Interviews with the New Post-Doctoral Fellows at RSW


Thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a Russian Studies Workshop (RSW) for strengthening Russian Studies in the social sciences now thrives at IU under the direction of Prof. Regina Smyth. Thanks to generous cost-share from the School of Global and International Studies, we are hosting several RSW Postdoctoral Fellows. REEI M.A. student Sharon Miller recently interviewed two RSW postdocs to learn about their scholarship and teaching on Russia.

Dr. Meagan Todd is a political geographer, with a PhD from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research focuses on religion in Russia, with a particular interest in Islam. She will be working on several articles and projects this spring after teaching “Geographies of Islam” this fall.

SM: To start, can you tell me about your background and research interests?

MT: I became interested in Russia as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. I had to take a foreign language class, and I had to pick between German and Russian. I decided to try something new. My teachers were very passionate, so I wanted to take other courses in the Russian Studies program.

SM: What attracted you to the geography of religion in Russia?

MT: I grew up in Kentucky, so religion’s always been a very dynamic part of the conversation about life around me—how to live, how to be, how to organize your life. But I didn’t want to just remain in Kentucky. I had this view that it would be fun to study something exotic to me. I had a history professor who was very interested in Russia and the spread of Russian Orthodoxy. I thought that religions in Russia would be a good topic to research because everywhere around me, I saw the influence of all these religious movements.

SM: I’ve noticed that a lot of your research regards Islam in Russia. What makes this such an interesting topic for you?

MT: I became interested in Muslim life in Russia after I received a Critical Language Scholarship and traveled to Astrakhan, Russia, a multi-confessional city. From there I learned about the very dynamic religious complexity of Russia. There’s far more than I learned about in my Russian history class, which focused on the Russian Orthodox Church and the Golden Ring. Most of my courses focused on Slavic culture in Russia. There was very little about minority life. Russia is the largest country with the largest number of nationalities. I’m interested in those dynamics of diversity.

SM: Moving on to a different subject, you are one of the first postdoctoral fellows of the Russian Studies Workshop. What attracted you to apply for this Fellowship?

MT: Indiana University is such a center of knowledge for Russian Studies, and the fellowship also fit my interests—political, cultural, social. I felt beside myself when I received this post-doc opportunity.

SM: Can you tell me about the course you’re teaching this semester?

MT: It’s Geographies of Islam. What we’re doing is investigating the diversity of Muslim life across space and time. I’ve got a few units—intro to Islam, including what constitutes a Muslim space. We also have a unit on nationalities and networks—which investigates religious life as an element of ethnic or national belonging, and religion as being created by social networks. That’s where we’ll be focusing on Russian Islam, my specialty.

Dr. Francesca Silano is a historian, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. Her research is focused on the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. She will be teaching a course at IU this spring entitled, “Religions of Russia Since 1991.”

SM: To start, can you tell me about your background and research interests, and what attracted you to the history of religion in Russia?

FS: My research interests are the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I really became intrigued the first time I went to Russia. In the archive, I was reading some speeches by the patriarch, Tikhon, who was elected during the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. I thought, this is so interesting! You imagine a dramatic situation; the country that he knew was falling apart and he was taking up a position that did not exist two days ago, because the patriarchate hadn’t existed for 200 years and he had to say something. I thought, ‘I wonder why and how one selects what to say in such situations.’ It intrigued me to start to investigate the world of Orthodoxy.

SM: What would you say are the implications of your historical research on today’s relationship between the Church and State in Russia?

FS: I hesitate to draw parallels between history and contemporary events. History can help us understand that the relationship between the Russian Church and State is not as simplistic as people think it is. The ways people talk about the Church today are not new—they are very much grounded in historical narratives.

SM: Moving on to a different subject, you are one of the first postdoctoral fellows of the Russian Studies Workshop. What attracted you to apply for this Fellowship?

FS: I spent two summers at IU doing the Summer Language Workshop and it was really a wonderful experience for me. I learned Russian of course, but there’s such esteem for the study of Russia in all of its factors here; it’s wonderful.

SM: I see that you will be teaching a course here at IU next semester. Can you tell me about it?

FS: My class, Religions of Russia Since 1991, considers how analyzing stigmatization of “Religion” and “Russia” can serve as a gateway into so many different kinds of experiences. We’ll start by contextualizing Russia after 1991, but then we’ll look into how religion (or a lack thereof) is remembered. We’ll talk about how contemporary Russians describe their religious experiences. And of course, we’ll be discussing religion and politics. This perspective will allow us to challenge some of our preconceptions about Russia, religion itself, and their relationship in differing contexts. Also, it will be super fun.