March 16, 2020

Generation "Y (Just) Russia, Y (Just) Politics?"

Generation "Y (Just) Russia, Y (Just) Politics?"
The author in Kyiv, Ukraine. As a member of a new generation of “Russianists” – I was born in 1997 – I have studied abroad not only in Russia, but also Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova.  Courtesy of Katrina Keegan

Olivia Kennison, a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literature at Brown University who has spent about two years teaching English and studying abroad in Russia, was recently dating a staff member for a major Democratic presidential candidate. He was worried about being affiliated with Russia. He broke up with her. 

A bit more than six years ago, such a scenario would have been unthinkable. The world of Russian studies has changed radically since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Kremlin interference in the 2016 presidential elections. “The latest Worldwide Threat Assessment ranks Russia and China as the top two threats to the United States,” said Daniel Shapiro, a Master’s student in Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies at Harvard, who was an intern in the political section of the Moscow Embassy in summer 2017. “Being a Russianist, especially regarding politics, now suddenly feels ‘important’ again.”

And yet, even though Russia may be important “again,” it is not necessarily important in the same way it was to the previous generation of Soviet experts. Millennial “Russianists” see the world differently. We were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and our views on the post-Soviet space do not revolve solely around politics in Moscow. 

Must of us entered Russian studies for apolitical reasons: a Russian babushka, a random assignment to the Slavic country Bosnia on a State Department exchange to Muslim countries, reading War and Peace as a kid, a college course registration accident, or – in my case – the allure of learning a “secret code” as part of school language program that had stubbornly stuck around since the 1950s. 

When I started learning the “secret code” of the Cyrillic alphabet at age 10, I  could never have anticipated the actual spy jokes that would start popping up six years later in 2014, most of them at least a little serious. After all, Kennison’s ex-boyfriend was serious. According to Kennison, the 2017 Fulbright program in which she participated, was also quite serious in its warnings to scholars. She avoided mentioning Putin on the phone, out of fear the local branch of the FSB in her rural Russian town, Yelabuga, was tracking her calls. They had to toe the line, she said, because at any moment and for any reason the program could be kicked out of Russia. Many prestigious State Department-sponsored programs had already left Russia.

American student in St. Petersburg
Olivia Kennison on the banks of the Fontanka in St. Petersburg. She said she looks happy in this photo because she just finished her Fulbright year, an experience she described as formative, yet highly stressful. | Courtesy Olivia Kennison 

Experience in other countries of the former Soviet Union is a defining feature of the up-and-coming generation of Russianists. Rowan Baker, a graduating student in the UCLA Russian Flagship Program, applied for a Fulbright grant to study the social and environmental effects of glacial melt in the Russia’s Altai Republic. However, when I asked her to describe her personal history with Russia, she hesitated. Baker has been awarded three government grants to study Russian: a NSLI-Y scholarship to Moldova, a Critical Language Scholarship to Georgia, and a Boren Scholarship to Kazakhstan. Despite fluent Russian language skills and deep knowledge of the region, she has spent very little time in Russia itself.

American students in Moldvoa with Pushkin statue
A group of high school students in Moldova pose before a monument to Pushkin, the most famous Russian poet, in December 2015. This State Department-sponsored Russian language program was kicked out of Russia and the resident director was briefly jailed in 2014. Even with majors as diverse as Physics, Economics and Linguistics, virtually all of these students have remained deeply involved in the post-Soviet space. | Courtesy Katrina Keegan

Benjamin Musachio, who is currently completing a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literature with a research focus on the Soviet literary community in Latvia, has noticed this trend. “I consider myself a member of a transitional generation,” he said, describing his first abroad experiences in Russia during high school pre-2014 and subsequent studies in Latvia. “These polyglot and poly-cultural environments encourage students – perhaps even force students – to think deeply about mental geography, post-Soviet legacies, and the interaction between Russian and other national cultures.” 

Daniel Herschlag, a senior at American University who has studied abroad in Russia and Kyrgyzstan and published research about Russian-speaking communities in Estonia, agreed: “You cannot view the former Soviet space, or even Russia itself, as a monolith. I think that, arguably, you could never do that, but Russianists of the past did anyway.”

American student horseback riding in Kyrgyzstan
Daniel Herschlag participated in a traditional Kyrgyz horse trek in summer 2017. It turns out that in the post-Soviet space, horseback riding is not an activity monopolized by Putin. This is an apt metaphor for the worldview of young Russianists in general. | Courtesy Daniel Herschlag

Even within Russia itself, our generation is not thinking in strictly political, Cold War terms. To be sure, the next generation of Russianists is not naive. Shapiro has interviewed our generational counterparts for his Master’s thesis: “Meet the New Russians: How Tomorrow’s Russian ‘Американисты’ [Americanists] Conceptualize the United States.” He warned against the predominant American view that young Russians are “beacons of liberalism who can’t wait to overthrow Putin,” adding that most of his elite interviewees were pessimistic about current and future political relations, just like Shapiro himself.

However, other channels are open, and future Russianists are well-positioned to engage. Shapiro emphasized that politicians will need to find common ground, and Herschlag noted that the elites of both countries will enjoy opportunities to build mutual relationships, even though this may not trickle down so much to the average American or Russian. 

Becca Kaye, who is earning a dual degree at Indiana University in law and Russian studies, hopes to practice international property law to aid the expanding Russia-South Korea market, which she describes as “micro-level contributions to strengthening and improving the broad umbrella of US-Russian relations.” Baker spoke passionately on the need to “get past all this horrible stuff in our past” and improve communication between Russian and American scientists working on critical global issues like climate change. 

Soil salinization near the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan
Salinization soil near the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan. Baker believes that “Central Asia is going to be the greatest water crisis the world is going to see.” The good news? “When you talk to older people in Kazakhstan and say you have no intention of becoming a shpion (spy), they actually believe you. Twenty years before, they didn’t believe that.” | Courtesy Rowan Baker

After all, Russia is more than politics. Perhaps it is for the best that Kennison’s politics-drenched ex broke up with her. As Kennison put it, “I could never imagine being married to someone who doesn’t appreciate Russian literature. How can you understand love if you haven’t read Chekhov?” 

That is one possible answer to the question “Why Russian?” that I, and many other Russianists, received constantly prior to 2014. After that, people stopped asking. They assumed they knew my motives, and instead asked for my opinion on Putin, Crimea, elections. Perhaps people should keep asking Generation Y “Why Russian?” We might not give the answer the Cold War generation would expect. 

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