For months I have thought about the things I want to say about this year, 2022. So much has interfered with just sitting down to write, a combination of worry about friends and colleagues as well as trying to navigate a rapidly changing environment for study abroad and international business. Now, as we find ourselves clearly entering a new era, it is time to both reflect and talk about the future with some coherence.
I am in great part addressing this to my colleagues and contemporaries and yet there is relevance to the younger generation, those who come to study with us. If nothing else, it expands on the story we set about telling in our 25th anniversary cookbook, which doubled as a history of our organization and of study abroad in general.
Many of you reading this are affected directly by events in our region. You have friends, relatives, colleagues there – or maybe they have left. You have dedicated your lives to studying and teaching this region, the Russian language and culture in particular. Each of you faces challenges now and going forward.
SRAS celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2021. This was a moment for us to think about what it was that we had accomplished over that time. We’d spent our lives building bridges, connecting people, sharing the rich history and culture of the post-soviet space, and in particular, Russia. I spent over five years living in Russia, making incredible friends, participating in what I believed would be an integration of Russia into the global community as we knew it. Every once in a while, I’d play “Wind of Change” (Scorpions) for a nostalgic moment. Seriously.
As we came out of COVID – at least partially – I decided it was time for a trip I’d dreamed about for quite some time: visiting Irkutsk and Lake Baikal in winter. I wanted to completely immerse myself in Russian language, culture, food, and the incredible nature of one of my favorite places on the planet. This was late January 2022. The trip was all of that and more. It is difficult to even think about now, almost like it was another lifetime. Two weeks of intensive language study with our colleagues at Irkutsk State University, working to redesign our programming in Irkutsk – and realizing my dream of visiting Olkhon.
Had I known that it might be my last trip to Russia for some time, an as-of-yet very undefined period of time, I would have perhaps cried.
Since late February, there has been little time to think, beyond the immediate issues of trying to help our friends and colleagues in Ukraine, sensing the shock and dismay of our colleagues in Russia, evacuating students from Russia to Bishkek, and mapping out a busy summer that would be concentrated two locations (rather than our usual six). What did sink in over these last several months, however, is that this is not a temporary disruption. This is a fundamental shift, we do not know yet the full implications, and unlike COVID, where we knew there would eventually be a “back to business” moment, that is far from the case now.
As our summer would see all students directed toward Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Batumi (Georgia), I decided it was time to revisit not only these locations, but also Armenia. We would need an additional location to accommodate the many students who could no longer look to Russia or Ukraine as options for study abroad.
I have to admit, part of my objective at the time was to find another place where I might find some peace. I was looking for a place to walk, clear my head. The itinerary proposed seemed to involve an awful lot of monasteries. I thought, OK, fine, it didn’t seem there was an alternative. What I realized was that these monasteries just so happen to be in the most beautiful settings. They might as well be national park headquarters. Locals went there often to just picnic; I saw firewood for sale outside of one of the more popular destinations. As Armenia is also a country with a troubled history, I guess I found some comfort in finding these places of peace and beauty there. It gave some hope that a country and a people can make it through dark times.
We are now heading into another season, hosting students in Bishkek and Tbilisi this fall and spring and looking to be in five study sites (Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and Poland) in summer 2023. It is our greatest hope that we and our students will eventually return to Ukraine and Russia. Until then, we have other locations in which students can make great progress with Russian language while also immersing themselves in the local culture and history.
We will be posting another blog entry soon talking about these new locations and why we chose them in the coming days. Stay tuned!