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Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine

It’s finals week here at Georgetown.  Holed up in a Healy conference room, I’m happy to say I’ve finished my first paper.  Reflecting my interest in religion and politics, my chosen topic of “Religion and Nationalism in Ukraine” piqued my curiosity.  If you’re interested too, here’s a link to my paper.

It covers the role of religion in inspiring the ongoing Euromaidan protests and influencing Russia’s aggressive response.  I conclude with some policy recommendations for the U.S. and Europe.


Course evaluations

It’s final exam time already!  In total, I’ve got 5 research papers and 1 sit-down test.  Sounds like a big deal, but I’m the type that rarely gets stressed out.  All you’ve got to do is show up to class, pay attention to the teacher, ask some good questions, and everything will turn out just fine.

Speaking of those classes, I think it’s a good time to do some end-of-semester evaluations.  To be honest, but I ultimately chose DIS because of the wealth of courses that are offered.  Although you’ll have dreams of traveling around Europe and visiting all the fun cities and tourist attractions, that tells less than half of the story.  Let’s get real – with the exception of a handful of travel breaks here and there (I had 3 weeks off and a couple long weekends), you’ll be spending lots of time in the classroom, listening to presentations, writing assignments, and studying for tests.  Plus, you can get to most of the popular European destinations from just about anywhere – it doesn’t matter if you’re studying in Copenhagen or London or Barcelona, you’ll always be within flying distance of France, Italy, Germany, and even Ukraine.

That’s why it’s so important to not overlook the “study” part of study abroad.  Choose a program   that sounds academically interesting, not a city that sounds like fun.  When push came to shove, it wasn’t Copenhagen or the winter weather or the “world’s happiest country” that made me come to Denmark.  It was my countless hours searching courses online, researching the faculty’s experience, reading student testimonials.  Indeed, registering was so difficult because everything sounded so interesting – like Nordic Mythology, Humanitarian Law, Kierkegaard’s Authorship, Muslims and the West, etc.  I scrapped other destinations because the course selection did not even come close.  Mohyla Academy in Kiev had just 5 or 6 classes to choose from, and most of them were not even in my major.  Maybe it works for a Graduate program, but for now it was inadequate.

Here’s a ranking of the courses I chose, from 1 (best) to 5 (disappointing):

1. Humanitarian Law & Armed Conflict (core course)

with my 2 professors - Nicolai and Ulrik

with my 2 professors – Nicolai and Ulrik

  • Topics: military law, noncombatants, genocide, terrorism, case studies on bin Laden and Palestine
  • Fun faculty fact: both Nicolai and Ulrik served in Danish military as legal advisers, stationed in Kosovo and Afghanistan
  • Pros: fascinating 5-day study tour to Bosnia, thought-provoking research papers, intelligent class discussions
  • Cons: dense readings, lots of theory at beginning of semester, toughest class
  • Overall: the Bosnian trip had a profound impact on me (I firmly believe that this core course trip is the best one in DIS, because we had so much personal interaction with locals and tons of critical analysis; politics+law+religion = perfect combination), and the course makes me more inclined to pursue a career in law. Professors became some of my closest mentors at DIS and incredibly easy to talk to. *If you have any interest in law/politics, please take this course!!*

2. Muslims in the West

  • Topics: cartoon crisis, hijab, women’s rights, democracy & Islam
  • Fun faculty fact: Jakob is young, energetic, and loves to play “devil’s advocate”
  • Pros: visits to Islamic center and talks with Danish Muslims (including Imam Pedersen), lots of classroom discussion (Jakob often stops his lectures so that we can debate and ask questions)
  • Cons: relativism and failure to make normative claims was frustrating
  • Overall: Islam is a hot issue in Denmark, especially with the growing immigrant community. The professor really made this class great, although I’m still not sure if any solid conclusions emerged from this class.  Is everyone right?

3. Russia Past and Present 

with Mette and Jon at the airport

with Mette and Jon at the airport

  • Topics: Russian history, religion, art, literature; week-long trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow in March
  • Fun faculty fact: Jon is the official Russian translator for the Queen of Denmark, owns his own travel agency, and is married to a Ukrainian (!)
  • Pros: Jon is a freaking genius about Russia.  Our study tour was out-of-this-world (many thanks to Mette, too!), I asked so many questions and Jon always had an answer.  Reading Crime and Punishment was a great social commentary, and in-class discussions are always provoking.
  • Cons: class only meets once per week, sometimes felt like the class could have been 1 instead of 3 credits
  • Overall: I have a new passion for Russia/East European politics (wrote 2 research papers about the Russian-Ukrainian relationship). Once again, the professor really made this course great.

4. Partners & Rivals: EU-US Relations

  • Topics: security, trade & monetary policy, environment, leadership
  • Fun faculty fact: Jacob is the former Transportation Minister for the Danish government, has worked in politics for some 20 years
  • Pros: case-study presentations forced class participation, interesting lecture topics, met with Jacob twice as class representative, visited U.S. Embassy
  • Cons: lots of questions unanswered, lectures sometimes repetitive, very unenthusiastic students inhibited class discussion, often pro-European mindset
  • Overall: this class had a lot of potential, but the lack of participation was disappointing

5. Danish Language & Culture

  • Topics: Danish history, language, cultural studies
  • Fun faculty fact: Charlotte understands that Danish is hard
  • Pros: Studying ‘Jante’s Law’ and Danish tribal identity hints at the philosophy behind the welfare system and social dynamics
  • Cons: one semester is far, far too short to make any significant progress on learning Danish, and I can learn most of the “culture” by just living here and walking around
  • Overall: not happy that Georgetown required me to take this; sacrificed awesome courses like Kierkegaard and Nordic Mythology because of this requirement

A closer look at Russia

When you travel, you’re supposed to learn.  Taking photos and following tour guides can be so shallow.  Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and study the country. If you really get to know the place, meet the locals, learn the language, study the history, and grasp the culture, then the experience will be so much more rewarding.

And like in Russia, hopefully you can make some critical judgments along the way.  Here are some that I made about Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

Religion is a roller coaster.  Surprise surprise, Nick is talking about religion again!  Russia’s Orthodox Church is amazing.  Behind all of the shimmering mosaics and icons is a strong, active religious community.  The history is astounding  – Russia went from being one of the most religious nations in the world to one of the least in just a few generations, sparked by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.  After the Cold War, churches opened up again, and the Church-State relations are now as tight as ever.

While in St. Petersburg, we talked to Father Vladimir at the Transfiguration Church.  We discussed the Pussy Riot scandal (his take: don’t disrespect the Church – it exists on a level far above punk rock), his personal beliefs (“If you are a slave to God, you can never be a slave to man”), and the totality of the Orthodox faith (permeates both personal and political life).  A truly inspiring man, and one of my highlights of the trip.

The facade is beautiful.  I already raved about this, but Russia is unbelievable to look at.  The food, sun, landscape, churches, statues, canals, palaces, and colorful streets really gives these cities their charm.

Just be careful if you dig a little beneath the skin.  There’s a memorial to the victims of the “Communist Terror,” but on the other side of Petersburg is a communist rally for Stalin sympathizers.  There was a Pussy Riot protest underneath peaceful church domes.  There’s Bentley’s and homeless beggars.  There’s two sides to the story, and a whole lot of irony.

Communism sucks.  There are parts of Russia that look like a blast from the past.  We visited an old communitarian apartment (the Soviets threw out the rich family that used to live there and redistributed all of the rooms to poorer, working-class families).  The utopian intentions are fluffy, but in reality, all of the common areas looked disgusting.  Broken windows, cracked walls, dirty floors, and a tiny bathroom that was supposed to fit 7 families.  As Russian author Joseph Brodsky says, “If there is an infinite aspect of space, it is not its expansion but its reduction.”  Indeed, about 10 square meters per person.  And whatever you do, don’t complain.

The personal rooms, on the other hand, were clean, finely decorated, and much better kept.  The bottom line: whatever is communal tends to get forgotten.  So much for being comrades, huh?

People are people.  If there is one thing I’ve discovered on this trip, it’s how incredibly small the world is.  This really hit me when I spent a day with Russian students, cooking holobtsi and chatting around the kitchen table.  Speaking in half English, half broken-Ukrainian, we talked about base-jumping, politics, why they were proud of Russia, and hitchhiking across Siberia.   We got really deep on the way back to the metro station at night.  No matter who you are – regardless of your education, your job, your family background, where you live, what you do – you can always talk about life.  Its meaning, its purpose, God.  It seems so general, so gushy.  But everyone is happy to talk about it.

with Olga, Alena, and my other Russian student-hosts

with Olga, Alena, and my other Russian student-hosts

I also tried to overcome the stereotypes about how you think other people look or act or think.  Not all Russian drink vodka (though we learned how to), support Putin, or go to those beautiful Orthodox churches.  People are different, and yet so much alike.  Even the beat-up communist apartment could resemble my dorm room on a Saturday morning.  There’s Bentley’s and beggars in New York City too, you know?  We’re not communists or republicans, students or drop-outs, Russians or Americans.  We’re just people, and we live in a very small, small world.

Спасибо, Россия!

Jon was right.  The trouble wasn’t getting everyone into Russia – it was getting everyone out of it.  After waiting for four hours in Moscow for our delayed flight, we arrived back in Copenhagen last night with tired feet, droopy eyes, and greasy hair.  Half-awake, I walked into my room, tip-toed past my roommate, set my alarm for 7 am, and passed out on the bed.

But trust me, the exhaustion was well worth it.  We spent 7 days in Russia – and just like the biting wind of the Siberian winter, my mind is blown.

It would be criminal for me to begin without first mentioning Jon and Mette – our two amazing trip advisers.  Jon is basically a genius (he is the top Russian translator for the Queen of Denmark, has met Putin and other Russian leaders, teaches our Russian class at DIS, and is incredibly passionate about everything Russia).  He always, always had something interesting to say, whether we were riding on the bus, walking through the palaces and churches, or sitting down at breakfast.  Mette (a DIS Language & Culture professor) was just as fun to be around, and helped us plan all the little details along the way.

two of my favorite people ever

I did so much on this trip that I don’t really know how to break it all down.  Somewhere in between the breakfast buffets, negative 1 million degree weather, and 600+ photo snapping, I really got to like Russia.  Why don’t we explain it via body parts?


This one’s easy. For the most part, the food was fantastic.  Don’t tell my 85 year-old Ukrainian grandmas, but the Russians really do pack a punch when it comes to cooking.  At 8am every morning, I was greeted by long lines of buffet platters.  I’ve always been a big fan of volume when it comes to food, and there was nothing quite like feasting on fried eggs, potatoes, fish cakes, feta cheese balls, and buckwheat (probably my new favorite grain!).  Buckwheat just passed rice and pasta on the carb-ladder.

There’s some other food stories worth mentioning.  One of my favorites was the farmer’s market in St. Petersburg.  After sampling honeycomb, pickled kapusta, caviar, and cheeses, me and Jake loaded up on some tasty lunchmeats, bread, cabbage and cheese and had an improvised picnic in the warm afternoon sun.  We were accosted by a beggar (no speak Russian?) and caught an old babushka who was about to break her hip on the ice. On other days, we dined at an amazing Georgian restaurant, learned how to drink vodka properly, and ate salmon crepes and stuffed cabbage with our Russian friends.


I bet we walked at least a marathon.  Don’t forget that Moscow and St. Petersburg are absolutely huge!  They’re the first and fourth biggest cities in Europe (that is, if you count Russia as a part of Europe), and with so much to see, we were constantly on the move.  Sitting on my bed with these LL Bean slippers feels really good right now.

And the metro!! Holy cow, it blew my mind.  Moscow has 7 million passengers every day, and Petersburg has 2.5.  The communists decked them out with marble floors and fine statues in order to make them the “‘palaces of the people.”  It’s cheap, easy, and looks spectacular.  You taking notes, D.C.?

heading down the escalator

heading down the escalator


My neck muscles must be bulging, because I was constantly looking up towards the heavens.  Golden domes dot the skyline, and the inside of the Orthodox churches are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  Frescoes, icons, and mosaics covered every square inch of wall.  Their beauty is supposed to inspire prayer and reflection, and for me they really got the job done!  Standing inside, I just wanted to look up forever.  Churches are everywhere, and here are a few of my favorite shots:

domes of the Church of Spilled Blood

domes of the Church of Spilled Blood


that’s 100% mosaic!

fun fact: the tsar supposedly cut out the architect's eyes so that he could never build something so beautiful every again

fun fact: the tsar supposedly cut out the architect’s eyes so that he could never build something so beautiful every again

Kremlin domes

Kremlin domes


On a side note, I must admit I was disappointed that these churches were no longer functioning as churches.  They were museums, something for tourists to look at and take pictures.  Not exactly what they were designed for.


Oh yes, the refreshing sound of the Slavic language!  As a competent Ukrainian speaker, I put my skills to the test in Russia. Indeed, Russian and Ukrainian overlap significantly, and it felt good to be able to carry on a conversation with a local, ask for prices, or order a meal.  If you can crack the language barrier, the immersion becomes so much easier and the experience far more fulfilling.


Color, light, life – Russia is so vibrant!  The bright Baroque and Rococo styles of the St. Petersburg palaces, the sunlight shimmering off of the Neva River,  the golden domes and late sunsets adds a truly unexpected dimension to the otherwise cold and bitter winter.  In many ways, I actually prefer the Russian weather to Copenhagen.  There’s plenty of sun out in Siberia, making you forget about the temperature altogether.

with my fellow Rochesterian, Winter Palace in the background

with my fellow Rochesterian, Winter Palace in the background

Everything else…

But don’t get me wrong – it is cold!  It was like preparing for the apocalypse every morning, and I must thank UnderArmour for keeping me alive.  Thermal pants, jeans, and double socks with boots on the bottom; t-shirt, thermal shirt, sweater, and two jackets on top.  I wore two hats every day too.


That’s it for now.  I’ll delve into the rest of the trip  tomorrow – not what Russia looks like, but who I met, what I thought, and how it all made me feel.

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