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Regular version of the site

Fulbright Scholar on Working and Living in Moscow

HSE’s  Faculty of Law  is a partner of the Fulbright Scholar Programme and each year has the opportunity to host a Distinguished Chair in Sustainable Development. David Wirth, a Professor who teaches and supervises research at Boston College Law School, arrived at HSE in this capacity in September 2016 and spent the past academic year in Moscow. He has talked to HSE News Service about his impressions.

Teaching and Doing Research at HSE

I had the good fortune not only to work as a visiting faculty member in the Faculty of Law, but also to attend high-level events as a participant -- such as the HSE International Advisory Committee meeting in November, to speak at the Moscow State University Festival of Science in October, and to attend the meeting of the HSE-Harvard Working Group on the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations in December.  The high point was probably speaking at the St. Petersburg Legal Forum in the General Staff building.  Forty years ago, as a student there, I never could have imagined that I would be speaking in such a place!

Having seen things from the point of view of a participant as well as an observer is very revealing.  I have been impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit at HSE.  Nearly every time I meet with a Russian colleague, there is a sense of momentum, of pressing forward, of trying to make the most of an opportunity.  I see that among my students as well, who consistently want to not only meet, but exceed, international standards in such areas as international moot court competitions.  In short, HSE seems to be place which is all about an exchange of ideas, and where ideas have great importance.  That is an environment where it is a privilege for someone like me to be.

My research has been very successful, largely because of my capacity to be at HSE, to interact with colleagues here, and to hear their views. I have a piece that is about to appear in HSE’s International Organisations Research Journal, edited by Marina Larionova.  It is about the Paris Agreement on climate, and will be one of the first scholarly articles to appear following the United States’ announcement of withdrawal from that agreement.

HSE seems to be place which is all about an exchange of ideas, and where ideas have great importance

I am also working with Daria Boklan, a colleague in the Faculty of Law, who is a trade law specialist.  That research addresses the capacity of states to require so-called “carbon internalization” on imported goods – essentially a border tax reflecting the cost in terms of climate degradation from manufacturing a particular product.  Again, with the U.S. withdrawal, this is likely to be a major public policy issue in the near future.

My hope is that both these projects will establish a pattern of working with HSE and colleagues here on research, whether here in Moscow or while overseas.

I also had the good fortune to teach two courses in the Faculty of Law, in the master’s program in International Trade, Finance, and Economic Integration.  The students were exceptionally engaged, and their English is top-notch.  My students are now finishing up their research papers, and it is a pleasure to see what interesting ideas they have!

Many of my students work full-time, and are pursuing a demanding full-time master’s degree simultaneously. In the fall, my classes met from 18:30-21:20 on Friday nights.  I believe that there are some part-time programmes in the United States that may have schedules like that, but American students would resist this kind of discipline.  I was impressed that my students regularly came to class and applied themselves in a second language, after what no doubt on many occasions was a demanding work week.

I sincerely hope to continue a relationship with the HSE Law Faculty, collaborating with scholarly colleagues, serving as a resource for future students working in my field, and perhaps teaching a course.  As I told my students, I consider the relationship between us to go on indefinitely, and I have helped several plan their future career paths, whether in Russia or abroad.

I also hope to be involved in actively facilitating options for Russian teachers and scholars to come to the United States, and especially those from HSE.  Through the binational Fulbright program that brought me here, there are opportunities at almost every level, from graduate students to senior faculty. I believe that there are more options for Russians to go to the U.S. than the opposite.  If anything, now it is more important than ever to make binational connections at the personal and professional levels.

Living in Russia

Moscow without doubt is one of the world’s great cities.  My previous experience had been almost entirely in St. Petersburg.  When I arrived in Moscow, to my own surprise I didn’t even recognize any of the names of the metro stations, let alone the streets.  So it has been a great pleasure to explore Moscow from the ground up, so to speak.

To me, Russian culture is irresistible.  Since I have been trained as a classical musician, my wife and I had a programme this year to see Russian operas, many of which are rarely produced in the west.  We both stumbled out of the Bolshoi’s Boris Godunov, it was so powerful.  We also enjoyed tracing the paths of the characters in Master and Margarita, which seems to be every Russian’s favorite novel.

The architecture is like nothing in America, street after street of neoclassical buildings, any one block of which could likely be the jewel of an American city.  I even like the food.  When my son came to visit, I made sure he got to try pelmeni (meat dumplings), stuffed cabbage rolls, blini, pirogi (pies), borsch (red-beet soup), shchi (cabbage soup), and kvas (traditional Russian drink), as well as foreign dishes like khinkali (Georgian dish)  and kebab.

Even a simple metro ride is something to appreciate – especially if you grew up in New York, as I did.  My favorite station is Mayakovskaya, because of its austere symmetry. I can see the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour out my bedroom window, in my opinion the best view in Moscow.  I have made a series of photographs of it in different lights, in which it looks entirely different in each.

I have been pleasantly surprised at the way people look out for each other here.  Sometimes I wouldn’t button my coat, or tie my shoelace, and passersby would very helpfully – and caringly – point out the need to be warm in the freezing weather, or to be ready for the escalator in the metro.  I slipped and fell on the ice, and any number of people rushed to help me up immediately.  A woman at an ice-cream stand asked me to write out directions to a nearby theatre, because she had so many inquiries in English and felt badly when she couldn’t explain.  I saw graffiti that read “Take care of each other” -- not the sort of sentiment that usually finds its way into such things in America.  When I put the accent on the wrong syllable in “Krasnopresnenskaya,” a woman sitting nearby on the metro looked up and said – in English – “I know, it’s hard!”  And there are so many more examples, I treasure them all.

Mastering the Language

I have been studying the “great and powerful” Russian language since I was 19.  I studied in the Philological Faculty at (then) Leningrad State University during the Soviet period, and particularly benefited from an excellent course in Russian phonetics.  My wife is a native speaker.

After arriving here, I took 10 hours of Russian language lessons a week through the top-notch HSE programme in Russian as a second language. In all honesty, this was much more challenging than my “day job,” in which I operate totally in English.  And as soon as I walked into the room the average age of learners there increased by several decades!

I sincerely hope to continue a relationship with the HSE Law Faculty, collaborating with scholarly colleagues, serving as a resource for future students working in my field, and perhaps teaching a course

It is a pleasure to learn not only new words, but concepts that don’t really have a precise equivalent in English.  Any number of Russians have identified the expression «да нет» (well no), and then proceeded humorously to explain it.  I particularly liked a sign I saw advertising shopping along the lines of “without the fuss” («вне суеты»), but the translation doesn’t really capture the basic idea. I was very proud to have read “The Cherry Orchard,” and subsequently to attend a performance with the great artist Olga Volkova.  I regularly read Michele Berdy’s column on language in the “Moscow Times.”

But it is still a challenge.  Overall, I think my Russian has improved by several hundred percent.  I understand most conversations on the street, on the telephone, and elsewhere.  I can, somewhat to my own surprise, understand most professional presentations in my field.  The context helps, and in fact the language that is employed is precisely what I have been trained to deal with.  I pride myself on not having been in any situations in which I have failed to make myself understood.  In social situations with native speakers who have no English, somehow I can seem to keep the conversation going at a reasonably sophisticated level.

But I still cringe at my own mistakes when speaking.  Somehow it seems as if every word or concept in English has three or four different formulations in Russian.  Although I get the basic idea, I still have trouble with verb aspects.  And some conversational language just passes me by.  Who would have known that «крутой» now means not just “steep,” but “cool” (which is also conversational in English)?  As a non-native speaker, someone needs to tell you that.

So I now view my engagement with the language as an ongoing challenge where I look to make progress, even if I probably will never speak like a native.  To a considerable extent, that is a gift.  There is always something new and interesting to learn!