Pozdravleniya, Doc. Vitayu, too.
Without taking sides in an all-too-topical topic, that’s how we say “congratulations” – first in Russian, then Ukrainian – to Paul Werth, a UNLV Russian history professor.
He is one of only 180 “exceptional individuals” who was granted a prestigious fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for 2022. Werth was named in the category of European and Latin American History.
As fabulous as that is, a more immediate matter awaits Werth at this moment: teaching a class that’s mostly “Russia Since 1825,” but with a sprinkle of shtick.
“Bet you didn’t know Popeye had a beard,” Werth quips while showing a slide of snowy-bearded Vasilli Shulgin, a Russian nationalist politician. (Shulgin’s gnarled features did resemble the animated sailor man.) Students giggle, trading smiles.
Everyone’s relaxed now, following a quiz requiring students to identify points on a map. As Werth explained: “Write ‘1’ if you think that’s Kazakhstan. Mark if you think Moscow is the capital of Kazakhstan. A hint: It isn’t.”
Scooping up maps at quiz’s end, he promises that this knowledge gained will pay dividends: “You’ll be able to impress boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, houseplants and pets.”
Encyclopedic Russian history goes down with a side of impishness in Wright Hall, thanks to the vibe laid down by Werth. Slim and semi-shaggy-haired, face accentuated by wireframe glasses and a salt-’n’-pepper goatee, his fashion sense is professorial casual: corduroy sport coat over untucked purple shirt, draped across faded jeans.
Yes, he’s a cool 53-year-old, with an aura suggesting he’ll seem boyish at 90, still a quick-draw quip artist. And because he is, you’re primed to listen – and learn about the Soviet Union breakup into 14 republics and the Russian Federation.
He knows this stuff. They didn’t award him a $70,000 Guggenheim Fellowship because of his wit.
“It’s rare that something I would do becomes as relevant as all this,” Werth says back in his office, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The Guggenheim judges apparently made the decision in early March. The war began in late February. I’d like to believe for my own ego that it was the strength of the proposal that got me the fellowship.” But? …
“I can’t help wondering if they were discussing the final selection of Fellows when the war was beginning and here comes this guy working on books about borders and territories – ‘Shouldn’t we give the Fellowship to him?’ One never knows.”
Those books-in-progress that comprise his Guggenheim research project (beyond the four books he’s already penned) are: a territorial history of Russia; and another covering seven centuries of the “longest border in the world” from the medieval period onward, encompassing Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and the present Russian Federation.
Werth has zero Russian ancestry to help explain his passion. (He’s German on his dad’s side, Danish on his mom’s – though his wife is from Leningrad.) It was the language that seduced him. “I had done French in high school and knew I wanted to do a different language,” he says about when he arrived for undergraduate studies at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
“That college offered Russian, which was the strangest, the most exotic language with this weird alphabet. I honestly fell in love with that language, it was really cool,” says Werth, who went on to a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and came to UNLV a year later.
Now completing his 25th year at UNLV, he’s surrounded in his office by posters – including one dominated by the figure of Vladimir Lenin – printed with cryptic Russian text.
Well, cryptic to most of us.
“To see these things and be able to read that,” he says, pointing toward that weird alphabet. “YOU can’t read that, but it’s so obvious to me now. And I had an interest in history so these things came together. I got on the Russia track and never left it.”
Czarist-era Russia, specifically.
Lately, though, another Vladimir – as in Putin – has brought his specialty into contemporary laser focus. When Russia launched it's invasion, Werth quickly devised a one-credit mini-course based on Ukrainian-Russian history for anyone seeking context to the current events. Though he does think some nuance regarding Putin’s geopolitical grievances with NATO are lost amid current headlines, he is unambiguous about his stance.
“I’m a Russo-phile, then you see what’s happening,” Werth says. “I find myself unrooted in a way I’m really quite uncomfortable with. As one of my colleagues said, it’s a tough country to love.” Yet he looks bemused when asked point-blank if Putin is a war criminal or even evil.
“We’re talking in biblical terms, aren’t we?” he says, then acknowledges the brutal war crimes that have been committed and that Putin “was responsible. Evil exists in all of us to one degree or another, it’s the nature of human beings. I would say he is exhibiting considerable evil.”
Overall take on this war? “Nothing justifies the degree of violence and destruction that is occurring. It’s hard not to be one-sided when one country has brazenly attacked another, when civilians appear to be targeted, when there’s a good deal of accumulated evidence that suggest that atrocities have been perpetrated.”
Yet viewed via the larger historical lens, Werth cites Russia’s ability, as both an empire and as the Soviet Union, to master diversity: combining numerous peoples, languages, religions, and cultures into a sprawling superpower, before it splintered apart.
With obvious affection, he recalls his first visit in 1988, before the Soviet collapse.
“The people there could be tremendously warm. They had had very little contact with the West and there was extraordinary curiosity. They wanted to know everything – what we did in school, how much our parents made, what our hospitals were like,” Werth recalls.
“A few of them, if they had the rudiments of English, were desperate to try it out. And the music – people were interested in Pink Floyd and Deep Purple. They’d say, ‘Can you write down the lyrics because we’re can’t figure out what they’re singing.’”
Ironic, isn’t it? Back then, that same problem afflicted some Americans, for whom those lyrics were as understandable as the posters in Paul Werth’s office.