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Russian Studies: Bridging Continents & Cultures

June 20, 2018

Portrait of Nadya Clayton.

Portrait of Nadya Clayton.
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

“It is hard to imagine talking about global literature, music, and art without evoking the names of some prominent artists, composers, and authors from Russia,” says Dr. Nadya Clayton, who has been teaching Russian language, literature, and culture at the University of Minnesota for four years. In addition to teaching, she also coordinates Russian conversation hours and helps to organize student extracurricular events, such as evenings of Russian games and songs, film showings, and presentations on Russian cultural, ethnic, and geographical diversity and traditions.

Teaching at a Crossroads

Educating students and the community on the importance of Russian art and culture is evidently more important than ever before. This is also the time of an exciting merger of Program in Slavic Languages & Literatures with the Department of German, Scandinavian & Dutch (GSD) to form the new Department of German, Nordic, Slavic & Dutch (GNSD). “The process of merging GSD and Slavic has been a wonderful experience,” says Clayton. “Although we are very culturally diverse, everyone in the department brings something special to the table... diversity is always encouraged and embraced.”

Clayton has experienced the diversity and vastness of the Russian-speaking world first-hand. She comes from a long line of educators and military officers, which meant that she moved across the “huge expanse of the Soviet Union” more than 15 times in her youth. She notes that “Slavic culture is one that has always been positioned at the crossroads of east and west. Because of Russia’s geographic closeness to both Europe and Asia, we have come to adopt influences from both sides of the world and have always served as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Russia is also one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world—it is a home for more than two hundred ethnic groups and minorities.”

Russia’s cultural diversity and uniqueness are most brilliantly manifested in its literature and art. As an example of how she uses the arts to educate her students about Russian society, Clayton points to a recent survey course she taught on the history of Russian cinema. It covered over a century of development in Russian cinematic art, from early silent films in 1908 through “some of the most significant epochs and developments in Russian cinema all the way to 2017... It is fascinating to watch the start of Russian cinema with silent films and see how it has become one of Russia’s most influential art forms from such humble beginnings.”

Since the history of cinema is intrinsically connected to political, historical, cultural, and social developments, this class examined all these important phenomena through the medium of film. Many of Clayton’s students were surprised to discover the major contributions that Russian filmmakers made to the development of cinematography and the pivotal role that cinema has played in Russian history, politics, and the overall human experience.

Connecting Students with a Local Museum & Global Traditions

Clayton has been building connections between the University of Minnesota and the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis, which she calls “a unique cultural institution and one of the few in the US of such high caliber and quality.” She has served on the organizing committee for the museum’s annual Interdisciplinary Student Research Symposium since 2015, making this her fourth year leading a group of UMN students to participate in the event. As a collaboration between the museum and a consortium of Minnesota colleges and universities, the symposium provides undergraduate and graduate students with a platform to present research findings on a plethora of topics related to Russian culture, art, literature, and history.

This year’s topic was inspired by a special exhibit, called “Russian Sacred Art: Connecting Heaven and Earth.” Past exhibits have showcased topics ranging from Russia in WWI to Russian traditions in wood crafting. Regardless of the topic, Clayton insists that “there is always a little something for everyone.”

She appreciates that the symposium “offers a unique opportunity for students from different departments and areas of study to come together to learn more about one of the unique cultures that makes up the broad cultural landscape that exists in the Twin Cities.” The symposium brings together students with a shared interest in the culture of Russia from diverse academic backgrounds, including history, art, literature, religious studies, politics, theater, music, and dance. Clayton calls the experience “a wonderful opportunity for [students] to meet their peers from other universities and colleges across the Twin Cities, as well as to engage in comparative interdisciplinary research and exchange their views and ideas.”

Teaching & Learning Together

With the inclusion of Slavic studies, the GNSD department now encompasses six unique cultures and languages: German, Russian, Finnish, Dutch, Swedish, and Norwegian. Clayton is optimistic about how those connections will help to educate the community on global cultures.

Although educational experiences such as the research symposium and courses on Russian cinema and literature are meant to teach about a specific culture, Clayton stresses they are also an attempt to teach people to understand and appreciate other unique and distant parts of the world. To paraphrase American writer Mark Twain: “Foreign language and cultural studies are fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

As Clayton puts it, “studying each other’s culture and language greatly helps in our attempts towards cooperation and understanding... there are more things that unite us than separate us, [and] that is the significance of GNSD’s mission.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.