Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock to Teach Soviet History, Secularism and Modernity Courses

Victoria-Smolkin-Rothrock is a new faculty member in the History Department, College of Social Studies and Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, comes to Wesleyan this spring as an assistant professor of history, an assistant professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies. She’ll also be a core member of the College of Social Studies.

Her research investigates state efforts to manage spiritual life, as well as the significance and functions of private rituals in modern society.

“There were many things that attracted me to Wesleyan, but the students, and the intellectual community more broadly, are at the top of the list,” she says. “When I visited Wesleyan, the students made a profound impression: they struck me as deeply engaged in and curious about their own work, and, equally important, interested in the work of their peers. Likewise, I am attracted by the faculty’s genuine commitment to teaching and research in the liberal arts, and the vibrant, supportive atmosphere in both the History Department and the College of Social Studies. And of course, as a space enthusiast, I was excited to see an observatory on the landscape of the campus.”

The native of Ukraine looks forward to teaching courses on European history, Russian and Soviet history, and thematic courses on religion, ideology and secularization in a comparative perspective. This spring, she will teach “Russian and Soviet History, 1881-present” for the History Department and a junior history tutorial on “Religion, Secularism and Modernity” for CSS.

In the history course, students will follow the story of how the Soviet Union emerged from the ruins of the Russian imperial order to become the world’s first socialist society, the most serious challenge to imperialism, liberalism, and capitalism, and arguably modernity’s greatest political experiment. The CSS tutorial will examine the assumptions that guided the secularization narrative, and analyze how the relationship between the religious and the secular has shaped the emergence of modernity in Europe and beyond.

Smolkin-Rothrock’s diverse education began at a Soviet school in Kiev, continued at an arts magnet school in Baltimore and Sarah Lawrence College, and concluded with graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her M.A. and completed her Ph.D in 2010. Her dissertation, titled “’A Sacred Space Is Never Empty’: Soviet Atheism, 1954-1971,” is a study of Soviet atheism and socialist life-cycle rituals in the postwar period.

“The dissertation follows two distinct, yet overlapping, life-cycles: that of Marxist-Leninist scientific atheism, as it attempted to transform religiosity and fill the space that had been occupied by religion with a distinctly Soviet spiritual content, and that of Soviet citizens, whose lives were ordered and made meaningful by Soviet beliefs and rituals,” she explains.

Support for Smolkin-Rothrock’s work has come from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (on Ethical and Religious Values), Fulbright-Hays, American Councils of Teachers of Russian, the Social Science Research Council, and numerous competitive grants from Berkeley.

She has several forthcoming publications including: “The Voices of Silence: The Death and Funeral of Alexander Blok” in Petersburg/ Petersburg: Novel and City (University of Wisconsin Press, 2010); “Cosmic Enlightenment: Scientific Atheism and the Soviet Conquest of Space” in Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture in Post-Stalinist Russia (University of Pittsburgh); and “The Contested Skies: The Battle of Science and Religion in the Soviet Planetarium” in Cosmic Enthusiasm: The Cultural Impact of Space Exploration on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe Since the 1950s (Palgrave/Macmillan).

At UC-Berkley, Smolkin-Rothrock taught courses on “Assimilation and Transformation in Literature” for the Slavic Department; and “Religion and Ideology in Late Modern Europe” and “European Civilization from the Renaissance to the Present” for the History Department.

Smolkin-Rothrock, who is fluent in Russian and Italian, is a member of the American Historical Association and the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

She has several non-academic interests including photography and contemporary art, reading contemporary fiction, and trying to keep up with interesting developments in music.

“At one point I was an enthusiastic runner, and I hope to take up running again here in Connecticut. My research makes frequent travel necessary, especially to Russia and Ukraine, and this has the added benefit of allowing me to see new parts of the world and meet people I would not have met otherwise,” she says. “But above all, I prefer to spend my free time in the company of people I love, my baby daughter Sophia and my husband Kevin, my family in Maryland, and my close friends, many of whom life has carried to different corners of the world.”