Interview with CERES Interim Director: Michael David-Fox

By: Sarah Radomsky, MAERES Class of 2016

As an academic, what is your background? And what are some of your research interests?

I received my undergraduate degree from Princeton in History and Russian Studies. I then went right into a PhD program in History at Yale. At that time, I was working on the 1920s in the early Soviet Union. The archives opened in the late 1980s, when I was in graduate school. I completed my dissertation, which became my first book, on higher party schools and the new Bolshevik institutions set up after the revolution to train a new intelligentsia. That became Revolution of the Mind, published in 1997.

I started in early Soviet history because of that book, and I was always interested in political and cultural history and the history of the Russian intelligentsia. Since then, I’ve ranged forwards and backwards in time. Now, I am working on a project a study of Smolensk oblast’ before, during and after the German occupation in World War II.

I also helped re-found the journal Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History in 2000. Now we have a staff of at least 12 editors, and we have a managing editor affiliated with Georgetown and supported by Georgetown. In return, we aim to help Georgetown, too. For example, graduate students can work with the journal and see journal publication from the inside. We have had editorial assistants, and we bring in translation projects along with conferences and book series.

The journal is international in its aspirations to break North American Russian studies out of insularity. That leads to contacts with scholars in other countries, especially in Russia and former Soviet countries. That’s a very useful thing for the Center and other programs at all levels of the university.

When did you come to Georgetown?

I came to Georgetown in 2011. I had worked at the University of Maryland in College Park for a long time, so I knew Georgetown’s program and participated in the workshop we have here, which involves Russian specialists from the region. Georgetown has always been strong in Russian history. It’s one of the only places that covers all periods and it’s one of the top programs in Russian history. I actually have a joint appointment; my primary is in the School of Foreign Service and my secondary is in the Department of History.

What drew you to the position of Interim Director?

The School of Foreign Service is a centerpiece of Georgetown’s mission, and it is a place that values area studies. CERES is part of that commitment to study concrete regions of the world and to giving modern historians a place at the table. In schools of public affairs and international affairs, that is not always the case.

Are there any initiatives you hope to lead during your year with CERES?

One of the biggest initiatives this year, aside from focusing on the MA program and our events series, is a partnership with the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. You’re going to see that taking effect on a whole range of levels in the course of this year. We also have some major events planned, including a conference on the Eurasian Union.

How do you see CERES evolving during your year as interim director?

We are at a crossroads, a period when the crisis in US-Russian relations, the annexation of Crimea and the war in East Ukraine have given Russian studies a higher profile. At the same time, government funding for Russian studies has decreased. One year is not enough time to resolve any of these big issues, but this is a moment for Russian studies to make a comeback.

We see an uptick in interest both here and elsewhere in the field, and we have to take advantage of that. CERES is still growing and can grow further, especially if one were to look at other parts of Eurasia and not just the Russian Federation. With impending faculty openings in departments important to CERES, there is room for expansion. Even as I leave CERES after this year, I’ll still be part of the Executive Committee and part of the History department, which has always been part of the CERES program.

When you look not just at the numbers but at the qualifications of CERES students, it is a very impressive program. One of the things I’ve enjoyed this year, starting late last spring when I participated in the sessions for admitted students and during advising sessions, is just seeing the breadth of interests and the really impressive activities that these students have brought to the program. That’s really given me a much more in-depth sense of what the program is about and what it can become.