Corporation, backed a proposal to combine the restoration of the Statue of Liberty with the development of Ellis Island, where million of immigrants had once disembarked after sailing past the iconic statue, into a historical site. Just two years later, Alan Kraut, a professor of American history at AU and expert on the history of immigration, was asked to join a team of prominent historians who would offer advice and feedback for these two monumental projects.

Prof. Alan Kraut and his wife Deborah stand next to the Statue of Liberty’s torch as it is lowered for repairs on July 4, 1984. Exactly two years later, the repaired torch was unveiled atop a fully renovated statue.

Thus was born the History Advisory Committee of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Foundation. Since 2003, Prof. Kraut, a member of the committee since its inception, has served as its chair. The History Advisory Committee (HAC) is appointed by the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation, which raised the funds for the renovations and museums on Liberty and Ellis Islands. Composed of fourteen scholars from across the country, the HAC offers the museum designers and the National Park Service crucial feedback on the historical content of the exhibitry and how best to present complex historical information to the general public. “It gives me great pleasure to bring the history of the country to a broader public through exhibits in museums,” Kraut said of his work, “and of course through work on the Statue of Liberty, which has come in many ways to replace Uncle Sam as the symbol of America.”

At the moment, Prof. Kraut is closely involved with the creation of new museum exhibits on the Statue of Liberty site. So many tourists now visit the site that many are unable to gain admittance into the statue. In response to this situation, Prof. Kraut has worked together with ABC News Documentary Division and Walt Disney Imagineering Division to develop a new introductory film to the Statue of Liberty Museum. “The purpose of this film is to give people a sense of the statue, its significance, and to introduce them to the tremendous visuals that they are going to engage with,” Kraut said. “We hope to give all visitors to the museum a sense of the majesty of the statue and a flavor of the excitement, even if they cannot get inside.”

The new museum and film are scheduled to open on May 15. The goal is to encourage visitors to this iconic monument to reflect on the evolving meanings of liberty in America. “We want people to really think about what liberty means and how it has developed in America,” Kraut said.

The Silk Road Journal Now Hosted at AU

The Silk Road, an open-access online annual publication of The Silk Road House, has just published its first issue under the editorship of Justin M. Jacobs, an associate professor in the History Department. Jacobs took over editing duties of the journal in 2018, after more than fifteen years in the capable hands of former editor Daniel C. Waugh, professor emeritus of history at the University of Washington. Once a print and online publication, The Silk Road now appears exclusively on a customized Edspace website hosted by AU.

A female corpse from the Central Asian region of Tuva examined in “Recent Excavations of Xiongnu Graves on the Left Bank of the Ulug-Khem in Tuva,” in Vol. 16 of The Silk Road.

The recently published Volume 16 contains articles on recent excavations of Xiongnu graves in Tuva, Japanese spies in Inner Asia, Sogdians in Khotan, Persians in Tang China, a Chinese celadon in Novgorod, comparison of Hun and Mongol military technologies, the Blue Room at Panjikent, and book reviews. The content of the journal is designed to appeal both to scholars and an educated generalist audience alike.

 

 

AU Students Encounter a Different Russia

Every summer, a small group of students from AU and beyond gets the opportunity to embark on a life-changing trip to Russia. Their guide is Anton Fedyashin, an associate professor in the History Department. Since 2012, Prof. Fedyashin had led 8-10 students to St. Petersburg and Moscow to explore the history, culture, and literature of Russia. The program is fully funded by the Carmel Institute, which covers round-trip airfare, lodging, entrance fees to museums and concerts, breakfast, and dinner for each lucky student. The only cost incurred by participants is their daily lunch.

View of the Gulf of Finland from the terrace of the Peterhof Palace outside St. Petersburg in 2018. Pictured from left to right: Max Hempe, Alia Carlton, Mackenzie Heather, Elena Vernikos, Ryan Fedasyuk, Julia Zaglin, Gabriella Folsom, and Mary Jane Builes.

Admission to this summer program is competitive: of the approximately forty applications that are received each year, no more than ten are selected by Prof. Fedyashin to go to Russia. In addition to GPA, applicants must also write two essays explaining how a visit to Russia fits within their academic or professional plans. Prof. Fedyashin then interviews each student personally to ensure his or her suitability for the trip. Their reward is ten days of intense sightseeing, readings, and discussion with Prof. Fedyashin on the streets of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and beyond. Each trip is organized around a specific theme, which changes every year. In the past, students have gotten to learn about “Dostoevsky’s Russia” (2012), “Romanov Russia” (2013), “Literary Russia” (2014), “Twentieth-Century Russia” (2015), “Musical Russia” (2016), “Revolutionary Russia (2017), and “The Human Figure in Russian Culture” (2018).

Grand staircase of the Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 2018.

According to Prof. Fedyashin, participants come away from this experience with a radically different view of Russia than they receive from the mainstream media. “They are struck by how modern and dynamic Moscow and St. Petersburg are,” Fedyashin said, “how warm the people are, how proud the Russians are of their history and culture, and how much effort they put into preserving all these things.” Elena Vernikos, an AU senior in the School of Public Affairs, admitted to knowing little about Russia before applying to the program. “At the beginning of our journey I had no idea what to expect,” Vernikos said. Having long viewed U.S.-Russian relations through an “us vs. them” lens, Vernikos came away from her trip with a more “humanized” view of Russian society. “I feel lucky to have had this experience, and also grateful that I now have a different, more nuanced view of Russia and its history, culture, and people.”

This was the goal of the Carmel Institute from the beginning, Fedyashin notes. “I’m very grateful to Ms. Carmel for funding the Carmel Institute because it allows American students to see Russia as it is, not as it is not or as it should be. And that is a very important component of informed dialogue and intelligent foreign policy.”