I am a historian of the United States and the Soviet Union.
My dissertation is a comparative history of the death penalty in the United States and the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1991. By the end of the Second World War, the death penalty began to disappear from penal codes in Western Europe, Latin America, and parts of Southeast Asia. Curiously, this pattern did not hold in the United States and the Soviet Union, the two “superpower” countries, each of which boasted of possessing the most objective, legitimate, and humane system of justice in the modern world. Unlike innovations like human rights and anti-torture legislation, death penalty abolition was one of those rare trends to emerge during the Cold War years that neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. eagerly embraced. Instead, both countries continued to turn to capital punishment to rid their societies of a wide range of criminal types whose danger to the American and Soviet ways of life came to be articulated by a diverse group of actors, including public prosecutors, supreme courts, legal experts, and ordinary citizens. Despite the efforts put forth by anti-death penalty advocates, as well as brief experiments in abolition, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. retained capital punishment and found new ways to justify its existence. As a result, both countries became outliers, rather than innovators, in a world rapidly disavowing state violence.
My project seeks to explain this paradox by offering the first study of the postwar death penalty in the United States and the Soviet Union as experienced by the people and institutions most directly involved in its implementation. I focus on the voices of ordinary people – of the accused and their defense counsel, the victim and their friends and families, local communities and the prosecutors charged with protecting them, death penalty abolitionists and death penalty advocates – whose stories have yet to be told. My goal is to place their experiences front and center, to take a story oftentimes told from the top down and reconstruct how it unfolded on the ground in two seemingly distinct ideological contexts. Recovering human agency within the death penalty’s peculiar history in these two self-proclaimed “model societies” will reveal the tangible effects that it had on the lives of American and Soviet citizens. It will also show how those effects lent legitimacy to or discredited the death penalty as an institution, and the states that upheld it, over time.
When I'm not researching or writing my dissertation, I enjoy freelance writing for non-academic media outlets, running marathons, and brainstorming ideas for an article-length think piece about my life as a first generation Russian-American. You can find me on Twitter at @yanareads.