Sonja Luehrmann

19752019

A woman with short brown hair looks straight ahead. She is wearing a gold necklace with pendant and a v-neck navy blouseSonja Luehrmann, anthropologist, historian, and associate professor at Simon Fraser University passed away on August 24, 2019.

Luehrmann began her studies in Germany. Early on, she focused on topics that would become central to her wide-ranging, prodigious, brilliant, and yet all-too-brief scholarly career, especially the politics of religious and cultural difference as well as the contested and shifting meanings of history. While Luehrmann’s specific topics would change, from indigeneity to internet matchmaking to secularism, prayer, and abortion, the one consistent theme was her in-depth engagement with Russian empire, tracing its geographical and historical reach before, during, and after the Soviet period.

In Frankfurt am Main Luehrmann conducted her first ethnographic research with an Orthodox Russian congregation engaging in mission work abroad (1996–1997). This was followed by two consecutive summers as a research fellow at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage, Alaska, after which she went on to earn an MA with distinction in cultural anthropology from Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt in 2000. Luehrmann later published her MA thesis with University of Alaska Press as Alutiiq Villages Under Russian and US Rule (2008). With this book, the first of three she would publish over the ensuing decade, Luehrmann showed an interest in Russian political history, especially its paradoxical mediation of identity, experience, and difference in the present. Also readily apparent in this early work is an incredible aptitude for combining historical and anthropological sources of evidence in compelling and original accounts of past and present.

From these impressive beginnings, Luehrmann entered the doctoral program in anthropology and history at the University of Michigan in 2002. Supervised by Alaina Lemon, Webb Keane, William Rosenberg, and Douglas Northrop, her 2009 dissertation drew on historical and ethnographic research in the Volga region of Russia. This study of Soviet atheism and its relationship with the post-Soviet religious revival among Christians, Muslims, pagans, and others became the basis for Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic (2011, Indiana University Press). In this book, and elsewhere in her research and writing, Luehrmann made connections across historical and conceptual divides. The secular was not merely affiliated with liberal modernity, nor was it unrelated to the emergence of post-Soviet religious movements, which relied on how Soviet life had taught Mari to imagine and create new futures.

In subsequent work, Luehrmann continued to explore ethnographic and archival evidence of religion and antireligion in tension, especially with research on antiabortion activism in the Russian Orthodox Church, which included observing pregnancy consultation centers, pilgrimage sites, and archives throughout Russia. The methodological problem of Soviet era interest in documenting the “puzzle” of religious life became the subject of her third book Religion in Secular Archives: Soviet Atheism and Historical Knowledge (2015, Oxford University Press). Finally, as principal investigator for a Social Science Research Council-funded, global research project on Eastern Christianity, she developed the edited volume Praying with the Senses (2018, Indiana University Press).

Sonja Luehrmann is survived by her three children; her husband, historian Ilya Vinkovetsky; and extended family in Germany. She will be sorely missed. (Joshua Reno)

Comments

It is with great sorrow and regret that I have learned of the passing of Sonja Luehrmann at a much too early age. I last met her at the AAA in 2018 in San Jose, CA, at a time at which we both eagerly anticipated this year’s Annual Meeting of the AAA/CASCA in her adopted home city of Vancouver, Canada. For me, Sonja embodied anthropology and anthropologists at their best; generous to a fault with those less distinguished and merited than herself; and deeply committed to exploring the lives and times of her informants in all their depth and nuances. Her impressive body of scholarly work will live on. My sincere condolences to her family and friends in Germany, Canada, the USA and Russia.

The Canadian Anthropology Society/Société canadienne d’anthropologie (CASCA) recently sent a message to our membership extending our deepest condolences to Dr. Luehrmann’s family, friends, and colleagues. (These comments are taken from that message.) AAA colleagues may not know that Dr. Luehrmann was appointed as the Editor-in-Chief of CASCA’s flagship journal, Anthropologica, in 2018. She provided dedicated leadership, enhancing the vitality and relevance of the journal as well as overseeing its daily operations.

In the short time that the CASCA Executive had the honour of working with Sonja, we were struck by her commitment to anthropological excellence and professional collegiality, and we were inspired by her generosity and selflessness. A tribute to Dr. Luehrmann’s work will be included in CASCA’s program at the AAA-CASCA conference in November, 2019. We will circulate information about this in due course.

When Sonja approached me at a recent AAA meeting and told me of her illness, I was totally shocked. Students are not supposed to die before their teachers! Sonja took courses with me at the University of Michigan and enlivened every session with her contributions. She was deeply thoughtful, a brilliant student, and a charming presence. With her book Secularism Soviet Style she offered a superb ethnography on a rarely treated topic. I had been looking forward to more wonderful work and collegial affection, and I’m very sad that she’s gone.

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