“American?”, a middle-aged woman asked in Russian, pulling back her headscarf.
“Yes,” I stammered. I didn’t think it was that obvious.
“You need vodka,” her tall (and, admittedly, rather imposing) husband told me. “Vodka keeps you warm.”
I laughed (fifteen minutes in the Post-Soviet periphery and I had already been offered vodka) and we continued into the terminal. Stepping across the wet tile floor and up to the smudged glass of a custom’s booth, I dug into my backpack for the little blue book that would serve as my key into (and out of) six countries over the next two and a half months. As I handed my passport to a young military officer, he yawned, then looked me over casually.
“State the purpose of your visit,” he declared in Russian.
I paused. For a split second, a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions swirled in my head. In completing the flight to Almaty, I had finished the first step of a solo journey I had dreamt of for months.
The problem, however, was that my journey had only one other concrete step. Just one: a plane ticket out of Tbilisi, Georgia… over two months later. Apart from visas into Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan (which could be activated at any point), I had literally 0 plans connecting my journey between the Almaty and Tbilisi airports. In other words, my trip would ultimately be defined by a single, all-consuming goal: to improvise as hard as I’d ever improvised before.
I didn’t know it at the time, but over the next 60+ days, I would hike, hitchhike, couch-surf, take trains and buses, and make deep friendships from Kazakhstan to Georgia before returning home in March. I would help teach English to Uzbek schoolchildren during citywide power outages, trek through the mountains with Kyrgyz farmers, share traditional meals with Ukrainian refugees, attend Georgian Orthodox ceremonies in ancient cathedrals, narrowly avoid arrest for carrying a banned book across the Kazakh/Uzbek border, get interviewed on TV in Tashkent, and so much more.
So, as the flurry of emotions faded, a thought sprung into my mind: had I just begun the best game of ‘connect the dots’ ever played?
“Um…tourism,” I replied. He stamped my passport, handed it back, and smiled knowingly.
“Welcome to Kazakhstan”
The Importance of Looking Deeper
Writing this article in early August, I can proudly say that I’ve made it back from my travels alive and well… and, surprisingly, without a criminal record in any of the countries I visited. As such, a few reflections are in order.
Pause for a moment. Take a deep breath. Now think about the term “Slavic studies”.
What are you picturing? Chances are, and if you’re anything like I was when I first decided to study Russian, you’re thinking of Russia itself. The Russian Federation is by far the most powerful political and military player in the region. It also receives (again, by far) the most media and academic coverage, especially in light of the recent invasion of Ukraine.
As such, the picture of “Slavic Studies” that resides in the heads of most people features colorful Orthodox onion domes, fluttering soviet banners, and horrors committed by Russian president Vladimir Putin against Ukraine. This is entirely understandable, after all. Russia has a long and fascinating history which has - for many years - been marred by dictatorship, atrocities committed both internally and externally, and conflict on a truly global scale. It is therefore only natural that many people’s knowledge of the region focuses uniformly on Russia.
However, Russia’s central role in public discourse tends to limit our view of Slavic studies to Petersburg and Moscow. With the attention we dedicate to Russia, I believe, we tend to forget about the countries and peoples which have for centuries existed not only in their own right, but as fundamental influences on Russian and Slavic culture and the international landscape as a whole. The Tatars, the Chechens, the Kazakhs, the Georgians - these and other Post-Soviet people have long, intricate, and deeply fascinating histories that are intertwined with our conception of Russia and Eastern Europe, whether we recognize it consciously or not.
With this in mind, it was one specific aspect of my Russian major that defined my fascination with the region, rousing within me not only the desire to visit Central Asia and the Caucasus but to dedicate my career to studying the area as well. This aspect is what gave me a deep respect for the many vibrant cultures comprising the Post-Soviet world and, with only a few months until the due dates of my first round of graduate applications, convinced me to spend (hopefully) the rest of my life studying them:
Tulane’s Slavic Studies department approaches the Russosphere in a manner that stretches far, far beyond Russia itself.
Including the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe as core components of the program isn’t simply a novel approach to Slavic Studies. As discussed above, I thoroughly believe that viewing the region through an inclusive lens is indispensable when attempting to gain a complete understanding of the Post-Soviet landscape. Russia as we know it is an intricate tapestry of intermingled cultures and ethnicities scattered both within and throughout its borders. Pushkin visited Georgia and wrote at length on his experiences, for instance; classic Russian dances and headwear, moreover, find their deepest roots in Siberia and Central Asia.
Studying under both Dr. Lidia Zhigunova and Dr. William Brumfield, I could tell clearly that our departmental curriculum was engineered to shed light on the critical importance these cultures should hold in Slavic studies. A member of the Circassian diaspora, Dr. Zhigunova hails from the region of Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia’s North Caucasus. As such, she is uniquely able to discuss the significance and cultural beauty of minority communities both within and around Russia, often speaking from personal experience and sharing anecdotes from her childhood. Narratives from the Post-Soviet Borderlands, the first Russian class I ever took, is a case in point - it merged the study of literature, culture, and politics with her personal experience to create a profound perspective on Russia and the surrounding countries. Dr. Brumfield, too, ensures that his courses venture beyond western Russia; renowned globally for his spectacular photography and scholarship on Russian architecture, he has traveled extensively throughout the Russian north and Central Asia. As a result, his classes place Russia, the Russian language, and current events within a broad and vivid geopolitical and cultural context.
It is clear, then, that the Tulane Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies’ approach to studying the Post-Soviet landscape is uniquely powerful in its ability to shed light on often overlooked cultures. Via the guidance of my professors, I took a deep dive, headfirst, into a region few people know much about.
And the best part is, I’ve only just scratched the surface.
So how does this all tie back into my grand escapade from Almaty to Tbilisi? How did I go from reading The Railway by Hamid Ishmailov as a sophomore at Tulane to, three years later, being stopped at 3am by the Uzbek military for carrying The Railway by Hamid Ishmailov across the Uzbek/Kazakh border?
The answer is simple: having had the privilege to study within a department that actively prioritized the Post Soviet space’s minority communities, I caught a glimpse of the beauty, complexity, and vibrancy of an often overlooked region of the world. As I passed through four years at Tulane, this glimpse grew into an overwhelming fascination. And then, as I graduated from Tulane, I knew that this fascination would be a permanent fixture in my personal and professional lives, one which would guide my future goals as I continued to dive deeper into the region.
I chose to follow this passion halfway across the world, leading me on adventures and intellectual journeys I would never have thought possible just a few years prior. I trekked to tiny villages and strolled through big cities, attended services in cozy Eastern Orthodox churches nestled in the mountains and wandered through massive Madrasahs in the desert. Across each of these, my experience was grounded in a deep curiosity - developed over the years prior - about their role in the local culture and my perception of the Post-Soviet world overall.
This is going to sound cheesy (and no, I’m not paid to say this), but Tulane’s Germanic and Slavic Studies Department changed the way I see the world and permanently altered the trajectory of my life. I am grateful, on a level that I can’t quite express in writing, to Dr. Zhigunova and Dr. Brumfield for the inspiration they have handed to me.
I only hope that you can follow the same path. Personally, I think Georgia is where it’s at… and not just because of the amazing food… or wine. Georgia is a deeply fascinating country for myriad reasons, cultural and political. Its tumultuous relationship with Russia and Europe puts it subtly at the center of modern geopolitics, while its food, art, and music are breathtaking in their own right.
But for you, the opportunity to go out and learn about these places is there. Maybe it’ll be Uzbekistan, maybe Chechnya, maybe the Circassian diaspora in New Jersey. Or maybe you’ll treat this opportunity as a way to just gain a deeper look into new cultures, whether you want to study them further or not.
Regardless, all you have to do is sign up for a class… or two… or maybe nine. Heck, just go ahead and major in Russian already.
Alright, that’s all from me. In lieu of an eloquent Georgian toast, ჭაჭის დროა!