2017-2018 at Yale

I’m pleased to announce that I will spend the 2017-2018 academic year as a postdoctoral associate and lecturer for Russian Studies in the European Studies Council at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. I’ll also be cross-appointed in the Department of Anthropology. I will be teaching two courses, moving the ethnographic play project along, and working on my ethnographic monograph.

Red Sox nation, I’m coming home!


I WAS NEVER ALONE keeps on moving

I WAS NEVER ALONE (IWNA), a play script based on ethnographic fieldwork in Petrozavodsk, Russia with adults with disabilities, just keeps on moving – developing in new ways and finding collaborators and possibilities that, as a first-time documentary playwright, continue to astound and amaze me.

The February  2016 staged reading  of IWNA (dir. Joseph Megel) at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill was the focus a recent video from Carolina Performing Arts. Check out a few clips from the reading, and me, trying not to not say the wrong thing, in the two-minute video feature.

Thanks to a grant from the FISP program, the play is moving forward with a more elaborated workshop that will take place in the fall at the University of California San Diego. Auditions for cast members, and meetings with prospective production team members will take place on June 2 & 3rd at UCSD (Dept of Theater & Dance, Galbraith Hall, Rm 20 on the lower level). Sign up for an audition slot here, or contact me or assistant director Jason Dorwart for more information or with access requests.

Meanwhile, script development continues on the Russian side of things, with the Russian-language version of the edited script nearing completion thanks to the collaboration of Valeriya Markina, my colleague at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, whose own project looks at disability theater in Moscow. This version of the Russian-language script will be shared with research participants, who will have the opportunity to review their own segment privately, and then, in late July, participate in a day long table reading and workshop about issues of disability representation that the script brings up. I’m looking forward to heading back to Russia for the first time since 2014 in order to conduct that workshop!

I guess the show’s subtitle, Oporniki, might have something to it — this thing really does seem to have a backbone!



I WAS NEVER ALONE workshop and staged reading

This week takes me back to North Carolina to work on logistics leading up to a planned workshop and staged reading that will take place at UNC-Chapel Hill Performance Studies during the first week of February 2016.

The workshop will be the second process presentation for I WAS NEVER ALONE, a documentary play script and performance ethnography project that I am developing in collaboration with Joseph Megel (UNC Performance Studies artist-in-residence and director of FREIGHT) and collaborators in Russia. The script focuses on the personal narratives of  seven adults with disabilities living in contemporary Russia, presented in a 90 minute play as a series of monologue-type portraits. The narratives are drawn nearly verbatim from translations of interviews with Russians with a range of disabilities in Russia who have participated in the development of this project since 2012.

Find more information about the casting needs please contact me (cassandra.hartblay@gmail-dot-com) or Joseph Megel (megel@unc-dot-edu). Casting will continue through November 2015.

California and other changes

I’m thrilled to announce that have accepted an appointment as the 2015-2016 Postdoctoral Fellow in Ethnographic Design at the Studio for Ethnographic Design at the University of California San Diego.

This is an exciting position that includes a departmental home in the UCSD Department of Communication, and a key role in planning and executing upcoming events for both the UCSD interdisciplinary Studio for Ethnographic Design and the inter-institutional Collaboratory for Ethnographic Design (CoLED). Working with Dr. Elana Zilberg and CoLED, I’ll be planning a conference for the fall of 2016 on the future of ethnography as a form of qualitative inquiry. I want to hear about your innovative, collaborative, engaged, digital, design-focuses, multimedia ethnographic projects and thoughts about the ethnographic form.

So — get in touch!!

With this change in institutional affiliation, my UNC-CH web address and email with expire. If you’re reading this, then you’ve already arrived at my new personal website – cassandrahartblay.com. While much of the content is the same, please note that my previous website, cassandra.web.unc.edu will expire shortly, and I will cease to update it as of July 1, 2015. Please update my email address in your address books, as the UNC address will no longer be active, but I can be found at chartblay-at-ucsd.edu.

At UCSD, my current project on disability in Russia will continue, as I work on preparing my manuscript for publication, including the addition of new research on transnational disability rights conducted this summer at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington DC, and, of course, my dissertation data. I am also working on the script of a documentary play based on this work, which had its first read-through in May in Chapel Hill, and will be workshopped in the UNC-CH Communication Studies performance series in early 2016.

New photo essay on Disability in Russia

I’m happy to announce the publication of my photo essay and accompanying text in the interdisciplinary journal Landscapes of Violence. You can download the PDF version from the LoV website, or read the abstract, below.

A photo from the LoV photo essay shows my friend Alina and some neighbor children at her computer desk,  the monitor glowing white. Description: Alina is wearing a pink cardigan and has dark hair. Her hands are visible, but her wheelchair is not. She is talking to a young girl with a long braid who is looking at the screen, while a young boy leans over the keyboard.

A photo from the LoV photo essay shows my friend Alina and some neighbor children at her computer desk, the monitor glowing white. Description: Alina is wearing a pink cardigan and has dark hair. Her hands are visible, but her wheelchair is not. She is talking to a young girl with a long braid who is looking at the screen, while a young boy leans over the keyboard.


A recent Human Rights Watch report documented the ways in which people with mobility impairments in Russia are both physically and socially marginalized by the built environment in Russian cities, which is strikingly inaccessible. These photos attempt to center the perspective of people with disabilities traversing (or being limited by) the Russian cityscape, and explore the ways in which (failure to adhere to) building codes effectively limit the public participation of people with (certain) disabilities in the daily life of the democracy. Subtle barriers, immediately obvious to a wheelchair-‐‐user, begin to emerge for the viewer considering these photographs. They document the ways in which people with disabilities recognize the material structures of the city as socially produced, and as a key factor excluding them from public life. Seemingly passive objects and the history of particular infrastructures turn out to be arbiters of marginalization, domination, and discrimination. Some of these photos have appeared on a collaborative blog documenting accessible and inaccessible entryways in the city of Petrozavodsk, Russia. Some images are examples of what I call check-‐‐mark ramps -‐‐ objects that look like ramps, but don’t “work,” i.e. that don’t actually facilitate access for people with mobility impairments. Images of such “failed” ramps have circulated as an internet meme, but their ubiquity elides the fact that there are far more places that simply lack the elements of accessible architecture altogether. This photo essay is related to the ongoing digital installation project DYTLI, based on the same ethnographic research.

What are we doing when we say Putin has Asperger’s Syndrome?

I am someone who thinks about disability and Russia for many hours of the day, most days. So, naturally, I paid attention when the social media world was suddenly flush with posts and tweets about the strange story that a US government report had speculated that Putin has an Autism Spectrum Disorder. This was a story that hit the trigger buttons for two constituencies that aren’t usually found together: the neurodiversity community, and Russian conspiracy theorists intent on documenting US Imperialism and incompetence.

After tracking down the report for myself (so middling, it’s hard to believe it was newsworthy) and surveying both the US and Russian popular responses, I wrote a thought piece for the medical anthropology blog Somatosphere.

While much of the critical response focused on what The Guardian called “the stupidity of psychological diagnosis from a distance,” or, via media footage, I found a different element worth considering. What happens to a diagnosis when cultural traits are pathologized using that diagnosis? And what happens to ethnic or national identities when cultural traits are pathologized? Is there something specific about scenarios in which both occur simultaneously?

You can read the full blog post on Somatosphere, here.

Citizen Diplomacy in times of Discomfort

As I prepared for my recent trip to Russia, many Americans were concerned with the timing of my trip, given recent events in Ukraine and the Crimea, with resulting diplomatic upheaval between the US/NATO/the EU and the Russian Federation. Others, less familiar with my work, commented (jokingly, I think) that it’s a good time to be an American spy! On the one hand, I bristle at the implication that all Americans interested in Russia must be spies. On the other hand, this type of comment offers the perfect opening to talk about the importance of citizen diplomacy.

The truth is that while I bill myself as an ethnographer of Russia, and my work focuses theoretically primarily on the social inclusion/exclusion of people with disabilities, actually, as an American citizen who spends long stretches of time living with and amongst average Russian citizens, I am also a citizen diplomat.

It’s easy, after years and years of Cold War rhetoric, for Americans to simply view Russia and Russians through the lens of national security and international competition. With so much of our news media discussion of Russia focused on international relations, economic sanctions, border conflicts, and critical reports on Putin’s leadership, or even spy scandals, the dominant lens through which most Americans view Russia is skewed toward the military, the high level negotiations, and clandestine intelligence. Compare this, for example, with our exposure to the goings on in Great Britain – we hear relatively little about scandals in Parliament, the corruption of the royal family, social unrest, or imperial ventures; instead, American news media focuses on British pop stars and athletes, hokey stereotypes about double-decker buses and tea-drinking, and reality TV breakout stars. The overall message that Americans get from mass media is that the Brits are just like us; meanwhile, the Russians are an oppressed, disempowered and undifferentiated mass subject to a corrupt kleptocracy led by power-hungry, territory-grabbing Putin.

Of course, this is false.

Russians have just as many pop stars and reality shows, and drink just as much tea, as the Brits. Like Americans, very few Russians are actually spies for their government – most are teachers or doctors or bus drivers or factory workers. It’s just that American media coverage of Russia does a very bad job of communicating this. Moreover, while Russians listen to American pop music, and can go and see Hollywood-made movies any day of the week, Americans have almost no exposure Russian pop culture (do you know who Kseniya Sobchak is?).

Point being, that while high level negotiations are of grave importance, we often forget that one of the most important “weapons” that the United States deployed during the opening of the Soviet Union in the 1980s was citizen diplomacy. As a form of soft power, citizen diplomacy relies on the idea that knowing actual people on a personal level allows citizens of two nations that might otherwise appear to be opposed to soften towards one another. Like Sting’s (now absurdist) nuclear disarmament lyrics, “I hope the Russians love their children too,” the thrust of citizen diplomacy is that non-military ties between average citizens promote peace and friendship on both the personal and international levels.

It is in this spirit that I forged ahead with my planned trip to Russia at the end of March, 2014, a moment when world media was reporting unresolved diplomatic crisis between out two countries. In an email to my mentor and visa-invitor, Larissa Dmitrievna Boichenko (a professor of international human rights and leader of the Gender Research Center in Petrozavodsk), prior to the trip I asked for her opinion about the planned travel, and wrote that, it seems that times of escalating discomfort on the international level only underline the need for the kinds of academic ties and citizen diplomacy that we share all the more.

With Russian Colleague Larissa Dmitrievna Boichenko

Cassandra Hartblay and Larissa Dmitrievna Boichenko in the lobby of the Northern Branch of The Russian Law Academy of the Russian Federation Ministry of Justice in Petrozavodsk.

In fact, it was citizen diplomacy that brought me to Petrozavodsk in the first place. I was a high school student at Amherst Regional High School in Massachusetts in 2002 when I participated in an on-going exchange program to Petrozavodsk. The program, begun in the early 1980s as part of the glasnost’ effort, and administered by the state department, began an ongoing series of exchanges between my high school, and it’s exchange sister, School Number 17, in Petrozavodsk. The exchange was successful and continued over many years in large part because of the determination and diplomatic efforts of our Russian teacher, Jude Wobst, and her counterparts in Petrozavodsk. I don’t know how many of those original exchange pairings remain intact, but it is certainly remarkable that the ARHS-School Number 17 relationship is now over twenty years old (contrast this with the sad state of the sister city relationship between my current city, Chapel Hill, NC and its Russian counterpart, for example).

The truth is, that while recent op-eds have bemoaned the lack of support for developing expertise in developing relationships with Russia and an awareness of Russian cultural ebbs and flows in the past twenty years, actually, a determined group of citizen diplomats (with support from under-acknowledged government agencies, like the Open World Leadership Center) has held steadfastly to this mission. In addition, Russian Studies and Russian Language programs at our nation’s universities have struggled to stay open and recruit majors, largely thanks to the efforts of determined and dedicated faculty (as someone who studied Russian in high school in the late 1990s, and in college in the 2000s, I literally never studied in a program that wasn’t under threat of being shutdown in the face of budget concerns or sudden fervor to start an Arabic program).

On my high school exchange program, I wasn’t the one who spoke Russian the best (not very well at all, in fact), or sang the best song at our intercultural talent show. But I have maintained ties with my host family to this day, and Masha, my host sister remains one of my closest friends.

I may not get to be a spy, but I do get to share twelve years of family memories with a dear friend who happens to hold a Russian passport.

In my work as an anthropologist, I get to repeat this process over and over again, as research participants and scholarly colleagues become first facebook buddies, then pals I see every other year or so, and even, eventually, close friends. Each time I leave Petrozavodsk, a different assortment of friends and acquaintances shows up on the platform at the train station, chocolate or snacks in hand, to bid me goodbye, and ask when I’ll next be back. It is my great privilege to be “nasha amerikanka” (our American) to this collection of Russian citizens, and the information that we share between us, about births, marriages, deaths, new jobs or favorite recipes and organic shampoo brands, may not be state secrets, but in the grand scheme of citizen diplomacy, they are certainly weighty indeed.


An photo from a scrapbook of the 1989-1990 ARHS-Petrozavodsk exchange (from Jude Wobst's archives).

An photo from a scrapbook of the 1989-1990 ARHS-Petrozavodsk exchange (from Jude Wobst’s archives).



Masha and her stepdaughter go for a walk near their home in Petrozavodsk, 2014. (Photo by C. Hartblay).

Masha and her stepdaughter go for a walk near their home in Petrozavodsk, 2014. (Photo by C. Hartblay).

My exchange sister Masha (center) and me (left) with a high school friend in Amherst during the 2002 exchange (personal archive).

My exchange sister Masha (center) and me (left) with a high school friend in Amherst during the 2002 exchange (personal archive).