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In Memory of Sonja Luehrmann

September 24, 2019

Our highly esteemed and beloved colleague and friend, Sonja Luehrmann, passed away on August 24, 2019, a little over two years after she was diagnosed with cancer. As an Associate Professor in Simon Fraser University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Sonja modeled how to live a life devoted to learning. She was a brilliant and prolific scholar who produced innovative work on religion, history, politics, and Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. She was a devoted teacher and mentor. And she was a colleague who was, above all else, generous with her time, knowledge and insights.

It is difficult to encapsulate the breadth and depth of Sonja’s scholarship in just a few words, as her work crossed disciplinary boundaries, research methodologies, and modes of writing. Among her most important contributions was her commitment to combining anthropological and historical perspectives in imaginative ways. Her first book, Alutiiq Villages Under Russian and U.S. Rule, a published version of her Master’s thesis at the University of Frankfurt, uniquely combined an analysis of Russian archival sources, archaeological evidence and oral histories to produce a comparative study of colonization of the Alutiiq people in what is now south-central Alaska. After receiving her PhD from the Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan, Sonja went on to publish a second book, Secularism Soviet Style, that drew upon archival research, long-term ethnographic fieldwork, and the analysis of images as material culture to understand the affinities between secularist movements and religious practice in the Soviet and post-Soviet era. Her third book, Religion in Secular Archives, could be read in part as a reflection on methodology—examining how archives sustain relations of power and what happens when those who produce sources are different from the people the sources describe. The Society of American Archivists, which awarded Religion in Secular Archives the Waldo Gifford Leland Award, praised the book as pushing archivists to recognize “the power at stake when we arrange and describe our holdings.”

Sonja’s willingness to think outside particular theoretical or methodological constraints made each piece of her scholarship groundbreaking. Her work pushed us to make links between seemingly disparate issues and promoted awareness of historical processes so that we might more fully understand the stakes of our contemporary moment. Always creative, and as some said, “a scholar’s scholar,” her infectious curiosity and support for others’ work guided her editing of an important book, Praying with the Senses, which explored how the bodily senses were linked to religious practice. She spent many hours working with copy editors to gradually turn the manuscripts of authors writing in English for the first time into beautiful essays.  As colleagues who long knew of Sonja’s devotion to research and her incredible aptitude, we still watched in awe during her final months with us as she continued to probe sensitive questions in religion and politics, working on projects that included her most recent unfinished book on anti-abortion activism in the post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church.

Sonja’s inspiring commitment to a life of learning went far beyond her scholarship. It infused every dimension of what it means to be an integral and intentional member of an intellectual community. When Sonja learned that she had stage 4 cancer almost two years ago, she told us: “If I only have two years to live, I want to live them as an anthropologist!” And did she ever, continuing to conduct research, present at conferences and publish her work. Even when Sonja knew she was severely ill with cancer, she doubled down on her efforts to support the work of others by organizing workshops, joining the SFU Ethics Board, editing the foremost Canadian journal of anthropology, Anthropologica, exchanging ideas with colleagues about research and writing, and making thoughtful contributions to departmental discussions. When teaching her last class while undergoing chemotherapy, she expressed concern that the effects of the treatment might be hindering her ability to respond as astutely as she might otherwise have to student questions. That is, her concern for student learning never ceased. She dedicated her time and wisdom to students, departmental life, and intellectual community until her final days.

Sonja was exceedingly capable, yet she was humble. She cared for many of us at times, generously offering wisdom and friendship in quiet moments. She shouldered far more than her share of the scholarly burden to support our collective enrichment. In our little departmental community, her way of being in the world nudged us all to be our better selves: more thoughtful, more centred, more responsible toward others, kinder. She showed us a way through the familiar struggle to reconcile the varied demands of scholarship and life—through generosity of spirit, a commitment to the love of learning, a focus on creating new ideas that matter, and intellectual work that doesn’t shy away from some of the most difficult issues we face in the world. Sonja was only 44 and the loss to her family, friends, the SA department, the University, the scholarly fields she contributed to and the many communities she was an integral part of is truly staggering. 

We will miss Sonja’s spirit in our department around every turn, and we offer her family—her partner Ilya Vinkovetsky, Associate Professor of History at SFU, and their three children, Philipp, Vera, and Lukas—our deepest condolences. We are honoured to be touched by her legacy.

Kathleen Millar, Amanda Watson, Ann Travers, Michael Hathaway, and Stacy Pigg

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University

The funeral is set for October 7 at 2pm, Christ Church Cathedral

We are collecting tributes and letters to honour Sonja from her colleagues, students, friends and anyone else who would like to share. These will be published below. Please email sacomm@sfu.ca with your letters and tributes. 

Tributes

Dear all,

I'm Sonja's older sister and I'm just writing to thank you for the wonderful tribute you wrote in her memory. As you say, her illness and death is a staggering loss to all of us, but I'm very glad (though not at all surprised) to know that she was so cherished among her colleagues, and I'm sure your heartfelt words would have meant a lot to her.

With warmest wishes,

Silke Lührmann

Sonja was the best MA supervisor I could have asked for. I am forever grateful to her for having believed in me even though I had no  previous background in Anthropology; and for having guided, supported, and encouraged me in every step of the way. I will always carry her kind words, deep insights, and calm presence close to my heart. 

Belen Febres-Cordero

I know Sonja as a fellow parent, first and foremost, as her youngest child (Lukas) was in daycare with my son, Felix. Sonja and Ilya's children have always struck me as bright, caring, and affectionate: a testament to their parenting. 

I have since also come to know Sonja as a colleague within the university. Her dedication to learning and to contribution to our scholarly community were unparalleled. I wish I could've known her as a scholar more closely. 

I am very sad about her death, though I am also very impressed by her life. 

With love to her family, during this time of mourning. 

Julia Lane

It was a true honor to have worked under the supervision of Dr. Sonja Luehrmann during my MA program here at SFU. I believe an amazing experience to learn and grow I had in the program is in many ways thanks to Dr. Luehrmann’s dedication to pedagogy and her immense kindness.

The first time I met her, she had her infant son in a sling and she asked about my research interests. Being pregnant at the time for the first time, I was worried about the program and needing to take a leave in a few months time. But Dr. Luehrmann’s quiet and calm personality put me at ease, and as she addressed her son with a warm smile I knew I will be fine.

Dr. Luehrmann was dedicated to create an accessible and welcoming environment for students to learn and thrive. She allowed me to attend a class after my brief maternity leave with my baby, which allowed me to keep on track with my progress in the program. As we sat in her office during one of many Directed Reading classes that Summer, Dr. Luehrmann nodded with a warm smile to my attempts to summarize my thoughts on the weekly reading whilst wrestling a rambunctious 4-month-old on my lap. “He has a very strong neck and legs, he is holding himself so well,” she commented with amused smile as my son tried to climb me like a tree.

She had an incredible ability to ask questions, a pertinent ability for an anthropologists, but also an educator. Her questions made you think, lead you in the right direction, find your way in the tangled mess of your own thoughts and gave you confidence in your abilities as a beginner researcher. Her comments were clear, direct, and always encouraging. At my first conference, I was nervous and probably used up the allocated 20 minutes unwisely. During the discussion part, Dr. Luehrmann asked a question directed to all presenters, and as I sat thinking about the answer, it dawned at me that what she was asking in that moment was an essential piece I did not mention in my presentation. Dr. Luehrmann always gave an opportunity to improve.

The last time I saw her was at my convocation ceremony. In the commotion following the convocation ceremony I was walking towards the AQ, when I saw her. She greeted and congratulated me. But in the loud cheers of people around, the bagpipe band, and my son in my arms, now even more rambunctious 2-year-old I could not hear her well. I did not get to say much in that moment, but thought to myself that I would email her the photo my friend took of us that day, and thank her again for everything.

Two months later in Toronto preparing for my PhD, I received an email about her passing. I never got to email her the photo and thank her. It all seems surreal now, and it still seems I will see her passing by at some conference in the future, a relaxed smile on her face. But one thing is clear, I will carry things I’ve learned from her as a researcher and educator throughout my future training and work. It is all thanks to Dr. Luehrmann.

Gyuzel Kamalova

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