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Birgitta Ingemanson

Professor of Foreign Languages and Cultures, Washington State University

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

My parents were not Russophiles, but growing up in Stockholm during the Cold War, I learnt a lesson that in its humble magnificence continues to apply to Russia and the world today. My father was a political activist, regularly away at meetings, so I rarely saw him. But one beautiful spring Sunday when I was nine, he invited me to a walk. This was such an unusual treat that I felt dizzy with joy and pride: only I (not my sister, not our mother) was out in the sunshine with Papa, and I smiled at everyone we met to show him off, my hand safely in his. Crossing one of Stockholm’s many bridges, from high above the water I could see two Soviet ships moored at the quay below. Although recognizing the red flag, I knew nothing of Soviet life, society, or culture, but from newspaper headlines I had got the impression that there was something wrong with this country and its people. Vain pride now overwhelmed what wits I had. Wanting to show my smarts, I blurted out: “Look at those awful Russians!” Papa’s reaction was instant, chilling, and stern. He pulled his hand from mine, stepped aside, and, punctuating each word, said: “Do – not – speak – like – this – again. There are good Russians / and bad Russians, / and there are good Swedes / and bad Swedes. You must always remember / that everything / has two sides.” Shame and remorse replaced my arrogance, but this moment sent me out into real life. 

How have your interests changed since then? 

Russian was not offered in my high school, so at the University of Stockholm and later at LGU and Princeton I took history and politics, Russian language and literature, enjoying the detective aspects of these studies–trying to figure out who and when, how and why. Teaching at Washington State University I have studied topics that intersect history and fiction, for instance Pushkin’s Journey to Arzrum and Alexandra Kollontay’s stories, also going into film studies, e.g. Ingmar Bergman’s film scripts. But visiting Vladivostok in 1990 changed my life. I fell in love with the landscape and the history of this city, and began writing about it. 

What is your current research/work project? Letters

By benevolent chance–sud’ba–I was invited in the late 1990s to study the more than 2,000 letters of Eleanor Lord Pray, the American woman who lived in Vladivostok from 1894 to 1930. I have written about her home, in The Sunny Neighborhood / Солнечный дворик (Vladivostok: Rubezh, 2011), and in a very large project, I am editing and annotating her letters (see details in the publications section of March 2015 NewsNet). 

What do you value about your ASEEES membership? 

It is exhilarating to follow the diverse research interests of ASEEES members, and to note how our organization reflects the political, social, and cultural changes of the former Soviet Union. I always read the Slavic Review, find the book reviews very helpful, and like following colleagues’ information in the NewsNet. 

 Image Caption: Ingemanson’s book Letters from Vladivostok which highlights letters written by Eleanor L. Pray, a New England woman who moved to Vladivostok.