Two Bowdoin students have received national honors in a prestigious Russian essay contest—an indication of the College’s renewed commitment to the study of Russian, both the language and the culture, said department chair Alyssa Gillespie, associate professor of Russian.
“This is only the second year Bowdoin has taken part in the ACTR National Post-Secondary Russian Essay Contest and the second time two of our students have been honored, so it’s a major accomplishment for them and an important distinction for the Russian department,” she added. “Bowdoin has performed better than most of its peers over the past two years. In fact we are second overall among liberal arts colleges, many of which have larger and more established Russian departments.”
Dalia Tabachnik ’21 and Artur Kalandarov ’20 were awarded honorable mentions in the event, which attracted widespread interest. “Altogether, 1,291 essays were submitted from sixty different colleges and universities across the US,” said Gillespie, “and all the essays were read and ranked by three judges in Moscow.” Thirteen students from Bowdoin took part in the contest at all language levels, said Gillespie. “This year’s topic was ‘My City or Town.’ They did not know the topic ahead of time and they had one hour to write their essays by hand, with no dictionaries or other aids allowed.”
Kalandarov said the topic suited him because he is from New
York City and has a lot to say about growing up in the “Big Apple.” Tabachnik wrote her essay from the perspective of her parents, who grew up in the Russian town of Ufa. Both Tabachnik and Kalandarov are what are known as “heritage speakers,” meaning they grew up speaking some Russian at home. At Bowdoin, Kalandarov said he saw a great opportunity to become fluent and learn to read and write. “I started at the intermediate level last year, knowing how to read a little from my mom but never having used the Cyrillic alphabet,” said Kalandarov, who is now a double major in government and Russian. He has progressed much more quickly than he thought he would, he said, and is looking forward to spending a semester studying in Moscow next year.
Kalandarov recently notched up another notable achievement, said Gillespie. On April 13, 2018, he was invited to take part in the prestigious European and Eurasian Undergraduate Research Symposium at the University of Pittsburgh—an annual event designed to give students the opportunity to present advanced research to a panel of faculty and graduate students. There, he presented a talk on “Soviet Germans and Soviets Living in Germany: A Comparison of Treatment,” based on research Kalandarov had completed for a course on Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, taught by Associate Professor of History Page Herrlinger last fall.
The burgeoning success of Bowdoin’s Russian program is reflected in the sharp increase in the number of Russian majors, said Gillespie. “When I arrived here in fall 2016 we had just one Russian major—across all classes—and she has since graduated. Now,” she pointed out, “we have two minors in the senior class, five majors among the juniors, and a further five majors in the sophomore class, with a good prospect that another five or so current first-year students will declare a Russian major next year. That’s impressive growth over such a short time period!”
The study of Russian attracts students for a variety of reasons, she added, ranging from the rich heritage of Russian literature, music, and art to the strategic importance of the Russian language in international politics and diplomacy. But knowing Russian can also open the door to cross-cultural understanding in sometimes unexpected ways, said Gillespie. As the three Russian judges of the essay contest wrote in a joint statement: “As long as such essays are still being written, it means that everything will be fine in the world.”