Member of the Month: Steven Seegel

January 19, 2024

Hometown: Austin, Texas

Current Position: Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, University of Texas at Austin

Professional Interests: empires and borders; historical geography; history of science and technology; critical cartography studies; transnational biography

Steven Seegel is a writer, translator, and historian by training, as well as Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently, he the founder and daily operator of The February 24th Archive, a civic project covering Russia’s escalated war against Ukraine. He is the author of Map Men: Transnational Lives and Deaths of Geographers in the Making of East Central Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2018), Ukraine under Western Eyes (Harvard University Press, 2013), and Mapping Europe’s Borderlands: Russian Cartography in the Age of Empire (University of Chicago Press, 2012).


Why did you decide to join the Shevchenko Scientific Society?

I admire the professionalism of the organization. My colleagues have encouraged me to become a member. That’s the easy answer! I have long admired the work of the Shevchenko Scientific Society (NTSh), its rich history back to the 19th century and across many countries, political cultures, and diaspora spaces at home and abroad.

What do you value about membership in the Society? What is your most memorable Society’s event or publication?

I suppose this may make me sound like an old-fashioned historian, but I greatly value the Society’s long-standing emphasis on languages and classical learning. I got this as an undergraduate in my college in upstate New York, where I grew up among Ukrainians. (I studied Latin!) I’m a lifelong liberal arts student with a technophilic love of reading and learning. And as a historian of maps and digital cultures, I tend to cover many languages from past to present, to include travelers and ethnographers and their emotive maps. I love contemporary Ukrainian poetry and prose, but I also appreciate the Zapysky NTSh, your publication. I remember reading it at the Stefanyk Library in Lviv and Widener Library at Harvard.

How did your interest in Ukrainian culture and society influence your career path?

It’s kind of unusual to think of Ukrainian geography as a “new” discipline, but it is relatively new. In the 1890s it was new for Mykhailo Hrushevs’kyi, Stepan Velychko, and Stepan Rudnyts’kyi. I chronicled (and still study!) the ancillary disciplines such as anthropogeography, glaciology, geomorphology, and climatology. I am intensely interested in how human geography came out and developed from Central and Eastern Europe toward an independent Ukraine, before World War I and after the Soviet experience, and during moments of conflict and intense ideological conformity.

Seeing how Ukraine got labelled geopolitically after the Orange Revolution of 2004 built a great deal of the skeptical and activist orientations in me. Maps aren’t innocent. I have a great love of the histories of East European geography, linguistics, and philology. I especially loved learning more about Ukrainian Jewish history and historiography, through the translation work I did for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. As readers know, I have written three books and each one has included aspects of modern Ukraine’s strivings to belong in Europe/the EU. Ukraine is not just as a tag-on or an afterthought, but it is a central aspect to my research. I owe much of my inspiration to Professor Patricia (Pat) Herlihy, the social and economic historian of Odesa, the grain trade, and global vodka. She encouraged me to learn Ukrainian, to get involved in the activities of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute in the 2000s. Ukrainian scholars have taken me in, for this I’m grateful. They’ve made me feel welcome to their countries (plural) and intellectual disciplines. So there is no turning back . . .

The NTSh featured in the Ph.D. which I completed and defended Brown University, in 2005. Dominique Arel and the late Patricia Herlihy were among my advisors. I was also greatly encouraged by the work of George Grabowicz, Roman Szporluk (for Polish-Ukrainian relations), and Serhii Plokhy at Harvard where I did my first post-doc. In various searches in libraries and archives, I found a variety of fascinating ethnographic maps of Ukraine. Some were made between the 1860s and 1890s, by different Ukrainian activists who worked between the Habsburg and Russian empires. I appreciated the great attention to detail and anxieties about map communication and reception among Ukrainian scientists, for those who came to imagine their homeland as a multicultural territorial and linguistic space. My first three books were all published in the 2010s before I began with international podcasting (New Books Network) and more admin work (here in Texas), and I hope there will be more.

I have good memories. I should also mention that in 2018, I teamed with Artem Kharchenko, Oleksii Chebotariov, Svitlana Telukha, and Yurii Radchenko in the “Borderlands Studies in East Central Europe and the Black Sea Region” summer school. This has been so memorable. We held the first summer school for future academics, journalists, activists, and policymakers in Kharkiv; the last one was in Chisinau in 2023. I think this is crucial interdisciplinary NGO-work. I find the collaborative aspect of teaching and learning refreshing in an open society. There’s a lot more to be done and especially now, given every aspect of Russia’s full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine and Ukrainians.

What is your current research/work project?

Now I’m working on two books in the mid-2020s—a history of a Ukrainian student activist from Galicia (book #4), and a multigenerational work of historical nonfiction on intersectional Polish worlds (book #5). There’s also my public-facing project online, The February 24th Archive. In July 2023, the archive project hit a high of 35 million impressions per month on Twitter (X). (The platform is in crisis, but Ukrainians depend on it in 2024.)  I have been cataloguing comments and threads by academics, journalists, diplomats, poets, businesspeople, translators, and policymakers. It will be a war archive for the broad record, hopefully one that can stand alone (with my personal imprint as a “map collector”) among valuable sets of records during the current war. I hope to have the website out soon.

What career advice would you give for new members of the Shevchenko Scientific Society?

My best advice is to be serious and patient about the work you do, all the subjects related to Ukraine as you study them. And to all the people you meet who lead complicated lives in multiple places, without expecting any kind of larger payoff. I’m lucky that I could find a job and learn from the best on how to sneak in Ukraine and Ukrainians. I think of the work I do as rewarding, because there aren’t enough jobs for enough people in Ukrainian Studies. We need to rectify this without succumbing to fatalism or cynicism—higher ed in profit-lands is too dependent on numbers and corporate enrollment statistics.

At the end of the workday, I’m fortunate to meet Ukrainians who are passionate about their country and mine in the US. They are the ones who inspire me every day, and sometimes in the middle of the night (under attack, as I found out last summer). I translate their driving passion into the histories of maps and geography, as I want to save and enhance their lives because they most certainly save and enhance mine. It’s a basic love for people around the world who write to me out of the blue. They don’t see Ukraine as some geopolitical target point, or merely as a professional gig. Ukrainians inspire me! They are the unacknowledged legislators of our day, seeing far ahead, fighting in the cold. I join them in building global solidarities, in our shared scientific, open, and free worlds of the future.