Neal Kumar is an American graduate of the Russian Studies program at the European University at St. Petersburg. This program is quickly becoming known as one of the world’s best, not only for its academic rigor, of course, but also for its location in one of Russia’s historical capitals. Neal took some time from his now busy work schedule to talk with us about his program.
SRAS: So introduce yourself to us, Neal. How did you get involved in Russian studies?
Neal: I grew up in northern New Jersey, 20 minutes outside of New York City. I began my university studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in September 1999 thinking that I would major in Political Science. I have always been interested in international relations, but it only took one excessively boring class on “World Systems” for me to realize that I did not need to pay $30,000 a year to learn something that I could learn while reading the newspaper. I also figured that my financial prospects upon graduation would be greatly improved if I took Economics, even if it meant that I would not be able to coast through school with a 3.8 GPA in Political Science. Eventually, I decided to have declared majors in Economics and History with a minor in the Business Institutions Program (BIP) because I wanted to learn about actual business from Kellogg Business School professors rather than economic theory and econometrics. I majored in History (with a focus on European History) because history has always been my first academic love, and I enjoy writing. At Northwestern the College of Arts and Sciences required two years study of a foreign language, which induces most NU students to place out of Spanish or French. I, for some reason, have always been intrigued by Russia, although I do not know why, and decided to take Russian. This, of course, turned out to be (I think) the most difficult language to study at Northwestern because of the time commitment and how different the language is from English. Because I am a glutton for punishment, I thoroughly enjoyed the suffering, which, I guess, makes my soul similar to that of the Russians.
SRAS: So how much suffering did you go through before you got to Russia?
Neal: After studying for two years at Northwestern I decided that it made no sense to study Russian for a number of years and then not go to Russia, so I went to Moscow between my junior and senior years of college on an ACTR program that provided language training at Moscow International University (MMU). Although studying the language provided ample educational enjoyment, I realized after my time in Moscow that I needed to return to Russia to satisfy my intellectual curiosities with regards to political science and economics after I realized that reading the newspaper did not provide me with the necessary abilities for serious study of international relations, development economics, and state formation. I needed to gain some educational maturity before I realized that journalists are hardly the foremost experts on these issues. Thus, much of the first half of my senior year was spent figuring out a way to return to Russia. Eventually, I found out about the European University in St. Petersburg.
SRAS: How did you first hear about EUSP?
Neal: I first heard about the EUSPB via an Internet search, and decided to go there after consulting with a few Northwestern professors who assured me that the school was reputable. Any wariness about living in Russia or Russia in general was eviscerated by living in Moscow.
SRAS: Most state-accredited universities in Russia are reputable, many even prestigious worldwide. So when you got there, what sort of program did you take?
Neal: I decided to focus my program on political economy. In every class we could decide which area(s) we wanted to focus on when we wrote our final essays or midterm essays. Thus, we were able to tailor the program to our interests after receiving a more general education in the subjects that were taught. Each class had a discussion and a lecture once each week for about four hours of class time, which is the same as at most undergraduate universities in the USA. We were evaluated on one or two smaller papers (5-10 pages) and one longer paper (20-25 pages) for each class, and were required to do a dissertation (40-100 pages) in order to satisfy the requirements for graduation. My dissertation was titled: “Agency, Oligopoly, and Authoritarianism: A Game Theory Analysis of State-Economy Relations in Contemporary Russia.” The EUSPB, its connection to JSTOR, and the national libraries in St. Petersburg had more than enough books to facilitate the writing of my dissertation.
There are also ample opportunities to meet Russian students both at the EUSPB and throughout St. Petersburg; it is the intellectual capital of Russia. I have friendships with students both Russian and from Europe who have many diverse career interests, and keep in touch with many of them.
SRAS: That sounds like a great program; I’m almost jealous I didn’t get such treatment from my program in America. And your professors, how were they?
Neal: All of the professors were very good. All are experts in their fields and are known throughout the world for their achievements. They are also all very friendly and helpful, much more than most professors in America. It would be hard to pick favorites from all my professors but my thesis advisor Professor Vadim Volkov, Professor Nikita Lomagin, Professor Eduard Ponarin, and Professor Oleg Kharkhordin were those with whom I became the most closely acquainted. They are all fantastic professors.
SRAS: So what was it like living in Petersburg?
Neal: St. Petersburg is quite cold much of the year, so that obviously affected the living conditions, but I loved living in St. Petersburg. Sure it’s not filled with all the western amenities, the streets are dirtier, apartments won’t have all the new appliances and it’s harder to find the food that westerners are accustomed to, but I think that it’s the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to, especially during the winter. I wouldn’t trade living along the Fontanka, being able to walk along the Neva, or seeing the sun rise at 10 am in the winter for anything in the world.
SRAS: What is the advantage to going to EUSP over staying in America?
Neal: I’m generally confused by people who are interested in Russia but have not lived there, especially people in Washington who purport to be knowledgeable about Russia and US foreign policy towards Russia. Living somewhere, whether it is Russia, London, or Chicago, simply gives a more in depth and more direct knowledge about that place, its people, and the culture there. Also, I doubt I would have gained an understanding about the current socioeconomic and political situation in Russia without speaking with Russians, reading Russian newspapers, and watching Russian TV. My language skills most certainly would not be what they are now. If the education at the EUSPB was not comparable to the education at a Yale, Georgetown, or Harvard, I would still recommend going to the EUSPB simply because you obtain the direct experience of living in Russia along with an MA degree. However, I believe that the education is comparable, and living in St. Petersburg gives depth to the experience that is impossible simply by studying in America.
SRAS: What are you doing now? Are you still using your language and degree?
Neal: When I first returned from Russia I interned briefly at the American Enterprise Institute under the tutelage of Dr. Leon Aron, a noted Russian scholar, while I searched for more permanent employment. I am currently a Federal Affairs Associate for Koch Industries in our Washington, DC office, where I engage in political strategy and work on legislative issues. Koch Industries is a large and diverse corporation with oil, chemicals, trading, and other areas of business. Even though my current position is not necessarily related to Russia, I plan on going back to graduate school for either an MBA or a PhD in a few years, and take Russian language classes twice a week. The US Department of State is also in the process of (possibly) granting me Top Secret clearance for a Fascell Fellowship, which would send me back out to Eastern Europe or Central Asia. I definitely will continue my studies of Russia and the Russian language for the rest of my life, and the EUSPB has played a large part in my continuing interest in Russia.
SRAS: What advice would you offer a student thinking about taking courses at EUSP?
Neal: I give fairly detailed advice in my testimonial that I wrote for EUSPB. Aside from what I wrote there, I would say that life presents very few opportunities to do something exciting, fun, and intellectually stimulating that diverges from the status quo. If you would like to engage in advanced intellectual discourse while at the same time living in a fascinating and beautiful city, then I cannot imagine why you would not want to study in St. Petersburg at the European University. In my EUSPB testimonial I wrote that I learned more in my one year studying in Russia than I did in four years at Northwestern, and nothing has dissuaded me from deviating from this initial reaction; if anything, this sentiment has grown stronger.