We asked Harrison Ford, Ole Miss student, 2008 counselor, and wrangler extraordinaire to write a piece about his experiences last semester studying abroad in Russia. Enjoy:
To many people in the United States, Russia is the nation where bears walk in the street next to bearded men and women covered in fur. For mainstream America, Russia is frozen winters and desolate Siberia. It is Boris and Natasha, Stalin and Putin, onion-domed churches, and hammers and sickles.
Because we in the US largely lack even a cursory understanding of the Russian nation, we associate it with what we have seen in books or on TV and attach to it a wealth of symbols. One of these is that of the nesting doll. On the outside, it brightly depicts a young woman dressed in a traditional colorful Russian sarafan. Inside of that outer doll is a smaller replica, and inside of that one is another, even smaller replica, and so on. I feel that the image of the nesting doll, with its multiple dolls hidden away inside of its larger self, is an appropriate representation of Russia itself, telling us that only in looking deeply into Russia, by undoing its many layers, can its treasures be found.
After lending Alpine my horseback skills (my name already bares resemblance to a celebrity, but I feel it would have been more appropriate as John Wayne) in the summer of 2008, I traded my home in rural Blue Springs, Mississippi (population: cattle and ne’er-do-wells) for the urban sprawl of St. Petersburg, Russia in accordance with the requirements for my International Studies major at the University of Mississippi.
Established in 1703 by Czar Peter the Great, St. Petersburg was created to be Russia’s “Window to Europe.” Attempting to turn his nation away from the political and societal backwardness it had been stuck in, Peter set out to make St. Petersburg into the cultural capital of Russia. It soon surpassed the opulence of other European capitals and its nobility helped create the cultural capital not only of Russia, but of all Eastern Europe (or, as Russians tend to not-so-meekly argue, the cultural capital of the world).
I walked the streets lined with 18th century, pink, green, and light blue facades that inspired Pushkin’s poetry, visited the apartment of Dostoevsky, crossed the bridges Akhmatova traversed. In my first month, I sought out, with great fervor, to soak up the cultural experiences that the city offered in such generous supply.
After that first month, however, I began to feel that my experience was lacking. This set me at unease. I came to Russia to experience the culture, but now, after trying so hard, I felt empty. I had even watched Swan Lake in its native Mariinsky Theatre! It was absurd to me that I could be feeling that kind of void and disconnect with the Russian culture that I had worked so hard to integrate myself into.
Relief came to me in the form of a 70 year old Russian grandmother. She, for four months, was my guide, language tutor, cook, and (before I told her about my American girlfriend) vowed to find me a suitable Russian wife. She was, as she put it, my “Russian mother.” I shared her and her husband’s three room apartment in the prestigious city center for the duration of my stay in St. Petersburg. Vivacious and stocky, Natasha was whole-heartedly devoted to exposing me to the Russia that she knew and loved. After preparing a variety of Russian dishes for me (one of which included cow tongue), she would always break into a smile as large the nation itself and say, “Dlya Tebya, Moi Dorogoi” (“For you, my dear”).
I had made myself very unavailable to our little trans-continental family for the first month of my stay because of my packed schedule of cultural undertakings. The Russian climate, however, decided to change this situation. As the snow and biting cold began to settle in to St. Petersburg, so did I. Instead of going out every night, I would sometimes opt to stay in my apartment rather than fight the elements. As I did this, I drew closer to my Russian family, and, as I did, I realized what I was missing in my experience of Russia. My housemother and housefather, through their overwhelming acts of kindness and compassion for me began to help me pull back the layers of their nation. With every meal my housemother fed me and with every bit of inane, but well intentioned, piece of advice my housefather would give me about Russian women, I began to unearth the treasures of Russia. It wasn’t the theaters or the museums that made Russia, it was the people I saw every day. I had previously thought that the Russian people were calloused and rude, but, as I began to develop friendships with other Russians, I began to see that this was a front developed after living for centuries in oppression. As I began to engage the people around me, I found that the Russian people are the most hospitable individuals I have ever met.
Of course, this is a lesson that I had been taught earlier in the summer, but had forgotten. Alpine, on one level, is Lookout Mountain, Little River, the dining hall, the potato shed, and so many other visual symbols I connect with it. But, once you start pulling back the layers, the single most important element of Alpine, the one that connects with your soul, is the relationships made there. Alpine offers many temporal pleasures for campers and counselors, whether it be the fun had at PA or the serenity of hearing the rushing waters of the river as you fall asleep. The greatest gift that Alpine gives us, however, is eternal. Through the face of a camper riding a horse for the first time, the knowing glance Mr. O gives the counselor walking near the Staff Lounge (even though it isn’t his off period), or the many laughs shared amongst friends, it is evident that the most rewarding aspect of Alpine is the ability to create relationships that will last a lifetime.
Winston Churchill once said that Russia “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” From the outside, it definitely seems that way, but, when you undo the nesting doll that is Russia itself, it reveals its many hidden layers. After undoing Russia’s doll, you come to the last, smallest doll, and it is a smiling, colorful Russian. I feel that when you look at that smallest doll, you have found the true treasure of not only Russia, but of mankind in general: friends, family, and community, boiled down into that one small, colorful, smiling person.