SUMMER 2002 RUSSIA
The Global Partners program selected twelve small college faculty to participate in an intensive encounter with today's Russia. Since most American scholars' last formal study was in the era of Soviet studies, updating our knowledge and becoming aware of the changes of recent years is very important. The heart of the program was a six day homestay in Krasnodar, a large city in the very south of Russia, in the Kuban region--famous for Cossacks and intensive wheat cultivation, near the mountains and the Black Sea, but also proud of its industry and tourism. There were also visits to St. Petersburg and Moscow, very impressive cities with fantastic museums and palaces. We were fortunate to have excellent guides, thanks to our ACM advisors' many contacts and vast experience.
MONMOUTH, Ill. - Monmouth College's William Urban, the Lee L. Morgan professor of history and international studies, has been a student of Russian history, politics and culture since he was a student at the University of Texas, yet the well-traveled senior member of MC's faculty had never been to Russia.
That changed this summer, when Urban was one of 12 professors from liberal arts colleges around the country who were chosen to participate in the Global Partners program, sponsored by the Mellon Foundation, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest and Kuban State University in Russia.
"I was denied visas three times in the Soviet era," he said, adding, "This was not only my first visit to Russia, but it was also an opportunity to see a new nation in transition."
Just over a decade ago, concluding that his two years of Russian language training had almost vanished, Urban spent two summers at Beloit College's intensive language program. The next year he traveled in the newly independent Baltic States and taught American history in Estonia. He nevertheless found the linguistic demands of the homestay in Krasnodar daunting.
"There was sensory overload," he said. "What was Russian in the first hour became part Serbo-Croatian and Czech later in the evening."
Still, his Russian improved significantly in the three weeks, especially on the listening end. Often, when conducting interviews, he could signal the translator that he had understood, so they could move along faster.
Each participant in the Global Partners program had a research project. Some were looking into economic progress, two into Russian films, one into the status of Russian spas and beach resorts and one into ecology.
"I wanted to learn what people in southern Russia knew about the Caucasus region, which is little farther from the Kuban region than Missouri is from western Illinois," said Urban.
The Caucasus is an ethnically diverse region, as a Russian professor noted during one of many toasts: "When God created the earth, he put all the peoples of the earth into the Caucasus. Except one. The Americans. And now you are here. Welcome!"
"What he didn't mention, but was well-known, was that these 'peoples' do not get along well," Urban said. "Today the region is war-torn. The presence of oil along the coasts of the Caspian Sea, however, means that one of the new nations will win the race to persuade oil investors to build pipelines across their territory and will become rich. I wanted to know what steps were being made in these countries for future development-would the new money go into education, health and highways, to encourage free enterprise, or just into the pockets of the warlords who dominate the mountains and valleys today?"
Urban did learn a great deal about banking and agriculture. In these discussions it helped that he had grown up in Kansas wheat country (which the Kuban region strongly resembles).
"Clearly, it is not easy for a young person to start a small business in Russia," he said. "Even in America it is very difficult for an individual to become a farmer and make a living. In Russia it is almost impossible, especially in the rich Kuban region, where the government is very conservative, maintaining much of the Soviet mentality toward the economy and social safety-nets."
Still, changes are under way, changes that can be better seen in person than read in budgetary summaries. The purpose of the Global Partners program was to allow Americans to see first-hand the process of transformation from communism to whatever form of freer economy is emerging, to exchange ideas and information person-to-person, and then hope that the mutual impressions would be transmitted in classes to the next generation of Americans and Russians who are moving swiftly away from Cold War attitudes and ambitions.
Urban believes the program was an unqualified success.
"On the whole, the participants were optimistic about Russia's future," he said. "The economy is stable, the legal reforms necessary for a functioning free economy have largely been accomplished, political radicals and nationalists have declined in popular appeal and there are signs everywhere that Russia is becoming a normal European country.
"Without question, this summer's experiences will influence everything I see and read about Russia, and what I teach, for years to come," he concluded.
See the Peoria Journal Star Sunday, August 11.
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