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. 

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.

Winter Break in Ukraine by Zach Grotovsky

My trip to Ukraine for the winter break started off with a bang.  I bought a new tablet computer to mentally prepare for a two-week trip to Kiev, loaded all my work onto it, then finished up packing and headed to the airport.  After a three-hour flight, a five-hour layover and another nine-hour flight, I was waiting in the Frankfurt airport for my third and final flight on my way to a dream vacation.  When I landed and saw my friend waiting for me, I could finally relax, although all I wanted to do was take a shower after 24 hours of traveling.  But as soon as I walked into the apartment, I realized that I left my brand new tablet sitting on a seat in the airport in Germany. What’s more, I also managed to get white paint from the new years tree ornaments all over one of the two pairs of pants I had taken with me.  Luckily, there was some delicious borsch and verenyki waiting for me to ease my sorrows.

A snowy view of Independence Square from atop a hill in Kiev

A snowy view of Independence Square from atop a hill in Kiev

After eating a great meal, I was finally able to sleep and woke up feeling happier than ever to finally be at my destination. The excitement already made me forget about my tablet.  On my first day in Kiev, we went to see a musical.  Still a bit jet-lagged, I slept through the whole production, waking up at the very end when everyone was standing up to leave.  After a few days, New Year was on our doorstep.  We made some pizzas, shrimp and other appetizers with friends and celebrated at midnight in the subway. We had just missed the previous train by about thirty seconds!  This turned out to be good because there was still plenty of music and dancing at Independence Square once we got there at around 12:02.

On January 4th we took a night train to Krivoy Rog, where there was a fantastic Christmas party waiting for us on the 6th.  After making our beds, we ordered a tea and sat up until about midnight talking about what we were going to do in this city.  In the morning, we had some pelmeni and tea for breakfast and I thoroughly enjoyed my nap after stuffing myself with delicious food.  The Christmas party was a test of my Russian abilities. No one there spoke any other language I knew but Russian, so I had to make the best of what I learned in Russian 101.  Once the food was all prepared and there was no space left on the table for our plates, we managed to make room by eating and eating and eating.  I even had the honor of playing the role of Father Frost and handing out presents at the party. After an eight-hour food fest with some drinks mixed in-between, we finally got a chance to let the food settle overnight.

Grotovsky as Father Frost, handing out presents with his friend Lisa at Christmas.

Grotovsky as Father Frost, handing out presents with his friend Lisa at Christmas.

Waking up in the morning with a full stomach, we got ready and returned to the Christmas party. The homemade banya (sauna) was waiting for us.  We ate a little again then went in the backyard to the river, where the banya was hot and ready to enter.  My first experience with the wet leaves in the banya was nothing less than outstanding.  Still totally stuffed after two long days of eating, we managed to hang out with some friends for the rest of the day and returned to Kiev the next night.  There we went ice skating on the top floor of Dreamtown mall and took a walk to the Dnepr river to let a sky lantern rise up and drift away.  My flight was the next day, so I had to pack and get my scattered things together.  Back in the States now, I continue learning Russian, hoping to return to Ukraine some day soon where another unforgettable experience will surely be waiting.

Zachary Grotovsky is a graduate student in the German department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign pursuing an MA in German linguistics and a graduate minor is Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  He caught the “Eastern Europe fever” three years ago when he met some Polish friends. He is now extremely interested in the Ukraine as well.  He plans to spend summer 2013 in Poland and Ukraine attending some language courses that will hopefully be coupled with an experience in complete cultural immersion.