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Martha Brill Olcott, leading scholar in central-Asia and post-Soviet politics, dies at 74

February 16, 2024
Martha Brill Olcott speaks to a class at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies on Tuesday, April 12, 2011. Photo from The Ohio State University.
Martha Brill Olcott speaks to a class at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies on Tuesday, April 12, 2011. Photo from The Ohio State University. —

Martha Brill Olcott, 74, a professor in the James Madison College, died on Feb. 5 in her home surrounded by family. Olcott was a leading scholar with a breadth of knowledge and involvement in nationality issues in Central Asia and the USSR as well as Muslim studies.

The news of Olcott’s passing was sent out in an email on behalf of JMC Dean Cameron Thies on Thursday, Feb. 8. The email offered condolences to Olcott’s family and called her “an especially fine mentor.”

Prior to working at MSU, Olcott taught at Colgate University from 1974 to 2002 and served as a consultant to former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. She was also named as a Director of the Central Asian American Enterprise Fund by former president Bill Clinton.

Over the span of her career, Olcott penned a variety of books, including “Kazakhstan: Unfulfilled Promise," a book that examines the development of the nation as well as the ways in which it interacts with the United States.

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Headshot of Martha Brill Olcott. Photo from MSU's James Madison College directory.

JMC Associate Dean for Research Robert Brathwaite recalled an instance where, while at a teaching workshop, a former acting CIA director said Olcott was the person that the United States government turned to for expertise on central Asia in the post 9/11 era.

Her expertise and experience eventually led her to a position as a senior associate of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she worked with former dean of James Madison College Sherman Garnett, another senior associate

It was there that they got to know each other quite well, doing programs together in Moscow and Washington, Garnett said.

“She invited me to things that were in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and all those places I'd never been before," Garnett said

Beyond just colleagues, Garnett and Olcott were friends.

Garnett became the dean of James Madison College in 1999, but he said it wasn’t until around 2011 that Olcott came to MSU for two weeks to do work on Central Asia while Garnett was teaching a course on post-Soviet foreign policy

Garnett said that around this time, Olcott was looking for a place to work half-time, hoping to teach more and do work similar to the work the two of them were doing at the Carnegie Endowment. The result was a three-year appointment to teach at MSU, which was later renewed in 2016.

But Olcott’s status as a non-full-time faculty member didn’t stop her from making large contributions to the university. According to Garnett, Olcott donated to MSU and attracted a number of students who were interested in studying central Asian regions, assisting them in finding internships and scholarships.

Olcott also had a large role in The Living Archive, a grant-funded JMC digital archive that preserves Soviet-era newspapers, political pamphlets, videos and personal papers. The goal of the project was to better understand the factors that led to the USSR falling apart.

“Professor Olcott had unbelievable connections and a wealth of knowledge about the region,” Brathwaite said.

Students were at the center of the project, Brathwaite said. The archive gave students "the types of professional experiences that they can build as they graduate and start thinking about other types of careers that would be useful," Brathwaite said

Brathwaite recalled another instance where Olcott gave up her office so it could serve as a workspace for students to work on the archive.

He added that there are a good number of professors and students who are still very passionate about the project, meaning that it will continue to be worked on despite Olcott’s passing.

“Really up until the end, she was a major scholar and commentator on that part of the world,” Garnett said. “So, for me, it was just great to have a friend contribute to Madison while I was dean.”

Beyond JMC, Olcott also had a profound impact on the Muslim Studies program at MSU. Under her leadership, the program was able to receive two major Templeton Religion Trust grants, Director of the Muslim Studies Program Mohammad Khalil said in an email to The State News.

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Khalil, who was in Morocco meeting with experts for a conference related to the grant when he learned of Olcott’s passing, said the most recent of the grants amounted to over $1 million.

“Professor Olcott will certainly be missed,” he said.

According to the college-wide email from the dean, a celebration of Olcott’s contributions to Eurasian and Muslim studies is being planned for late spring or early summer

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