Lisa, to the perplexity of her German-rooted family, graduated from Reed College with a BA in Russian Literature. After attending SRAS's Translation Abroad Program, she went on to accept positions with SRAS and Alinga Consulting Group. Lisa was then promoted within SRAS and is now leading our institutional relations efforts, helping to develop new programs and partnerships. She is also the primary contact during the program selection process, helping students navigate the opportunities they have through SRAS relative to their academic, professional, and personal interests and objectives. She also studied previously at Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg and currently resides in Minneapolis, MN.
SRAS Site Visit to Ukraine and Georgia
By Lisa Ellering Horner
Program Consultant, Institutional Relations
The School of Russian and Asian Studies
At the end of the fall 2012 semester I flew into Kiev, Ukraine for a site visit. The purpose of the visit was five-fold:
- To meet a group of students studying in Moscow for their weekend trip in Kiev (and to torture them by taking lots of photos);
- To meet with students studying in Kiev on SRAS’ new program, Policy and Conflict in the Post-Soviet Space (PCON);
- To attend some of the PCON lectures and discuss the program with local faculty and other SRAS staff;
- To create a comprehensive Kiev city guide, the last SRAS program location to be missing an online city guide;
- And last, to catch up with my colleague, SRAS Assistant Director and General Editor Josh Wilson, who had accompanied the SRAS Moscow students for their weekend trip in Kiev. Due to a series of unfortunate travel timing (we once flew into/out of Moscow the same day, from the same airport only hours apart), I hadn’t seen Josh for nearly two and a half years. I was relieved to find Josh the same mellow, quietly brilliant individual he was when I left Moscow.
Other highlights of the Kiev portion included:
- Being dragged into the dorm room where the SRAS males were trying to relax after a Kiev city tour following their 12+ hour train ride from Moscow, by an overzealous hostel dezhurnaya who wanted to make sure I had found my students. I had just arrived from a 13-hour journey from the US and was in no shape to do anything in particular with my students, even if they had seemed more alive.
- Meeting the Moscow students (after everyone had revived), some of whom I had been corresponding with for some time (for as long as two years). Interesting to see the email personalities in the flesh!
- One of the PCON lecturers was an Archbishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and an official church spokesman. He talked about the role of religion in Ukraine today, about the differences in Ukrainian Orthodoxy vs. Russian Orthodoxy, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine more generally and how religion tied into all of it. He made some pretty funny comparisons between “Angry Birds” and the state of Ukraine, saying Ukraine was in state similar to Angry Birds, with a structure that is more or less holding things up for the moment, but any destabilizing factor could topple everything and then the structure would be rearranged again, but probably not fixed.
For the second part of the trip I joined the week-long travel to Georgia that’s included with PCON. The group visited Kutaisi, Zugdidi, Mestia, Gori, and Tbilisi. Highlights of the trip included:
- Visiting a border control point between Georgia and Abkhazia. After some initial suspicion and hesitation our cameraman (accompanying the group to take footage of the trip) was able to talk the border control officials into letting our group of seven walk into the no-man's land section (road) between the Georgian and Abkhaz checkpoints. It was pretty interesting to see the people crossing – you can’t take a vehicle with Georgian plates into Abkhazia, so people visiting relatives, etc., would get on horse-drawn carts to take them down the road to the Abkhazian side then get picked up by relatives. They didn’t want the group taking any photos of the border control points and were overall pretty watchful/nervous. We tried talking to some of the people crossing but people were hesitant to say anything – likely partly because of the size of our group and partly because of the camcorder.
- Hiking several miles in the mountains north of Mestia, in Upper Svaneti, to the Chalati Glacier. At one point two students got ahead of the rest of the group and off the path and our guide called, “Where are they going? To Russia?” And it wasn’t a joke – we were so close to Russia that continuing in that direction would have led to the Russian border.
- Homemade dinners at the homestay in Mestia, including sampling Svanskii sol, a salty spice mix that consists of salt, fenugreek, garlic powder, fennel seeds, coriander, hot red pepper, wild carraway, and imereti saffron. It has a very distinct flavor – and smell. In part prompted by SRAS Director Renee Stillings, who had asked me to help replenish her supply, the group was impressed by the flavor after trying it and purchased this seasoning early in the trip. We carried it with us in our backpacks. As a result, much of our clothing was permeated with the garlicky scent, which was shared with everyone exposed to us for the last 4 days of the trip.
Getting stuck trying to get out of Mestia due to overnight snowfall in the Svaneti region. After 2 hours and 15 minutes of the men pushing the van while the females sat around because we weren’t allowed to help (it was a man’s job to fix this problem), our host father from Mestia came to the rescue and towed the struggling Mercedes van out. Luckily the group was able to get out that day, as the city was closed to incoming and outgoing traffic the next day due to the amount of snowfall. The downward descent from the mountains was both joyous and terrifying.
While in Georgia, SRAS students learned to make khachapuri from scratch. Pictured is student Paula Hunter and her creation. For more on khachapuri, a traditional Georgian cheese bread, click here.
- Stopping along the road from Tblisi to the Kakheti region for homemade bread and cheese. The group was able to see how they baked the bread (rolling the dough and slapping it against the brick wall of a smoking urn pit). The bread and cheese were both salty and delicious. It’s hard to find anything that doesn’t taste good in Georgia…
- A tour and sampling of the wines from Kindzmarauli Wine Company in the Kakheti wine region. The man leading the tasting told a story about how the Soviets decided it was "against communist morale" to have so many different varieties of grapes (Georgia had 570 different types of grapes) and decided to reduce the number to 20. So farmers from families that had been making wine for generations hid the forbidden grape seeds in cellars and in the forest, and today these “lost grapes” are still being discovered. The group was able to sample a wine (“Kisi”) from one of the lost grapes that had been found.
- Visiting a displaced persons camp, which had been there since 2008 after the South Ossetian border was expanded to include the area where their homes had been (Leningori region, and specifically Akhagori). Georgia built 2,700 homes in 80 days for those who had been displaced. The group was able to speak to the head administrator of the camp, in part with the assistance of a Russian-English translator. He said that Russia is punishing Georgia by expanding the South Ossetian border that way – hardly any Ossetians even lived in the area (it was 86 percent Georgians living there before, he told us).
Lisa Horner with student Paula Hunter and guide and legendary Mercedes van driver, Gia Mchedlishvili, at the airport in Georgia.
It was a bit of a whirlwind trip with a good deal of time spent in our old Mercedes’ van running around the country, eating lots of food and having fun, but the overall consensus was that it was a fantastic capstone experience to the PCON program. The program, designed for students who want to specialize in the post-Soviet era, especially with an eye to building a career in policy-making or diplomacy, also includes travel to Moscow (at the program start) and Moldova (mid-program), with the majority of time spent in Kiev for the base lectures and Russian language study.
PCON was launched for the first time this fall semester (2012), so I especially want to thank our pioneer students for providing such great feedback throughout the program, and especially during the time they were trapped with me in our Mercedes during the Georgia trip. The feedback is pivotal as we continue improving the program for future students who are adventurous enough to do something like this.
I suppose that, no matter what, packing this much travel into any place, much less the post-Soviet space, is going to result in a bit of craziness and the type of experience that may have seemed surreal before the program – but after spending time in the region and having studied it extensively – will make sense in a way that hopefully you can explain to others.
To see photos of the SRAS Georgia trip, taken by SRAS student and PCON participant Paula Hunter, click here.
To read more about the Policy and Conflict in the Post-Soviet Space (PCON) program, click here.
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