Why did I pursue a degree in Russian Area Studies from the University of Texas in the late 1980s through early 1990s, a degree considered fairly worthless when I started except for those planning a career in the US State Department or CIA, neither of which I had any intention of joining? And why, considering today’s headlines, I’m glad I did. (I just wish I’d gone on to law school from there instead of waiting until now, but … oh well.)
Gallup, New Mexico, 1974 Junior High School Social Studies class. Teacher, Mr. Garrison, explains our big semester project. We were each to choose a nation, do in-depth research about that nation including current information from its embassy, write a report and give a class presentation. Cool!
As an avid snow skier, I thought immediately of Switzerland, but figured half the class would pick that one too, so asked for clarification. “Any country?”
“Yes,” Mr. Garrison nodded, then added, “well, any country except Russia and the Soviet Union.”
Okay, cool, I was going to do Switzerland, but then stopped. Wait. “Why not Russia?” I asked.
“Because of the propaganda,” he replied, pointing to another student with a hand up.
“Wait. What’s propaganda?” I pressed.
I’ll never forget Mr. Garrison’s face as he tried to explain; it was kind of funny. Even now, decades later, I can still see that deer-in-the-headlights look on his face. We all waited, curious.
“Well, okay, for example, they say they have 100% employment, that everyone has a job, but…” he hesitated, then, “well, they do have that, but its not like here; they don’t own property, for example.”
The more he tried to explain propaganda, the more it sounded like more twisting of words and meanings, like what I’d been hearing on TV and in the newspapers for the past few years: Watergate, President Nixon’s last goodbye, end of the Vietnam War — “official” stories not matching the stories we were overhearing from our friends’ brothers, uncles, and dads who’d returned home from Vietnam.
“What you’re describing sounds no different than what we’re doing here,” I observed, noting claims on the back of cereal boxes, newspaper and TV ads. Mr. Garrison’s shoulders drooped, he knew I wasn’t going to let it go.
Propaganda. Propaganda. Propaganda, it had a name.
I wanted to see this propaganda that our own government in our free country thinks we’re too stupid to sort through. “I want to do Russia,” I said, emphatically.
Little did I know in that moment, that sudden awareness of propaganda, what it was and how it was part of culture, of the Cold War and our own propaganda, the power of strategic propaganda, that I would return again and again to both for the rest of my life.
Mr. Garrison then explained that I couldn’t do the report on Russia and the Soviet Union without permission from my parents and the principal.
Of course, I went straight to the principal’s office after class and made my request. He said he would need to speak with my mother. Later at home, I told my mother what happened and that I needed her permission and that the principal needed to speak with her. Not surprised, we both rolled our eyes as she nodded yes that she would take care of it.
Mr. Garrison wrote to the embassy, received the packet of “information,” passed to me; I read all of it; and I gave my report.
As a middle school student, I had the rare opportunity to study and understand real-world strategic propaganda at an international political power games level.
From that moment onward everything became suspect. I wanted to know who made claims; I wanted proof of said claims. I was already struggling with authority, so this newfound “thing” called “propaganda” set me on a course of suspicion and questioning of … everything. Every. Thing.
Flash forward to 1988. After walking away from a budding music career, I decided the best thing I could do as a single mom with a pre-school child, was to go to college and get a degree. I’d been told by several very successful people, people I respected, to get a degree in something that interests me, that as long as I have a degree, it will open opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Yes, you guessed it, Russian Area Studies.
However, I quickly learned that when they said, “any degree,” they didn’t necessarily mean Russian Area Studies. (Or maybe I didn’t hear that part?)
In 1988, when I enrolled in school full time at the University of Texas at Arlington, Russia was one of many nations that still comprised the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
President Ronald Reagan was in his last year of office and had already insisted to Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” while speaking in West Berlin only a year prior in 1987.
Reagan and Gorbachev continued talks — from Nuclear Disarmament to human rights — presenting a unique turn of events that I simply found fascinating. So, back to school, full time, I went. My first semester was all language classes. Summer immersion. Every day, all day. As was the second summer semester that immediately followed the first one.
Learning the language was grueling and difficult; like starting all over in language, period. Cyrillic characters, six cases, … I could go on and on. But, as intended with language immersion programs, you slog along not getting it not getting it not getting it, then one day it all just sort of clicks. And that’s when the curiosity overtook the gruel, if you will.
Translations! My absolute favorite assignments in those language classes were the translations! Of all of them, the one that anchored me to the program for good was the USSR’s Constitution. At the end of the assignment, I remember, still, just sitting back in my chair staring at my pages.
Was this some kind of joke the professor was playing on us? The USSR Constitution was so close to the US Constitution that I was able to place them side by side, which made the few differences easier to spot. No, it wasn’t a joke; it was real.
How is that possible? How can two giant nation conglomerates have almost identical Constitutions, yet be so completely opposite economically and culturally?
I thought of that when I registered for classes each following semester, choosing those that would best address that question.
For choosing a minor, I went first to the Anthropology Department. Can’t remember why I started there, maybe I was going alphabetically, no clue. But, it was the only stop I needed because I got lucky and dropped in on the right professor at the right time. Wish I could remember who it was, but, what he said washed over me like a blessing.
“I see two approaches to higher education. One, to learn a profession. Two, to be a better educated person. What is your goal?” He sat quiet, hands clasped under his chin as he looked me in the eye, waiting for my answer. I didn’t know what to say because I was kind of hoping for both. Finally, I said that: both. And we had the most inspiring conversation!
Little more than 15 minutes later I was fast-walking across campus to the Communication Department. I was going to minor in Communication. And that’s exactly what I did.
Something was changing in the USSR; it was finally cracking under the weight of Moscow, too distant from all its assets to maintain control, no longer able to keep the resistances in its member nations quiet.
Over the five years it took to complete my degree in the early 1990s, which included an extended tour of East Europe (I still have my piece of the Berlin Wall), Ukraine, and Russia (Moscow to St. Petersburg, which was still called Leningrad at the time), I was able to study and track the entire evolution from the last days of the USSR to the rush of naive US businessmen to what they saw as a “wide open emerging market.”
Having met with a minister of education in Ukraine (immediately following the Ukrainian Parliament vote to consider succession from the USSR) for a discussion on economics education and how that would or wouldn’t change; going from supply side economics to demand driven economics, I later wrote a homework paper warning of such a rush to invest in Russia before the individual nations that comprised the USSR had a chance to adjust, diagraming the obvious: Open Russia means their influence coming out is as open as the West’s influence going in. I think I got a B on that paper, which for me, as a single mom in school full time, was pretty darned good, considering I was a pretty solid C average all through school.
Upon degree completion, with all the changes happening in the former Soviet Union, I had no shortage of viable career track options to pursue — from energy companies to publishers to the US State Department. However, after what I’d learned and experienced over those six years I wanted little part of if it meant excessive overseas travel and direct involvement with Russian business entities. Again, single mom of, by then, an elementary school child in need of an instrument for music class, softball and volleyball games, and and and.
I had achieved my goal of earning a degree and becoming “a better educated person” AND I’d finally found the answers to those pesky propaganda motive questions that captivated me as a teenager almost 20 years prior to degree completion.
Much to my delight and surprise, I was able to incorporate much of what I’d learned about propaganda strategies into my Communication minor and subsequent media career. And while I remained arm’s length from any Russia business, I never lost interest in its continued evolution — from Gorbachev to Yeltsin through to Putin today.
Its been fascinating to watch it all unfold with an almost game-show like predictability, as many of my Russian Studies peers understand. By keeping Americans in the dark about USSR “propaganda,” American citizens were and are unprepared for the intricacies of Putin’s propaganda machine over the past decade. Its heart-breaking to watch.
As an American citizen, I’ve come to appreciate the value of my Russian Area Studies degree in a whole new light these past few years.
As I watch this morning’s headlines, just a citizen granny in rural America studying for the LSAT and selling doll clothes, I can’t help but feel oh so very thankful for my University of Texas Russian Area Studies degree; if for no other reason than I am a better educated and discerning citizen because of it. Being manipulated with “propaganda” in the name of freedom and equality didn’t sit right with me as a teenager in the 1970s; didn’t sit with me in college; and most definitely does not work for me today — no matter which nation’s propaganda machines are cranking it out, or how absurd their claims.
Thank you University of Texas. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
PS: I will post more stories about my time in Russia and East Europe, as well as about school! I have a few besties who came into my life in that time period that I simply must write about!