If you’ve visited Russia nine times and research the country’s history, it probably helps to speak the language. Dr. Lee Farrow, a professor of Russian history at Auburn University at Montgomery, says she’s “fluent” in the notoriously difficult language.
“I say fluent in quotation marks because I get rusty when I don’t use it, but it comes back very quickly when I return to Russia,” said Farrow. “I took Russian in college and for three summers lived with an old Russian lady who didn’t speak any English – my Russian got very good then!”
Farrow first became interested in Russia when a high school friend left for college to study journalism and Russian.
“That got me interested in Russian history and I began to read all about it on my own and decided this was the subject I wanted to study in college,” explained Farrow, who received her Ph.D. from Tulane University.
Her early research centered on Russian emperors – tsars – of the 18th century such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. “More recently my work has focused on Russian-American relations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
She’s published three books and a fourth is in progress.
“One of my goals has always been to write history that is readable and interesting to a general audience. I'm most proud of my second book, ‘Alexis in America: A Grand Duke's Tour, 1871-72,’ which tells the true story of the tsar's son, Alexis, who traveled through the U.S., visiting American cities, buffalo hunting with Buffalo Bill and Custer, and attending the first daytime Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans.”
Because of her expertise, Farrow has been a frequent guest speaker at venues including the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and the American Embassy in Moscow and in 2017, "the State Department sent me to three Russian cities to speak at schools and universities about the Alaska Purchase, the subject of my third book, Seward's Folly."
Of all her trips, one was especially memorable.
“In two weeks I traveled from Montgomery to St. Petersburg to Moscow to Ekaterinburg to Novosibirsk to Vladivostok. I was in Siberia in the dead of winter and traveled through so many times zones that my body clock was out of sorts for several weeks.”
Farrow’s new book will detail the 1869-1872 diplomatic scandal between the Grant administration and the Russian Minister to the United States, Constantin Catacazy, which caused considerable tension between the two countries.
On the Auburn Montgomery faculty since 1999, Farrow says she also enjoys teaching Russian history.
“The student body – lots of middle-class, first-generation students – remind me of myself and my background,” she says. “I want to help them get a good education, and be successful and productive citizens of the world.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.org)