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.”

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.