Steven Lee - photo credit Peg Skorpinski (1)

Steven Lee

Assistant Professor of English, UC Berkeley

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

Even as a high school student in the 90s, there was that palpable sense of history unfolding in the former Soviet Union.  But it was the Amherst College Russian Department that instilled in me a love of the literature and language.  It also encouraged me to draw connections between, for instance, Vladimir Nabokov and Asian American literature.  After Amherst I spent a Fulbright year in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan studying the Korean community there and, more specifically, looking for a “Soviet Korean Nabokov”–an author similarly engaging questions of exile, memory, and trauma (answer: Aleksandr Kan in Almaty).  Ala-Too Theatre in Bishkek

How have your interests changed since then?

During my time in Tashkent, an IREX friend told me about Langston Hughes’ 1932 visit to the region–how the African American poet had frequented the bazaar just behind my apartment, and had written a book comparing the American South and Soviet “East.”  From there my interests turned from Soviet Koreans to Soviet “multi-national-ness,” as well as to the long, troubled history of American minorities drawn to the USSR.  As a PhD student at Stanford’s Modern Thought and Literature Program, I wrote a dissertation tracing the interactions between American multiculturalism and Soviet mnogonatsional’nost’. However, while turning the dissertation into a book, I realized that, particularly during the interwar years, the many minorities and non-Westerners drawn to the Soviet Union weren’t just interested in nationalities policy.  They were also seeking the creative possibilities opened by the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vladimir Mayakovsky–this lionized branch of the international avant-garde which, of course, had itself long been fascinated by minority and non-Western cultures.

What is your current research project?

My forthcoming first book is entitled The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution–to be published by Columbia University Press sometime in 2015.  It is the first sustained study of the encounters between the Soviet avant-garde and American minority cultures.  With my colleague Amelia Glaser at UC San Diego, I am also working on a project tentatively entitled “Comintern Aesthetics.”  It seeks to provide an alternate mapping of world culture, one that decenters the West through an emphasis on the now-defunct realms of “really existing socialism.”  Another book project will focus specifically on Soviet Korean culture, culminating with a discussion of how this community allows for more nuanced visions of North Korea.  And yes, there will be a chapter on Viktor Tsoi.

What do you value about your ASEEES membership?

Though I teach in an English Department, I have always considered myself a shadow Slavist and have always valued the insights of my colleagues and mentors in Slavic.  More personally, the friendships I have forged while studying in the former Soviet Union remain some of the most enduring and meaningful in my life.  I am grateful to ASEEES for helping to foster these connections.   

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

California has made me a better jogger and bicyclist, and I’ve even had to take up yoga here.  True to my Virginia roots, though, I prefer camping and bass fishing.

Image Caption:  Relief from the Ala-Too movie theater in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan