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.”

AU Grad Student Makes History in Siberia

Paul at the Moscow Archives

For the 2018–19 academic year, Paul Behringer, a Ph.D. student in the History Department, was awarded the prestigious Ernest May Fellowship in History and Policy at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which is housed in Harvard University’s Kennedy School. As part of the Belfer Center’s commitment to making historical research relevant for policymakers, Behringer is using his time at Harvard to hone his understanding of American military intervention in Siberia during the Russian civil war. Behringer’s dissertation, “U.S. and Japanese Intervention during the Russian Civil War: Violence and Barbarism in the Far East,” is the first in-depth study to examine both the actions and perceptions of complex developments on the ground from the tripartite perspective of American, Russian, and Japanese policymakers. The Japanese role, in particular, has often been marginalized in previous accounts of the war. “Although plenty has been written on the American intervention in the context of U.S.-Russia bilateral relations,” Behringer says, “no one has written a full-length treatment that takes Japan’s role into account. Whereas the Americans sent in about 10,000 soldiers, who were mainly tasked with guarding the railroads, the Japanese dispatched over 70,000 and engaged in combat operations.” The Japanese also stayed in Siberia much longer: while the Americans pulled out in 1920, the Japanese didn’t leave the Russian mainland until 1922.

Paul and his son in frigid Vladivostok

In his quest to narrate a fuller picture of the Russian civil war in Siberia, Behringer has traveled throughout the world in search of rarely consulted archival material. In addition to files held at the National Archives, Library of Congress, Stanford, Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard, he has also examined papers and reports in the National Diet Library in Tokyo. In Russia, he has obtained access to archives as far afield as Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Chita, in addition to Moscow. Amid such a large amount of historical data, Behringer continues to be fascinated by the unexpected twists and turns of history, particularly when they can be illustrated by the dramatic life stories of individual people. To Behringer, one of the most fascinating figures is Grigorii Semenov, a Buriat Cossack who first saw combat duty on the Eastern Front during World War I. When the Russian civil war broke out, however, Semenov, with Japanese assistance, managed to establish a short-lived anti-Bolshevik state based in the Siberian city of Chita. When the Japanese withdrew their armies in 1922, Semenov fled to the United States, only to return to Japanese-held Manchuria, where he was finally captured and executed by the Soviets after World War II. “I think his story is a great metaphor for the strange twists and turns of the Russian Civil War and foreign intervention and its lasting impact on Northeast Asia,” Behringer observed.

As part of his research in Russia, Behringer spent six months living in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, just across the border from North Korea. He believes that living in the places that he studies makes history come alive in a way that is otherwise unattainable. “It was important for me to live in Vladivostok to get a better sense how people experienced the intervention there a hundred years ago,” he says. “I know what it’s like to have hiked its steep hills, and I’ve felt the piercing wind and seen the mist rising off the frozen Golden Horn on a sunny winter morning. I’ve been to the train station, which is still standing from the period, and walked down the streets where American and Japanese soldiers marched on parade.” Behringer currently expects to complete his dissertation in Spring 2020.

History Major Learns About Presidential History

On August 28, 2018, Kathryn Morgan, a junior history major, got a rare opportunity to learn about presidential history first hand through her participation in the inaugural Presidential Sites Summit. The semi-annual three-day event, organized by the White House Historical Association, brings together historians and scholars whose work concerns famous and not-so-famous presidential sites, such as homes, archives, and museums. Participants get to learn more about the history and stories associated with these sites, some of which is revealed by the living descendants of presidents. At this year’s event, Morgan was able to rub shoulders with the great granddaughter of James Monroe, the great-grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, the grandson of Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, who talked about what it was like to have her prom at the White House.


Morgan first learned about the Presidential Sites Summit application process through the White House Historical Association’s Facebook page. Prof. Malgorzata Rymsza-Pawlowska, Morgan’s undergraduate faculty mentor, urged her to take the class, “A History of the White House,” which was taught by Matthew Costello. “I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to do this if I wasn’t in the History Department and had the resources and mentors that I have had to make those connections,” Morgan said. For Morgan, one of the highlights of the experience was the opportunity to walk through the White House, visit the Oval Office, and eat dinner on the premises. “I was excited to sit in historical chairs because the ropes are all down,” she said. After she graduates from AU, Morgan, who is interested in public history, hopes to gain experience working in a museum. “I am grateful for the opportunity to do this because I got to meet presidential descendants, journalists, and other professionals who are doing what I want to do one day.” The next Presidential Sites Summit will be held in 2020.

Katharina Vester Discusses “A Taste of Power”

History Professor Katharina Vester sits down with Justin Jacobs to discuss her book, A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities (University of California Press, 2015). Prof. Vester’s fascinating monograph analyzes how food has come to serve various political, social, and cultural agendas in American history.

More New Books By History Faculty

In National Duties: Custom Houses and the Making of the American State (Chicago, 2016), Gautham Rao makes the case that the origins of the federal government and the modern American state lie in the conflicts at government custom houses between the American Revolution and the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Lauded as “brilliantly researched and smartly argued,” Rao’s book “shows how the early republic depended overwhelmingly on customs revenue to pay its debts, fund its wars, and finance governance,” thus giving merchants involved in overseas trade an outsized role in the shaping of the contours of the federal government.

Justin Jacobs’s new monograph, Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State (Washington, 2016), views modern Chinese political history from the perspective of Han officials who were tasked with governing Xinjiang, a Muslim border region inhabited by Uighurs, Kazaks, Hui, Mongols, Kirgiz, and Tajiks. His analysis of relations between Han and non-Han peoples within modern China has been praised as representing “a quantum advance in sophistication and precision.” Prof. Jacobs is currently working on Indiana Jones in History: From Pompeii to the Moon, a book and documentary series inspired by a course he teaches at AU (HIST 330 – Antiquities, Exploration, and Empire: From Pompeii to the Moon). The course, documentary, and forthcoming book all provide a cultural history of Euro-American imperial expansion in the modern world, as seen through the lens of political controversies surrounding archaeological digs, expeditions, and exploration.

New Books by History Faculty

The past year was quite a busy and exciting one for the department’s junior faculty members, four of whom (Katharina Vester, Elke Stockreiter, Gautham Rao, and Justin Jacobs) published their first monographs. Katharina Vester’s book, A Taste of Power: Food and American Identities (California, 2015), examines culinary writing and practices as forces for the production of social order and, at the same time, points of cultural resistance. It has been praised as “a highly original, well-theorized analysis of how over 200 years’ worth of American cooking literature reveals changes in cultural identities.” Prof. Vester also recently received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor.

Elke Stockreiter’s Islamic Law, Gender and Social Change in Post-Abolition Zanzibar (Cambridge, 2015) reassesses the workings of Islamic courts, the participation of former slaves in the legal system, as well as gender and social relations in Zanzibar Town during the period of British colonial rule (1890-1963). This highly original work has been described as “a pioneering study” that establishes the contributions of Islamic courts to the reconfiguration of social relationships in post-abolition Zanzibar. Prof. Stockreiter is currently working on her second book project, titled, Identity, Religion, and Colonialism: A Social and Legal History of Djenné, c.1810s-1930s. In the summer of 2016, she conducted research for this project at the National Archives in Mali, West Africa, and consulted Arabic manuscripts at the Djenné Manuscript Library.

Please check back in the future as we continue to feature new books by History faculty.

Chinese History Students Visit Twin Oaks Estate


On November 14, 2016, nearly thirty students in Prof. Justin Jacobs’s modern Chinese history class (HIST 251) were treated to an exclusive reception hosted by the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) at the Twin Oaks estate in Woodley Park. Welcoming them onto the grounds were Yuri Yao-Tsung Chih, Director of the Education Division, Daniel K.C. Chen, Executive Officer in the Political Division, and Jennifer Chu, Senior Education Officer in the Education Division. After a short informational video about Taiwan’s history, culture, and economic development, Mr. Chih and Mr. Chen fielded numerous questions from the students regarding Taiwan’s relations with the United States and mainland China, issues made even more topical in light of the recent U.S. election. Following a short break for refreshments, Prof. Jacobs’s students were given a brief tour of the history of the estate and its use by the government of the Republic of China over the past century. This is the second time that TECRO has been kind enough to host a visit by AU’s students of modern Chinese history, in each instance providing an invaluable educational and professional experience that greatly enhances lessons learned in the classroom.


History Ph.D. Student to Give Commencement Speech

pietrobon-headshotAllen Pietrobon, currently a Visiting Professor of American History at Trinity University, has been selected to give the commencement speech for the December 2016 graduation ceremony at AU. In May 2016, Pietrobon defended his dissertation in the History Dept. at AU and received his Ph.D. in American History and Foreign Policy. A revised version of his dissertation, which analyzes the life and times of Norman Cousins, a prominent anti-nuclear activist and “citizen diplomat” during the Kennedy administration, is currently undergoing review at Johns Hopkins University Press, which has expressed interest in publishing it. Originally from Canada, Pietrobon began his studies at AU in 2010 under the mentorship of Prof. Peter Kuznick, while also working closely with Prof. Max Paul Friedman. Though he originally only planned to come to the United States to complete his Ph.D., Pietrobon says, the networks and contacts that he established here during his time at AU have led him to setting down more permanent roots.

As for what he plans to say in his commencement speech, Pietrobon revealed that he intends to present a historically informed message of hope and optimism as an antidote to the negative tone and tenor of the recent presidential election campaign. Drawing upon his extensive research on Norman Cousins, Pietrobon will highlight how Cousins responded to the “widespread despair and division” that accompanied the advent of the atomic age near three-quarters of a century ago. “In the face of a global and national situation that appeared bleak,” Pietrobon says of Cousins, “he was a rare and refreshing voice advocating for optimism.” As a historian, Pietrobon lays stress upon the fact that few things in our world are truly “unprecedented,” and that lessons drawn from similar situations in our past can always yield fruitful answers for the future.