Faculty Works and Achievements:

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    Victoria Smolkin: A History of Soviet Atheism

    Victoria Smolkin is an Associate Professor of Russian History at Wesleyan University. In 2014-2015 Smolkin was a Title VIII Research Fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute. Smolkin's research has been supported by Princeton University's Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies; the Social Science Research Council Eurasia Post-Doctoral Research Award; the Sherman Emerging Scholar Lectureship; the Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship in Religion and Ethics; and the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, among others. Smolkin's recently published book, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism, explores the theme of atheism and communist ideology in the Soviet Union. Learn More


    Q: Your book, A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism, was recently published and explores the theme of atheism and communist ideology in the Soviet Union. Can you tell the Wilson Center audience more about this book and what you hope readers take away from it?

    A: I think the first thing worth underscoring is that A Sacred Space Is Never Empty is the first history of Soviet atheism from the 1917 revolution to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that is grounded in archival sources. This is worth noting, and should surprise us, because the binary opposition of godly West and godless communism defined the Cold War – and yet there was little attention paid to the “godless” part of this term. The meaning of Soviet atheism was largely implicit, and was also perceived to be stable and unchanging. In my book, I tried to destabilize these assumptions. My point of departure was to take Soviet atheism seriously on its own terms, to understand its meaning and function in the broader Soviet project, and to assess whether it lived up to the expectations and hopes that various parties placed on it over time.

    I hope the readers take away at least two things from the story of Soviet atheism. First, for understanding the Soviet project, I think that atheism mattered, even if the participants in the political project did not always take its “religious” component seriously. I think atheism’s role in the Soviet project – which, I argue in the book, is a tool for contesting competing claims to political, ideological, and spiritual authority – can tell us a great deal about how Soviet Communism was imagined and experienced. Second, a study of Soviet engagements with religion and atheism is necessary for understanding the transformations of religious and spiritual life in the modern era, in the USSR but also beyond it. I think the Soviet atheist experience has some lessons that remain relevant, and these lessons have not yet received the attention they deserve.

    Q: Your work at the Wilson Center and beyond has been critical in developing a more complete history of religion in a communist country. Can you discuss the importance of the role of atheism in the Soviet Union?

    A: The book shows that, despite its monopoly on ideology and power, the Soviet Communist Party never succeeded in overcoming religion and creating an atheist society. Instead, engagements with religion transformed atheism itself, showing Soviet atheists that exorcizing religion was not enough, and that to overcome it, they had to produce positive beliefs, practices, and spiritual commitments; that their goal was not just the absence of religion, but atheist conviction. I argue in the book that even with its new understandings and approaches, Soviet atheism never managed to fill the “sacred space” at the heart of Soviet Communism, but it nevertheless left an imprint on Soviet society. Soviet society did indeed become more secular by the 1960s, though atheist work was not the only, or the main, reason for this transformation. Indeed, what’s interesting is that some of the societal patterns that Soviet atheists observed in the 1960s and 1970s – the spread of religious and ideological indifference, on the one hand, and the rise of religious dissent and new religious movements on the other – could be observed in Western societies as well (the historian Hugh McLeod’s has a very illuminating analysis of this in his  book, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s), suggesting that these transformations were caused by larger structural causes rather than ideological campaigns. What is important, to my eyes, is the political meaning of Soviet atheism and the role it played in the broader logic of the Soviet project. In the late 1980s, when the regime found itself in crisis, Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned atheism and returned religion to Soviet public life, putting in question the moral and political legitimacy of the Soviet Communist project. What I suggest in my book is that there was a relationship between the two divorces that took place in the Soviet Union’s final years—the divorce of Communism from atheism, and the divorce of the Soviet state from the Communist Party.

    Q: Religion has become more prevalent in former Soviet states such as Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Can you tell the Wilson audience how religion in the former Soviet states has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989?

    A: I begin and end A Sacred Space Is Never Empty with an event that I think helps us understand the genealogy of the more prominent role of religion in former Soviet states following the Soviet collapse. This event is the celebration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus in 1988, which commemorated the decision by Grand Prince Vladimir of Kyivan Rus’ to adopt Christianity in the year 988. The celebration of the Millennium – because it was acknowledged at the top, reframed as a legitimate part of the country’s history, and celebrated in public - transformed the relationship of both the party and the state to religion and atheism. To put it most directly, religion was no longer cast as a backward “holdover” marginal to Soviet life, but was reframed as a legitimate part of the country’s history. As Gorbachev put it during his meeting with Patriarch Pimen of the Russian Orthodox Church in advance of the celebrations, the Millennium would be commemorated “not only in a religious but also a sociopolitical tone, since it was a significant milestone in the centuries’ long path of the development of the fatherland’s history, culture, and Russian statehood.” He also stated that religious believers were “Soviet people, working people, patriots,” and, as such, entitled to all the rights of Soviet citizenship “without restrictions” – including “the full right to express their convictions with dignity.” These statements, in another context, would not be considered particularly remarkable, but in the Soviet context they were radical, because tacitly acknowledged that for the entire Soviet period, religion had not been considered a significant part of the country’s history, and believers had not been treated as full citizens or allowed to “express their convictions with dignity,” even though the Soviet Constitution had always formally guaranteed them these rights.

    The return of religion to politics and public life in 1988 broke the links between atheism and the Soviet state, and can be seen – in my view – as the entry of the Soviet Communist project into its final chapter: dissolution. The argument has been made that without the party was the only institution that unified the republics of the USSR into a coherent whole that was larger than the sum of its parts. Atheism, I think, was a constituent part of this framework in that it was intended to undermine the political, ideological, and cultural legitimacy of local religious institutions and traditions, reorienting local ethnic and national identities toward the greater identity of the “Soviet people.” By discarding atheism, the various national projects of the USSR’s constituent republics could be buttressed by religious institutions, histories, and identities. In the late Soviet context – and especially during perestroika, when the “Soviet” had been depleted of its moral legitimacy – religious institutions could enter the public sphere with the claim that they represented the authentic histories, identities, and interests of the nationalities still formally under Soviet power.

    This moment opens a new era not just in (post-)Soviet religious life but also in (post-)Soviet politics. In Russia, the celebration of the Millennium in 1988 is called “The Second Baptism of Rus,” and in a 2013 documentary of that title on the television channel "Rossiia-1", which aired occasion of the 1025th anniversary of Grand Prince Vladimir's conversion of the people of Rus' in 988, this narrative was laid out for the view in a straightforward story about the return of Orthodoxy to Russian public life following seven decades of Communism as a story of the Russian people, and the Russian nation, returning to their authentic spiritual foundations after a troubled period of political repression and ideological confusion. The Soviet past, then, is reframed as a story of continuity rather than rupture. In his interview for the documentary, President Putin explains that the Communist moral code, the so-called “Moral Code of the Builders of Communism” that was introduced in 1961 – incidentally, during Nikita Khrushchev’s antireligious campaign – as a constituent part of the broader project of “Building Communism,” was basically grounded in religious moral principles, and that when this moral code “stopped existing” in the late Soviet period, a “moral vacuum” formed that could only be filled by one thing: “true, real” religious values. The return of religion to Russian life, then, is cast as an organic social process rather than a constructed political project. As Putin puts it, "people, in essence, converted of their own accord to their roots and spiritual values, which was the natural rebirth of the Russian people (russkogo naroda).” I think the erection of a giant statue to Grand Prince Vladimir in the center of Moscow in 2016 is, in some ways, the explicit expression of an ideological project that had been implicit throughout the post-Soviet period – a project that has its origins in the celebration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ in 1988.

    I think we see some version of this reframing of the relationship between religion and politics in other post-Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Georgia, although of course the path this new ideological project takes in each country depends on numerous structural and contingent factors: the relationship of religious institutions to the local conceptions of nation and state most obviously, but also political relationships, demographic factors, and the relationships with near and distant neighbors. In Ukraine, for example, we see a very different process playing out: from a fairly stable period of disestablishment and robust religious pluralism to a project, undertaken in the last two years, to establish a national church carried out with the participation of the secular Ukrainian state.

    Q: What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects or future plans you can tell us about?

    A: A Sacred Space Is Never Empty ends by showing that the political significance of religion's return to Soviet life was a blind spot for the Soviet Communist Party. But, perhaps more surprisingly, it was also a blind spot for Western observers who had been fighting for religious rights behind the Iron Curtain for decades. My second book project, titled “The Crusade Against Godlessness: Religion, Communism, and the Cold War Order,” emerged from a puzzling disconnect between perception and reality: on the one hand, the foreign perception of Soviet religious affairs was that the Soviet state was committed to an aggressive atheist program, while inside the USSR, on the other hand, religious policy and atheist work were much more ad-hoc, ideologically inconsistent, and politically pragmatic. In my second book, I try to connect and make sense of these two seemingly contradictory narratives.

    In some ways, then, “The Crusade Against Godlessness” is both a continuation and a mirror image of A Sacred Space Is Never Empty. It continues and develops the story told in Sacred Space in two ways in particular: first, by de-centering Russian Orthodoxy and turning our attention to other religious groups in the USSR, and especially to those groups who had, to borrow the Soviet terminology, “co-religionists” abroad (from Catholics and Protestants, to Jews and Muslims, to Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists); and second, by looking at the religious question in Soviet international relations and foreign affairs. So, whereas A Sacred Space Is Never Empty focused on internal developments in the USSR and the ways in which atheist ideology shaped, and was in turn shaped by, engagements with religion at home, “The Crusade Against Godlessness” turns our attention to Soviet engagements with religion abroad, and looks at how these shape the regime’s perceptions of religion’s role both inside the USSR and on the global stage.

    The return of religion to politics and public life at the end of the twentieth century is one of the most unexpected developments in modern history, yet explanations for religion’s return have thus far focused on globalization and the rise of fundamentalism, largely ignoring the Cold War context, and the Soviet side of the story in particular. This project explores the international and transnational dimensions of modern religious politics, offering a new genealogy of religion's return that shows the ways in which this process was entangled with the perceived threat of communism and atheism. Over the course of the twentieth century, and especially during the Cold War, religion and communism were engaged in what both sides perceived to be an existential conflict. This made Soviet believers the subject of much attention among many different religious and social groups, yet the significance of this struggle for both the making and unmaking of the Cold War order has not yet been analyzed. How and why did religion “return” – both within the Soviet Union and across the globe (and had it really gone away)? What role did transnational religious mobilization play in the consolidation of the Cold War order? Conversely, in what ways did the Cold War struggle with “atheistic communism” inform the ideas and activities of religious organizations and believers? “The Crusade Against Godlessness” examines these questions by looking at religious organizations as significant political actors that shaped religion, Communism, and the Cold War on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

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    Schatz Pens New Book on the Influence of the National War Labor Board

    Ronald Schatz, professor of history, is the author of The Labor Board Crew: Remaking Worker-Employer Relations from Pearl Harbor to the Reagan Era, published by the University of Illinois Press on Jan. 11, 2021.


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    According to the publisher:

    Schatz tells the story of the team of young economists and lawyers recruited to the National War Labor Board to resolve union-management conflicts during the Second World War. The crew (including Clark Kerr, John Dunlop, Jean McKelvey, and Marvin Miller) exerted broad influence on the U.S. economy and society for the next 40 years. They handled thousands of grievances and strikes. They founded academic industrial relations programs. When the 1960s student movement erupted, universities appointed them as top administrators charged with quelling the conflicts. In the 1970s, they developed systems that advanced public sector unionization and revolutionized employment conditions in Major League Baseball.

    Schatz argues that the Labor Board vets, who saw themselves as disinterested technocrats, were in truth utopian reformers aiming to transform the world. Beginning in the 1970s stagflation era, they faced unforeseen opposition, and the cooperative relationships they had fostered withered. Yet their protégé George Shultz used mediation techniques learned from his mentors to assist in the integration of Southern public schools, institute affirmative action in industry, and conduct Cold War negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev.

    Schatz’s research focuses on 20th century U.S. history and labor history. He investigates labor and management, conservatism, labor and religion, arbitration, and Connecticut history.

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    Erik Grimmer-Solem, Learning Empire: Globalization and German Quest for World Status, 1875-1919

    The German Studies department would like to congratulate Erik Grimmer-Solem, (Professor of History and affiliated with German Studies) on his latest publication, Learning Empire: Globalization and the German Quest for World Status, 1875-1919 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). His book–as he tells his readers–“seeks to reshape our understanding of Imperial Germany’s history by reconstructing the complex overseas entanglements of Germans in North and South America, Japan, China, Southeast Asia, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey”  https://egrimmer.faculty.wesleyan.edu/current-projects/research/. Learn More

    Learning Empire has been widely reviewed in the US, Great Britain, Australia, and Germany. Dirk Bonker (Duke University) calls it an “impressive book” in which “Erik Grimmer-Solem offers a new narrative of the German Empire’s expansionist discourse and pursuit of global power from the 1870s through the 1910s” [German Studies Review, Volume 43, Number 2, May 2020, pp. 405-407]. Edward Ross Dickinson (University of California, Davis) calls Erik’s work “a remarkable undertaking, a hybrid work that is at once an ambitious and sustained synthesis of the massive scholarly literature on German imperial policy (Weltpolitik) and a study, founded on extensive archival research, of the role in shaping that policy of a small network of academic economists interested in the emerging capitalist world economy (Weltwirtschaft) [Journal of World History, December 2020, pp. 820-822]. Matthew P. Fitzpatrick (Flinders University, South Australia) calls the book a “landmark work of scholarship.” Erik “persuasively demonstrates that imperialism in the German Kaiserreich was not the product of the dominance of atavistic feudal remnants, but rather was an expression of the social, geopolitical and economic understanding of the globalizing middle classes of Germany. Beyond this, however, he also demonstrates that Germany’s liberal Weltpolitik was matched and eventually eclipsed by the expression of similar globalizing impulses in other nations, including the United States and Britain” [German History, Oxford University press, pre-publication book review]. And Gerhard Wegner (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) ends his positive review with: “Learning Empire bietet dem Leser eine höchst anregende Darstellung des Imperalismus aus der Perspektive zeitgenössischer Nationalökonomen” (January 18, 2021).

    And available at Olin Libray

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    Laura Ann Twagira promoted to Tenure by the Board of Trustees

    Laura Ann Twagira, Associate Professor of History

    Professor Twagira is a historian of modern Africa, gender, and technology. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the dynamic relationships between gender, daily life, and vernacular epistemologies, and seeks to illuminate women’s roles in the production of knowledge about Africa. Her forthcoming monograph, Embodied Engineering: Gendered Labor, Food Security, and Taste in Twentieth Century Mali (Ohio University Press, 2021), analyzes domestic space as an arena of technological innovation and argues that women in rural Mali engineered a complex and highly adaptive food production system in the face of multiple environmental and political challenges. She also edited the forthcoming special issue Africanizing Technology (April 2020) for the journal Technology and Culture. She offers courses on modern and precolonial Africa; reproductive politics and the body; global gender history; and the environment in Africa.

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    Erik Grimmer-Solem awarded research fellowship by the German Academic Exchange Service

    Erik Grimmer-Solem, Professor of History, was awarded a research fellowship by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) to support his time as a guest of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich this fall. Erik will be researching the Wehrmacht’s involvement in the early stages of the Holocaust in the southern Soviet Union in 1941 as well as German memory politics around the Wehrmacht legacy. This builds on his work on the crimes of General Hans von Sponeck and the 11th Army. He anticipates a new book about that by the end of next year.

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    Professor Grimmer-Solem's book on Learning Empire will also be published by Cambridge University Press on September 26, and unveiled at the German Studies Association conference in Portland on October 3-6.


  • History Faculty Receive Endowed Professorships

    William Johnston arrived at Wesleyan in 1988 after receiving his BA from Elmira College and his MA and PhD from Harvard University. His research focuses on Japanese history and the history of disease and public health. Johnston is the author of two books, Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan (Columbia University Press, 2005) and The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan (Council on East Asian Studies Publications, Harvard University, 1995). He is currently working on a new book that will examine the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he is completing a photography book with renowned Japanese artist Eiko Otake.

    Ethan Kleinberg joined the Department of History and the College of Letters in 2001 after completing his BA at University of California, Berkeley; a Fulbright scholarship in France; and his MA and PhD at University of California, Los Angeles. His research interests include European intellectual history, critical theory, educational structures, and the philosophy of history. Kleinberg has published three books, most recently Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (Stanford University Press, 2017). In 2018, he was Professeur Invité at Université Bordeaux Montaigne, and in Summer 2020 he will be the Reinhart Koselleck Guest Professor at Bielefeld University’s Zentrum für Theorien in der historischen Forschung.

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    Why a centuries-old religious dispute over Ukraine’s Orthodox Church matters today

    A new Orthodox Church was recently established in Ukraine.

    Shortly after, Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the spiritual head of global Orthodox Christianity, granted independence to the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine and transferred its jurisdiction from the church of Moscow to the church of Constantinople, located in Istanbul.

    This competition between the churches of Constantinople and Moscow for dominance in the Orthodox Christian world is not new – it goes back more than 500 years. But the birth of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine opens a new chapter in this history.

    So what is Ukraine’s new church, and how will it change the global political and religious landscape?

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    Constantinople vs. Moscow

    The Patriarchate of Constantinople is considered the most important of the world’s 15 independent Eastern Orthodox churches. Although Eastern Christianity is less hierarchical than its Western Catholic counterpart, the Patriarch of Constantinople nevertheless has great authority over the Orthodox world.

    This authority stems from Constantinople’s claim to primacy, which is rooted in its early history.

    In the fourth century A.D., Emperor Constantine made two decisions that changed the world: he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, and he moved the capital of the Roman empire from Rome to the then-modest city of Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople after the emperor.

    With the fall of Rome in the fifth century A.D., Constantinople became the uncontested center of the Roman empire, making Byzantium the center of Christian power.

    In the centuries that followed, the Patriarch of Constantinople challenged the universal authority of the Pope in Rome on both theological and political grounds. In 1054, this contest between Patriarch and Pope culminated in the “Great Schism,” which split the Christian world into the Catholic “West” and Orthodox “East” – a division that has shaped politics and religion to this day.

    Constantinople retained its position as the imperial center of Christianity for a millennium, until the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453 A.D. Importantly, even after the fall of the Byzantine empire as a political order and the change of the city’s name from Constantinople to Istanbul, the church retained its original name. It is the last remnant of Byzantium in the modern world.

    With Constantinople’s fall, Orthodox Christianity became a minority faith under Islamic rule. Moscow’s Orthodox Church became the most powerful Eastern Christian church on sovereign territory. This allowed it to position itself as the heir of the Christian empire.

    From Kiev to Moscow

    Moscow was not a new church. Its origins dated to 988 A.D., when Christianity was adopted as the religion of Kievan Rus’ – the medieval state that encompassed much of what is now Ukraine, Belarus, and the European parts of Russia.

    Kiev was the first political center of the Rus’ state, and the church of Kievan Rus’ was subservient to Constantinople. In the late 1230s, when Kiev was besieged by the Mongols, Constantinople authorized the transfer of the church north. In the 13th century, the church moved to Moscow, which had become the regional center of political power.

    Until the 16th century, Moscow remained under the religious authority of Constantinople for 300 years. But once Moscow felt powerful enough to assert its authority over Constantinople, it leveraged its position as the largest and wealthiest Orthodox church to establish its own patriarchate, the highest religious body within Orthodox Christianity.

    Moscow vs. Kiev

    Ukrainian Orthodoxy was under the jurisdiction of the Russian church for over 300 years, until 2019.

    The reasons for this were pragmatic.

    Ukraine’s position as a borderland between Western and Eastern Christianity placed Ukrainian Christians between the authority of Moscow, Rome, and Constantinople.

    After Kiev’s fall to the Mongols in the 13th century, Ukraine was caught between two powerful neighbors with opposing religious identities: to the East, Orthodox Russia, and to the West, Catholic Poland-Lithuania.

    In the 1600s, Ukraine found itself under pressure from Catholic neighbors intent on converting Orthodox Ukrainians to Catholicism. For Constantinople, this made the value of protection from a powerful Orthodox neighbor apparent, and it turned to Moscow for help. In 1686, Constantinople placed Ukrainian Orthodoxy under Moscow’s authority.

    The Orthodox Church of Ukraine

    Since Constantinople had authorized Moscow’s original claim to Ukraine in 1686, today’s Ukraine needed Constantinople to break the ties that bound Ukrainian Orthodoxy to Moscow.

    But why does Ukraine want to break these ties now?

    Throughout Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia since 2014, the Ukrainian state has grown more vocal in its support for an independent Ukrainian church. Ukraine’s leaders cast Ukrainian Orthodoxy’s break from Moscow as the final step of Ukraine’s journey to political independence.

    Until 2019, Ukraine – a country of almost 45 million people, around 30 million of whom identify as Orthodox Christians – had three separate Orthodox Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

    All three vied for the position of national church of Ukraine on different grounds.

    Although the three churches had no doctrinal differences, only the church under the Moscow Patriarchate was recognized as legitimate in the greater Orthodox world. The other two churches were independent, but considered illegitimate, or “schismatic,” by both Constantinople and Moscow.

    Even with state patronage then, Ukrainian Orthodoxy needed religious support if it was to get an independent church that was also theologically legitimate.

    The church of Constantinople provided the solution to this problem.

    Given this complex religious landscape, Constantinople did two things to establish a new Ukrainian church independent of Moscow. First, on Oct. 11, 2018, it revoked the 1686 decision to grant Moscow jurisdiction over Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Then, on Dec. 15, Constantinople recognized Ukraine’s two “schismatic” churches as legitimate after which they united and held a council to adopt a common charted and elect a leader.

    Finally, on Jan. 5, at a ceremony in Istanbul, the Patriarch of Constantinople gave the new Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine, Epiphanius I, the tomos of autocephaly – a church document proclaiming the church’s independence from Moscow.

    Alongside Ukraine’s religious leaders, the ceremony was also attended by Ukraine’s President, Petro Poroshenko.

    Why old religious disputes matter

    My work on the history of religion and politics shows that old religious disputes continue to shape modern politics.

    For Ukraine, the realignment of Ukrainian Orthodoxy from Moscow to Constantinople takes Ukraine out of the “Russian World,” an ideology that Russia uses to make claims beyond its political borders.

    The Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, has broken ties with Constantinople, and does not recognize the legitimacy of Ukraine’s new Orthodox Church. It continues to claim jurisdiction over Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

    Orthodox churches beyond Ukraine are now forced to choose between Moscow and Constantinople. The conflict over Ukraine has moved to the global stage.


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    Tucker in The Conversation: In ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ an Ode to the Gas Lamp

    Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline, “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” In a new article, Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker explores our ongoing romance with the gas lamp in connection with the new Mary Poppins film. Tucker is also associate professor and chair, feminist, gender, and sexuality studies; associate professor, science in society; and associate professor, environmental studies.

    In ‘Mary Poppins Returns,’ an ode to the gas lamp

    Mary Poppins Returns” transports audiences back to 1930s London.

    The beloved nanny at the center of the original 1964 hit film will return, this time played by Emily Blunt.

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    But Mary’s original companion, Bert, a chimney sweep played by Dick Van Dyke, has been replaced by Jack, a lamplighter played by Lin-Manuel Miranda [’02].

    Some fans of the original might be disappointed to see Bert cede screen time to Jack. But as a historian of Victorian science, I was delighted to see a bygone industrial technology – the gas lamp – take center stage.

    ‘Artificial suns’

    First installed in the 18th century, the earliest public street lamps used fish oil and wicks.

    The reflector lamp, invented in Paris in 1760, became a popular update to existing oil lamps. Using several wicks and silver-plated copper reflectors, these lamps could cast light down and sideways, strengthening the glow.

    These lamps were hailed as artificial suns – a new technology that could turn night into day.

    But it still wasn’t good enough. Compared to today’s lighting, they barely emitted a flicker. “Standing directly underneath one,” a contemporary griped, “one might as well be in the dark.”

    As the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch explains in his book “Disenchanted Night,” gas ushered in a new era of street lighting technology. The first gas pipes were made from the barrels of old musket guns, and the lamp casings were coated in lime-oxide, which glow white-hot in a gas flame.

    The result was a lamp that burned much brighter than its predecessors.

    London’s Monthly Magazine reported: “One branch of the lamps illuminated with gas affords a greater intensity of light than 20 common lamps lighted with oil. The light is beautifully white and brilliant.”

    The Victorian periodical The Westminster Review wrote that the introduction of gas lamps would do more to eliminate immorality and criminality on the streets than any number of church sermons.

    The first gas lighting systems were installed in 1802 in a foundry in Birmingham, England’s 18th-century version of America’s Silicon Valley. As part of King George III’s birthday celebration, London’s Pall Mall became the first place lit by a gaslight in 1807.

    Over the following decades, thousands of gas lamps went up across London and in cities around the world.

    The professional lamplighter

    More lamps, however, created a need for more labor. Every evening, each lamp needed to be manually sparked; each morning, the flame needed to be manually quenched.

    Teams of lamplighters would meander through the city streets, using long poles to spark the gas. Gas lamps could be temperamental, so lamplighters also needed to clean and mend the lantern glass, which could crack and attracted dust and soot.

    A team of British lamplighters pose with their poles c. 1930. (Chris Sugg, CC BY-SA)

    The lamplighter soon entered popular culture. Charles Dickens’ first comedy, “The Lamplighter,” debuted in 1838.

    The Scottish writer R.L. Stevenson popularized the Scottish term for lamplighters – “leerie” – in his 1885 poem, “The Lamplighter”:

    My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky;
    It’s time to take the window to see the Leerie going by; 
    For every night at teatime and before you take your seat
    With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street. 

    In 19th-century England, lamplighters had a far better reputation than “Dusty Bobs,” the term used for chimney sweeps like Bert.

    Chimney sweeping was a desperately poor trade. Because the job often involved children clambering up and down sooty chimneys, Victorian labor reformers viewed it with horror.

    Lamplighters, in contrast, were paid better and were praised for their work illuminating darkened streets and allowing people to feel safer.

    A 1930 cartoon from the periodical Punch features a bicycle-riding lamplighter. (Chris Sugg)

    The romance of the gas lamp

    By the 1870s, gas lamps were being forced to compete with a newer form of street lighting: electricity. The electrical arc lamp first lit streets in London in 1878; more than 4,000 were in use by 1881. The United States quickly adopted arc lighting, and by 1890 over 130,000 were in operation.

    It took decades, however, for electricity to finally usurp gas in most British cities. Electricity was expensive, and many city dwellers thought the light emitted was too bright.

    In response to the challenge of electricity, inventors such as the engineer William Sugg pushed for improvements to the gas lamps to increase their reliability and power. In 1881, Robert Louis Stevenson published an essay titled “A Plea For Gas Lamps,” in which he lamented the “ugly blinding glare” of electric light.

    The cover of ‘Daylight by Night,’ a 1931 publication put together by the British Commercial Gas Association, depicts the soft glow of London’s gas-lit streets. (The British Commercial Gas Association.)

    The British Commercial Gas Association produced a book, “Daylight by Night,” which used photographs and watercolor illustrations to show the magical quality of a city at nightfall lit by gas.

    Sugg, Stevenson, the gas companies and others were able to temporarily delay the march of electricity: Historical journals such as Municipal Engineering indicate that into the 1930s, there were still over 100,000 gas lamps in London, ranging from the powerful lamps in the main thoroughfares to small low-pressure lamps in the outlying suburbs.

    Around 1,500 gas lamps remain in London, the majority of which are in world-famous London streets such as Whitehall and Regent Street, near Kensington and Buckingham Palace. These lamps have withstood electricity, the Blitz and urban renewal, and their survival is a testament to the care of generations of lamplighters, as well as the adoration of a nostalgic public.

    Meanwhile, the bicycle-riding lamplighter carrying his pole and ladder has become an iconic symbol of Ye Olde England, along with hansom cabs, Big Ben and the bells of St. Paul’s. “Mary Poppins Returns” production designer John Myhre has worked all of these symbols into the film to give it the distinct feel of 1930s London, although the lamps featured in the film more closely mimic those of the 1880s.

    Today, a team of specialists light and maintain the gas lamps that remain in London.

    No longer do they go from lamp to lamp by bicycle.

    Instead, they zip around the city on motorized scooters.

    Jennifer Tucker, Associate Professor of History and Science in Society, Wesleyan University

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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    Modern British History

    Professor Tucker's Modern British History class visit to Wesleyan's Special Collections with Susan K. Kent, A&S Professor of Distinction, Department of History, University of Colorado at Boulder, (author of Our Core Text), and Suzy Taraba, Director of Special Collections and Archives.  Students presented on their final projects, (introductions to a book of their chioce in British History).

Smolkin Discusses Her New Book on the History of Soviet Atheism at Brother’s Accompanying Art Exhibit

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    A Sacred Space Is Never Empty A History of Soviet Atheism

    On Nov. 11, Victoria Smolkin, associate professor of history and Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies, joined forces with her brother, artist Vlad Smolkin, to share their work with the public at a new and revamped Main Street Gallery Art Opening/Books & Bagels Talk at Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Conn. Learn More

    Smolkin is the author of a new book, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism, published by Princeton University Press in 2018. A scholar of Communism, the Cold War, and atheism and religion in Russia and the former Soviet Union, Smolkin’s expertise also covers religious politics and secularism and the Soviet space program.

    In A Sacred Space Is Never Empty, Smolkin explores the meaning of atheism for religious life, for Communist ideology, and for Soviet politics. When the Bolsheviks set out to build a new world in the wake of the Russian Revolution, they expected religion to die off. Soviet power used a variety of tools—from education to propaganda to terror—to turn its vision of a Communist world without religion into reality. Yet even with its monopoly on ideology and power, the Soviet Communist Party never succeeded in creating an atheist society.

    The book presents the first history of Soviet atheism from the 1917 revolution to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Drawing on a wealth of archival material and in-depth interviews with those who were on the front lines of Communist ideological campaigns, Smolkin argues that to understand the Soviet experiment, we must make sense of Soviet atheism. Smolkin shows how atheism was reimagined as an alternative cosmology with its own set of positive beliefs, practices, and spiritual commitments. Through its engagements with religion, the Soviet leadership realized that removing religion from the “sacred spaces” of Soviet life was not enough. Then, in the final years of the Soviet experiment, Mikhail Gorbachev—in a stunning and unexpected reversal—abandoned atheism and reintroduced religion into Soviet public life.

    Victoria Smolkin discusses her new book at the art exhibition.

    During the event, Victoria discussed her new book while Vlad debuted his art exhibition, Light Beams. The Smolkins were born in the Soviet Union and moved to the United States and at a young age; through their experiences, each sibling found a distinct way to explore, highlight, and celebrate their heritage.

    Like Victoria’s book, Vlad’s art also showcases the themes of religion and outer space. His exhibition envisions how Judaism might exist on other planets. In his work, he looks at how the Western Wall might be transferred to Mars, and how the cultivation of flowers on Mars might be the last vestige of Jewish humanity.

    Light Beams by Vlad Smolkin can be viewed from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday during December and the first three weeks of January 2019.

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    How the NRA Hijacked History

    Jennifer Tucker, associate professor of history at Wesleyan University and co-editor of "A Right to Bear Arms? The Contested Role of History in Contemporary Debates on the Second Amendment."

    The Second Amendment was intended to be compatible with robust regulations of weaponry.

    In this op-ed, Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker writes about the history of the legal debate over the Second Amendment, and explains how the court’s understanding of that history may shape the nation’s response to the current gun violence epidemic. Her op-ed was reported on in The Trace.


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    Recent mass shootings in Texas and Ohio have raised our national debate about gun control to a fever pitch once more. As Congress returns to Washington after its summer recess, it will face mounting pressure to pass legislation to deter such attacks and other forms of firearms violence.

    The last gun-control measure Congress passed was the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (which expired in 2004). Since then, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down a D.C. law banning handguns, represents a potentially significant new barrier to passing gun-control legislation. For the first time, the court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm for self-defense, unconnected with militia service. Today, the Supreme Court, with an even stronger conservative majority, seems poised to extend this ruling to other aspects of gun ownership.

    The Heller decision stemmed from a new interpretation of American history that emerged during the past 40 years as a result of concerted advocacy by gun rights supporters such as the National Rifle Association. This campaign — which rewrites our national history to fit a modern gun rights narrative — threatens to lead the Supreme Court further astray.

    The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, ratified in September 1791, reads: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” For more than 200 years, most legal scholars and historians viewed this language as conferring a right “to keep and bear arms” only in the context of a “well-regulated militia.”

    The Founders viewed the militia as a way to ensure civic participation in the security of the United States and to prevent the need for a permanent standing army that would create the risk of military despotism. They understood the militia as a well-trained, disciplined and government-sponsored bulwark of liberty — not a random group of armed citizens acting as vigilantes. Over time, however, the Founders’ vision of a militia proved too difficult to realize, and by the 1840s national defense began falling to paid volunteers funded by states.

    Although this civic republican understanding of the Second Amendment did not preclude citizens from owning and using guns for lawful purposes, there was a consensus throughout the 19th century that state and local governments maintained broad police powers to regulate the carrying of dangerous weapons in public. The Supreme Court applied the militia-centered (or collective) view of the right to bear arms well into the 20th century. It upheld the 1934 National Firearms Act and the 1938 Gun Control Act, which imposed severe restrictions on machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and silencers. In United States v. Miller (1939), the court found the Second Amendment protected the right to keep and bear firearms only for certain military purposes.

    This ruling fit with the prevailing legal understanding of the Second Amendment as well. From 1900 to 1959, only 12 studies on the Second Amendment appeared in professional legal journals, each of them understanding the right as being linked to a well-regulated militia. In a 1955 internal report for the NRA, Jack Basil Jr. (who later became director of the NRA’s Legislative Service) acknowledged that “the Second Amendment appears to apply to a collective, not an individual, right to bear arms.”

    Gun rights supporters, steered by the NRA, resisted this broad consensus, instead pushing an individual rights narrative in the courts and in public discourse. Although the NRA was best known to the public for its education and safety programs between the 1920s and the 1960s, behind the scenes it lobbied governments and organized at the grass-roots level to promote a view of firearm ownership and use as a badge of citizenship essential to public safety and national defense.

    Nonetheless, the individual rights view was slow to gain wider traction. In 1968, Congress responded to the crime and assassinations of the 1960s by passing the Gun Control Act, which regulated interstate firearm sales and imposed new age and mental health restrictions on gun purchases. Even Charlton Heston — who decades later became famous for saying the government would have to pry his gun from his “cold, dead hands” — joined the public campaign in support of passing the act. The actor served five terms as president of the NRA.

    Angered by the passage of this law, and by a 1971 incident in which an NRA member was shot and killed during a raid by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the NRA redoubled its efforts to promote an individual right reading of the Second Amendment.

    This endeavor would prove far more successful in the following decades than it had been in the past because of legal and political changes. The Republican Party was growing increasingly conservative and taking a skeptical view of federal power. Politically, removing restrictions on donations to political parties created an imbalance that also influenced Republican sentiment, given that the NRA had a vastly larger megaphone than the victims of gun violence.

    These political forces aligned with the rise of originalism as a constitutional methodology — focused on what the Constitution meant to its drafters — to create a receptiveness to the individual rights interpretation. That understanding seemed to be receiving expert endorsements, too. By the 1980s, a small group of lawyers — many affiliated with the NRA and other gun rights groups — started to publish a flood of studies in legal journals arguing that the original language of the Second Amendment was intended to protect hunters and sports shooters against any restrictions on their use of firearms.

    History was an integral weapon in advancing this narrative. Through the NRA’s magazines, supported scholarship, sponsored films and a private museum network, the group tried to impose a unilateral reading of American history: what might be called “gunsplaining” for the masses. It convinced many people — including law professors and judges — that the individualist interpretation was the “standard model” of American gun history.

    A key moment in this battle came in 1994, when historian Joyce Lee Malcolm published “To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right,” which argued that the individual right to carry arms can be traced back to the 1689 English Bill of Rights. Justice Antonin Scalia drew from Malcolm’s book when he wrote for the majority in Heller.

    The problem with Scalia’s opinion, however, is that it rests on a false interpretation of the past. Based on archival evidence, historians have found no record in English common law of an untrammeled individual right to bear arms. On the contrary, common law in England and 18th-century America always recognized that personal security was best protected through a well-ordered society in which the public carrying of dangerous weapons was closely regulated.

    The 1328 Statute of Northampton, for example, constrained the right to travel with dangerous weapons in public by limiting the public carriage of swords and other medieval weapons (firearms not yet having been invented). This statute was the prevailing rule of law in the American colonies through the late 18th century, with exceptions being made for people to carry arms for trade and repair, while traveling and for hunting.

    Such laws of centuries past may seem disconnected from the mass shootings and everyday gun violence occurring nationwide today, but they are not. How the court understands this history may shape how the nation responds to the gun violence epidemic. For this reason, it is crucial that the court look beyond the distorted history presented by gun rights activists.

    New scholarship is beginning to break the NRA’s efforts to monopolize the history of guns in America. Although the evidence is often complex and contradictory, it shows that the main historical tradition inherited from English common law emphasized the need to regulate firearms, and weaponry more broadly, in the interest of public safety. Contrary to the gun lobby’s view of an unlimited individual right to bear arms, American courts and public opinion have never been on the side of unregulated gun ownership.

    The state’s duty to protect the peace and promote public safety is an enduring principle of common law that informed the framing of the Constitution.

    In light of this history — and in line with what the architects of the Second Amendment would have endorsed — the courts must allow lawmakers to make reasonable efforts to regulate the use of firearms.