I am often asked how and why I began my international academic career – how and why I developed an interest in Russia and the post-Soviet space, why I decided to learn the Russian language, how I ended up spending time in the former Soviet Union, and why I decided to write a dissertation on Ukrainian denuclearization. The shorter, less embarrassing answer is that it’s complicated. But classic over-sharer that I am, I usually break down and offer up the long version. Like many embarrassing stories, it holds a valuable lesson as well: sometimes the most interesting and rewarding paths are the ones we choose unknowingly. Plus, it makes me chuckle.
My interest in and love for the Slavic world began more than 30 years ago, sometime in the fall of 1986 – I don’t remember the exact date – when I was working as a waitress at a rather famous restaurant in my little college town, serving up mile-high plates of cheese fries to hordes of frat boys guzzling Miller light. It was at this restaurant that I met and dated for a while a young man who worked in the kitchen, literally flipping burgers. He was a fascinating and eccentric guy who loved music (so did I), loved cars and motorcycles (so did I), loved dogs (so did I), and loved food – not cheese fries, but real food, like steak tartare (my favorite). For me it was a love affair characterized by kismet and, at the time, I couldn’t have been more smitten. Little did I know that this man would influence the next three decades of my life.
What started as a rather silly conversation at work resulted in a lifelong love for international affairs. One of my fellow waitresses was an English major who knew not only how to write beautiful prose and poetry, but seemingly knew everything about everything else as well. I thought she was the gold standard when it came to intelligence, and I – a clueless young woman from the east side of the state – hitched myself to her as quickly as I could. After all, she clearly had an IQ that was out of any of our leagues. One slow Sunday waiting tables, we were standing in the restaurant atrium in the mid-afternoon, watching the steady rain splash on the glass ceiling and slide down the curvature of the added-on room, chatting as usual. In an offhand comment, my intelligent friend noted that my burger-and-fry-cook of a boyfriend looked like “a Bolshevik.” While the other waitstaff laughed and agreed with her keen observation, I smiled along. But I knew I was in trouble.
I cannot adequately describe to you what it feels like to be almost 20 years old, not knowing something you probably should. But then again, most of us have been there, and know exactly what it feels like. I realize now that more than likely, the others in the room had no idea what she was talking about, either. But naive as I was, I was sure I was the only one. I had no clue what a Bolshevik was…or who it was, or where it was…and I’m pretty sure my friend could tell that from the look on my face. Taking pity on me, she threw me a bone. “You know, like Lenin,” she said. John Lennon?! I thought to myself, That can’t be! But what I said was, “Oh, of course, yes. He certainly does look like a Bolshevik!”
Soon after that conversation, being the inherently inquisitive and curious person I was (thank goodness), I set out to save myself from ignorance. I ended up, as I often did, in the library’s reference section with my good friend Encyclopedia Britannica. I soon learned about Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution, Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto, and the decades of dictatorship and authoritarian rule in what became the Soviet Union. I couldn’t stop ingesting these amazing stories about all of the figures of Russian and Soviet history, and I knew right then that I was a changed person. I had to know more – I had to study more – and I set off on a path to visit this exotic land.
The rest of the story is history, as one might say. The next few years were absolutely fascinating and enriching as I poured my imagination further and deeper into this faraway land. Little did I know that by 1989, my attention would be captivated even more as the Berlin Wall began to crumble, the Soviet Union began to unwind, and the Cold War came to an end. The years of 1989 and 1990 were probably the most memorable years of my academic life, and yet my college career had only just begun.
So there is the embarrassing truth: I began my academic (and global) pursuits in earnest and developed my interest in Russia and the Soviet region because of my then-boyfriend’s distinctive Bolshevik face. Although he and I didn’t last, his impact did. The moral of the story is this: you just never know where a rainy Sunday conversation may take you. So keep an open mind, seek answers to the things that puzzle you, and always follow your passion. No telling where you might land.