This summer John Romero will be finishing his tenure as the Russian Studies Workshop Postdoctoral Fellow for 2019-2020. John defended his doctoral dissertation in history at Arizona State University in July 2019. His research focuses on Soviet nationalities policy and culture during and after Stalin. In his dissertation, he explores the connection between nation-building and the formulation of Soviet culture through an analysis of prominent cultural elites and institutions in the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. John’s work has appeared in an edited volume devoted to Russia’s regional identities and in the peer-reviewed journal Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History. Here, John is interviewed by Sarah Fogleman, RSW Program Coordinator.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get your start in Russian history?
A: Growing up, I was always interested in history. I spent a lot of time reading historical fiction and non-fiction and watching TV shows and movies about the World Wars. During my first year of undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, I really wanted to sign up for a course on German history. As it turns out, our German historian was on sabbatical that year, so I ended up taking a class on the Russian Empire. After that it sort of snowballed with classes on Soviet history, post-Soviet Russia, and Stalinism. By junior year I was studying the Russian language. I was hooked!
Q: We were so sad to hear of the recent passing of one of your dissertation advisors, Russian historian Mark Von Hagen. Could you tell us what it was like to work with him and how he influenced your research? And are there other mentors who have been especially important to you in your undergraduate or graduate experiences?
A: Mark really was a giant in the field, physically and metaphorically. Mark encouraged me to think broadly and comparatively and not to get too pigeonholed into a particular topic or set of research questions. More than anything I think I carry with me his deep interest in nations, nationalisms, and empires, all of which are central to my current research. At Arizona State I was also extremely lucky to be able to work with Laurie Manchester. Besides being an incredible academic and advisor, Laurie provided a ton of mental and emotional support to me and several of my grad student colleagues.
Q: I was surprised to hear that you haven't been to either St. Petersburg or Moscow, though you have spent quite a bit of time in Tatarstan. How did you end up in Tatarstan and not the capitals? How do you think that shapes your perspective on Russia and Russian history? And what drew you specifically to Tatarstan in the first place?
A: I first learned about Tatarstan in an undergraduate course on post-Soviet Russia where our professor likened the relationship between Kazan and Moscow in the 1990s to an imaginary scenario in which then-President Bush allowed then-Governor Schwarzenegger to do whatever he wanted so long as California didn’t leave the union. It was hyperbole, of course, but it encouraged me to think a lot more about the position of non-Russians within the Russian state historically, something which hadn’t really been on my radar too much before then. I think conducting research primarily in Kazan has helped to reinforce my sense of Russia as not just a top-down state where Moscow or St. Petersburg basically decide everything. Since then I’ve really fallen in love with Tatar history and culture, as well as with Kazan as a city.
Q: You spent one academic year here at IU as the RSW Postdoctoral Fellow, teaching one class in the spring (interrupted half-way through by the pandemic) and leading the first group of RSW's writing circle for PhD Russianists at IU. Did your research take any new directions while here, and where would you like your research to go next? And what can you share with us about your first teaching experience after getting your PhD?
A: At IU I’ve been working a bit sideways from my monograph project and have been writing an article about the history of the political repression in the Tatar Republic. I would say one of the big things I’ve learned in writing that piece that has been reinforced in speaking with several visiting scholars here at IU this year is that my work on Tatarstan really speaks to a lot of other things going on in the Soviet Union’s other minority republics. I’m especially interested in exploring Tatarstan’s connections to other ethnic minority regions that, like Tatarstan, are also still part of Russia. Teaching a course on comparative colonialism has been a really fun, if sometimes challenging, experience. I’ve especially enjoyed trying to bring a historical perspective to a classroom of primarily International Studies students. That sense of “how do I make these pasts relevant to the present” is something I’ll keep with me as I continue on.
Q: As this position winds down and you start a tenure-track position in Georgia this fall, what will you take with you from your time here in Indiana?
A: The connections, the professional relationships, and the friendships. Being at IU this year was really such a great introduction to being an actual academic (not just a graduate student) and was so incredibly helpful for me in networking and establishing myself as a scholar.
This summer, John will be moving with his wife Jacqueline to Dahlonega, Georgia. He will be starting a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Georgia. We wish John and Jacqueline the best and hope to keep in touch!