I took a Russian literature course in college taught by a visiting professor from what was then the USSR. With an authoritarian teaching style that was a marked contrast to the American liberal arts approach I’d become accustomed to, he interrogated us with questions like, “What’s the one word to describe Raskolnikov?” A student brave enough to posit an answer was pronounced, “WRONG.” I sat in silence, fearing humiliation and fuming at the poetic injustice of a question that reduced a complex character to a single word.
Yesterday, when my son Thomas asked me to sum up my trip to Russia in a single word, I felt no such resistance.
I replied, without hesitation.
“Studio R” has transformed my assumptions about Russia. Until I toured Moscow and St. Petersburg, I did not realize how much my imagination was dominated by vague, grim images of Soviet deprivation; Kruschev-era, cement block buildings; soggy cabbage and pickled radishes.
In the place of these dreary images, my memory is now full of pictures of bustling, vibrant city streets; ice-cream colored buildings that blend European style with Russian folk accents; and gleaming pastries, salty cheese breads, bliny filled with red caviar and sour cream, salmon salads with citron vinaigrette, beet-wrapped goat cheese, and other sweet and savory indulgences.
As in the U.S., such plenty is often juxtaposed to poverty and want (see Shelley’s post), though homelessness and panhandling were less evident, perhaps because of communal housing and aggressive policing. Prices were high, especially for clothing and material goods, and I wondered how the working class managed to get by.
The people we met were lively and vocal, offering perspectives strikingly different from my own: strange mixtures of free speech and adherence to what to me sounded like authoritarian, party-line thinking. They did not seem to feel oppressed by the state, nor obsessed by the enemy (aka the USA), but primarily concerned with making and sustaining a good, stable lives for themselves, their families, and their country.
In part because the language barrier limited my interactions with locals and in part because I was traveling with such brilliant, knowledgeable, and perceptive companions, I learned most from my colleagues.
Amanda and Irina generously and continuously interpreted the language and culture for us, helping us to understand menus, street signs, buildings, monuments, gestures, behaviors, and customs. They gave spontaneous history lessons, too, allowing us to see both transformations and connections to the past.
Shelley offered comparative political insights, with her keen insights into Russian politics and American cultural blind spots and assumptions. Kristi made me aware of the both subtle and monumental ways that individual and cultural memory operated. Shaw taught me to see the transition from stage paintings to scene paintings in the Hermitage, while Sharon taught me about Bulgakov and his contributions to Russian theater, explaining the origins and impact of method acting. Mark not only contributed to my understanding of method acting, but also navigated the streets with his trusty laminated maps and opened my eyes to the melodramatic power of the ballet when he remarked, “It’s like a silent movie!” Alison enabled me to recognize the distinctively Russian aspects of the ballet and appreciate the value of discipline and tradition.
In our casual conversations, we exchanged ideas and reactions, so that at every turn, my fleeting impressions were transformed into more substantive understanding. Studio R has given us an opportunity for learning and reflection in a relaxed yet invigorating environment. This is the best of the liberal arts tradition, and I hope it’s the beginning of many faculty enrichment trips to come. The innovation grant that funded this trip was large, but the pay off was immeasurable.