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Making Russia Real

Susan Carmel Lehrman Chair in Russian History and Culture

From left: Anton Fedyashin, Peter Starr, Susan Carmel Lehrman, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and Eric Lohr at the Russian Embassy.

Over the course of the current academic year, AU’s Initiative for Russian Culture (IRC) has grown significantly, building its presence both on and off campus, and bringing innovative programming and educational opportunities in Russian history, art, politics, and culture to students at AU and the entire Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area. AU, consortium students, and other guests have responded eagerly—more than 3,000 have already attended IRC events.

In line with the IRC’s drive and mission, Susan Carmel Lehrman, whose donations kick-started the IRC at its inception, has generously endowed a Chair in Russian History and Culture in AU’s history department in order to further solidify the goals of the IRC. History professor Eric Lohr has been selected to fill this position.

“I firmly believe in the importance of building lasting connections between Russians and Americans,” Lehrman says. “A chair is a long term and important step towards that goal.”

“The Lehrman Chair will enhance American University’s academic strengths in Russian studies, history, and international affairs while laying the foundation for the university to establish a world-class center for Russian history and culture,” says American University president Neil Kerwin.

The IRC began last year when Lehrman, alongside College of Arts and Sciences dean Peter Starr and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, discussed the need for young people in both the United States and Russia to build the foundation of the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

“The project really resonated with me, since so many Americans, whether they realize it or not, have connections to Russian culture,” says Lehrman, referring to the music of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky pieces like “The Nutcracker,” as well as literature, such as the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky.“Our mutual connections are historical and strong.”

Over the past year, the IRC has worked to create innovative programming and classes for students interested in Russian studies. Launching with a reception at the Library of Congress, the IRC has sponsored film screenings and discussions on Russian culture, history, and politics and how they blend together and interact with their counterparts in the United States. One event exposed students to the presence of jazz in 1920s Russia.

The initiative has also worked to provide students with innovative course offerings in Russian studies including The Cold War and the Spy Novel and Dostoevsky’s Russia—a course through which history professor and IRC executive director Anton Fedyashin will take several students to St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia, this summer to further engage in the writer’s work.

Fedyashin says the chair will work to enhance the progress the IRC has already made towards building enthusiasm for Russian studies and understanding of Russian culture among students.

“The Lehrman Chair builds on the spectacular success of the IRC, which has stimulated great thirst among consortium students for all things Russian,” Fedyashin says. “Moreover, the Lehrman Chair not only complements the IRC, but also reinforces the academic commitment that AU has made to developing a robust Russian cultural studies program that we hope will become a national landmark.”

Pamela Nadell, history department chair, says that she and her department could not be more thrilled to have Lohr occupy this position. “This justly recognizes Eric Lohr as one of the leading scholars of Russian history of his generation,” Nadell says. “I can think of no more fitting appointment to this endowed chair.”

"The Lehrman Chair and the IRC come at a time of crisis in Russian studies in the U.S.," Lohr says, referring to the federal government’s 40 percent cut in Title VI funding during fiscal year 2011 (prior to that, Title VI had been the mainstay of support for Russian studies in the United States)."Across the country, every university is being forced to cut back—in many cases very sharply—on Russian studies. Add in new funding conditions that research and educational programs be 'policy relevant' and the shifting of resources from Russian studies to those focusing on China and the Arab world, and the future looks bleak even though student interest in Russian studies remains strong. Thanks to Susan Carmel Lehrman, we at AU have a unique opportunity to move in the opposite direction from these national trends as we meet and stimulate interest in Russian culture on campus and beyond."

Lohr first made his mark on the field of Russian history with his book, Nationalizing the Russian Empire: The Campaign Against Enemy Aliens during World War I, which was published by Harvard University Press in 2003. His newest book, Russian Citizenship: Empire to Soviet Union, will be published by Harvard later this year, and he is currently working on another book entitled Russia’s Great War: 1914-1918. Lohr has continually worked to epitomize the scholar-teacher ideal central to the mission of the university, integrating his own research and study into his classes with both undergraduate and graduate students. He has continually been active in major discussion of U.S.-Russia relations serving on the Russia/Europe advisory group for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Starr, who serves alongside Ambassador Kislyak as honorary co-chair of the IRC, believes that the IRC’s work and the creation of the Susan Carmel Lehrman Chair will directly enhance the relationships between Americans and Russians both as students and throughout their working lives.

“The future of U.S.-Russia relations is in the hands of this generation of students,” Starr says. “The IRC has shown its dedication to making this future a reality and has proved its ability to do so through its unique programming and course offerings. In giving AU and consortium students the tools to truly understand Russia beyond the stereotypes left over from the Cold War, the IRC has actively worked to make this vision of the future a reality.”

Lehrman hopes the endowment of this chair will serve as a catalyst for the creation of a center for Russian Studies based at AU. “We are in a unique position at the IRC,” Lehrman says. “We have the opportunity to work closely with the Embassy of the Russian Federation and Ambassador Kislyak to provide the consortium students with authentic connections and a rare insider’s look at Russian perspectives.”

In recognition of the Lehrman Chair, AU will host a reception on Saturday, April 28. The reception will follow the IRC symposium "Overcoming Cold War Stereotypes." Symposium participants will discuss how the persistence of Cold War stereotypes has affected post–Cold War global geopolitics and U.S.–Russia relations, and how to move beyond these problems through cultural dialogue and personal contacts.

The reception also celebrates another gift to the university that will benefit students and faculty members alike: the Richard Stites Library, the generous bequest of the Russian and Soviet culture scholar Richard Stites’ son, Andrei Stites.

Richard Stites collected books not only as tools of learning, but also as cultural artifacts. In addition to Russian-language literature and histories covering the period from Kievan Russia to post-Soviet Russia, Stites’ collection includes an extensive, multilingual anthology of art catalogs, art histories, artists' correspondence, and biographies of cultural figures. The Stites Library also boasts slides, audio, and video recordings, including a collection of rare pre-revolutionary silent films.