Russia — Up Close & Personal

submitted by Sharyn Alden; photo by Mark Moody

Presenters 2

From left: Helen Bryan (chef of the Russian cuisine), Al Bryan, Majid Sarmadi, UW-Madison Professor Polina Levchenko & UW-Madison Professor Yoshiko Herrera

On March 28, Rotarians were treated to a bountiful buffet and an evening of programs when the Cultural Awareness Fellowship Group met at Heritage Oaks, Oakwood to explore Russian culture.

The marvelous buffet, prepared by Al Bryan’s wife, Helen, included such Russian specialties as borsch, chicken and beef in bread crumbs (otbivnaya) and Russian cabbage stuffed with ground beef in tomato sauce (golubtsy). After enjoying plates of pasties, the programs began.

Travel Highlights

The first portion of the evening, “Russia from a Tourist Point of View,” was presented by UW-Professor Polina Levchenko.  Before viewing a variety of hand-picked places of interest, we gained an overview of this vast country’s history, and a window into its art, architecture, culture and fascinating facts.

For example, the Russian Federation is comprised of a dizzying mix of 190 ethnicities, 21 national republics and nine time zones.

Levchenko’s tour was introduced as some of Russia’s most important places to visit. Yet these spots are often overlooked, off the beaten path or simply not available to those traveling via a guided tour.

We started with Moscow’s subway system. You could hear the audible gasp in the room when Levchenko’s photos showed what you might miss if you don’t journey underground. I can attest to the extraordinary sights seen below –massive paintings, sparkly chandeliers and art abound when you reach tunnels below.

First, we journeyed to the Veliky neighborhood Novgorod, the birthplace of literacy, Levchenko noted. We saw a setting where the Eternal Flame was the focus. Levchenko pointed out an Eternal Flame is found in every town in Russia so people can pay gratitude for the peace of today.

Before dinner I shared a few photos of my visit to mystical Kizhi Island in northern Russia with its rare collection of massive, onion-domed wooden churches and buildings. The story goes that one man with an ax created these masterpieces. Continuing the tour of memorable, offbeat places, it was wonderful to see Levchenko include this magical place in her itinerary.

Continuing the magic, we moved on to Lake Baikal in Siberia north of the Mongolian border. The massive, crystal clear lake, circled by hiking trails, is considered to be the deepest lake in the world.

Trending -Russian-U.S. Relations

Next, our evening transitioned to political science with UW-Madison Professor, Yoshiko Herrera, presenting the timely topic, “US-Russia Relations –Challenges and Opportunities.” She provided insight into political relations between Russia and the U.S.

In response to the question, “Are we seeing a new Cold War?, Herrera noted, “We no longer have a bi-polar world, and in fact, the threat of nuclear war is probably lower today.” Yet she went on to explain that distrust between the two super powers –U.S and Russia is very high.

As an example she noted that since 2014, the Department of Defense does not allow students to study abroad in Russia, which is especially discouraging for students including those at UW-Madison who have spent years learning to speak Russian and honing their knowledge about the country.

In conjunction with this point, Herrera said, “About 25% of offices at the Department of Defense are unfilled and this has been a factor in the breakdown of relationships between the two countries.”

Other areas of interest Herrera referred to as “underappreciated facts” is this one. Unlike what some may think, “Putin does not reside over a seamless, well-oiled regime.”  She went on to say there is a fragility in the region (Russia), economic decline, and an anti-Americanism sentiment.

Still, she ended the program on a positive note when she said, “There are opportunities to improve U.S.-Russian relations.”

One response to “Russia — Up Close & Personal

  1. Sounds like a great evening – We should have attended

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