By Rebecca Fiedler
Despite tensions built in the East between Russia and Ukraine over the past few weeks, the Baylor study abroad program in Russia isn’t turning back.
“I have absolutely no worries about sending our students right now,” said Dr. Adrienne Harris, assistant professor of Russian. “I suppose if things got very heated and there was some impact on visas, that of course would change the situation.”
There is only one Baylor student studying abroad in Russia: Highland Village junior Matt Brinzo. Brinzo is studying for the semester at Voronezh State University in southwestern Russia.
“One of the big advantages of studying in a place like Voronezch is that you’re not surrounded by other foreigners, like in St. Petersburg, so there are more opportunities for students to speak Russian and fewer opportunities to speak English,” Harris said.
He said since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baylor has had no issues sending one to six students per semester to study in Russia. In general, Harris said, she doesn’t think there would be any animosity from Russians towards American students. Russians typically know Americans are interested in Russia and learning about the country, she said.
“Almost always the response is positive,” Harris said. “Maybe the Russian people will want to talk about politics with our students and defend President Vladimir Putin, but as far as animosity towards students, there’d be nothing serious.”
Brinzo said Americans have advised him that it’s potentially dangerous to be in Russia, but he feels safer in Russia than he did living in Waco.
“I haven’t even felt a glimpse of danger,” Brinzo said.
Brinzo said many Russian people talk to him about the Ukrainian issue and America’s involvement, but they are not hostile with him and he feels the same about some political issues as they do.
“I get an earful from every single Russian about how America is ridiculous for our views on the whole Ukraine situation, and on a lot of points I agree with them,” Brinzo said.
He said he sympathizes with the opinion that the U.S. has been inconsistent in its stance on the Ukrainian constitution and doesn’t like to see what he claims is ‘America’s liberalism’ pushed on the Russian government.
Brinzo is a double major in political science and Russian at Baylor. He said he has been following issues taking place in Ukraine and since before he left to study in Russia. He doesn’t necessarily approve of the people in power in Russia and Ukraine, Brinzo said, but he also is not in favor of ways he feels the U.S. has handled issues with Ukraine and the portrayal or Russia in general.
“American really likes to paint Putin as this post-modern Hitler trying to take over the Slavic people,” he said. “Which, I mean, America isn’t necessarily wrong for doing so. I don’t think that’s what Putin is doing, but he’s definitely the kind of man who has an agenda.”
Baylor has over 100 students studying Russian currently, Harris said, and because of the conflict with Ukraine, she predicts that number may grow.
“Situations like this show how critical the language is,” Harris said.
During the existence of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government provided funding for people speaking Russian, Harris said. There was a significant plummet in American college students studying Russian after the Soviet Union fell. Instead, an interest in Arabic grew.
“I’m hoping that people realize that Russian is still a critical language,” Harris said. “And our government realizes Russian is a critical language. The government is interested in analysts and translators, and Baylor students have gone on to do that.”