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The Carletonian

For Russian majors, Tolstoy and Ballet over tanks and bombs

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When junior and senior Russian majors signed up for classes in their freshman fall, the US’s old foe was regarded as the cranky but quiescent rump of a decaying empire. That changed in an instant when Russian special forces – “little green men” – siezed the Crime- an peninsula from Ukraine in the first hostile alteration in European borders since the fall of the Third Reich.

Shortly thereafter, Putin fomented rebellion in Ukraine’s pro-Russian Donbas region. Russian arms and troops poured over the border. The ensuing insurrection has cost nearly 6,000 lives and left East-West relations at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War.

However, Russian majors are keen to emphasize that to study Russia is not to endorse it.

“One of the main reasons I decided to start studying Russian was my interest in Russian politics, but that doesn’t mean I agree with Putin or support him,” says Gretchen Fernholz, a junior Russian major at Carleton.

In the past year, there have been varying degrees of Russian activity in Ukraine, ranging from riots in the Crimea, to military intervention in eastern Ukraine. Over the last few months, Putin has increased military operations.

While at home or in other places around the country, students who study Russian have to explain that they are not in fact pro-Russia, but are merely interested in the topic.

Most Russian majors seem to agree with Putin’s actions about as much as anyone else. Some don’t necessarily support Putin, but say he may be unfairly judged at times. Even native Russians at Carleton disagree on their evaluation of Putin.

Taya Zinina, the current Russian teacher’s assistant who is from Moscow, says she supports Putin. “I don’t agree with invading Ukraine, Ukrainians and Russians are friends, but Putin has given my family and many in Russia some economic prosperity to the middle class, so I feel I should support him.”

The majority of people in Russia share Taya’s opinion, although this opinion might change in light of the current economic crisis in Russia.

Anna Dotlibova, a Russian teacher who lives in Moscow over breaks, feels that Putin is too aggressive, both in invading Ukraine and in controlling the media in Russia. She says that she is often perceived as supporting Putin just because she is from Russia, and that not everyone actually agrees with what Putin says and does.

Indeed, one current Russian 102 student joked that at home, some people were worried he would start defending Russia because he was studying the language.

Fernholz explains that some of the prejudice towards students who study Russian comes from a lack of understanding of Russian perspective, “In America, we have democracy and assume that no matter what Putin does it will be bad, because he behaves in an authoritarian way. In Russia it is different, authoritarianism is the historical norm, and so Putin’s actions are very familiar.“

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