YS headshot

Yana Skorobogatov

PhD Candidate, History at UC Berkeley 

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

I’ll be trite and say that my interests in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies began at birth. I was born in the Soviet Union, in roddom #25 on Moscow’s Leninskii prospekt. My parents and I emigrated to the United States in the late 80s, and settled in a predominantly Russian neighborhood in New York’s Bronx borough, walking distance from the Bronx Zoo and the New York Botanical Garden.  I grew up speaking Russian, eating tvorog for breakfast, and traveling to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But my parents never spoke about their lives in the Soviet Union or that of my extended family. They never sat me down to draw out our family tree or explain the etymology of my last name, and I didn’t have a live-in babushka to teach me Russian on weekends. Only in my early teens did I learn that it wasn’t okay to refer to present-day Russia as the “Soviet Union,” something my father did out of habit. Even though I can’t say I did so consciously, I attribute my interest in Slavic, East European, and Eurasian (and especially Soviet) studies to a desire to learn about the country and era from which I was hatched.

How have your interests changed since then?

I was originally interested in Cold War history, something I chalk up to my own background as a Russian-American but also to a desire to challenge the narrative (still so dominant within academia and in the mainstream media) that portrayed the two countries and the people who occupied them as incompatible antagonists. Aside from a few notable exceptions, Cold War historiography is dominated by American historians who lack the language skills necessary to make use of Russian language – let alone archival – sources. I felt that my voice could lend diversity to the subject and the field. Yet ultimately I decided to pursue a topic that has almost nothing to do with the Cold War and to which I feel fortunate enough to say that I have no direct personal connection: the Soviet death penalty. A lifelong opponent of the American death penalty, I decided one day to Google whether Soviet criminal law allowed the use of the death penalty. I was surprised to find out that barely anything’s written on the topic, and nothing using archival sources. So I decided to write it myself. 

What is your current research project?

My research on the history of the Soviet legal system explores how post-Stalin legal reforms altered ordinary citizens’ visions of Soviet laws and the government that administered them.  My dissertation focuses on one of the most punitive yet unexamined policies of the post-Stalin criminal justice system: the death penalty. While after World War II, countries around the world took steps to abolish the death penalty, the Soviet Union did the reverse. Rather than extend a Stalin-era decree passed in 1947 banning the use of the death penalty in times of peace, Khrushchev’s government chose instead to reinstate capital punishment and to reform or “tame” it in accordance with the tenets of socialist legality. The effect of this reform was that the death penalty, once the purview of the Communist Party, fell under the jurisdiction of institutional experts far removed from the halls of political power: local prosecutors, police, forensic specialists, and judges, among others. Experts by virtue of their knowledge of legal-rational procedure, these specialists became unlikely intermediaries between the Soviet state and the Soviet people, responsible for overseeing the most politically and emotionally sensitive of judicial processes. My research uses the death penalty as a revealing lens through which to view the routine but highly contested interplay between law and morality, citizenship and subjectivity, life and death in postwar Soviet Russia.

What I discovered was that the legal reforms of the post-Stalin period empowered ordinary Russians by providing them with knowledge of laws and rights that facilitated their transformation from subjects into citizens. I draw on over one hundred previously classified death penalty case files from regional, state, and court archives in Russia. Much more than mere accounts of trial procedure, these case files offer wide-ranging commentaries on law, morality, and the Soviet government. In coming to terms with death at the hands of the state, ordinary people began to acquire and articulate novel forms of legal knowledge, expectations, and demands from their government. What these individuals ultimately realized was that corrupt and incompetent Soviet officials, more than the legal system they oversaw, were the ones in need of taming. 

What do you value about your ASEEES membership?

By far the greatest benefit that my ASEEES membership has conferred upon me is the people I’ve met at and remained in contact with through Annual ASEEES Conventions. Living on the west coast has its (many) perks, but proximity to many different universities is not one of them. Most years the only reunions I have with colleagues who live outside of California take place in hotel bars the weekend before Thanksgiving. ASEEES’s ability to attract scholars from around the world and across many different disciplines and professions has allowed me to keep in touch with academic and non-academic colleagues from Russia, the UK, and Europe.

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

When I’m not writing my dissertation, I enjoy running and swimming outside, and combining my two favorite activities of long-distance road biking and brewery-hopping. I also enjoy freelance writing, volunteering, and staying active in my local Democratic Socialists of America chapter.