News

New Opportunities and Expanded Faculty Lead Russian Studies to Become a Department of Its Own

by Bill Giduz
James Atkins '15 in Russia
James Atkins '15, his host-mother Tamara Ivanovna, host-father Vladimir Nikolaevich, and their cat Nusha in their living room on his last night in Irkutsk.

Davidson students now have more opportunities to study Russian than ever, as the recently enlarged Russian Studies Department features broader course offerings and a variety of study abroad experiences. Previously combined with the German Studies Department, Russian Studies became an independent department in 2011.

Many colleges Davidson's size group German and Russian into one department.

Russian Studies Department Chair Amanda Ewington explained, "Those combined departments make some sense with regard to administration, but not necessarily for the student experience."

After extended conversations with colleagues at Davidson and beyond, the Russian program moved to become an independent department with goals of increased visibility, increased curricular offerings through the addition of a second full-time faculty member and increased funding for Russian-related activities.

Ewington added, "As an independent department, Russian now has its own budget to support visiting speakers, Russian culture nights for students and other student-centered Russian events on campus."

These additions also will complement Davidson's student and faculty exchange with the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), which began in 2002. Davidson has hosted professors from MGIMO for campus visits and lectures, and Davidson faculty members Clark Ross, Fred Smith and Earl Edmondson have each visited and lectured at MGIMO.

Ewington said the student side of the exchange has included full-year visits from MGIMO students and, more recently, groups of Russian students spending a month at Davidson every other fall. Since 2001, Davidson also has hosted one-year assistant teacher students from Russia through the Institute for International Education/ Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program.

Both of these programs give Davidson students the opportunity to engage with peers from Russia through in-class AT sessions and extracurricular activities.

Hugo Spaulding posed next to the Neva River
Hugo Spaulding posed next to the Neva River in St. Petersburg.

Visiting Assistant Professor Irina Erman joined the department last fall. "I love the students here, and it's been really exciting to design the new classes I'm teaching," she said. "This year I taught 20th century Russian literature, which is my specialty, so I was able to add some of the more obscure and experimental texts that you don't always read in an undergraduate class."

This year Erman will add classes on 19th century literature and gender and sexuality in Russian culture. She has planned a course on vampires for the fall 2014 semester. "I'm really looking forward to that!" she said.

Erman said many students particularly enjoy studying Russian literature because writers such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov grappled with many philosophical questions that remain relevant today. When Russian literature flourished in the 19th century, Russia was a fairly repressive society, and questions that could be asked openly in other countries could only be expressed in Russia through fiction, she noted

"I think this is one of the things that draws college students to Russian literature," she said. "College is the time when young people ask themselves these big questions about their place in the world, ethics and what it means to lead a good life."

Altai region of Russia
James Atkins and Grinnell College friend Arthur Richardson atop a mountain in the Altai region of Russia during a group hiking trip.

Many Davidson students have enjoyed studying Russian, both on Davidson's campus and abroad. Rising junior James Atkins '15 recently completed a semester studying in the Siberian city of Irkutsk under the auspices of his Army ROTC scholarship, which rewards students who become fluent in Chinese, Arabic or Russian.

"Irkutsk was a great place to study because I could speak Russian the entire time," Atkins said. "When I visited St. Petersburg and Moscow, I found out that many people speak English there. But after living in Irkutsk with a Russian family, I'm now conversationally proficient in Russian."

Atkins gained several pounds during his stay. "The Russian people were very generous," he said. "They're very tough and stoic on the street, but they're the nicest people you've ever met once you get inside their homes."

Recent graduate Franny Goffinet '13 is planning to spend a year teaching English at a Catholic orphanage in Siberia. Goffinet, who is interested in working for faith-based organizations, will complete the year through the Lilly Post-Graduate Fellowship in Religious Leadership and Service.

"I'm looking forward to meeting the priests and nuns who have decided to live in Siberia and care for children there," Goffinet said.

As a Davidson undergraduate, Goffinet studied abroad for a semester in Yaroslavl, a Russian city northeast of Moscow. "I liked how honest the Russians were," she said. "I also enjoyed learning Russian poetry. When I quoted verses, many of the Russians recognized them because they have their poetry memorized."

Danna Bupezhnova at International Festival
Danna Bupezhnova, a short-term exchange student at Davidson from Russia, participated in the college's annual International Festival.

Rising senior Hugo Spaulding '14 just completed a year studying in Moscow. Spaulding first became interested in Russian after taking Ewington's freshman year writing class titled "Russia in the West." He said, "Professor Ewington's enthusiasm about Russia was very contagious. She eventually convinced me to become a major and study abroad for a year."

He continued, "The language itself is fairly complicated. I studied Latin and Ancient Greek in high school, and the grammar is very similar. But Russian was the first modern language I studied, and I became interested in the literature and the composition of the language."

Spaulding particularly enjoys learning about the old Soviet Union. "It was a very diverse territory," he explained. "Counties in Central Asia, the Caucassus and Slavic countries like Ukraine and Belarus are all very different culturally, though they were all once part of the Soviet Union. They still share an important period of history, and the people there still speak Russian."

Spaulding hopes to find a job in international development and economic development in the former Soviet Republic, or study Russian in graduate school.
Ewington said some students fear that Russian is difficult because of its different alphabet. However, she noted that beginning students learn the alphabet in the first week of class.

She concluded, "I would say that Russian is a fascinating intellectual puzzle. And therefore students of Russian tend to be a self-selecting group in positive ways. They tend to be looking for something outside the box, or something they haven't studied in high school."

She continued, "For the politically minded, Russia constantly proves to the world that it still matters. It is one of the permanent languages at the UN Security Council, and we can't get anything done on Syria or North Korea without them. Historically minded students get hooked by the fascinating and tumultuous history of Russia. And for those interested in literature, Russian is a beautiful and complex language."

"In addition, you'll graduate with a practical skill-the ability to speak Russian!"

Ewington invites those looking to hone their language skills, or who are simply interested in learning more about Russia, to join her at the Russian table in Vail Commons on Wednesdays from 11:30 a.m. to1 p.m. "Look for the Russian flag, which has the same colors as the French flag but with horizontal stripes," she said. "You'll hear us chattering away in a language that is definitely not French! All are welcome."