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“PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN”

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 11/05/2015 Comments Off on “PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN” |

behind the curtain

Russia holds an interesting place in the American imagination—a country viewed suspiciously by many through the lens of Cold War rivalries. One student put her graduation on hold in order to learn more about this world and better understand its differences and its commonalities.

by Kathleen Holden, class of ’15 • from the College of Charleston Magazine • Oct. 21, 2015

I CAME TO THE COLLEGE knowing one thing: I was not going to take Spanish for my language requirement. Not ever. I took Spanish for three years in high school and still can’t even ask where the bathroom is.

Luckily, I had plenty of choices here, including Hindi and Russian. I have always had an interest in Russia; something about how big and far away it is always intrigued me. So, my first semester, I took Professor Oksana Ingle’s course, Window Into Russia, and fell in love with the Russian people and their culture. Coincidently, I found a language requirement that wasn’t Spanish! After completing Oksana’s course, I declared my Russian studies minor, which wound up fitting perfectly with my anthropology major. From there, I began focusing solely on those two areas of study.

I started my final year of college last fall, when Oksana was promoting her Maymester in Russia to all the department’s classes. I don’t think she was having very much success; a lot of people were afraid to go or didn’t want to spend the money to go “somewhere so cold.” At first, I didn’t even consider going. I was on track to graduate in May and was thinking about a million other things. However, one day I ran into Oksana in the hall, and she made me feel a little guilty about my lack of interest in the trip. When I explained that I was graduating in May and probably couldn’t go, she told me not to worry about that: She’d had a student on a past trip who’d already graduated.

It’s actually not quite as simple as she made it sound: In order to go on a Maymester after graduation, you must still take the required classes, and you have to push your actual graduation date back until the end of summer. These things were not explained to me up front, but – once I got the idea of going to Russia in my head – I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.

I changed my graduation date to August and started looking for enough scholarship money to pay for most of the Maymester abroad. I knew early on that the typical Center for International Education scholarship wasn’t going to cut it, but then I learned that the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) and the anthropology department were both offering special scholarships for summer studies abroad. Both were competitive scholarships, and I knew whatever research I wanted to complete in Russia would have to stand out in order for me to be considered. In addition to an upper-level language class and a Russian literature course, I would be conducting an independent study – and that was what I was most interested in, and I had the freedom to choose any topic about Russian life, history or people.

Earlier in 2014, I’d learned that Russia would be hosting the 2018 World Cup and that the government was attempting to “modernize” the host cities there. I’d taken Social and Cultural Change the semester before, and knew that words like modernize are red flags for cultural change. Seeing the perfect connection between anthropology and Russian studies, I developed an independent study of the economic and cultural effects of Saransk hosting the World Cup. After what happened in Brazil, the World Cup and its effects had become a hot topic, and the subject caught the attention of both the HSS and the anthropology department. I was able to get enough scholarship money to go abroad!

It didn’t hit me that I was actually going to Russia until the night before I left. The two months before had been a blur: I was focusing on graduating and moving out of my downtown apartment, definitely not on being in Russia. Maybe that’s why I had almost no preconceived notion of what to expect. Everyone else, especially my parents, seemed to expect the Russians to hate Americans. They worried about how our little group would be received in Russia – that we would not be safe there.

Kathleen and I in St. Petersburg in June 2015

Kathleen and I in St. Petersburg in June 2015

The opposite was true. While St. Petersburg and Moscow are like any other big city in the world – lots of people from all over, and nobody exceptionally friendly – Saransk, a little town south of Moscow, was where we spent most of our time. And, in Saransk, the people are amazing! They were extremely open and welcomed us with open hearts. None of the young people behaved as if they hated Americans; they were just curious about our lives and the differences in how we grew up. As it turns out, there are very few differences, perhaps because American pop culture is so big there. The older people were a little reserved, but not because they hated Americans; rather, the Russian government portrays America in the same light that the American government does Russia, so they were skeptical and thought that all Americans hated Russians. Once we were able to sit down and talk to people, it was clear to see that – aside from cultural differences – we were not different at all. We’re just people trying to make the best life we can in this world.

This made my independent study especially interesting. People wanted to share their thoughts and feelings on Saransk becoming modernized for the World Cup. Most people thought the city needed to become modernized (e.g., new roads and better infrastructure). But many also felt like the government didn’t have the community’s best interests in mind. Economic security, a good education system and health care are what matter most to the people of Saransk, and they don’t really feel like the government is taking those things into consideration. Instead, they feel the government is only planning for the short term. It makes them a little uneasy.

Overall, I loved my trip to Russia. It was a great experience, and I learned a lot about the culture. It was not the easiest thing I’ve ever done – getting enough scholarship money, overcoming the language and cultural barriers and completing my independent study – but it was definitely the most beneficial. I was very lucky to make a couple of amazing Russian friends, as well as have my independent study published in one of Saransk’s academic journals. I will always be in Professor Oksana Ingle’s debt for encouraging me to have this amazing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

– Kathleen Holden ’15 graduated this past summer with a degree in anthropology and a minor in Russian studies.

This article appeared in the October 21, 2015 edition of The College of Charleston Magazine.

under: Articles, My Travel Journal

Russia Study Abroad 2015

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 07/08/2015 Comments Off on Russia Study Abroad 2015 |

Watch our video of Russia 2015 College of Charleston Study Abroad

under: Videos

Superb Pictures of St. Petersburg

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 11/13/2014 Comments Off on Superb Pictures of St. Petersburg |

SPBFromAbove01 Санкт Петербург   вид сверху

SUPERB PICTURES of St. Petersburg by American photographer Amos Chapple.

Click here to see all of them.

under: Pictures

A New Book About “Russians”

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 05/28/2014 Comments Off on A New Book About “Russians” |

Russians-book-cover-smallAS A NATIVE of St. Petersburg, Russia and now a citizen of the United States, I found Russians very interesting to read. I got excited right away because the author, Gregory Feifer, starts by recalling the morning he arrived by train in Lithuania and learned about the 1991 coup in Moscow.

He was on his way to Moscow but no tickets were being sold because of the coup, so he decided instead to go to St.Petersburg (Leningrad)—where I happened to be after just arriving on a much delayed train from Moscow! He and I were in nearly the same place at the same time, both of us unaware of the magnitude of events.

As I continued reading, however, my excitement faded because Feifer focuses so much on the oppressiveness of Russia’s autocrats, politics, corruption, and extreme aspects of life in Russia at the expense of unraveling the real character of ordinary Russian people.

Admittedly, it is no easy task to convey Russia’s complex history, culture, and politics in one, easy-to-understand package—which Winston Churchill observed when he said: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

The title of Feifer’s book, however, led me to think that that is what he was trying to do. And although the book provides a candid, first-hand account by an experienced journalist with blood ties to Russia (his mother is Russian and his American father worked in Russia), it paints a bleak picture that makes for consistently heavy reading which is best suited for readers already familiar with Russian history and wanting to dig deeper.

In that sense, Feifer makes a valuable contribution. He interviews hundreds of people from different levels of society and he uncovers harsh facts about life throughout the centuries, up to and including a still soviet-tainted Russia. His 12 chapters—intended to reflect specific attributes that he thinks are intrinsic to being “Russian”—include titles such as Extravagance, Poverty, Drinking, Indolence and Inefficiency, Cold and Punishment, Clan Rules, Grandiosity and Bombast—not exactly a flattering list.

He does spin a positive note by praising Russian literature, art, ballet, and theater, and by saying, “Despite the extravagant squalor, waste, greed, and indifference, Russia remains full of life, inventiveness, and beauty.” But for the most part, he dwells on the former without elucidating the latter.

It has never been easy for Americans and Russians to understand each other, and the difficulty is only further increased when they each try to measure the other with their own yardstick. In this case, many of the author’s conclusions will only reinforce the suspicion, distrust, and disparagement that many Americans generally feel toward Russians.

Author Gregory Feifer

Author Gregory Feifer

Meanwhile, many positives remain unstated. For example, that ordinary Russians are very friendly toward Americans and fascinated by life in America. Or that Russians are exceedingly hospitable and generous to their American guests. Or that Russians value friendship deeply, cultivate it carefully, and honor it with integrity. Perhaps most importantly, that Russians, like Americans, don’t like that they find themselves caught up in a huge socio-economic-political system that holds tremendous sway over their lives.

Although, we cannot deny that Russia’s history is to a large extent turbulent and tragic, it is worth noting that Feifer’s research relied heavily on the works of two scholars with distinctly pessimistic views. Edward Keenan is considered an iconoclast and nihilist for some of his works, while Richard Pipes, who experienced the siege of Warsaw and lived one month under German occupation, has said: “…my knowledge of Nazi totalitarianism has conditioned me to feel extreme hostility toward its Soviet variant.” Clearly, these influences cast a gloomy shadow over Feifer’s interpretation of Russian history.

Some facts are also open to discussion. For instance, Feifer states that Moscow was founded in northern Slavic forests when in fact it started as a village of Finno-Ugrian tribes in the early 12th century. In other places he perpetuates the myth that Russians are Slavs, whereas Russia has been multicultural for centuries, just as the United States. He also claims that mercantile towns became important only in the 19th century, and yet Novgorod, which is near present-day St. Petersburg, was thriving almost 10 centuries before that.

This book certainly makes you think, and while the author’s journalistic style does not make for an easy read, I do consider it a valuable book. Just because the truth can be dense and dark at times doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told.

This review was published in the Post and Courier on Sunday, May 25, 2014.

under: Books

“Putin is on the Blitz” by Garrison Keillor

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 03/09/2014 Comments Off on “Putin is on the Blitz” by Garrison Keillor |

Click to hear Garrison Keillor singing his lighthearted song about the recent crisis in Ukraine: “Putin is on the Blitz”:

To see the source of this clip, click here.

under: Articles

Emails From Russia

Posted by: Oksana Ingle | 08/30/2013 Comments Off on Emails From Russia |

HERE ARE TWO EMAILS from a friend of mine who is a French language professor in the Northeast. It was her first time in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

~ ~ ~

Hello from Moscow:

Today was our visit to red square, which was quite spectacular. We were very impressed by Lenin’s Tomb, a once in a lifetime kind of thing. A guard elegantly brought his finger to his lips as we descended into the mausoleum, and then balletically gestured for us to walk to the left. the inside was like nothing else I’ve seen.

st Basil’s was beautiful and eclectic with all of its little churches within the cathedral, each with different stylistic touches. But I was more impressed with the 4 churches inside the kremlin. What did take our breath away was a russian a Capella group singing inside one of the chapels. gorgeous male voices resonating in the vault above them, Wow, And of course the onion domes outside are so anarchic and wonderful. We are getting well versed in iconography and iconostasis variants.

At the Kremlin

At the Kremlin

We had fun inside GUM buying souvenirs and also eating lunch at a soviet-style cafeteria. the food was very good and rather cheap. We all liked the herring in a fur coat. We walked around more, bought tickets for Giselle For Thurs night (not the Bolshoi, which is on vacation, but another reputable group). Giselle is my hands-down favorite ballet, so I think we will love it.

the train was sold out for Friday, as you predicted, so we are talking the slow train all day on Friday, from 12 to 9 pm. it’s fine. We have a compartment to ourselves, we will read and relax and watch the countryside go by. i think we need an imposed day of rest before the next phase of our trip, so here it is. It was quite an adventure, buying the tickets at the station, but we did it. I always worry about buying tickets online, anyway.

I had a least 5 helpful Muscovites come to my aide today, a few of their own accord. There was the nice tall woman in a metro station who saw us confused and me studying my metro map who helped us get to train station from the metro station. then the old guy who came over to help with the train agent who did not speak English and was being a bit rude with me (nyet, nyet – no. No Fast train Friday), and then the young man who led us a whole block to the entrance to the metro station. then the nice ticket agent at the ballet who agreed to hold the tickets while I went to get cash. I think she liked my last name. Then the lovely woman in the ballet theater line who told me that we will love st Petersburg. And the pregnant woman in the train who came over to remind us when to get off (after I had asked her earlier), and the other one who helped me figure out if I was going in the right direction. I try to stay in Russian with my phrase book, but when I am totally unsure I am glad to have a helpful Russian who wants to practice his or her English, Lots of people come up to me and speak Russian, so maybe I fit in. There are no americans around, so they are surprised when i say we are american. i am intrigued by the language and love the way it sounds. It is fun to decipher the Cyrillic. I am getting better at that, and also at some basic phrases. Lily likes to see me struggle with the language, because she said she is proud of me! She is used to seeing me talk in France to everyone with no problem, so it’s good for her to see how communicating in a new language is a struggle at first.

I Am loving our trip and the things we have discovered and this beautiful language. each day is less scary as we figure out the words, the maps, the streets.

Hugs,

~ ~ ~

Hello from St. Petersburg:

Sorry to have been out of touch this week. we have been engrossed in our days of exploring in Saint Petersburg, and we are exhausted when we return at night. There is so much to see here, and we will have only done a fraction of it by the time we leave tomorrow. Sightseeing fatigue has set in, particularly with the girls, so yesterday it felt like we literally dragged them around the hermitage. the girls are homesick and missing their friends. Lily has been away for 7 weeks, so that is understandable.

The melange hotel is simple but well equipped and very well located. I have befriended one very nice lady at the front desk, who helped me print out tix for the hermitage and gave me advice on other things to do in town. Like most people we meet, she speaks absolutely no English, but I like the challenge, and we play a smiling game of broken Russian, charades, and some help (her idea) with Google translate when she is just not sure if we got the message across. The Salsa club across the street provides for some nighttime activity but only once in a while! The girls love the cats that live and hang out in the little playground in the upper courtyard near Nevsky.

I love the Russian people and the language. that is the main thought that will stick with me as I leave this country. We have seen such beautiful and interesting things that give me lots to ponder. I have much reading to do on Russian history, now that I can picture where many of these events took place. But, the people! So friendly and warm and helpful on the whole. And the language! so beautiful and challenging at once. I think I will be studying some Russian in the future.

Nevsky Prospect at 11 PM

Nevsky Prospect at 11 PM

We followed many of your suggestions, actually most of them. We did not get to Peterhof, but we did Tsarkoe Selo, which was an adventure in a marshrutka (little bus). A beautiful palace. Amber room is incredible. we LOVED the writer and musician cemetery down at alexandranevsky pl. We did a boat tour of the canals, which helped give us an overview of the city. the Hermitage’s grandeur and the opulence of each and every room (and THEN there is the art on the walls!) awed us. I loved the Dostoevsky apt, while Edward loved the Nabokov flat. We might see Rimsky-Korsakoff’s flat today. We saw the Nutcracker on ice! that was a big hit for the girls.

The weather has been gorgeous. One morning of rain, which evaporated into a cloudless blue sky by noon. we have enjoyed eating in various cafeterias, of which the clientele seems to be mostly Russians of all ages enjoying a cheap, abundant, and varied spread of food (that we can point to). I love all the soups and beets everywhere on the menu, as I knew I would. The blinis are popular with Lily. And the ice cream on the streets is popular with Abby. And Edward is happy with his share of pig ear, blood sausage, liver and the like.

I have some good stories, which I may have to recount later. One took place at the market near Dostoevsky’s apt. A honey seller ripped us off at the market, and I went back to her 5 mins after the sale and told her so and told her I was unhappy about it and wanted my money back. This was all in Russian. I expected only to vent my frustration, but she actually gave me 400 rubles back after some back and forth and calculations on the calculator and somewhat angry words from her. That was my initiation into the Russian club. I can make plenty of people smile by talking to them in their language and making small talk, but Edw felt that this was at a different level. I love talking with the old ladies at the bus stops. they want to help and talk, and they know no English. One told me that this city will always be Leningrad to her, not Saint Petersburg, which is for the young generation.

Russian hugs for you,

under: My Travel Journal

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