It begins with a spark.
For Diana Imperatore, it was a love of ballet. For David Swafford, it was the Olympics (and the mystery of "CCCP"). Claudia Ricci was fascinated by the Cyrillic alphabet. Sandy Williams turned away from a career in herpetology after a high school trip to the Soviet Union and a semester abroad in southern Russia. Melanie Peyser was "hooked" after a required summer reading of Andrea Gray's Russian Memoirs.
There are as many different reasons for deciding to study Russian as there are people studying it. And now, with a newly-liberalized Russia, there are more opportunities than ever for persons with strong Russian language skills to find excellent jobs in areas that correspond with the "spark" that led them to Russian in the first place.
In an effort to understand what kinds of new career opportunities are open to persons with Russian language skills, Russian Life interviewed nearly 40 professionals from all over the world about how they are putting their Russian language study to use in the "real world." The search led us to a spate of fascinating destinations, from Wall Street to Kosovo, from NGOs to the corporate world to the halls of government. And, the more people we conversed with, the more a distinct pattern began to emerge.
How Much is Enough?
A spark of interest is fine and good. But without fuel for the flame, interest in Russian can die out quickly in the face of a strange alphabet, verbs of motion and the perfective/imperfective conundrum. Almost without exception, those who have put their Russian training to use in their careers are people who felt challenged--instead of daunted--by the exotic nature of the Russian language.
Karina Shook began studying Russian while an engineering student in college, after a friend took up the language first. "I remember thinking, 'That's a unique language, probably not that many people learn to speak it," Shook said. "Somewhere in there I probably also made the connection that it could be useful to combine it with my interest in the space program." She was right. Today, Shook works at NASA-Johnson Space Center, as a liaison between US and Russian space programs on spacewalk issues.
"I first studied Russian in order to just learn a language other than French or Spanish," said Julie Johnson, a grant manager at Sister Cities International. "I was only in Russian 102 when the opportunity to travel to Vladimir presented itself. After experiencing Russian life and culture, I returned to Ohio State University to pursue a degree in Russian."
Lisa Kaestner, like many people in the mid-1980s, was fascinated by the cultures on "the other side" in the Cold War. While she said she did not have a particular career in mind, she knew she wanted to travel and that she "wanted to study something more exotic than a western European language." After studying Russian for four years at Williams College (including a semester abroad in Soviet Georgia), Kaestner went on to live and work for about 10 years in Georgia, including working as one of the US Embassy's first employees there in the early 1990s. Today she is a program officer at the International Finance Corporation.
The sympathies of many interviewees were summed up well by Craig Martelle (currently a major in the US Military and working as an Arms Control Implementation Unit Operations Office at the US Embassy in Moscow): "The draw of the Russian language is that you could spend a lifetime studying it and still not know it all."
While an apt sentiment, this is not highly practical advice for students of Russian who are still in school. Of course you can study Russian all your life, but how much does one need before leaving school?
The majority of professionals interviewed had at least four years of college level Russian on their resumes before beginning a job search, and most had studied in Russia for a semester or more. …