Considering the Republic of Georgia has been my minor obsession and travel destination of choice since 2009, many people are confused by my decision to study abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia in spring semester 2011 (by which I mean, those people who aren’t already part of the many confused by my decision to study Georgia in the first place). To answer this will involve playing the historic preservationist’s ace-in-the-hole: the concept of “context.”
Context (n) the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood or assessed.
At the height of their power, both 19th century imperial Russia and the 20th century Soviet Union controlled a landmass over twice the size of the United States, spanning two continents and hundreds of ethnic groups. Several of those ethnic groups are today known as Georgians, residents of the comparatively tiny yet diverse country separated from Russia by the Greater Caucasus Mountains, on which I have chosen to focus my more or less healthy degree of attention. This was a frontier land of great natural beauty romanticized by Russian artists like Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Rachmaninoff, in a way not entirely dissimilar to the idealization of the American “Old West.” Although Georgia’s troubled relationship with Russia did not properly begin until the 18th century, today it is primarily recognized by and discussed in terms of its relationship with Soviet Russia.Contemporary Georgia is carving out an increasingly pro-Western, anti-Russian identity that was exacerbated by the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.
The Soviet past has largely been rejected by the post-independence generation. Today’s Georgians often seek to define their identity by means of opposition to the socialist ideals imposed by Russian Bolsheviks nearly a century ago. During my first visit to Georgia exactly two years after the war, I encountered significant local hostility against Russians—occasionally directed at me, for my “Slavic” appearance.
These experiences made me curious about how the Russians themselves feel about the social and political legacy of the Soviet regime, which was a product of their own country’s autocratic heritage. Georgians feel comfortable in rejecting Soviet culture because they see it as a hegemonic institution imposed on them by an alien force. Do Russians too feel that they can reject a set of values when it actually originated in their own homeland? I came to the conclusion that studying abroad in Russia would probably be more useful in answering my questions than hours in the library. A country so physically and historically vast needs to be experienced in person.
The AIFS program in St. Petersburgwas an ideal choice for both my short-term questions and long-term career goals. St. Petersburg (formerly Petrograd and Leningrad) was designed to be Russia’s “window to the West,” and as such, its historically liberal atmosphere was conducive to its role as the site of the Socialist Revolution’s origins. In order to continue my studies of Eastern Europe on a professional level, an understanding of Russia’s undeniable political, cultural, social, and economic influences is necessary to provide context for the current state of affairs in the entire region. Knowledge of Russian language will also open up significant bodies of scholarly research, as most former members of the USSR (spanning Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe) continue to publish in Russian. I hope that my experience abroad will enable me to enrich my research with new perspectives, and articulately combat prejudices and clarify misconceptions about Russian culture and society.
AIFS mostly sold me on its“excursions”. While I think it’s important for study abroad students to stay in one place and come to terms with day-to-day life in another country (unlike Semester at Sea, which basically trains students to be future cruise ship tourists, isolated from local communities and deep learning experiences), it’s undeniably beneficial to visit more than just one place. I don’t think I could understand the plurality of Russian society based on St. Petersburg alone any more than I could expect a foreigner to understand America based on just one major city.
I am also looking forward to the potential of a homestay, although AIFS goes to great lengths to make it clear that these are in limited supply and many students will be placed in an “international dorm.” As fun as the weird, postmodern hippie-trail culture based on transience and shared resources that grows up around hostels and dorms is, I’m not convinced that it’s the best way to 1.) meet locals of different age groups and backgrounds or 2.) experience daily life in an actual Russian household. The level of freedom, privacy, and access to utilities may be different from that of a dorm-style arrangement, but living with my Georgian friend’s family a few years ago instead of a more convenient downtown hostel enabled me to witness three generations (each one raised with different norms and education) negotiating daily life in a rapidly-changing, newly-independent country. Curiously, however, AIFS”students are usually placed with a single woman, often a widow without family at home or a divorced mother with one or more children,” which will kind of skew the perspective a bit. But as they say in Soviet Russia, or at least Mel Brooks movies about Soviet Russia “hope for the best, expect the worst.”
Based on my previous experiences though, I can’t overemphasize getting to know people of different ages, social classes, and ethnicities abroad, and I want that for myself next semester. The image a country would like to present to the world is never representative of the complexities on the ground. Not only is Georgia unique from Russia (which only ruled Georgia for a comparatively short period in its long history), but “Georgia” encompasses many culturally distinct regions and groups, from Svan mountain shepherds to urban gypsies. By living with a family and being attentive to local diversity when I go to Russia, I think I’ll get a richer understanding of the complexities of at least St. Petersburg.
Blogs are delightfully pretentious, and I hope mine serves the following three purposes well: 1.) assuring concerned friends and relatives that I am not working on a gulag in Siberia, 2.) showing people how clever I am by making pithy observations about life abroad, and most importantly 3.) letting readers come away knowing a bit more about St. Petersburg than when they first opened this page.
Until then: time to work on thesis, harass the registrar, and pay a seemingly endless list of fees…