Conflict and Culture in Rovinj

Every summer, Tomislav [Toma] Longinović, professor of Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Visual Culture, travels with 16 UW-Madison students to the idyllic coastal community of Rovinj, Croatia for a unique one-month learning experience. We sit down with Professor Longinović to discuss the goals of the study abroad program and the lessons we can learn at the intersection of cultures.

Sunset on the Rovinj shoreline.

“I still feel like I’m Yugoslavian, despite the fact that the country no longer exists,” says UW-Madison professor Toma Longinović. “I always go between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia to visit my friends, and we still behave like it’s the same country. We try to defeat the political divisions.”

The study abroad program led by Longinovic, called “UW Conflict and Culture,” brings students to the western-most corner of the Balkans in what is now Croatia. The Istrian Peninsula, where the city of Rovinj is located, has long been a place where competing cultures collide. In the 20th century alone, the region was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, and Yugoslavia. This multicultural legacy is still evident today in the demographics of Rovinj. Many residents speak Italian and send their children to Italian-language schools, and several others are bilingual in Croatian and Italian.

The processes of cultural exchange in Istria have created what Longinović describes as a unique “hybrid culture” worth studying. He explains, “It has this rich history of different empires ruling over it… So how do these three European cultures exist in one location? That is the topic of my course—to study that interaction.”

Resident Director Toma Longinovic and students
Resident Director Longinović and students (Photo courtesy of Toma Longinović)

For the four-week duration of the program, students are housed in apartments and attend class at the Center for Historical Research in central Rovinj. Lessons take an interdisciplinary approach, and include readings in history, political science, and literature. However, students engage with most of the course material outside the classroom. “We have field trips where we actually visit the locations that we read about,” says Longinović. One such excursion is to the neighboring city of Pula, which contains one of the largest surviving Roman amphitheaters dating from the first century. The goal, as Longinović describes it, is to “try to comprehend the complexity of what I call a micro-culture and its specificities, because it’s surrounded by this macrocultural giant… the German, Slavic, and Romance.”

Another vital aspect of the program is the study of what Longinović calls disputed “places of memory.” Each change of power in Istria was accompanied by a change in historical perspectives and the official story of the region and the people who inhabited it. The memories of individuals and the accounts of local cultures, however, sometimes resist these changes. The struggle for historical memory was particularly fierce under the rule of Fascist Italy and, subsequently, Communist Yugoslavia. “We read about places of memory… and go visit those locations to look at the memory sites and the struggle for memory between these two ideas,” says Longinović.

“Forcing myself to go out of my comfort zone and immersing myself in another culture that I knew very little about taught me how to openly communicate with others and be less timid.”

The marks of past struggles largely go unnoticed in today’s Rovinj. The city is now better known for its bustling seaside markets, to which thrifty shoppers from Italy are known to flock in search of cheaper goods, and for its booming tourist industry, which now rivals that of the well known Dalmatian coast fortress-city of Dubrovnik. The size of the city—less than 15,000 residents—is ideal for students studying abroad who want to enjoy their time outside of class without the hassles of big city life. UW-Madison senior Haley Feller, a sociology major and summer 2017 program participant, warmly remembers spending time at a nearby market. “I loved to watch the interactions between the locals who lived there,” she said, adding, “I also liked to see how it differed from our local markets here in Wisconsin… The local vendors were also always so willing to talk with me and let me try their products, making me feel very welcome and excited to be there.”

Small boats moored in a bay by Rovinj with the city in the background
(Photo courtesy of Toma Longinović)

Longinović agrees that Rovinj is a perfect place for UW-Madison students to get a taste of Europe. “It’s ideal for students who sometimes have never traveled abroad to come to Europe and meet a small town that is also very cosmopolitan,” he said. “It’s so small, but there are also so many cultures in one location.” Feller notes that intercultural experiences from the study abroad program have changed her communication style. “Forcing myself to go out of my comfort zone and immersing myself in another culture that I knew very little about taught me how to openly communicate with others and be less timid,” she said.

Professor Longinović, who holds a position at Rovinj’s Center for Historical Research where classes take place, also has his own personal history with the city. “I used to go there as a kid, since I was two years old,” he explains. A mass exodus of Italian residents after the 1956 resolution of the post-World War II Trieste crisis, which granted control of most of Istria to Yugoslavia, left much of Rovinj abandoned. “Rovinj became somewhat of a ghost town, and then in the socialist times they actually decided to turn [it] into an artists’ colony.” Longinović’s father, along with several friends, purchased and renovated a centuries-old run-down building that they then traveled to from Belgrade every summer. “So I was very connected with this place,” concludes Longinović.

The UW Conflict and Culture study abroad program has grown considerably since it began in 2005. According to Longinović, recruiting young people to study in the Balkans was once more difficult. “It was very challenging in the beginning to convince people to go there—the former Yugoslavia—because of the negative portrayal of the country due to the wars of the 1990s,” he said. “It was difficult to convince people, parents and so on, that it is safe actually. In this part of Croatia there was no war.”

Sloping street view of Rovinj, Croatia
(Photo courtesy of International Academic Programs, UW-Madison)

As time has passed, however, the positive experiences of past participants have spread by word of mouth. “Now, we have more students [applying for the program] than we can take,” says Longinović. In addition, the experience for student and instructor alike has continued to evolve. “Every year I feel like I’m growing, and my students are growing and learning in this place,” he says. “By this experience, they come out with a different understanding of what Europe is and what the former Yugoslavia was. And they meet other people there, which is a great experience for them.”

Undergraduate and graduate students interested in applying to the summer 2018 UW Conflict and Culture program should contact International Academic Programs. The deadline for application is February 2, 2018.

For more information on “UW Conflict and Culture,” visit:

Filmmakers Present “Among Wolves”

On November 16, filmmakers Shawn Convey and Kevin Ripp presented their observational documentary Among Wolves to a full theater of Madison moviegoers. The film, shot in modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, paints a stunningly human portrait of an altruistic biker gang that protects wild horses in the mountains where they once fought. CREECA met with the filmmakers to discuss the complexities of a decade-long film project, the struggle to remain apolitical in the Balkans, and re-defining documentary film.

“I go there with all these questions and I naively think I’m going to get them answered,” says film director Shawn Convey. “But the war, it’s not like talking about a math equation. It was chaos, and it was different in every town, village, and corner.”

A mountain scene from the Film "Among Wolves" depicting an injured horse against the backdrop of a valley in Bosnia
(Photo courtesy of Shawn Convey)

Ten years ago, Convey arrived in the Bosnian and Herzegovinian city of Mostar. Weeks before, he had sold all his belongings and set out to find a realistic story of what he describes as achievable optimism. “I decided I wanted to make a film that humanized the area and didn’t stigmatize it,” he says. As he explored his new home, the weight of this task became evident. A full generation after the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mostar remains a city split in two; between Bosniaks in the East and Croats in the West.

His search for an optimistic story ultimately led Convey to seek out the town of Livno, located a few hours from Mostar. He had read that a group of middle-aged men was protecting a herd of wild horses in the mountains encircling the town. “And that stuck out,” says Convey. “In Bosnia, they are still very much dealing with human rights issues, and they haven’t even discussed animal rights. It’s not even on the docket.”

On that first visit Convey met two men, named Branko “Lija” Lijavić and Željko Kristo, and together they set off to see the horses. “Their incredible willingness to take us there as complete strangers who don’t even speak their language,” says Convey, “all this is very abstract to me. And very admirable.” Convey’s fascination with the men, who go by the names “Lija” and “Željko” in the film, only grew with subsequent visits. Lija, he soon learned, had been a paramilitary commander during the defense of Livno. Željko was once a prisoner of war. “And then I found out that they ran a bike club. Every time I went back, there was another golden nugget. So I kept going,” says Convey. He would spend the next six years documenting their story.

Convey’s film Among Wolves screened last month at the UW-Madison Cinematheque after a whirlwind year of showings at international film festivals. Convey, winner of the Best Director for a Feature Film award at the 2016 DOC LA film festival, and Kevin Ripp, the film’s writer and executive producer, presented their work to the Cinematheque audience in person. Previously, they also accompanied the film to the 2016 Chicago International Film Festival, where it won the Chicago Award, and to the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, where the producers were presented with the 2017 Hernandez/Bayliss Prize for Triumph of the Human Spirit.

The Wolves motorcycle club takes a group photo in front of an eternal flame at a genocide memorial in Vukovic, Croatia
The Wolves Motorcycle Club. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Convey)

The film, set for full release in 2018, was similarly well received at the Cinematheque screening, which was also sponsored by the UW-Madison International Division, Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS), and CREECA. The event was part of November’s International Education Week at UW-Madison, which celebrated international education, programs that prepare students for a global environment, and the formative experiences of alumni abroad.

In a post-screening discussion of the film, Convey mentioned that, among other things, he was struck by the feedback he receives from American military veterans who identify with the film’s distinctly foreign characters and their stories. For many, Convey says, “it really, really resonates on a level I had hoped but never really thought we would achieve.” Torrey Tiedeman, a UW-Madison student and vice president of the veteran’s student organization on campus, agrees. “Among Wolves was not the movie I was expecting to see,” he says. “I enjoyed the film immensely. The cinematography, sound, dialogue… and most importantly—content—was all very captivating.”

It was exactly this kind of captivating, meditative experience that writer Ripp, a UW-Madison alumnus, aimed to create as he pored over the 400 hours of footage captured by Convey. “My background as a writer was valuable for helping to bring Shawn’s vision to the screen,” he says, adding, “He definitely thinks visually, and I think verbally. And he had chosen this story because it has this sort of literary resonance that we wanted to capture and show people.”

Ripp is also full of praise for Convey’s ability to conquer the stumbling blocks of independent film-making. In the case of Among Wolves, challenges ranged from the mundane to the outright hazardous. Convey navigated frequent miscommunications in an unfamiliar tongue, endured long days in the geographic isolation of the mountains, and constantly exercised caution in the face of the still-present danger of leftover landmines. Gaining the trust of bikers in an area where locals are sometimes wary of foreigners was its own trial. “Shawn’s pretty modest… they definitely would not accept anybody into the club in the way they did Shawn,” says Ripp. “They trusted him to capture their story honestly.”

A member of The Wolves motorcycle club perched on top of a mountain with binoculars against a sunset
(Photo courtesy of Shawn Convey)

While on campus, Convey and Ripp also visited with students in the Cinematography and Sound Recording class in the Department of Communication Arts. Among the topics they addressed was the problem of sustainability, one of the primary challenges facing documentary filmmakers today. Early in the filmmaking process, meetings with potential investors fell flat as broadcasters questioned why they or their audiences should care about the former Yugoslavia.

“It was very, very discouraging,” says Convey, “Especially when you get this from Austrian and German [broadcasters], where they have huge populations of Balkan people… who are now active and vibrant members of their communities.” He then is forced to ask an uncomfortable question: “Why would any people not be relevant or worthy of their money?” Ultimately, the film was funded almost entirely through crowd-funding and the personal investments of the creators.

The fortunate upside to independently funding the film, however, was that Convey retained creative control over the story he was trying to tell. This is evident in the film as a clear attempt to avoid describing the political and historical context surrounding the protagonists and Livno in concrete terms. “Like I always say [about the film], there are no facts, but it’s all true,” says Convey. Ripp in this regard sees Among Wolves as a true outlier in the documentary film industry. “I feel like there are a lot of paint-by-the-numbers documentaries, and very little cinematic, non-fiction filmmaking,” he suggests. “What you don’t get with that is the emotional connection of living inside those films with those characters, and kind of drawing your own conclusions.”

As Convey tries to summarize his experiences living in Mostar and Sarajevo, years of filming in the stunningly beautiful but treacherous mountains of rural Bosnia, and the continuing struggle to share the unlikely story of The Wolves Motorcycle Club with the world, he comes to the following conclusion: “It’s not to be understood,” he says, “It’s to be learned from and empathized with.”

To learn more about the film or to arrange a screening, visit

Marking 100 Years Since the Russian Revolution

UW-Madison hosts a summer workshop for Wisconsin educators.

On July 24-28, educators from around the state gathered in Madison to discuss the causes, consequences, and global impact of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Teachers examine Slavic source material at Memorial Library
Wisconsin educators explore source materials at Memorial Library (Photo credit: Kelly Iacobazzi)

The workshop, entitled Ten Months that Shook the World: Russia’s Revolutions in a Global Perspective, further familiarized educators on the legacy of the revolution and aimed to help them incorporate new information into their current and future lesson plans. David McDonald, the Alice D. Mortenson/Petrovich Distinguished Chair in Russian History at UW-Madison and a specialist on the history of Imperial Russia, led the workshop. He was joined by Francine Hirsch, professor of history at UW-Madison, and by visiting professors from the University of Warwick, Clemson University, and Austin Peay State University.

The workshop participants—17 in total—similarly arrived in Madison from a variety of locales. While some educators were from as close as Madison West High School, others arrived from as far away as the town of Maple, located just off the shores of Lake Superior. The 12 high school teachers, four community and technical college instructors, and one librarian spent five full days at the Madison Concourse Hotel attending presentations, building lesson plans, and becoming familiar with the abundance of primary source materials available at UW-Madison. This included outings to the UW-Madison Cooperative Children’s Book Center and the Department of Special Collections at Memorial Library.

Another high school teacher remarked that it was “one of the most intellectual workshops I’ve ever attended.”

Despite its overall focus on the historical legacy of the Russian Revolution, the workshop was intended to appeal to educators of a variety of subjects, such as social studies, geography, politics, communications, and language arts. Steven Marks, Alumni Professor of History at Clemson University, gave a lecture on the development and use of Russian avant-garde art in the formative years of the Soviet Union. Educators also attended a showing of Elem Klimov’s Agony, a 1985 film that vividly portrays the monk Rasputin and his influence on the Imperial family in the final chaotic months of the Russian Empire.

Steven Marks lecturing in front of examples of Avant-Garde Soviet art
Alumni Professor of History at Clemson University Steven Marks (Photo credit: Kelly Iacobazzi)

Throughout the workshop, which was organized by Nancy Heingartner in the Institute for Regional and International Studies and by Kelly Iacobazzi in CREECA, the speakers challenged educators to find creative ways of bringing the presented lessons back to their students. Instrumental in this effort was Bill Gibson, a teacher in the Social Studies Department at Madison East High School and teacher facilitator for the workshop. As the leader of the daily breakout sessions for participants, Gibson emphasized the importance of using a mix of visual media, references to contemporary popular culture, and the connections between historical events in space and time as a means of keeping children and young adults interested in the material. Gibson, according to Iacobazzi, “really found fun and engaging ways to include the Russian Revolution in the classroom. We were so lucky to have him.”

As the workshop came to a close, the educators were optimistic about implementing new insights into their lessons. “It was a grand workshop: rich, fun, and collegial,” Gibson said. “I give it an 11 out of 10. I’m glad my colleagues found the breakout sessions helpful.” Another high school teacher remarked that it was “one of the most intellectual workshops I’ve ever attended.”

Due to the overwhelmingly positive responses from participants, plans are already underway for a similar event next year. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Prague Spring, CREECA is partnering with the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to hold a three-day workshop for educators titled 68.77.89: Czechoslovakia from Invasion to Revolution. The tentative dates for the workshop are July 11-13, 2018. Educators are encouraged to contact Kelly Iacobazzi for more information.

Summer Student Profiles: Global Professionals Abroad

Students and recent alumni discuss internships and language study in Europe and Central Asia.

Ruth Lied standing in front of Slovenian town
Photo courtesy of Ruth Lied

Name: Ruth Lied

Academic Status: Senior, Majors in International Studies and French

Summer Experience: US State Department Internship in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ruth’s childhood growing up in Macedonia has been vital to shaping her academic and career interests in the Balkan region. This summer she returned to the former Yugoslavia for an internship at the US Embassy in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where she worked in multiple departments to get a feel for the life of a diplomat. “Being able to shadow officers during their daily meetings and tasks helped me better understand how an embassy functions,” she explains. She also notes that the experience has been instrumental in guiding her search for a graduate school program.

When not at her internship, Ruth took in the beauty of the Julian Alps and mingled with the locals. Her fluency in Macedonian allowed Ruth to connect with some Macedonian expats in Ljubljana, and she also met some other remarkable individuals, including Bill Murray and, as she relates, “the mayor of a town called Žalec, who took us on a visit to the beer fountain he helped build in the town square.”

In addition to her French studies at UW-Madison, Ruth is also currently taking Turkish, with support from a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) undergraduate scholarship.


Men squatting near a park gazebo in Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Photo courtesy of Nick Seay

Name: Nicholas Seay

Academic Status: MA candidate, Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies (REECAS)

Summer Experience: Persian language study in Dushanbe, Tajikistan

Second-year REECAS student Nicholas Seay spent two months in Dushanbe, Tajikistan studying intensive Persian as a participant of the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program. The CLS program is a fully funded summer overseas language and cultural immersion program for American undergraduate and graduate students. “Aside from the language instruction, another benefit of the CLS program was living with a Tajik host family. It really allowed me to interact with neighbors, make new friends, and, perhaps most interestingly, understand how important regional identities are in Tajikistan,” recalls Nicholas.

Studying Persian in Tajikistan also awarded Nicholas the opportunity to independently study and practice Tajik, the variety of Persian spoken in Tajikistan. While Iranian Persian and Tajik Persian are closely related, there are notable differences, both in their spoken and written forms. The CLS program also allowed Nicholas to see important historical sites near and around Dushanbe, as well as the city of Khujand in the north and Kulob in the south.

Nicholas hopes to continue to study both Iranian Persian and Tajik. He has been awarded a FLAS Fellowship for the 2017-18 school year, which will allow him to continue with Iranian Persian. After further studies in Tajik, he hopes to use his acquired language skills for historical research on Tajikistan in the late-Soviet period.


Vera Swanson and man at Expo 2017
Photo courtesy of USA Pavilion Expo 2017

Name: Vera Swanson

Academic Status: Graduated in 2017 with majors in Russian and Environmental Sciences

Summer Experience: US Student Ambassador, World Expo 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan

Vera was wrapping up her final academic year of Russian language study at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University when she was selected to be one of 40 student ambassadors representing the United States at Expo 2017. Her academic interests in environmental science aligned perfectly with Expo’s theme of “Future Energy: Reducing CO2 emissions, living energy efficiency, and energy for all.” According to Vera, the student ambassadors “were there to give a face to our country, to provide conversation.” In that capacity, Vera utilized not only her fluency in Russian, but also some Kazakh. “Use of foreign language was critical in navigating the various situations that arose.”

As Vera returns home to her native Minnesota, she is considering how to best combine her love of languages and agriculture. During a recent conversation with one of her professors, she learned about the USDA’s National Plant Germplasm System, which ensures the genetic diversity of important crops. “Central Asia is home to a plethora of genetic diversity, and it would be a dream to facilitate access to genetic resources between the U.S. and Russian-speaking countries.”

Through her studies and work in Kazakhstan, Vera has also had the chance to form a relationship with her relatives there, whom she first met in 2015.


Lindsay McElhenie standing in front of Russian cathedral
Photo courtesy of Lindsay McElhenie

Name: Lindsay McElhenie

Academic Status: MA candidate, Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies (REECAS)

Summer Experience: Russian language study in St. Petersburg, Russia

The history, cultural wealth, and conversation of St. Petersburg drew Lindsay to the Derzhavin Institute Russian Language School this summer, where she made strides in speaking and listening skills. Although advanced foreign language study is a central part of her master’s program, Lindsay asserts that the opportunity to expand her overall knowledge of historical and contemporary Russia may prove to be just as valuable. “Eventually,” she said, “I hope to use my regional knowledge and language skills in my future career… as a diplomat or foreign policy advisor.”

While admitting that a few months is not enough to explore all the treasures of the city on the Neva, Lindsay seemed content with her visits to the Hermitage, Mariinsky Theatre, and Akhmatova Museum, along with the historical landmarks of Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo located outside the city proper. Lindsay also found time for a weekend trip to Moscow, Russia’s capital.

Like countless other Dostoevsky fans, Lindsey was also struck by St. Petersburg’s literary past. “It was neat to be able to walk the streets of the city featured in one of my favorite novels, Crime and Punishment,” she said.

Balalaika Virtuoso Brings Unique String Music to Wisconsin

The UW-Madison Russian Folk Orchestra (RFO) held its 20th anniversary concert on April 8, 2017, performing to an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd in Mills Hall. One of the featured soloists at the concert was Ukrainian musician Tetiana Khomenko, a virtuoso of the balalaika, which is a three-stringed instrument with a distinctive triangular body. During Khomenko’s visit to Wisconsin, CREECA arranged for her to give demonstrations to music students at local schools, one at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie and one at Oregon High School.

Khomenko with UW RFO
Khomenko (bottom left) performing with the UW Russian Folk Orchestra. Photo credit: Maria Pavlova

Khomenko has been playing balalaika for 22 years, ever since her first music teacher came to her classroom and asked, “Who wants to play the balalaika?” She earned her master’s degree from the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine and has traveled the world performing solo and with her quartet, BRAVO Band.

Whether performing in a public concert or for a school group, Khomenko tries to use her instrument to teach. “It doesn’t matter who your students are–children or adults,” Khomenko said. “If you speak with them, you can share the things that inspire you. And often they will become interested in the music, art, and culture that you love.”

Before she played her balalaika for music students at Patrick Marsh Middle School and Oregon High School, Khomenko gave a brief overview of Ukrainian history and culture. She uses this context to help others understand the origins of the folk music she plays. Although Khomenko focuses on her native Ukraine, she believes in the importance of preserving all folk music because it provides a connection to cultural and geographic history.

Khomenko at Patrick Marsh
Khomenko playing for students at Patrick Marsh Middle School. Photo credit: Kelly Iacobazzi

“I really liked how Khomenko went beyond performance to teach culture,” said Erin Barnard, a teacher at Patrick Marsh. “That is a sign of a good music educator–going beyond just teaching the notes and connecting the music to its roots in culture, society, and the reason for its being.”

Khomenko plays a variety of styles that showcase the balalaika’s versatility. With BRAVO Band, she plays songs ranging from the Renaissance to the present. For Wisconsin students, she played Russian classics like Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” alongside George Gershwin compositions and a selection of music written for the banjo.

Khomenko likes to use her selections to expose listeners to new music. The message was well received at Oregon High School, where teacher Jennifer Yancey said, “We thought Khomenko’s visit would be a wonderful way to expose students to an internationally recognized balalaika player who could not only teach students about Ukraine, but also about an instrument that most of our students have never heard of.”

Khomenko & Oregon HS Students
Khomenko talking to Oregon High School students. Photo credit: Kelly Iacobazzi

Barnard concurred, “I think it’s good for students to see someone play instruments other than the Western classical instruments so that they are aware of the varied and rich traditions in string music.”

At the RFO anniversary concert, Khomenko performed “Nocturne” by Ukrainian composer Trostyansky and the Russian folk song “Woolen Boots.” When asked what inspired her to make the trip from Ukraine to Wisconsin, Khomenko said, “[I] want to show people all over the world this unique instrument.”

As part of its mission to support outreach and public service, CREECA sponsors appearances at local schools by visiting musicians, artists, writers, and scholars. Educators interested in arranging a program at their school are invited to contact Kelly Iacobazzi at

CREECA Welcomes Marina Zilbergerts

In fall 2016, Marina Zilbergerts joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison community as the Lipton Assistant Professor of Eastern European Jewish Literature and Thought, a joint appointment in the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies and the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic. Zilbergerts is also a member of the CREECA faculty. She received her BA from Yeshiva University in New York City and her MA from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Just before joining UW-Madison, she completed a PhD in comparative literature at Stanford University.

Zilbergerts Headshot
Courtesy Marina Zilbergerts

Zilbergerts’ research focuses on the interplay between Jewish literature and Russian literature, specifically on the development of Hebrew and Yiddish literature in the Russian Empire during the 19th century. Her dissertation was titled “Rabbinic Textuality and the Rise of Jewish Literature in Imperial Russia.” Her forthcoming book, Words that Matter: Materialism and the Rise of Jewish Literature, draws on her dissertation research to explore the productive tensions among literature, science, and religion in the Russian Empire.

CREECA spoke with Zilbergerts about her research and teaching.

What was the focus of your dissertation? How did that subject catch your attention?
I argued that Modern Hebrew literature was first cultivated in 19th century Eastern Europe by a group of people whose background had been as scholars of religious texts. The foremost pioneers of secular Hebrew literature were formerly-religious individuals who believed that texts should be studied only for their own sake, rather than for anything practical – a kind of “art for art’s sake.” At the time when these people were invested in the creation of Modern Hebrew literature, the Russian Empire was dominated by Materialist and Utilitarian ideologies which demanded that literature provide benefit to society. In order for the burgeoning sphere of Hebrew literature to thrive, it had to face the challenge of these ideologies head on, impress everyone with its beauty and quality, and insist on its independent value.

What brought me to thinking about the value and purpose of literature was the ongoing “Crisis of the Humanities” that I strongly felt at Stanford, a university dominated by science and engineering. The struggle of the Humanities to survive in a profit-oriented world is highly resonant in most public universities, where literature departments, especially, must always justify themselves to the university by appealing to their usefulness, productivity, enrollments – whereas the independent need for the literary arts is sidelined.

What research projects are you working on now?
I am currently writing my book manuscript. I am also working to publish my first poetry collection.

Zilbergerts Teaching
Courtesy Marina Zilbergerts

What courses will you be teaching next year?
With next year in view, here are some courses students should look for:

“Russia and the Jews: Literature, Culture and Religion” (fall). This is a core introductory course which gives students a rigorous background in Eastern European literature, the many social and literary movements associated with it, and the complex intersections of Jews with the rest of the inhabitants of the Russian Empire.

“Dead Yiddish Poets Society” (fall) and “Dead Hebrew Poets Society” (spring). This is a poetry-intensive course sequence, in which students will experience the masterpieces of Yiddish and Hebrew poetry in translation, as well as in the original. (Elementary language knowledge is preferred but not required.) This course will allow students to experience poetry through creative writing and performance, and will also take students to local poetry venues.

Lastly, I invite students to join my course in literature and religion, titled “Struggling with God in Literature” (spring). This course explores the human struggle with injustice in the world, and the desire to transcend it. We will study masterpieces of world literature, such as the biblical Book of Job, works by Dostoevsky, and important Jewish writers as well.

What do you like about Madison?
I enjoy everything about it! Madison is a perfectly-sized place, with great cultural opportunities in art and music, and a friendly environment. I enjoy water activities on Madison’s abundant lakes – kayaking in the summer, and skating in the winter.

What do you have planned for the summer?
I’ll mostly be working on my upcoming publication, but I’ll be sure to take some time off to reflect and enjoy life.

CREECA Hosts “Russia & the 2016 U.S. Election”

On February 22, 2017, CREECA and the Wisconsin Union Directorate Society & Politics Committee hosted “Russia and the 2016 U.S. Election: Cyberwar and Prospects for Future Conflict.” The panel brought together five UW-Madison faculty to discuss international cyberwar and the state of U.S.-Russia relations after Russian hacking targeted key players in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, most notably Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff.

Panel of UW faculty
The panel from left to right: Gerber, Kaiser, Machoian, Gehlbach and Herrera. Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

CREECA Director and Professor of Sociology Ted Gerber moderated the panel, which featured Professor of Geography Robert Kaiser, Senior Lecturer in International Studies Ron Machoian, and Professors of Political Science Scott Gehlbach and Yoshiko Herrera. Gerber began the discussion by prompting the panelists to address the nature of Russian cyberwar and what kind of influence Russia might have over the U.S. government.

Kaiser speaking
Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

Kaiser spoke first, relating the history of the first cyberwar, which revolved around the 2007 relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, a Soviet World War II memorial in Estonia. The monument’s relocation prompted local protests and cyberattacks against Estonian institutions. The memorial had long been controversial due to differing interpretations of World War II among local populations. In the international political arena, the Estonian government successfully shifted focus away from this origin of the controversy, emphasizing instead that the event was the world’s first example of cyberwar—warfare waged by one sovereign state against another in cyberspace. Estonian officials accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the cyberattacks, although they were ultimately unable to prove direct involvement by the Russian government.

Kaiser explained that this event has had a lasting impact on the U.S. approach to cyberwar. Russia’s involvement in the Estonian cyberattacks established a new ‘Cold Cyberwar.’ The U.S. has adopted the position of cyber-defender, portraying the East as cyber-villains. This reinvigorated Cold War mentality, argued Kaiser, has created a kind of cyber-Orientalism, in which the U.S. has delayed cyberwar negotiations with Russia, China, India, and other nations, keeping them out of international agreements on cybersecurity.

Machoian speaking
Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

Machoian, the UW-Madison international safety and security director, then addressed how cyberwar fits into Russia’s broader political and military strategies. He explained that cyber-operations over the past decade are part of a wide-ranging Russian campaign to reestablish its prestige and power on the global stage. Covert cyberattacks that Russia does not explicitly claim are being used to supplement Russia’s more overt political and military actions, as in Ukraine and Syria.

Machoian said that Russia is leading the way in innovating cyber-operations as a new tool for hybrid war strategies. Cyberwar will likely have great value in furthering Russian goals that cannot be achieved purely through brute force. The Russian example will lead other nations to follow suit in developing cyberwar capabilities, and, Machoian noted, the U.S. will not be able to effectively deter other countries from adopting such strategies.

Gehlbach speaking
Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

Gehlbach next spoke about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s possible motives for tampering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election. He presented four conceivable motives for the audience to consider:

(1) Retaliation for the U.S. meddling in Russian affairs, via NATO and other political arenas;
(2) Persuasion of the Russian populace, to bolster the appearance of Russian democracy by undermining American democracy;
(3) Disruption of the global stage, assuming that creating chaos in the American polity would distract from Russian actions elsewhere, for example in the escalating fighting in Eastern Ukraine;
(4) Infiltration in the U.S. government, by aiding the election of a president (Trump) who would be sympathetic to and cooperative with Russia.

Gehlbach noted that all four motives are reasonable, but it is unclear which is most likely to have guided Russian hackers or any Kremlin-directed intervention.

Gehlbach also emphasized that Trump was consistently opposed to Putin throughout much of his career and that he only adopted a more sympathetic approach to Putin during the recent presidential campaign. Citing a recent discussion piece by Columbia University political scientist Tim Frye, Gehlbach offered a set of possible reasons for Trump’s apparent change in tone on Russia:

(1) Trump wants to protect his business interests in Russia.
(2) Trump admires Putin’s strong persona.
(3) Trump wants Putin as a geopolitical ally, for example against ISIS.
(4) Putin may indeed have blackmail material on Trump.

Gehlbach concluded by reminding the audience that these motives were neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive.

Herrera speaking
Photo credit: Yasha Hoffman

Finally, Herrera addressed the impact of Russian hacking on the 2016 U.S. election. Herrera said plainly that Russian hacking did not pose a significant threat to the legitimacy of the 2016 election. That is, Russian hacking did not undermine or unduly influence the election outcome. In Herrera’s view, however, Russian hacking ties into broader rhetoric that undermines confidence in the electoral process. Russian hacking exacerbated claims of voter fraud and a rigged electoral system. Taken together, such rhetoric has a tangible impact on citizens’ disillusionment with electoral politics.

Herrera emphasized that the true threat to the U.S. government is not election hacking, but officials who have conflicts of interest that may favor foreign powers. There is bipartisan agreement that the U.S. has serious tensions with Russia. Russia is in conflict with East European and Middle Eastern allies of the U.S. and is hostile to NATO. Russia wants to undermine U.S. global power. Given such tensions, it would pose a real threat to the U.S. government if any member of the Trump administration was in collusion with Russia.

In her conclusion, Herrera noted that the negative depiction of U.S.-Russia relations belies the potential for bilateral cooperation. The U.S. and Russia do share interests in fighting radicalism in the Middle East, preventing North Korea and Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, and developing oil drilling in the Arctic. Rex Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State, for example, indicates that the U.S. and Russia could conceivably work together to extract oil from the Arctic, over environmental concerns. Ultimately, Putin needs the U.S. as an enemy, the foil against which he restores Russia’s prestige. This means that U.S.-Russia relations will remain tense for the near future and are not likely to improve under the Trump administration.

A livestream of the entire discussion is available on Facebook.

UW Russian Folk Orchestra Celebrates 20th Anniversary

The UW-Madison Russian Folk Orchestra (RFO) is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a concert on April 8, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall. Thanks to support from the Anonymous Fund of the College of Letters & Science, admission is free. The concert will feature the talented musicians of the RFO, under the direction of RFO Founder Victor Gorodinsky and RFO Assistant Conductor Nebojša Macura, with special guest soloists Angelina Galashenkova (domra), Anna Gubenkova (vocals), Tetiana Khomenko (balalaika), and Yuriy Kolosovskiy (contrabass balalaika).

RFO 20th Anniversary Concert

Gorodinsky founded the RFO in 1996 with funding from CREECA to purchase a few authentic Russian folk instruments, domras and balalaikas. The RFO hosted its first public performance in 1997 and has continued to expand ever since. Over the past two decades, with ongoing sponsorship and logistical support from CREECA, the RFO has been established as a campus-community partnership. Its musicians, many of whom have no prior experience with Russian folk instruments before joining the RFO, are UW-Madison students, staff, and faculty, along with community members from the Madison area. In addition to the two groups of stringed instruments—balalaikas and domras—that form the core of the ensemble, the orchestra features accordions, bayans (button accordions), woodwinds, and percussion instruments. The Orchestra’s repertoire consists of Russian and Slavic folk songs, compositions by Tchaikovsky and other Russian classical composers, and Gorodinsky’s original compositions.

CREECA spoke to Gorodinsky about the Russian Folk Orchestra’s past 20 years.

CREECA: How did the UW Russian Folk Orchestra begin?

Gorodinsky: I moved to Madison in 1995 because I got a very tempting job offer at Memorial Library. Prior to my move, I worked at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where I was assistant director and later music director of the U of I Russian Folk Orchestra, an ensemble very similar to the UW RFO started in the 1970s by the late professor of music John Garvey.

When I came here, it took me a couple of years to settle and learn the incredibly rich music life in Madison. In 1996, I started talking to CREECA and its director at the time, Mark Beissinger. I told him about my idea of starting a Russian folk ensemble. CREECA got very interested and, among other things, they were able to secure a grant to purchase the first supply of instruments. Then, we put posters all over campus announcing the first organizational meeting. A few people showed up. I told them that I wanted to build a Russian folk orchestra, showed them a few instruments and played some recordings. That was the start. In 1997, we had our first public performance. We had six people and only two or three songs we could play.

Gorondinsky conducting the RFO
UW RFO Founder Victor Gorondinsky

C: What have been some of the biggest RFO highlights over the past 20 years?

 G: The main thing for me is to simply get together with my musicians once a week and make music. And, of course, perform. The orchestra is almost a family to me.

Other highlights include our occasional trips. The farthest we’ve been so far is Minneapolis. Traveling together is a great joy!

In 2007, we had our 10th anniversary concert which went very well. And in 2014 we had a big gala concert, and our soloist was Alexander Tsygankov from Moscow, indisputably the best and most famous domra player in the world.

C: Russian folk instruments aren’t household items in the US. How do you continually train new musicians on these relatively unknown instruments?

G: It’s not always easy but somehow we manage. Many new players seem to learn these instruments very fast. And these days, members who have been with us for a while will tutor the new ones.

C: Tell us about the 20th anniversary concert. Who are the featured artists?

This will be by far the biggest and most exciting concert we’ve ever done! Among other things, we will feature four different soloists. On domra we will have Angelina Galashenkova, formerly from Russia but currently living in Atlanta. Our vocalist Anna Gubenkova, originally from Belarus and now a student in the School of Music, will also have a featured solo. We’ll have Tetiana Khomenko, a balalaika virtuoso from Kiev, Ukraine.  Finally, one of our contrabass balalaika players, Yuri Kolosovskiy, will perform a contrabass solo, which is extremely rare. 

There will also be two premiere performances of original pieces composed by two of our members.

Author Ruta Sepetys Visits Wisconsin

Internationally acclaimed Lithuanian-American author Ruta Sepetys visited Sun Prairie and Madison in January 2017 to discuss the role of historical fiction in fostering global understanding. Sepetys is the bestselling author of three works of historical fiction. Her latest novel, Salt to the Sea, follows the plight of refugees fleeing East Prussia at the end of World War II.

Sepetys with Patrick Marsh students
Patrick Marsh Middle School students with Sepetys. Photo credit: Nancy Heingartner

On the morning of January 11, 2017, Sepetys met with students at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She gave a short talk to 135 students who had read her book Between Shades of Gray, which relates the forcible relocation of Lithuanians after the Soviet annexation of their country in 1939. Sepetys then answered questions from students and signed their copies of the book.

“After her talk, students clustered around, eager to talk with her,” recalled Sandra Kowalczyk, a teacher at Patrick Marsh Middle School. “She then stayed another hour signing books, many with personal messages. Many students walked away hugging their copies of her book. She left aspiring writers with the message, ‘Don’t be afraid to share your stories.’”

Sepetys signing books
Sepetys signing books at Patrick Marsh Middle School. Photo credit: Nancy Heingartner

That afternoon, Sepetys delivered a public lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the topic “History in Hiding: The Power of Historical Novels to Create Pathways for Global Dialogue and Reading Engagement.” At this talk, Sepetys shared stories about her beginnings as a writer and why she is passionate about writing historical fiction for young readers. As she explained, adolescents “have a sense of justice and demand honest answers.” Sepetys also charged her audience with conducting their own oral histories with family members and friends, asking them to seek out history’s “hidden” or forgotten stories and reminding her listeners, “When you go searching for a story, sometimes the universe responds with a story for you.”

Sepetys at UW
Sepetys speaking at UW-Madison. Photo credit: Kelly Iacobazzi

The lecture was sponsored by Madison Vilnius Sister Cities, Inc., CREECA, and the Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS). Leslie Liautaud, Honorary Consul in Wisconsin for the Republic of Lithuania, provided generous financial support for Sepetys’ appearance in Wisconsin, in addition to donating copies of Between Shades of Gray to Patrick Marsh Middle School.

Sepetys is currently working on a novel set in 1950s Spain during the reign of dictator Francisco Franco. For more about Ruta Sepetys, please visit