Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Mission to Moscow (and also Kaliningrad, Arkhangelsk, and Saint-Petersburg)

On Saturday morning, I'll be travelling to Russia for the second time in my life.  I'll be making short visits to Kaliningrad, Arkhangelsk, and Saint-Petersburg.  In the space of two weeks, my small Fulbright delegation of community college administrators will visit Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, Kalinigrad State Technical University, State Polytechnical University, Smolny College (The Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences), the University of Information Technologies (Mechanics and Optics), Northern (Arctic) Federal University, and Krasnogorsk State College.  We'll also the American Center and the American embassy in Moscow.  Over the past eight years, I've gradually become obssessed with Russia, but I'm always reminded of the Don DeLillo novel, White Noise, in which a professor invents a brand new academic field of inquiry, Hitler Studies, only to become increasingly embarrassed by the fact that he knows no German whatsoever. On my second visit to Russia, I'm acutely aware that it's time to learn Russian.  Like DeLillo's character in White Noise, the academic conference is about to begin, I'm headed for ever greater levels of humiliation if I don't find myself a Russian language course or immersion experience in the very near future.

As I prepare for my Mission to Moscow, I reflect on my professional life.  Shouldn't everybody have a chance to go abroad for professional development?  I think so, and to this end I secured permission for my college to join a consortium of international programs.  This consortium will allow my college to send a faculty member and a staff member to Holland, Finland, or China, each and every year.  More than that, the consortium will allow my college to host international vistors from each of these countries.  I'm also excited by the consortium's student exchange programs.  Over time, my hope is to send many of my college's unprivileged students overseas to add a truly global dimension to their programs of study.

Leaving for Russia also comes in the context of my newly formed Russian literature book club.  This club takes place in the context of a youth services facility for at risk high school students.  This week, I showed a few slides about Russia, and we read the first half of Gogol's famous work, The Greatcoat (i.e., The Overcoat).    On my first recent reading of this book, I was struck by how Gogol ridiculed Akaky Akakiyevich as a penny-pinching, pendantic clerk whose only joy in life seemed to be copying what other people had written.  Gogol seemed to be critiquing everything about the poor soul, including his asceticism, materialism, penury, slavishness, and sexless life.  If Akaky Akakiyevich was consumed with the ideal of possessing a new coat, how small was his inner life?  Shouldn't everybody, nobody how poor, be interested in something beyond a new coat?

On a second reading of the short story, I started to see the other side of Akaky Akakiyevich.  Perhaps my move from Robert Chandler's translation to Christopher English's translation of the story helped me to gain this new perspective.  Certainly Richard Peace's introduction to Gogol's Plays and Peterburg Tales made a difference.  For Peace argues that Akaky Akakiyevich couldn't have been as poor as his is made out to be.  After all, he wasn't unemployed, didn't spend money unnecessarily, and he had absolutely no family to support.  So perhaps A.A.'s lifestyle was a choice.  Perhaps he actually enjoyed his spartan life.  At the very least, we can say that the hero of The Greatcoat had a Zen-like ability to take pleasure in life as it is.  If one is a copyist, shouldn't one throw oneself in the work?  If he wasn't a Zen Buddhist, perhaps his abstemious lifestyle had elements of the Christian martyr.  Although St. Petersburg was clearly a status-obssessed, bureaucratic world of rank and privilege, Akaky Akakiyevich lived a humble life of service toward others, free from any hint of sensuality.  His life was a life of service, and included regular bouts of mockery from those who immersed themselves in St. Petersburg usual routines.

At any rate, the students haven't finished the story yet.  We're waiting for the ghost to show up to spice up the story.  In the meantime, they seemed interested in my trip to Russia.  None of them has had the chance to travel overseas, and few of them seem interested in venturing abroad.  They asked me whether I thought I'd be kidnapped overseas, or why I even wanted to go anywhere else.  Surprisingly, I was grateful for the chance to talk about some of the prejudices Americans regularly encounter when deadling with other societies.  I also had the chance to discuss some basics concepts of international law and diplomacy.  Upon my return, I'll show the students pictures of my visit and hopefully get them interested in learning more about Russia, or about any foreign people.

Some snippets from Gogo's The Greatcoat:

"As for his rank (and with us rank is the first thing that has to be declared), he was of the genus eternal Titular Councillor..."

"The boy was duly christened, and in the process he started crying and pulled an awful face as if he were having premonitions that one day he might become a titular councillor."

"The young officials would mock him and make fun at his expense to the limits of their clerkish wit..."

"...for no Russian, regardless of his condition, can ever renounce high society.."

[He] "had been hitting the bottle, the one-eyed devil."

"Thus the whole of Holy Russia is polluted by imitation--everyone copies and apes his superior."

"And Petersburg was left without Akaky Akakiyevich, just if he had never been there at all."

"Dead and gone was a being whom no one, not even a naturalist always ready to mount even an ordinary fly on a pin and examine it under a microscope, had ever shown an interest;  a being who had patiently endured the mockery of his office colleagues and who had gone to his grave without excessive fuss..."

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