Spending 38 hours in transit may not be the most ideal finale to a trip to Siberia, but on June 19, 20 HWSers did it-and lived to tell the tale of a life-changing experience in the vast, beautiful, sparsely populated Russian territory.
Spending a month immersed in the cultural richness of all walks of Russian life, the group was composed of 17 students and three HWS faculty members, Associate Professor of Anthropology Jeffrey Anderson, Assistant Professor of Biology Meghan Brown, and the project director, Assistant Professor of Russian Area Studies Kristen Welsh.
The program, “Modern Siberia: Ecology and Culture,” was funded by a grant from the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad (FHGPA) Short-term Seminar Program, which provided nearly $85,000 of the total project costs that were supplemented with funds from HWS and from program participants.
During this past spring, in preparation for the trip, the students-whose majors range from Russian to biology, English to political science-met every other week in a Readers College with Anderson, Brown and Welsh. Readers College 102-06-“Modern Siberia: An Introduction”-gave students a grasp of the history of Siberia and current issues relating to the region’s culture, economy and environment, with a focus on the Trans-Baikal region of Eastern Siberia.
After arriving in Russia and taking a day in Moscow to visit the Graveyard of Fallen Monuments, Red Square and the Cold War Museum (in an underground bunker), the group flew to Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia and a major cosmopolitan hub of northern Asia.
While in Irkutsk, students undertook 10 days of intensive language study at Irkutsk State Linguistic University, combined with studying the history, ethnography, and high culture of the region. They also visited museums and closely interacted with Russians during home-stays.
“There were very different experiences among the students, regardless of past experiences in Russia or abroad,” Brown says, “but I think many were surprised at the difference in the family structure and family interactions.”
“It was wonderful to be in a country that has a different culture and set of values than our own,” says Trista Harris ’09, MAT ’10, a biology major and environmental studies minor.
“Russia seems to have a lot of dualities,” says Tyler Wood ’10, an English major and Russian area studies minor. “People in the streets don’t look you in the eye, sometimes are pushy, but when you’re in a Russian home, they’re incredibly warm and open and generous.”
The students took excursions around Irkutsk and a weekend trip to Ulan-Ude, a city on the east side of Lake Baikal and the capital of the Buryat Republic. An ethnic minority living in southern Siberia, the Buryat people have tried to maintain a strong sense of history, which is influenced by Buddhism and shamanism and had been until recently oppressed by the Soviet regime.
“Students were thrown into a place not fully established on the tourist superhighway,” says Anderson.
During their time in the city, the students toured an outdoor ethnographic museum, which featured reconstructed archaeological dwellings, examples of local traditionally designed houses and an Old Believer church. While in the area, the group also visited a village of the Old Believers, a schismatic sect who broke from the mainstream Russian Orthodox Church in the late 17th century. “People in Ulan-Ude were very friendly,” Harris says. “Many times while walking on the streets and talking with some friends in English people would just come up to us and start asking questions about us and what it’s like to live in America and other questions about ourselves and families.”
While in the area, students studied ecotourism on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal under the leadership of a local expert. They also spent a day on a research vessel studying the limnology of Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake on Earth, where they learned how local conservationists work to preserve the lake from deforestation, illegal logging and pollution.
“It’s spectacularly beautiful-I don’t even have the words to describe it yet,” Anderson says.
“The Lake provided focus,” says Welsh. “Economic, biologic, cultural: local religious traditions ascribed spirits to the lake, there is local music about the lake. Environmental issues also held together many aspects of the trip.”
During the last week of the trip, students visited Bolshoe Goloustnoe, a village of 600, and volunteered for the Great Baikal Trail, an international non-profit organization, promoting sustainable development of Lake Baikal and its surrounding areas through low-impact ecotourism. This is the same trail that HWS students worked on during their trip in 2006.
Toward the end of the trip, the students volunteered in Bolshoe Goloustnoe at a local school and helped the students, from kindergarten through eighth grade, on projects about science and about American history and culture.
“I absolutely loved teaching the kids in Bolshoe Goloustnoe,” says Harris. “On the first day the kids went absolutely crazy-in a good way. It was their first encounter with us and we had a lot of hands on activities for them, so they were very excited.”
Upon returning to the United States, the group spent four days on the HWS campus completing final projects in which they compiled their experiences and insights so that they might be easily adaptable by local schools to teach about Siberia.
“We were struck by how profoundly engaged students were about understanding contradictions in wealth, gender, economy and politics,” says Anderson, Brown and Welsh. “The student experience was really remarkable.”
“It was fascinating to see the transformation of other people on the trip-to see us fitting into the culture,” says Wood, “or trying to the best of our ability.”
The 2009 program is based on the 2006 “Modern Siberia: Ecology, Economy and Culture” program, which was also funded by an FHGPA Short-term Seminar Program grant secured by the Russian Area Studies program.
“I think it’s a testament to a strong program that we received another grant,” Welsh says. “This trip encompassed some of the richest aspects of HWS-it was interdisciplinary, it was global, it was service oriented.”
The 2009 program “Modern Siberia: Ecology and Culture” was funded by a grant from the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad (FHGPA) initiative; this grant was secured in March 2008 by the Russian Area Studies Program at HWS. The Project Director for 2009 is Kristen Welsh (Assistant Professor, Russian Area Studies); the co-director is Meghan Brown (Assistant Professor, Biology), and the third key faculty member is Jeff Anderson (Visiting Associate Professor, Anthropology).
FHGPA funded 58.2%, or $84,997, of the total project costs; the additional 41.8% ($60,961) of project costs was covered through in-kind and matching funds from HWS and from program participants. The funding covered virtually all expenses for student participants, including international airfare, accommodations, excursions, course fees, and most meals.