Professor of History, Yale University (Fall 2006)
Area of Research: East European history
Education: Ph.D., University of Oxford, 1997
Major Publications: Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist's Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine (Yale University Press, 2005); The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (Yale University Press, 2003); and Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe: A Biography of Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz (Harvard University Press, 1998); Co-editor of Wall Around the West: State Power and Immigration Controls in Europe and North America (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). Snyder has one book currently in progress; Brotherlands: A Family History of the Slavic, German, and Jewish Nations.
Awards: Nationalism, Marxism, and Modern Central Europe was awarded the Oskar Halecki Prize for Outstanding Work of Polish or East European History from the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences. The Reconstruction of Nations won the American Historical Association's 2003 George Louis Beer Prize. Postdoctoral fellowships include; The American Council of Learned Societies, Harvard University; IREX fellow at the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw; and The Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University.
"The Stolen Dissertation" (C) Timothy Snyder, 2005
Someone (I know who) stole all of my dissertation research in New Haven, Connecticut, in May 1993.
I had been living for months in Poland, visiting libraries and archives, accumulating files on a Macintosh laptop that I carried with me everyhere in a black leather backpack. My digs in Warsaw were in a skanky dormitory which boasted more standing than running water, and had rusty locks on the doors. Every night I slept with my backpack by my head, lest someone should break in to steal the computer.
My brother Phil was graduating from Yale that spring, so I flew back for the ceremony, bringing with me all the possessions that mattered: the computer, my backup disks, and a Banana Republic weekend jacket, all in the black backpack. As I was helping to move Phil's things to the family van, I noticed that my backpack had disappeared from his room. Feeling safe with family in my own country, I had let down my guard! Phil and I ran off in the two most likely directions, on the New Haven streets that he knew pretty well, looking for someone carrying a black backpack. My youngest brother Mike called the police.
When the police came, they asked my mother whether she wanted to prosecute the thief or recover the backpack. She chose the latter. The police officer then drove my mother to a pawn shop. Though scarcely twenty minutes had passed since the theft, my computer was there on a shelf. "Oh," said my mother to the proprietor, "how much do you want for that computer?" He said he had paid $50 for it. Then she asked, "You wouldn't happen to have a backpack, would you?" The proprietor produced mine from under the counter, saying that someone who owed him $20 had given it to him as payment. Then my mother looked him up and down. "Nice coat," said she. He said she could have it for another $20. My mother redeemed my scholarly future (and my Banana Republic weekend jacket) for ninety bucks in a pawn shop.
When I came back from running around New Haven, breathless and upset, I found my mother and the police officer standing outside Phil's room, the officer holding the computer. "Can you identify this?" he asked. I told him that the hard disk drive was named "nosic," a Polish verb for carry. This seemed to suffice. By then my family and I were ready to leave, really ready to leave. We piled into my parents' big Chevrolet van. When the side door had slammed shut, my father began to wonder aloud about the arrangement between the police and the pawn shops. We had something to think about.
What does this teach us about young historians -- besides that they should back up their data in separate places and never keep all of the copies in one backpack that might be stolen and sold for quick money to buy crack? As I was running around New Haven that day, there were two sounds in my head. One was that of my feet pounding the pavement. The other was that of an inner voice, already reconciling me with reality. It said: "that research took three years to do; but I bet I could redo it in two years." If I had lost the research for good, I probably would have started again -- but then the dissertation would have been different, based on another review of the sources, written by an older and altered person. Many other changes in life would no doubt have followed that one.
Much hung on that absurd moment. Yet how easy it is to make a coherent narrative of my academic career without it! Brown, Oxford, eastern Europe, Yale, scholarships, books, awards -- what need for the detail of a transaction in a New Haven pawn shop to tell the story? That tawdry event makes the official story possible, then the official story returns the favor by excluding the tawdry event.
The recovery of my research was one those turning points, free of intentions and grandeur, easily forgotten later, invisible to everyone but those closest to the events, and visible then only if those present are ready to be surprised. (My mother, the heroine of this story, actually filmed the thief on a video camera, but did not realize this at the time, since in her mind she was filming Phil's graduation day.) It is a great pleasure and necessity, I think, that in our work we get close enough to the sources to see such things, that we learn to catch and release these little contingencies. They are out of the reach of our teachers, our theories, and our hypotheses -- but they are there, in our sources, and in our work, when the work is done well, when the story is told right.
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