An amusing macro recently made its way around the Russian blogosphere - it showed a group of students lying down on the quad of some stereotypical Western university, and saying the following: “We are the children of Russian bureaucrats. And you all are agents of the [U.S.] State Department, traitors to that faraway [Russian] land.”
The political connotations of the macro are obvious - at a time when many of the children of the elite study abroad, usually due to the fact their parents can afford it (WHY they can afford it often has to do with that tiny, insignificant phenomenon known as corruption), calling members of the protest movement traitors to their homeland, as many have done, is a tactic that tends to backfire.
What ultimately interests me more about it is the general trend of studying abroad for Russians. Most Russians who can afford it, and even some who can’t, try to send their kids to foreign universities. Some rely on money and connections, others on scholarships and enthusiasm. Studying abroad is meant to translate to better work opportunities down the road - by showing potential employers that the candidate is either gifted and driven, or privileged enough to be valued for their contacts, or both.
It’s interesting how Russia’s Soviet past - with its suspicion of all things foreign (and what could be more suspicious than a foreign education?) - clashes with the notion that Western universities, be they American, British, Canadian, German, et al, will probably serve your child better down the road.
As a victim of usurious student debt, which had practically all consumer protections stripped due to lobbyists (lobbying being a legalized form of corruption, in my view) putting pressure on U.S. Congress, I often take a dim view of the notion that a Western education will solve all of your problems. The ruination of one’s credit history, for an American, could be akin to a death sentence - and as the student loan bubble in the States reaches the one trillion mark, there is reason to think about how overvalued our educations have become even as our economic opportunities have shrunk.
Still, I can’t deny that in many ways, my degree has served me well. And if I were to pick one of the greatest assets of studying at an U.S. university in particular - it would have to be the fact that my professors urged me to challenge them. They did not see themselves as gods, dispensing wisdom from on high. They wanted us to actively question the theories and concepts being put before us. Among Russians who studied abroad, I often encounter a similar appreciation for this style of teaching.
Within Russia’s borders, I see students as being more reverential to their professors, referring to those they primarily study under as their “masters.” I’ll never forget witnessing an argument between two theater critics, affiliated with the same Russian university, and how the older woman delivered a verbal smackdown that amounted to, “Because I am older and could be your master, that’s why.” The younger person just took it. And even said, “Of course, you are right.”
As a product of a different system, I could only blink in amazement. If I disagree with someone, and they pull the “respect your elders” card, I am not able to take them seriously. Not because the older person is automatically wrong for being older - but because age and title alone do not a convincing argument make. I’m not saying that I’m terribly edgy or smart for thinking this way - every philosophy has its downsides, and there may be much I have missed along the way for having adopted it - but it does form a big part of who I am.
So even as we poke fun at the elite for sending their kids to study abroad - we ought to note that said kids will be given all sorts of different tools for dealing with the world, and this may have unexpected consequences. It’s not just opposition leader Alexei Navalny who studied at Yale once upon a time - a popular establishment figure, Arkady Dvorkovich, for example, got his master’s degree in Economics at my very own alma mater, Duke.
Influence is something that can go both ways - the global model of “the West and the rest” is beginning to grow outdated, especially as Western economies continue to suffer. Russians who go abroad will change those around them, exposing them to shocking concepts such as “no, not all Russian women want to date you because you’re foreign” and other, slightly more nuanced ideas - on literature (most Westerners still don’t realize that Chekhov had a wicked sense of humor), history (is collectivism to blame for authoritarianism? Or is, per a close reading of Russian history that dispenses with stereotypes, a devastating lack of collectivism often to blame?) and beyond.
I think that’s a good thing. Iron curtains do young people few favors, even in these trying times. And if you think I’m wrong - take a good look at North Korea.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.