Profound Reading Experience

I started reading Stanislav Aseyev’s book In Isolation out of a sense of duty. He’s a Ukrainian writer from the Donbas (a region that has been occupied by the Russians for 8 years), a hero of Ukrainian resistance, and he has been translated into English. How can I not support him through something as small as a purchase of the book?

The reading of the book, however, became a very profound experience. I can only read it in small portions because every short chapter is like a session with a psychoanalyst. This writer looks into the depths of my soul and understands me the way I have never been understood. Here, for instance, is a quote from a chapter that blew my mind:

In a regular civil society, people’s minds are usually troubled by issues such as abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, corruption in government, and the freedom and effectiveness of the press. Some might see these topics as overblown, while others can barely have a cup of coffee without catching up on the latest news. But none of these matters trouble people’s minds in the Donbas. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always heard, “We don’t make the decisions.” All we could do was think about the price of butter or how expensive potatoes had become, while the powers-that-be had already decided everything for us. My friends, have you never stopped to think why this is so, why people whose strength of character and will enables them to descend half a mile below the surface of the earth while under artillery fire are so indifferent and apathetic to their own fate?

Stanislav Aseyev, In Isolation

Aseyev is talking about the coal miners in the Donbas but I had the same experience with my fellow college students in Kharkiv in the 1990s. Their indifference to absolutely everything except slavish, meaningless toil on the dusty, grimy plots of land they called dachas was complete. We were 18, 19, 20 years old. I’d try to talk about boys, music, politics, TV shows, celebrity gossip but all I got were blank stares. Tired, indifferent looks that only got animated when my friends shared how much they had slaved at their stupid dachas over the weekend. The point of pride was not the profit they derived from the dachas (there was none) but the suffering they experienced in the struggle with them.

And here is Aseyev, talking about the same thing:

This is the very essence of the psychology of the people of the Donbas, for whom ideals like freedom and equality always came down to the choice of rope for their own noose. The mentality of a person who works 12 hours a day in very harsh conditions for a monthly paycheck of between $100 and $130 turns into something that might be called masochistic, cursing this way of living and at the same time unable to imagine an existence outside of it.

Stanislav Aseyev, In Isolation

Aseyev compares this attitude of resentful hostility to that of the liberated serfs in 1861. I left the Ukraine that was almost invariably like this in 1998 because I couldn’t abide this life in the world of the living dead anymore. Since then, the rest of Ukraine somehow moved to normalcy but the Donbas got stuck behind. I see this in the attitudes of my cousins who are in their thirties and who can’t be moved to adopting any strategy beyond resentful indifference interspersed with angry demands for money even in the midst of a war.

I’ve tried to explain this to people for years. “But are the residents of the Donbas for Russia? Or are they for Ukraine? What do they want?” people ask. And. . . it’s just not like that. On the pages of Aseyev’s book I find the dead, indifferent Ukraine that I left in 1998 and that still exists in the Donbas.

We Are the Best

Also, since people seem interested in this topic, I want to add that in my experience with these international graduate students, 100% of them tell me that it is a lot harder to be a student in the US than in their countries. These are all Humanities students. A lot, lot harder because you are expected to work and produce results daily.

They say it’s very intense, tons of readings, a lot of work. The methodology of teaching (which is a course they have to take) is completely different and very demanding. Teaching is a completely different endeavor in the US. One student said, “teaching means something very different than in my country.”

This means our education system is still the best in the world.

Russian Students

I regularly evaluate application packets from groups of students from different countries who are in some stage of their Masters degree and want to come to the US for a year to take courses at US universities. As part of the packet, they include a personal statement. There’s also a CV, transcripts, test scores. It’s a great thing for the students because they get all their expenses paid, a stipend, a tuition waiver, and an opportunity to teach one course per semester about their culture.

I’ve evaluated applications from different countries but yesterday for the first time I got a bunch of Russian students to evaluate. Yes, it’s all silly hype about Russians being banned from study opportunities in the West. This is all done through the Department of Homeland Security, and there were zero problems with getting visas for these students. Next year, I’ll do my damndest to get Ukrainian students instead.

In any case, I made some interesting observations that I wanted to share. The first thing is photos. Apparently, in Russia people often put photos even on academic CVs. Several of the photos were downright inappropriate outside of the context of a dating site. The group I got is 100% female.

One of the applicants wrote an essay (and these packets were done in December of last year) about how Ukraine is bombing peaceful cities in the Donbass and pretending it’s not true. Another wrote about how the West hates Russia. Yet another student informed us she wants to come to the US to dispel the stereotypes about Russian bears, vodka, and the KGB. I’m thinking, “honey, the kind of stereotypes that exist about Russia right now, you should be praying people thought the worst thing about your country has to do with bears walking down the streets, playing their balalaikas.” Yet another one wants to study how the US oppresses women through gender stereotypes. One student wrote a long pouty essay about how the US culture is dominant in the world while the Russian isn’t, and that’s unfair. One positioned herself as an ethnic minority, and I stared at the photo for a long time to figure out what minority she is because she’s clearly 100% Russian. I’m guessing she’s an ethnic minority not in Russia but globally. Which is everybody who isn’t Chinese but whatever.

In short, it was fun.