Meghan Lagoutine ’24 (She/Her)
Even before I began attending Davidson, I had known that I would study Russian in college. After all, I had always been proud of my heritage, and I desired to become fluent in the language. While I am half-Korean and half-Russian, I have connected with my Russian heritage most. My mother, though born in South Korea, has little to no knowledge of Korean culture; she was adopted as a baby by a white family. My dad, however, born in St. Petersburg, Russia, came over to the United States when he was 18 in 1993, a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. He married my mother in 2001 and they created a home for their four children in North Carolina. I grew up there eating borscht, shashlik, kotleti, buckwheat, and other Russian staples. My family and I would say “I love you” and “goodnight” in Russian to each other. I loved watching Russian cartoons and playing with the Russian dolls my father would bring back from his trips to see his mom. He would show us pictures of magnificent palaces and would bring back my favorite Russian chocolate.
It wasn’t until I came to Davidson, however, that I realized how “Russian” my home truly was. My love for my family’s heritage developed past a mere pride in my unique childhood. As a Political Science and Russian Studies double major, the classes I have taken are more than for learning language, history, and politics—it is learning about my family’s language, history, and politics. Learning about Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s is learning about my family’s past—my great-great grandfather was arrested and shot by Stalin’s men in 1937. In class, viewing pictures of the Soviet army reminds me of my grandfather who served with the Soviet army. My favorite picture of my grandfather is where he is wearing his army uniform because you can clearly see the side-profile of his nose, which is the same shape as mine. Likewise, analyzing the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic fallout is more than economic theory in action.They are the stories my dad would share with me about the long lines and the empty stores that caused him to immigrate to America. Learning the language isn’t just a skill to be used in the future; it’s the same language half of my ancestors have spoken, the language of my past.
It is my love for my family and my culture that made February 24th of this year even more heartbreaking. On that Thursday, Russia declared the start of a “special operation” in Ukraine, beginning a war in all but name. Since that day, thousands of Ukrainians and Russians have been killed, thousands of homes have been destroyed, and millions of refugees have fled Ukraine. Words cannot easily describe the destruction and sorrow.
My fellow students in the Russian department agree that being a student of Russian in the midst of this war has been perplexing and upsetting. How does one reconcile with the experience of learning a language of those who are the aggressors in this current war? Even so, none of us have been dissuaded from continuing to learn the language but rather have found more opportunities and motivations to continue our studies. For example, some have found our knowledge of Russian to be helpful in understanding the current conflict and has given us the ability to share with others different insights. As Adriana Risi ‘25 explains, “Learning Russian at a sensitive time has allowed me to explore the language, culture, and history of Russia and current events. Being able to look at some of the war propaganda and being able to understand some of the language and history makes me feel connected to the war going on in […] Ukraine now. Having the knowledge and the help from professors to understand the situation is a very interesting place to be, and I’m glad I can share my understanding and exposure to this with my family and friends.” Others have become more motivated to continue t h e i r studies, knowing that l e a rning Russian is necessary not only for our national security interests now but also for our future and possible careers.
Though Russia is the aggressor and Russian is their language, it should be made clear that this war is not for and by Russians; it is for and by Putin. We cannot pretend that Russian soldiers are not complicit in carrying out Putin’s desires and we cannot ignore the war crimes that have taken place; however, it is important to be aware of the intense propaganda that is being used to convince ordinary Russians that it is not a war but rather “a special military operation” to “de-nazify” Ukraine. Russians who dare to protest the war can be sentenced up to fifteen years in prison. Let us not naively blame ordinary Russians for this war.
I share with my fellow students and the faculty in the Russian Department the sorrow in watching these events unfold. However, it is more necessary than ever to continue studying Russian, and I urge more students to consider studying the language. I am still proud of my heritage and learning Russian will always connect me to my past. However, my Russian heritage is both my past and my future. And in the midst of war, learning Russian is certainly connected to our future. Whether or not Russian becomes an integral part of my career, what we learn and gain at Davidson informs our future and can be used to influence the present. And though I hold sorrow in the present, I am confident that continuing to study Russian will continue to bring opportunities to use the language for the good of our country and of the world.
Meghan Lagoutine ‘24 (she/her) is a political science and Russian Studies double major from Hickory, NC. Meghan can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.