Education: A.B., Princeton University; DPhil, University of Oxford
Kieran Williams is a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Drake University.
When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies?
In high school I found that I was fairly good at learning languages, and was fortunate that Russian was offered, so I began taking it in 1983. In the summer between junior and senior years (1984), I was selected to attend a five-week college-level program, New Jersey Scholars, held at the Lawrenceville School, and that year’s topic was Russia. It was a fantastic combination of history, politics, literature, and art, and whetted my appetite for an area-studies approach, which I follow to this day. I went to college at Princeton in 1985 already set on majoring in Slavic Languages and earning the certificate in Russian Studies.
By the time I was finishing college, perestroika was in full swing and my interest in politics overtook my original focus on language and literature. Also, I started learning Czech with the great linguist Charles Townsend, who steered me toward a focus on Central Europe. The revolutions of 1989 occurred right as I was beginning postgraduate work at Oxford, and allowed me to write my dissertation on the 1968 “Prague Spring” using archives in Czechoslovakia and declassified documents from other countries, including Russia. It was later published as The Prague Spring and its aftermath. My subsequent research focused on aspects of democratization in Central Europe, especially the Czech and Slovak Republics, such as electoral system design, election law disputes, reform of the intelligence services, lustration of former collaborators, and minority rights.
What is your current research/work project?
I have just published a biography of the Czech writer and president Václav Havel, as part of the Critical Lives series from Reaktion Press (in the UK) and the University of Chicago Press (in the US). I found myself drawn to the poetry Havel wrote as a young man and I used it to frame his better-known writings (plays, essays, prison letters and presidential speeches) to tell his familiar life story in a new way. My next project will apply methods of quantitative text analysis to discussions of firearms and gun control in former Communist states.
From 1993 to 2002 I worked at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, with dozens of colleagues who were world-class specialists. At the same time, my wife-to-be, Laura Belin, was a Russia analyst at RFE/RL in Prague, so I felt as immersed as anyone could be in our field. When we moved to Iowa, that changed overnight and I have relied on ASEEES (its annual conference and publications) to stay connected to colleagues and stay on top of the professional trends and challenges facing us.
Besides your professional work, what other interests and/or hobbies do you enjoy?
I’m a distance runner in years when humidity in the Midwest is tolerable; this has not been one of those years.