Name: Nick McCarty
Location of Study: St. Petersburg, Russia
Program of Study: SRAS (School of Russian and Asian Studies)
Sponsors: Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures, Nanovic Institute for European Studies
A brief personal bio:
For about as long as I can remember I have loved to study history. I used to jump around from one era to the next, from one country to the next, trying to learn as much as I could until I got bored and moved onto the next historical subject. Once High School rolled around, I finally settled down. I have gained a passion for Russian history over all other subjects, and I have taken Russian here at ND so I can learn more about this incredible country in its native tongue. I also have the distinct pleasure of playing baseball here at the University of Notre Dame, and I am proud to continue the tradition of being a student-athlete at this great school.
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
Thanks to language instruction funded by this SLA Grant, I will be able to begin to conduct research on primary documents held only in the state archives of Saint Petersburg. This will prove to be invaluable for writing my Honors History thesis during my senior year, and will lay the foundation for even more interaction with Eastern Europe and Central Asia after graduation. After graduation I hope to continue my studies of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, through either the funding of a Fulbright ETA Grant or through volunteering with the Peace Corp for a period of one to two years. It is my eventual goal to earn a position in the U.S. State Department as an Economic Officer. It is a deeply held goal of mine to give back to this country and the people of the world through service, and I think that due to my degrees in both history and economics I am in a prime position to help others. I believe that with my knowledge of both economics and local history and customs I will be able to truly make a difference someday in the lives of residents of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and this will all get its start thanks to the funding from this SLA Grant.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
The SLA Grant will enable me to be immersed fully in both Russian language and culture for the first time. Through this wonderful opportunity I will be able to dramatically increase my communication skills in Russian, as well getting the opportunity to experience Russia from outside the classroom setting. As a part of the research I plan to conduct while in Saint Petersburg, I will be visiting many of the cultural monuments and museums that have made the city so famous. These landmarks will be invaluable in helping me to write my thesis as I seek to understand the reconstruction of the city after the Second World War. In addition, these cultural excursions will help me to understand the true nature of the Russian people in an unparalleled way, which I hope will allow me to better connect with Russians in my professional career.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
- At the end of the summer, I will be able to communicate in Russian with native speakers regarding historical as well as contemporary topics such as foreign policy and modern history.
- By the end of the summer, I will be able to conduct research on both archival and modern Russian written sources.
- By the end of the summer, I will be able to understand the Russian mindset after the fall of the Soviet Union, and how Russians see themselves and their nation in the modern age.
- By the end of the summer, I will be able to comfortably read a Russian newspaper with little help.
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
I have been accepted into the School of Russian and Asian Studies, who have agreed to place me in twenty hours a week of language classes at St. Petersburg State University of Economics. In addition to this instruction, I will be visiting around ten monuments and memorials to the Blockade of Leningrad, which took the lives of over a million civilians during the Second World War. I will be visiting these these memorials in order to gain an understand of how Russians dealt with such mass tragedy, and to evaluate the effect of the state in its remembrance of the fallen. I believe that this, in combination with the archival research I also plan to conduct, will fully immerse me in Russian language and culture while I am in Russia.
Reflective Journal Entry 1:
?????? ???? ?? ??????????! Good morning from Saint Petersburg! I have now been in Russia for three action filled days, even though my classes do not start until Tuesday the 14th. SRAS, the program I am enrolled in, has kept me exceedingly busy though and I am pleased to say it has been one of the best few days of my life. My fellow students here have been incredibly kind to me and shown me some of the most wondrous sites already. I live only a few blocks from Nevsky Prospekt, the main avenue of the city, and so I am within walking distance of many historic sites such as the Hermitage, the Admiralty, and Kazan Cathedral. My first full day (Saturday July 11th) I visited Peterhof, the summer palace of the Tsars. Originally constructed by Peter the Great and expanded upon by Empress Elizabeth and Empress Catherine the Great, the palace displayed the past grandeur of the Russian Empire with incredible style. Peterhof is located in the suburbs of St. Petersburg directly off the coast of the Gulf of Finland, and it makes use of the water around the palace in a very unique fashion. The grounds of the palace are filled with fountains of all shapes and sizes, fueled without the use of pumps by a natural spring located in the hills above the palace. When the water has run its course, it simply drains into the Gulf. These fountains are a magnificent site, with even a few hidden or trick fountains to surprise unwary tourists and young children. Inside the palace, which had been destroyed previously by German occupiers during the Second World War, was an incredible array of wealth and majesty. No photography was allowed, but the many portraits and paintings displayed will leave an indelible mark in my mind for the rest of my life.
In sharp contrast yesterday I visited the ancient city of Novgorod Velikii, or Novgorod the Great. A provincial capital now, Novgorod was the main rival of Moscow for control of Russia during the Middle Ages. The city was actually founded before Moscow in 859 A.D. and as such holds the oldest Orthodox churches in Russia. I bought my first orthodox icon (of course being from Notre Dame I bought an icon of Mary) in the oldest church, St. Sophia. The city is also home to a model Russian peasant village, which recreated the life of Russian peasants from the Medieval Ages through 1900. It was deeply humbling to see how so many men and women lived in such housing, often extremely isolated from other communities by the thick forests which even now so dominate the landscape of the country.
Today I have begun my first real solo journey… buying groceries. I have been using Russian these past few days, but today I decided to challenge myself and go out alone into the city to find food (previously I had been in a group with other English speakers who know the city better). After only getting lost twice, I managed to find the local grocery store (helpfully called Dixie). After finding my food, I endured a round of questions from the cashier who clearly thought I spoke better Russian than I could indicate! After vigorously denying my need for a Dixie rewards card, I managed to escape the store with breakfast in hand and the knowledge of how to feed myself in the coming weeks.
For my next entry, stay tuned to see my research work on the Blockade of Leningrad. ?? ????????!
Reflective Journal Entry 2:
Greetings everyone once again from Saint Petersburg! After my second full week here in Russia I certainly have a lot to report. Last weekend I spent three days in Moscow, a mere 10 hour sleeper train ride away or 4 hours by high speed rail. It was my first experience riding a train and I was able to see the countryside (and the “real” Russia outside the large cities) in a marvelous way. Moscow and Saint Petersburg are very incredibly different cities, and almost feel as if they are in separate countries. Whereas Petersburg has maintained its 19th century soul in a remarkable manner, Moscow has truly embraced the 21st century. Its streets are lined up and paved in a much more professional manner, while its metro system has become one of the most beautiful in the world. That being said, the city proved to be a very useful place for me with regards to my research! Moscow bristles with monuments to the Second World War, and there is none more spectacular than the site known as “Park Pobedi” aka Victory Park. There I found monuments not only to the individual heroes of the war, but also to entire divisions and army groups! It was an incredibly interesting public space of commemoration that really cannot be equaled in the United States. It is definetly worth looking up on the internet for those interested in more. I was also able to visit an underground bunker from Cold War located in Moscow’s suburbs, to be used by Soviet leaders in case of nuclear war. It was a sobering reminder of the very real threat of annihilation both countries faced throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
On a less serious note, although just as interesting, is Russian cuisine! Much like America, Russian’s have their own cuisine but also love to partake in foods from countries nearby. The most popular by far of these ethnic cuisines are Armenian and Georgian dishes, from those two respective South Caucasus nations. While most Russian cuisine tends to be devoid of spices or other additives, Russians love the flavor that comes from such dishes as hotchipourri, harko soup, and the various lamb and beef dishes that have come from over the mountains. Hotchipourri is similar to our pizza, but instead of cheese and sauce there is instead baked bread with an egg cracked over it. It is backed until golden and tastes incredible. Harko soup is another delicious item with meat, broth, and spices mixed together which are sure to warm one on a cold Russian night.
I highly recommend looking it up these and other options from the South Caucasus and Central Asian regions! In the meantime stay tuned for me to begin to wade into the real work of history next week.
Reflective Journal Entry 3:
During my time here in Russia, I have had the pleasure to meet many Russian speakers, all of which have been incredibly helpful in my studies. But not all of these Russian speakers have been ethnic Russians. What many foreigners to Russia do not realize though is just how diverse the country truly is and the problems that Russia now must confront with regard to its ethnic minorities. Russia is an incredibly large country, and its predecessors the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire were even larger still. Such power naturally has both assimilated and attracted a great many ethnic groups to the country, and such a legacy can be seen even in Saint Petersburg, the most western and most European of Russia’s cities. Here I have found ethnic Germans, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Egyptians, Koreans, Krygz, and Georgians. But I have struck up the best friendship with Armenians, a group famous for the genocide inflicted on their people and the their diaspora which has since followed. Armenia was first incorporated into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, and since then many Armenians have to look for new opportunities in Russia, both during the Soviet Union and after its fall. I have had the pleasure to befriend a few Armenians here, and ask them a few questions about how they felt as an ethnic minority in Russia. Fortunately both have said they have rarely if ever faced any discrimination for being Armenian. What I found interesting is that both of the women I talked with felt distinct pride at being Armenian, but still felt that they themselves were Russian by nationality. Despite looking different from ethnic Russians (many Armenians tend to have darker skin tones, along with characteristic black hair), they felt just as “Russian” as a native Muscovite.
In many ways this is surprisingly similar to the United States’ development of nationalism, a sense of civic pride rather than pride based on nationalism which I suspect is derived still from the Soviet Union’s desire to incorporate its many ethnic republics into an ideal “Soviet” nation devoid of ethnic strife. This has been challenged recently by an upsurge in nationalism centered around the idea of “Russianness” a policy which appears to be tacitly supported by President Vladimir Putin in his desire to protect ethnic Russians outside of Russia’s borders. So far this has not affected any backlash against the countries many minorities, with the notable exception of Chechens, a group hailing from the separatist Muslim region of Chechnya in the North Caucasus Mountains. The Russian Federation has fought two vicious and bloody wars against the Chechens, the second of which was fought against radical Islamic Chechens fighting to establish a religious state. Chechens were also responsible for a number of terrorist attacks and hostage crises throughout the country, such as the Beslan School Massacre and the Dubrovka Theatre Crisis (among many others), which has led to a large backlash against the group across the country. Now many Chechens are denied work and face other discrimination based on the actions of their countrymen.
In judging the treatment of these two groups, I can hardly believe that we as American’s might feel any differently. We too have immigrants whom we favor and those whom we shun (albeit for different reasons). Both countries must strive to build more tolerant societies, even when that society is threatened by attack. Only in that way can a lasting peace be made.
Reflective Journal Entry 4:
Hello all, I know I have been promising my to share my research on the Nazi Siege of Leningrad and Soviet memorials for some time now, and now as my stay here in Russia enters its final week I am finally comfortable writing some thoughts about it all. For my thesis I am primarily interested in how the Soviet authorities have memorialized and remembered the fallen of the Second World War, and how this has influenced current attitudes towards warfare and modern Russian nationalism. No example better exemplifies Soviet and Russian attitudes than the Blockade of Leningrad during WW2. Quite simply, the Blockade of Leningrad was has come to define the city of Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad during Soviet times). From 1941-1944 the city of nearly 5 million people was cut off and surrounded by German and Finnish forces, who allowed no food or supplies into the city. Soviet soldiers and civilians bravely fought and died for nearly 900 days to stave off the Nazi threat, who in their own words proclaimed “”After the defeat of Soviet Russia there can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban center. […] Following the city’s encirclement, requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied, since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for our very existence, we can have no interest in maintaining even a part of this very large urban population.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Leningrad). The city was to be wiped from the face of the Earth, and to those civilians trapped inside it often felt like the world itself would soon end. Over 1 million civilians died due to the German attacks and starvation. Reports of cannibalism proved hard to suppress, and the cities secret police dealt harshly with any accused of the act. Those who lived through the terrible winters (for the winter was by far the most dangerous of times) often lacked the strength to bury those who had fallen, and each spring featured a city-wide effort to collect those who had fallen and been forgotten in order to stave off disease. Over half of a million of those soldiers and civilians who fell were buried in a mass grave now known as “Piskarovskoye Cemetery” which I had the fortune to visit last week. I would highly encourage any readers to google pictures of the Cemetery in order to begin to understand the memorials there.
In the cemetery I was able to see the 153 burial mounds, beginning with those interred in 1941 up to the last victims of 1944, which make up the graves of those whose bodies could not be identified. I do not think I will ever be able to describe fully my feelings as I walked amongst the grassy hills where so many lay in rest, but I was struck even more by the statue of Rodina-Mat’ (The Motherland-Mother) at the end of the entrance causeway. Under the statue is inscribed the words “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten” and I really did believe that as I walked amongst the graves, many adorned daily with fresh flowers from families who lost loved one’s in the Blockade. What most interested me however were the memorials to the various nationalities which participated in the defense of the city. Amongst the defenders were Belorussians, Armenians, Kazakhs, Tatars, Poles, and Ukrainians, and all are celebrated in the cemetery. I found this celebration of ethnicity odd considering the official Soviet policy of promoting an all-encompasssing “Sovietness” which was supposed to render such nationalistic feeling obsolete, and the confusion in Soviet ethnic policy under Stalin is something I wish to pursue further in my research. During the dark days of 1941 when the Soviet Union seemed on the brink of annihilation, Stalin reintroduced programs meant to highlight Russian nationalism and pride, the fruits of which I believe we can see in memorials such as Piskarovskoye, be they intentional or not. That nationalism, once unleashed, has proven to be a hardier force than Stalin, or any of the USSR’s leaders could have imagined.
Russians, and especially residents of Saint Petersburg, are incredibly proud of the defense of their city and their country from the Nazi invaders, a fact which has been used as a means of control by the Soviet government and (what I assert) the Russian government as well. This began after the end of Krushchev’s Thaw, when newly minted leader Leonid Brezhnev needed a way to unite the Soviet Union in a way that could make its citizens proud. He found that opportunity in WW2. He and the other leaders who led the Soviet Union through those dark days could stake their right to rule in that victory, backed up by the sacrifices of millions of Soviet citizens. As such, Piskarovskoye and the other memorials inside the city, such as the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad and the Museum of the Defense of Leningrad, are important because they formed the main areas in which a society could grieve together, and also as a place in which a government could derive its legitimacy. One could not question the Communist leaders without questioning the heroism of the Soviet victory over fascism in WW2, and the government was only to eager to exploit this mindset. Of course this ideology came crashing down with the fall of the Soviet Union and the deep economic troubles which overtook Russia in the 1990’s, but the rise of Vladimir Putin and his new brand of Russian language nationalism has reignited this unifying vision (what historians termed “The Soviet War Cult”) once more under the auspices of the state. In the last year this message has become even more vital as the Russian military attempts to reassert itself on a scale not seen since the invasion of Afghanistan. Once more we see attempts in Russian media to describe the enemy as “fascist” or “Nazi,” accusations which seem dated to Western standards but are all to familiar with a Russian society still deeply indebted to their ancestors who died in droves against such a foe. It is this modern movement, and its root in Soviet/Russian history, that fascinate me so much.
Reflective Journal Entry 5:
I have successfully returned from Russia, having learned an incredible amount. My last week in country was spent alone, during which I had extensive one-on-one lessons with my Russian teacher. The lessons, which lasted for 4 hours each day, were actually some of the best learning I have ever done in my time learning Russian. Speaking in a conversational tone with Yulia, my teacher, did more wonders for me than over a year of actual classwork. Such conversational practice came in handy when talking with a few of the Russians that I met in my explorations. I actually first one man, Boris, when I was in the alleyway behind my dormitory running sprints in order to stay in shape for baseball season. He and his dog, (whom he called Bob) were simply walking around and stopped to watch the admittedly curious spectacle of me being completely out of breath after completing one such sprint. He asked why I was running like a crazy person, and after explaining my story Boris and I fell into a conversation about American and Russian relations. Boris, an older man in probably his early 50’s, was bitter about the effect of American sanctions on Russia and could not understand why the West so hated Russia. I politely disagreed, but I did not want to start an argument and so I asked him, “Why do you feel this way?” He explained that he had lived through the fall of the Soviet Union, and how he felt that ever since then Russia had been disrespected and all but ignored by the West. Now as Russia has reentered the international stage, Boris explained that he feels America is once again trying to keep Russia down.
This conversation provoked some deep thought in me. Firstly I knew that I would never be able to have such a conversation with an average American citizen. We as a general population see Russia as a strange, perhaps backward place, but we hardly see Russians as a great enemy now. In Russia, the humiliation of the fall of the Soviet Union and the chaotic decade that followed still haunts its citizens, and many may place blame on the West as a way to displace any internal blame. The Cold War may be over, but its mindset is still alive in Russia.
Of course talking to one man is hardly a cross-sectional poll of Russia on its opinions of the US. One of my other teachers, Darya, is only 24 years old and has actually been to Miami and a few other American cities. Darya absolutely loved to talk about her experiences in the United States and was always curious to learn new American slang and colloquialisms. From the other Russians I befriended this seems to have been the rule of thumb for younger Russians. Those born after the fall of the Soviet Union tended to have both much better English skills and much more favorable opinions of the US compared to their parents’ generation, and I am sure that this will lead to some kind of generational conflict in politics soon enough. The next decade will be incredibly important to the future of Russia, and I hope that this younger, more open generation can begin to exert more influence in their nation’s politics.
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:
I learned an incredible amount during my five weeks spent in Russia. Oddly enough, the most important lesson I learned is just how much I do not know. I have studied Russia and Russian for years, but every day I spent in Russia I learned more than I could have ever possibly achieved than by simply studying in the US. The simplest of tasks, such as ordering a meal or buying groceries, were made nerve wracking simply because I realized that I had no idea what to say. I learned just how much of language acquisition is trial and error, and I learned not to fear the constant failure of speaking. Learning a language is all about failing, and then learning from those mistakes so that you can make new mistakes. Thankfully, every Russian I befriended was incredibly tolerant of my mistakes and I cannot thank them enough for their patience and skill. Now that I have lived in Russia, I feel that I have a much better understanding of the way Russians think, and I am glad I could accomplish this goal. I can now read a Russian newspaper and be able to figure out the story, although I certainly still need a dictionary. The only goal I may have failed is the ability to talk with Russians about foreign policy, simply because of the more advanced words needed, but I am working every day to fix that.
Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
My fondest memories of my time in Russia are when I did not have any planned excursion or museum visit and was able to simply explore on my own. I loved simply wandering through the city streets, and I came to realize that even though Russian and American civilization is obviously very different, the people themselves are not. Russians want the same things that Americans do, to work, to live, and to love. My advice to anyone preparing their own summer study would be to give yourself time for such wanderings. You will be discouraged by the language barrier, but do not let that scare you into staying in your room or only hanging around English speakers. Go out and fail, so that you can learn from those failures and succeed the next time.
How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
I am continuing my language education this year with the Russian Department here at Notre Dame. I hope someday to use my language skills in international business that will someday benefit both the people of Russia and the United States. The inter-cultural communication skills developed in my studies have helped me to see the world from a vastly different perspective. This has helped me to understand just large, and yet still connected the modern world is, and how the actions of people half a world away can affect me. In Russia I have discovered a whole new world, and I am eager to continue my passion for the region in the future.