Alumni Spotlight Interview: Andrew Janco, Human Rights Post-Doctoral Lecturer

Over the past 15 years, Human Rights Program alumni have included practitioners and academics who work across a broad spectrum of human rights issues. Our Alumni Spotlight feature highlights and recognizes their important contributions to both domestic and international human rights work.

For our second Alumni Spotlight, we interviewed Andrew Janco to learn more about his scholarship and research interests:

Andrew Janco is currently a Post-Doctoral Lecturer in Human Rights at the University of Chicago. His work focuses on the history of warfare, displacement and human rights protections for refugees. Janco is an alumnus of the College (AB’01 with honors) and received his M.A. from the University of Toronto and his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 2012. He is a recipient of the Fulbright–Hays Dissertation Research Abroad Scholarship, IREX IARO as well as the FLAS (Title IV) Fellowship in Eastern European and Eurasian Studies. He is also the author of several published works, including an article that is forthcoming in Contemporary European History that was researched with support from the Human Rights Program. Janco is also an Assistant Managing Editor for Russian Studies Dissertation Reviews. More information about his academic and professional work can be found here.

What initially peeked your interest in studying humanitarianism, refugee rights and Eastern Europe?

My interested in Russian History goes back very far. I went to a Montessori school and was given free reign to study what I liked. I chose to write little reports on lichen and Soviet cosmonauts. When I enrolled in the College, I was no longer interested in lichen, so there wasn’t any question of what I wanted to do. I enrolled in a course with Sheila Fitzpatrick and was hooked.  As a Ph.D. student, I took courses with Michael Geyer and defended an oral field in Modern Europe. From works by Hannah Arendt, Eugene Kulischer and others I became interested in the issues of statelessness and displacement. The Human Rights Program gave me the opportunity to develop that interest in a course on “War and Population Displacement in Twentieth Century Europe.” I wrote an encyclopedia article based on that experience. For me it’s a wonderful bridge between my interest in Russian history, international history and the history of human rights. Stateless Russians and Armenians were the first groups to receive international protections as refugees. The Soviet Union was central to the later development of human rights norms and the development of the human rights movement in the 1970s. As a field, human rights allow me to draw on my area expertise to participate in exciting international and interdisciplinary debates. This was evident in our conference on forced migration last fall and the upcoming conference on the “Crisis of Humanitarianism” in April.              

Can you describe the experience of returning back to teach at the University of Chicago after graduating from the College only a few years ago?

I’ve been at the University of Chicago for 17 years. That’s nearly half of my entire life. I don’t really feel that I "returned back” to the College, it’s more like I never left and it’s all been part of one “life cycle." While most of my College friends graduated in 2001, I’ve had a chance to come full circle and have a complete experience. I’ve seen the College as a student, a graduate teacher and as a lecturer. I’ve gotten to see things that most people don’t get to see. I’ve gone from being one student in a class to working with the entire class as an instructor. I’ve gone from parties in the Pepperland to receptions for the Provost. I look at buildings and I remember when the Booth School was a dorm and when the First Unitarian Church had a steeple. It’s the first time I’ve ever had that kind of history with a place. The College has been a wonderful home and I am proud of how it has evolved and nurtured me.    

Many of the courses you’ve taught have centered on historical accounts of forced migration. Given your background and research, how should historical examples of forced migration shape how we understand contemporary discussions about geographically displaced communities?

Anyone studying the history of forced migration will tell you that the first responses were very ad hoc. Aid organizations went from crisis to crisis with little awareness of what had been done in the past. Since the 1980s, however, that has really changed. Refugee and Forced Migration studies are strong academic fields with a good track record of collaboration with NGOs and aid agencies. I appreciate that work, but I associate myself more with recent critical histories of human rights and humanitarianism.  As a scholar, I agree with Didier Fassin that I am best able to help throughout critical thinking and observation as an outsider.         

This year’s Winter Olympics have provided international spotlight on many of the human rights challenges confronting Russia. Given your research on Russia’s human rights challenges, what would you like to see added to that conversation?

This is hard to answer, which is why I’m teaching an entire course on human rights in Russia and Eurasia. I think it’s important to think historically and remember that human rights emerged after World War II in an effort to preserve the wartime alliance and establish a lasting peace. The UN and human rights initially offered a common language and forum for cooperation. But as Ilya Gaiduk has recently documented, the UN quickly became a hostile environment for the Soviet Union. As human rights became increasingly central to U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s, the Soviet government began to view human rights as a foreign political ideology and an area for Cold War conflict. That view continues to inform how many Russians think about human rights. Particularly after the 1990s, most Russians think of human rights work as a foreign intervention that is contrary to the traditional role of the state in Russia and its customs of rights and duties. Much work needs to be done to enable Russian voluntary and humanitarian groups to help people to cope with the pressing issues of dignity, health and violence in Russian society. They need to address these issues on their own terms and in their own ways.  Diplomatic pressure on human rights issues is vital. For the moment, however, I’d say that this is more a time to listen to needs rather than to pressure Russians on human rights. Until rights norms become a meaningful and effective guide for reform, they will only be seen as impractical ideas promoted by outsiders who struggle to live up to their own ideals.               

What work/projects are you currently engaged with and what are some of the things you look forward to working on in the future?

Given the energy behind the “Crisis of Humanitarianism” project, I am very interested in the history of humanitarianism. I am planning a book that will build on recent works by Didier Fassin, Michael Barnett and others to study the history of humanitarian ethics and war.

I’ve visited the University of Connecticut Human Rights Institute several times this year and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to continue working on this project at UConn. The director of the HRI also has a Chechnya Memory Project. This involves interviews with refugees from the wars in Chechnya most of whom currently live in Europe. This is an exciting project and I hope to help in some manner or another.