Erik Scott

Assistant Professor of History, University of Kansas

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

There was no single event, but rather a constellation: I grew up in the United States at the end of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union—a distant land—was ever present on television and in the newspaper; later, I was drawn to Russian classical music and literature; and right before I went off to college, an exchange program brought Galina Evstifeeva, a devoted and dynamic teacher from Yaroslavl, to my high school. At Brown University, I had the great fortune to study Russian and Soviet history with Pat Herlihy and Tom Gleason. I also immersed myself in the study of Russian and traveled to Moscow on a study abroad program.

How have your interests changed since then?

As a student in Moscow in the late 1990s, I was struck by the profoundly multiethnic character of the former Soviet capital. My interest in Georgia therefore began in Russia; I have to admit that it was not unrelated to a delicious meal I had at one of the city’s many Georgian restaurants. After returning to the United States and completing my undergraduate degree, I went to Washington, DC, where I worked as a Junior Fellow for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia Program, focusing on the Caucasus and Central Asia. I eagerly sought to return to the region after my fellowship period, so I moved to Georgia, where I managed a professional exchange program and then helped establish a research center on organized crime and corruption in the Caucasus. It was an exciting time to be engaged with these issues, since they were at the center of the political and economic reforms launched by the new government that came to power in Georgia after the Rose Revolution in 2003. 

These issues also had their roots in the Soviet period, and a desire to understand their historical context brought me to graduate school. At the University of California, Berkeley, my advisor, Yuri Slezkine, encouraged me to look not just at Georgian traders, but also Georgian political and cultural networks that spanned the Soviet Union and connected Tbilisi to Moscow. My dissertation on the Georgian diaspora brought me back to Russia and Georgia in 2008, when the two post-Soviet states fought a war and the historical connections at the center of my study were rapidly unraveling. It was a challenging time to conduct research, but also a critical moment in the history of Russian-Georgian relations.  

My book, Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of the Soviet Empire (Oxford U Press, 2016), sought to make sense of the relative success Georgian networks had achieved in the Soviet context, while also explaining why Georgians, who had helped construct the Soviet empire, ultimately turned against it. I thought a lot about influential minorities in other multiethnic settings—Baltic Germans in the Russian Empire, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Parsis in the British Raj, and Italians and Lebanese Christians in the Americas. I also considered the peculiar features of the Soviet state, which facilitated internal mobility but preserved national distinctions. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that nationalities residing beyond the borders of their titular Soviet republics might be thought of as internal diasporas, with a homeland and a host society in one state. Following the Georgian example, the book argues that the roles played by these internally mobile communities in Soviet politics, culture, and economics means that we should think of the Soviet Union not simply as a Russian-dominated project, but instead as an empire of diasporas. 

What is your current research/work project? 

Erik Scott Familiar Strangers book cover

My current project has a more global focus, following the unauthorized movement of Soviet citizens across state lines. Through an examination of the political and cultural phenomenon of Soviet defection, I am investigating how the national and ideological borders of the Cold War world were defined, disputed, and transgressed. The project focuses on the development of the Soviet border regime in particular, but also considers how defection developed in other settings. It looks at how capitalist states facilitated the practice, even though they were not always sure what to do with defectors themselves, often viewing them as ideologically unreliable and psychologically unstable. Tracing the winding journeys of defectors from the Soviet Union to the West through border zones, transit hubs, extraterritorial spaces, and disputed areas beyond the limits of state jurisdiction, such as international waters and airspaces, the project seeks to challenge the notion of the Cold War world as a place of stable boundaries. 

What do you value about your ASEEES membership? 

Like most academics, I take part in a number of different scholarly communities. However, I truly appreciate the interdisciplinary connections that ASEEES fosters and the opportunity to meet other scholars who study the same region and truly understand the historical and cultural context of my research. Accordingly, the annual convention always has the feeling of a vast—and intellectually stimulating—homecoming.

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

I like to cook Georgian food as well as consume it; I try to get outdoors when I can, even if it is just for a short hike near my house in Lawrence, Kansas; and, while I study history, I closely follow the latest political developments in Russia and Eurasia.