Studying Russian in Saint Petersburg
My funding also permitted me to travel to Moscow for a short stay, to see the sights and conduct some of my personal historical research. Later in the summer I travelled to Prague, Berlin, and Amsterdam on my own dime to further research Cold War history.
How will this experience help you in your job search and career?
While being part of the Security Studies program is a huge boost my career prospects, having foreign language experience is essentially a requirement for individuals in our field. Because I have experience in Cold War history, Russian was always my language of interest, to many of my past advisers’ consternation. They suggested that I take a more strategically significant language, such as Chinese, Arabic or Farsi, instead. Recent events have borne out my study of Russian, however. Furthering my Russian knowledge is a key component of advancing my attractiveness to employers both inside and outside the government.
Traveling to Russia also served the dual purpose of allowing me to obtain a basic, on-the-ground understanding of conditions within Russia and the Russian mentality, particularly at a time during which the West in increasingly becoming alienated from Russia. While this is harder to quantify in terms of a resume, I find it invaluable to my ability to analyze and understand Russian behavior. There is something intangible about being able to live and work around a people for a significant period of time that grants some inexplicable understanding of their problems, mentality, and views. Traveling to Saint Petersburg developed this sense for me, complimenting my study of Russian history and language with a real-world component.
Did anything surprise you?
While I believed I had a strong understanding of the culture, country, and people before traveling to Russia, nothing can fully prepare one of the experience of being in a world that is so totally different from the West in its traditions, mentality, and outlook. Traveling to Europe is all well and good, but something familiar remains in these places because of the shared cultural and philosophical trends which link America to the so-called “West.” On a previous trip I spent time in Turkey, and traveling to Russia reminded me of just how surprising it can be to be in a totally different part of the world – one that has developed different traditions, has experienced a far different history, and thus has entirely different reactions to standard impulses.
Winston Churchill once called Russia “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
I was surprised to find out how much this is still the case. Certainly, during communism, it makes sense that the East and the West would find each other alien and confusing, but my time in Russia illustrated that the differences are far deeper than that alone. Even throughout the 17 and 1800s, Europeans visiting Russia found the mix of familiar, European cities and strange, eastern cultures completely vexing – as did I, visiting in 2015. None of the differences are on the surface – they tend to be deeply set and hard to put one’s finger on. Nonetheless, I left Russia with a clear sense of just how important deep-rooted historical and cultural trends can be in informing the modern mindset of a nation.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from this experience?
Upon getting to know some Russians, I was interested in how they framed their view of the world and of global politics. I have known Turks, Greeks, Dutch and others of various nationalities before, and all describe the world and events taking place in it with a far less active sense of agency. In America, talk about the world often centers around “what we should be doing” or “how America can influence” events. In these other countries, this sense of power and responsibility was notably absent. I was surprised, then, to notice similar senses of global involvement in the Russians I spoke to. While we might not agree on the solutions to many world problems, the Russians I spoke with tended to view the same global issues as legitimate foreign policy issues for Russia to consider, in a way I haven’t encountered anywhere else but in America (and, to some extent, Germany). Perhaps this is the Russian legacy as a great power speaking, but I genuinely think that by maintaining this outward focus, Russia guarantees herself a spot on the world stage as a player for some time to come.
With that being said, I also noticed that Russian worldviews can be breathtakingly different from those commonly held in America. Partly this is because they have had a vastly different historical experience in the world, and partly it is because of the influence of the state-directed narrative. Russia enjoyed very little dissent, whether in the press, on the streets, or in the minds of those I spoke to. The official narrative is often recognized by the people as such, but the lack of credible alternatives means that even if one rejects the state line on issues initially there is little other information which can substitute for it. The official narrative in Russia enjoys such depth, breadth, and volume that eventually parts of it seep into the realm of accepted fact, something I found troubling. Notably, nearly every Russian I asked agreed that Ukraine had always been a natural part of Russia, and that things in Ukraine when the territory was separated from Russia in the past had always been far worse than when Russia was in control. Perhaps these things are true – perhaps they aren’t – but the lack of any variation on the same theme from tens of educated Russians I spoke to was troubling.