By Mary-Elizabeth Mayer
UW Jackson School of International Studies undergraduate Mary-Elizabeth Mayer is currently on a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship (FLAS) to study intensive Russian language at the University of Washington in Seattle. As she masters Russian grammar and vocabulary, Mary-Elizabeth is also exploring Seattle’s rich Russian community, which has close ties to the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies.
“Discovering new cultures in a foreign city is always exhilarating, but over the past month I have discovered that understanding existing cultures in my own city is equally exciting! While many FLAS recipients choose to travel abroad with their summer funding, I chose to stay in Seattle and continue my Russian language studies at the University of Washington’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. I knew that my class would be interesting, challenging, and that I would end up with more knowledge of Russian grammar than I would know what to do with. What I underestimated was how much I would learn about Russian culture while taking a language class – and how much of it was already around me.
A twenty minute walk up University Way (affectionately known as “The Ave”), past the colorful shops, secondhand stores, and dozens of multi-cultural restaurants, stands a squat, unassuming building that hosts Continent Books, a store that represents the presence of the Russian community in America. My Russian professor, a wonderful woman born and raised in Sochi during the Soviet era, warmly greets the shop owner in a flurry of Russian I strain to follow. The fifteen of us students crammed into the tiny store that serves as the Mecca for Russian-language literature in Seattle, where books of every shape, genre, and size were jammed together in a labyrinth of possibilities. Amongst the tomes of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and fantastic writers most Americans have never heard of, were CDs with Russian music, and a studio where daily Russian-language broadcasts can be heard from 7am to 9am every weekday in the greater Seattle area. I had always known that there were people of Russian heritage in Seattle, but this was the first time that I had seen evidence of something so completely devoted to Russian culture in such a casual way. While Seattle boasts a fantastic Russian community center, it always feels a bit overwhelming to non-natives. This store, however, was just like any other bookstore, except that every single volume was in Russian.
Another example of how accessible Russian culture can be may be found slightly farther south, at the International Ballet Theatre company. Our class was able to speak with the director of the company, Vera Altunina, about her experiences as a lifelong professional dancer in the former Soviet Union and how that compares to her experiences working here in the United States. While being a professional ballet dancer in the former USSR was not at all easy, Vera Altunina’s experiences were fascinating, and they gave me another perspective on what life was like during the mid-seventies through the eighties.
Living in a culturally diverse city like Seattle means that sometimes we have to go looking for examples of the specific culture that we want to find. These two examples are the most outstanding, but they do not count the random conversations that I have had with people speaking Russian on the streets, and the variety of other ways that I have experienced Russian culture within the warm confines of my own city.”
Mary-Elizabeth’s participation in this eight week Russian language program has been made possible by a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowship (FLAS), which pays tuition and a stipend for travel and living. Qualified graduate and undergraduate students of every major are eligible for FLAS fellowships to study abroad and also at UW. Learn more about the FLAS program and how to apply here.