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Russian and Eastern European Center hosting 30th annual summer lab

Melissa Mitchell, arts writer
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When Ralph Fisher organized the first Summer Research Laboratory on Russia and Eastern Europe at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1973, communist rule in the region made it difficult for Western scholars to travel there to conduct research and exchange ideas with colleagues.

Three decades later, as the university’s Russian and Eastern European Center is preparing to host the 30th annual Lab, June 16 through Aug. 8, much has changed. The world is smaller, and the number of visitors to the Lab has grown – from 44 in 1973, to nearly 200 this year.

The main attraction, from the beginning, according to Ralph Fisher, a professor emeritus of history and director of the REEC from 1959-1987, has been the University Library’s comprehensive Slavic holdings. After spending a number of years building the collection, starting in the late 1950s, "it got to the point that we knew our collection was big enough to be useful," Fisher said. By the early 1970s, "other universities offered summer language programs, but no one else thought of having a program that offered what we could – a good library, good staff and good set-up (for conducting research) – all in one room."

For the past 30 years, the Lab has served as "an intellectual summer camp for professors, independent scholars and advanced graduate students," said Mark Steinberg, the current director of the REEC. To date, 2,915 scholars from 958 institutions in Canada, the United States and 49 other countries have attended the Lab, in part, he said, to gain access to one of the largest and best Slavic and Eastern European library collections in North America.

"The appeal of the lab is not just a matter of our phenomenal collection of books, journals, newspapers and microforms, however," Steinberg said. "The Slavic and East European Library at Illinois also has one of the very best qualified and most helpful reference staffs in the country. In fact, scholars at the Lab found this staff so useful that they continued to contact the library when they went back home, leading to the creation of a permanent national Slavic Reference Service, which fields many hundreds of inquiries from all over the world every year.

"No less," he said, "the lab became a form of intellectual community in the field – a place to meet colleagues and talk about their research, recent scholarship in the field, and common problems and concerns. Spontaneous workshops began to emerge among scholars with shared interests in – for example, women in Slavic culture, Ukrainian studies or early Russian history. Regular lectures and film showings were organized. In recent years, especially, the range of intellectual activities associated with the Lab have grown to include lectures by Lab associates.

"There is nothing like this anywhere," Steinberg said.

Highlights of this summer’s program include an anniversary celebration and panel discussion on June 18, and the inaugural Ralph and Ruth Fisher Forum, which this year will be an international conference on Vasilii Rozanov, June 19-23, organized by Harriet Murav, professor of Slavic languages and literature at Illinois.

Other notable events this year include a seminar on Balkan studies, July 8-12, led by Stephen Batalden, professor of history at Arizona State University; the annual symposium, on June 28, which this year focuses on "The Young and the Restless: Youth in Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe"; and a major conference on contemporary Ukraine, June
16-21, which will draw leading Ukrainian scholars, among them presidents of several universities.

A complete list of events and activities, including locations, is available on the Web at