Aiden Wolfe is studying mechanical engineering at Northeastern, but he picked up a minor in Russian because he wants to travel to Mars.
“Every astronaut is required to know English and Russian, and I’m halfway there,” said Wolfe. “This was my biggest commitment to maximizing my chance at becoming an astronaut. Knowing Russian is more important for astronaut candidacy than having a pilot’s license.”
Wolfe is one of a number of Northeastern students who say that they enjoy learning Russian and believe that knowing the language will make them more desirable to employers.
They are taking on the language at a time when U.S.-Russian relations have hit a low not seen since the Cold War, and when Russia most prominently figures in news reports as a geopolitical rival to the United States, personified by President Vladimir Putin and Russian agents who sought to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election.
Yakov Bart, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern who helps to run an intercultural program in Russia, looks at this political array and sees all the more reason for students to study and visit Russia. He pointed to a recent study by the Pew Research Center that shows that Americans and Russians have highly unfavorable views of each other.
“In this time of political tension, it’s more important than ever to keep the channels of communication and exchange open,” Bart said. “I want the younger generation to fully understand what it’s like to live in America and Russia.”
Eva Moore didn’t know what she wanted to study until she traveled to Russia as part of a Dialogue of Civilizations program that examined how politics has shaped culture and business in Russia and the Baltic countries over past several hundred years.
The experience inspired her to return to Russia for a summer to teach English in Barnaul, a city in Western Siberia, and choose Russia as the regional focus of her international affairs major, she said.
Because American media coverage of Russia focuses on the actions of Russia’s government, Moore expected to believe that politics would be at the core of daily life in Russia. But that was an assumption that she didn’t find to be true in Siberia.
“I’ve found that a lot of people are very neutral to politics so long as they have stability and a job,” said Moore. “Their concern isn’t who best represents them, it’s simply ‘am I happy and is my life stable?’”
She also said that many Russians seem to lack knowledge of the United States, too. While she was working in Siberia, she met many people who had never met an American, and thought that all Americans hated former President Barack Obama. She found herself trying to portray the United States in a positive light by assuring them that the country isn’t in the state of turmoil constantly depicted on news programs broadcast on state-run Russian television.
After studying and working in Russia, Moore discovered that life in the country’s larger cities wasn’t much different from life in other cities in Europe and the United States. She noticed that St. Petersburg is a melting pot, just like Boston and London.
“I think it’s common that people who start learning Russian get hooked on it,” said Moore. “A lot of people I’ve talked to say it’s contagious. It’s hard to explain why, it’s just so fascinating and different.”
Ayeon Lee took her Russian language studies a step further by competing in the Olympiada of Spoken Russian, a contest founded in the 1960s by the The American Council of Teachers of Russian to test the ability of high school and college students to hold a conversation, recite poetry, and demonstrate their knowledge of Russia’s history entirely in Russian. Lee, a senior who is studying computer science and history, won first place in 2017.
Katya Burvikova, a Northeastern instructor who is running two Dialogue of Civilizations programs in Russia, said that students are surprised by their experiences in Russia. “Our students see that they have so much in common with their Russian peers,” she said. “It’s a nontraditional destination for many reasons, but there’s so much wonderful art and culture to experience.”
Maria Andrianova, another instructor who teaches Russian at Northeastern, asks her students to list Russian stereotypes at the start of every course. She said that students typically describe Russian people as cold-hearted, fur-hat-wearing, vodka drinkers, which she considers widely held yet cliche-ridden beliefs that she expects to hear every semester.
But she is always surprised by the students who say that they are afraid to travel to Russia because they think the country is unsafe.
“That’s something that I still don’t understand,” said Andrianova. “I was born and raised there, so it’s almost funny to me because I know it is a peaceful place.”
Burvikova said that she hopes students who work and study in Russia will come to realize that the country is more than “the highly visible actions of the Russian government, hackers, spies, athletes, models, and billionaires.”
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