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Emily Wang: «Pushkin wanted people to think that he was almost a Decembrist»


Emily Wang, Assistant Professor of Russian at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana, USA), Faculty Fellow at the Nanovic Institute for European Studies; Faculty Affiliate, Initiative for Race and Resilience. Email: She is the author of the book: Pushkin, the Decembrists, and Civic Sentimentalism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2023. 224 p.

Serguey Ehrlich, the interviewer

Dear Emily, the first question is traditional for our journal, because its specialization is memory studies. In all interviews we test the hypothesis of Jan Assmann stating that the usual span of communicative (family) memory of modern people usually includes three generations (80-100 years). How deep is your family memory? When and from where did your ancestors immigrate to the US?

I’m not sure when my mother’s family (white southerners) came to the United States. My father’s mother traces her ancestry back to the pilgrims. My father’s father came over from China in 1946 to attend graduate school at Columbia University. He stayed because the Revolution meant that it was not safe for him (a member of the upper class) to return home. Luckily, he met and married my grandmother, which made it possible for him to stay in the United States. This kind of relationship – international and interracial – was very rare at the time and illegal in many states. Some family documents trace the Wuxi branch of the Wang family’s roots back to the 1st century BCE, though I’m not sure that all the stories going back that far are true.

There is a popular metaphor of the US as a melting pot where people of different descents create the common American identity. I read that the Chinese community is most resistant to cross-cultural interactions. Chinese immigrants have preserved their language and culture for more than one century, because a significant part of them lives in the numerous so-called Chinatowns. Does that information correspond with the current reality?

There are Chinatowns all over the United States and all over the world. Interestingly, they don’t all use the same Chinese language. Immigrants from different regions of China speak different dialects that are essentially different languages, though I think in the PRC state policy has strengthened the standard dialect of Mandarin. My grandfather preferred the Wuxi dialect. That said, not all Chinese Americans live in a Chinatown. In the United States, second-generation immigrants tend to know English better than Chinese and consider themselves quite American (though other Americans sometimes regard them as “perpetual foreigners”). States like California and New York have ethnic enclaves of Chinese and Chinese Americans, but there were not as many Asians in St. Louis, Missouri, where my family settled. Both my father and I grew up in white neighborhoods.

From another side there are some publications that leading American universities create impediments for integration of Asian American people introducing unofficial quotas for them. The current situation looks similar with the discrimination of Jewish students from the 1910s to the 1950s. Some journalists referring to that shameful episode of the American past call the Asian-descent students the “New Jews”. Did you meet any sort of discrimination in your experience?

Discrimination still exists today, but first half of the twentieth century was a particularly dark time in American culture. Jerome Karabel, a sociologist who has researched [] the use of anti-Semitic quotas in American higher education, argues (persuasively, in my view) that Asian Americans today don’t face the same discrimination that Jews dealt with in those decades. (It was a bad time for Asians, too: in that period my great-grandfather came to the United States to study at Harvard but left for the University of Michigan because Harvard was racist.) Personally, I didn’t have difficulties getting into college and I support affirmative action, though I also think that American universities should change their legacy admissions policies.

From the interviews I know that many among the older generation of specialists in Slavic studies were involved in their field because they were impressed by Sputnik and Gagarin. The next generation was inspired by Perestroika. What is the reason for your generation of Western academics to be involved in Slavistics? Why did you decide to learn Russian and to study the Russian culture?

I went to college in the first decade of the 2000s. Most American Slavists my age became interested in Russian because of Russian literature and culture, though many of us also had Russian friends. Many of the students at my college were children of third-wave immigrants. My closest friend had moved to New York from Leningrad at age five. We lived in a house with other Russian students and made friends with a band specializing in East European music. International culture was cool, so Russian culture was also cool. Immigrants like Matvei Yankelevich (the grandson of Elena Bonner) and Eugene Ostashevsky were very involved with the American avant-garde, especially poetry. In fact, quite a few immigrants who came to the US as children have now become Russian Studies professors themselves.

Who taught you the Russian language and literature? Were there any Russians among your professors?

Three of my professors were Americans (Susanne Fusso, Priscilla Meyer, and Duffield White). One was a Russian-speaking woman from Lithuania, the wife of the writer Yuz Aleshkovsky – Irina Aleshkovskaya. There weren’t many Russian scholars in the United States during that generation of professors. Now, two scholars from Russia teach at Wesleyan University, as well as the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants and several Westerners.

The Russian stars of the global cultural heritage are Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. Pushkin is appreciated as a genius only on the national scale. Why did you choose his writings as the subject of your studies?

I became interested in Pushkin because of Dostoevsky! All of Dostoevsky’s characters read Pushkin, so I had to read Pushkin, too. I thought Pushkin would be like Dostoevsky, but even more so. Of course, Pushkin turned out to be himself.

I should mention that I was very interested when I learned that Pushkin was what Americans call “mixed race,” like me and my sisters. In fact, I remember calling my sisters to tell them about it.

In your first book Pushkin, the Decembrists, and Civic Sentimentalism, which was published in the series of the Wisconsin Center for Pushkin Studies edited by David M. Bethea, you argue that the concept of the Soviet researchers that Pushkin was a Decembrist “fellow traveler” is not relevant for understanding the relations between our genial poet and his mediocre colleagues from the secret societies. Why do you think a lot of Russian academics continue supporting that ideologically motivated concept until now?  

Alyssa Dinega Gillespie edited a volume of essays called Taboo Pushkin, dedicated to violating the scholarly taboos of the Soviet era, which was now more than three decades ago. One of those essays, by Igor Nemirovsky, tackles the subject of Pushkin and the Decembrists. The first version of that essay was published in Russia in the 1990s, but the taboo seems to have persisted. Maybe that’s the way Pushkin would have wanted it! Elsewhere, Nemirovsky writes that many of the stories of how Pushkin almost joined the rebellion can be traced back to the poet himself, so the poet wanted people to think that he was almost a Decembrist.

During the Cold War the American Slavic studies grew up tremendously because the US government had aimed to prepare more specialists who know the Russian language and understand the Russian mentality. Did Putin’s invasion into Ukraine produce similar effects or is it working in the opposite way marginalizing Slavic studies in American academia? 

The US government would love to encourage more Americans to study Russian and Ukrainian. In fact, undergraduates who are enrolled in the ROTC junior officer training program can earn a generous monthly paycheck for studying one or both of those languages. The problem is that Putin’s invasion has made Slavic Studies seem scary to Americans. They’d rather not think about that part of the world. On top of that, American students studying a foreign language want to be able to travel to a country that speaks that language, and Americans are now discouraged to go to Russia and Ukraine. Without students, it is hard for professors to offer new and interesting courses, creating a vicious cycle.

And the last question is traditional as well, what are your academic plans?

I’m working on a sourcebook with an American historian, Korey Garibaldi (, about Pushkin and the United States. Pushkin was an important figure for African Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and we are putting together a collection of primary sources about Pushkin in America and Pushkin writing about America.

Thanks a lot for your interview!

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