Siberia and Soil

For "Siberia and Soil" (IV3).

Spending several months in urban and rural Russia might not be high on your list of wannados, but for Erin Fenton, such cultural immersion offered a rich experience — one she knew God was present in. Would Greece be more to your liking? Well, if you want to be on your knees scraping dirt in a cemetery under the hot Mediterranean sun, it could be a great addition to the Russian plunge as it was for Erin, a senior in classics and anthropology at Macalester College. We’ve asked her to tell us a little more about her time in both countries. Erin, tell us a little more about yourself and how and why you decided to study in Russia and Greece.

Erin: This fall I’ll be a senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, where I’m majoring in classics with an emphasis in archaeology and minoring in anthropology. I’ve also completed many art history courses and have a strong interest in both modern and ancient languages.

I chose Russia as my study abroad destination for a variety of reasons. In a course I completed in early spring 2006, I worked extensively on an independent project researching the material culture of Soviet Russia. While in Russia later in the spring, I continued this research in both Siberia and western Russia. I also wanted to learn to speak Russian. I chose my specific program because it offered a very diverse curriculum: half of the semester was to be spent in urban and rural Siberia (Irkutsk and Buryatia) and half in St. Petersburg.

My time in Greece was much different from my time in Russia. It was actually my second trip to Greece, so it was a much more familiar setting. I spent a month working on my academic advisor’s archaeology project in Kenchreai, Greece (near Ancient Corinth). What did you do in these places? How were they alike or different from each other?

Erin: The beginning of my time in Russia was spent in Irkutsk, a medium-sized city in eastern Siberia. While there, I was in school at Baikal University. There were six other American students in my group, none of whom I knew before arriving in Russia. We had about four hours of language class six days a week, along with regular lectures given by Russian professors on anthropological field methods, politics in Russia, nationalism, and cultural studies of Asian and European Russia (often focusing on the theme of Russia and the West). In all the places I studied, I stayed with families.

The second part of my time in Siberia involved a few stays in rural villages. One was in the village of Orlik in Buryatia, a Buddhist autonomous region on the border of Mongolia. The second stay was in a village called Deciatnikavo, which was also in Buryatia but was populated by Old Believers (Christians who follow the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church prior to the reforms that occurred in 1666). Both villages are rural and isolated in the valleys of the Siam Mountains. Orlik thrives as a community with a growing population. It has an established tourism industry and an active and multi-lingual school. Culturally, it’s based firmly in Asian traditions and religion, the population being ethnically Buryat, with more in common with their Mongolian neighbors than Russians.

Deciatnikavo is composed of an aging population with ethnic roots in western Russia. It was once the home of one of the most successful collective farms during Soviet times but has faced many economic and social challenges since Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Following my time in Siberia I spent a week in Moscow before settling into St. Petersburg for the remaining half of the semester. In St. Petersburg I again stayed with a family with whom I spoke only Russian. I attended classes similar to in Irkutsk during the first portion of my time in St. Petersburg. The second half of this stay was an independent-study period during which I did a research project regarding the modern Russian family.

I left Russia in mid-June for Greece where I would spend a month doing archaeological work. The pace of life in Greece was much different than that of Russia, as was my daily routine. I was working with other students and professors from Macalester and other universities through the Kenchreai Cemetery Project. This is a project focusing on a Roman harbor in the northern Peloponnese. Work days here consisted of digging in the field as well as pottery cleaning, analysis, and cataloging. This is the second time I’ve worked on this project. I chose it because it’s applicable to my major and I’m interested in the Ancient Mediterranean. What aspects or events do you remember most from your experiences? What will you treasure most?

Erin: My experiences in Russia and Greece were very different culturally and experience-wise. Rural Siberia and Lake Baikal were some of my favorite experiences, and I was also able to form strong relationships with some of my host families. St. Petersburg was a gorgeous city and I’m grateful for the various cultural experiences I had there. Russia was challenging, but I’ve gained an ability to cope with completely unexpected situations and have become more confident as a person. Culturally, I now have a much different view of the American way of life with regard to materialism, political mindset and religion — and I’m still processing all that. I also gained some very close friends through the experiences I shared with the other American students.

The excavation in Greece focused more upon academic research and was a more familiar situation for me. I was with fellow Macalester students and had been there before. It was a good transition period prior to returning to the U.S.

By staying with host families I experienced culture and daily life outside of a university setting. While in Siberia I had a very young host brother and interacted with many of the children in the Buryat village. I fondly remember ice skating in Orlik with several young children. My Russian was not very well developed then, and the children spoke both accented Russian and their native Buryat. Regardless of the communication difficulties, that afternoon with them showed me that there is something very universal about children and childhood.

While in St Petersburg I grew close to my host mother, Olga. She’s a retired organic chemist and we would have tea and meals together every day. I learned a lot from her about what Soviet life is like on a practical level, rather than learning only the political elements shown in history books. Is there any time you especially sensed God with you or around you in your time abroad?

Erin: Definitely. My experience in Irkutsk was quite trying and having a spiritual base made my time there doable. The people in Siberia, regardless of religious differences, had a much more vibrant sense of spirituality and integration of God into daily life. A typical view of Siberia is one of bleak desolation and vast, uninhabited expanse… not exactly what one would think of as a godly environment. But precisely the opposite was true. In Deciatnikavo, I found that God and faith held their village together. Following the collapse of their successful collective farm, the inhabitants in the village have had only their own subsistence as a focus for their work and survival. Their faith has kept the culture alive.

In contrast, when I was in St. Petersburg, I went to the Orthodox Easter services at Our Lady of Kazan cathedral, one of the biggest churches in St Petersburg. On arrival, I didn’t expect to be moved, since it was so public (the service was televised) and crowded. When I entered the cathedral, though, I was overwhelmed by the silence and austerity in a way I wasn’t expecting. How would you describe your re-entry into U.S. culture?

Erin: Re-entry into the U.S. has been both difficult and surreal. The first and strangest thing I experienced was having everything in English! I’d spent a lot of time functioning in other languages, so it took some effort to reacclimate to an English-speaking culture. I was shocked by the material wealth and excess of American culture when I first re-encountered it as well. I wasn’t sure how to act during my first few weeks in America and am still working on ways to talk about my experiences. I find myself both more critical of American culture but also more grateful for the political freedoms, privacy and comforts we do have. I think a real test of how much I have re-adjusted will come when I return to school this fall! What issues of faith and social justice did you encounter abroad? How did you find yourself reacting to either faith or social issues?

Erin: Faith in Russia is a complex issue. First of all, under the Soviet regimes, Russia was technically under forced atheism, but this was not universally observed. Many Russians (including many high-ranking members of the Communist party) maintained their Orthodox beliefs in private. My host mother in St. Petersburg is devoutly Orthodox, attends church regularly and is learning Church Slavonic (the language of the Russian Orthodox Church, related to ancient Greek). In contrast, her husband never returned to the Church after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like I said earlier, the village of Orlik near Mongolia was primarily Buddhist and had a lama in the village who performed various ceremonies as needed. This culture was much more Shamanistic. The Old Believers in Deciatnikavo followed practices much closer to that of the Orthodox Church but had a local religious leader. In both Deciatnikavo and St. Petersburg, I was present during the time of Lent when strict dietary restrictions were followed. In Orlik I was purified by the village lama during a ceremony and visited several active Buddhist temples. Of course, as a result of such a prolonged period of atheism, many people throughout Russia still don’t follow any particular doctrine.

With regard to social problems, much of what I saw was a result of the transition from communism to capitalism and a democratic state. The tumultuous Russian economy has made life difficult over the past decade or so. The most prominent social problems in Russia are probably alcoholism, racism and a declining population. Politically, civil society simply doesn’t exist in Russia yet. As a nation and culture it has innumerable resources as yet untapped by the world. With more time and more reforms it could easily become a major player in international politics. Having spent time in Russia and studying its history and culture I have realized just how intricate the social difficulties faced by Russia — and the world — really are. What went through your mind and heart during the Buddhist purification ceremony?

Erin: He burned jasmine incense and went through a ceremony involving chants and a gong. At first I was very unsure of what was happening and the experience felt surreal. I felt very accepted by the village community during the ceremony. I was amazed that they would do something this intimate for foreign guests. I also wished I knew more of their specific local religion since it would have given me a better understanding of what was going on. When it was finished he gave me (and the others in my group) seeds of grain to put in a sacred place as well as seeds of grass to crush in our fingers for purification. I still have both of these. When we left his small temple we walked three times around the building, which is customary. What do you hope your study abroad experience will do for you long term?

Erin: This experience has given me a much broader world-view and a much larger understanding of the amazing diversity of cultures. It has also significantly increased my language abilities and understanding. As far as career goes, I’m hoping to integrate my interests in languages and material culture (as in archaeology) at an international level, perhaps working in Cultural Resource Management. How might this experience affect your priorities or activities on campus this next term?

Erin: I am planning to be much more politically involved at Macalester this next term. I had become somewhat disenchanted with American politics but my time in Russia reinvigorated me. At Macalester it’s easy to put a disproportionate amount of weight into grades. I feel I’m returning with a desire to go beyond just studying. With regard to archaeology, I am hoping to work in my school’s archaeology lab as well. I have also returned to the U.S. much more academically focused and motivated. It has helped me to determine some of the paths I’d like to take in my career, and has helped put things such as graduate school into perspective. Would you recommend study abroad to other students?

Erin: Definitely! Study abroad fosters a sense of independence and self-reliability while also giving you a new perspective on your own culture as well as that of others. It can be very challenging but I think the gains far outweigh the difficulties.