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ASU's von Hagen devotes career to Russian studies

June 29, 2010

Mark von Hagen earned a bachelor of science degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, with a major in international relations, and several possible career paths ahead.

“I thought about becoming a diplomat, and in a way I did become a diplomat,” he said. “I think I have done a lot to bring American and Soviet, as well as Russian and Ukrainian, scholars together on projects of common interest.”

Through his teaching of Russian and the Soviet Union history, and through his interaction with scholars and students in both Russia and the United States, he has helped build bridges between the two sometimes-wary worlds.

Von Hagen, the director of ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and the newly elected president of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), had his first taste of the Russian language when he was in junior high school in Colorado.

“My father was an Air Force retiree. Another Air Force retiree who had a daughter about my age, who taught Russian at a Christian Brothers high school, wanted to get us together, so he taught us both Russian,” von Hagen said. “That part didn’t work, but I loved Russian, even though I didn’t learn a lot.”

At Georgetown, von Hagen, who already had studied French for five years in junior high and high school, had to attain fluency in a language by graduation, so he chose Russian.

“I never got out of it,” he said. “I went on to graduate school to study Slavic languages and literatures.”

Von Hagen is not of Russian or Eastern European descent, but he has a connection to the Soviet Union through his mother, who grew up in Vienna. “She lived in the Soviet occupation zone in Vienna,” he said. “She met my father after the war in Vienna, where he was a U.S. counterintelligence officer.”

As he heard his mother’s stories, and studied the Russian language, von Hagen began to form a picture of the USSR.

“At some point, I must have been conditioned to think of Russia – and the USSR – as the ‘evil other.’

“But when I went to Russia for the first time, I met a lot of nice people, saw some theater, and enjoyed the architecture. I liked the culture a lot, and it became part of my identity.”

Von Hagen went on to earn his doctoral degree in history and humanities at Stanford University, and began teaching Soviet, Russian and Eastern European history.

He has now written numerous books about the area and still finds the culture and history fascinating. “I enjoy studying why things happened and where they will go from here.”

Von Hagen said he often encounters misconceptions about Russia. “People think that Russians never had any interest in democracy or prosperity. I don’t think that is true. We want them to be like us, more than we want the Chinese or Japanese to be like us. When they don’t turn out to be like us, people take it personally.”

Von Hagen said many people believe that life in Russia is “all gloom and doom.”

“But they forget about the great music and literature that have been produced in Russia. People can triumph. People do stand up for their rights.”

One of von Hagen’s more unusual research projects involved a dispute about whether Walter Duranty, Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times from 1922 through 1936, deserved the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for a series of stories he wrote in 1931 on the Soviet Union.

In the 1970s, scholars and commentators began criticizing Duranty for being “pro-Stalinist” and denying that there was a famine in parts of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, even when he allegedly knew that it was happening. Amid calls for the Pulitzer Board to revoke the prize, the New York Times in 2003 hired von Hagen to review Duranty’s stories about the Soviet Union.

Von Hagen, then a professor of Russian history at Columbia University, read all of Duranty’s stories and concluded that he should not have been given the prize and that “for the sake of the New York Times' honor, they should take the prize away." (The Pulitzer Board ruled against rescinding the award.)

Von Hagen joined the ASU faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences three years ago and has been working to build Russian and Eurasian studies here into a program that rivals – and surpasses – universities that have been considered the best in Russian or Eastern European history and literature.

Von Hagen knew there was already a good core faculty, but he said he has been pleasantly surprised by the interest and knowledge of students at ASU.

“The kids here are doing as well as the kids at Columbia. In fact, five of the 22 students in one of my most recent Russian history courses had already been to Russia.”

Von Hagen also has taught at Stanford University, Yale University, the Free University of Berlin, and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris). His most recent book is “War in a European Borderlands: Occupations and Occupation Plans in Galicia and Ukraine, 1914-1918,” and he has written articles and essays on topics in historiography, civil-military relations, nationality politics, minority history and cultural history.

As president of ASEEES, he will lead an organization of scholars and national policymakers that attracts more than 2,000 to its yearly national convention and publishes a quarterly journal titled Slavic Review.

Not bad for someone who spoke his first words in Russian at the age of 13.