Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Steven Seegel

Europäisches Hochschulinstitut, Florenz

Dieser Beitrag ist hervorgegangen aus der Initiative von Doktoranden des Seminars für ‚History and Civilization' (HEC) am Europäischen Hochschulinstitut in Florenz. Ihr Projekt ‚Research in Dialogue – Dialogue in Research' wird herausgeben von Tilmann Kulke, Dorit Brixius, Ievgen Khvalkov, Florian Wagner und James White.
Connections veröffentlicht in loser Folge Interviews, Literaturberichte und Forschungsergebnisse aus dem Bereich transnationaler und globaler Studien.

Interview with Professor Steven Seegel
By Catherine Gibson, 1 September 2017

Steven Seegel is Professor of History at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of “Mapping Europe’s Borderlands: Russian Cartography in the Age of Empire” (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and “Ukraine under Western Eyes” (Harvard University Press, 2013). He has been a contributor to the fourth and fifth volumes of Chicago’s international history of cartography series, and has translated over 300 entries from Russian and Polish for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s “Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos”, also in multiple volumes, published jointly by Indiana University Press (since 2009). He is also a former director at Harvard of the Ukrainian Research Institute’s summer exchange program. His most recent book, “Map Men: Transnational Lives and Deaths of Geographers in the Making of East Central Europe”, will come out with the University of Chicago Press in March 2018.

This interview was conducted at the Centrál Kávéház in Budapest on 1 September 2017 during the Fifth European Congress on World and Global History.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be interested in maps and map-makers in Central and Eastern Europe?
SS: I think there are maybe three different reasons. The first reason is for personal and family reasons, and is something that I get asked a lot. It is very common in Eastern Europe to be associated with a particular ethnicity or nationality on the basis of your name. When you are an outsider, with a name like Seegel - which sounds like Steven Seagal, the actor who has pledged his heart to Putin and has returned to his Russian roots - it prompts a lot of curiosity. Part of my family came from Eastern Europe and was the product of an age of empire, but the derivations of the name don’t lead towards greater certitude. The name Seegel resembles Chagall, a good number of German Siegels, and it is certainly present in Hebrew and Yiddish. I became interested really because of the Polish Szczygiełs in my family and so I started approaching the history of Habsburg and Russian Empires and the history of Poland-Lithuania.

The second reason is due to the intellectual contacts with people I encountered and who mentored me. I had the good fortune to meet Timothy Snyder when we studied Advanced Ukrainian at Harvard together back in 2000 when he was a postdoc and writing up his book on the history of Poland-Lithuania. I got to read this book in its draft form and became intrigued not only with Poland-Lithuania and Polish- and Russian-nationalism, but also with all the languages and the confessions and peoples of what once was the “Rzeczpospolita”. I also studied at Brown University when I was a graduate student with Mary Gluck, who has written a marvellous book on the philosopher György Lukács and another called “The Invisible Jewish Budapest” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016) on the Hungarian avant-garde using geography and space. I also got to work on a project with Omer Bartov, the German and Holocaust historian, which involved the translation of multiple histories of small vanished towns, villages, and cities during the period of the Third Reich for “Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos”, a 7-volume series that the US Holocaust Memorial Museum put out starting in 2009. I became really interested in the history of maps in this way and how individuals began to invest some kind of psychological cathexis into these objects, not just as tools but also as souvenirs and artefacts, markers somehow of generational or multi-generational sagas.

The third reason was when I went off into the field and began travelling and doing my research in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Poland, and Vienna, and actually began speaking with people who were also interested in maps and who collected maps for all kinds of very peculiar and pathological reasons. It got me thinking long and hard about private collectors and about the use of maps as arguments that are full of fallacies and fantasies.

Your book “Mapping Europe’s Borderlands” traces the history of a single type of objects - maps - as a way of understanding the broader political context of the time, the circulation of ideas, and the role of key individuals and organisations involved in map-making. What do you think are some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing about the past using an object as the starting point?

SS: Maps, because they’re so captivating as visual objects in the age of PowerPoint, Google, and lazy lecturing, are very easy to capture the attention of students and an interested public. The problem is that there is a sloppiness if you’re only engaged with maps as objects without methodology and historiography. Maps are exchanged and transactional artefacts. Peter Haslinger at the Herder Institut has written, I think wonderfully, in his book about German-Czech territorial conflicts about maps in communicative spaces. In order to study maps, we have to study intersubjectivity and encounters, where maps are produced, how they’re consumed, and in what form they’re used to communicate ideas. That is a better question to ask than to simply pose the map up there on a PowerPoint slide, especially because, as you say, so many maps are produced collaboratively, we often don’t know the provenance, they’re copies of copies, and all of them as objects therefore have to be examined very closely and carefully.

Map cartouches often only contain the name of a single author, yet this can disguise the fact that maps are usually intensively collaborative objects, from the collection of the data to make the map through topographical surveys or population statistics, to the draughtsmen, colourists, and printers who all helped make the final object. How do you go about researching these ‘silent’ (Harley 1988) contributors and participants in the map-making process?
SS: You are absolutely right that the ‘silences’ and ‘secrecies’, to use Brian Harley’s terms, matter. One has to be careful to attribute authorship to not only just one person and ask the who, what, where, when, and why of every map. Especially when writing “Mapping Europe’s Borderlands”, I stressed the importance of institutions. The most important commercial firm in the Russian Empire for the production of maps was the firm of Il’in & Poltoratskii & Co. founded in the era of Alexander II in 1859. They were entrepreneurs and products of the era of the Decembrist rebellion, the founding of the Russian Geographical Society in St. Petersburg in 1845, and the Great Reforms. Il’in & Poltoratskii & Co. were what I would call liberal empire builders of both the Russian imperial and national sort. They figured that institutionally they could be involved in many of the government agencies, which really needed maps for the purposes of modernisation, for forestry agencies, agricultural purposes, the building of railways, and school atlases to increase literacy. If one accepts that maps are produced institutionally, they you get a better perspective on who is using the map and for what purpose. Bureaucracies are boring to study but bureaucracies are the things that churn out maps.

Continuing on the theme of the ‘silences’ in maps, I am curious that in the title of your forthcoming book, you refer to Map Men. Have you encountered any female cartographers in East Central Europe or instances where women were involved in the process of making maps?
SS: The problem with a lot of the work in cartography really up until the 1950s was that it was an extremely male-dominated enterprise. This is not to say that there weren’t women involved in the production of maps. In fact, in “Mapping Europe’s Borderlands” one of my key figures is the aunt of Józef Korzeniowski (otherwise known as Joseph Conrad), Maria Regina Nałęcz-Korzeniowska, who was largely forgotten by anyone writing a history of Polish geography and cartography. Korzeniowska gave the young Conrad an atlas in Berdychiv on the family’s estate. She was very much involved in corresponding with Joachim Lelewel, the Polish historian, and other Romantic nationalists. She was the author or collaboratively authored works which depicted Poland-Lithuania and all of its heraldic seals, and she had been engaged with eastward transmissions of A. Lesage’s Atlas “Historique, Généalogique, Chronologique et Géographique” (Paris, 1805). Still, she remains largely left out and given very little credit except for Conrad’s words, which we get from Heart of Darkness, when he talks in 1899 about how his aunt gave him the gift of an atlas. That’s all we really find out.

In “Map Men” I try and bring the history of women into the process of social production and political production of maps. I do this in two ways. One is to write multi-generational family histories, not just “Kurzbiographie”, but the lives of geographers and cartographers with the histories of their mothers, daughters, women in the workplace, and those whom they mentored. For example, Eugeniusz Romer in Poland in the 1920s worked with several geographers and cartographers who were women and worked at his cartographic firm in Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv. Often their names don’t appear, but they were involved in the production of school maps - this was a very big deal in the 1920s and 1930s. That is one way to get at it. I would also add that the Map Men usually denied that women were engaged in the process at all. To recapture that story is a real challenge when the names of those who are entering data, doing ethnographic research, or organising the conferences are left out.

_In relation to your work on “Map Men”, you have talked about the method of ‘spatial prosopography’. Can you tell us a bit more about this approach?
SS: I can talk about this as one of the methods I’ve discarded. It is a hybrid method that borrows from the term prosopography, which is I think usefully employed by historians like Lawrence Stone for studying professions. Cartography as a “Beruf”, a kind of calling, is one of my chapters in Map Men. I think the better way of framing the approach that I’ve used in “Map Men” - and critics can decide this - is something that I call epistolary geography. Epistolary geography is the use of letters, correspondence, and memoirs (where they exist) to try and get at the life history of these geographers and cartographers, many of whom died quite literally like King Stanisław Poniatowski, holding their maps until the end. There is one anecdotal story that I can offer to illustrate this. Count Pál Teleki, the former Prime Minister of Hungary, who was a geographer by profession and author of the famous “Carte Rouge” (1918-9) ethnographic map of Hungary, was asked to serve as a boundary expert in 1924-1925 in Mosul to adjudicate the dispute between Turkey and Iraq. On the basis of just looking at maps and exchanging letters with the League of Nations and American geographers like Isaiah Bowman, it was decided that Mosul should be awarded to the Kingdom of Iraq under British administration. Letters and exchanges allow us to dig a little bit deeper into the spaces and places and fantasies and prejudices of Teleki’s imagination. The idea that maps express some kind of certitude is something that really needs to be challenged.

One of the challenges of working with maps is that it is often hard to find a publisher willing to print a book with so many large colour maps. Have you encountered other kinds of practical challenges?
SS: My advice for anybody would be to find a good publisher! I think I have been very fortunate that the University of Chicago Press has worked with me and many others, especially young scholars – I wouldn’t call myself young anymore! – who are publishing monographs building off of the work of J. B. Harley, David Woodward, and Matthew Edney, and many others who were engaged with the international History of Cartography Project from its hatching point. It’s really difficult because usually to produce books that have as many images as I have in mine requires a pretty heavy subvention or subsidy. Often graduate students don’t have the opportunity, or at least not until they are hired in permanent positions, to produce a work that in some ways is more like Art History. I think that there are a few presses out there that are willing to take a risk and sell the books at a higher price, but of course no one really wants to have their first book at $100 or $120. My advice to those who are doing research on cartography and want to get their maps in there is to think at a very early date about applying for subventions. Once you have revised your PhD and are preparing it for press, you absolutely want to find an interested editor and publisher and you should resist cutting out too many of your images because it spoils the argument and renders a lot of what you have to say in your visual analysis much more difficult.

I see that your first book “Ukraine Under Western Eyes” was reissued in 2013 with a DVD of maps as a way to address some of these issues. With the increasing emphasis currently being placed on digital humanities, do you think that historians need to think about different ways to share the outputs of their research, especially in cases where it contains a lot of visual material?
SS: I am of two minds on this question. On the one hand, I’m in full support of open source access and sites like I am absolutely opposed to the paywalls that exist and prevent people gaining access to journals who are not at universities or who are outside of institutions. I fully believe in doing public history, talking to map societies, supporting open-access opportunities, and digitising collections of maps. For example, Kelly O’Neill at Harvard University has a project Imperiia: Mapping the Russian Empire on the cartography and representations of the Russian Empire, which uses GIS. There is also a new book coming out called “The Red Atlas” (University of Chicago Press, 2017) by John Davies and Alexander J. Kent about the history of Soviet mapping and Soviet military cartography. I think it is really important to have those maps which had been in closed archives made public.

On the other hand, I think graduate students especially need to be very careful about their sources. Being a little bit guarded is perfectly OK. What I mean by that is that the sharing of information is absolutely essential, but if graduate students working on projects, going and doing their fieldwork in archives and museums, find something that others have not explored or researched, they should not simply go and put that out there without taking the time to reflect, think about methodology, and do the research really thoroughly. The finished product after peer-review is usually better. If you simply write a blog about a source that you’ve found yesterday in your archival research and then put that out there on the internet, it is your intellectual property but it can be purloined very easily. Those are my two mind-sets. I don’t think that the question is resolved. But as someone who did have access to a lot of maps that were rare or in private collections, I think that it is extremely important to make public the information, but only after you’ve done some kind of very thorough analysis.

One of the most impressive aspects of your work is the way you incorporate source material in different languages (Russian, Polish, German, Ukrainian, and many others) and bring different national historiographies into dialogue with one another. Can you tell us about your experience of learning and using languages for your research? Do you have any language-related advice for students and young scholars thinking about embarking on a career in transnational or global history?
SS: This might be the easiest question to answer! The answer is yes, of course language skills should be essential components of any historian’s training, but especially for doing research in Central and Eastern Europe. You should learn, and learn well, as many languages as you possibly can, and that includes Esperanto! For the historians I have deeply admired, such as Theodore Weeks or Timothy Snyder, the number of languages they acquired is something that is absolutely essential to their profession. This is not to say that you can’t do good historical research in only one or two languages, but I think it is absolutely essential to bring national communities together. I think German historians in particular have no excuse for not learning Yiddish. Why not learn Belarusian or Ukrainian if you have Russian and Polish? For young scholars, my advice would be search for funding, take advantage of summer schools, go and live in the country, and spend time living with families in that country. When I went to Kraków I lived with a family of artists and diplomats and it was an incredible experience. I think that’s a way to learn the language, not just in school and studying grammar but through travel and real life experiences.

* Catherine Gibson is a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy. She is co-editor, with Tomasz Kamusella and Motoki Nomachi, of “The Palgrave Handbook of Slavic Languages, Identities, and Borders” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and author of “Borders between History and Memory: Latgale’s Palimpsestuous Past in Contemporary Latvia” (Tartu University Press, 2016). She has been a visiting doctoral researcher at the University of Latvia in Riga and a Junior Visiting Fellow at the Herder Institut in Marburg. Her present research focuses on the history of ethnographic cartography in the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire in the long nineteenth-century.


Dr. Tilmann Kulke
Assistant Professor - Islamic History, Global History
European University Institute, Alumni- Religion and Culture Studies

Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Ilia State University,
G. Tsereteli St., Office 210
0162 Tbilisi, Georgia

Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Steven Seegel, 01.10.2017 Florenz, in: Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists, 07.10.2017, <>.