Skip to main content
Pashkov House
Pashkov House
Luke Jeske is a fourth-year PhD candidate in Russian history. He received the 2021 Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Fellowship from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. In January of this year, he left for a year-long research trip in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began the following month, however, he returned to the United States.

Q. Can you tell us about your dissertation research?
A. I’m writing about Russian Orthodox pilgrimage to the holy places of the Near East during the nineteenth century — especially to biblical sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Palestine, but also to Egypt, Constantinople, and Mount Athos, which is an Orthodox monastic site in Greece. Many Russian pilgrims published accounts of their experiences, and I was surprised to find that few historians had used this material. I wanted to use my time in Russia to look at the archives of institutions that supported these pilgrimages, and see to what extent they may have influenced the narratives that pilgrims wrote. At this time, European empires were becoming increasingly politically and economically involved in this part of the world. The Russians feared that non-Orthodox powers like Britain, France, and Germany were becoming more influential in what they saw as the cradle of Orthodox Christianity. By sponsoring pilgrimage, they wanted to defend the Orthodox nature of the Holy Land and prevent Orthodox Christians there from being converted to other forms of Christianity. They also wanted to reinforce the Orthodox identity of the Russian pilgrims they sponsored and help them develop themselves morally and spiritually.

The subject of religion in the Russian Empire, and specifically of Russia’s relationship to the Holy Land, is one that hasn’t been explored until recently. Under the Soviet Union, of course, it was difficult to access the necessary materials, and for a few decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse scholars were interested in other subjects. But now, the political importance of the Orthodox Church is increasing in contemporary Russia. The current government is trying to connect Russian identity both more closely to Orthodoxy and to the imperial past, so this is a topic that more people are becoming interested in.

Q. How did your research trip start?
A. I arrived in Moscow and started working at the Archive of Foreign Politics of the Russian Empire, which holds the Russian imperial government’s diplomatic records. I was especially interested in the documents produced by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society. This was probably the most influential and well-funded organization involved in sponsoring pilgrimages, and it also funded academic research and established schools for Orthodox Christians in Palestine. In particular, I wanted to see if officials at this organization were making efforts to control the narrative that was presented in the publications that I’d read, and how they might have done this. I was also interested in looking at consulate records, which might provide a slightly different perspective on Russian involvement in the Holy Land. The Russian consulate and the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, as well as other religious missions, were often in competition with each other for power.

When I got to Moscow, the Archive of Foreign Politics was still operating on a reduced schedule because of Covid-19. You had to make reservations two months in advance. Fortunately, I had a contact in Russia who got me reservations for the end of January and February. It was still difficult, though, because after you put in your requests for material, it takes the archive several days to prepare it for you. So you might finish everything you’ve ordered on Friday and then on Monday, even though you have a reservation, you won’t have anything to work with. On those days, I used my time in the archive to go through the finding aids. Although the finding aids do provide some indication of how many boxes and pages are contained in each item, you still don’t exactly know what you’re going to find until you open up the files. So in each order, I’d ask for both items that I knew would have useful material and ones that I wasn’t quite sure about.

Q. You kind of have to find your way around a new archive.
A. It’s important to build rapport with the archivists. After I’d been coming in for about two or three weeks, and they saw me spending as much time as possible there, it seems like they became a bit more willing to help. Although you’re technically only allowed to order five items per day, eventually they allowed me to order more. When I tried to make reservations for March over the phone, they told me that everything was full — but then when I came in person, since I’d developed a relationship with them, they told me what days were free and I was able to make some reservations. So this adds another layer of complication. But by February, I felt that things were going well at this archive.

I also worked at the Lenin Library, which was a nice change of pace from the archive, because here, I could just go in and order books or newspapers, and they’d be delivered by the next day at the latest. They have a huge collection of published material, and I tried to collect as much as I could here. I was also gathering material for future projects, since I didn’t know when I’d next get the chance. Some sections of the Lenin Library are located in a former palace, as well, so the reading room is beautiful.

Q. What was your plan for the rest of the year?
A. In the summer, I was going to leave for St. Petersburg. Mainly, I planned to work at the Russian State Imperial Archive, which has the records of the Russian imperial bureaucracy. This includes the Holy Synod, which governed the Orthodox Church in Russia. I was just beginning to figure out what I might be able to find there, but I knew there would be a lot of material. I planned to stay in St. Petersburg until December.

Q. But that’s not what happened.
A. No. I think that February 24th is a day that’s going to be ingrained in my mind, and in the minds of a lot of people I know. It was shocking. I had thought that maybe Putin was bluffing, that he was engaging in some sort of diplomatic maneuver. But then on February 24th, Kyiv was bombed. It really happened. Like a lot of other people, I didn’t expect this at all. I did think that Ukraine would be defeated militarily, because I didn’t expect Western countries to provide aid. I’m glad I was wrong on that account. But I didn’t think that Putin would succeed in incorporating Ukraine into his empire. Ukrainians have their own national identity, and even the Russian speakers in Ukraine don’t necessarily consider themselves to be part of Russia. Inevitably, the war would create resistance.

That day, another researcher at the archive pulled me aside during the lunch break and told me how ashamed and appalled she was. She didn’t understand how this could be happening. But when I went home that evening, it was as if nothing had happened. Nobody was on the streets until that night, when I heard people chanting “No to war!” from my apartment. It was a relief to hear that some people in Moscow opposed this.

It was difficult to get up the next day and go to work as usual in the library. It was a surreal feeling — the war had started, but around me, it looked like nothing was wrong. By that evening, the United States and the EU countries had begun announcing sanctions. Although I wasn’t in any physical danger, I knew that soon I might not be able to access my bank account. I could borrow money from my friends if there was an emergency, but I didn’t want to put them in that position. When I heard that there were plans to shut down international flights from Russia, though, I knew I had to get out. I booked a ticket to Istanbul and left on Saturday, February 26th.

Q. How did this experience affect you and your research?
A. It was crushing. I think a lot of people in the field felt this way. I wanted to present a more complex picture of the Russian Empire and Russia than the scholarship has offered so far, but it’s suddenly become much harder. I talked with a Russian friend when I got back to the US, who told me: “Don’t try to exculpate Russia.” That isn’t something I want to do at all, but it’s more difficult to address some of the themes that interest me in a nuanced way.

I was also troubled by some of the calls for Western academics to disengage from Russian institutions. Of course, I understand why someone wouldn’t want to associate themselves with the Russian government, or with people that openly support it, but I recognize that Russian scholars place themselves and their families at risk by coming out publicly against the regime.

Q. What are your thoughts about how this will affect Russian history as a field?
A. I think the field is being upended. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years. Will people choose to study different topics? Will they focus on different people, or different regions? It will still be important to study Russian history, as well as the Russian language, but we may approach it differently.

It seems that this conflict may have sharpened our focus on Russian history as imperial history, which is something that I’m interested in. We have to understand the history of the Russian Empire as one of many peoples and many institutions. The imperial government and the Russian Orthodox Church did make efforts to impose a Russian identity on its subjects, but they remained diverse. There was diversity within the Orthodox Church and within the Russian ruling class as well. At the same time, there are important differences between the Russian Empire and, say, the British or French empires. The Romanovs were more interested in expansion than in extracting resources, and race played a different role.

Q. Do you see any connections between your research and the current situation?
A. The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society was recently reestablished, and I read that Russian officials were putting pressure on Israel to turn over one of the buildings that it had owned in Jerusalem to the Russian government, rather than to the new Society. The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society protested this, of course. This was just one event, but it reflects what I’ve seen in my own research. People often think of Russia in a monolithic sense, where the tsar issues an order and it’s carried out. But as I saw, among Russian actors in Palestine, different organizations and institutions were consistently competing against each other and trying to exert their own influence. The monolithic narrative is being resurrected again, but we see through this story that there’s still conflict between different groups representing Russia.

Q. What are your future research plans?
A. First, I’ve been spending the months since I left organizing the documents that I collected during my time in Russia. But I’ve also been able to access new material, because in 2020, I received the Pre-Dissertation Research Grant through CSEEES at UNC. Of course, I wasn’t able to travel because of Covid, so I deferred it for a year. They didn’t allow me to defer it again, though, so I used part of the grant to hire a graduate student in St. Petersburg to scan some books for me from the National Library. This small grant has been absolutely essential in allowing me to continue my research even after leaving Russia.

I also successfully applied to participate in the Summer Research Lab at the University of Illinois, so I’ll be traveling to Urbana-Champaign later this year as well. It’s possible that they might have copies of archival material and periodicals that I haven’t been able to access yet. Finally, I’m working with ASEEES to see if I can use the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship to fund research in the UK and in Finland. Great Britain had a presence in Palestine at this time too, of course, so I’m interested in seeing what British officials had to say about these Russian Orthodox societies and pilgrims arriving from Russia, or what British travelers may have written in their accounts. Since Finland was also part of the Russian Empire, their National Library also has collections of Russian government publications.

I’m very fortunate that my advisor, Dr. Louise McReynolds, completed her dissertation before Western scholars had access to Russian archival sources. She knows how to do research without relying on archives. When I came back to the US, she reassured me that my topic was solid and I could still complete my research. In a sense, it’s as if we’re back in the 1980s. Of course, we do have the internet and I’ve been able to look at some digitized documents and publications available online. But I do hope to go back some time soon, although I don’t know when I’ll have the opportunity. I love traveling to Russia, because all the archivists and academics I’ve met have been very helpful, and I hope to stay in touch with them.

–Mira Markham

Comments are closed.