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Jeff Eden

Assistant Professor of History, St. Mary's College of Maryland

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

My family on both sides emigrated to the U.S. from the Russian Empire, and I’m sure they had incredible stories to tell. But when I was growing up in Baltimore County in the 1990s, I knew little about that and cared even less. My memory is hazy, but I was probably not a very cosmopolitan child. In my defense, suburban Baltimore was not a very cosmopolitan place back then. Just imagine the cuisine. We had only three vegetables: the French fry, the iceberg lettuce, and the mushy slice of offseason tomato that bleeds out on hamburgers. I spent most of my time either playing guitars or gazing longingly at them.

By the time I went off to college at the University of Chicago, I assumed—like most teenage guitarists from provincial cities—that I was earth’s premier string virtuoso. One of the first classes I remember was on the traditional music of Central Asia, taught by Kagan Arik, where I heard a recording of the tune “Adai” by the Kazakh dombra master, Hamit Rayimbergenov.

That moment apparently determined the rest of my life. My fantasy of fret-supremacy ended, and I started learning Central Asian languages. For my remaining undergrad years, Arik and John E. Woods inspired me as faculty. Closer to home, two dear comrades were on parallel paths: the writer and musicologist Ramona Stout, and the anthropologist Erica Pelta Feldman. Making Central Asia my focus in college seemed more sensible to me since they were doing it too, and were cooler than I was.

What support have you received throughout your career (from ASEEES/other societies/federal support/etc.) that has allowed you to advance your scholarship? 

Thanks to the generosity of various fellowships and government language programs, I went to graduate school (both M.A. and Ph.D.) for free—which makes me feel like the luckiest person alive. Some of those opportunities don’t exist anymore, sadly: the Title VIII Eurasia Program that paid for my dissertation research in Kazakhstan, for example, was axed.

A few of the opportunities that once funded Central Asia research still exist, though their purview has probably changed. I think I was awarded a FLAS (Foreign Language Area Studies) fellowship to study Uzbek as a Master’s student because Uzbek was a “Critical Defense Language” at the time—we were at the height of the “War on Terror.” Apparently, I was supposed to use my language skills to advance American military interests in Afghanistan. It’s hard for me to type that sentence without laughing; I was never the man for that job! But I’m deeply grateful for the support, and for the Uzbek classes, which I took with a wonderful teacher from Samarkand: Malik Hodjaev.

What is your current research/work project? 

My newest book is called God Save the USSR: Soviet Muslims and the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 2021). Rather than describing the book myself, I’m eager to allow a very generous and flattering blurb to describe it for me:

“This is a brilliant and original book. Jeff Eden uses a rich trove of previously unknown sources to explore the experiences of Soviet Muslims during World War II. He tells the story of the wartime ‘revolution in religious life’ mainly from the perspective of Muslims in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Russia, who range from young Red Army soldiers praying in foxholes to elites raising money for the war effort. God Save the USSR deserves to be read by anyone interested in Soviet history, Soviet Muslims, and the Second World War.”

— Adrienne Edgar, University of California, Santa Barbara

What does your ASEEES membership mean to you?  How has your involvement with ASEEES helped to further your career? 

I generally avoid big conferences, possibly because my grad-school experience of conference job interviews has scarred me for life. And yet I genuinely enjoy going to ASEEES events. Old friends are there, the panels are dazzlingly diverse, and I’ve met some luminaries hanging out by the hummus wraps.

Even eminent scholars with little to prove seem to debut their very best work at the big ASEEES conference. There are delightful surprises, too: at one conference, my comrade Paul Werth evidently delivered an entire presentation on Imperial Russia in iambic pentameter. (He shared the transcript with me—it was brilliant!)

Since I’m a relatively new ASEEES member, the opportunity to do this Member Spotlight interview is very exciting and unexpected, and it really makes me feel like ASEEES is a welcoming place for young (er, young-ish!) historians. I’m looking forward to getting more involved in the organization in the years to come.

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

My main interests are my wife, Ashley, who is the love of my life, and my dog, Bella, who is a furry miracle of nature. I still play guitar, but more humbly than before. I also play banjo, violin, and a few Central Asian instruments (komuz, dombra, dutar). I write stories using a top-secret pen name that I will never reveal! I also dedicate long hours to worrying.