Edith Clowes / Slavic Languages & Literatures

Of all the original North American colonies, Virginia is a state dominated by its English-language European and African heritage and the intertwined histories of the founding of the republic and the legacy of slavery. Students and the public are generally unaware of other exciting ethnic communities in Virginia and their contributions to the arts and, more broadly, to cultural, religious, and culinary life. Few know that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) owns 700+ pieces of Russian art, some of them truly outstanding, aside from the famous Faberge eggs. Or that Sweet Briar College has a collection of 40+ fascinating Stalin-era ideological posters. Or that there are so many fine Russian restaurants, stores, and active Eastern Orthodox churches across Virginia. As an enhancement to my Russian culture class (RUTR 2460 – Russian Culture and Civilization), I am introducing an aspect of the course that allows students to explore the direct contribution of Russian culture to our state culture in Virginia. This part of the class participates in a student-driven project I am calling “Russian Virginia.”

In Fall 2015 two groups of students in the Russian culture class and I undertook field trips that now have become my Dream Idea, “Russian Virginia.” They gathered information about Russian resources at two Virginia museums. One group of seven students traveled to Sweet Briar to view and research Stalin-era posters, while another group of four students traveled to the VMFA to work on a unique collection of Russian-Civil-War-era cartoons critical of the Bolsheviks.

The broader goal of the Russian Virginia project is to create, and continue to build and enhance, an authoritative but user-friendly Web resource on all things Russian in the state of Virginia—colleges and universities, restaurants and stores, churches, libraries, cultural sites, museums, clubs and organizations, high schools, and other locations and Russian-related events, to be considered as opportunities arise. In addition, an archive on this page will store useful, well-written research completed by University of Virginia undergraduate students. The web page, we predict, will enrich users’ appreciation of this other, Russian, cultural world available in our state. 

An eventual goal is to attract participation from Russian students at other Virginia schools, colleges, and universities. Although UVA students are the leaders in this project, the organizers and managers of the site welcome and will consider for inclusion high-quality research on Russian-Virginian resources by students at other Virginia educational institutions.

Russian Virginia is in its earliest stages of construction as a WordPress website. One of the students from last year’s RUTR 2460 is currently its manager. During summer 2016 Slavic interim librarian Kathleen Thompson and the experts at Scholars Lab at Alderman Library are helping us construct an interactive map of the state of Virginia. Located on the home page, this map will allow users to browse available resources, find upcoming events, and create Russian-related itineraries. The interactive map will have these kinds of functionality:

  • zoom and pan in all directions showing state, regional, local, urban levels
  • offer maps for each category of place
  • allow the user to click on all sites, each with an at-a-glance pop-up box with basic contact information and a “for more information” hyperlink to the sites web page
  • allow user to make itineraries through Google maps
  • connect to a blog feature that allows a user to enter a suggestion for other resources to include, announce an upcoming event, or mark a Russian-related location.
  • link to archived material stored on the RUVA website, for example, rarely exhibited VMFA Russian items (we already have permission from VMFA to post a selection of these holdings).

Russian Virginia will become both a resource for students in the Russian culture course and a site that students themselves will help to build further. Students will use current information on the site as a starting point to deepen their knowledge of various facets of Russian culture. At the start of the semester I will introduce students to the website and invite them to explore. Each student will choose a Russian object or place to study. At the beginning and end of the semester, to encourage discussion and thought I will bring food from a local Russian caterer to class. We will consider briefly the significance of specific Russian dishes in the broader cultural context.

Working in groups of 3-4 students, students will research their chosen object or place in detail, visit it, and interview at least one person (preferably a Russian émigré or a person of Russian heritage) working with and knowledgeable about the chosen object or place. These smaller working groups and I will meet over lunch in the first half of the semester to plan and discuss their projects.

The next step in using the website will be student visits to their chosen places. Having arranged a date for interviews and guided visits, student groups (maximum 3-4 students each) and I will visit the places they have chosen. At the end of the semester each student group will write an essay on their findings and relate it to the broad frameworks and concepts of Russian culture gained in RUTR 2460.

The centerpiece of this effort will be a field trip on Thursday, October 27, with RUTR 2460 students to the exciting new exhibit of Russian decorative arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I have arranged for the curator of the exhibit, Mr. Barry Shifman, to have lunch with the students and narrate the exhibit. Each student will choose an object or small group of thematically related objects from the exhibit to write a short two-page thought paper that places the objects in the broader patterns of Russian culture discussed in the course. These short essays in turn will become material for further class discussion.

The ultimate ambition of Russian Virginia is to spur public awareness of the exciting cultural and historical treasures available in Virginia and even to encourage thematic ethnic exploration and tourism. Starting in a relatively safe place at home means that a broader swath of the American population will be more likely to want to explore other cultures and, eventually, languages. We will be taking the following steps to disseminate the information that students have gathered and interpreted:

  • group discussion of findings in class
  • presentation of the “Russian Virginia” website and selected group findings at a Wednesday-evening Russian Tea at Russian House (Shea House)
  • additions to the existing archive of well-researched and well-written student papers on the Russian Virginia website for the benefit of the public
  • interviews with Inside A&S and Cavalier Daily journalists and articles on the Russian Virginia project
  • sharing this work on the Slavic and East European listserv worldwide with an invitation to form a working group with colleagues and students from other states to start a website and student research on their states.
  • presentation of the one or two most substantial papers at the regional Southern Slavic Conference

In conclusion, Russian Virginia is intended to expand students’ knowledge both of Russian culture and the tremendous Russian cultural treasure house in their own backyard. Although it may sound like a pipe dream, my eventual goal is to create a network of teachers and students across the United States who will undertake a similar project in their own states. It would be a real celebration of Russian culture and the Russian contribution to American life to build a full interactive map of the US with Russian sites and events in each state. It will be one step toward visualizing exactly what a richly multicultural society we Americans have.

Proposed budget:

  • Bus travel to VMFA: $1,000
  • Experience of authentic Russian food (two Russian meals @ $150: $300
  • Fall 2016: small group travel to various sites and to present findings (mileage)
  • Spring 2017: travel regional conference (mileage, hotel): $1,250
  • Training of students to design, edit, and maintain the Russian Virginia website: $200
  • 5 group luncheons to brainstorm and develop research projects: $250

TOTAL: $3,000