Journal Archive > 2001 > October

A Burgeoning Community

The Russian House at 101 Talbot Ave. serves as an informal center for activities of the Russian Circle.
© Mark Morelli

Russian students determined to maintain their cultural identity

The meltdown of the Cold War a decade ago has filtered down to Medford/Somerville, bringing a change in the cultural climate on campus.

An expanding community of Russian-speaking students—both those born in the former Soviet Union and Americans who are learning the language—has sparked interest in Russian courses, increased competition for living space in Russian House and revived the Russian Circle, a cultural/social organization.

This burgeoning Russian presence has added a "certain vibrancy" to campus, says David Sloane, associate professor of Russian. The numbers of Russian-speaking students taking part in cultural activities has particularly expanded over the past three years, he notes.

The majority of the Russian-speaking students emigrated to the United States with their families in the early '90s, and most have graduated from American high schools. Their parents were among the first wave to take advantage of the fall of the Soviet Union to seek a better life in America—and now, after 10 years or so in their new country, they're sending their children to universities like Tufts.

These students are not the first Soviet emigres to attend Tufts, but what's noteworthy, Sloane said, is their emergence as a distinct cultural group interested in preserving their language and heritage on campus. That, the students say, is due to the changes in world politics since 1989, and the fading U.S. image of Russia as an enemy.

"It's the consequences of [the end of] the Cold War," said Marina Goldis, J02, who came to the United States in 1993 from Bobruysk, a small town in Belarus. "Maybe, previously, students didn't feel comfortable identifying as Russian, which was not the most popular [nationality]."

And while some of the Cold War stereotypes still linger—incidents like the Hanssen spy case still elicit comments about Russian spies and KGB agents, says Philipp Tsipman, A04—this new generation of Russian-speakers is determined to maintain its language and identity.

"Our language brings us together," said Natasha Borisova, J04, who emigrated from Moscow in 1993. Her family settled in Shelter Island, N.Y., a town with no other Russians. Coming to Tufts and meeting other Russian-speaking students, she said, was "very exciting." (And her parents are pleased that since attending Tufts, Borisova's Russian has actually improved. They say she's lost her "American accent.")

Growing up in the USSR, the students say, has created common bonds among them and helped shape the way they see the world. It's also influenced their desire to keep the Russian Circle afloat and to view the Russian House as a social and cultural center.

"We had a very social upbringing, and we're used to doing things in big groups, collective events, lots of togetherness," said Tsipman, who came from St. Petersburg in 1995.

Those collective events have morphed into the Russian Circle. "After our sophomore year, we found the Russian Club was not functional. It existed solely on paper. We decided to revive it," Goldis said.

Also, the students discovered there were few connections between the Russian Circle, a community open to all students, and the Russian House, an eight-person residential house at 101 Talbot Ave. During the past two years, the two entities have developed a "happy relationship," said Sloane, with the Russian House serving as an informal center for activities.

"The Russian Circle is open to anybody, whether they're native-speaking, taking Russian history or literature, or just some friends who were curious about what we Russians are all about," said Tsipman. The club has organized social events, like ski trips, and cultural outings to the theater and the ballet.

At the Russian House, that spirit continues with weekly teas. "We hope this is a place where those interested in culture and language can come, have some tea, spend time speaking Russian or get help with tutoring," said Goldis, who last year was the student house manager. Since 1982, the Russian House has been self-governing.

The Russian House has existed since the early '70s, although its location has changed several times. During the past couple of years, the demographics of the residents have shifted, said Sloane, the house's faculty adviser, with more native speakers moving in.

The popularity of Russian House has exploded in the past few years, according to Sloane. For the 2001-02 school year, there were 20 applicants for eight slots. "That was quite a surprise," he said. The goal, he said, is to create a diversified house, with native speakers and others living together.

Wairimu Mungai and Megan Liotta, both J03, are Russian-language students and roommates who are living in Russian House this fall. Studying Russian—"which isn't as hard as people think," Mungai said—has helped in English literature and writing classes and "can't hurt in the workplace," Liotta said.

And, the two said, learning a language opens a window on another culture. The Tufts ideal of educating global citizens, Liotta said, is about tolerance, "knowing the world has many different aspects."

Mungai and Liotta became interested in Russian as first-year students, through a pre-major advising program. Since the foreign-born students arrive at Tufts already fluent in Russian, they are filling the upper-level language classes or foregoing language classes in favor of Russian history and literature courses.

"Where the growth has occurred is in the high-end Russian courses," Sloane said. For example, in some 19th- and 20th-century Russian literature courses, everyone in the class is a native speaker, and the class is conducted in Russian. "We couldn't do that 10 years ago," he said.