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Faculty Trip Kicks Off New Russia Initiative

Faculty in Russia
The whole Studio R crew at the Kremlin in Moscow—one of the first of many stops on their itinerary.

A group of Davidson faculty claimed Russia as its creative laboratory this summer. The vibrant city streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg served as backdrops for intellectual exchange with colleagues, Davidson alumni and Russian peers.

The 12-day trip was supported by a New Innovation Grant and marked the birth of "Studio R," an initiative that harkens to Davidson's interactive learning spaces Studio D and Studio M.

Organized by Associate Professor and Chair of Russian Studies Amanda Ewington, the trip was envisioned as the beginning of an ongoing transdisciplinary effort.

"We were originally inspired by the energy and excitement among colleagues who had participated in similar faculty trips to India," Ewington said. "Then last spring we decided to frame the trip not as an end unto itself, but as a catalyst for long-term collaboration."

They chose to focus on the concept of revolution for a 2017-18 campus-wide initiative marking the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. The initiative will result in new courses, new units within existing courses, new directions in faculty research and extracurricular events.

"Because the Russian program is small, we wanted to pull in faculty from other departments who could include Russia in their research and teaching," Ewington explained. Faculty included Irina Erman (Russian Studies), Shaw Smith (art), Alison Bory (dance), Kristi Multhaup (psychology), Suzanne Churchill (English), Shelley Rigger (political science and East Asian Studies), and Sharon Green and Mark Sutch (theatre).

"If we can introduce the great flowering of Russian culture in the years leading up to the revolution, we can encourage students and colleagues alike to shed Cold-War stereotypes and help stimulate interest in Russian Studies across the curriculum," Ewington said.

Places to Go, People to See

Shaw Smith and Sharon Green
Professor of Art Shaw Smith and Associate Professor of Theatre Sharon Green take a closer look at a painting in the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg.

The trip began in Moscow where the group visited Red Square, the Kremlin, the Tretyakov Gallery, the Moscow Art Theater and the Museum of Contemporary Russia, and attended Mikhail Bulgakov's "Theatrical Novel (Notes of a Dead Man)" at Fomenko Studio. They met with faculty peers at the Moscow State Institute for Foreign Relations (MGIMO) in hopes of strengthening Davidson ties originally forged by President Emeritus Bobby Vagt.

Then came St. Petersburg, "The Cradle of Revolution." While there, Smith delivered a lecture on Romare Bearden at Smolny College/St. Petersburg State University, and the group visited numerous historical sites, including a memorial to the more than one million victims of the 900-day Nazi blockade. They also enjoyed "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai" ballet at the famous Mariinsky Theater as well as a visit to the Hermitage Museum.

While visiting major tourist sites, it became clear to seasoned traveler Ewington that tourism had slowed considerably since her last trip to Russia. "The sanctions are clearly having an effect," she said.

The Sochi Olympics occurred immediately after the group submitted their proposal for the trip, and Russia was all over the news. "The annexation sounded scary and uncertain, but I was proud of my colleagues for not being dissuaded," said Ewington. "We recognized that at this time of heightened political tensions, personal exchanges between Russians and Americans are more important than ever."

On Studio R's collaborative blog, many of the professors commented on the unanticipated Russian perspectives they encountered. While Ewington was surprised by the anti-western sentiment of one of her past assistants, others noted indifference toward the political situation.

Churchill wrote, "I get the sense that the Russians aren't nearly as concerned about the U.S. as the U.S. is about Russia, and they fear chaos much more than they fear Putin." Rigger explained to the group that the "freedom vs. stability" bargain is a favorite trick of dictators.

New Perspective

Rigger and Churchill team-teach a humanities course, which they hope to reinvent for the 2017-18 academic year with a comparison of the Meiji Restoration in Japan and Russian Revolution. Churchill, whose primary work is in modernist magazines, also plans to integrate into her research revolutionary Russia as an understudied link between modernism and the Harlem Renaissance.

"I now have a deeper appreciation for the richness, turbulence and complexity of Russian culture," she said. "I admire their reverence for literary tradition and the central role literature has played there."

In her final blog post of the trip, Churchill summed up her experience in one word: "transformative." She explained, "I realized that my imagination was filled with a narrow and naïve vision of Russia, but that was soon dispelled."

The knowledge gained from her colleagues also contributed to Churchill's transformative experience. For example, she said Multhaup made her aware of both the subtle and monumental ways that individual and cultural memory operate, and Bory enabled her to recognize the distinctively Russian aspects of the ballet.

As plans move forward for initiatives to highlight the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, faculty from across campus will continue to post discussions and collaborate through the Studio R blog.

"This is a low-cost way to invest in faculty development," Churchill said. "You're receiving a continuing education because you're constantly learning from one another. It's an exponential return on faculty investment."