Russia Studies: A Post Mortem

Tonight I will walk across a stage and receive what looks like a diploma, but is actually just a cover (the diploma comes later this summer, once the powers that be have verified I'm worthy of its receipt).

My diploma will say something about my having earned a Master of Arts in Russian and Slavonic Studies, which is just a fancy way of saying I read a lot of stuff written by long-dead Russians, and wrote a lot of stuff about the stuff I read.

Lev Tolstoy

When I started the process of going back to school, I was in a somewhat unhappy place at work. I really wasn't sure news was something I wanted to do for much longer, much less for the rest of my life. So I thought about what else I could do that I might like, and the idea of "something that uses my knowledge of Russian" appeared. That led to ideas about working for the State Department or CIA or NSA or FBI or some other entity that deals with our not-allies, the Russians (I had no desire to do field work, though I liked the idea of a posting overseas).

Lucky for me, the University of Missouri-Columbia has a master's program for Russian. Lucky for me, I got a teaching assistant position, meaning most of my schooling would be paid for. Lucky for me, I know one of the professors in the department really well, so I had an "in" and an ally.

Nikolai Gogol

Unlucky for me, the program has little in the way of coursework focused on the Russian language, which is what I wanted to sharpen in preparation for new career possibilities. The closest thing was one class on Old Church Slavonic, which is precursor to modern Russian.

But it was a master's degree, it was mostly free, I would be able to stay in Columbia and I would be able to keep working full-time. So all in all, it was a heck of a good deal.

Three years later, I'm done. I've taken my last exam, written my last paper, attended my last lecture. What did I learn? A lot. A LOT. What did I enjoy? A lot. What did I not enjoy? A lot. There was more of what I enjoyed than what I didn't.

I learned I really like the poetry of Alexander Pushkin, the writings of Anton Chekhov, the goofiness of Nikolai Gogol and the prose of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Fyodor Dostoevsky
I learned I really don't like the Russian Modernists (Symbolists, Acmeists, Futurists), nor the Formalists, but I do like the Russian Romantics and Realists.

I learned how to versify, what an aorist is, the skill of close reading, the genesis of the Russian dramatic tradition, and that a strong knowledge of the Bible makes a world of difference in an Old Church Slavonic class (many of the translation exercises were excerpts from the Bible - as soon as I identified the excerpt, translating was easy).

By virtue of being a teaching assistant in a Russian Civilization class (twice), I have a much better grasp on Russian history than I would even get by reading Wikipedia.

Boris and Gleb, two early Russian saints
The thing is, now that I'm done with my program, I'm probably not going to use it. Not right away, at least. Another opportunity for the future has presented itself (more on that later), one which I'm going to explore over the next year or so. No State Department, no CIA, no NSA or FBI or KGB or GRU or FSB.

What, then? Did I waste my time? Could I have done something else? Do I regret the three years of stress and anxiety and agony and occasional boredom and frequent confusion? Нет, as the good русские say. I have a master's degree, it cost me very little in terms of money, and in general required little sacrifice outside of time.

More importantly, though, I gained a much deeper appreciation for a very important part of the culture of a country I love dearly. I got to know the Russian life while living there, but this program has allowed me to get to know Russia on an entirely new level, through the eyes of its most famous and skilled writers. Yeah, some of it was boring and some of it was confusing and some of it was just straight weirdness (I'm looking at you, Andrei Bely, IF that is your real name (it's not)).

Andrei Bely (born Boris Bugaev)

But so much more of it was entertaining and beautiful and meaningful in some way. I feel like I can see and think about Russia at a depth never available to me during my time as a missionary there. I can talk about the literary greats from the legendary Russian Empire, which include some of the greatest literary greats that ever great-ed.

So no, I don't regret one bit of the last three years, disconnected though it may end up being from my professional future. I'm thankful for it, for the friends I made, for the associations I had with other students and professors, and for the knowledge I now have stashed in my brain for some future trivia night.

Maybe Pushkin will win me Jeopardy one day.

Alexander Pushkin

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