Demuth Headshot (2)

Bathsheba Demuth

PhD Candidate in history, University of California, Berkeley

When did you first develop an interest in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies?

Yukon landscapeI came to Russian history by running sled dogs in the Yukon – not really a direct route at all. I spent several years between high school and college training and racing huskies for a Native American family in a fly-in village of about 200 people, and while I was there I heard stories of Russian trade goods making their way up the Yukon River. The next village over, about 500 miles from us, even had a Russian Orthodox Church. So it was there that I became interested in Russian expansion into the Far East and North.  I also fell totally in love with the Arctic while living in the Yukon, although I didn’t start learning Russian until years later. It took living in the former Soviet Union as a Peace Corps volunteer in Moldova to really start thinking about the Russian north and how it might compare or be similar to what I knew in North America. 

How have your interests changed since then?

Well, my research has become explicitly about Russia and North America, rather than just the latter, which it was through college and my first MA. But in many ways I’m still motivated by the questions that came up when I first lived in the arctic.  It’s the peoples of the north that fascinate me, and the relationships between humans and the world around them in places where the margins of survival are so fine. Living what was basically a subsistence lifestyle for those years made me appreciate the different ways landscapes can be understood and valued.  This has pushed my interests in a direction that draws more explicitly from ecology, but the story of how values change – or don’t – over time, and the back-and-forth between what people want from a given ecological space and what is possible, is still at the core of my research.  

What is your current research project?

I’m currently in Russia, finishing up research for my dissertation, which is a history of the Bering Straits region. My project is half an American history and half a Russian one, united by a common ecological space. I’m framing this project around the human relationship to energy – to food, fuel, and the technologies that access both, in a landscape that is defined by its lack of energy, since most of the solar energy that underwrites biological life is reflected back into space at the poles. In the rough century between the 1880s and the 1980s, I look at how the energy-intensive, and constantly energy-acquisitive, industrial-era ideologies of capitalism and communism come to inhabit the Straits. I want to trace how these ideas fundamentally shape both the Russian/Soviet and American adventures on the Seward and Chukchi Peninsulas. Basically it’s a story of radical human certainty slamming up against a place where energy scarcity makes ecological contingency very present, and with what consequences for people, place, and thinking. And it means I get to read a lot about reindeer and walrus.

What do you value about your ASEEES membership?

Some of the connections I’ve made through ASEEES have literally made my research in the past two years possible – just that aspect makes membership important. I also think the advocacy for the study of foreign countries and regions has never been more important, given the sort of budget cuts we’re living through, as ASEEES does an excellent job at representing the long-term needs of our various specialties.

Besides your professional work, what other interests and/or hobbies do you enjoy?

I’ve been taking photographs as a serious hobby since I first lived in the Arctic, and getting back to the north during my research years has been a great chance to do that again. I also run, although I’ve found marathon training in Chukotka this spring to be a bit of a challenge. Currently I’m serving as the graduate student liaison on the executive committee for the American Society for Environmental History, which I’ve found a rewarding way to see how our profession works not just in the classroom. And when I’m home among all of northern California’s amazing produce, cooking is how I relax.  

Photo caption: Yukon landscape