Research, Sociology & Anthropology

Faculty Research Profile: Dr. Sonja Luehrmann, Sociology & Anthropology

March 18, 2016

After completing her PhD in Anthropology and History from University of Michigan in 2009 and then a Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship at UBC, Dr. Sonja Luehrmann joined SFU’s Department of Sociology & Anthropology in 2011. Luehrmann’s research area is broad; in addition to her research interests in the history of anthropology, visual and archival methods, technologies of ideological transmission, and gender and the politics of reproduction, she also specializes in Russia and the Soviet Union, atheism and secularism, Orthodox Christianity, and interreligious relations. From August 2015 through June 2016, Luehrmann is a EURIAS fellow with the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki where she is researching Russian Orthodox anti-abortion activism.

Luehrmann says Helsinki provides a great base from which to work and the EURIAS program is a “wonderful opportunity to network with several communities of scholars.” Her current project, tentatively titled Sin and Soviet Memory: Mobilizing Tainted Pasts in Russian Orthodox Anti-Abortion Activism, looks at the experiences of elderly Russian Orthodox women who had multiple abortions, as this was the most accessible method of birth control in the Soviet Union. In addition to exchanging ideas with “a very interdisciplinary group of fellows” at the University of Helsinki, including historians, literary scholars, linguists, artists and translators, Luehrmann says, “I’m also making follow-up visits to interviewees in Russia and collaborating with Russian anthropologists in Saint Petersburg who do research on religious politics.”

Luehrmann is particularly interested in the way these women “participate in public outreach and emergent ritual practices as part of a regimen of penitence.” “One of the central questions of my research,” she explains, “is how aborted fetuses are constructed as mournable beings at a time when the question of how best to mourn the many adult victims of decades of Soviet rule is still up for grabs. Those victims would include those who died in Stalin’s labor camps (for whom there is still no central monument or museum), and also the millions who died in World War II, whose memory is celebrated but whose complicated stories remain largely untold.” In this context, she asks, “why is the church printing booklets on how to repent of abortions, rather than calling people to find out who was repressed from their building or neighborhood, or interrogate their own actions under the Soviet regime?”

Prayer service asking for forgiveness of past abortions and health for pregnant women, Saint Petersburg, June 2010.

For Luehrmann, part of the answer can be seen in Russia’s national politics, “where there is concern with falling birth rates and the hope is that restricting abortion will get people to have more children. The Church sees this as a promising area of collaboration with the state.” “Another part”, she goes on, “lies in the very personal nature of memories of reproductive decisions: By wondering what would have happened if they had decided differently about a particular pregnancy, some women imagine alternative life trajectories, where for example they might now have a daughter to support them instead of relying on a son or daughter-in-law, or their children might get along better because they would be closer in age. Whereas the implications of one’s actions in relation to regime policies might often be quite abstract, reproductive decisions have concrete consequences which, in retrospect, can become occasions for fantasizing about what might have been.”

Luehrmann’s most recent book, Religion in Secular Archives: Soviet Atheism and Historical Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2015), expands upon research in Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic (Indiana University Press, 2011). “The 2015 book,” she says, is “more specifically focused on archives. I used some of the materials from this earlier research and conducted additional archival research in Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, a republic whose population is split between ethnic Russians and Tatars, who speak a Turkic language and are historically mainly Muslim.”  Questioning the role of archives was an important facet of this project, Luehrmann was “inspired by scholars in postcolonial studies such as Akhil Gupta and Ann Stoler, who had looked in particular at documents where those who wrote had a hostile perspective on the phenomena they were writing about. Like colonialists in search of signs of insurgency, Soviet officials needed to see religion in many places in order to argue for the continued need to suppress it. Despite their obvious biases, I ultimately argue that these documents are valuable sources.”

Luehrmann says that while scholars today have many more sources on twentieth-century religious life in the Soviet Union than if there had not been the “apparatus of officials, scholars, and propagandists dedicated to keeping religion small and [eventually] eradicating it,” she says we also have to be sure to “read their files with that hostile perspective in mind, rather than trying to filter it out and look for the ‘real truth.’ ” Her advice to scholars pursuing this kind of research is, first, “[s]how the archivists you are serious by showing up and spending time pouring over documents, and they will help you find more of what you’re interested in.” Second, she says, “learn to ‘think like a state,’ to paraphrase the historian James Scott.” An archival guide will not likely address topics like disability, gender, or religion specifically, she says, so “one has to think about the state agencies that would have been concerned with it.” For example, “because religion in the Soviet Union was such a politicized topic, there was a dedicated “Council of Religious Affairs” in Moscow with a network of regional commissioners, whose correspondence is easy to find. But examples of how religious believers were governed are also preserved in court files, reports of health care institutions, the propaganda wing of the Communist Party, and the records of various research institutes. For research in public archives one has to look at one’s topic through the eyes of the government, but also comb the records against their grain sometimes.”  

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