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History sheds light on current human rights issues

May 12, 2008

Mark von Hagen, a historian specializing in the Russian empire, Ukraine and the borderlands of eastern Europe, is wrapping up his first year as chair of the ASU Department of History in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Von Hagen came to Arizona after spending more than 22 years at Columbia University where he was chair of the history department and director of the Harriman Institute, the oldest and largest teaching and research center devoted to the successor states of the Soviet empire. He also chaired the master’s of international affairs program at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.

At ASU von Hagen is focusing on the current strengths of the department as well as developing the fields of comparative and global history.

In a wide-ranging interview, von Hagen reflects on aspects of ASU’s Department of History and his role in shaping its future.

Why did you decide to come to ASU and chair the department of history?

ASU is an exciting, dynamic institution in the process of transformation. The more I get to know ASU, the more I am impressed by the real possibilities of creating research programs that can connect history with departments in the social sciences and humanities, even the natural sciences and professional schools.

We have one of the strongest programs in public history in the country. The program trains people to work in non-traditional academic careers like museums, archives, scholarly publishing, historical preservation and even documentary filmmaking. These are all fields that historians rely on for sources when conducting their research.

Also, a third of our double majors are in education to be middle school or high school teachers. Having teachers specialized in history is important for developing civic literacy in our future citizens.

What are your plans for the department of history?

Our concentrations in the United States - especially the West- Asia and Europe are strong, but I would like to develop them even further. I have been thinking about an area of study based on our geographic location here in the southwest United States. Since we live in the desert, comparative desert societies is one intriguing possible track. There are a lot of other deserts around the world that have given rise to societies that have not only tested the very notions of sustainability, but made great contributions to civilization.

Urban history is another obvious area to develop. Phoenix is the fastest growing city in the country, a place where sustainability is becoming prominent in people’s minds. The history department is already collaborating with other units at ASU on the interdisciplinary and comparative study of cities.

In order to move the department toward a more global orientation, the history of global processes, from migration to trade to cultural transfers, is another important track. There are a lot of colleagues currently in the department teaching aspects of global history, but here too the opportunities to collaborate with other units across campus and beyond have not been much explored.

And, it seems to me that here in Arizona there’s a lot more openness between mainstream medicine and naturopathic and other kinds of alternative medicines than I’ve been used to from the east coast. The history of medicine, if we look at how other societies at other times dealt with diseases and health, is another area where we might be able to contribute something and give us other opportunities for collaboration with natural sciences, human evolution, the medical school, and others.

How do you fit into the New American University?

I’ve been a leader in the field of Russia, Ukraine and comparative history and area studies for the past 20 years, and I’m bringing that experience here to ASU. A large part of that experience has been global engagement. I have been privileged to be involved in building scholarly and other contacts with colleagues in the former Soviet space, to train students who have gone on to work not just in history, but in the non-governmental sector, especially in human rights.

I support President Crow’s position on student success and agree wholeheartedly that the university should be geared toward the student. It is why I got into higher education in the first place. I enjoy teaching and team-teaching. I have also learned a great deal from interdisciplinary teaching and collaborative research.

What research are you currently conducting?

My scholarship is interdisciplinary, focusing on modern history with an eye to contemporary problems,particularly war and society, multiethnic states and nationality politics in modern Russian and Soviet history.

I am a co-editor of “Russian Empire: Space, People, Power, 1700 to 1930.” The book is a culmination of research completed for a Ford Foundation grant which brought together historians from both Russia and the United States. The premise is to examine the Russian empire by looking at space and regions and evaluate how different empires tried to fill that space with their own institutions, people and ideas. The history of these empires offers some insight on how contemporary multi-national countries deal with difference.

My new book, “War in a European Borderland: Occupations and Occupation Plans in Galicia and Ukraine, 1914-1918,” came out last fall. The book reviews how Russian, German and Austrian armies tried to impose regimes on the borderland territories, during World War I, that are now Ukraine. It is very much contemporary history and has disturbing parallels to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why did you choose to focus your research on Russian and Ukrainian history?

My father worked in military intelligence following World War II and during the Cold War. He would often bring home scrap paper maps of Eastern Europe that they were throwing away, so I had that somewhere in my head. My Austrian mother lived in the Soviet Zone – Austria was divided like Germany into four zones until 1955 – where my parents met. And then, when we were living in Denver, a family friend was teaching Russian and thought it would be a good idea for his daughter and me to study Russian. After that, every time I had a junior high school project in social studies, I did it on Russia. These facts brought me to my lifelong fascination with Russia and its history.

Besides Russian, what other languages do you speak?

Ukrainian, German, Polish, French, and I studied Turkish for two years. I also speak some Spanish. I’ve studied it more recently.

What universities have you attended?

I earned my bachelor’s degree in international relations from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, a master’s degree in Slavic languages and literatures from Indiana University Bloomington, and a doctorate in history and humanities from Stanford University.

You’ve held many international positions. Can you tell us about some of them?

I served as the first non-Ukrainian president of the International Association for Ukrainian Studies and was principal historical consultant to a post-Soviet archival microfilming project, the Russian Archives Project of Primary Source Microfilms (Gale Group). I also remain a member of the advisory board of a second archival publishing project, the Annals of Communism with Yale University Press. I have been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

More recently, I was nominated for the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.

You also have an interest in human rights. What inspired you to get involved with that sector?

It actually got started when I was doing my own doctoral research in Soviet history and got to know many Soviet intellectuals in the dissident and human rights communities. Later, I received a grant from the Ford Foundation to do a history of the human rights movement in the Brezhnev era, and eventually I was asked to be on the advisory board of the Europe and Asia division of the Human Rights Watch, a position I still hold. That started my passion for human rights. I taught a course last year before I left Columbia on human rights issues, in post-Soviet conditions. I’ve just started talking with others here about organizing a center for the study of human rights. I’m also involved in planning a conference on gender and human rights issues.