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Belarus – Europe’s Secret Country

by Matt Thompson
Quirky and a bit mysterious, Belarus offers visitors a rich history, friendly people, and a complicated political situation.
The first thing you notice are the sidewalks. They are spotless. No cigarette butts. No candy wrappers. No plastic bags floating in the wind. The same goes for the underground walkways, mopped and swept to perfection, that stretch out below the wide boulevards in perfect symmetry looking like something from a Stanley Kubrick film.

I never really saw anyone sweeping the sidewalks during my three-week stay in Minsk. Every day the city magically appeared the same — clean, orderly, and quiet. This was just one of the many mysteries I encountered in Belarus, an often ignored eastern European country of nine million people that is located between Poland and Russia. None of my well-traveled friends and colleagues had ever been there, or certainly not in the last 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union.

I had always wanted to travel to Belarus, so when the U.S. State Department offered me a temporary assignment to serve as the acting Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk this summer, I jumped at the opportunity. Unsure of what to expect from this unknown place, I found a beautiful, modern, and friendly country. However, that sentence should include an asterisk. Belarus is not a free country and political oppression has been the norm there for years. The state-controlled, Soviet-style economy is the least reformed in Europe and Belarusians are struggling to make ends meet under crippling inflation and stagnating wages.

The three-week visit gave me a brief, behind-the-curtains look at a country that few get a chance to see.

I flew to Belarus on a small Belavia Airlines flight from Riga, […]

By |January 13th, 2016|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Teacher Workshop Explores U.S.-Russia Relations

At a recent workshop at Seattle Preparatory School, high school teachers had a rare opportunity to step back from the fray of headlines about Russia and engage its history, politics and culture with the help of a panel of experts. The workshop, put on by the World Affairs Council’s Global Classroom and sponsored by the Ellison Center and the Center for Global Studies, attracted more than 35 attendees, including 23 teachers and educators.
Post-Soviet political systems and sources of Putin’s popularity
To set the stage, Scott Radnitz, Director of the Ellison Center and Associate Professor at the Jackson School of International Studies at UW, stressed that while Russia isn’t a democracy, that hardly makes it the exception. Fewer than half the countries in the world today have the rare confluence of factors required to make democracy happen, he explained.

Radnitz described Russia’s opaque power structure as a pyramid of elites with Putin at the top. The country’s institutions, from the courts and police to education and healthcare, remain corrupt. Society likewise continues to operate informally and often on the basis of corruption, a legacy of the Soviet era when people had to help each other survive. Distrust in strangers remains pervasive in Russia, as does heightened trust in close family networks.

When Russia was emerging from its Soviet past in the 1990s, chaos reigned, Radnitz observed. There was inflation, violence and homelessness, and Putin eventually emerged as a symbol of recovery in the early 2000s. Today Putin continues to act in what he perceives as Russia’s best interest. He wants Russia to be respected on the international stage and so do Russians. Thus, despite sanctions on Russia and even accounting for biases in polling numbers, Putin remains widely popular.
Russia as […]

By |January 11th, 2016|Features, Educators|0 Comments

Sanctions and the Future: David Riley and Will Pomeranz on Russia and Ukraine

The week of October 5th brought two fascinating and high profile visits from the world of foreign affairs policy in Washington D.C. to the halls of the University of Washington. William Pomeranz, Deputy Director of the Kennan Institute and expert in Russian trade law delivered a thorough explanation of the economic situation in Russia and the near east since the conflict in Ukraine began. David James Riley, First Secretary of Foreign Affairs at the British Embassy, reviewed the stages of increasing tension between the EU and UK and Russia in regards to Ukraine. Their talks, although related in subject, provided different perspectives on the same issue, exposing various dimensions of a complex international situation. You can hear their talks in full by subscribing to Ellison Center podcasts.

By |November 19th, 2015|Academic Spotlight, Career Spotlight|0 Comments

Havana, Cuba – April 2015: Just in Time | Glennys Young

But this was not a country “frozen in time,” as I realized only hours after I arrived in Havana. Time is never, by its very nature, frozen. And if the cliché can be taken to mean that traveling to Cuba is like being transported backwards in time, nor was that my experience. So, what were the different ways time felt like over the three weeks I was there to conduct research on my book project, a substantial part of which examines the military and civilian advisors who were Spanish Civil War exiles in the USSR before arriving in Cuba beginning in 1960?

By |September 29th, 2015|Faculty Spotlight|0 Comments

Cyrus Rodgers’ Summer in Slovenia

I have been fortunate to see a small part of what this country has to offer in terms of natural beauty and its vistas have amazed me, but my most exciting experiences in Slovenia have been opportunities to meet leading cultural figures. Dr. Michael Biggins, Head Slavic Librarian at The University of Washington and my professor of Slovene Language, put me in contact with Slovene author Drago Jančar and documentary filmmaker Andrej Doblehar. Drago Jančar is a widely respected contemporary European novelist, playwright, and essayist. His work is one of the focuses of my research; he is also one of my favorite authors. I had a chance to meet and sit down with Mr. Jančar for an hour to discuss his writing.

By |September 24th, 2015|Student Spotlight, Academic Spotlight|0 Comments

Teacher Workshop Addresses the Migration Crisis in Europe and its Eastern Neighbors

A rare thunderstorm in Seattle welcomed attendees to the 2015 Teacher Workshop on the EU and its Eastern Neighbors to the University of Washington on August 12. Sixteen teachers from middle schools, high schools, and community colleges, covering subjects from history and Russian language to AP human geography and social studies, attended the day-long event hosted at the Jackson School of International Studies.

By |September 2nd, 2015|Academic Spotlight, Community Spotlight|0 Comments

Michelle O’Brien | Livelihoods, Risk, and Migration to Russia

"Over 50% of the GDP of Tajikistan and 31% of Kyrgyzstan's comes from remittances, wages earned abroad that are sent back to a worker's home country. Nearly half of Tajikistan's able-bodied labor force is employed abroad, mainly in Russia. One third of the legal immigrants to Russia are from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan alone. Given such numbers, O'Brien asserted, it is in many ways impossible to speak of contemporary cultural, economic, or political issues in Central Asia without addressing the migration issue."

By |August 19th, 2015|Academic Spotlight, Community Spotlight|0 Comments

Herbert Hoover’s Archive for Peace: The Hoover Institution

...Today, nearly every historian of the Soviet twentieth century spends time at Stanford's Hoover Institution for archival research. In the shadow of the university's most distinctive landmark, the Hoover Tower, preeminent scholars scurry between buildings, chatting about projects on Civil War era Siberian despots, Boris Pasternak's poetry, 1950's Radio Free Europe, and perestroika's political advisors. The main stacks of the Russia collection are housed in the first nine floors of the Tower itself, an obelisk dedicated to inquiry.

By |July 27th, 2015|Archives and Memory Series|0 Comments

The Wende Museum: Archiving Eastern Europe’s Controversial Past

Article on the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, which collects material culture from across Eastern Bloc countries of the Soviet period. Memory and the Cold War in light of current events. Part of a series on REECAS archives.

By |July 6th, 2015|Archives and Memory Series|0 Comments

REECAS NW Redux | Religion and Identity in Soviet and Post-Soviet Europe and Central Asia

The REECAS NW panel on Religion and Identity featured contributions from Matthew Cotton (UW History PhD student) and Anatoliy Klots (UW Slavic Studies PhD Student) on Jewish studies topics Odessa through the prism of Isaac Babel's prose and the post-Soviet oeuvre of filmmakers like Dmitri Astrakhan and Aleksandr Proshkin. Jennifer Webster (UW History Lecturer) rounded out the panel with a consideration of Baqshy healer women in Kyrgyzstan as a means of exploring the relationship between Islam, ethnic and gender identity, and modernization in Central Asia.

By |June 18th, 2015|Academic Spotlight|0 Comments