Minorities Abroad Project
Name: Kimberly St. Julian
Destination: Kiev and Odessa, Ukraine
Time Abroad: Summer 2013
Ethnic Self-identification: African-American
When my thesis advisor told me that I had to go to Ukraine to perform archival research for my MA thesis, I was unhappy to say the least. This was due to two reasons: a) I hadn’t planned on going abroad over the summer; I was going to do an intensive language program. And b) he failed to understand why I would be so nervous about going to Ukraine alone as a woman and as a woman of color. When I discussed my concerns about traveling to Ukraine alone and as a female of color with one of my professors, who is Ukrainian, he expressed his shock and concern. He told me that he simply did not realize what students of color have to go through when they travel to the region, but he would help me any way he could. Our chat made me feel better. Although he wasn’t aware of the issues that students of color face, and not many scholars in our profession do, he would support me in every way he could (and I am incredibly thankful for his support and help). Four months later, the night before I was due to depart for Kiev, I was incredibly nervous and afraid. I made the mistake of Googling “racial attacks in Ukraine,” which led to me nearly canceling my trip to Ukraine, therefore postponing my future career as a Soviet historian until further notice. It also didn’t help that my parents were not at all comfortable with the idea of me going to Ukraine, especially alone.
I knew doing Soviet history meant I had to travel to Russia and Ukraine and Poland, depending on where my research took me, yet actually going terrified me. When I arrived in Kiev I made my way to the baggage claim where I was stared at by everyone in the area. Then we went to the “arrivals” section, where, similar to a Hollywood film, everyone stopped talking and stared at me. I spent nearly three weeks in Kiev doing archival research and had one run-in with skinheads, in broad daylight, which proved to be emotionally scary but non-violent. I was incredibly diligent when I was taking the metro, checking out my surroundings both inside and outside the metro stop, as well as checking the subway trains before I got on, to make sure there were no skinheads or nationalists to greet me. After nearly three weeks in Kiev, I made my way by coach bus to Odessa, which I was looking forward to. Before I departed for Ukraine, I e-mailed the hostel I would be staying at in Odessa to ask if they had any issues with racism or racist attacks against their guests who were people of color. The hostel owner, who is an American expat, reassured me that I would not have any issues in Odessa, and that there were two Indian medical students who lived in the hostel during the school year and they had no issues. His email relieved a bit of my stress and made me excited to spend time in Odessa. Other than being stared at occasionally, having my picture taking at random intervals and even having a young man film me with his cellphone while I was out dancing, Odessa proved to be one of my favorite cities. I felt more comfortable with my surroundings in Odessa than in Kiev. This could be because the city is smaller than Kiev or because the city is more of a tourist attraction so people are probably moreused to having people of color in their surroundings.
When I left Ukraine I was awash with emotions. I was sad to be leaving the country, particularly Odessa, because I had met such amazing people and I was welcomed and helped by strangers. I was also a little embarrassed because I was so worked up and nervous about the trip that I almost cancelled it and ended my career as a Soviet historian while it was still in its embryonic stages. Now I can honestly say that going to Ukraine was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only did I get the archival research experience that is critical to my development as a Soviet historian, I fell in love with Ukrainian culture and food, and made a group of friends that I will never forget.
My personal advice to students of color who are interested in working in the region is to learn as much as you can about the country you will be traveling to. This includes getting in touch with professors and fellow students who are either from or have been to the country. If it wasn’t for my Russian professor, who is also Ukrainian, putting me in contact with two of his friends from home who showed me around Kiev, helped me figure out how to work my Ukrainian cellphone and taught me how to use the Kiev metro, I would have had a much different experience. As a student of color in Ukraine or Russia or other Eastern European countries, you must be diligent and highly aware of your surroundings, particularly if you are a male. This, unfortunately, comes with the territory of being a visible minority in any country including America. Some of my tactics for staying safe were: not going out at night unless I was with a friend, avoiding areas near parks and universities at night, and staying on main streets if I was out at night.
In closing, I strongly encourage students of color to indulge their passion for Slavic Studies and to venture to Ukraine, Russia or any of the post-Soviet states. There will be times when you will feel lonely, a little afraid, misunderstood, and alienated; but those times cannot compare to the good experiences you will have learning languages, performing research or just hanging out with interesting new people at a coffee shop. If we want our field to be more diverse and we want other students of color to have good experiences in the region, we have to go out and try to bridge the gap by working with our professors, departments and organizations to help them understand the rather unique situation we are in while working in the area. I can honestly say that I am looking forward to my return to Ukraine in the future.
More About Kimberly:
Kimberly is a second-year Master’s Degree candidate in the Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies program at Harvard University. Her primary foci are Soviet history and Slavic languages. She spent the summer performing archival research in Kiev (Kyiv) and Odessa (Odesa), Ukraine and documented her experiences in her personal blog. Some of her research can be read on ARTINRUSSIA.org. She can be contacted via email.