Vera Mironova: A Scholar at the Frontlines of War

Mironova’s work takes her to the center of war. A scholar of armed conflict, she has embedded with military units around the world, including in Iraq and Ukraine.


{shortcode-b1216a5e2f3bed7ad21d0833d2c28071349dad36}era Mironova was walking through the streets of Mosul with an Iraqi Special Forces unit when she heard the gunfire of a sniper. She jumped behind a car to shield herself from the bullets — and landed on the dead body of an ISIS fighter. “They called him my boyfriend,” she says, chuckling.

Mironova’s work takes her to the center of war. A scholar of armed conflict, she has embedded with military units around the world, including in Iraq and Ukraine. She has interviewed hundreds of members of terrorist groups like ISIS, as well as civilians, to understand violence, public opinion, and ideology in war zones. Since 2018, Mironova has held a fellowship at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

“The goal of my scholarship would be to better understand war through individual behavior in conflict,” she says.

Mironova does not remember a time when she was not interested in war. When she was 10 years old, Mironova brought a biography of Hitler on a family vacation to the beach. “My dad would ask me to cover up the book,” Mironova says, laughing.

Mironova’s early fascination with war originated from its dissimilarity to her life. “War is a new environment of existence, because we exist in peace,” she says.

When she graduated from high school, Mironova saw three potential options to work in war: study medicine, join the army, or research armed conflicts through academia. But she did not care for medicine and refused to serve an increasingly authoritarian Russian government as a soldier. With few options, Mironova enrolled in the applied mathematics program at Moscow State University. During summer breaks, she flew to the United States to stay with relatives. There, she saved up money for the school year by waitressing and working at motels.

After graduating at the top of her class in Moscow, Mironova moved to Stony Brook, Long Island to pursue a doctorate degree in game theory.

After two years, Mironova not only realized that she would be able to financially support herself in the United States, but also that she could pursue academia without facing discrimination based on her nationality and gender, as she had feared. Mironova decided to transfer to the University of Maryland for a doctoral program in conflict studies.

But after joining the Ph.D. program, Mironova realized that scholars were not doing the immersive fieldwork in conflict zones that she had long anticipated. “There were some papers when they would say, ‘So and so would happen, and we assume that fighters wanted this,’” Mironova says. “‘I was like, ‘What do you mean, you assume that fighters wanted this? They’re not like dolphins or something. Let’s go and ask.’ And a professor was like, ‘Yeah, but it’s impossible.’ Like, why?”

“Why? They are people. If they’re people, they could talk. If they could talk, we could ask, right?” she adds.

At this point during her doctoral program, Mironova began distancing herself from the university to pursue her dissertation research into Syrian ISIS fighters. She sensed that her advisors would dismiss her research as too dangerous. “Absolutely no one did this fieldwork when I was doing it,” she says. “My advisor did not know what I was working on till I finished working on it. My prospectus was absolutely different, because no one believed that it could be possible, including me. I didn’t believe it was possible.”

In 2014, amid the country’s civil war, Mironova used her own savings to fly to Syria. “I didn’t apply for grants on purpose,” she says. “If there is a war, you need to fly there the next day.

“No granting agency was set up for that,” she adds. “So of course, I was always using my own money.”

Since her dissertation research in Syria, Mironova has continued to conduct independent fieldwork in conflict zones around the world. Sometimes she flies into an area to interview locals. Other times she seeks permission from military leaders to embed with armed forces, in which she lives and takes her meals with a military unit. When they go on operations, she follows.

Mironova says that she earns a military unit’s trust mission by mission. When she holds her own during routine operations, commanders allow Mironova to observe more intense missions. “You just become part of it, they kind of see you as a puppy of the unit,” she says.

I ask Mironova how quickly her fieldwork desensitized her to death and dying. “No, death and dying is different things,” she says. “Because dying is something you see alive and then he is dead. And you know, it’s a different story. But dead is something that is laying very inconvenient down the street.”

Mironova then tells a story about her unit crossing a street in Mosul, which was slicked with the remains of an exploded corpse. The street was so narrow, she needed to step over the corpse in order to move forward. “He was just laying there and I’m like, ‘I couldn’t do it.’ And they were like, ‘Okay, you actually have to because we’re not sure this place we’re standing in happens to be safe, you know that right?’”

The soldiers in her unit told her that she could either move forward or join the corpse where it lay. “So I just stepped over him,” Mironova says. “That was really hard.”

Mironova is silent for a moment. “I have a picture of him,” she adds. She pauses again before clarifying that she took a picture of the road for someone she was messaging. The corpse was in the picture.

Through her fieldwork, Mironova says, she has not only acclimated to death, but accepted violent conflicts as an inevitability.

“I think it’s absolutely unavoidable,” she says. “It’s not about seeing dead people, it’s about working on conflicts. I don’t think we could ever have decency in the world.”

Mironova’s acceptance of violence allows her to accept its perpetrators for who they are. “They are military units,” she says in a voice message. “The violence is basically their job.”

Though her fieldwork puzzles many around her, Mironova believes scholarship on the frontlines of war is no different from the work of other professions.

“I don’t see a problem with ethics of being embedded with military units, journalists do it all the time,“ she says. “I’m trying to follow the same as journalists do, the same ethics, the same procedures.”

Yet even as Mironova admits the risks and hardships of her work, she believes it to be fair game for academics. “It’s super dangerous and emotional and everything,” she says. “Everyone is saying, ‘Why would you do it?’ But then on the other side, look at U.S. military, or any military for that matter. They see absolutely the same thing I do.”

“Why do people assume that if you’re a Ph.D. and a professor you could not do it?”

— Magazine Editor-at-Large Jade Lozada can be reached at