Why I Study Russia: Rationalising my Russophilia

In my last post I shared my lacklustre story of how I stumbled upon my academic muse. Now it is time to advance my goals and elevate this blog to missionary work. Today I will be listing objective facts explaining why Russia is such a great subject to study. Hopefully I will convince many of you to peer over the Iron Curtain.

Alright, so maybe some of my “facts” will be more objective than others. Truth is less of a light switch and more of a spring loaded kitchen scale. Hell, my constructivist sympathies inform me that truths are little more than socially engineered phenomena, but now is not the place for naval gazing…

So at the very least I will try to be less subjective; here I will discuss why Russia is an interesting subject and why the study of Russia matters. Alright on second thought it is probably still extremely biased but you’re already invested (I hope) so just keep following me. You wouldn’t exit a roller coaster at the top would you? (Well if this is the apex of my blog post then I’ve lost a few steps it would seem).

REASONS WHY I STUDY RUSSIA

  1. Russia Matters. Russia has been a major power in international affairs for centuries now. Russia has played a massive role in international events and continues to be a significant player on the world stage.  Russia always has a unique angle on every crisis and event, and it is invaluable to understand their perspective on things since their participation is often essential for bringing about a solution. While Russia was out of the game for a long while following the fall, Russia has experienced a meteoric resurgence in the last few years and they are taking the center stage in politics. Additionally it is the largest country in the world and one of the most populated (size matters right?).
  2. Russian Politics are a Great Case Study. Russia’s history is (almost) neatly compartmentalized into a few specific areas that make it invaluable for a student of politics to study. The Tsarist era provides great insight into how centralization takes place and how well autocracy can hold up. The rise and fall of the Soviet Union in particular is of unparalleled value to academics since concisely shows an arc of revolutionary utopian politics. Finally, modern (or rather, post-modern?) Russia is the poster child of transitional states and the problems they face. You can learn a lot about the world by studying Russia.
  3. Russian History is Melodramatic. Its overwrought with emotion and extremes. Sometimes Russian history is comedic, such as when a pretender to the throne was put into a cannon and fired into Poland. Oftentimes Russian history is a tragedy, especially during the Stalinist epoch. Hell, on occasion Russian history is a tragicomedy, hence why I love Khrushchev. In any case Russian history is filled with unique events and circumstances that rival those of any epic novel. It is important to keep it all in perspective though; when we talk about Russian history we are still dealing with real people and real lives. I find that their dramatic history just further humanizes the Russian people though: they have an unlimited capacity to take hardship in stride.
  4. Russia is Unique. Russia is both familiar and exotic. It occupies a unique space between East and West as one of the few truly Eurasian countries. A quick look at the Russian alphabet is enough to express this idea: there is so much that we can relate to and yet so much that is foreign.  At times I still struggle with this idea. Exactly how foreign is Russia? Yet again, Russians themselves have struggled with this question for centuries. Russia’s uncertain identity adds a great spice to its politics and history, much like how an abundance of dill adds a great flavour to most Russian cuisine. The emblem of these bipolar forces at work in Russian politics is the double-headed eagle which, by the way, would make an excellent tattoo.
  5. Russia is Deep. We’re not just talking of Lake Baikal here! Russian history, politics, and culture are almost inexhaustible. There are so many personalities, events, and items to choose from. Most people know icons like Brezhnev, the AK-47, and the Matryoshka, but there is plenty of obscure material to go into whenever you fancy. There is always more culture, more recipes, more stories and jokes to delve into. You would expect as much from a country with comparable surface area to Pluto right?

In reality I could just go on and on here but brevity is the soul of wit (or some nonsense like that) so I will pull the plug here. Besides I need to get back to commentary on current events. In any case I hope that I convinced you to take a look into Russia. It doesn’t have to be a lifelong dedication: you can get by with a few brief inquiries.

Hopefully I have just justified my unhealthy obsession with Russia.

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Why I Study Russia: A Love Story

Its been a while…What year is it again?

Alright so in the hustle and bustle of the holidays I may have missed a Saturday. I had virtually no free time after working, gorging on capitalist excess, and baking cookies. Oh well. December was a slow month for Russia anyways. I only have 5 followers so hopefully they won’t be too disappointed eh?

Now that we’re in 2016 I think it would be a good idea to go back and reflect on why exactly I do this. Why do I like Russia? This will be a two part post. The first part will be my story; the second will list reasons why Russia is an interesting topic (objective reasons mind you, not subjective). I have a few New Years resolutions relating to the blog, starting with proofreading and editing existing posts. But we can get to that later.

I always used to read and hear about the Soviet Union. No matter where I went as a child I somehow always came across the phrase “former Soviet Union.” I wasn’t able to satiate my curiosity until I gained access to the internet. My favorite thing to do was to go on Wikipedia and read about history and politics. It was on Wikipedia that I had my first exposure to Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, Machiavelli and the like. I even remember taking a Mach test I found online that was made to determine how Machiavellian you are; 10 year old me was delighted to have scored an 81 (considered a high Mach; Don’t worry, I grew up to be a nice guy). But gradually most of my attention turned to reading about the Soviet Union and, in particular, its leaders.

Part of it was natural curiosity. Another part of it was just wanting to be different. Every 13 year old wants to stand out and what better way to do it than by invoking Marx and calling yourself a Communist and shopping at Hot Topic. Ok maybe that was the worst of it. I was always precocious but studying the Soviet Union made me distinctive. I could always spout a fact or a quote that I had read to boost my ego.

Generally my family encouraged this and I picked up a handful of Soviet popular histories over the years. I never really read them cover to cover but I jumped around enough to know what the history was about. My grandparents actually had an excellent piece of Soviet photojournalism, a book called Faces of a Nation, that remains on my bookshelf today. Generally though I was skilled in all subjects. By junior year in high school I was no more predisposed to Sovietology than I was to paleontology or metallurgy. My heart was always with history I suppose, but I was unguided as any boy that age should have been. That all changed during my senior year, where my years of Wikipedia paid off in a AP Government and Comparative Politics. The Comparative Politics course had a section on Russia where I was able to run rampant. More importantly though this class showed me that I had a keen interest in politics. Political science went further than history; it was history with a purpose and a direction.

Applying to college was a nightmarish labyrinth but I eventually settled for nearby Towson University. I labeled my interests as either political science or psychology. My first semester I was placed into intro to political science taught by a certain Dr. Belgrad. I was enormously nervous (he had a reputation for being tough) but his class is ultimately what pushed me over the threshold into political science. He sat at the front of the class and went through the entire history of Western political science, lecturing from memory, entertaining discussions, and weaving stories of the odds and ends of history. I was spellbound by his lectures and declared my major fairly quickly. I would eventually take every class he had to offer, and I attribute a great deal of my intellectual development to the rigour of his classes. There are a number of excellent teachers I could commend; Towson University has a truly excellent political science department that stands out in the Liberal Arts program. For now though I will only mention Dr. Belgrad. He passed away a few months ago, so I suppose this post (among others) is dedicated to him.

It was still a while before I truly decided to pursue Russia studies though, mostly because I was still getting my bearings in political science. By the end of my sophomore year I discovered that Towson had plenty of classes to offer on Russia, so I went down the rabbit hole. My interest in Russia was piqued by a board game of all things. My sister’s boyfriend/brother-in-law invited me to play a game known as Twilight Struggle which has players essentially re-enacting the Cold War (I published part I of a review about it; I intend to publish part II soon). I found myself at home playing as the Soviet Union and I was enchanted by the depth of Cold War facts the game brought up. All of this spurred on a return to reading miscellaneous internet articles on Russia, although this time I was more exacting and detail oriented. I brought a renewed interest and wealth of knowledge with me to the rest of my college career where I wrote extensively about Russia in multiple different contexts.Every paper I wrote in every class began to relate to Russia in some way. In my final year my interest began to extend beyond the Soviet era; I began to care and read about Imperial and modern Russia.

I consider the dual highlights of my academic career to be the last two major political science papers I wrote. One was a 36 page assessment on the state of Russian democracy. Another was a 136 page assessment of Russia’s approaches to terrorism. The latter was required to be written from a Russian perspective and was written for a diplomacy simulation class. Towson participated in the ICONS project, playing the role of the Russian Federation. This was a delightful experience, and I’m pleased to say that my proposed policies (which called for a united front against ISIS) foreshadowed actual Russian policy.

Curiously I decided on Russia as a field of study before it re-emerged on the international stage. The semester after I had decided that I would study Russia saw the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the subsequent annexation of Crimea. While money and career were the last things from my mind, the awakening of Russia made me think that I had made the right call. My interests suddenly became relevant, valuable, and pertinent.

Most people were pushing me towards grad school, and I probably will end up going for Russian Studies or International Relations. I ended up deciding to take a year or two off from school to gain my bearings. I skipped a grade and made it out of college in 4 years but I worked hard. I wanted time to be able to experience the world and gain new insights and I haven’t been disappointed. While I sometimes worry that I should have just went straight to grad school, in my time off I’ve gained invaluable perspective from full-time employment, I have been able to develop new and existing friendships (and enemyships, a gentlemen must never neglect his enemies), and I have learned how to relax and enjoy life. My studies of Russia have continued as this blog should make evident, and I have also started to dedicate more time to developing my Russian language abilities.

Although I only decided on what to do with my life a short while ago the roots were always there. I was fortunate to have the opportunities and abilities to further develop them. Many factors have driven my education: self-motivation, curiosity, expectations, and sheer shifted chances but I can honestly say that I pursued what I love and that alone is worthwhile.