AHA Member Spotlight: Robert Thurston
Robert Thurston is professor emeritus at Miami University. He lives in Oxford, Ohio, and has been a member since 1979.
Alma maters: BA, Northwestern University, 1971; PhD, University of Michigan, 1980
Fields of interest: imperial Russia, Soviet Union, World War II, witch hunts, lynching in the US and around the world, coffee, history of the body
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I started with imperial Russian history 1906–14 and was based in Moscow 1978–79. My project resulted in my PhD dissertation and later in my first book. I returned for the 1987–88 academic year to work on a topic from the 1930s. I published a book on mass arrests, then wanted to work on other large persecutions that appeared to have a somewhat similar rapid rise and fall. Books followed on the witch hunts and lynching, in America and around the world. Then I became interested in coffee, which has a rich history that connects to issues like climate change and globalization.
What do you like the most about where you live and work? Oxford, Ohio, is an affordable, pretty college town in the midst of fields, streams, and forests. I do not waste time commuting, and world-class culture comes to me. Cincinnati is an hour away. The Miami University libraries are of great help in my research. When I taught at Miami University, I was able to work on anything that caught my fancy; support for research was good. Often the students were excellent.
What projects are you currently working on? The working title for my current project is “The Body in the Anglo-Saxon World, 1880–1920: Reshaping Race, Sexuality, and Civilization.” The period of “great inventions” and innovations, among them steel in railroad rails, photography and printing advances, electric lighting, Koch’s postulates on bacilli and disease, and mass circulation magazines, brought new attention to the body and how it related to sex and race. This was the heyday of the circus, where gender roles and to some extent preconceptions about race were challenged every day. Fiction widely pondered the themes that interest me.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? As noted, I have written about a wide variety of topics. Russian history has never bored me; on the contrary, it continues to fascinate me. But I suppose my mind is restless, so I have enjoyed (in a certain sense) pursuing mass persecutions, then the past and present of a major commodity, and now, not quite just for fun, a topic that has plenty of inherent tension but is easier on the eyes, spirit, and conscience.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? Materials from the factory level or from former workers of the Soviet Union in the 1930s that showed how much agency and irreverent attitudes they often had, while at the same time they remained loyal to the country.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members? Many! But one that comes to mind is Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, Popular Injustice: Violence, Community, and Law in Latin America. It is a study of lynching in Guatemala in the 1990s that features interviews with perpetrators and community members who witnessed lynchings—same race lynchings, by the way, as has been the case in most of the world.
What do you value most about the history discipline? I can quickly transport myself to another world and time; it is good to get in another place sometimes. I get much pleasure from discovering bits of information that add up, I hope, to a bigger picture. History has gotten me around to many parts of the globe. I enjoy contemplating the symbols people live by and why those symbols might lose or change their meaning. The sources of violence and of its decline fascinate me.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you? Once in a while, I have a sense of community in the AHA, that there are other people out there who care about the same things I do.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share? At one meeting, I had six job interviews in one day. But the best anecdote of this type came from the Slavics association, the old AAASS or the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (now ASEES or the Association for Slavic, East European, & Eurasian Studies). A friend remarked that the yearly meetings could be called Konferentsiia—the Russian word for conference, but with an ending that is used for many countries, Angliia, for example. Konferentsiia, the friend continued, is a place like Brigadoon; it pops up out of the earth for a short time, great or awful things happen there, and then it disappears. I am glad that such conferences appear more often than every 100 years.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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