Denise J. Youngblood

Professor of History, University of Vermont

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

As a child of the Cold War, I grew up surrounded by relentless anti-Soviet propaganda; I spent the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in our family’s bomb shelter, which was well-equipped with food, bottled water, and guns. As a born skeptic, I knew that the Russians couldn’t be that scary. My 7th grade social studies teacher, Katharyn Webb showed me that I was right.  I’m not sure where Miss Webb’s courage came from, especially since she was the sole African American teacher in my small hometown on the outskirts of Louisville border, but she set aside the approved curriculum and taught us about Russian and Chinese culture, to humanize these supposed enemies. I was immediately hooked. As an undergraduate student, first at Vanderbilt and then at Wright State, I intended to study both Russian and Chinese history but eventually dropped the latter, finding that I had no eye for the detail in Chinese characters.  I entered Stanford’s doctoral program in history intending to specialize in 19th century social thought, inspired by Alexander Herzen’s writings.

How have your interests changed since then?

By the time I had to choose my dissertation topic, I’d fallen in love with Soviet cinema and made a radical shift to early Soviet socio-cultural history, specifically, the cultural politics of the NEP film industry.  From there I launched a study of popular cinema in the 1920s as it became clear to me that there was much more to Soviet silent cinema than its legendary avant-garde.  My interest in director Iakov Protazanov’s Soviet career led me back to his days as a pre-revolutionary filmmaker and eventually to the history of late imperial Russian cinema.  In the 2000s, I leaped forward to the talkies, prompted by a suggestion to write a book on Russian war films.  After that, Americanist Tony Shaw invited me to co-author a comparative study of American and Soviet Cold War cinema, and for the last few years, I’ve worked on the Cold War, including a monograph on Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic adaptation of War and Peace.  An eclectic bibliography, but each transition has seemed to make intellectual sense.

What is your current research/work project?

As my career winds down, I’m focusing on smaller projects.  Currently I am working on the ambiguous representations of the New Soviet Woman in 1930s and 1940s films and on a historical analysis of Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, a distinctive look at Emperor Hirohito in the aftermath of World War II.  The latter project reflects my long-standing interest in Russian historical films.

What do you value about your ASEEES membership?

My postdoctoral career was in a sense launched by ASEEES.  The knowledge I gained and networks I developed in the 1980s by working as the AAASS’s general factotum—assistant to the Executive Director, newsletter editor, and convention manager—have been invaluable to me as a scholar, teacher, and administrator.  As the fine arts, humanities, and regional studies have come under siege, ASEEES’s work as our professional society is more important than ever.  I truly believe that it’s the duty of every scholar studying any aspect of our vast swathe of Europe and Eurasia to join and as importantly, to participate.  Collective action rules!

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

I’m actually looking forward to “retirement” next year to have more time to read Scandinavian detective novels, watch American independent movies, and travel.  My guilty secret as an academic is that I love sightseeing; I’ve been known to go to Russia for pleasure, without visiting a single archive or library.