Lillian Tzanev

Making connections

January 29, 2024


Senior Lillian Tzanev says her interests in religious and Russian studies initially “crept up” on her.

It started during an English class in high school with a unit on the Bible as literature. Then, during her first semester at Richmond, she read a variety of Russian literature in her First-Year Seminar, Crime and Punishment.

“Every essay, I would pick up on religious themes,” she says. “It convinced me I needed to take a religious studies class.”

The following semester, she took Saints and Sinners in Muslim Literature with Mimi Hanaoka, chair of religious studies, and a second FYS with religious studies professor Douglas Winiarski. By then, Tzanev was hooked and declared a double major in religious and Russian studies.

Tzanev is Bulgarian-American, from New York City, and much of her family follows Greek and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Her experiences — paired with the intersection of Russian and Orthodox churches — led to a natural curiosity about Eastern Orthodoxy.

“It felt like the religion where I could most use my specialties and knowledge,” she says. “And I do think it’s understudied, especially in America.”

Much like Tzanev first started noticing religious themes in everything she read, she soon began recognizing the influence of Orthodox theology in her Russian classes and readings.

“It’s a great subject for a liberal arts education,” she says. “Every class I take on this campus, I can somehow tie it back to my interests.”

She also started to look for opportunities to delve deeper into Eastern Orthodoxy.

As a sophomore, she received a Critical Language Scholarship sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and spent two months in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. There, she studied the Russian language and the Soviet Union’s influence on Central Asia, as well as the region’s roots in Russian Orthodoxy and Islam.

The following summer, she traveled to Bulgaria to conduct research under the guidance of Russian professor Yvonne Howell. Tzanev studied the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the role faith plays in societal issues.

While there, Tzanev spent a week in Turkey and Greece as one of the inaugural recipients of the Frank E. Eakin Jr. Fellowship offered by the Department of Religious Studies. Hanaoka says the fellowship allows students to tap into experiential learning opportunities that support their interests.

“That might be going to archives and museums, it might be going to graveyards, it might be a domestic trip,” Hanaoka says. “It’s challenging for us to offer opportunities beyond the classroom in a large-scale way. We’re deliberately open to students following their passions and, ideally, building on something they’ve studied, whether that’s a methodology, a religious tradition, or a phenomenon."

Tzanev traveled to Istanbul, Athens, Heraklion, and Thessaloniki and visited museums and historical sites. Among the highlights were a brief meeting with the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a visit to the Museum of Jewish History in Thessaloniki.

“It was important to witness, with my own eyes, this place that has thousands of years of history and conflict, she says. “It enriched my understanding of the colonial history of the Ottoman Empire and the different ways government, nationality, and ethnicity play a role in how binding a faith can be.”