Study Abroad in Odessa, Ukraine (Summer 2016)

Thanks to a generous REEEC grant, I spent last June and July studying Russian in Odessa, Ukraine.  I shared an apartment with my friends Nadia and Tyler, UIUC Slavic Ph.D. students.  We all took intensive Russian classes at the Odessa Language Study Centre.  Nadia and Tyler took individual courses, while I decided to take a group class, which I would describe as a mixed bag.  On one hand, my language instructor Olga was incredible – like the other teachers at OLSC, she had many years of experience teaching Russian to international students in Odessa.  She also had a great sense of humor (sample Olga-ism: “My conscience is clean, I never use it”) and a keen interest in delineating cultural differences and similarities, sharing her perception of the local worldview (e.g. “U nas net feminizma,” “We don’t have feminism [here]”) and opinions on pressing social issues like political corruption (including a memorable anecdote about the “musornaia [garbage] mafia” chasing one of her students out of town for proposing the establishment of a municipal recycling system).  On the other hand, a group class entails accommodating students of varying levels – as a result, the first few weeks of class were a bit too rudimentary for me.  Private instruction is more expensive, but in retrospect, I should have opted for one-on-one lessons.  That being said, I still got a lot out of my classes with Olga, and I highly recommend OLSC to anyone who wants to study Russian in Odessa.

Odessa is a predominantly Russian-speaking city; culturally, it’s also quite “Russian,” a testament to its history as part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Around 2500 years ago, current-day Odessa was a Greek colony; later, it was part of the Crimean Khanate, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Ottoman Empire.  Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-1792, the city of Odessa was founded in 1794 by Catherine the Great’s decree.  Although originally valued for its strategic significance as a warm-water port on the Black Sea, Odessa quickly became one of the largest cities in the Russian Empire.  Due in part to its port-city status, it also become an exceptionally diverse cultural center, fostering a vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere that persists to this day.

As places to spend the summer go, Odessa is hard to beat.  Our apartment was a five-minute walk from Lanzheron Beach, apparently one of the nicer beaches in the area – “apparently” because once we found “our” beach, we went back to the same spot at least once or twice a week without much further exploration.  Lanzheron Beach has a cute boardwalk with several restaurants and beachside cafes (we were regulars at Prichal No. 1).  In general, downtown Odessa is filled with great bars and restaurants – some of my favorites were Dacha (a restaurant in a gorgeous 19th-century country estate), Kompot (traditional Ukrainian cuisine, kitschy Soviet décor), and Dzhondzholi (delicious Georgian food).  Odessites are also very proud of their stunning opera house (where we saw a nice production of Carmen), and the lovely Palais-Royal Garden is right around the corner.  For night owls and party animals, Odessa’s “Arkadia” region is also worth checking out – it has several huge clubs with pool complexes and regular concerts and DJs.

img_6825

The Odessa National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet

Among Slavists, Odessa is known for its role in literary and film history.  In 1823, Pushkin wrote several chapters of his verse novel Eugene Onegin when he lived in the city during his “southern exile.”  Gogol wrote the second volume of Dead Souls in Odessa from 1850-1851 (he famously burned the manuscript).  Several notable Russian-language writers were native Odessites, including Ilf and Petrov, Yury Olesha, and Isaac Babel, whose “Odessa Tales” are set in the city.  Odessa’s place in literary history is memorialized by statues all over town, as well as by the Odessa Pushkin Museum and the Soviet-era Literature Museum.  Odessa was immortalized in a famous film sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” (1925).  The city was an important filmmaking center before and during the Soviet era, and it hosts the wonderful Odessa International Film Festival every summer.

img_6806

Memorial Plaque on N.V. Gogol’s Odessa Residence

 

Although downtown Odessa is beautiful and quite safe, there is a lot of poverty in surrounding areas.  In addition to the general economic decline in Ukraine, Odessa formerly benefitted from an influx of Russian tourists every summer, which (for obvious reasons) has dried up since the annexation of Crimea and War in Donbass.  However, there are ongoing efforts to revitalize Odessa as a tourist center, including (usually free) cultural events that take place all summer long.  It’s also an extremely affordable place to live, even on a graduate student budget (the silver lining of the region’s economic woes, from a foreigner’s perspective).  Most locals aren’t fluent in English, making life in Odessa a truly immersive language-learning experience – if you want to order food at a restaurant, you’ll have to work on your Russian.

Overall, I found Odessa to be a fascinating and beautiful city.  I’d particularly recommend it as a study abroad destination for language students, especially since there’s no need to get a student visa (by all accounts one of the more frustrating parts of studying in Russia).  I’m certainly planning to go back as soon as possible.

Matthew McWilliams is a REEES M.A. student and a FLAS Fellow for the 2016-2017 academic year for the study of Russian. 

A Summer in St. Petersburg

Peter-Paul Fortress

Peter-Paul Fortress

This past summer, I had the opportunity to study Russian abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, thanks to the Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship. I had been to St. Pete before in late winter of 2013 on a short homestay. Prior to leaving, I was ecstatic to experience a familiar city transformed by summer. I expected to have a tough immersive experience with Russian while also being able to soak up the culture first hand.

My summer abroad strengthened my language capabilities in ways I couldn’t have imagined. If you have ever been on a crowded subway or even through an old McDonald’s drive-through, you know the struggle of understanding someone who talks too quickly through a grumbled speaker. This is the norm on Russian public transit. By the end of my term, the grumbled Russian ramblings became understandable. In August, I could carry on a conversation about Russian-American relations with the bartender who, in June, referred to me as the “silly American woman.”

Peterhof Fountain

Peterhof Fountain

Outside of classes, I spent my time in some of the most beautiful and interesting places I’ve ever been. The Summer Garden was my favorite place to sit and watch people. The first time I was in St. Pete, the garden was closed because it was winter. The Peter-Paul Fortress was where I spent most of my Saturday mornings. It was my favorite spot in the city in 2013, but it was even better with warmer weather. I experienced new places, such as Moscow, Peterhof, and some small villages and towns outside of the city. During my last week in St. Pete, I took a boat tour around the city, as it is made up of many canals. I watched the sunset over the fortress and, later that night, I watched the drawbridges rise over the Neva river. It was a necessary sight to see when you’re there over the summer.

I learned a lot about myself, the Russian language, and the culture during my time in St. Pete. To some degree, I expected much of what I learned and experienced. Perhaps the most valuable learning moments I had on my study abroad trip were through experiencing Russia as a foreigner on an extended stay. Going into my study abroad, I expected to be treated like I was on my first trip: people weren’t reluctant to use English to help me out when I was struggling to communicate my thoughts; when presented with my documents, they were kind and even struck up a conversation about me being American. This summer, the kindness towards my being American was drastically lacking. I experienced hate for my nationality. While in a McDonald’s, I was yelled at to “get out of our country.” Experiencing blatant distaste due to where I call home was new for me. What I felt in these instances has been branded into my brain more so than anything else I learned while abroad. Everyone says that the study abroad experience changes your perspective on the world and can even be life-changing. This is true in more ways than I can explain.

Sharadyn Ciota is an undergraduate double majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and Political Science at the University of Illinois. She was a Summer 2016 REEEC FLAS Fellow.

2016-2017 FLAS Fellows

REEEC would like to recognize our AY 2016-2017 FLAS Fellows. Congratulations to all!

Graduate Students:

  • Kate Butterworth, Library and Information Science (Georgian)
  • Tyler Dolan, Slavic Languages and Literatures (Russian)
  • Kyle Estes, Political Science (Kyrgyz)
  • Kathleen Gergely, REEEC (Russian)
  • Nadia Hoppe, Slavic Languages and Literatures (Russian)
  • Benjamin Krupp, Anthropology (Russian)
  • Matthew McWilliams (Russian)
  • Lucy Pakhnyuk, REEEC (Ukrainian)
  • Morgan Shafter, Slavic Languages and Literatures (Russian)
  • Serenity Orengo, Slavic Languages and Literatures (Russian)
  • Hannah Werner, History (Yiddish)
  • Benjamin Wheeler, Musicology (Georgian)

Undergraduate Students:

  • Sharadyn Ciota, Political Science (Russian)
  • Vladimir Potiyevskiy, Liberal Arts and Sciences (Russian)
AY 2016-2017 FLAS Fellows

AY 2016-2017 FLAS Fellows Matthew McWilliams, Lucy Pakhnyuk, Kate Butterworth, Nadia Hoppe, Sharadyn Ciota, Kathleen Gergely, and Serenity Orengo

Spring 2016 Honors

REEEC would like to congratulate the following student award winners:

2016 Yaro Skalnik Prize for Best Student Essay

Graduate Student – Matthew Klopfenstein for his essay, “Modernity and the Task of Ozdorovlenie: Russian Doctors and the Discourse of School Hygiene” written for HIST 594 – Introduction to Historical Writing (Spring 2016) taught by Tamara Chaplin and Nils Jacobsen (paper adviser, Mark Steinberg).

Summer 2016 FLAS Fellows

Graduate Students

  • Jeffrey Castle (Germanic Languages and Literatures) – Czech
  • Frederick Miller (Music) – Russian
  • Tyler Dolan (Slavic Languages and Literatures) – Russian
  • LeiAnna Hamel (Slavic Languages and Literatures) – Russian

Undergraduate Students

  • Sharadyn Ciota (Political Science) – Russian
  • Ariel Glaviano (Applied Health Sciences) – Russian

REEEC would also like to congratulate the following graduating students:

M.A. in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies

  • Emily Lipira
  • Bethany Wages

B.A. in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies

  • Gabriella Repala

 

Kate Butterworth’s Summer in Georgia

This past summer, I had the opportunity to study in Tbilisi, Georgia. I spent the time learning the Georgian language, and becoming acquainted with the culture and society. Georgia is a unique place, situated in one of the most geographically and linguistically varied regions of the world. The Caucasus mountain range serves as a natural border to Russia, separating the South and North Caucasus. Aside from Russia, Georgia is situated between the Black Sea, portions of Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. It has been a crossroads of many different cultures and empires throughout its history. These influences are evident in the current culture and language. While Georgian is the most prominent language in the Kartvelian group, it has been influenced by Greek, Russian, different stages of Persian, and now increasingly, English, particularly in government language. Regarding the separatist regions, Abkhazians and South Ossetians are ethnically and linguistically distinct from Georgians. Their claims for self determination predate the Soviet period and were vocalized prominently during the Russian Civil War.

I lived in Nadzaladevi with a very welcoming and generous couple. On the back streets of the neighborhood, there are small hole-in-the-wall shops accompanied by stands of fruit and vegetables. Walking up the steep and narrow cobblestone streets behind the apartment blocks, there is a clear view of the city and the mountains beyond. Tbilisi is home to the National Archives and a number of museums. Among them is the Museum of Soviet Occupation and the National Art Gallery, which has a number of pieces by Georgian artists. A few metro stops away is Old Tbilisi, where there are a number of outdoor cafes, bars, markets, a botanical garden, and the banya, which sits below the Narikala Fortress. That fortress has stood there since Tbilisi’s founding. Old Tbilisi is a nice historical part of the city and attracts many tourists. I took language lessons through the Language School there. Lessons were engaging, and I was fortunate to learn from a very good teacher.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Aside from lessons and the commute to and from, I was able to travel. At one point, I went with a friend to Stepantsminda, in the Kazbegi district of Mtkheta-Mtianeti. It lies just south of the Russian border along the Georgian Military Road. It is a very popular destination for many people, especially in the summer, because, aside from its beauty, it is considerably cooler. In the remoteness of the mountains, there is a scattering of villages and livestock ambling about, often paying no heed to cars making hairpin turns up the winding road. In stark contrast to this scene, is Batumi on the Black Sea. Home to casinos, oil refineries, and a beautiful coastline, it is quickly becoming an economic hub in Ajaria.

Spending time in Georgia not only provided more depth to my studies, but also afforded me the opportunity to build relationships with people, which would not have been possible otherwise. Living with hosts added another valuable dimension to my experience and gave me ample time to practice speaking.

Kate Butterworth is a Master’s student in the REEEC program. Her research interests include ethnicity and identity in the North and South Caucasus as well as the efficacy of socio-economic policy in Georgia.  She received her BA from SUNY Brockport in 2011.

Summer Homecoming to Bosnia-Herzegovina

I was born in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. My family fled to Chicago, Illinois, right after my seventh birthday. I could say that most of what I remember from my childhood occurred in Chicago; my memories from Bosnia became more distant as I embraced my life in America. The first time I returned to Bosnia was 13 years after leaving my hometown of Srebrenica, in the summer of 2013. However, I only spent a week and a half there, not nearly enough time to reconnect with my past and to explore my mother country. I was privileged enough to return this past summer (summer 2014) to study the Bosnian language through a FLAS fellowship from the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center. This opportunity exposed me to the beauty of the Balkan region, Bosnia’s mentality and the dissipating energy from the war.

Bosnia was very different from what I had imagined it to be. I was looking forward to living with a host family, which I hoped would allow me to expand my circle of friends. Indeed, I did establish new friendships and became exposed to the daily life of many Bosnians from different socioeconomic backgrounds. In my first week there, I came to a realization that a “middle class” who lives moderately was very rare. There was a strong divide between the haves and have-nots. I either came across individuals and families that were well-off and chose to brag about their prosperity, or those that earned just enough to get by and complained about their circumstances. The stark division between the two highlighted the country’s economic issues. The corruption and disorderly political structure affected every facet of life. Those that earned a “good” salary by Bosnian standards were unsatisfied because they felt that they should be earning more by global comparisons. Bosnians that could barely get by liked to complain about the system and its flaws because of the difficulty of bringing in a stable income for their families.

My second realization was the unwelcoming attitude that Bosnian residents have towards the Bosnian diaspora. This, by far, came as the biggest shock to me since I imagined a warm welcome and acceptance since I was, after all, Bosnian. However, residents weren’t really favorable toward the diaspora due to their bragging of living in a different and “better” country. Bosnia has a larger diaspora population than the population of the country itself. Summers tend to be packed with the diaspora throwing their money away on food, presents and family members. As a result, the diaspora’s snobbish tendencies agitate the Bosnian residents, who see those tendencies as a way to show off income status. Establishing good friendships with Bosnians revealed their true feelings towards the diaspora. It was extremely entertaining to hear the remarks they made about the Bosnian diaspora.

My third and final realization revolved around the multi-ethnicity of Bosnia. Bosnia consists of three major population groups: Bosnian Muslims (also called Bosniaks), Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. The first thing that struck me was that people stuck close to their origin. There still existed hatreds among the groups. When I visited Mostar, I was astonished to learn that there is a high school which is subdivided into two high schools: one for Bosnian Croats and the other for Bosniaks. During the first game that Bosnia played in the World Cup, half of Mostar (a city in Bosnia) was cheering for Bosnia, and the other half of Mostar was booing it and throwing around insulting remarks. The literal division of the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Croats is the Old Bridge in Mostar. To drive through Bosnia and experience the division of the different ethnic groups was interesting. Each town or village is usually composed of one of the ethnicities. Larger cities, such as Sarajevo, consist of all three, but the division between the groups is still apparent.

My summer in Bosnia was a growing experience that not only developed my language skills, but also widened my perception of the Balkan states and America.

Medina Spiodic is a junior at the University of Illinois, double majoring in Economics and Communication with a minor in REES. Her expected graduation date is December 2015.

Ryan Eavenson’s Summer 2014 Experiences in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic

My summer in Eastern Europe was a challenging, exciting, and rewarding experience.  I had the opportunity through a FLAS to study Czech language at the intermediate level in Prague.  As a student with a serious interest in Czech history in addition to Czech language, I couldn’t have been happier!  But my journey did not begin in Prague.  I decided to travel to some additional countries in Eastern Europe before the start of my intensive Czech language course.  I wanted to take the opportunity to further advance my knowledge of this part of the world by exploring the culture and seeing in person the places I had read and heard so much about.

Eavenson - Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest (Image Source)

A plate of chicken paprikash (Image Source)

A plate of chicken paprikash (Image Source)

First, I flew to Budapest, Hungary, arriving in the mid-morning after a long flight from the United States.  I was very tired, but excited to have finally arrived in Europe!  I spent my first day getting acquainted with the city by walking around.  I really enjoyed the experience of simply observing my surroundings and studying the amazing architecture of Budapest.  Some of my most enjoyable experiences were venturing across the famous Chain Bridge, and stopping to admire its unique design and lion statues that greet you upon entry.  This bridge provides a wonderful view of the Hungarian Parliament Building, which sits on the bank of the Danube.  I walked down Andrassy Street, the historic main street of the city, and before leaving, I also made sure to eat a traditional Hungarian meal of chicken paprikash at a small local restaurant.

After a few days in Budapest, I traveled by train to Bratislava, Slovakia, where I arrived in the late afternoon.  Eager to explore, I immediately walked down to the old historic district as the sun was beginning to set.  With my knowledge of Czech, I found that I was able to read many of the Slovak signs throughout the city.  This gave me a greater understanding of the close similarity between these two languages.  In Bratislava, I visited the well-known castle  which rests on a large hill over looking the city.  Nearby, I stopped to see St. Michael’s gate, which is a very old and important landmark.  My last night in Bratislava was exceptionally memorable.  I had the chance to observe a traditional  Slovak folk dance at the main town square.  This was an event that truly presented to me the essence of Slovakia’s rich culture and tradition.

 

Main square in Bratislava

Main square in Bratislava (Image Source)

The final part of my journey took me to Prague.  Traveling by train allowed me to see the extraordinary countryside of Moravia, a part of the Czech Republic defined by clear lakes and dense forests.  After a long trip from Bratislava, I finally arrived at my dorm.  I immediately knew the moment I checked in that this was going to be an enriching summer because the receptionist only spoke to me in Czech.  In Prague, I embarked on a demanding Czech language course while simultaneously experiencing Czech culture by visiting both museums and many historic locations.  I found the Czech food to be excellent, and there were so many different meals to try.  My favorite foods included beef goulash, potato dumplings, and the wide variety of freshly baked bread.  Having a particular interest in post World War II Eastern Europe, I visited the Museum of Communism, where I was exposed in detail to the nature of life in the Czech lands during this period.  My dorm was within walking distance of the Prague castle, a truly amazing structure.  Through a walking tour, I gained a greater appreciation for the importance of this castle and its place in Czech history.  The cathedral in the castle complex is exceptional both for its size and design.  In addition, I spent a great deal of time on the Charles Bridge, a place  with tremendous historical significance and one of the most notable symbols of Prague.  I was amazed by the exceptional detail of the numerous statues that line the bridge.  Close to the Charles Bridge, I visited the Franz Kafka Museum.  There, I had the unique chance to see some of the actual writings of this famous author while also learning new information about his life.  Overall, it was wonderful to be able to constantly use and improve my Czech everyday during my time in the Czech Republic, and I am certain that I have developed a deeper understanding of Czech culture.  I had a wonderful experience in Eastern Europe this summer, and I hope to return in the near future and continue to learn more about this unique part of the world.

The Franz Kafka Museum in Prague (Image Source)

The Franz Kafka Museum in Prague (Image Source)

Ryan Eavenson is a MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  He is particularly interested in communist development in Eastern Europe.  His additional interests include Imperial and Soviet Russian history, Czech history, and Russian and Czech language.  He received a AB in History/Russian and East European Studies from Lafayette College in 2010.  After graduation, he hopes to find employment focusing on international affairs and then continue his education.