Fifteen Years of Russophilia in Review

The house I grew up in is cozily cluttered, bookshelves lining many of the walls. My mom, a voracious reader, liked to tell me about her love of Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy even as a teenager, and many of those shelves were stuffed with Russian classics. It was about my junior year in high school when I first became interested in them, and for a year and a half I carried around a battered paperback copy of The Brothers Karamazov with its work burgundy cover everywhere I went. Ten or fifteen pages at a time, I fell in love with Dostoevsky’s language and characterizations, and came to call the novel my favorite for about five years. It still ranks in my top five classics, but I will admit here something I never told a soul: I never actually finished the novel. Like Les Miserables, another brooding and beautiful master work, I fell in love with the language but couldn’t quite see the relationship through to its bitter end. As a college Freshman eagerly starting Russian 101, I told the class I was studying Russian to be able to read Dostoevsky in the original, when in fact it had more to do with my recent ex-girlfriend and I’s obsession with fake lesbian pop duo tAtU.

I’m currently taking a MOOC on Understanding Russians, and I’m reminded of this theme in my Russophilia: a fascination with the language, the culture, the style, the pathos, alongside an utter lack of commitment to actually delve deep into what Russia is. I’m a Russian dabbler: when I meet a Russian person, I’m as excited as an Anglophile is hearing Tom Hiddleston’s accent, but then I hit the embarrassment of not being able to respond to a simple inquiry in Russian about my studies. Re-learning Russian is somewhere on a to-do list along the 13 other languages I’ve studied, and I have to admit that the Russian culture is not very suited to dilettantes.

Like that thick Dostoevsky novel, I’ve found Russian culture to be a fascinating but often opaque landscape that would take a lifetime to understand, cliched as such a statement is. After two semesters of the language, I intended to take a Russian literature seminar but choked and dropped out halfway through the summer homework of Crime and Punishment (War and Peace was scheduled on the syllabus to be read in a week and a half). I tried to focus on Russian, East European, and Balkans history in my major, but only so much of that is offered in Maryland and Cork, Ireland. The basic grounding in Soviet and East European history was less interesting than the lighter fiction I read set in the region. The only Russian classic I got through, though I do adore it, is Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murat.

I kept essentially dabbling, occasionally picking back up the language, mostly failing. I rooted for Russian figure skaters in the Olympics and tried Russian recipes. In law school I took several international law courses, including a seminar in Russian law, from Professor Alexander Domrin, who taught in both Iowa and Moscow at the time. His perspective on US foreign policy towards Russia was quite critical, and I found it important in checking the biases of the articles I read when blogging on and writing a lengthy briefly paper on the Russian economy as an employee of an international finance and development research center at Iowa. During the Sochi Olympics and the Russia-Ukraine tensions, I found myself trying to guess what Professor Domrin would say, and sometimes found myself debating those Americans who see Russia only as a Cold War movie joke.

Now that I’m taking a course about Russia in my free time, I have to wonder if there is much point to my abortive and inconsistent interest. I may never speak passable Russian or have an opportunity to visit the country. My dreams of being a Foreign Service officer there died long ago, and I don’t have the expertise to do international work based in Russia or Eastern Europe. I’d like to believe, though, that exposure to a culture much maligned in my own society has been a positive influence. If nothing else, I’m determined to eventually get through that Dostoevsky.

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