Friday, March 04, 2022

studying russian at the wrong time

on the train from moscow to kazan with my dad in 1994

the past week or so of russia's agression against ukraine has me pondering my past. i studied russian, mostly literature and quite a lot of russian history. of course i studied the language as well, but i was never a great talent. i could always read it better than i could speak it. but i did ok, and most importantly, i loved it. 

i studied russian at precisely the wrong time to actually get to do anything with it. i began studying in 1989, just as the berlin wall fell. it took a couple more years for the soviet union to dissolve, but dissolve it did. and by the time i finished my bachelor's degree in 1993 and my master's in 1994, academia didn't really know what to do with us russian majors. 

looking back, so many of my professors were former military, harry had been to the defense language institute in monterey and then princeton (possibly not in that order). the head of our department at iowa, ray, was also former military, as was kit, whose last name i don't remember, though polish was his specialty. later, at asu, the head of the russian department was also former military. they were surely all tapping people on the shoulder to join the cia or fbi or nsa. but that tap never came for me. perhaps because of the aforementioned not being a language talent, but i think it had even more to do with timing. i simply studied russian at the wrong time. fellowships dried up. slavic departments shrank and merged with other "minor" languages. i met a nice danish boy and followed him home and love sent me in another direction.

and i believe that today, we're seeing the result of that. putin and his cronies felt humiliated at the dissolution of the soviet union and now he's taking the first steps towards getting it back. and because no one kept studying russian and slavic culture, it seems like the world is rather blindsided by it all. maybe they should have tapped some of us on the shoulder after all, even if we weren't brilliant at russian, but just had a deep and abiding interest in it and the culture. 

as usual, at moments like this, i wish i could still sit across from my dad and ask him what he thinks about it all. 

1 comment:

Sandra said...

You are right. I realize I didn't understand Putin at all. I never guessed he was this guy. I only understand him in so far as he is a mad man with an inferiority complex and a nuclear arsenal.