Russian Community Grows in Eugene
A sudden influx of both native and non-native Russian students is ushering in an all-time high of interest in Russian culture and language at the University of Oregon. The number of students enrolled in Russian and Eastern European (REES) classes, as well as the number offered, has almost doubled since the 1990s. The change may reflect the pride native Russians hold in their culture as well as the larger scale of Russian relations with the rest of the world. Either way, the popularity of Russian is growing, and the University’s REES department is taking advantage of the change.
“When I first started studying the language in the 1980s, it was extremely popular,” explains Jenifer Presto, REES and Comparative Literature associate professor. “It was sort of like studying the ‘forbidden fruit’ of communism. But after the Soviet Union fell, so did interest in learning Russian.” Now, Presto says, Russian studies are on an upswing as people grow more interested in the former Soviet countries.
Katya Hokanson, REES associate professor and director of the REES Center, says that undoubtedly the University’s REES department reflects this new surge in Russian interest. The number of study abroad options has increased exponentially giving students more changes to study as far away as Irkutsk, Siberia, and Odessa, Ukraine. More and more high-level classes have been added to the REES course listing and, according to REES professor Julia Nemirovskaya, there’s an upsurge of interest and participation in the University’s Russian theater department.
“We get a bigger turn-out each year for the play,” says Nemirovskaya of the bilingual English-Russian play she directs and that the REES department produces each year. “It draws together the local Russian community and it has been a great opportunity for non-native speakers to familiarize themselves with the Russian arts. With each year, I feel more optimistic that we can expand the program and reach out to more people.”
Hokanson attributes this overall growth in the REES department in large part to the current events of the world. Russian is an in-demand language for government, business, and other professions, and its role as an international player in the world market is growing, even more so with the upcoming Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Native Russians that retain strong links to their roots and community and then come to the University tend to stay involved, Presto adds. Within the REES department, more upper division and native speaker courses are offered each year to accommodate those who are already familiar with the language and culture. In 2009, Russian studies hit an all-time peak with over 2,500 credit hours logged. Comparatively, in 2000 the program recorded just over 1,500 credit hours. Hokanson says there’s also been a steep rise in the number of declared Russian majors, both for non-native and native speakers.
“We continually try and strengthen our program in response to increased enrollment,” she says. “Those who have never taken Russian before have the ability to interact with native speakers in the department and there are so many more opportunities than before to utilize Russian language skills. There are more job demands, more internship abroad options, more everything.”
Simply put, studying Russia has become a red-hot trend. Native speakers can more easily earn a job with their Russian expertise while other non-Russian speakers simply take up the language wanting in on the global demand.
“In general, I think that because Russia is beginning to open itself up so much more to the West, its culture is beginning to translate over here,” Hokanson says. “All the Soviet countries previously shut off from the rest of the world are more accessible and their cultures are now attracting a wider audience.”
REES graduate student Yulia Kulikova agrees. Now in her second year at the UO, the native Muscovite explains that the globalization of the world attributes to the rising cultural significance of her home. Westerners can now buy luxury property in Moscow, handle business in St. Petersburg, and tour the land as far north as Siberia. And even all the post-Soviet era “stans” (i.e. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, etc) have slowly but surely begun to take note of the West.
“Travel has become so much easier,” Kulikova says. “It used to be so hard to get into the country and getting work visas were impossible to obtain. But now, that’s all changed. People can go back and forth between countries, and this culture exchange has opened up Russia to more opportunities to share our culture to the rest of the world.”
But beyond the economics of business opportunities and world politics, Nemirovskaya says that the overall Russian mystique adds to the allure of studying Russian. The nineteenth century brought in an unprecedented wave of pride in Russian culture with a surge in writers (think the great Pushkin, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc); composers (Tchaikovsky); ballerinas (Pavlova); and more. This was followed by the twentieth century’s great scientific advances. Nobel Prize winners in medicine, chemistry, and physics, and the great cosmonaut missions into space helped propel Russia to international recognition.
“We have an extremely rich, unparalleled culture,” explains Nemirovskaya of her native homeland. “Even throughout communism and totalitarian regimes, we’ve maintained a culture the whole world has benefited from. Russian scholars are considered some of the finest in the world and our influence in the arts continues to this day.”
Moving from Moscow in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nemirovskaya explains that although Russian history has been plagued with corruption, communism, and totalitarian regimes, it’s impossible to not have pride for their homeland.
“We all know the bad history,” she says, waving her hand dismissively. “But we still love our Russia. It’s about having a national pride, a national heritage. We still talk fondly of our home country, even if we have immigrated elsewhere.”
This certain Russian pride has led the local immigrant populations to form strong ties with their heritage. It’s not unusual for children of Russian immigrants to grow up bilingual, seamlessly blending into American life while retaining a very culturally Russian lifestyle at home. According to Nemirovskaya, it’s the norm to make sure that all children can at least read and write with the Cyrillic alphabet (usually local churches offer classes) and speak in Russian with family members.
Within Eugene, the Russian community seems to congregate in the largest numbers at the local Russian-speaking church: St. John Wonderworker Serbian Orthodox Church. The church caters to members of Slavic ancestry by leading annual traditional Russian celebrations and routinely accommodating Russian speakers with different services and activities for those who aren’t fluent in English. And according to Reverend Father David Dubliner, there are about fifty or so families of Eastern European descent involved in his parish.
And while Dubliner says he doesn’t have exact figures for any rise of Russian speakers coming to Sunday services, he has noted an increased presence of Russians overall involved with the church. He estimates that their attendance has grown to about one-third of the total congregation. It doesn’t hurt that the gospel choir director speaks Russian and that the Russian community itself is a tight-knit one that gathers in large numbers during major religious holidays. Additionally, Nemirovskaya and Kulikova are both active within the church (Nemirovskaya regularly does Russian literature and theater presentations).
“From what I’ve noticed, Oregon has one of the best Russian communities in the states,” Kulikova says. “The church has been great in that it draws together a large number of native speakers and in general, it’s nice to go where there are others who understand your language, your culture.”
Through such ways, the Russian community has assimilated itself into American life while retaining cultural values. However, Presto notes that Westerners have a muted idea of what Russian culture is, but that the country has more than good vodka, Olympic medals, and cold weather.
“The culture is so vibrant and interesting that, ultimately, it goes beyond the political and economic fluctuations in the world,” she says. “Everyone’s heard of the great Tolstoy or the great Baryshnikov. There’s this Russian intrigue that compels so many people.”