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Matthew Romaniello

Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Hawai'i at Manoa

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

In tenth grade, I wrote a paper about Leo Tolstoy, which sparked a long-term interest in Russian literature.  As an undergraduate at Brown University, I spent time studying both history and Russian studies.  I was at Brown when I watched President Bush’s State of Union address when he announced that we had won the Cold War.  Studying the history of Eastern Europe became a way to understand recent events from the perspective of ordinary people rather than official rhetoric.  With the combination of ongoing changes in Eastern Europe, and the inspiration of studying with Patricia Herlihy and Abbot Gleason, I was won over to the study of history as a way of life.

How have your interests changed since then?

I went to graduate school with the intention of studying Russian religious history.  I planned my dissertation to be a comparative study of monasteries and convents on the frontier as a way of exploring the Russian Orthodox Church’s contribution to the creation of the empire.  A lack of convent records from the sixteenth and seventeenth century made that plan impossible.  Instead I read everything on Kazan’ that I could, which led to a study of the aftermath of the conquest and the gradual imposition of the Russian state.  I learned then that archival research will always produce something fascinating, even if you don’t expect it.  A surprising document about searching Tatar villages for hidden tobacco stashes in the 1690s sparked my current project.  I am happy to say I never know what the archives might turn up!

What is your current research project?

Currently I am working on two related projects about Russia’s global connections. The first is a monograph on Russia’s tobacco trade, beginning with the end of the seventeenth-century tobacco ban to the widespread consumption of the nineteenth century.  It examines Russia’s global trade networks, and the ways in which these networks inspired diverse consumption habits across the empire. The second is a study of health and illness in the Russian Empire. As travelers, ethnographers, and scientists documented life in the empire, they also recorded the ways in which the environment, lifestyle, food, and culture distinguished the varied peoples.  It will position Russian scientific knowledge in a pan-Eurasian context to demonstrate Russia’s particular contributions to global attitudes about empire.

What do you value about your ASEEES membership?

I am always appreciative of the annual conference.  I have several other professional memberships, but none sponsors a conference with the same interdisciplinary scope. Discovering work by colleagues outside of history is always a highlight of the meeting, and it continues to inform my work in new ways.  I always make time to attend panels “outside” of my research interests.  It is inspiring to see how diverse the field is, and I have always managed to bring back news ideas for my classes and my research.

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

The great part of being in Hawaii is having the opportunity to be outdoors all year.  I enjoy hiking our hills and mountains, and appreciate it even more in the winter.  I still read three or four books a week.  It has been a long time since I studied Russian literature in a “formal” way, but I still love it.

Image source: J. G. Georgi, Russia, or a Compleat Historical Account of All the Nations which Compose that Empire, vol. 4 (London, 1783)