Shoshana Bella Billik: Techy Russian

Published: January 28, 2011

Shoshana Bella Billik has degrees in Russian and Information Technology. She has worked for NASA, helped disabled children in Russia learn computer skills, and studied the spread of the Internet in Russia and Central Asia. She also participated in SRAS’s Siberian Studies program. We recently sat down to talk to her about all this. 

SRAS: You earned an MA in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies. As part of that education, you studied abroad in Russia and researched technology use in Central Asia. What first got you interested in Russia and Central Asia? Did interest in both come simultaneously or did one come before (or even lead to) the other?

Shoshana Bella Billik with host mother in Irkutsk.
Shoshana (left) with her host mother, Galina Ivanovna, with whom she lived while staying in Irkutsk.

Shoshana Bella Billik: I first became interested in studying Russian because my grandparents were immigrants from Belarus’ and Ukraine, and I wanted to learn the language they had spoken. When I was in college, I took a class on Russian and Soviet history, in which we watched a documentary series called Inside Gorbachev’s USSR. One of the segments was about protests in Tashkent, and I was struck by the interesting faces of the Uzbek people, the exquisite blue-tiled architecture, and the colorful, traditional clothing people wore. I decided I wanted to see this region for myself, and first went to Central Asia in 1998, four years before my first trip to Russia.

SRAS: As an undergraduate, you double-majored in Russian and Information Technology. You went on to work for NASA as a network engineer for several years. First, did you find that your unusual pairing of language with a science degree was advantageous in landing that job? Second, was there a professional strategy in your pairing of these degrees – or was it something that happened purely based on personal interest?

SB: My double pursuit of computer networking and Russian/Central Asian studies was based solely on personal interest. I didn’t do anything related to Russia or Central Asia in my job at NASA, but in my current position, working for NCEEER (National Council for Eurasian and East European Research), I’m able to combine my two interests.

SRAS: You left NASA in 2004 to serve an internship in Ryazan with IREX using your computer skills to help disabled children in that city. First, can you talk about what exactly you did there and what you learned from it? Second, how did you find the opportunity and how did you apply for it? Lastly, what made you decide to leave what I assume was a “comfortable government job” to intern in Russia?

Shoshana comandeering an entire tank of rich, thirst-quenching kvass while in Russia.
Shoshana commandeering an entire tank of rich, thirst-quenching kvass while in Russia.

SB: I was laid off from NASA due to budget cuts in March 2004. I applied for and was accepted to the REECAS (Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies) MA program at the University of Washington, and was planning to enroll in the fall. Then I found out—I think it was from the Central Eurasia-L mailing list—about the USRVI(US-Russia Volunteer Initiative) program through IREX, and I jumped at the opportunity to participate in it.

In Ryazan’, I helped teach computer classes at a school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and also tutored a disabled student in computer usage at her home. I also designed a Web site for a charity that works with disabled children.

I learned that facilities and equipment for the disabled are not as developed in Russia as they are in the US. Disabled people are often kept at home, and are rarely seen on the streets. There are very few wheelchair ramps or other accommodations, although I think this is gradually changing.

SRAS: You also took our Siberian Studies program in Irkutsk. What made you choose this program and location? What did you learn from it?

SB: I chose this program and location, because I was interested in being in a regional part of Russia, far away from the “city-states” of Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was also interested in visiting Lake Baikal and in learning about the culture and traditions of the Buryat people, both of which I was able to do through the SRAS program.

As an advanced student, all my classes were conducted in Russian. I had classes in Russian-language, Siberian geography and history, and art history. I also went on field trips to museums, and travelled to Lake Baikal and Ulan-Ude, where I learned about the Buryat people and culture.

Shoshana on Okholon Island in Lake Baikal.

SRAS: You’ve obviously preferred more “rustic” locations for your long term stays in Russia, where else have you traveled in Russia and/or Central Asia? What has been your favorite travel story so far

SB: In the summer of 2007, I worked as an interpreter in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (on Sakhalin Island) for an academic project studying the archaeology, geology, and biology of the Kuril Islands. I then took the Trans-Siberian Express from Vladivostok to Moscow—a week-long adventure in which I got to experience both the natural beauty and vastness of the Russian countryside.

For my first trip to Central Asia, I went with a tour group from MIR Corp to all five of the “‘Stans.” For my second trip, I studied at an international summer school in Bishkek and then traveled around Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

One of my most memorable experiences was when I got locked in the bathroom on a Russian train! Since the toilets on Russian trains empty onto the tracks, the bathrooms are locked during sanitary zones of 10 miles before and after city limits. I made the mistake of going to the bathroom too close to a sanitary zone and got locked in. The provodnitsa (train conductor) wouldn’t unlock the bathroom until we passed all the way through the sanitary zone—and thus gave me one of those “only in Russia” experiences!

SRAS: I don’t think you are allowed to leave until you have at least one. As part of your MA program, you wrote a thesis on NGOs providing Internet access in Russia and Central Asia and participated in a group research project surveying Internet and cell phone usage in Central Asia. Can you tell us a bit more about your involvement in these projects and what your findings were?

SB: For my thesis, I wrote about how international NGOs such as GlasNetIREX, and Project Harmony were instrumental in establishing Internet access in the early post-Soviet period. Their goal was to promote civil society through the dissemination of information, and while they did not necessarily succeed in this regard, they did succeed in creating much of the basic network infrastructure for the Internet in this region. These NGOs later transitioned their knowledge and infrastructure to commercial entities, which then followed a model of social entrepreneurship in taking over the role of providing Internet access in these regions.

The Internet has become pervasive in Russia; Russians spend more time on social networking sites than any other people on Earth. This short video will teach you some Internet-related vocabulary in Russian.    

SRAS: Can you name some of the reasons why the Internet failed to create a civil society?

SB: There are various theories on this subject.  One theory holds that the US government and NGOs working in the former Soviet Union tended to overestimate the role that democracy assistance could play, and that there was a large gap between the funders’ vision of democracy and the concrete results of democracy/civil society assistance programs. Another maintains that the impact of information technologies is shaped by the social context in which they are deployed: whereas the Internet may be used to promote civil society in countries already based on democratic principles, this is harder to implement in societies that do not have a history of democracy, and the Internet can even be used to promote authoritarian regimes.  There is also an issue of sustainability, in which some NGO-funded Internet access points closed due to failure to become self-sustaining.

SRAS: Interesting – and what are some of the entities that did survive to go on to function on a social entrepreneurial model?

SB: The non-profit San Francisco-Moscow Teleport, a non-commercial project started by a San Francisco-based citizen diplomat, later transitioned to a commercial entity, SovAm Teleport, which then became SovIntel, then Global TeleSystems, and finally Golden Telecom, which is now Russia’s leading Internet service provider.

Relcom/Demos was a late Soviet-era non-commercial project run out of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Relcom became the first homegrown commercial Internet service provider in Russia and still functions today.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Soros Foundation created a high-speed fiber ring between research institutions and universities in Bishkek and helped establish the Kyrgyz IX (Internet exchange) peering point for ISPs to exchange Internet traffic.  In 1999, Soros sold its fiber-optic backbone to the commercial entity AKNet in exchange for continued maintenance/support of this network and free or discounted connectivity for the institutions supported by Soros.

SRAS: You currently work for the National Council for Eurasian and East European Researchas a program/information technology officer. It is quite striking that you’ve found a job that combines your two degrees an interests. Can you tell us a bit more about what this organization does and what you do for them (and how often you are actually able to use your language skills on the job)?

Shoshana traveling by train from Irkutsk to Novosibirsk to visit friends in Akademgorodok.

SB: NCEEER provides grants to postdoctoral humanities and social science scholars studying the former Soviet republics and/or satellite states. We act as a middleman between the US Government (Department of State), which gives us money through Title VIII (the Soviet-East European Research and Training Act of 1983), and postdoctoral scholars, who apply to us for funding.

We also run a program, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which brings scholars from the western FSU to the US for four-month research stints at American universities. Most of these scholars are Russian-speaking, so I get to practice my Russian with them, which is always fun!

My main duties for NCEEER revolve around updating our Web site and databases. I also publish our working papers and deal with any computer-related issues that arise.

SRAS: So what are your future plans?

SB: I recently had a baby and want to eventually spend more time living overseas and to bring my son with me—what a great experience that would be for him! I’m considering applying at some point for the US Foreign Service as an Information Services Officer, in which I would do IT work at a US embassy, hopefully in a Russian-speaking country.

SRAS: Congratulations, What advice would you offer to students hoping to study abroad in Russia or Central Asia?

SB: I would recommend them to travel as much as possible during their stay and to practice the language they’re studying as much as they can. They shouldn’t be afraid to make friends with the locals and should also avoid spending too much time with other English speakers.

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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director for SRAS. He has been managing publications and informative websites covering geopolitics, history, business, economy, and politics in Eurasia since 2003. He is based in Moscow, Russia. For SRAS, he also assists in program development and leads the Home and Abroad Programs

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