By Ivan Cherniakov (PhD Student, Art History)

How does citizenship function in an empire? How do different citizenship regimes shape populations in their borderlands? These were the questions that Griffin Creech—the recipient of the 2023 Fisher Fellow Award—discussed in his talk “Buriats Beyond Borders: Making and Unmaking Multi-Layered Citizens in the Russia-Mongolia Borderlands, 1890-1938” on June 27. Creech is a PhD candidate in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of History. Before graduate school, Creech spent four years living, studying, and working in Mongolia and Russia, including a stint with the United States Peace Corps in northeastern Mongolia.

Creech’s research focuses on the Buriats, the indigenous population in the Russia-Mongolia borderlands in the Baikal region. Working with archival sources in Buriat, Mongolian, and Russian, Creech tracks different formations of citizenship among the Buriat population over three chronological periods. The first period covers the interactions of the Buriats as a colonized subject with the politics of the Russian Empire. It is followed by the Buriats’ reaction to the collapse of the empire in 1917—the rise of Buriat nationalism and pan-Mongolism—as well as the start of cross-border migration of the Buriats to Mongolia. Finally, the last period of Creech’s research starts with the formation of the Mongolian Socialist State and the Buriat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in the Soviet Union, followed by the increasing migration of the Buriats between the two states. Creech investigates how the Buriats interacted with both of these political regimes and their politics of nation-building, such as korenizatsiia (cultural and political integration and patronizing of national minorities) in the Soviet Union or the offer of citizenship to the Buriats in the Mongolian Socialist State. In addition, with the rise of anti-spy and nationalist narratives in the late 30s, the Buriat population suffered severe purges on both sides of the border.

Drawing on conceptualizations of citizenship in the works of such authors as Jane Burbank, Frederick Cooper, Nira Yuval-Davis and Willem Mass, Creech argues that the Buriats’ case disproves the common association of citizenship regimes exclusively with liberal democracy and nation-states. The Buriats’ social and political history demonstrates that the notion of citizenship likewise applies to populations of empires and borderlands. Rather than being historically default and stable, the Buriats’ citizenship emerges and constantly transforms through their ongoing negotiation and interaction with different state regimes in the borderland setting.

Creech’s talk was an overview of his dissertation project currently in progress. Creech shared his plans for the upcoming year to continue doing research with archival sources in Mongolia, Finland, and the United States as a Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellow.

A recording of Creech's talk will be made available by request for a limited time. If you are interested in receiving a temporary link to a recording of his talk, please fill out this form and REEEC staff will contact you with additional details.


Ivan Cherniakov is a PhD student in the Department of Art History, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and a summer graduate assistant at REEEC. His research interests include modern art from a transnational perspective and representation of animals in the Soviet avant-garde and visual culture.