A Voice from the Slavic Studies Edge: On Being a Black Woman in the Field

This article was originally published in the August 2020 edition of NewsNet. To view endnotes, please visit the original article.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, University of Pennsylvania

When I sat down to brainstorm what I wanted to say in a newsletter that would reach hundreds of ASEEES members, I immediately thought that I had to be careful because I am an incoming doctoral student whose academic career is relatively non-existent. I was afraid of the backlash of being seen as a troublemaker or someone who “plays the race card.” My concern represents a more significant issue within my chosen field, Soviet/Russian/Ukrainian history, and academia. Beyond the ivory tower, the United States is experiencing a pivotal moment. Black people and their allies are protesting for justice and the reform of the police and other institutions that maintain the status quo of racial inequality and oppression. Higher education has started to engage in these discussions of racial discrimination and prejudice. The Slavic studies community is not immune, and as an African American woman who now has a semblance of a public platform, I need to share my experiences and thoughts for the sake of my fellow people of color (POC) in the field and for the survival of the field to which I am dedicating my life.

In June, the hashtag #BlackintheIvory began trending on Twitter. Thousands of Black academics shared their experiences with racism and prejudice, from undergraduate students to tenured faculty. I knew and had shared their ordeals. I was not surprised by any of their stories. Instead, I felt relief. I knew it was not just me who felt alienated and alone in an overwhelmingly white field. 1 It was a depressing confirmation because it was not better to be Black elsewhere in the academy.

My experience in the field is relatively unique. I am one of a handful of Black people who work on Russian/Soviet/ Post-Soviet history. Until I did an informal Twitter poll last summer, I thought I was the only Black person other than Dr. Allison Blakely working on the region in the entire United States. According to my informal research, there are five of us, three men and two women, including me. How many fields can say that their Black members could be counted on one hand? I am fortunate that I have made friends in Slavic Languages and Literatures because that discipline has more Black and POC scholars, though you can count them on three hands. The lack of institutional data on diversity in the field is a problem that an informal group of minority scholars is trying to solve because it erases our presence. How can you claim systemic racism or prove that the prejudice you face is not just an anomaly if N=1?

As an undergraduate at Swarthmore, I finally indulged in my fascination with Russia and the Soviet Union. Swarthmore is special to me because it was there that I found other Black students. After a childhood of being the only or one of a couple of Black students in a class, I finally had classmates who looked like me. My freshman year (2008), my best friend and roommate, Jacqueline Bailey-Ross, took Farsi and Russian, while I took Dr. Robert (Bob) Weinberg’s first-year seminar “Angels of Death: Russia under Lenin and Stalin.” From the first week of class, I loved every minute of it. I took every course on Russia, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe that Swarthmore offered. I started Russian in my junior year because I wanted to read primary sources in Russian, and I overheard Professor Sibelan Forrester speak Russian in her office one day. My senior year (2011), I attended my first ASEEES conference. I wanted to go because I saw a roundtable on POC in the field. There were other students like Jacqueline and me, and I wanted to meet them. At that roundtable, I met Jennifer Wilson, Raquel Greene, and Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz, all of whom are outstanding women of color who hold PhDs in Slavic Languages and Literatures. I also learned about the struggles they faced being POC in the field. However, meeting them cemented my decision to pursue graduate studies and eventually earn a PhD in Russian history.

I attended my second ASEEES convention as a first-year M.A. student in fall 2012. I was excited because it was in New Orleans, yet that convention is burned into my memory because I felt like an outsider. While waiting on a panel to start, a couple of scholars chatting with each other asked me to clean up a spill in the conference room. It was then that I realized two things. The first, that I did not have my name tag on and the second, that these people thought I was a member of the hotel’s janitorial staff, although I was not wearing a hotel staff uniform. I did not go to any more panels that day.

I was angry, and my feelings were hurt. Why did people think I did not belong here? I was taking Russian. I was a graduate student at Harvard. I studied under Terry Martin and Serhii Plokhy, but none of that mattered. My credentials were invisible, my Blackness was not. This is a recurring feeling for me when I attend conferences in my field. In a round table at the following year’s ASEEES (2013) conference, I remember incredulous faculty members asking how Swarthmore was able to have three Black female students (me, Jacqueline, and Latavia S. Agada who was two years ahead of us) taking Russian. I tried my best to explain that, at Swarthmore, no one asked us why we took Russian. Black students took Russian, German, Arabic, Chinese, etc. No one told us it was unusual for minority students to torture themselves learning Russian declensions. Now, I know that I was fortunate because I was never alone at Swarthmore. Jacqueline took advanced Russian while I was in intermediate. We both took Weinberg’s history classes, and the Russian department and History department were welcoming to us and our interests. But in graduate school, the overwhelming whiteness of my department and field took a heavy toll on me. 

At Harvard, I became interested in Ukrainian history after taking a course with Dr. Plokhy. His classes were engaging, and he was a highly supportive mentor. I continued with Ukrainian history and decided to write my MA thesis on subjectivity and the Holodomor. This topic required archival research in Ukraine that summer. Everyone in my cohort was excited to book their flights and establish their plans for archival and field research. I was too until I started researching racial attacks in the region. I was increasingly nervous about spending the summer in-country on my own. The first trip to the archives is stressful enough, but now I had to develop measures to secure my safety.

After I was flippantly told to “just get over” my qualms, I went to Professor Plokhy and had a long conversation with him. He understood me and promised that he would use all of his connections in Ukraine to help me when I got there. My Russian professor, Oleh Kotsyuba, put me in touch with his cousin Yuliya, so I would know at least one friendly face when I arrived. I thought it was going to be okay. However, in June (2013), when it came time to pack my bags, I was not okay. My parents had made the same mistake I did. My mom Googled “racism in Ukraine,” and what she saw frightened her. She begged me not to go and asked me why I had to go in the first place. Soon after, I canceled my flight and called Bob to let him know that I was not going. I do not remember how long we spoke, but by the end of our chat, I knew that I had to rebook my flight and get to the archives. Without the mentorship and support of Robert Weinberg and Serhii Plokhy, I would have stayed in Texas, and my career would have ended before it began.

Overall, I enjoyed my time in Ukraine and met many generous and kind people, including Orysia and Markian, two then-graduate students from Stanford, who helped me decipher the archives in Kyiv and showed me around the city. Yet, I cannot forget the feelings of loneliness, isolation, and fear. In terms of lodging, I booked hostels in Kyiv and Odesa because I knew being outside of the center of the city could be dangerous. I also knew that in a hostel there at least would be other people, so maybe I could make some friends while traveling. I carefully studied the maps of each archive to plan my route in the safest way possible. For me, doing archival research meant being in a constant state of hyperawareness. I was always on alert while walking in public. I made sure to put my back to the wall in the subway car and was near an exit at all times, so if a group of skinheads got on, I could see them and hopefully leave the subway car before they saw me. I got long extensions so my hair would look more European, my way of trying to limit the exoticism of my presence, which in hindsight is laughable. I could not erase my Blackness, no matter how straight my hair was. 

Another aspect of my experience in Kyiv was that I rarely went out at night and never went out at night by myself. My schedule was repetitive. I woke up, went to the archives, got an early dinner, and was back in my hostel before sunset. Even the nice hostel hostess knew of the potential danger and told me streets and areas to avoid. I was so lonely that when I heard two young women speaking English, I went up to them and asked them if they were Americans. That’s how I made friends and experienced Kyiv at night for the first time. Thanks to my two friends and Yuliya, I was able to see more of the city than my hostel and the archives.

In Odesa, I was fortunate that the hostel owner was an American expat and held nightly group outings. I was very thankful for this because the isolation was harming my mental health. I safely explored the city and fell in love with it. Staying at hostels meant I could avoid the problematic logistics of trying to find an apartment to rent in Ukraine as a POC. The issues POC face in finding housing and employment in the region have been documented,2 which is one of the reasons I scoffed when a regional expert told a group of minority students that the best way to learn Russian was to pick up and move to the region. 

When I returned stateside, I told my parents about the good days in the archives and the beauty of Ukraine. My cohort and I exchanged travel stories, but I did not tell anyone close to me about the bad parts of my experience until a few years ago. Even now, when I talk about what happened in Ukraine, white colleagues say it was just xenophobia or I am projecting my foreign gaze onto Ukraine/the region. These are some of the things I went through: I was always stared at. People laughed at me. On my way back to the hostel, a group of men followed me and verbally harassed me because they thought I was a prostitute and asked me, “how much?” and “are you working?” The worst event was when I ran into a group of skinheads on my way up the subway escalator. There was a small group of men and only me. I started to accept that something terrible was going to happen to me, and there was little I could do to stop it. I cannot express the fear nor the relief I felt when the neighboring police stopped them. I ran to the hostel and did not leave until the next morning. It is hard to articulate the mental toll my time in Ukraine took on me, and it is difficult to process trauma alone. How could I explain to my parents, who grew up in the segregated South, that I was experiencing harassment because of my skin color on the other side of the world? I know I am not alone in being silent about the negatives of my time in the region. We keep quiet because we do not want to put our work or careers in jeopardy.

My experiences in Ukraine and the field contributed to my departure from Slavic studies. I spent six years away from the work that I loved, struggling to decide whether or not to apply for doctoral programs in Russian and Soviet history. I honestly thought about switching to American history because it would be easier for my family and me. My decision to return means I will expose myself to the same people who denied my experiences with racism, and who harassed a close friend of mine until she left the field. Once again, I will put myself in an unsafe situation to do the research my dissertation requires. I had to face my husband and parents and explain why I had to do Soviet history. They still hold considerable reservations about my research.

When applying to doctoral programs, I asked prospective dissertation advisors how they would handle a situation in which I am attacked or assaulted while doing archival research in Russia. I needed to know the answer to this question because it is a genuine possibility that I and other POC undergraduate and graduate students must face. To do our work, we have to place ourselves in precarious situations. Imagine your child telling you they have to live in a country where people who share their skin color are regularly attacked and harassed. How would you feel? That is the reality for our families and us.

Besides doing research in-country, I have to deal with not being taken seriously as a historian of the Soviet Union and the former Soviet Union. Often, historians presume I am an Americanist. Even the racist responses to my public writing on the region say I know nothing about Russia. These are examples of why I was unsure about pursuing research on Black experiences in Russia/the Soviet Union. I did not want to be seen as the token Black person in the field who writes about Black issues. These perceptions can negatively affect my career. However, my time in Ukraine led me to wonder if other Black people had been to the region, and if so, what was their experience? I want to write about the lives of these individuals because their stories deserve to be told. Thanks to the women of color in the field like Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz and Sunnie RuckerChang, we are building a network of students and faculty of color in Slavic Studies. We can share our experiences, warn others of the mistakes we made, discuss ways to stay safe in-country and have a sense of camaraderie that I needed earlier in my career.

Slavic studies face contemporary issues of higher education, including declining class sizes and department closures. 3 Now, we must confront racism and prejudice. There are students of color interested in the languages, politics, history, art, and music of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet region. It should not be rare to see a person of color at the yearly meeting of the largest academic organization in the field in the United States. ASEEES’s statement on police brutality and its direct acknowledgment of racial discrimination in the field is a definite step in the right direction. However, meaningful change requires the active involvement of individual institutions and scholars within the field.

In the past few months, a high-profile scholar in the field wrote an article that used racist tropes to victim-blame individuals who were killed by the police. Another scholar described diversity as “fluff.” At the same time, White scholars have compared their experiences with xenophobia in the region to the racism students of color face. These instances demonstrate how much work we have to do.

Furthermore, the field must mentor and support students of color once they recruit them. It is not enough to have a POC in your department. Faculty members and administrators must be ready to help them navigate discrimination, harassment, racism, and prejudice. Mentorship and allyship are the cornerstones of recruiting and keeping all students, no matter their background.

As I see calls for papers and social media campaigns promoting racial diversity in higher education, I am cautiously optimistic. It is my sincerest hope that systematic change occurs in academia. POC should be equitably represented in the ranks of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. My research topic and contemporary events have converged, but in five years, when the political and cultural focus on racial justice has shifted, I need my field to still care and be focused on diversity and inclusion. Racial justice cannot be important because it is en vogue in academic discourse.

People of color in this field need our colleagues, professors, and administrators to continue fighting for us and hold their colleagues and institutions accountable. There is a growing number of allies in the field, but that number must increase. We have a considerable amount of work ahead of us, but it must be done. Our community of scholars cannot afford to lose any more bright minds.

In closing, my criticisms of the field and the post-Soviet region come from my deep love for both. I have been asked why I would return to the field if things were so hard for me. My only response is that I truly love what I do. I was giddy reading archival documents in Ukraine. The lives of Soviet citizens and visitors to the USSR and the Russian empire fascinate me. I also want to improve popular American perceptions of the region I care about. Most of all, I want to be one of the last scholars of color in the field who wonders if there is anyone else like them or if they belong.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is an incoming doctoral student in History at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and the post-Soviet region.

Author’s note: The title is an homage to Jeff Sahadeo’s outstanding book, Voices from the Soviet Edge: Southern Migrants in Leningrad and Moscow (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019).