From Criminal Law in Texas to Russian Studies in Moscow
After practicing criminal law for 30 years, Rife Kimler of Texas, USA was in need of a break and a change of scenery. Long interested in Russia, the lawyer researched Russian programmes online and opted for HSE University’s Master’s Programme in Russian Studies. In an interview with HSE News Service, Rife discussed what he likes about Moscow and why he has not regretted his decision to study Russian politics and culture at HSE.
Rife Kimler is a licensed criminal defence lawyer from Beaumont, Texas, USA. Though he has spent the past few decades practicing criminal defence in the US, Rife is no stranger to Russia. In 1986, he studied in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) as an exchange student. Now, over 30 years later, he has decided to revisit Russia and see how it has changed.
An Educational Hiatus
Over the course of his career in criminal defence, Rife says that he has had a lot of good experiences and a lot of bad experiences. All in all, however, he decided it was time for a break. ‘I got kind of burned out,’ he explains. ‘I’ve got three kids, and my youngest just graduated from high school this past May and started university. Therefore, I’m at a point where I can just kind of kick back and do something different.’
An additional factor drawing him to Russia was the current geopolitical situation between it and the US. ‘I just really wanted to come and see for myself what’s going on, so I decided to come here, see what the situation is, and take a vacation from practicing criminal defence. So, I applied for the programme, and it’s been a really positive experience so far.’
On Choosing HSE University
Rife found out about the HSE's Russian Studies programme online when he was searching programmes in Russia. 'I was originally thinking about doing a programme at Novosibirsk State University for an LLM – an Advanced Law Degree – but it became no longer available. I started looking at other programmes. I considered one LLM programme in St. Petersburg, but HSE University in Moscow appealed to me more.’
Of course, HSE’s reputation is very good. But another factor was that the online application process here was the most comprehensible and accessible.
The city of Moscow was also a selling point for Rife. ‘If given the choice between Moscow and St. Petersburg, I’d rather be in Moscow,’ he says. ‘It’s the capital, there’s more going on here politically, and there’s more accessibility here, in terms of infrastructure and institutions. I originally wanted to go to Novosibirsk, because it seems that when you go to a smaller city in a country’s interior, rather than its larger cities, such as Washington, D.C. or New York in the United States, for example, you get a better feel for things. But since that didn’t work out, between the two larger cities, I’d rather go to Moscow.’
How It All Began: Leningrad, 1986
The last time Rife was in Russia was when it was part of the Soviet Union in 1986. He had just graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where he had taken three years’ worth of Russian language courses and majored in philosophy, and he wasn’t quite sure what kind of career he wanted to pursue. Therefore, he decided to study abroad in Leningrad. As a student at Leningrad State University (now St. Petersburg State University), Rife studied Russian culture and language.
‘There were about 150 of us American students in total from different American universities. While we were there, various Komsomol group members (i.e., members of the USSR’s youth organization, the All-Union Young Communist League — editor’s note) were assigned to us to take us on excursions,’ Rife recalls. ‘So we got to interact with Russian kids, and that was interesting. We travelled – we went to Moscow, Rostov, Riga, and Yerevan. And we also had free rein of the city of Leningrad. We weren’t monitored or anything. We could go anywhere we wanted. We had a perimeter; I don’t remember exactly how far we could go out from Leningrad before we reached this perimeter, but it was far enough out to give us ample freedom of movement.’
A Career in Law
At the time, as a new graduate with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Rife didn’t know what he was going to do professionally once he returned to the US. His time in Leningrad, however, provided an answer. ‘When I would talk to the Soviet citizens in Leningrad,’ recalls Rife, ‘they would often tell me about various things the Soviet government could do. They would say, “They can do this, or that, and so on.” And then they would ask me, “What would you do in the United States if the government did that?” A lot of the times, I’d just say, “Well, you’d have to get a lawyer.” And I found myself saying this so often – “You’d have to get a lawyer… You’d have to get a lawyer...” – that eventually, one day, when I was sitting on a bench in a park in Leningrad, it just dawned on me – “Why don’t you just be a lawyer?”’
The choice was a natural one. ‘There’s not a very big demand for philosophers, so I decided to go to law school when I got back to the States. I saw it as a way to help people who are victimized by the government,’ Rife says.
Russian Studies at HSE
It’s what I expected and more; it’s very well organized, and the professors are very knowledgeable and competent
Rife reports that the classes have focused more on political theory than he was expecting, but that this has been a pleasant surprise, since he is interested in politics. ‘In Professor Boris Makarenko’s course, “Explaining Contemporary Russian Politics: Institutions and Practices”,’ says Rife, ‘we’ve covered the political structure of Russia, the political parties, the president, the Presidential Administration, the legislative process, elections, the Federation Council, the State Duma, as well constitutional developments and changes spanning from 1993 to today.’
Rife is also enjoying Professor Yury Gaivoronsky’s course, which focuses on federalism in Russia, and the relationship between the regions and the capital. ‘We’ve concentrated on issues that arise in the federal structure. For example, we’ve discussed the electoral processes out in the oblasts (federal districts) and how electoral changes affect the capital versus the peripheral areas. I find this interesting, because it is analogous to the US in a lot of ways, and one of the things I’ve come to realize is Russia and the US have a lot more in common than first meets the eye.’
Although Moscow has a lot to offer any foreign tourist (from its architecture to its history), one aspect of the city that has particularly struck the criminal defence lawyer is its low crime rates. ‘My points of comparison are the urban areas of the United States, particularly Houston, Texas, where I practice law.‘
In my view, compared to what I’m used to in Texas, I much prefer it here, because it’s safe. It’s extremely safe
‘I’ve purposely travelled down to what I’ve been able to identify as the worst areas of Moscow. And it’s like, are you kidding me? These are the worst areas of Moscow? Try coming to Fifth Ward in Houston. Everywhere is safe and I haven’t seen any street crime or any indication of drug-related crime. My main impression is that Moscow is an extremely safe, orderly city,’ says Rife.
One thing that has taken some getting used to is Russians’ different sense of personal space. ‘I’ve had to get used to people coming up behind me or closely brushing past me. In the US, we have a much bigger sense of personal space. I’ve also had to turn my volume level down when I talk. But it’s kind of nice; I feel like I can relax. I don’t have to constantly be on my guard when I’m on the metro, sitting in a restaurant,’ he says.
‘I don’t really plan that far ahead,’ admits Rife. ‘If I need to go back and make a living, I can always go back to criminal defence. I’m still a licensed lawyer. I can pick that up anytime I want to when I go back.’
When asked about the possibility of using his master’s degree in Russian Studies from HSE, Rife says, ‘If I were to do something different using my HSE degree, I would go into a line of work that fosters diplomacy or concrete cultural exchange. I like this country. So, I would want to perhaps work with a foundation that works to develop direct cultural relations. My master’s studies here are certainly giving me the skills and expertise required for that kind of work,’ he says.
In 2019, HSE is launching a new master's programme in Russian Studies that will be taught in English. Admissions for international students have already started. Boris Makarenko, the programme’s Academic Supervisor, spoke with the HSE News Service about the features of the new programme.
HSE is launching a new Bachelor's programme in Russian Studies. While the programme will be taught in English, it is intended not only for foreigners but also for Russian students. Rostislav Turovsky, the programme’s Academic Supervisor, spoke to the HSE News Service about the features of the new programme.
Charlie Song is a Chinese student who spent a semester at HSE University–St. Petersburg, focusing on Russian, Eurasian and Post-Soviet Studies. Charlie shared his impressions of Russian culture and life in St. Petersburg with the HSE news service, as well as some helpful tips for other international students.