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As Russia Takes Ukraine, Carls Take on Russia

<lomatic ties between the United States and Russia have been recently shaken by the crisis in Crimea. To better understand how these strained foreign relations might impact life at Carleton College, The Carletonian reached out to two Carls studying abroad in Russia for perspectives closer to the action. I interviewed sophomores Chet Aldrich (Computer Science/Mathematics) and Gretchen Fernholz (Russian). Although they have only spent about two weeks abroad, their accounts detail some of the challenges and insights that accompany off-campus studies in politically charged spheres of the world. For more information, visit the Carleton Moscow and Beyond 2014 blog at

Q: Has anyone commented on the fact that you are an American visiting Russia?

Chet: Yes. Sadly, it’s mostly because of my awful accent. However, it hasn’t really been an issue for anyone here. We’ve met some other American groups and they haven’t had any issues. For instance, there was an American group that came in a few days ago for studies here at Moscow State University, and they were loudly speaking to one another in English in the foyer leading to the dormitories. Nobody seemed to mind.

Q: How do the Russians with whom you’ve interacted feel about the United States and its citizens?

Chet: I have spoken to many Russian natives and they’ve expected us to be like the people they see in American films. That is, perhaps a little bit boisterous. For most of the Russians I have talked to, film and news are the only things they have to draw their conceptions from.

Q: Have you talked to anyone in Russia about the Crimean conflict, or is there an unspoken rule that you aren’t supposed to talk about it?

Gretchen: One student told us that he and the majority of his friends completely support Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine. He thinks the country is absolutely justified in its actions. When we asked why, he said that every country has a right to pursue its national interests. In this case, Russia is wary of the preponderance of American military bases that dot Eastern Europe. He said that it’s important for Russians to have strong borders, and that makes sense; historically, Russia has been invaded countless times, so it’s better to have a buffer zone between it and the neighbors it isn’t particularly fond of.

Q: What is the general feeling in Russia right now regarding the Crimea conflict? Is it tense?   

Gretchen: The student I mentioned above made the point that America is keen on intervening in foreign conflicts that take place in faraway countries—we seldom have wars on our own soil. He said that Russian actions in Crimea are partly justified by a perceived Western military threat, brought on by proximity to West-controlled military bases. The most interesting thing he mentioned was that the conversation among Russians has shifted away from the Crimea situation (which is essentially settled), to other parts of Ukraine that have expressed the potential desire to join the Russian Federation. They don’t see this as a problem because, in his words, the new government of Ukraine is illegitimate and doesn’t hold any legal power.

Q: What atmosphere did you expect to encounter in Russia? Did you expect it to be more or less tense due to the recent conflict?

Chet: Given the emails that we initially got from the embassy, I did feel a little bit anxious before I arrived here. In fact, I have been avoiding wearing jeans and speaking in English as much as possible to avoid being labeled as an American. It has not been a problem, though, and I don’t think it has had much bearing on my overall experience here in Moscow—especially since I haven’t noticed much, if any, anti-American sentiment. That being said, I was recently assaulted outside Moscow by some drunkards who I bumped into on the way up some stairs near a train platform. I don’t know if they identified me as American, but the group had had an encounter with them earlier, so it’s certainly possible. It’s only been two weeks, so I figure I have a ways to go before I can really give a fair opinion of this place, and the people here. There’s also a possibility (probably more likely) that they were just a bunch of drunks looking for a fight. However, it did really show the difference in life between Moscow and the rest of the country, even only three hours away.

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