Kelly O'Neill is a historian of Russia. Her research and teaching interests concentrate on the evolution of the tsarist empire, and particularly on the social, cultural, and spatial implications of imperial rule. She teaches courses on the life and reign of Empress Catherine II, on various aspects of the formation of the multiethnic state, and on the place of Russia in the contemporary cultural and political landscape. She also teaches an introduction to digital history and, as of 2016, a course on the history of maps.
Her first book, Claiming Crimea: A History of Catherine the Greats's Southern Empire, reconstructs the incorporation of the peoples, places, and institutions of the Crimean Khanate (a predominantly Muslim state conquered by Catherine II in 1783) into the Russian imperial system. The book challenges the binary terms in which imperial rule has traditionally been understood - i.e., the language of center and periphery - and reveals a more complex, more flexible spatial framework. Her work on Crimea has engendered a deep and abiding interest in the Black Sea world, leading her to projects on the Black Sea slave trade and the development of the Russian wine industry. Her second book project, tentatively titled Bounty: Maritime Trade and Economies of Place in the Russian Empire, studies the impact of the state's push to join the maritime world on the management of natural resources - above all, trees - and the emergence of new "place-based" economies in the Black Sea region and beyond.
In addition, O'Neill directs the Imperiia Project - a historical GIS of the Russian Empire. Through this project, in collaboration with a group of graduate students and undergraduates as well as GIS specialists at the Center for Geographic Analysis, she is in the process of producing a thick set of interactive map layers describing Russia's cultural and commercial infrastructure for the purposes of teaching and research.