BY PETER DORFMAN
Tristra Newyear Yeager admits these are peculiar times for an admirer of Russian culture. But while American and Russian politicians carry on their geopolitical rivalry, Yeager says both countries have a heartland where the people have more in common than they probably realize.
Yeager, 43, speaks from experience. Not only has she lived in Russia during both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, she also earned a Ph.D. in Central Eurasian studies from Indiana University, specializing in Siberian and Mongolian history.
“New York City is not America, and Moscow is not Russia,” Yeager points out. “In smaller cities, like the places where I did my dissertation research, people like to go outside, pick berries, light a fire, and grill some meat. Russian and American rednecks would have a blast together.”
Yeager grew up in a Kansas City, Missouri, suburb hearing about the Soviet “evil empire.” She remembers TV news footage of miserable-looking Russians in gray coats. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why are they evil?’” she says. “To me, they just looked a little grumpy.”
In high school, she had the opportunity to travel to the U.S.S.R. “We went to Moscow; Leningrad; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which was under martial law,” Yeager says. “The Red Army was patrolling Dushanbe in tanks. It was eye opening for a 16-year-old girl from the Midwest.”
After learning Russian at Wesleyan University, Yeager lived in Russia in the mid-1990s, teaching English and performing in a basement theater. It was a fun, bohemian existence, she says. She came to IU in 1996 to study Mongolian and Buryat (a language from the Lake Baikal region). “I got a Ph.D. because I was hooked on the history and culture,” she says. In the early 2000s, Yeager went back to Russia and worked as an editor at The Moscow Times, an expatriate newspaper. She stayed a year, then returned to the U.S. and married a native Bloomingtonian. They have two sons.
Now a writer and strategist for Rock Paper Scissors, a Bloomington public relations agency, Yeager recently self-published a historical fantasy novel, The Tomb and The Stone, under the pen name T.
Newyear. The novel offers a glimpse of 19th-century Siberian life.
Her sources were the writings of minor nobles exiled to Siberia after palace intrigues. “They were fascinating, literate people who created their own society,” Yeager says. “I read their letters in published collections at the IU Wells Library, and they brought me to tears.”