My experience during my Cornelisen Fellowship was a blast. I went with three goals: to improve my Russian; to study post-Soviet states; and more generally, to examine all those parts of Russia that aren’t relegated to Moscow or Saint-Petersburg. My program was in two parts. First I spent three weeks enrolled in the Tallinn University intensive Russian program, and then I spent the following two weeks traveling across Russia on the trans-Siberian railroad, all the way to Vladivostok.
In Tallinn, I tested into the advanced Russian course with a motley crew of two Italians, one Finn, and two Americans; our teacher, who was born in Russia but emigrated to Estonia, was an involved, dedicated woman who never got tired of my constant strings of questions about Estonian identity and her own migration. Our discussions generally revolved around the summer school cultural program, which we participate in during the afternoon, and involves a number of lectures (my favorites were on the Estonian economy—who knew Skype was an Estonian company?—and the history of Estonian art), weekend trips to neighboring Estonian cities such as Tartu, guided tours in the local art museums, tours of the cities bastions, and its winding Medieval streets. Historically I was most impressed by how this country, whose entire history is defined by subjugation, still manages to define itself as a unique cultural and political entity.
Estonians have a fascinating history. In a nutshell, from the very founding of the Medieval city of Tallinn, Estonia has been successively occupied or controlled by one of its powerful neighbors, such as the Danes, the Livonian Knights, the Swedes, the Imperialist Russians, the Nazis, and the Soviet Russians, with only very brief respites of independence. True independence was established after the fall of the Soviet Empire. The Soviet occupation was so brutal, (it was based on a program of cultural genocide, eradicating all things Estonian, even bulldozing graveyards to erase cultural memory), that when the Nazis briefly took power, the Estonians welcomed the Nazi armies as liberators. You know you are in hell when the prospect of a Nazi invasion inspires hope.
Nothing, however, was more inspiring than watching videos from the 1991 “Singing Revolution”, which stretched across all the Baltic States as a result of the fall of the Soviet Empire. As its name implies, the revolution was a remarkably peaceful one, and Estonians were faced with the challenge of establishing their own system of self-government, economy, and culture. The Kumu Art Museum was in my opinion the most valuable representation of this effort to define Estonian identity, as it demonstrated the winding route Estonian art took from the fascination that early 19th century German artists took with the idealization of the Estonian peasant, to the Soviet period where large, formal paintings depicting happy Estonians freely and graciously handing over Estonia to the communists, to present art which, while often very personal and specific in subject matter, as a whole is constantly struggling with the difficulty of creating something uniquely Estonian without relying on the precedents set by another people. By far my favorite work of art in Tallinn was the Jewish Synagogue, a testament to freedom of speech with architecture that speaks for itself.
The trans-Siberian offered me a number of epiphanies. While I spent the majority of my time looking out the window, reading, walking up and down the train meeting passengers, and stepping off to bargain with babushkas, these ideas dawned on me slowly. The first of which is the most obvious: Russia is enormous—plainly enormous. And when you sit there on the train for a really, really long time, looking out the window, just chugging away the landscape, you start to come to a new understanding of this fact. Your sense of time gets pretty zonked while you are on the train, and one thing I noticed was the vast majority of the cities we stopped at were small, post-industrial cities, cities that had been built because of the railway, and whose economies depended on the railway. Yet these many cities are still few and far between when you look at what an expanse you’re traveling across—Russia, for all its size, holds almost all its people and money in the two nodes that are Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. Out East, these people are practically off the map of government concern, apart from major lumber and oil industry operations.
The other thing I realized was the border between Mongolia, China, and Russia is, for all intents and purposes, defined by this railway; tensions over Chinese border encroachment would make the trans-Siberian a modern Rubicon. Finally, and this was the most harrowing realization, because the trans-Siberian runs primarily along the southern border of Russia, you forget that there is a huge amount of land up north in Siberia, enormous tracts of land that, as far as I can tell, there is only very limited access to. The Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka, for example, has no infrastructure with the main body of Russia, and is only accessible by ship and by plane (though it is physically connected to Russia). Looking at this enormous amount of mostly empty territory, I still marvel at the fact that Russia’s control here was established by the construction of the railroad, and to this day depends on it. While on the one hand, one might look at the untapped wealth of land and natural resources in Eastern Russia as indicative of Russia’s ability to remain a world power well into the 21st century, I am skeptical. Government corruption makes such a venture extremely difficult. Moreover, I still cannot tell to what extent the Russian government directs its gaze eastward. Powerful neighbors such as North Korea, and especially the booming economic and military power that is China seriously threaten Russian dominion over these lands, and whether or not they remain in Russia’s control over the course of the next century is, in my opinion, extremely tenuous.
I’d like to conclude by thanking the Cornelisen Fellowship fund for providing me this experience. It was a once in a lifetime journey, and I learned so much from it. What an expanse!