Ph.D., Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan
M.A., Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Michigan
B.A., Russian and Biology, Dartmouth College
Dr. Yvonne Howell is Professor of Russian and the Global Studies Concentration Advisor for Cultures and Communications at the University of Richmond.
When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies?
I grew up in Los Angeles. My father was an ornithologist, and he saw the world as Darwin's "entangled bank," where all forms of organic and non-organic life are intricately connected. On the path to a biology major at Dartmouth, which I assumed would get me closer to the workings of this marvelous, entangled bank, I had to take a few "distributive" humanities courses, and I chose Russian. My mother's native language is a Swiss-German dialect, so sure, I could speak to my relatives in German, and I'd had French in high school. At the time, it seemed like a whim, but in retrospect, it's possible to justify the switch to Russian as finding the missing piece that revealed the personality maturing within. That sounds so spacey, but in fact, I think it's an incredibly common (and happy) phenomenon – the sense that a language/culture chooses you, and not vice versa.
By the time I finished college with that biology/Russian double major, CIEE had launched an experimental year-long “stazher” program at Leningrad State University. The few students who applied were supposed to have enough Russian under their belt to audit full content courses. The others chose history. I chose ornithology. I spent one of the best years of my life tromping through half-frozen marshes with my binocular-wielding mentors, tracking the migration of birds along the Finnish Gulf. The Soviet nature-researchers I befriended did not fit the Cold War stereotype of clear-eyed dissident versus duped citizen loyal to an impossible system. Today it seems like that should go without saying, but clear-eyed yet joyful, loyal yet curious and open-minded people are perhaps rare in any society, and my life was shaped – for the better – by these friends.
What current projects are you working on?
I’m currently looking into the history of yoga in the Soviet Union. Back in graduate school, now firmly in Slavic Studies (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), I did a detour into Czech language and literature (another “best” year of my life spent in Czechoslovakia), but eventually found my topic: in explicating the “tangled bank” of Russian geophysical, humanistic, and spiritual thought that informed the Strugatskys’ science fiction, or the geneticist Efroimson’s maverick sociobiology, or (current project) Soviet reception of yoga -- well, there you have it: a way to investigate the cultural forces that seek to control, or shape, or sustain the biosphere and define our place within it.
How has your involvement with ASEEES helped to further your career?
About ASEEES and the network of affiliated and regional conferences I have attended for decades: even if you are a closet introvert who approaches conferencing with a tinge of dread, do not underestimate the surprising, delightful, and durable relationships that conference participation makes possible. ASEEES, AATSEEL, and shout out to Southern Slavic (SCSS) – we’re hosting the conference in Richmond, VA in spring 2022, please come – are necessary for the strength, resilience, and constant renewal of our field. Renewal needs to be at a cellular level, starting with undergraduate courses that welcome a much more diverse range of students into all aspects of Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies.