Montana State University

MSU professor’s Fulbright year provides insights into renowned Turkish poet and contemporary Russian life

September 5, 2017 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

James Meyer, associate professor of history with the Department of History and Philosophy in the College of Letters and Sciences at Montana State University, has returned from a yearlong Fulbright research fellowship in Russia and Turkey researching Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who died in exile in Russia. Meyer said his time abroad, most of it spent in Moscow, provided invaluable insights that will enrich his teaching of his students. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez.

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A Montana State University history professor who spent the majority of the last academic year in Moscow saw a different angle on the U.S.-Russian controversy now playing out in the national media.

“People in Russia generally see those claims of election hacking as something Democrats came up with to explain the loss of Hillary Clinton (in the U.S. elections),” said James Meyer, a professor in the Department of History and Philosophy who spent last academic year in Turkey, Russia and the Netherlands to research the life of the expatriate Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet.

Meyer said the Russians he met in nine months in the country were friendly and mainly interested in the impact of American economic sanctions imposed by the last administration and their impact on Russian middle-class life than they were political scandals involving Americans.

“The people (he met in Russia) were curious about Montana, about what it was like to hike, what mushrooms we have here,” Meyer said, noting the Russian fondness for picking mushrooms in the wild. “They were curious about material life in the U.S. and such things as what happens when we get sick.”

Meyer’s research is the basis for a scholarly book he is writing about Hikmet. The poet and writer was born in the Ottoman Empire in 1902 and died in Cold War-era Moscow in 1963. He spent much of his life transitioning between the two countries and was imprisoned or exiled several times for his revolutionary, pro-Communist political beliefs.

Meyer called the year abroad “a dream come true.” A Fulbright research fellowship funded nine months in Russia, while an MSU Scholarship and Creativity grant funded the balance of the trip.

Meyer said his interest in the historic intersections of Turkey and Russia began while he was teaching English in Istanbul for seven years. There he became fascinated by the historic role of the Turkic people in the rough geographical area of the former U.S.S.R. The son of a University of Michigan engineering professor, Meyer said he became so absorbed in the topic that he returned to the U.S. to earn a master’s in Near Eastern studies from Princeton and then a doctorate in Middle Eastern and Russian history from Brown. He has published a book, “Turks Across Empires: Marketing Muslim Identity in the Russian-Ottoman Borderlands.” At MSU, he teaches Islamic world history.

Over the years Meyer said he became increasingly fascinated with Hikmet, a well-known poet who spent most of his life as an outsider. Hikmet was imprisoned for 15 years in Turkey, during which time he received vocal support from the international art community.

“He was the best-known defender of the U.S.S.R. in Turkey and, in the final years of his life, was the most famous Turk in the Soviet Union,” Meyer said.

While in Russia during his Fulbright year, Meyer spent time at two archives: the party archive, where he found thousands of pages relating to the activities of Hikmet and other Turkish communists of the time, and the literature archive. Meyer said that in order to research Hikmet’s private papers at the literature archive, he needed the permission of Hikmet’s stepdaughter, with whom Meyer was also able to meet and discuss Hikmet's life over dinner. He also spent two months of his time in Russia in St. Petersburg.

Meyer said in Istanbul and Amsterdam, he worked in the Ottoman and Turkish Republican archives, as well as with smaller holdings related to Hikmet and his friends in the Turkish Communist Party.

“I was able to find material that doesn’t exist any place else,” he said.

On a personal level, Meyer said he enjoyed his winter in the urban center of Moscow, which involved daily trips on the subway from his apartment to the archives. He also enjoyed the Russian culture, including a ballet performance at the Bolshoi Theater inspired by a story that Hikmet wrote.

“My life was largely untouched by politics,” he said. “(The experience) was eye-opening. It made me realize, once again, how broadening it is to live abroad.”

Meyer said his experiences not only deepened his research but also will enrich his teaching of MSU students. He said his time will “re-shape the ways in which I see both (countries’) histories and present-day circumstances” and help the understanding of MSU students.

“My students, I’ve found, have a great interest in the world,” he said. “I’m able to tell the story of these countries as a scholar and as someone who has lived there. I’m able (to) teach students from a new perspective and help students become more familiar about this world and how ideas from these countries are formed.”

This fall he is teaching courses about Russian and Turkish history with fresh insights from the trip. He said he is writing the first draft of his manuscript, which he estimates will be about 500 pages.

“I am writing a book about the closing of doors,” Meyer said. “I see it as a history of an era that has a lot of connection with our own time."

James Meyer 406-994-6798, james.meyer7@montana.edu