After making an unsuccessful offer and sorting through dozens of candidates, the History Department finally has completed its search for a senior professor specializing in the history of modern Russia.
Princeton University professor Laura Engelstein will come to Yale next fall as a tenured professor. She accepted the position on Nov. 3. and will teach modern Russian history at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, filling a void in the department that has existed for more than a decade.
“I’m thrilled out of my mind,” said Paul Bushkovitch, director of graduate studies for Russian and East European Studies. “For the first time in many years, we’ll be able to cover the whole of Russian history, from the beginning to the present.”
In the spring of 1999, the department offered a senior position in modern Russian history to Sheila FitzPatrick of the University of Chicago, said Paul Freedman, director of undergraduate studies for the History Department. But FitzPatrick declined the offer last fall, saying that she was happy with her career in Chicago.
Engelstein, on the other hand, was ready for a move. She said that after 15 fruitful years at Princeton, she thought it was time for a change.
“I enjoyed my time at Princeton, admired it as an institution, and had very warm feelings about my colleagues,” Engelstein said. “But Yale is also a wonderful institution with a great history department. I wanted a change that would be a challenge and would enable me to try new things.”
Currently on a year-long leave of absence from Princeton, Engelstein is working as a fellow in the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers.
While Yale celebrates its recruiting success, Princeton History Department chairman Robert Tignor said he regrets Engelstein’s departure.
“Yale’s gain is our loss,” Tignor said. “We did everything in our power to keep her here, but in the end, it didn’t work out. We’re disappointed.”
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said that, because of the historical significance of modern Russian history, the search committee only pursued the most eminent scholars in the field.
“Russia has been so important to the history of the 20th century that we really made a special point of wanting to have Russian history presented in a compelling way,” Brodhead said. “We wanted to fill the position at the very highest level of distinction.”
Many Yale professors also noted Engelstein’s versatility. An expert on Russian history from the mid-19th century to the present, Engelstein focuses on cultural aspects including religion, sexuality and gender.
Her four published works vary greatly, ranging from a political account of Moscow’s social movement in 1905 to an in-depth feature on a small religious community in Russia.
“[Engelstein] has been very innovative with cultural history,” history professor Ivo Banac said. “She’s been working hard with sexuality and religion in Russia, which is a particularly striking combination of interests. It’ll have a tremendous impact on [the department’s] research and teaching.”
History Department chairman Jon Butler said Engelstein’s impact will resonate beyond the History Department. Because of her interest in interdisciplinary study, Engelstein probably will work closely with political science and East European studies professors.
Katerina Clark, director of graduate studies for Slavic Languages and Literatures, said the presence of an eminent professor like Engelstein will help the East European Studies and Slavic Languages and Literatures departments secure more funding from the University.
Although plans for her teaching are still preliminary, Engelstein said she will definitely teach an undergraduate lecture course. Her tentative plans are to teach a spring semester course on modern Russian history that complements Bushkovitch’s fall course on early Russian history.
But Engelstein does not want to restrict herself to just Russia.
“Yale gives me the opportunity to expand on what I’ve already done in a collaborative way,” Engelstein said. “So I’m looking forward to working with historians who aren’t Russian specialists and with people in other departments as well.”